This is of course the well-covered transit crisis, but the city is suffering through another transit crisis as bus ridership and service reliability has been tanking in slow motion over the past decade. In fact, based on trends through the end of October, without a massive influx in riders in November and December, average weekday bus ridership for 2017 will be below 2 million riders per day, a low mark not seen since the early part of the last decade, and a decline of over 170,000 riders per day since the high-water mark in 2012. Buses serve a key segment of New York City, and regular riders are less wealthy and more dependent on transit than the average subway rider. That ridership is cratering amidst worsening service and few are focusing on the issue is alarming.
A few weeks ago, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer released an extensive report on improving the bus system. “Falling ridership, major slowdowns, and a bus infrastructure in decline is having an effect across the five boroughs,” he said in a release accompanying the report. “If we’re going to have a thriving economy tomorrow, we need to rebuild our bus system today. By unleashing innovative technologies, as well as honing in on strategies that improve reliability and service, we can change the game for New Yorkers. This cannot be a problem that is swept under the rug – this is an economic and social imperative that is critical to our future. The status quo is unacceptable, and we have to do better.”
The report covers some familiar ground — New York city’s buses average, for instance, 7.4 miles per hour, slowest among the United States’ major bus networks and average speeds in Manhattan aren’t much faster than walking. In fact, thanks, in part, to these slow speeds, Manhattan has seen a 16 percent decline in ridership since 2011. Stringer’s report rightly places this decline in a larger economic context of shifting job centers as “residents of every borough are now more likely to commute within their home borough than to,” a reality the subway network cannot accommodate but one the MTA has not considered as part of a badly needed update to the bus network.
I’ll come back to the issue of network design shortly, but first, a glimpse at how technology is affecting speed and service. Stringer’s report finds that buses are in motion only around half the time. Much of the travel time is attributable to waiting at red lights (21%) and waiting at bus stops (22%). Bus stops are, of course, unavoidable, but dwell times can be reduced through a pre-board fare payment system or all-door boarding. The MTA hasn’t definitively committed to such approach when it phases out the Metrocard over the next few years, but without this promise, buses will continue to be slowed down by the MTA’s own choices. Meanwhile, signal prioritization on major bus routes, a long-sought-after reward, has been slow in coming, as NYC DOT and the MTA have not coordinated particularly closely on bus technology. Truly dedicated lanes with aggressive enforcement should also improve speed and reliability. This is of course hardly a secret, but one worth hammering at every opportunity.
And what of that network design? It’s totally inadequate, Stringer charges. Here’s Stringer on the long and winding bus routes:
In Budapest, the typical bus route does not exceed 25 minutes from end-to-end. There is a clear logic to this policy: the longer the route, the greater likelihood for delays to accumulate and cascade down the entirety of the line. New York City buses do not follow this standard. Routes can span nearly two hours and travel well over ten miles. In fact, the average local route in Staten Island is 10.6 miles and the average citywide is 6.8 miles. Of the ten longest routes in the city, four are in Staten Island and three are in Brooklyn.
These ten routes are not only long, they are also meandering, averaging 13 turns each. Frequent turns along a route will slow down a bus, forcing it to wait for an opening in traffic and carefully maneuver onto a new road. This can be dangerous, as turns carry a higher likelihood for collisions. Most importantly, turns are indicative of indirect, slow routes that are riddled with detours. On dozens of the city’s routes—particularly in Staten Island, Queens, and Brooklyn—buses will intermittently exit a major road to do a quick loop around local streets. This can be infuriating for riders, who wish to get to their final destination as quickly and directly as possible.
The MTA has, in fact, acknowledged the efficacy of straighter routes, stating that “bus service is more reliable when operated in a straight line than when many turns exist along the route.” Unfortunately, they too rarely follows their own dictum. Among the city’s 220 local routes, 38 feature at least 15 turns and 97 have ten or more.
To solve this problem, Stringer urges the MTA to take Chicago’s lead. The Windy City has implemented a streamlined grid approach with shorter routes and less duplicative service. By offering more frequent service and well-timed connections (as well as a robust transfer policy), a better designed bus network can offer better service. (And this doesn’t even begin to touch upon stop spacing, another problem Stringer highlights in his report, as bus stops are too close together and spacing is largely inconsistent throughout the city.)
Ultimately, the report includes numerous recommendations across a variety of topics, and I’m hitting only the highlights in this post. I’d urge you to browse through the entire report and digest the findings. In the end, the current bus network is not designed to provide good connections to the subway and hasn’t been restructured to get people from where they live to where they work (or otherwise want to go). The technology to speed up buses lags behind global leaders in the field, and the MTA and NYC DOT haven’t committed to creating a bus infrastructure that will combat the massive ridership declines. Meanwhile, with regular bus riders making on average just $24,000 per year, this sagging infrastructure and collapsing mode of transit hits hardest those who can least afford another route home.
So while the subway collapse is spectacular and very public, borne out through daily delays and the general frustration of a city at its wits’ end, the bus crisis is an insidious undercutting of the city’s most vulnerable. Stringer’s report garnered some headlines late in the fall, and it deserves to be rebroadcast, but are the right people listening? Are they ever?