Archive for Buses
Over the past few years, the phrase “lipstick on a pig” has been bandied about so many times that it’s nearly lost all meaning, but now and then, it’s still an appropriate way to describe a laughably feeble attempt to do something. Today, that something is Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s push to improve bus service or make New York City buses more attractive to Millennials or all riders or someone by slapping some new colors on the outside of the bus and adding wifi service and USB charging ports on the inside. Without a commitment to improving bus service, whether through more frequent service, better routing, pre-board fare payments or dedicated lanes, this is the very definition of putting lipstick on an exceedingly slow and unreliable pig.
The MTA’s bus ridership issues have been pronounced over the past few years. Even as subway ridership has shown historic growth, bus ridership — spurred in part by deep service cuts in 2010 that were never reversed — has declined for much of the past decade. Even last year, as the subways saw rush hour expand and ridership hit 6 million on over 40 weekdays, local bus ridership declined by 2.5 percent, and if this trend continues through 2016, ridership on the MTA’s local bus routes could dip below 2 million per weekday.
Over the years, the MTA has wondered internally and publicly why this trend is a downward one. When BusTime, the MTA’s real-time bus tracking application launched, the agency hoped access to information would drive ridership up. After all, an informed ridership should be one that better exploits the system. Rather, ridership has decreased. Maybe informed riders who realize the next bus is 20 minutes away simply choose to walk or take a cab instead of waiting as they used to.
Now the latest efforts at making buses a sexy and attractive option involve elements that do nothing to get at the core of the problem. Following his State of the State tour that involved a mention of state-of-the-art buses, Cuomo, with MTA Chairman and CEO Tom Prendergast at his side, unveiled the details. The 2042 new buses, some of which will begin arriving next month, include a new look and feel and feature USB charging ports and on-board wifi. In describing these new buses, the governor said they have “European flair” with an “almost Ferrari-like look,” which led many to wonder if Cuomo has ever set eyes on a Ferrari.
In discussing these upgrades, Prendergast stressed how the MTA is trying to appeal to Millennial riders who, he claims, expect these amenities from buses. “As more and more millennials enter the system and use it daily, these are expectations, not desires on their part,” he said. “Many of the young people using our system today grew up with a smartphone in one hand and a tablet in the other.”
According to MTA estimates, adding USB ports and Wifi service to new buses will cost around $5000 per bus or around $10.2 million overall. For an agency currently working through a $28 billion capital plan, $10 million is pocket change, but $10 million is also enough to restore or expand a significant number of bus lines. And therein lies the rub.
It’s true that these upgrades, by themselves, are not totally useless. In particular, new buses will also have information screens (at an even higher cost of $15,000 per bus) that will show next-stop information, available transfers, weather and, I assume, some advertising. Plus, for those who have long bus rides, wifi and charging stations may be useful features.
But they cannot be the only improvements made to the bus network if the MTA is serious about making buses better. Millennials, just like the septuagenarians who ride the buses, simply want better service first and amenities second. They want buses that are faster than walking and reliable enough to show up regularly and on time. They want buses that move smoother through congested streets and a stop a little less often than ever other block. That’s how the MTA could build a bus network to attract more riders. Wifi, to a certain degree, and USB charging ports are simply elements of window dressing for a redesigned decal stuck on the outside of city buses, none of which all that European or Ferrari-like. It is the quintessential lipstick for a rather slow pig, and that pesky funding question hovers above all of Cuomo’s hollow initiatives.
With 2016 starting with a long weekend, with the exception of one quick trip into Manhattan for dinner on January 1, I’ve spent the past few days bumming around Brooklyn. I’ve taken a good mix of buses and subways, and the trips were smooth and efficient. That doesn’t mean everything is rosy with our public transit system, and I had my eye out for ways we can improve. Nowhere is that more obvious than with our bus system.
As I enter my tenth year of maintaining this site, I’ve occasionally examined buses and their problems, but my coverage has often focused on upgrades instead of operational issues. With Select Bus Service the flavor of the decade, the MTA and New York City are working to improve bus service. I haven’t been particularly impressed with NYC DOT’s willingness to stick to its guns (or make the case needed to show why these upgrades are necessary), and I’ve thought that our leaders haven’t shown much leadership with regards to the tougher decisions that need to be made. But that’s politics. I want to take today about operations.
This idea comes to me from a chance sighting on Saturday evening. A little before 8 p.m., my wife and I walked over from our apartment to the Brooklyn Museum. As we passed through Grand Army Plaza, not one, not two, but three Downtown Brooklyn-bound B41 buses arrived at the same stop at the same time. I didn’t notice if any were a limited, and I admit that it’s possible that only two local buses were bunched at the same stop while a third limited simply happened to be passing by at the same time. But still, there they were, all three together in front of Brooklyn’s Central Library.
Bus bunching is of course a symptom of the way we treat buses, but it’s also a symptom of the MTA’s long-standing inability to manage the problem. Buses in New York City bunch of three reasons, each of which could be addressed to varying degrees. In no particular order, they are: uneven dwell times, unpredictable surface traffic (along with a lack of infrastructure that prioritizes buses), and bad dispatching and route-management practices.
Dwell times for buses are an obvious problem. As we’ve seen with Select Bus Service, the number one driver of reduced travel time concerns dwell. By instituting a pre-board fare payment system, the MTA has sped up the torturous process of bus boarding we sit through today. Now, riders fumble for a Metrocard, wait for a seemingly endless dip, retrieve their card and move on. Those that pay cash have to fill up the coin slot with $2.75 in quarters, nickels and dimes. It’s slow and inefficient, and a full-system move to a pre-board payment system or, hopefully before the sun explodes or the ice caps melt, to a new contactless fare system will vastly reduce dwell time. With uneven and long dwell times, crowded buses are delayed while an emptier bus can gain ground quickly. Thus, bunching.
The second problem concerns travel conditions. Buses can bunch if one hits traffic while the other does not. Eventually, the two will meet. By not giving high-traffic routes — like, for instance, the B41 up and down Flatbush Ave. — dedicated lanes and signal priority, the buses are entirely beholden to the flow of traffic. Some speed up; some slow down; and by the time they travel over 5 miles down Flatbush Ave., they bunch. This is a choice we as a city have made with regards to the way we treat buses, and it is a symptom of a fundamentally broken approach to a mode of transportation for over 2 million people per day.
Finally, buses bunch because of route-management issues. As buses are delayed due to the conditions above — or as they make up ground due to empty stations — dispatchers could try to hold buses to ensure even spacing. Invariably though, riders on the the bus making up ground would have to sit out delays in their journeys forced on them by dispatchers, and this is not a particularly appealing outcome for anyone. Headways that aren’t maintained as buses leave their terminals may also cause bunching, but this is supposed to be a problem the MTA could address via the data available from the BusTime system.
Ultimately, though, there’s no easy answer to the bunching conundrum. Transit agencies are still trying to solve bunching, but in New York, we’ve created conditions ripe for bunching. Reducing dwell times and improving infrastructure that prioritizes buses are noble goals that improve service for every rider and can help avoid bunching. Even if they won’t represent a cure-all, getting there is far slower and more painful than it deserves to be, and for that, we can look to the politics of a city and transit agency too timid to make the tough choices and too bureaucratic to adapt to changing fare payment technologies. And so those three buses all arriving at one stop at the same time is a more common sight than we would all prefer to see.
For more on bus bunching, check out this neat interactive that lets you bunch buses.
The Riders Alliance — with an eye toward an easy upgrade — wants to begin to push back on this idea. In a report released today, the advocacy group (of which I sit on the board) called up on the MTA to eliminate the fare on the Q70, thus making the bus ride between LaGuardia Airport and Jackson Heights or Woodside free. The group contends that the MTA wouldn’t lose money with the move — and based on a modest projected growth in ridership, could possible capture more revenue from those going to and from the airport. Additionally, the group has called upon the MTA to better brand the Q70 as specifically for airport travelers while increasing reliability and upgrading service. The ideas are new-to-New York but hardly revolutionary and deserve more than just a cursory glance.
“Transit access to LaGuardia shouldn’t be New York’s best-kept secret,” John Raskin, Executive Director of the Riders Alliance, said. “It should be intuitive and simple. Turning the Q70 into a free LaGuardia subway shuttle is a cost-effective improvement that could revolutionize how New Yorkers get to the airport. It’s not a billion-dollar project; it’s a free project with billion-dollar returns.”
Raskin is of course referring to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s multi-billion-dollar plan to build a poorly-routed LaGuardia AirTrain. The Riders Alliance feels their bus proposal would alleviate the need for an AirTrain in the short term, but it’s not just about finding a better way to build a more direct and cost-efficient AirTrain. It’s about providing a better transit solution for LaGuardia-bound travelers overall.
The crux of the report rests on the fact that 90 percent of the Q70 ridership is already transferring to or from the subway (85%) or LIRR (5%), and thus, the MTA has already captured that revenue. In essence, nearly all riders are already riding the Q70 for free, but everyone pays in dwell time, a major criticism for Q70 ridership. (In fact, if anything, eliminate the fare just to cut dwell times on the Q70 would be well worth it.) Were the bus to be free, the Riders Alliance contends, even an increase in transit usage by just one percent of all LaGuardia Airport travelers would cancel out the free bus and in fact make the MTA money. Whether the subways could fit another 200,000 passengers is another question.
But this isn’t just about making the bus free to increase ridership in the short term. While some are skeptical of initiatives that seem like a short-term move designed to get more people on transit (rather than on implementing changes that lead New Yorkers to choose a car-free, transit-heavy lifestyle), the Riders Alliance report takes a longer view as well. The group has called upon the MTA to run the Q70 with headways no longer than 10 minutes while providing either a dedicated lane for the bus or allowing drivers to optimize their route based on current traffic conditions. Doing so should make the free bus not just the easy choice in the short term but the right choice in the long term as well.
Additionally, the report notes that current Q70 service isn’t particularly well-suited to appeal to LaGuardia riders. In addition to inconsistent headways and routing that suffers from the whims of surface traffic, signage doesn’t encourage use. The buses do not include information regarding departure terminals and signage at the airport can’t even get the fares right. MetroCards aren’t available for purchase at the bus stop, and those unfamiliar with the New York City bus network wouldn’t easily determine that the Q70 provides a quick connection to the subway. The bus is, in fact, labeled as a bus to Queens rather than a bus to the subway or the LIRR, and neither the MTA nor the Port Authority have signage that clearly indicates what this bus does. In fact, a quarter of airport travelers surveyed said they didn’t know and couldn’t tell that the Q70 was more a shuttle to transit rather than a local bus through Queens.
To that end, the Riders Alliance have proposed rebranding the bus so that it’s clear where this bus goes and how it goes there. Without a fare and with more frequent service and better advertising, the bus can be a key link to the airport rather than something those in the know take out of convenience. It’s a new idea for New York City but hardly one so radical that it can’t work. As Joe Sitt, head of the Global Gateway Alliance, said, “A clearly branded, free airport subway shuttle is a low cost solution that would provide LaGuardia’s 27 million passengers with a 21st century access link, and with plans to modernize LaGuardia underway, the time to act is now.”
For its part, though, the MTA threw cold water on the plan. Transit spokesman Kevin Ortiz said the agency “wholeheartedly disagree[s] with the premise that this could all be done at no cost to the MTA. First of all, one-fourth of riders do not come from the subway and don’t use the free transfer, and thus we would lose money on one out of every four customers under their plan. If ridership would continue to grow on the route to the level they claim, we would have to add service, and that costs money. And where would we find the buses? Also, what’s to say that all this would do is shift a portion of riders from the M60 to Q70? At the end of the day, there is simply zero evidence that making it a free shuttle would increase ridership on subways to the point it would make the shuttle self-sustaining.”
Is this is simply a case of “we-didn’t-invent-it”-itis that plagues New York City, legitimate pushback or a combination of the two? Either way, this is a plan whose feasibility is worth pursuing.
Later on today, the Riders Alliance, along with the Global Gateway Alliance and other NYC advocacy groups, will issue a report and hold a press conference calling upon the MTA to eliminate the fare on the Q70 bus. Their proposal would streamline and clarify access to LaGuardia Airport while increasing the number of airport travelers using a transit connection. The group contends the idea could be implemented immediately and would likely improve the MTA’s bottom line. It’s an intriguing idea and one completely foreign to New York City.
Due to an embargo on the report, I can’t say much more now about the initiative, but I have a full post ready to go when the embargo is lifted at noon today. Be sure to check back then for the details and fine print regarding this plan. Needless to say, it’s one that deserves full consideration (if not a fast implementation). Can the MTA embrace an idea that so outside the box for the agency? We’ll find out soon.
As I’ve mentioned before, the MTA’s pilot programs have become something of a catch-all for new initiatives. Most of these programs are of the new-to-New York variety that have been implemented elsewhere, usually for years without incident, and the latest — bike racks on a pair of bus routes operating on Staten Island — is no different. To drive home the point, the MTA released a video over the Labor Day weekend that highlights just how people are supposed to use the bike racks.
The pilot itself is a great idea. The S53 and S93 bus routes will have front-mounted racks that can each fit two bikes. Customers are responsible for loading and unloading the bikes while the video reminds those cyclists of key safety tips to ensure drivers are aware of when riders are using the racks. The two routes both serve a college campus with many cyclists and bike routes on both sides of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.
“Bringing the Bike & Ride program to the S53 and S93 will increase the mobility of students who are traveling between home and campus. Before this program, our customers had no direct way to travel with their bicycles on public transportation between Brooklyn and Staten Island. Now customers can take advantage of the city’s bike lanes and greenways without worrying about how to transport their bicycles,” Darryl C. Irick, President of MTA Bus and Senior Vice President, NYC Transit Department of Buses, said. “A future expansion will depend on results of this pilot and will most likely focus on routes that cross bridges.”
It’s easy for us to scoff at this pilot as yet another one of those examples of New York exceptionalism. Bike racks are common on buses throughout the world, and the MTA doesn’t really need to pilot them to know that they’ll work and be tremendously popular. But here, the MTA is looking at how these two different racks work and which type should be used throughout the city. The agency is also looking at routes with tight turns and situations where front-mounted racks impair the MTA’s ability to machine-wash buses.
And what of the costs? The racks check it at a hair over $1100 a pop, a downright reasonable figure for something transit-related and one that should decrease if the MTA orders more in bulk. So long as this program moves out of pilot and into full implementation, this is an upgrade long overdue.
In an alternate universe where New York City politicians and planners aren’t afraid to take risks, yesterday was a big day for the M86. In this alternate universe, after a short planning process, Transit’s second busiest crosstown route, averaging 24,000 weekday riders, saw massive upgrades as the city opted to close Central Park’s 86th transverse to cars during peak hours, install a signal prioritization system from river to river, ensure bus bulbs and dedicated lanes were in place and generally treat the M86 as worth being a crosstown route over 30 blocks north of the nearest cross-Manhattan subway line.
That’s not what happened. Instead, as part of the Mayor’s promise to call 20 routes “Select Bus Service” by some indeterminate time that was originally supposed to be the end of 2017, a bunch of politicians gathered on the West Side to celebrate the launch of the M86 SBS. After eight years of talking about it, the M86 got a pre-board fare system, multi-door boarding, a few queue jump lanes that are already drawing NIMBY complaints, those weirdly unappealing new forward signs that replaced the hallmark SBS flashing blue lights, and the promise of some bus bulbs.
As part of the upgrades, every politician representing both the Upper East and Upper West Sides sent out a statement of support as though these upgrades are worth multiple rounds of back-slapping. In a moment of utter hilarity considering its taking nearly a decade to get here and the bus route was still late by a few weeks, State Senator Adriano Espaillat thanked NYC DOT for “quickly completing this project” while Jim Clynes, chair of Manhattan’s CB 8, noted that M86 SBS will have “a subway feel.” That everyone felt the need to gather in the first place is telling.
What DOT and the MTA did with the M86 will represent massive improvements in travel time for crosstown bus riders. Dwell times — especially at key locations where the M86 intersects busy subway lines at Central Park West and Lexington Ave. — represented the single biggest challenge to speedy crosstown operations, and if the city isn’t willing to give buses dedicated road space during commuting peak hours, pre-board fare payment and multi-entrance boarding are low-hanging fruit that pay key dividends for those 24,000 daily riders.
But these improvements are run-of-the-mill upgrades that are viewed as best practices for local buses the world over. The MTA didn’t eliminate any M86 stops; the bus still makes two stops on the same block of 86th St. between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues. DOT didn’t reallocate street space except for some limited queue jump lanes that allow buses to get a hard start at red lights. So why the press conference?
When I posed this question earlier in the day, a few of my Twitter followers suggested, perhaps cynically but also accurately, that these improvements wouldn’t happen at all if politicians don’t have the opportunity to grab camera space while trumpeting them. Sadly, this is true, but on the flip side, I wondered if these improvements wouldn’t be treated as revolutionary if 15 politicians didn’t insist on showing up to press conferences or sending out statements every time the MTA and DOT implement on one bus line what other countries consider to be system-wide best practices. Every crosstown bus should feature a proof of payment that allows for multi-door boarding, and such a system should be implemented as soon as the fare payment kiosks are installed, not eight years after the first Community Board presentations.
Until we as a city and our politicians as our city leaders get over the need to have a press conference about something as mundane as a new fare payment system on one bus line and a few queue-jump lanes, we are doomed to watch our transit system die from a lack of Great Ideas and the will to implement them. Politicians should be asking “what took so long?” and “how soon can we get these improvements rolled out on the M79, M96 and M106?” rather than falling over themselves to congratulate the M86 for catching up with most of London’s regular bus service. Don’t slap a fancy name on these ops upgrades. Aim higher. Be better.
Since the MTA and New York City’s DOT debuted Select Bus Service in 2008, I haven’t been particularly impressed by the program or the rollout. Heralded as the next best thing in buses for New York City, it’s barely BRT-lite, and it’s taken nearly a decade for the city and MTA to identify and plan only a handful of best-practices improvements to local bus routes. If anything, adding bus lanes that aren’t physically separated with only the bare minimum of lane enforcement along with pre-boarding fare payment (and fare checks that, at the start, slowed down service) should be standard on nearly all local bus routes. That we’re still waiting on something as basic as signal prioritization is telling.
Meanwhile, while most countries with real bus infrastructure would view these upgrades as laughably modest, in New York City, they become somehow controversial. Take a lane away for parked cars or moving personal automobiles? You may be better off invading a small country. Suggest camera lane enforcement? Add flashing lights to a bus to distinguish service? Beware the wrath of know-nothing State Senators. (The MTA has finally introduced new destination signs that flash the words “+SELECT BUS” in amber on a blue background as subpar replacements for the blue lights. More on those soon.)
And yet, despite my skepticism, these SBS upgrades are real, if incremental, improvements, and if implemented properly, they ideally will help bolster ridership on city buses while cutting down on travel times. Thus, we as a city should embrace bus infrastructure and treat it as we would something positive. You try telling that to whoever’s responsible for this mess:
Select Bus Service stop in the greatest city on Earth. pic.twitter.com/l3bcJ9YEq8
— Brooklyn Spoke (@BrooklynSpoke) July 7, 2015
As you can see, Doug Gordon spotted this during his bike ride home on Tuesday. The SBS M15 stop near the Bowery Whole Foods is completed inundated with someone’s garbage bags and one of the fare payment machines is inaccessible as well. After some questioning, Whole Foods said to me that those bags weren’t theirs and instead belonged to the residential building above the store. I haven’t been able to reach the building yet, but Gordon tells me this is far from an isolated incident. It’s no way to treat a bus stop, let alone one that’s supposed to be a key stop on a flagship Select Bus Service line.
But that’s not the only way Select Bus Service is under attack. In a Gotham Gazette piece that follows months of anti-Select Bus Service writings, Allan Rosen, a former MTA planner and long-time reader and commenter on this site, claimed that the Woodhaven BRT plan could jeopardize the Second Ave. Subway. His rationale is that since the second phase of the Second Ave. Subway, estimated at around $4.5-$5 billion will compete with the $230 million BRT for New Starts funding, federally funded BRT could foreclose federal funds for the Second Ave. Subway.
This, of course, isn’t how the New Starts program works. The feds end up contributing money to nearly all projects deemed worthy, and they have, over the years, held up the Second Ave. Subway as the gold standard for worthiness based upon projected ridership. Meanwhile, the scale is off as Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway is far, far more likely to be delayed by inaction from Albany than by an alleged fight over a few hundred million dollars.
If we dig into the history of Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway, we see diverse funding sources. Of the approximately $4.86 billion the feds say Phase 1 will cost, $1.3 billion comes New Starts and around $50 million originates out of other federal programs. The remainder breaks down as follows: $450 million from the 2005 State Transportation Bond Act and over $3 billion from MTA dedicated sources and PAYGO operating funds. The New Starts money that could go to either SAS Phase 2 or Woodhaven BRT is a drop in the bucket, and it certainly isn’t the bus upgrade’s fault that a northward extension of the Second Ave. Subway may be delayed.
It’s ultimately an indictment of New York City’s willingness to mimic that buses and bus upgrades can come under attack from all corners. We live in a very dense city that relies on its transit network, and yet simple improvements take years to introduce and engender unnecessarily emotional debates over priorities and street space. If New Yorkers are serious about transit upgrades, it’s time to take the buses — BRT, Select Bus Service, whatever you want to call it — seriously. That starts with taking care of bus stops and continues with honest discussions over proper funding mechanisms. Right now, we’ve seen none of that.
In a bill some (OK, so far, just me) have called “underwhelming” and the “bare minimum of support for public transit,” the City Council passed a measure this week requiring NYC DOT to . . . write a report about Bus Rapid Transit and submit it to them in two years. DOT will have to update this report every few years and maybe implement some of the bus routes they identify in the report. But whether these are bus rapid transit routes, Select Bus Service or some watered down version of everything remains to be seen.
OK, OK. Perhaps I’m being a bit too cynical. Perhaps I’m predisposed to think anything short of monetary and policy support in the face of loud protests from drivers and inanities from vocal Community Board members have led me to view City Council through a biased lens, but perhaps I’m not so far off. At a time when transit advocates are struggling to drum up support for anything related to the MTA’s capital plan or an expansion of our transit network and a time when the subways are sagging under the demands of record ridership, the City Council’s measure, two years in the making, strikes me as something that should have been implemented a decade ago.
Here’s what the legislation does:
- DOT has to consult with the MTA. (n.b. DOT already consults with the MTA.)
- DOT has to issue a report by September 1, 2017 identifying areas of New York that need BRT (all of them), strategies for serving growth areas, potential additional inter- or intra-borough BRT corridors that may be established by 2027 (ambitious!), strategies for integration with the current bus network, and costs.
- Every two years thereafter, DOT has to provide status updates on implementation and explain why DOT deviated if it did. No word if “whiny Community Board members who can’t sacrifice 30 seconds of their drive to Vermont” is a valid excuse.
When you consider that Brad Lander first introduced this bill back in 2013, it’s amazing that anything gets done with regards to transit in a city that sees a combined 8 million bus and subway rides per day. That this is some crowning achievement is telling. And therein lies in the rub and the source of my skepticism. This move essentially codifies DOT’s current practice, but it does nothing to speed up implementation of BRT or SBS routes. It certainly doesn’t encourage best practices — proof of payment throughout the system or pre-board fare payment on every popular route. It also doesn’t bolster DOT’s efforts at overcoming minority resistance to a better bus network.
Over at Streetsblog, Stephen Miller picked up on that latter point as while City Council passed this toothless bill, DOT trimmed back plans for a BRT/SBS corridor through Kew Gardens to Flushing over concerns from a very loud minority. He summarized the problem in a few sentences:
Meanwhile, Miller’s neighboring council member, Rory Lancman, can claim victory in his fight against Flushing-Jamaica Select Bus Service. At a meeting of the Kew Gardens Hills Civic Association last night, DOT said it would not be adding bus lanes to Main Street in that neighborhood.
“We had a very productive community meeting last night,” said Lancman spokesperson Nadia Chait. “The council member found that in that situation the DOT and the MTA had really listened to the community.”
The city encountered vocal opposition to bus lanes from Lancman and Assembly Member Michael Simanowitz. Actual bus riders, however, seem to be missing from the discussion: At a public meeting about Flushing-Jamaica SBS earlier this year heavily attended by civic association members, most people said they rarely ride the bus.
This is a story repeated throughout the city. In Harlem, politicians afraid of losing a driving lane and those entrenched Community Board members claim a bus lane would affect traffic based on the fact that they drive through the area rather than based on traffic engineers’ studies. So tens of thousands of bus riders have longer rides while a few hundred drivers stand to benefit instead. That’s not how a city of transit riders excels or expands its network. But hey, at least we’ll read a bureaucrat’s report on this whole mess every two years. After all, that’s what the City Council demands.
As cocky as New Yorkers are, this exceptionalism sometimes leaves us missing out on good ideas implemented elsewhere, especially in the transit planning space. There is this tendency to think that just because something works elsewhere doesn’t mean it will work in New York, and opponents or skeptics find ways to argue around importing good ideas proven to be efficient because New York City is somehow different than Paris, London or countless other places that aren’t New York. Exploiting buses is just one area where we lag.
Lately, in fits and starts, at the pace of, well, a local bus inching its way up 3rd Ave at rush hour, the city has tried to overhaul the bus routes. In January 2008, the MTA and NYC DOT introduced Select Bus Service, a glorified express bus with pre-board fare payment and half-hearted lane enforcement. At some point, signal prioritization will arrive as well. Over eight years later, we have a grand total of eight SBS routes, and a mayor who promised to bring 20 more online in five years. It has essentially taken as long to build 79 percent of the Second Ave. Subway has it has to offer marginal upgrades on a handful of bus routes, but I digress. So far, Bill de Blasio’s administration has introduced zero SBS routes, but that’s about to change.
Last week, DOT finally unveiled their preferred design for the long-awaited Woodhaven Boulevard Select Bus Service/Bus Rapid Transit line. Call you what you want, but at parts, it’s definitely a step in the right direction. As the designs show [pdf], the city is finally thinking about something closer to physically-separated, center-running lanes, and they believe the design plans could improve bus travel times by 25-30 percent. For a congested corridor that has some of the highest bus ridership in the city, an improvement of this magnitude could benefit tens of thousands of people per day.
If you’d like to read more about the design, head on over to Streetsblog where Stephen Miller summarized the proposals in two posts last week. I’d like to discuss the messaging from city leaders instead. Along with the plans, DOT released a lengthy press release with the requisite back-slapping and sufficient amounts of New York exceptionalism.
They key word was “ambitious.” This, said Mayor de Blasio, “is the kind of ambitious overhaul New York City’s bus riders deserve.” Polly Trottenberg called it “an innovative design for Bus Rapid Transit” and summarized the proposal as “the biggest, boldest, and most ambitious design concept the City has attempted for Select Bus Service.” Senator Schumer called the plan “innovative” and “exciting.” (Meanwhile, State Senator Joe Addabbo Jr. had a windshield freakout over it, but whatever.)
Perhaps the Woodhaven Boulevard design is all of these things. It’s something the riders deserve, and it’s a first-of-its-kind-in-New York City proposal, but let’s not kid ourselves that this is somehow ambitious for anywhere other than right here in our backyards. It’s involves tried and true technologies and features that are in place in real Bus Rapid Transit networks throughout the world, and to make matters worse, DOT is still planning on hosting “block by block design workshops” which will do wonders for a speedy rollout of this $200 million project.
Ultimately — and I say this lovingly because I care — New York City is going to have to get over itself if it wants to get anywhere with transit planning. Our rollout rate for SBS lines shouldn’t be barely pushing one per year, and we shouldn’t be head-over-heels impressed with ourselves when someone finally has the political guts and gumption to propose elements of real BRT through a wide street in Queens. We have a capacity crisis, and it’s going to take leadership to solve it. Praising a plan that’s barely ambitious as though it’s the most innovative idea to come out of DOT in a decade has me more than a little worried for the future.
For years, as our subway system has seen record ridership increases, the bus system has seen something of the opposite. Ridership has steadily declined over the years, and the MTA’s own actions in the form of service cuts have done little to stem the tide away from buses. On the one hand, I don’t blame people for not using local buses. As I’ve written before, they’re slow and unreliable and run entirely at the whims of surface traffic.
But on the other hand, the local bus network is a vital part of the city. Even if buses stop too frequently, they serve neighborhoods not easily connected by subway routes and offer increased mobility options for millions. In a sense, the MTA’s bus woes are entirely due to a lack of trying, and a few new studies underscore how simple changes can have a positive effect on ridership.
Our first glimpse at trends in bus ridership comes from within New York City itself. As BusTime has spread throughout the city, its system-wide deployment has coincided with a modest but steady increase in ridership. As CityLab notes, highlighting a study out of City College, bus ridership has jumped by around 2 percent following the availability of BusTime. It’s not easy to say if this is a situation where correlation and causation are related, and the MTA hasn’t publicly divulged user statistics on BusTime. But real-time information empowers potential riders to make informed and should drive up ridership as more people adapt the technology.
Eric Jaffe sums up the study:
A new study of a real-time bus arrival program in New York City offers an encouraging (if qualified) answer: it does generate new trips, though mostly for high-traffic routes. Candace Brakewood of the City College of New York and collaborators analyzed ridership patterns following the city’s roll-out of its Bus Time website. In a new paper they report a measurable jump in ridership (around 2 percent) that works out to upwards of $6.3 million in new revenue over the three-year study period…
Brakewood and company tracked bus ridership from January 2011 through December 2013. During that time New York launched real-time bus tracking in all of Staten Island, the Bronx, and Manhattan. (The program has since launched in every borough.) The researchers compared pre- and post-launch ridership to get a sense of just how influential Bus Time was in rider decisions. They accounted for key variables such as fare and service changes, seasonal patterns, the opening of the Citi Bike system, and Hurricane Sandy.
On average, across all the bus lines included in the Bus Time scope, real-time information contributed to about 118 new weekday trips—a 1.7 percent bump. The more significant increases only occurred on the most-traveled routes, where real-time info led to 340 new daily trips, or a 2.3 percent spike.
For bus routes that often lose substantial money on a per-rider basis, even these modest gains can go a long way toward staving off potential service cuts. As Jaffe notes, these findings are in line with similar studies conducted in other cities, and a potential barrier to a higher increase is the rate of adaptation. I rarely see people waiting at bus stops checking for real-time information. Perhaps a public awareness campaign on the existence of BusTime may be in order.
Meanwhile, another study highlights a simple way to speed up buses that the MTA uses only on Select Bus Service routes. Examining San Francisco’s bus boarding policies, Muni officials noted that multi-door boarding significantly lowers dwell times. In New York, we’ve seen the practical affects of this finding as the time savings for Select Bus Service routes is due nearly entirely to pre-boarding fare payment and multi-door boarding options.
The key to the San Francisco study lies in the economics of it. Muni notes in the report [pdf] that “transit operations have improved without adverse financial impacts.” The SF agency added a rear-door card reader and increased fare evasion patrols to fight potential jumpers. With a modicum of effort, the MTA could implement something similar, especially along high-volume routes, and could improve bus service in New York without the multi-year rollout and brouhaha that accompanies every single Select Bus Service routes. It’s certainly worth a thought or two.