Archive for Buses
Considering Staten Island’s lukewarm embrace of Select Bus Services and the fits SI politicians threw over flashing blue lights, the news that camera enforcement is coming to SBS bus lanes should raise an eyebrow or two. As the Staten Island Advance reported yesterday, DOT crews are installing cameras along the bus lane on Hylan Boulevard and expect to activate them by month’s end. Those drivers found cruising down the SBS lanes during certain hours will receive a $115 summons in the mail.
According to the Advance, drivers can make only an immediate right-hand turn or pick up and drop off passengers, but continued travel in the dedicated lane will result in a fine. Already, Staten Islanders are concerned that “drivers unfamiliar wth the area could be at a disadvantage,” but these residents recognize the benefits. “I think overall, for the intention that they are trying to do in keeping motorists out of the lanes, it will work,” Michael Reilly said to the paper.
Lane enforcement is the next step in improving the bus system. Without it, SBS lanes are nothing but painted strips of asphalt, and the cameras will help clear the lanes of cars while keeping the buses moving. DOT plans to add signal prioritization to Staten Island later this year, and by then, we’ll know how accepting the prickly borough has been of camera lane enforcement efforts.
Picking up on the idea that the MTA needs permanent leadership as well as the ongoing confusion over Select Bus Service in light of the MTA’s move to turn off the flashing blue lights, an interested party sends the following missive:
You note that the MTA has essentially been rudderless in the water for 100 days since Joe Lhota left. One of the consequences of that is that the MTA exercised exceedingly poor judgment, and also failed adequately to cover its legal flank, when it issued a press release stating that it was turning the lights off “in response to specific concerns”. Four months before Mr. Lhota received a letter from a couple of Staten Island politicians opposed to exclusive bus lanes on Hylan Blvd., in which the safety of the flashing blue lights was speculatively called into question — despite the fact they had been in continuous use with all kinds of other vehicles without incident since June 2008. Moreover, this announcement came from out of the blue as there was no prior notice and no public hearing that followed. This, naturally, led to speculation that MTA had been doing something illegal for all those years (although that was not something specifically admitted to in the press release).
This contrasts with the years of public outreach since SBS was announced in 2004, a partnership with NYC DOT, and consultations with NYPD and FDNY about the safety of the new technologies being introduced – i.e., bus priority at traffic signalsl and flashing blue lights on buses. Moreover, the legislature got into the act, passing a law that permits automatic camera enforcement of exclusive bus lanes (but only for the first group of SBS routes).
So, one wonders if the MTA hadn’t thought about its possibly needing additional permission to use these lights? We do not know the answer to that.
Nevertheless, the MTA has now discovered the existence of VTL § 375, subdivision 41, and seems to have reacted in panic. Meanwhile, there is great deal of demand for the blue lights to be turned back on. Without leadership, the MTA shows no enthusiasm, or initiative, for developing a strategy to help its beleaguered bus riders.
I should note: there has never been a traffic summons issued to a bus driver for using the SBS lights. Also, nobody has ever sued the MTA to stop using them. Therefore there could never have been a judicial determination that the MTA’s use of blue flashing lights on SBS buses is wrong. (The MTA decided this entirely on its own, and also decided, in effect, to “plead nolo contendre”.) In hindsight, until a judge stopped the MTA, they should have continued to use the blue lights as they always had.
While we await remedial legislation (which may or may not be passed) to carve-out another exception from the volunteer firefighters’ over-reaching monopoly on the color blue, the MTA might consider giving itself legal cover to turn the lights back on by challenging the constitutionality of VTL § 375, subdivision 41 — because the 2002 law was over-broad — giving unnecessary monopoly control over anybody’s use of an important primary color to one group (whose own use of this power is strictly limited by that same statute).
Regardless of such a case’s outcome, the MTA should have affirmative steps to defend its course of conduct over the previous five years (of using the lights for the public’s benefit), as well as its continuing to use them. And, politically, it comes across as fighting for its ridership, instead of trying to remain invisible until Governor Cuomo puts a strong leader in charge of the entire operation.
Another argument in favor of adopting a litigation strategy is that it would be absolutely ridiculous for this cash-strapped agency to spend a large sum of money to replace a system that is in good working order across its growing fleet of specially fitted-out buses. (This seemed to me to be suggested by the press release.)
By the way, I live along the M15 SBS route, and it is anxiety-provoking for me — and everyone who uses it with me — to be unable to distinguish SBS from non-SBS buses. Also (would you believe?), it appears MTA had never asked for legislative relief from VTL § 375, subdivision 41. FYI A06076 (which incorrectly describes the lights) was introduced March 14th in response to constituent concerns like mine, but so far, it has no counterpart in the Senate.
Now, I don’t think the MTA has been as rudderless as this reader makes them out to be. As I said earlier today, Fernando Ferrer and Tom Prendergast have kept things moving along as a steady clip. But the SBS issue has raised a series of eyebrows from those belonging to East Side politicians on down. A number of riders have raised concerns over the inability to ascertain if an approaching bus is a Select Bus or a local bus, and with stops at opposite ends of the block — or on other blocks all together — boarding properly and in time becomes stressful.
The MTA hasn’t publicly addressed the issue in months, but Community Board 6 in Manhattan is taking up the cause tonight. They’re going to vote on a (non-binding) resolution 1) supporting legislative curative action, and 2) calling on the MTA to examine all options for turning back on its iconic pair of simultaneously flashing blue lights on SBS buses. (The meeting starts at 7 p.m. in Alumni Hall B at NYU Langone Medical Center at 550 First Ave., and anyone can speak.)
While CB6′s vote carries only some symbolism and garners some press, what’s the answer? Maybe the MTA should turn those lights back on, and maybe someone in Albany can lead a charge to secure the proper exemption. The lack of lights does the Select Bus Service and its riders no favors.
The MTA and DOT Select Bus Service initiative is a rather fragile and frail imitation of real bus rapid transit, and even a slight shift in the way the service is set up can have deep ramifications. When two Staten Island politicians more concerned with space for cars rather than the letter of the law raised a stink over SBS’ flashing lights, I figured turning off the blue indicators would have an impact on the service, and a recent article by Dana Rubinstein confirmed as much.
According to unnamed bus managers who oversee Select Bus Service, turning off the lights has resulted in slower buses that don’t move as quickly as they used to. “It’s really affecting the quality of service,” one said to Capital New York. The reasons are twofold: First, riders not accustomed to the system cannot easily distinguish between SBS buses and local buses, thus delaying boarding and travel times. Second, cars are not as quick to vacate supposed bus-only lanes as the blue lights no longer signal approaching vehicles.
In January, the MTA vowed to find another color for its flashing lights — one that wouldn’t violate state law — but results has been slow in coming. Recently, two City Council members have urged the agency to restore the flashing lights, but all the MTA has said is that they’re working on it. “We’re aware of customer concerns about being unable to distinguish between regular and SBS service, which is why we’re intently studying the best alternative to flashing blue lights,” MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg said to Rubinstein. Only action though will speed up the buses again.
The MTA’s goal of rolling out BusTime to all five boroughs by April of 2013 is a bit off schedule, the agency announced today. With all of the Bronx and Staten Island bus routes already equipped with the real-time bus location service and some Brooklyn routes enjoying it as well, Manhattan buses will soon follow suit. After Manhattan will come Brooklyn, followed by Queens before the end of next April. In other words, within 13 months, the city’s bus riders will be able to track every single bus then in service.
“Bus Time has proven extremely popular among bus riders on Staten Island and the Bronx – and I can tell you that because customers have come to me on buses in the Bronx and said we did a really great job on Bus Time,” Fernando Ferrer, MTA Acting Chairman, said in a statement. “They find it useful and easy to access, and I think that’s a tremendous endorsement of what we have been doing. Bus Time is so helpful to our customers that we have scheduled an extremely aggressive timetable to introduce it to three other boroughs.”
That extremely aggressive timetable is actually less aggressive than it was 17 months ago, but that doesn’t obscure the fact that BusTime will aid bus travelers. No longer will we stand frustratedly at bus shelters with no vehicle in sight, and the decision to grab a snack, walk or wait will be a much easier one to make. Absent real bus network improvements — dedicated rights of way, faster fare payment methods — the ubiquitous nature of BusTime should continue to stem the decline in bus ridership we’ve seen over the last few years. The debate, however, between BusTime’s location-based tracking and countdown clocks remains a hot topic.
The Chinatown buses that have proliferated over the past few decades maintain an interesting place in the scheme of regional transit. Operating out off the sidewalks of northeast Chinatowns, these buses are not known for their safety, but they provide cheap rides between New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Washington, D.C., and points further afield. Some may scoff at the way the chaotic boarding process crowds the sidewalk and frown at the way idling buses pollute the neighborhoods. But these vehicles serve a purpose if we want, as Cap’n Transit has shown, trips at every price and level of luxury.
Yet, even as we acknowledge the Chinatown buses, these vehicles pose serious problems. With low cost comes low safety, and many Chinatown buses have pulled off the roads by federal safety regulators. Today, Fung Wah, one of the more popular low-cost providers for the Boston-to-New York route, was ordered off the road by the feds due to serious concerns over vehicle integrity. With that move, very few big-name Chinatown bus companies remain untouched.
The coverage of the Fung Wah safety story has been peculiar from certain corners. J.K. Trotter, writing for The Atlantic Cities wrote a post that seemed to be mocking the Chinatown buses and deriding any remaining riders. Now, safety is a serious concern, but so too is maintaining the array of intercity travel options if we are to encourage transit usage. Somehow, we have to figure out how to provide cheap, reliable and safe intercity travel without looking down upon those who opt for the least expensive solution.
Despite a rapidly growing population and future development centered around Hudson Yards, the MTA currently sends no buses down 11th Ave. and only the M50 up parts of 12th. That may change soon as DNA Info reports that the MTA is considering adding an M12 bus. The new route would journey from West 59th St. to Spring St. via 11th and 12th Avenues, the West Side Highway and Washington and Greenwich Sts. Sounds good, right? There’s a catch.
According to DNA Info’s report, the bus wouldn’t arrive to service these neighborhoods until the fourth quarter of 2013. That could mean early October or that could mean December, but no matter when, it’s still a really long time. To which I ask, what’s the hold up? Putting in a new bus route involves allocating some street space, installing a blue pole or two and rearranging operating schedules. With only two buses an hour scheduled for the route, rolling stock demands are minimal, and the area — due to receive the 7 line extension within the next year — needs the transit service.
This isn’t, of course, a problem unique to bus service. NYC DOT is holding yet another workshop on pedestrian safety for 4th Ave. in Brooklyn. These workshops have been endless with few improvements realized on the ground. Don’t even get me started again on how long it takes a Select Bus Service route to go from idea to reality. At some point, we have to realize that planning in New York is stuck. Whether its still fears over the second coming of Robert Moses or the weight we put on losing a few parking spaces, waiting 10 months for a new bus route obviously in demand — let alone years for SBS — is absurd. Fixing this process would be a huge boon to the city’s transportation landscape.
Buried deep with the New York State Vehicle and Traffic Laws is a peculiar provision governing the use of flashing lights on motor vehicles. The law states that, except as otherwise outlined, only white lights may be used outside of vehicles. Those exceptions, as you may have guessed, cover emergency vehicles. Blue lights, for instance, may be used only by volunteer firefighters and, in combination with red and white lights, by other emergency responders on their vehicles.
“That’s great, Ben,” you may be thinking, “but why should we care about flashing blue lights?” Well, since 2008, when the MTA and DOT launched Select Bus Service, the city’s half-hearted attempt at a bus rapid transit network, the MTA SBS vehicles have been adorned with flashing blue lights to distinguish these vehicles from local buses. Today, the MTA issued an order rescinding the use of such lights and a statement:
Reacting to specific concerns, MTA New York City Transit has agreed to turn off the flashing blue lights that have served to alert riders to the arrival of Select Bus Service buses (SBS) since the speedier service was introduced. This measure is being taken to eliminate the possibility of confusing the vehicles with volunteer emergency vehicles, which are entitled by law to use the blue lights. We are currently in the process of developing an alternate means of identifying SBS buses.
The statement and its timing are both interesting. The MTA doesn’t make a nod toward the Vehicle and Traffic Law provision which it has ostensibly been violating, and it’s unclear if anyone in enforcement actually cared. A 2010 Pete Donohue piece on the questionable legality of the flashing blue lights featured a NYPD Highway Unit captain who had no idea the blue light law was even on the books.
Yet, this dispute arises from somewhere, and for that somewhere, we turn our eyes to Staten Island. Staten Island has never been much for road re-allocation, and some politicians raised a stink when the MTA added SBS lanes to Hylan Boulevard. State Sen. Andrew Lanza and City Councilman Vincent Ignizio issued a call this fall for the MTA to change the lights. The two were concerned that drivers would become “desensitized” to flashing lights.
Another SI rep added a gem: “These were highly distracting, partially blinding and made drivers unreasonably nervous when they saw flashing blue lights in their rearview mirrors,” Assembly member Joe Borelli said. I’m not sure how many times people have confused the sky blue SBS lights with a volunteer fire fighter’s car or a police vehicle, but I digress.
This whole dust-up seems to be the perfect storm of careful planning and needling politicians looking to make a point. The MTA will have to pay to retrofit its Select Bus Service vehicles with other flashing lights, and a group of Staten Island politicians can claim political victory over that meddlesome new bus service. And to think, all of this could have been avoided if the MTA had simply consulted with lawyers familiar with state law in the first place.
As we know, New York City buses are slow and unreliable. Delayed by the vagaries of surface traffic, the city’s buses rarely stay on schedule and inch along surface streets. Buses are underutilized and often looked down upon by even their own riders. Few advances in the way we treat buses represent lost opportunities to move New Yorkers quickly and efficiently.
Over the past few years, as bus-tracking technology has swept the globe, New York has slowly embraced it. An expensive pilot program along 34th St. brought proprietary technology and countdown clocks to the heavily-trafficked corridor, but when the MTA searched for a system-wide solution, the agency instead went with a distance-based tracking system and no countdown clocks. BusTime is an open-source solution with flexibility for growth and real cost savings over closed systems.
BusTime, of course, isn’t perfect. It requires the user to possess a smart phone or texting capabilities and actually know that the technology is in place. It is a distance-based system, and for a bus to travel 1.3 miles depends upon the route, the time of day and the traffic in front of it. New Yorkers like to know time in minutes, not miles. (For a succinct summary of the MTA’s failed countdown clock efforts, check out this Daily News overview.)
Now, though, some politicians and advocates aren’t happy. Noting how countdown clocks make subway waits more tolerable and empower riders, they want countdown clocks, and they wait them now. Earlier this week, Council Member Brad Lander announced a new initiative aimed at convincing the MTA to install countdown clocks on bus shelters. Lander is leading the way with a piece of legislation that “calls upon the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the Department of Transportation, and Cemusa to work together to install bus arrival time displays in bus shelters using data from the MTA’s Bus Time technology.”
Streetsblog had more from the press conference:
With countdown clocks already available in many subway stations, Lander and advocates say bus riders deserve the same convenience, and that not everyone has access to a cell phone or the Internet before catching a bus…Lander’s office estimates that the counters cost between $4,000 and $6,000 to purchase and between $1,000 and $1,600 to maintain each year, based on figures from other cities with bus countdown clocks, including Washington, DC, Boston, Albany and Syracuse.
The MTA has argued that countdown clocks at bus stops provide marginal benefit to riders at relatively high costs, and is focused on rolling out its BusTime program citywide by the end of next year. By that time, Lander would like a plan for bringing countdown clocks to the city’s 3,300 bus shelters. The route to achieving that goal is murky; Lander introduced the resolution to start the discussion.
Lander said that, ideally, revenue from advertising on countdown screens would fund the installation and maintenance of the clocks. If advertising could not cover all costs, he suggested they could be borne in part by Business Improvement Districts, council member discretionary funds or other local partners interested in bringing clocks to their areas. Lander added that bus countdown clocks were a popular idea during the last round of participatory budgeting in his district.
I have a simple challenge for Brad Lander: He feels it will cost up to $20 million to install countdown clocks that can use the BusTime API to pull data (although reliably converting distance to time is another issue). He believes it will cost around $5.28 million for maintenance each year. Instead of passing a symbolic resolution urging a solution, simply find a way to pay for the clocks. The $20 million outlay is hardly a huge expense, but it’s one the MTA doesn’t want to and cannot fund right now. Lander could.
It’s easy to talk about countdown clocks, but there’s been a concerted and logical effort to adopt a tracking system for a reasonable amount of money that doesn’t use clocks. Ideally, timers would be prevalent, but they are less reliable than GPS-based distance measurements. Now, though, a group of politicians want transit improvements at a concrete cost. Deliver the funding, and the clocks could become a reality.
Every year, the Straphangers Campaign goes through the pomp and circumstance of their Schleppie and Pokey Awards, and every year the outcome is the same. Some crosstown Manhattan bus is the slowest, and some north-south route is usually the least reliable. This year was no different as the M66 and M42 shared the Schleppie Award, and the M4 took home the Pokey.
The Straphangers’ report — full findings here — says that the two crosstown buses average around 3.9 miles per hour during their 12 noon runs. I’d imagine that time is even slower during rush hour when 42nd St. grows congested. “The M66 and M42 would lose a race to an amusement park bumper car,” Straphangers head Gene Russianoff said, “and be a lot less fun. A bumper car can go 4.3 miles per hour compared to the 3.9 miles of the Pokey Award winning buses.” The M4, meanwhile, suffered the most from problematic bus bunching and scheduling inaccuracies.
Of course, knowing that the buses are slow and unreliable is half the battle and barely news. While nodding at the city’s Select Bus Service as a clear sign of improvement, the Straphangers and Transportation Alternatives called for “investment,” but what kind of investment? The city should devote dedicated street space to buses, implement pre-board fare payment at most major routes and develop signal prioritization. Only then will buses begin to move faster than a healthy young adult can walk across town.
A few weeks ago, right before Thanksgiving and amidst a bunch of stories on the Sandy recovery efforts, Dana Rubinstein wrote a must-read piece for Capital New York on the New York City bus system. Her article is a succinct overview of why the city’s bus system is slow and painful and why the Select Bus System, forever under construction and barely making a dent in travel patterns, is so sub-par. It deserves a full read.
Long-time SAS readers will be familiar with Rubinstein’s argument. Buses are slowed by inefficient boarding procedures, surface congestion and red lights. Select Bus Service, ostensibly a version of bus rapid transit but not one well regarded by transit experts and urban planning academics, doesn’t allow for dedicated lanes or signal prioritization, and the city has been far too willing to give into the demands of NIMBYs who cry foul over curb access. The 34th Street we never had is the one the city so desperate needs.
Yet, buses are the mode of transportation that keep trying to pull everyone in. It’s cheap to install a “bus lane” whereas it’s prohibitively expensive to build a subway line. Buses don’t have to adhere to fixed travel patterns because they’re on wheels and not tracks. Buses won’t flood as the subways did during Hurricane Sandy. Without a major rethinking of bus routes, interconnectedness and a willingness to take away street space from cars and trucks, though, buses will remain a second- or third-class mode of travel in New York City.
Still, various bus efforts are moving forward. In mid-October, DOT and the MTA unveiled a LaGuardia-focused SBS treatment aimed at improving travel times to and from the Queens airport for both workers and airline passengers. Now, MTA head Joe Lhota wants more. In a talk with Rubinstein, he opined on a fleet of express buses bound for LaGuardia.
The post-Sandy bus bridge showed the MTA what a fleet of buses could do with the right resources, and now, they want more. “Why not have an express bus from downtown Brooklyn to LaGuardia Airport?” Lhota said. “We should do that. We’re talking about it internally.”
Rubinstein has more:
Lhota says the bus bridge demonstrated the viability of Barclays Center as a bus hub. “I haven’t talked to the folks at Barclays, but what a great place to tell people to go to,” said Lhota. “Eleven different subway lines come into place there, you can bring your luggage on the subway from south Brooklyn, come to Barclays Center, and then say, every hour on the hour, we’ve got a bus leaving to go to LaGuardia Airport.
The M.T.A. is considering other locations, too. “You can do it from Midtown,” he said. “You can do it from upper Manhattan. You can do it from from lower Manhattan. And how about one from Jamaica, as well, an express bus or [Select Bus Service] bus that goes from Jamaica to LaGuardia Airport.”
“If you’re on the west side in New York, the fastest way to get to LaGuardia would be get on the Long Island Railroad,” Lhota continued. “In nine minutes you’ll be in Jamaica and you’ll take an express bus and you’ll be there very fast. We do need more of that.”
For anyone trying to get to LaGuardia, such an option would be a welcome one. It’s not a rail-accessible airport, and the local buses are both painfully slow and painfully crowded. It’s currently unclear how the MTA’s current discussions differ from the Select Bus Service plans, but on one front — timing — the MTA has the flexibility to act quickly and unilaterally. One of my biggest gripes with SBS is how it takes literally half a decade for routes to go from the planning stages to implementation whereas MTA officials could run these express buses from midtown to LaGuardia beginning tomorrow morning if they say choose.
Yet, I’m not that excited about this type of initiative unless the MTA can bring about true street space reform — and it can’t without DOT’s help. They can’t implement dedicated lanes, signal prioritization or any other real BRT measures. They can remove stops, add some pre-boarding fare payment machines and call it an express bus, but that won’t solve too many problems.
We don’t have a subway to LaGuardia due to Queens NIMBYs; we don’t have a real bus rapid transit network due to a lack of imagination and also Manhattan NIMBYs. Maybe one day, we’ll have a fast and reliable transit option to LaGuardia, but until these problems are solved and obstacles overcome, it’s tough to get too excited about anything bus-related in New York City.