Archive for Buses

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bus ridership has been steadily declining since 2010.

Bus ridership has been steadily declining since 2010.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Two Millennials tout the advantages of USB ports and wifi on local buses. (Photo via Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office)

Two Millennials tout the advantages of USB ports and wifi on local buses. (Photo via Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office)

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.

Gov. Cuomo praised the MTA's new three-door articulated buses for their "European flair" and "Ferrari-like" design. The New Flyer-produced vehicles will hit city streets beginning next month.

Gov. Cuomo praised the MTA’s new three-door articulated buses for their “European flair” and “Ferrari-like” design. The New Flyer-produced vehicles will hit city streets beginning next month.

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.

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Are Select Bus Service upgrades sufficient to avoid the problem of bus bunching?

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.

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To better serve LaGuardia, the Riders Alliance has proposed eliminating the fare on the Q70 and rebranding the bus as a shuttle to the airport. (Image courtesy of the Riders Alliance)

To better serve LaGuardia, the Riders Alliance has proposed eliminating the fare on the Q70 and rebranding the bus as a shuttle to the airport. (Image courtesy of the Riders Alliance)

When it comes to creative measures aimed at growing ridership while encouraging car-free attitudes in New York City, the MTA hasn’t moved much beyond the Unlimited MetroCard and the so-called one-fare zone. It’s been nearly 20 years since the MTA introduced the MetroCard transfer, and while ridership has skyrocketed since then, the agency hasn’t experimented much with fare policies. Outside of the express buses, New York City Transit’s buses cost the same as a subway ride, and every subway ride costs the same. It’s easy, but it’s also lazy.

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.

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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.

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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.

Categories : Buses
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