Archive for Buses

A 14th Street for buses offers a vision for NYC’s future streetscape. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

The past few weeks have been transformational for New York City’s streets. Whether New Yorkers realize it or not, the launch of the 14th St. Busway, after months of delays due to spurious lawsuits, and the lack of a traffic apocalypse on adjacent side streets should usher in a new era of re-envisioned city streets as buses are prioritized on key arteries at the expense of cars, ensuring that the city’s suffering bus network gets the boost it needs to run buses faster and more reliably than ever before. All it took was one simple trick advocates for years have been clamoring for: Get the cars out of the way.

The Busway brings faster buses and more riders

The history of the 14th Street project is one well known about these parts. In its current form, it grew out of the need to repair the L train tunnels following Superstorm Sandy, and we heard whisperings of a car-free busway as early as 2016. As 2017 unfolded, both the RPA and Transportation Alternatives issued calls for redesigning 14th Street to prioritize buses during the L train shutdown, and a year later, Arthur Schwartz, the pro-car villain in this story, filed the first of many lawsuits he would lob toward the city, state, DOT and MTA. Earlier this year, the Governor torpedoed a full-time L train shutdown, but the city rightly forged forward with the busway plans.

In late September, Schwartz finally lost an appeal that allowed DOT and the MTA to implement the vehicle restrictions, and for the past few weeks, the M14 and New York City bus riders have been enjoying the glories of the 14th St. Busway, the first of its kind in the borough of Manhattan. The early going has been a tremendous success for the MTA and DOT, as numbers released by the MTA have made clear. Since the lane restrictions went into effect, the average weekday ridership on the M14 has gone up by around 17% from approximately 26,000 riders per day to over 31,000. Note that this early period includes both Yom Kippur and Columbus Day, and the non-holiday average appears to be closer to 32,000. The M14 has lost nearly 25% of its weekday ridership since 2013, and this reversal, if it holds, would represent the line’s best performance since 2015. Weekend ridership went up by around 33% with only the introduction of the Select Bus Service treatment, and we’re still awaiting enough data on weekend trips since the lane restrictions were implemented.

Travel times are down too. Trips between 3rd and 8th Avenues now take an average of 10.6 minutes, down 30 percent from 15.1 minutes last year, and on-time performance has jumped to 68 percent from 45.6 percent in the weeks since the busway was implemented. I’ve heard many tales from riders noting too that buses have had to wait at stations because drivers have been too far ahead of schedule due to the lack of traffic. For the corridor’s 31,000 bus riders each day, this is an unqualified success and offers a clear path forward for the city and MTA to combat a decade of declining bus ridership.

As predicted, traffic apocalypse fails to materialize

And what of the doom and gloom Arthur Schwartz and his West Village neighbors swore up and down would arrive? It hasn’t materialized yet, according to INRIX, an urban analytics firm brought in to assess the impact of the busway. According to the early numbers, as INRIX notes, the 14th Street Busway “had no discernible performance changes to neighboring roads. As you can see from the table below, travel speeds have generally declined by a few tenths of a mile per hour with the largest decrease coming on 16th St. during the 4 p.m. hour.

INRIX data shows the minimal impacts the busway has had on side street traffic.

INRIX offered some commentary:

It’s remarkable that initial analysis showed little change immediately following this massive road network change. In most instances, a radical change road configuration causes havoc until a new ‘normal’ is established, but in this case it did not. In effect, the driving experience has not changed as a result of the busway’s opening.

The 14th St busway illustrates the common fear associated with removing car lanes for other modes (e.g. bus, bike). According to the data, the displacement of personal vehicles to neighboring roads was negligible, but the time savings for the tens of thousands of daily bus riders was massive. The impact, or lack-there-of, may seem surprising but similar projects around the world have had similar results. The reallocation of space from vehicles to buses represents a far more efficient use of a limited public resource…As a result of this project, more people are getting where they need to be faster and more reliably.

So the traffic apocalypse hasn’t arrived, and the business owners, such as Salvatore Vitale of Joe’s Pizza, who were complaining to Winnie Hu about the traffic restrictions seem to be doing A-OK. In short, everything the project’s proponents knew would happen – faster bus speeds, a reduction in driving, no traffic on side streets – has come to pass, as we seen in countless other cities around the world, and the worst predicted by opponents hasn’t materialized.

A victory lap for advocates and a glimpse at a better future for NYC’s buses

While the immediate history of the 14th St. project dates back only a few years, the first Manhattan busway nearly came to fruition along 34th St. in 2011. That time, then-Mayor Bloomberg gave up in the face of sustained public outcry from NIMBYs along 34th St., and I mourned the missed opportunity. It took nearly a decade for the city to make another attempt, and that is a fate hopefully we can avoid this time around. The advocates are pushing hard for an immediate commitment to more bus lanes and soon.

Thomas DeVito, Transportation Alternatives’ Director of Advocacy, penned a piece in the Daily News urging the rollout of a citywide busway plan. “If we’re smart, we’ll learn from the experience, and see this as just the beginning of a much bigger revolution on streets throughout the five boroughs. Most of New York City’s 2.4 million daily bus riders live in Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Staten Island. It’s in those boroughs and those neighborhoods where commutes are the longest and bus-priority streets are needed the most,” DeVito wrote. “We should not have to wait three years and gear up for a sustained battle to win every project.”

Over at Curbed New York, representatives from all of the city’s transit advocacy organizations offered their thoughts on ways to expand a bus lane prioritization program throughout the city. Aaron Gordon and I joined in with our takes as well. Though you should read everyone’s views, here’s what I had to say:

It’s trite to say everywhere, but how about everywhere and all that once? With the success of 14th Street in their back pockets, DOT and the MTA could roll out multiple busway corridors at once in a variety of neighborhoods at the same time. There is no real reason for a restructuring of streets one at a time other than fear of backlash, and the only real barrier to more busways along more streets in more boroughs right now is political trepidation. As the successes and popularity of the 14th Street pilot grow, so too should the political will.

With that in mind, the next projects should focus on streets outside of Manhattan where subway access is limited, bus ridership is high, and bus speeds are slow. Fordham Road has been an unqualified SBS success story, but traffic plagued speedy bus service. Utica Avenue’s B46 has encountered so many cars blocking its route that the MTA recently had to restructure service and reduce frequencies. Both routes would benefit from a busway.

In Queens, routes serving Flushing and Jamaica would help improve last-mile bus connections while providing transit relief to subway deserts. And in Manhattan, any major crosstown street could support a busway. The city could brush off the old plans for 34th Street or explore the Vision42 proposal, and dedicating most of 125th Street to buses would do wonders for Harlem. I’d also think big—or at least north/south—and explore turning a Manhattan avenue into a busway. Thinking big, after all, is how we can truly transform NYC streets for the better.

The call I issued on Curbed New York over the summer to reform environmental laws to grant de facto approval to transit priority projects still stands as well.

Gordon had previously offered a fuller overview of the Miracle on 14th Street the week after the busway made its debut. “The totality of this shift from a miserable, traffic-clogged thoroughfare to a pleasant urban street with speedy, efficient bus service feels like a miracle,” he wrote. “It is a miracle, when you consider how hard it is for anyone to accomplish anything positive in this city’s transportation scene.”

As the quiet and calm — and it is noticeably quieter without the constant headache-inducing din of traffic — descends upon 14th Street, transit officials and politicians too are taking up the call. Andy Byford told reporters last week that he would “love to replicate [busways] elsewhere” throughout the city, and even though he hasn’t experienced the busway in person yet, Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke at length about the future of the project during his weekly appearance on The Brian Lehrer Show on Friday. Despite hedging about the “test/pilot” nature of the program, the mayor indicated a willingness to expand this type of street treatment elsewhere. I’ll quote at length:

We did this to test this approach and to decide at the end of the test what it meant not just for 14th Street, but what it might mean beyond. But I said at the beginning, you know, this is not something you do for a few weeks. We’re taking that test into next year, and when it’s concluded we’re going to start to think about what it means for every place else. A lot of folks in the community were really concerned about some of the consequences of it, intended and unintended, and whether there’d be more traffic on the side streets and all that. We need to study that over a period of time and be responsive to those concerns as well. But the central reason we did it – and I’m the one who authorized it – is because we’ve got to get people back on the buses, we’ve got to get people to feel more comfortable with mass transit, we’ve got to get cars off the street, and the only way you’re going to get cars off the street is if mass transit works a lot better and is more reliable and faster. So, it’s very encouraging, but to everyone who’s either an advocate or already believes in the approach, we owe it to the whole city and to the community to really give this a thorough test, and then we will have a much stronger case if we make any other changes, going forward, because it’ll be based on a serious body of fact.

The mayor’s statement is a bit of a mealy-mouthed mess of mumbo jumbo, but he seems willing to explore the issue. And when he’s out of office in 27 months, the next mayor can take this busway ball and run with it aggressively. In the vein of DeVito’s call, it shouldn’t take three years — or 18 months — for the city and MTA to begin planning new busways.

I’m going to close this for now with a thought on the mayor’s words. As part of the back-and-forth with Lehrer, de Blasio also said, “It’s never been done before in New York City, and we’ve got to get it right, and we’ve got to play the long game.” The long game, of course, is catching up with us as the climate continues to change at a breakneck pace, and the city must do what it can quickly to curtail the use of private automobiles. With congestion pricing on the horizon, busways can be a major part of ensuring adequate transit service for those who leave their cars at home.

And yet, part of me thinks this reaction from the city has been a bit too much. The busway is great, and we knew it would be great because busways like this one work all over the world. We don’t need to pretend New York City invented the busway, and we don’t need to spend months studying the effects of the busway on bus service or traffic on adjacent streets. We have years of data from a variety of cities, and instead of falling back on New York Exceptionalism, we should push forward for more bus treatments all over the place as soon as possible. It’s not very complicated: Getting cars out of the way does wonders for bus service. That’s one secret trick and the true vision New York City and its bus riders deserve.

Categories : 14th Street Busway
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The mayor’s new plan to improve buses is less ambitious than the city’s network needs right now.

As most of my readers know, when it comes to Bill de Blasio’s transit record, I am not, to say the least, a fan. Although the mayor doesn’t control the MTA, he otherwise sets the agenda for NYC’s streets, and on that front, as I wrote in a piece for Curbed New York last week, his record is a bad one that shows a bias toward planning that goes out of its way to accommodate low-capacity personal vehicles at the cost of transit prioritization and pedestrian and cyclist safety.

The mayor, driven everywhere, has long been a driver in NYC, and his failure to embrace and expand everything from the popular pedestrian plaza programs to a true network of protected bike lanes to bus prioritization has left New Yorkers’ mobility options at least in stasis since the start of his term in 2013, if not worse. My Curbed piece explores this view in detail, and I’d love for you to read it right here. I didn’t hammer the point on expanding the pedestrianization of the city, but to that end, Doug Gordon of Brooklyn Spoke has the topic covered.

What I would like to explore a bit more in depth are buses. The mayor’s agenda essentially set the stage for good (or, in de Blasio’s case, bad) bus service. He decides, through NYC DOT, how street space is allocated to various modes of travel; whether buses get priority, via infrastructure, design and technology, over low-occupancy, private vehicles; and just how many other cars are on the road.

For New York City in 2019, the proliferation of parking placards and placard abuse and the decline in bus speeds go hand in hand. The constant presence of cars illegally parked in bus lanes and buses navigating through slow traffic is one of the greatest failures of de Blasio’s tenure, and we have reached the point where the bus system is now in crisis thanks in no small part to the mayor’s inactions. In fact, when the MTA recently announced service cuts to 11 bus routes with the threat of more to come, the agency noted that certain of the cuts came about so that bus travel times would accurately “reflect current traffic conditions.” In other words, buses can’t meet their schedules these days and service is being cut because the city hasn’t done enough to get cars out of the way, and the buck stops with the mayor.

Lately, the bus crisis has become more of a talking point for New York politicians jockeying to separate themselves from the mayor. Corey Johnson’s transit takeover plan calls for massive investment in buses, and a 2017 Scott Stringer report issued a similar call for more city investment in buses. The MTA is chugging away at operational reforms (unfortunately while cutting service to save dollars), and even the mayor, after years of constituent complaints, put forward something of a plan for buses in April. What’s good? What’s bad? And will any of it be enough before the bus system collapses in on and itself? Let’s find out.

Ridership Snapshot: The Current State of Buses

The latest bus ridership reports show a system bleeding riders for the better part of two years.

In a word, the current state of bus ridership is bad. Average weekday ridership in March was just under 1.8 million, and the 12-month rolling ridership average shows a decline of 5%. As recently as 2017, the 12-month rolling ridership average was over 2.1 million, but ridership has been on a steady downward trajectory as travel times have increased. Bus ridership has essentially never recovered from the last fare hike.

To drive home the point, average bus speeds in New York City are 7.4 miles per hour, the slowest among the 17 largest U.S. bus companies, a recent report by Stringer found. In Manhattan, buses average 5.5 miles per hour, and some crosstown routes are slower than a normal walking pace for a healthy adult. Buses are in motion only around 55% of the time with red lights and bus stops accounting for over 40% of travel time. These unreliable and slow travel times have led to an exodus as those who have the luxury of choice no longer see the bus as the best one.

2021 Hopefuls Jockey for Bus Investments: Scott Stringer’s Take

So far, as I mentioned, both Stringer and Johnson, two local pols with dreams of Gracie Mansion dancing through their heads, have focused on buses lately. I explored Stringer’s proposal in early 2018, shortly after it was published. It’s very much a potential platform plank masquerading as a Comptroller’s report as it included 19 recommendations on everything from bus route design to procurement practices to bus lane design and enforcement.

As politicians look to rescue the buses, the focus on bus lane design and enforcement is the hinge. Here’s Stringer’s take:

First, maintenance should be improved. All bus lanes, whether SBS or not, should be marked distinctly and repainted more regularly so that they do not become faded.

Second, the DOT should continue to experiment with greater separation of bus lanes to physically restrict other vehicles from entering the lane. They should also build more lanes in the center of the road…Not only should these median bus lanes serve as a model going forward, existing curb-side and off-set bus lanes should be converted, where feasible. The City should also expand the number of double bus lanes—like those currently proposed on Fifth Avenue—to better accommodate turns and help mitigate bunching by enabling buses to go around those waiting at a stop.

Finally, the City must improve the enforcement of its bus lanes.

Stringer also urged the city to “place greater emphasis on bus lanes outside of SBS corridors. It can also assist with the introduction of new, inter-borough routes by installing exclusive lanes on more city bridges.” He further called on NYC DOT to do a better job designing Select Bus Service lanes. NYC, he wrote should “introduce truly separated bus lanes to ensure they are protected from unauthorized cars and trucks. It should also work to provide exclusive lanes throughout the entirety of the route, not just segments.”

Importantly, as well, Stringer urged the city and MTA to reconsider stop spacing, especially along routes where stops are less than 750 feet together, a distance well below international standards. Lately, the MTA had been considering just that approach along the M14, but local resistance based on a belief that buses should be door-to-door transit options is likely to torpedo that plan. To fix and speed up buses, though, some stops will have to be eliminated. As Stringer noted:

“Shorter distances between stops may well be appropriate in certain sections of the city, like those with a high concentration of seniors. Yet the fact remains that bunched stops lead to slow and unreliable service that repels all bus riders, both young and old. Across the city, there are nine bus routes with stops located less than 650 feet apart. Four are in Brooklyn, three are in Manhattan, and two are in Queens (see Table 5). All but two saw ridership fall between 2011 and 2016 and collectively, they experienced a nine percent drop, more than double the city-wide average.”

Johnson Calls for Fast Bus Lane Expansion

The Speaker’s Let’s Go transit plan devotes a lengthy section to buses. Noting that NYC’s buses are “extremely unpredictable and the slowest of any big city in the country,” Johnson aptly notes that what we’re doing now isn’t working and criticizes the city for dragging its feet on everything. Only 15 new miles of bus lanes, for example, were installed between 2017 and 2018 in all of New York City.

Johnson’s plan is rightly ambitious. He calls for 30 miles of new bus lanes per year and echoes Stringer’s call for better design:

“Every new bus lane should be camera enforced and physically separated from traffic along appropriate corridors where camera enforcement proves ineffective. In addition to the physical separation of bus lanes, the plan should also prioritize the implementation of two-way separated bus lanes in the median along key corridors, to keep buses free from conflicts with deliveries, turning vehicles, and double-parked cars wherever possible.”

He wants every bus route to have camera-enforced lanes and signal prioritization technology by 2030 and wants to push through on current route re-design efforts to drive bus ridership to 16 percent of New Yorkers’ trips within a decade, essentially doubling bus mode share. It’s aspirational but would help free up significant road space by reducing private auto and for-hire vehicle use while bolstering sagging bus service.

The Mayor Finally Releases a Plan

And what of the mayor? Over a year after Stringer released his report and a few weeks after Johnson’s plan was unveiled, the mayor finally acknowledged that something had to give on buses. To that end, he released his Better Buses Action Plan [(pdf)] last month. As bus plans go, it’s a fine one, but a better fit for a first-term mayor looking to leave an imprint on the city rather than a term-limited mayor who’s seemingly lost interest in the city.

A full list of the specific improvements are available in the press release, but on specifics if pales in comparison with Johnson’s plan. At a high level, the mayor wants to “improve” five miles of bus lanes per year and install 10-15 new ones annually, or at best half of what Johnson proposed. The mayor wants to bring TSP to 300 intersections per year (rather than the 1000 Johnson proposed) and has suggested piloted just two miles of physically separated bus lanes this year. Why we need such a modest pilot of a design that works the world over is a good question.

On enforcement, the mayor spent a good deal of time during his press conference highlighting the seven new NYPD tow trucks. It’s unclear if anyone has seen these tow trucks in action, and they certainly aren’t aggressively removing cop cars from bus lanes yet. Just walk down 2nd Ave. in the East 20s any weekday and count the placards. He doesn’t seem to understand the breadth of the problems with placard abuse — including abuse of real placards, use of fake placards, and traffic enforcement agents willing to overlook illegal parking if you scribble something on a napkin and stick in your dashboard — and can’t comprehend how these cars interfere with speedy buses and mobility in the city.

The mayor’s goal is to increase bus speeds by 25% by the end of 2020, but even that increase — from an average speed of 8 mph to 10 — seems unlikely with a plan as modest as the mayor’s. Maybe it can move the needle on certain routes, but when the mayor’s own action plan highlights just five miles of lane upgrades as a headliner, I see a piecemeal approach to bus improvements rather than a holistic, citywide effort to reform the network.

What’s Next For Buses

For now, we’re stuck with de Blasio’s plan and the MTA’s ongoing network redesign efforts while Johnson’s and Stringer’s proposals remain aspirational at best until after the 2021 mayoral election. That doesn’t mean buses are doomed, but it does mean that projects and lane upgrades and, yes, buses themselves will continue to move slowly. The MTA’s redesign effort has seemingly slowed the rate of ridership loses, at least for Staten Island, in the early going, but routes are just one part of this puzzle. The city needs true bus lanes, real enforcement and faster and more reliable bus service. We know what needs to be done; we just need a leader to do it.

Categories : Buses
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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.

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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.

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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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