Archive for Buses

NYC Transit may put a pause on rolling out Select Bus Service routes for the next few years. (Photo by flickr user Stephen Rees)

With so many moving financial parts these day, it can be tough to keep track of where the MTA stands fiscally. Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s state of emergency declaration regarding the subways and his subsequent Subway Action Plan, largely ineffectual so far, has allowed the MTA to bypass traditional procurement channels while adding nearly $1 billion to its expense ledger. Meanwhile, relying on the promise of a strong economy and steady fare revenue, the MTA’s out-year financial projections remain as tenuous as ever, and it seems that some cuts may be on the table.

The story took a few weeks to develop after the MTA released its July Financial Plan last month largely because the cuts are buried throughout, but it broke last week in an article in The Wall Street Journal noting that cost reductions required, in part, to find money for the Subway Action Plan may lead to bus and subway service cuts. Most notably, the MTA may be pausing rollout of Select Bus Service routes for at least four years. Here’s how Paul Berger reported it:

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority plans to stop expanding a bus rapid-transit service, reduce bus fare-evasion patrols and cut dozens of positions for subway car cleaning as it seeks $562 million in cost reductions during the next few years.

According to emails reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, some MTA board members are concerned that the authority is taking such cost-savings measures even as it hires more than 1,000 workers under a plan launched last year to improve subway service, known as the Subway Action Plan.

MTA board member Carl Weisbrod, an appointee of Mayor Bill de Blasio, wrote in an Aug. 5 email to fellow board members and senior MTA officials: “It’s hard to escape the conclusion that we’ve giveth with one hand through the Subway Action Plan, and we’ve taketh away, to some extent, through these service cuts.”

In response, MTA Chairman Joe Lhota called the shifting funds a “redeployment of resources,” but a cut is a cut by any name. By holding back on Select Bus Service routes, other than those currently being planned and those needed on 14th Street for bus capacity during the L train shutdown, the MTA saves $28 million, a drop in the $500 million bucket the agency is trying to cobble together. It seems like a Pyrrhic victory as Select Bus Service routes are among the best in the city with touches of a modern bus system, including pre-boarding fare payment and dedicated lanes. So why cut them?

The answer is not quite as black-and-white as it seems, and the MTA may not be cutting off its nose to spite its face. In my view, it takes far too long for the MTA and New York City to roll out Select Bus Service routes. There are far too many hyper-local considerations given far too much weight while the needs of the riders are often backburned by trumped-up concerns over parking spots. We’ve seen this play out again and again and again. So a four-year pause may impact only a handful of routes.

But that’s a bad reason to accept the pause. The better reason is embedded in the MTA’s 500+ breakdown of the financial plan [pdf]. Led by Andy Byford, New York City Transit is currently amidst an analysis and reassessment of the entire citywide bus network. This includes every route, every stop and every 20th century element of the bus network including the boarding process. By 2021, Transit expects to amidst a major rollout of a new fare payment system, and the agency will have completed its review of the bus network. It doesn’t make sense to spend political capital and dollars on rolling out Select Bus Service routes now that may not fit in with the redesigned bus network, and that’s a good enough, but not great, reason to pause so long as the MTA commits to resuming introducing proper SBS (or even real BRT) routes to NYC once the bus turnaround plan is unveiled.

The wild card here though is city politics. Since buses uses city streets, NYC DOT is essentially in charge of permitted Select Bus Service routes, and SBS has become one of the few tools the city has to control its own transportation infrastructure. (Whether the mayor has used this tool efficiently or effectively or frequently enough is open for debate, though I’m sure you know my thoughts.) By pausing SBS rollout and by not informing the city or even working with them to cushion this announcement, the MTA has put itself at odds with the city agency that can by a major ally in pushing forward on the eventual bus turnaround plan. This strikes me as bad city-state politics and a move that could be quite costly down the road.

So ultimately, I think this was a case of bad presentation and mixed messages in a 500-page financial document. The MTA shouldn’t penny-pinch the only good approach to new bus routes over a matter of $28 million spread out over four years, but the agency shouldn’t be introducing new bus routes until it has a handle on how to improve bus service overall on a citywide basis. It’s OK, but not great, to halt Select Bus Service rollout so long as it comes back with a vengeance when the Bus Tunraround plan is unveiled. And if there’s no Bus Turnaround plan, well, that’s a different issue entirely.

Categories : Buses, MTA Economics
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The following post is my longer analysis of New York City Transit’s bus action plan. I originally wrote this up for Gotham Gazette, and you can read it here. I’ve expanded it for this post with some additional deep-dives into the plan itself.

In the Big Apple’s transit circles, Andy Byford has quickly become the hottest U.K. import since the Beatles. New York City Transit’s new president, brought in this winter from his job as the head of the Toronto Transit Commission, faces the unenviable task of fixing the city’s ailing subway system and restoring faith in its vital transit network. Just three months into the job, Byford is moving at a breakneck pace, and on Monday, he unveiled an ambitious plan to speed up New York City’s snail-like local buses and fight the tide of declining ridership.

The plan sets the bus system on the right road toward improvement but will require city and state cooperation and a change in NYPD culture, two elements in short supply these days that could torpedo Byford’s best efforts. It is also likely to require more money, which is also in short supply.

The New York City bus system is a curious thing. It is notorious unreliable with buses that crawl through city streets stopping every two or three blocks and with average speeds that barely exceed eight miles an hour. With infrequent and unreliable service, ridership has declined by nearly 10 percent since 2012 and 15 percent since 2002. Still, over 2 million riders a day rely on the city’s buses, and the bus system needs to be fixed.

Byford’s Bus Plan comes after nearly two years of heavy lobbying from the Bus Turnaround Coalition, a joint effort by the Transit Center, Riders Alliance, Straphangers Campaign and Tri-State Transportation Campaign. In 2016, this group called for an overhaul of the way buses work in New York City, and in 2018, Byford acknowledged their work in unveiling his plan. “We’ve listened to our riders’ concerns,” he said, “and are working tirelessly to create a world-class bus system that New Yorkers deserve.”

So what exactly is the plan? For now, it is an aspirational approach to better bus service with a 28-point agenda. The images embedded are from the plan, and I have added commentary as appropriate.

Byford wants to redesign the network by optimizing routes based on ridership needs while eliminating some stops to speed up service and expand off-peak bus frequency. Notably, he wants to expand off-peak service on what he calls “strategic routes” to better provide the last-mile connections a reliable bus network can provide. These types of redesigns require MTA action (though DOT will have to be a partner in improving street design).

Here, NYC DOT takes on a more important role. Byford wants to implement infrastructure upgrades that prioritize buses over other vehicles, including dedicated lanes and a signal prioritization system that allows buses to hold green lights or shorten reds. He wants exclusive busways — proposals that have more or less died in the face of driver opposition in recent years — and he will need DOT’s help. He calls for NYPD cooperation and effective traffic enforcement to keep buses moving through dedicated lanes.

Importantly, he proposes a faster boarding process, currently a main source of delays. To reduce bus dwell time — the minutes a bus spends sitting at a stop while riders dip their Metrocards or scrounge around for $2.75 in nickles, quarters, and dimes — Byford suggests all-door border, similar to London’s bus system; a tap fare payment card; and cashless bus fares. The final parts of the plan involve customer-focused improvements including more real-time bus countdown clocks, redesigned system maps, and more bus shelters along with some clean-tech buses to replace New York’s current gas-guzzlers.

On its surface, the plan is exactly what New York needs. Byford has shown that he understands the problems and drawbacks with the current bus network and is willing to propose a multi-part solution that involves every stakeholder and seemingly transcends the dysfunctional politics of the relationship between the city and state. But unfortunately with such an aggressive plan in play, each of these stakeholders are going to have to work together for this bus revitalization effort to succeed.

And to that end, except with respect to the all-door boarding and other technological upgrades to the buses themselves, Byford is now almost a bystander as he has shifted the onus to the city Department of Transportation, the NYPD, and Albany lawmakers to work together to realize his vision of a better bus network. But it’s his plan, and he will have to be a forceful advocate for it. Still, let’s look at the other players involved.

Let’s start with the city’s Department of Transportation. Since DOT controls the city’s streets, any changes to the way street space is allocated will have to start with DOT. Thus, additional bus lanes, dedicated bus corridors and the queue-jumping benefits of signal prioritization require DOT buy-in and support, and so will reducing the number of bus stops and changing street design to better support bus infrastructure. NYC DOT Commissioner and MTA Board member Polly Trottenberg voiced support for the plan during Monday’s meetings, but her boss, the mayor, a reluctant and infrequent transit rider who virtually never takes the bus, will have to be a forceful ally supporting these changes.

And then we have the NYPD. Currently, the NYPD seems to view the city’s bus lanes as, well, parking spots. Take a ride down the East Side’s avenues, and bus lanes will inevitably be filled with cops who have decided to park in curbside bus lanes, thus negating their intended purposes. The MTA, on the other hand, expects cops to be willing partners in enforcing bus lane restrictions and generally helping to ensure that other vehicles are not in the way of buses, impeding speeds and progress through congested city streets. (During a Twitter chat on buses on Thursday, Byford acknowledged that cops should not park in bus lanes. He seems willing to challenge the NYPD more than recent city leaders have.)

But cops alone are a poor and inadequate enforcement method, and NYPD culture is tough, if not impossible, to change. Thus, Albany takes center stage as bus lane enforcement should be automated and camera-based. Until now, the state Legislature has resisted giving the MTA carte blanche ability to install cameras that can assist in automated bus lane enforcement, but to truly tackle the problem of cars in bus lanes, Albany will have to act, and forcefully.

Finally, the elephant in the room is the cost. We do not yet know how much the bus plan will cost. It relies in part on moving pieces that are partially funded (such as a new fare payment system) and others that are not, and it will again be up to the governor to champion transit improvements in New York City so that they receive adequate funding. Facing the pressures and, more importantly, the headlines of a primary challenge, Andrew Cuomo has lately embraced certain positions he has rejected in the past, and mass transit support should be one of them. Perhaps, then, the time is right for the city and state to prioritize bus travel over car traffic.

Ultimately, the buses need fixing, but more importantly, the bus system needs to work efficiently so that New Yorkers have faith in it again. Buses can solve access problems in transit deserts and can be a part of the transit upgrades that a true congestion pricing plan would require. Byford has a vision that will improve bus service, but that is the easy part. Now he just has to convince everyone else to join him as well.

Categories : Buses
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Reducing dwell time and modernizing the boarding process, as Andy Byford’s bus plan proposes, will lead to markedly faster bus service.

It has been a two-year battle for transit advocates fighting for better bus service, but a coalition of bus champions secured a major victory on Monday as New York City Transit President Andy Byford unveiled a comprehensive 28-point plan to turnaround the city’s declining bus service. The plan is an impressive first step for Byford as he looks to manage the MTA out of various transit crises, and it involves implementing many international best practices — including all-door boarding and signal prioritization — to improve bus operations and combat steadily declining service. And it can’t come soon enough as average bus ridership in 2017 declined by over 5% against 2016 numbers.

“We’ve listened to our riders’ concerns and are working tirelessly to create a world-class bus system that New Yorkers deserve,” Byford said in a statement. “We’re targeting challenges like traffic congestion and enforcement, undertaking bold initiatives like redesigning the entire route network, and pursuing advancements such as the latest computer-aided management, double-decker and electric buses, all-door boarding, and improved customer service with more real-time data. Our customers will start to see changes this year and we will never stop improving this critical component of New York City’s transportation landscape.”

The plan — available here as a PDF — aims to tackle bus reliability, dwell time due to a slow fare payment process, real-time information regarding bus arrival times and overall service patterns. It will require cooperation from DOT and a new mentality from the NYPD on both enforcing bus lanes and not using them as parking spots for police cars and cops’ personal vehicles. And after years of MTA foot-dragging, the agency committed to all-door boarding as part of the new fare payment system. This ain’t, in other words, cosmetic; it’s the real deal.

This initiative is the culmination of nearly two years of advocacy work that began with a report issued in 2016 and tireless work by Transit Center, Riders Alliance, Straphangers Campaign and Tri-State Transportation Campaign. In fact. Byford credited these activists’ work in an interview with amNew York on Monday morning. Someone is listening.

The report though is a first step. Many of the improvements — a streamlined bus map, more real-time information signs — will arrive this year, but others — including the all-door boarding via the new fare payment systems — won’t be in place for a few years. The bus network redesigned to improve connections and usefulness may not be ready until 2021. So patience will still be key, and small improvements should lead to bigger ones.

I’ll have a full post with my analysis and thoughts tomorrow night, but as Byford’s first major operations announcement goes, this is a very promising one.

Categories : Buses
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A recent report by NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer highlighted the ongoing problems with NYC’s bus network.

New York City’s subway crisis built very slowly over the past few years before cascading into a disaster in early 2018. So far, in the early going this year, nearly every rush hour commute has been plagued by delays on multiple subway lines, and the MTA’s subway action plan, as Nicole Gelinas recently detailed, hasn’t been a single dividend yet. Delays are, in fact, up since Cuomo announced this initiative.

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.

Winding bus routes are indicative of a network in need of a redesign.

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?

Categories : Buses
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The L train shutdown is now scheduled for 15 months, down from the original estimate of 18.

The MTA Board is gathering for something of an unusual meeting on Monday. Since a few Board members couldn’t make the last meeting in mid-March, the Board did not have a quorum to approve procurement contracts. So they’re getting the gang back together again for an early-April gathering, and the headline is the L train shutdown.

The news is good for New Yorkers. After extensive negotiations with a variety of firms, the L train shutdown will be 15 months rather than 18 months, and work will begin in April of 2019 rather than in January. The news first came to light a few weeks ago, and the Board will vote to make it official in the morning when they approve a $477 million contract with a Judlau/TC Electric joint venture. Judlau has taken some flak for its failure to adhere to deadlines, but it has delivered Sandy repair projects on time or ahead of schedule so far.

The details of the shutdown remain substantially the same. The MTA will close the Canarsie Tube between Brooklyn and Manhattan for 15 months and will piggyback some ADA work and a new station entrances at Ave. A to the closure. The MTA does not appear to be using this shutdown to perform any other work on the L train’s Manhattan stations — which could include renovations or even an extension of the tail tracks west of 8th Ave. to allow for increase route capacity. Additionally, the MTA and New York City Department of Transportation have not yet released their traffic-mitigation plans, and the slow pace of discussions regarding alternate routing for a few hundred thousand riders a day has raised some concerned eyebrows. Transportation Alternatives recently held a design contest to solicit ideas for the so-called L-pocalypse, and I’ll profile the winning ideas later in the week. Whether 15 months or 18, though, the shutdown looms large, and the next two years will pass in a hurry.

MTA ends trash can-free pilot program

One of the MTA’s on-again, off-again pilots ended for good recently, and it died a death by neglect. With little fanfare, the MTA will soon restore trash cans to a handful of stations that had been part of the controversial trash can-free pilot program that begin in late 2011 and expanded throughout 2012, 2013 and 2014. As recently as 2015, the agency had claimed the program was working as trash collection costs were down and so, they said, were track fires.

But it’s over and done with. As NBC New York reported last week, the agency determined to pull the plug on this project late last year. An MTA spokesperson said, the project ultimately “wasn’t the most efficient way to clean the stations,” and critics of the effort celebrated. “It took the MTA five years, but we are gratified that it recognized the need to end this controversial experiment that showed little to no improvements in riders’ experience,” New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said.

I maintain this project could have been successful, but it would have required a system-wide commitment to removing trash cans and aggressive anti-litter enforcement. Ultimately, though, this isn’t a customer-friendly initiative, and antagonizing customers is something the MTA can ill-afford to do. So the trash cans, and trash collection, will return as another MTA pilot program that never had a path to success dies by the wayside.

MTA Official: Buses aren’t popular because subway service is too good

Even as advocacy groups continue to push for better bus service, the MTA keeps denying that bus service is bad or that steadily declining bus ridership is a concern. Anyone who has ridden a bus lately knows that they stop very frequently, are slow to board and are subject to the whims of New York’s congested streets. Still, MTA CFO Michael Chubak thinks that bus ridership is declining is because the subways are great again. During a recent City Council hearing, he let slip this missive: “One of the major reasons, we believe, is competition. Essentially the subway has improved over the last 20 or so years” and so riders are using subways instead of buses.

There may be some truth to this claim, but Chubak also said BusTime could spur on bus ridership. His seemed to be particularly half-hearted answers that showed a lack of familiarity with the city’s bus network. The problems would be evident if MTA officials spent a few weeks riding buses, but it seems for now they’re flailing about for answers as a key transit mode suffers through a steady decline in ridership.

Categories : Buses, L Train Shutdown
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A new report urges a comprehensive reworking of the city's bus network.

A new report urges a comprehensive reworking of the city’s bus network.

In 2002, New York City Transit recorded some substantial bus ridership numbers as 762 million people paid to ride the bus. It’s been all downhill since then, as only 650 million people used buses last year. Meanwhile, over the same period of time, New York City’s subway ridership has grown from 1.413 billion rides to 1.762 billion last year, and the population of the city has grown by around five percent. When it comes to buses, something isn’t working.

This isn’t, of course, a new development. A few weeks ago, a NYC DOT report showed how slow travel speeds, among other issues, has led to less reliable and less popular bus service, and we’ve seen how some fairly minor enhancements to bus service — dedicated lanes and pre-board fare payment — can reduce travel times. Now, a coalition of transit advocates and New York City politicians are putting pressure on both the city and MTA to do something to improve bus service and prioritize the bus network.

In a report issued last week called “Turnaround: Fixing New York City’s Buses” [pdf], the Transit Center, Riders Alliance, Straphangers Campaign and Tri-State Transportation Campaign have called for a redesigned bus network with service enhancements and best-in-class infrastructure including pre-board fare payment and dedicated street space. It’s almost revolutionary for New York but standard practice the world over. Full-scale implementation should combat the causes that have depressed bus ridership over the past decade and a half, but it will take a multi-agency effort across city and state agencies to see through.

The decline in bus ridership over the past 14 years highlights the flaws in the city's approach to building a bus network.

The decline in bus ridership over the past 14 years highlights the flaws in the city’s approach to building a bus network.

Tabitha Decker, Transit Center’s NYC Program Director, summed up the recommendations. “Many of New York’s global peers, such as London and Seoul, have turned around bus systems that were in decline, even though these cities have large-scale urban rail too. They have done this by making bus travel fast, frequent, and reliable using tools like smart card based fare payment and the use of real time data to keep buses on schedule.”

The recommendations are broken down into segments. First, the report urges redesigning the bus network for more frequent and efficient service. Today’s bus network is a relic of New York City’s old streetcars, and the routes are often twisting and turning paths that end at borough borders rather than a transit hubs or other popular destinations. The coalition wants to straighten out routes for faster travel times and, as the report states, “rightsize the distance between bus stops. New York is a global outlier in terms of how closely stops are spaced, and on many routes, stops are even closer together than our own standards dictate. Optimizing the number of stops will speed trips for riders.”

The second section focuses on fare payment and boarding. Obviously, a tap-and-go system will significantly reduce boarding times if a pre-board fare payment system for all local buses is too costly. All-door boarding would reduce station dwell times as well. (The Riders Alliance recently issued a different report raising concerns with the MTA’s next-generation fare payment plans that could have ramifications for buses as well.) Continued investment in low-floor buses should improve the boarding process as well, the report noted.

Next, the report urges the MTA to change the way it dispatches and controls buses that are en route to ensure buses arrive on schedule and avoid bus bunching. In addition to dispatching buses on time, the MTA should hold buses en route to improve service. This is a bit of a controversial recommendation as it could lead to delays for passengers during their travels, but the coalition feels a more proactive, headway-based control process should improve service for everyone.

Dedicated lanes and signal prioritization can help speed up the city's notorious slow buses.

Dedicated lanes and signal prioritization can help speed up the city’s notorious slow buses.

Finally, in a recommendation that would overhaul the way buses interact with the streets, the report urges a massive expansion of dedicated lanes, a renewed focus on bus bulbs and boarding islands to “eliminate time spent weaving in and out of traffic,” signal prioritization and queue-jump lanes for buses. These changes would require DOT and the MTA to collaborate and would likely require authorization from Albany as well. It’s politically tricky but not impossible.

And yet, while an expansive coalition of New York City politics voiced their support for these bus turnarounds, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the Grand Poobah of New York State politics, in comments to Politico New York, dismissed bus problems with a wave of his hand a complete lack of understanding. “If people in Manhattan are choosing to jump on the subway because the subway is faster, because there’s traffic that a bus has to deal with — that’s not an imprudent choice, right?” Cuomo said.

Cuomo, who thinks a USB charging port on a bus is some form of revolutionary improvement, doesn’t seem to understand the role the bus network could play in New York City, and Ben Fried took it too him in a post on Streetsblog last week. Cuomo’s Manhattan-centric view of travel speeds betrays his belief that traffic is a force of nature that cannot be addressed through rational policies and that buses mirror subways. As Fried writes, “The governor’s theory about people ditching the bus for the train simply doesn’t apply to the vast number of New Yorkers who ride these routes [that cover territory that the subway does not] and would benefit enormously from the recommendations in the Bus Turnaround report.”

In response to the report, the MTA noted that it is in the process of implementing some of these upgrades and that the agency has undertaken certain studies regarding specific routes. But overall, the MTA, DOT and city and state officials need to engage in a concerted effort to reroute and redraw bus routes while improving the infrastructure upon which buses rely. If they don’t, ridership will continue to decline, and buses will forever remain stuck with the stigma of being a second-class transportation option.

Categories : Buses
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One table highlights the simple improvements that could speed up city buses outside of the slow SBS planning process.

One table highlights the simple improvements that could speed up city buses outside of the slow SBS planning process.

As far as bus improvement efforts go, I’ve long maintained that the city’s and MTA’s Select Bus Service is something of a charade. It has so far taken these planners four or five years to identify a route, plan the service, hold the requisite community meetings, bid out the work, build the infrastructure and launch service along what is essentially a glorified express bus line. This isn’t Bus Rapid Transit with fully dedicated rights of way and constant service; this is New York’s “we have to please everyone all the time but especially drivers” middle-of-the-road stumbling toward transit upgrades.

From an assessment perspective, one of the frustrating elements has been the sheer lack of data made public about the success (or perhaps the failures) of the Select Bus Service routes. Are these improvements decreasing travel time while increasing ridership? If rides are faster, why? What is the effect of an SBS route on parallel local bus routes? Recently, in a report on the B44, some of these questions were answered, and the results highlight two simple reasons why buses are faster. We’ll get to those in a minute.

The B44 was one of those long-drawn out SBS routes. It debuted in late 2013 along Brooklyn’s third busiest bus corridor, and it’s a success story in a vacuum. According to the report [pdf], travel times have decreased by 15-31 percent depending upon the time of day and ridership is up 10 percent. Traffic crashes are down as well. Meanwhile, ridership has decreased on the local buses by only four percent, suggesting that the SBS route is a net gain. We don’t know how overall local travel times are affected by the shift in service though so it’s tough to analyze the overall impact.

Officials were pleased. “The B44 SBS along Nostrand Avenue is a tremendous success story, among the biggest successes in the eight years that DOT and MTA have coordinated Select Bus Service,“ DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg said.

But this is a lot of back-slapping for two simple infrastructure improvements. Overall, SBS B44 travel times have decreased by an average of 17 minutes, end-to-end, but times in motion haven’t changed. Buses move for around 37 minutes out of every hour, but instead of sitting at stations for nearly 26 minutes and stuck in traffic for 20, buses are stopped at stations for 15 minutes and stuck in traffic for only 12 minutes. Why? Pre-board fare payment, dedicated bus lanes and signal prioritization. It’s not exactly a secret combination, and improving bus service is as simple as that.

DOT and the MTA have made better bus service into a big deal and something that warrants special consideration during the planning process and special treatment after. It involves branded buses, painted lines and special infrastructure. But it shouldn’t. It should just involve the recognition that buses shouldn’t be subject to the whims of surface traffic through busy corridors and that our fare payment system is horrendously antiquated and inappropriate for city buses. If DOT and the MTA wanted to, they could improve bus service tomorrow by significant amounts simply by giving buses their own lanes, and the fare payment problems should be a part of whatever comes along to replace the Metrocard.

For all the handwringing about declining bus ridership and the need to expand transit access, the answers are right in front of our collective faces. That DOT and the MTA haven’t been aggressively pushing these measures is a stain on their records that deserves a closer look. Improvements and faster travel times don’t need to come through such a torturous process.

Categories : Buses
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How the MTA opts to replace the Metrocard could have an effect on bus riders for decades to come. (Photo: Benjamin Kabak)

Can the MTA get a once-in-a-generation opportunity to overhaul its fare payment technology right? This is a question more important than many realize right now as the MTA finally gears up to usher in a replacement for the Metrocard and move its fare payment system into the 21st century. This is a question that plays more to buses rather than to subways, as subway riders will keep flocking to the system no matter how the fare payment technology works, and it’s a question that could solve the problem of declining bus ridership. It’s also a question one rider advocate group fears the wrong answer will emerge.

The story is simple: The MTA wants to replace the Metrocard with something leaner and meaner. The technology will likely rely on open payment standards popular in the payment card industry and will allow the MTA to shed the costs associated with running and maintaining a proprietary fare technology. It will be flexible enough to support pay-per-ride fares and bulk discounts (such as unlimited ride cards keyed to a time period). But will it support electronic proof of payment, a feature that could drastically improve bus service? The Riders Alliance is worried it won’t, and they’ve called upon the MTA to address this deficiency.

In a report released on Friday, the Riders Alliance laid out its case for electronic proof of payment. I’ll excerpt:

Right now the MTA’s RPF, with bids due July 13th, does not require “electronic proof of payment” technology, whereby users would have their payment validated electronically, rather that with a paper receipt…Why does it matter? Because one way to make buses faster and more reliable is to replace the current system, where everyone boards one by one at the front, with all-door boarding, where people could get on the bus through any available door. An all-door boarding system usually relies on inspectors who can board the bus and make sure riders have purchased tickets—today on Select Bus Service, by checking to see if the rider purchased a paper receipt at the bus stop. In the future, if the MTA is to consider rolling out all-door boarding to all bus lines citywide, a paper ticket system would likely be too onerous and expensive, making a digital system necessary. And if the MTA doesn’t require that the new fare payment system accommodate a digital inspection, bus riders could be stuck with a whole new generation of boarding slowly, one-by-one, at the front of the bus.

All-door boarding, facilitated by an electronic proof of payment system that allows for easy verification of payment, can significantly reduce bus travel times and save money—without increasing rates of fare evasion. A primary driver of delays at bus stops is the length of time required for all passengers to board…

The only buses in New York that allow all-door boarding are Select Bus Service routes, which require riders to pay at a machine before boarding the bus. SBS routes have seen speed increases from 16 to 22 percent and ridership gains between 10 and 20 percent in the first year after implementation. At the same time, enforcement from the NYPD’s Eagle Team have led to significant drops in fare evasion: in 2012, fare evasion on the Bx41 in the Bronx dropped by 74 percent and on the Bx12 by 80 percent after the deployment of SBS on those routes…The MTA estimates that off-board fare collection, combined with all-door boarding, is responsible for a 10 to 15 percent total improvement in travel time [for Select Bus Service routes].

We don’t currently have all-door boarding on buses because the MTA claims it would be far too expensive to install MetroCard readers throughout the city. The prices quoted often run into the low billions. Meanwhile, around North America, transit agencies in San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles and Montreal have introduced all-door boarding, and travel time reductions generally attributable to this improved boarding process run to around 15 percent across the board. It’s a no-brainer really.

For its part, the MTA has raised concerns over fare evasion. “We must balance convenience against the very real threat of fare evasion if ‘electronic proof of payment’ technology is ever to be viable,” agency spokesman Kevin Ortiz said to the Daily News. This, however, seems to be a symptom of Not-Invented-Here-itis, a frequent illness in NYC transit planning. As Streetsblog detailed on Tuesday, some targeted fare enforcement efforts on POP routes drive down fare evasion, and the economics dictate that faster bus service — which should drive up ridership — would pay for the cost of fare evasion. Creating a fare structure that incentivizes purchases of time-based fare cards could also help combat any concerns over fare evasion.

Ultimately, the MTA gets once chance to do this project right. Once they’ve locked in on a potential replacement for the Metrocard, making whole-sale changes will grow more difficult and costly. For the sake of a 21st century fare payment technology and, more importantly, for the sake of the city’s bus riders, electronic proof of payment should be a mandatory part of this next-gen solution.

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DOT's Mobility Report identified just show slowly buses move through New York City.

DOT’s Mobility Report identified just show slowly buses move through New York City.

Every day, the 8.5 million people who live in New York, along with numerous tourists and others journeying in for work or education or fun, have to get somewhere. We have to get to our jobs and our schools, our grocery stores and our parks, and our museums, plays and baseball stadiums. We take subways and buses, cars and taxis, bikes and boats. On some days, our riders are smoother than others, but by and large this transportation network gets us where we need to be.

It’s not, however, all perfect, and lately cracks in a particularly vital segment have been on full display. New York City’s bus network seems to be hemorrhaging riders at a study clip, and although policy-makers have expressed concern over sharply declining ridership figures, they have not yet taken steps to solve New York City’s bus problems. A solution could require a major reconfiguring of how we prioritize traffic and street space, and current City and MTA officials haven’t been willing to dig in for a fight.

Earlier this week, NYC DOT released a new Mobility Report [pdf], and the colorful document highlights how New York City is more crowded than ever before and traffic speeds, especially in Manhattan’s so-called central business district south of 60th Street, have never been slower. “With record tourism, jobs and population growth, New York City is now experiencing packed subway trains, along with a 300% surge in daily bicycling since 1990,” DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg noted in a statement. “The report’s conclusions are clear: As we move forward, policy makers will need to redouble efforts to chart a course that supports mass transit and other options to keep a growing and thriving New York City moving.”

If only it were that simple. As the population grows, mobility has slowed, and buses have been the biggest victims of slow speeds. The numbers are stark. In 2000, annual bus ridership hit 699 million, and that number held steady until 2010 when the MTA slashed numerous bus routes and generally reduced service throughout the city. Since then, and despite a rollback of some of the cuts, annual ridership hit 651 million last year, and there is no indication this trend will reverse.

Bus ridership has been steadily declining since 2010.

Bus ridership has been steadily declining since 2010.

The report discusses the rise of cycling as a popular means of filling in holes in the transit network and solving many people’s last-mile problems, but it seems to lay the blame of the bus decline squarely on the shoulders of speed. Using BusTime data, DOT found that travel speeds in Manhattan, where ridership has sunk the most, are slowest, and in many spots, buses are traveling slower than a healthy adult can walk. For example, a westbound M42 averages 3.2 miles per hour between 2nd Avenue and 6th Avenue between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. on a weekday. For many people, it is literally faster to walk.

That bus speeds are so slow is no big surprise, but what can we do to fix it? The report indicates that speeds are the cause for a decline, but it falls short of identifying any cures. Generally, three issues create slow buses. First, the boarding process where riders dip their MetroCards (and often struggle with it) is slow and clunky, creating very long dwell times at stations. Second, buses are subject to the whims of the street. Without dedicated infrastructure, buses get stuck in traffic, and even in places where dedicated lanes do exist, enforcement is spotty. Queue-jumping technology, or signal priortization, was supposed to be a part of the city’s Select Bus Service offerings, but it still hasn’t been rolled out. Add it all up, and you get slow buses.

From where I sit, fixing the buses would involve a massive philosophical change in which pre-board fare payment is the norm rather than a feature of a souped-up express bus. It would involve rethinking the bus network to ensure that buses provide connections between where riders are and where they want to be. It would also require a major push to bring dedicated bus lanes to far more areas of the city. Buses shouldn’t be a secondary mode of transit, subject to congestion; buses should get priority over surface congestion.

Ultimately, if the city is serious about eliminating congestion, especially in Manhattan, the answer will be some form of pricing model, but that will lead to the need to invest in buses. And to do that, the city has to start respecting buses. Otherwise, they will be forever stuck in traffic, inching slowly down their routes, sometimes faster than walking, usually slower than biking, and always a second-class mode of transit.

Categories : Buses
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The first of the MTA’s new wifi-equipped buses hit the road yesterday. A few months ago, Gov. Andrew Cuomo called them “Ferrari-like,” and he seemed awfully happy to be there at the unveiling yesterday. MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast called these new buses part of the “enhanced experience for our customers,” and the rhetoric around Millennials was kept to minimum. But what do they look like in the while? Sometimes, all you need is one photo.

More on the new F express plan later. I ended up spending the night in Chicago on business and am still working through the reaction to the MTA’s proposals.

Categories : Buses
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