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NYC DOT and city officials have called the Woodhaven/Cross Bay Boulevard SBS plans ambitious, but there's much to learn from the hype. (Source: [block]0[/block])

NYC DOT and city officials have called the Woodhaven/Cross Bay Boulevard SBS plans ambitious, but there’s much to learn from the hype. (Source: NYC DOT/MTA)

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.

Categories : Buses
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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.

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As MTA jobs go, a bus driver may have it the worst. Until recently, drivers had no protection from unruly passengers and were tasked with keeping passengers in line while attempting to collect fares. They have to compete with the city’s streets and other drivers who are seemingly always in it for themselves. It’s a stressful job made slightly easier and safer by partitions in newer buses, but the threat and reality of violence from passengers has always loomed large in the minds of drivers.

Bus drivers though have a responsibility to everyone else around them as well. They drive very big, very heavy, often plodding vehicles up and down the city’s busiest streets. The city’s buses tower over the streets and loom large as a threat to pedestrians, bikers and other drivers. They help get cars off the streets, but they present a separate set of dangers in and of themselves.

Last week, not for the first time, this situation came to a head when a 15-year-old crossing the street with the right of way in Williamsburg was struck by a bus whose driver claimed he did not see the girl. She remains at Bellevue and may lose her left leg. Francisco de Jesus, the bus driver, was booked on a misdemeanor for violating the city’s relatively new Right of Way law. He faces a $250 summons and up to 30 days in jail — though no first-time offenders have been given a jail sentence. The law is part of the Vision Zero plan that is supposed to protect pedestrians from the dangers of vehicles in a dense urban area.

The injury is horrific; the aftermath to the incident has been ugly. A few days before the incident, three City Council members, under intense lobbying from union officials, had introduced a bill to exempt bus drivers from the Right of Way law, and nearly immediate, TWU officials denounced the arrest. “We drive for a living on the busiest streets in America,” J.P. Patafio, a TWU spokesman, said. “The law of averages has it we’re going to get into an accident.”

Over the weekend, TWU President John Samuelsen threatened — if one can call vowing to drive safer a threat — to slow down buses in the name of the safety:

The incidents this past Friday and several weeks ago in which two Bus Operators were arrested for “failure to yield” and “failure to exercise due care” are both heartbreaking tragedies. But they were accidents, not the result of “criminal” reckless driving. Yet, our Operators were treated as if they were criminals by the Highway Police, and they face TA discipline as a result of the arrest. To add insult to blatant injustice, there are some misguided people out there applauding the criminal treatment of our Bus Operators.

Now we must respond appropriately, recognizing that we are being disgracefully and unfairly scapegoated and targeted. It is imperative that we immediately move to defend our livelihoods and protect ourselves against these attacks. Therefore, we MUST Yield/Stop “when a pedestrian or bicyclist has the right of way.” If there is a pedestrian in the crosswalk, Yield/Stop your bus until they are on the sidewalk. We must exercise extreme caution at intersections and on roadways.

Do not move your bus until all is clear. It you do not make your schedule, so be it. If traffic backs up as you await the ability to make an unquestionably “safe” left turn, so be it. If the bosses are displeased, so be it. Do not jeopardize your future for the sake of NYC Transit’s on time bus performance. And if you are pressured or threatened by supervision for taking these necessary steps, notify your union representative immediately.

Samuelsen’s comments intimate that MTA bus drivers are encouraged by supervisors to put speed over safety. An MTA spokesman vehemently denied that characterization. Meanwhile, along the fringes, the sniping has continued. Pete Donohue wrote an incendiary column accusing advocates fighting for sensible street designs and laws aimed at protecting pedestrian safety of having “zero common sense” while the person operating the TWU’s Twitter feed on Saturday and Sunday tried to turn the debate into class warfare. (Gothamist captured some of the comments, but it was a stunning display of how not to run a P.R. campaign.)

The issue is not about class or about online fighting. It’s not about which advocate — those who must protect union members or those who are trying to protect pedestrians — can be the most zealous. This is about an all-encompassing push for safety. It shouldn’t take an arrest for the TWU to promise to allow pedestrians the Right of Way, and driving in New York shouldn’t inherently involve some number of pedestrian casualties or fatalities. The law should apply to everyone driving a vehicle, and it should recognize the power a huge vehicle has over a person. The person will always lose.

In a reasonable world, the union would have looked at Friday’s tragedy as an opportunity to gain the upper hand in this debate. Samuelsen could have ordered the same slowdown but under the guise of promising to work together with city leaders who have prioritized Vision Zero initiatives and want to stress safety. The TWU could have demanded that de Jesus receive a fair trial but stressed that the union will not tolerate members who do not stress safety or follow the laws. Instead, we have a mess and one that highlights the real physical risks that people walking face everyday. A teenager losing a leg shouldn’t be dismissed as the cost of doing business in New York City.

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As part of their annual ritual highlighting just how slow and unreliable our city’s local bus system can be, the Straphangers have announced that the M79, with averages speeds of 3.2 miles per hour, is the city’s slowest bus route. The local M15 — subject of many complaints in the post-Select Bus Service era — was named the least reliable with 33% of buses arriving in pairs or worse. Outside of Manhattan’s congested streets, Flatbush Avenue’s B41, the Bronx’s Bx19, Queen’s Q58, and Staten Island’s S48/98 were named the slowest in their respective boroughs, though the latter two attained speeds of at or over 8 mph. The Straphangers have released a full table of their 34 surveyed routes, and the top ten are all in Manhattan.

“New Yorkers know from bitter daily experience that bus service is slow and unreliable,” said Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives. “But there is real hope for dramatic improvement in Mayor de Blasio’s plan to build a rapid network of 20 ‘Select Bus Service/Bus Rapid Transit’ routes.”

So what happens next? As the Straphangers note, Select Bus Service has improved travel times along those routes that have undergone these upgrades, but as I’ve pointed out again and again, incremental changes such as pre-board fare payment shouldn’t be lauded as much as they are. New York still doesn’t have any true bus rapid transit corridors, and bus lane enforcement is continually under attack by City Council members who prioritize drivers over transit riders. Meanwhile, there is the issue of de Blasio’s 20 bus routes: We’re one year into his administration, and while initial planning is underway, implementation is not exactly around the corner. I’m not holding my breath for 10, let alone 20, and to achieve that goal, de Blasio would have to get seven SBS/BRT routes per year on the streets. For now, local buses remain a blight on the city’s mobility.

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A Daily News graphic shows the potential routing for the city’s first true Bus Rapid Transit line.

For some reason — could be stubborn NIMYBism, could be “it wasn’t invented here” syndrome, could be something else entirely — real bus rapid transit hasn’t made its way to New York City. We’ve been given instead Select Bus Service, a glorified Limited service with some obvious upgrades but no truly dedicated lanes or street prioritization. It’s been a battle too with a small number of residents along 34th St., for instance, throwing up significant roadblocks to progress. Now, though, DOT is narrowing in on a BRT corridor, and Queens’ bus riders may be the ones to benefit.

As Pete Donohue details in the Daily News today, the NYC Department of Transportation is examining Woodhaven and Cross Bay Boulevards in Queens for true Bus Rapid Transit that extends beyond the trappings of Select Bus Service. The route could have physically separated lanes and signal prioritization, and while the study is in its very early stages with a painfully slow four-year rollout plan, it is part of DOT’s “curb to curb” rethink of Woodhaven Boulevard.

“It’s a great candidate for BRT because of its width and also it’s a street where we have some big goals that all work together — making it safer for pedestrians, making the traffic flow better, as well as providing better bus service,” Tom Maguire, a DOT higher-up, said.

Donohue had more:

A Pratt Institute study said using the current transit system, it would take a rider 65 minutes to get from Howard Beach to LaGuardia Airport. But a BRT route would cut it to 45 minutes, a 30% decrease.

The department would like to have a conceptual plan for the corridor, which at points is eight lanes wide, by the end of the year, said Eric Beaton, director of transit development. It would like to see the buses hit the road within four years, said Beaton…

Select buses too often are slowed by cars and trucks that encroach into their unprotected lanes. The answer is BRT and the city can look to Albany for help. Gov. Cuomo’s 2100 Commission, which is looking for ways to improve New York’s infrastructure, recommended the state support an “aggressive expansion” of the transit system with a BRT network, describing it as the next logical step after SBS. “SBS is good,” Gene Russianoff, staff attorney with the Straphangers Campaign, said. “Full-fledged BRT is great, giving bus riders service New York could be proud of.”

This is certainly optimistic news for anyone who’s been hoping for better bus service. Woodhaven is a key artery with very high bus ridership figures, and reallocating street space would benefit the many in this instance. New Yorkers could finally see that real BRT can happen here, and such a move could set the stage for future bus lanes.

That said, I have reason to be skeptical as well. A BRT route from the Rockaways via Cross Bay and Woodhaven winds through numerous Community Boards and will face heavy questioning from some of the areas of Queens with the highest rates of car ownership in the city. Taking away a lane or two of traffic is a direct assault on a way of life that many have grown very accustomed to over the decades. We saw what happened with plans to convert 34th St. to a transitway, and DOT will have to work closely with community leaders to ensure a more successful implementation here.

Still, we’re a few years away from these battles. Right now, NYC DOT is examining this possibility, and that’s a move that should be applauded. It shouldn’t take four years, but progress comes slow in New York City, if it comes at all. Here’s to hoping.

Categories : Buses, Queens
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Let’s play catch-up with a few shorter stories:

Upper East Side votes for bus countdown clocks

It’s no secret that the MTA doesn’t plan to spend money bringing countdown clocks to bus stops. Although BusTime is now available on smartphones and via text message on all bus routes throughout the city, the MTA hasn’t shown a willingness to spend money for countdown clocks or identify which stations deserve such clocks. They have, instead, left these clocks up to everyone else. Businesses could supply them in their windows or politicians could pay for them through discretionary funding.

On the Upper East Side, residents want these clocks, and in a recent round of participatory budgeting sponsored by Council member Ben Kallos, his constituents voted for them. While westbound countdown clocks came in second in the voting, they’ve earned $300,000 for installation, and fifteen signs along the M96, M86, M79 and M66 routes will be installed on the East Side. Additionally, Kallos will spend another $340,000 in discretionary funding to install countdown clocks at downtown M31 stops.

This is how countdown clocks will arrive at bus stations and shelters throughout the city, but it’s a very piecemeal approach. These timers will be available at downtown- or west-bound stops only, and anyone headin east or north won’t enjoy easy access to the information. Maybe, eventually, as participatory budgeting and discretionary funds are doled out throughout the years, we’ll see this technology emerge everywhere, but for now, as other entities take over this project, it will be imperfect at best.

MTA Board votes to explore mobile ticketing

Kicking and screaming, the MTA will soon begin to adopt 21st Century ticketing technology. The MTA Board this week voted to approve the LIRR’s and Metro-North’s first foray into mobile ticketing. The contract is with Masabi, LLC, and it will allow the rail road customers to purchase train tickets on their phones, tablets or mobile devices. Conductors can visually verify digital tickets or use handheld devices to scan and validate tickets much as Amtrak conductors do today. (For background on Masabi, check out this Wall Street Journal article. They already provide mobile ticketing for transit services in London, Boston and San Diego.)

“More convenient ticketing options means a better experience using the train,” said Metro-North President Joseph Giulietti. “We want to make riding the train as easy and convenient as we can. We now offer real-time train status via app, and this next step – tickets via app – promises to be another big step toward increased convenience.”

There is, of course, a catch: It’s likely to be a year before mobile ticketing is available for widespread use. Even though this isn’t a new technology, the MTA seems to be suffering from a case of not-invented-here-itis and must test this thing thoroughly. That year, though, is sooner than the Metrocard’s replacement will be ready. At least it has that going for it.

Bustitution, LIRR strike looms

A few weeks ago, the LIRR’s largest union voted to authorize a strike if it cannot reach an agreement on a new contract with MTA management by the end of July. As rank-and-file TWU members are already speaking out against their 8 percent raises, it’s likely that the LIRR union will push hard for a more generous deal. Thus, the likelihood of a strike — with Nowakowski in charge — looms large, and the MTA must plan for it.

After a contentious discussion in which it seemed as though the MTA Board wouldn’t authorize the move, the Board finally approved issuing an RFP for bus service in the event there is no LIRR service come late July. For a few minutes this week, it appeared as though the MTA Board was content to bury its head in the sand and pretend a strike wasn’t a distinct possibility. Ultimately, though, saner minds prevailed, and the RFP is out there. A strike would be very disruptive to Long Island, but at least the MTA has recognized that substitute bus service can’t materialize overnight. I’ll follow this story as the spring unfolds.

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It’s been over 15 months since the MTA turned off the flashing blue lights for its SBS vehicles with no compromise in sight. (Photo by flickr user Stephen Rees)

One of the lowest moments in recent transit history arrived last June when Tom Prendergast faced his confirmation hearing at the hands of the New York State Senate. Instead of offering up anything substantial, Senator Andrew Lanza too up a full ten minutes of Prendergast’s time, barely asking a question. Instead, he ranted and raved against bus lanes, Select Bus Service, and flashing blue lights. Supposedly, even after years of successful service in Manhattan and the Bronx, Staten Island drivers thought that SBS buses, with their flashing blue lights, were emergency vehicles.

After a review of the relevant New York State laws, Lanza — who has fought every transit improvement for Staten Island with a vengeance — determined that the MTA’s blue lights violated the law. He lectured Prendergast about the issue even though the MTA had turned off the lights in early 2013, over four years after using them initially and after countless law enforcement officials expressed ignorance at the blue light law. Bus users throughout the city have since complained about the difficulties in discerning Select Bus Service vehicles from the distance as the visual signifiers are no longer obvious.

Over the past year, various groups — including Manhattan’s CB 6 — have tried to find a solution. After an extensive review of the law, it appeared as though purple lights would be the only ones that didn’t require some sort of exemption, and for a while it looked like a bill to secure Albany’s stamp would pass. But Lanza started his whining about last summer, and as Streetsblog noted last week, the effort is stalled in committee. CB 6 passed another resolution [pdf] urging Albany to allow for purple lights or the MTA to do something else entirely.

Meanwhile, in another update, Stephen Miller at Streetsblog noted that even some supporters in Albany have lost the enthusiasm for the fight. Here’s the update:

[Sen. Jeff] Klein’s office indicated that the SBS bill isn’t on his agenda at this time. “Senator Klein wants to see Mayor de Blasio’s Vision Zero plan come to fruition this year and that will be his transportation focus this session,” said spokesperson Anna Durrett….Meanwhile, [Assemblyman Micha] Kellner said he would push hard this session to pass the bill in the Assembly and put pressure on the Senate. “I’m going to sit down and talk to Senator Klein, I’m going to talk to Senator Lanza, and see if we can come to an agreement,” Kellner said. “The nice thing about both Senator Klein and Senator Lanza is that they are very reasonable people…If not, we’ll seek another Senate sponsor.”

Kellner added that he has filed a “Form 99? to push the Assembly’s transportation committee chair to act on the bill during this legislative session, which ends this year. An NYU review of Albany procedure called this tactic “ineffective” because it does not force the bill to be reported out of committee. The push to pass the bill is also complicated by Kellner himself, who has been sanctioned by the Assembly ethics committee for sexual harassment violations and is not seeking reelection this year….

Kellner’s constituents rely heavily on SBS along First and Second Avenues, and Manhattan Community Board 6 passed a resolution this week asking Albany to bring the lights back. “My constituents call on a daily basis wondering why the lights are turned off,” Kellner said, adding that he has never received a complaint from a motorist who thought “two simultaneously flashing lights that flash very slowly” on a bus looked anything like an emergency vehicle. Kellner expressed frustration that the issue has languished. “Our bill specifically exempts Staten Island,” he said. ”This should not be a controversial thing.”

Kellner’s statement speaks volumes about this whole fight. It should not be controversial. Everyone is willing to accommodate a bunch of obstructionist politicians from Staten Island who both complain about a lack of transit options and throw up as many roadblocks as possible over improvements as incremental as Select Bus Service. Meanwhile, the rest of the city’s bus riders are held hostage to the whims of the few on something that is not, again, controversial. How utterly frustrating.

Categories : Buses, MTA Politics
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Looking for the B41? BusTime has you covered.

Looking for the B41? BusTime has you covered.

I’m a few days late posting this to the site (thought if you follow me on Twitter, you would have seen the news on Saturday, but BusTime is officially live in Brooklyn and Queens. With the weekend debut in the city’s two most populous boroughs, the MTA’s in-house real-time bus tracking system is now available on all MTA buses throughout the five boroughs.

While the service isn’t perfect as designed, knowing where every bus is certainly has its benefits and makes travel on an unreliable mode of transit far easier. “As we have seen with train arrival information in the subway,” Carmen Bianco, President of MTA New York City Transit, said, “customers appreciate when they know when that train or bus will show up at the station or stop.”

BusTime is available on the MTA’s website right here, and the information is accessible via mobile apps and a code-based text message service as well. Unfortunately, the limits of the in-house system mean that waiting times are displayed in distance rather than time. Allan Rosen at Sheepshead Bites seems to view this flaw as something close to a fatal one, but I’m a bit more forgiving.

It’s not ideal, and the concept of distance as time takes some trial and error. But two weeks ago, we had no idea where any buses in Brooklyn were, and today, I can pull up every route in the city from the comfort of my computer. Advocates, meanwhile, are continuing to press for countdown timers at major bus stops. It is, as with everything, a matter of funding.

Categories : Buses, MTA Technology
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The Riders Alliance wants more bus countdown clocks installed throughout the city, but they carry a hefty price tag.

For bus riders in Brooklyn and Queens, “soon” now has a set date. BusTime — the MTA’s real-time bus tracking service — will go live for the city’s most populous boroughs on Sunday, March 9. Bus riders in those two boroughs will now know, via text message, smart phone apps or the the web where their buses are and how far away that next bus is. It will be a huge boost for riders long accustomed to spotty service and maddeningly inconsistent waits.

“MTA Bus Time is yet another way we are trying to improve service for our customers,” Carmen Bianco, President of MTA New York City Transit, said in a press release. “As we have seen with train arrival information in the subway, customers appreciate when they know when that train or bus will show up at the station or stop.”

With the addition of Brooklyn and Queens bus routes, including express bus service, the entire city will have access to bus tracking information, and the MTA has met its self-imposed deadline for bringing the service online. This last installation adds 9000 bus stops to the system as well. What it doesn’t include yet are countdown clocks — or, more accurately, station countdowns — at each station, and transit advocates hope to change that.

At a rally hosted by the Riders Alliance (of which I am a board member), bus riders and other transit advocates called upon politicians to help fund a NYCDOT initiative that would see digital countdown timers installed at key bus stations throughout the city. The timers — similar to the one atop this post — would be a big help to those who aren’t aware of BusTime or are not otherwise comfortable with the technology that makes the bus location information readily available.

“Countdown clocks have been a huge hit on subway platforms,” John Raskin, Executive Director of the Riders Alliance, said. “Now it’s time to bring them to bus stops. We have the technology and we have the interest from riders.”

What is missing from Raskin’s equation is, of course, money. A 2012 study by Brad Lander noted that countdown clocks at bus stops would cost around $4000-$6000 to install, but the solar-powered free-standing signs in place as part of the Staten Island pilot would cost up to $20,000 each. That’s a prohibitive cost and an insane one. Ridership doesn’t warrant installing one at every bus stop, but for key bus stations, these simple timers that countdown stops shouldn’t cost that much.

“The best way to get where I’m going is the bus. I try to time it using printed schedules but most of the time the bus doesn’t follow the schedule,” Thomasin Bentley, a Riders Alliance member, said. “I want to use the bus. It’s clean and affordable. Bus countdown clocks would allow me to make the most of an otherwise great system. The text messaging service is a good start but I find it difficult to understand, and I’m a real tech person. I can imagine that it’s hard for other people to figure out as well.”

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The dedicated bus lane will run Lenox Avenue to Second Avenue.

The dedicated bus lane will run Lenox Avenue to Second Avenue.

When the MTA Board’s Transit committee meets later today, one of their agenda items includes a formal blessing of the unnecessarily controversial M60 Select Bus Servicer route. After months of planning, rollbacks and NIMBY opposition that highlighted the flaws with the process, the committee will vote on the reduced plan, and thousands of bus riders who need better service to Laguardia Airport and down 125th St. will get it. We can celebrate the moment, but it’s also yet another example of missed opportunities for relatively cheap and easy transit upgrade.

In announcing the new route this past fall, MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast spoke generally of the improvements. “The 125th Street corridor is a vital thoroughfare for Harlem residents and businesses alike,” he said in a statement. “I’m glad we will be able to improve service for our customers while still maintaining commercial loading zones for businesses in the area. Select Bus Service will speed up bus service by as much as 20 percent on the M60 where half of the route’s boardings and alightings happen right on 125th Street.”

The Board materials fill in the details. The new SBS M60 will be a 24-hour bus line that fully supplants the route’s current local service. (The remaining 125th St. crosstown local buses will continue to serve all stops.) Service frequency will increase by 10 percent on the weekdays and around 14 percent on the weekends, and with a dedicated bus lane, for all 125th St. buses, that will run for a little less than one mile between Lenox and 2nd Avenues.

The Board committee book describes the bus lane: “Most of the bus lanes will be offset, or one lane away from the curb, which will accommodate deliveries, community parking needs, and right turns; the bus lane between 3rd Avenue and 2nd Avenue will be curbside and only in the eastbound direction.” It’s better than nothing, but even as the MTA stresses that it and NYC DOT “attended over 50 community meetings,” I can’t help but feel this whole thing is another missed opportunity.

As this new service gears up to launch in the spring, it is definitely an improvement so long as bus lane enforcement comes with it. Outside of the need to improve access to Laguardia, a bus ride down 125th Street is often an exercise in patience and futility. This wide cross-street is chock full of traffic stretching from Fairway on the West Side to the Triborough Bridge on the East. Parking and double parking are constant problems, and as with 96th St., it can be faster to walk at rush hour than to sit on a bus.

With 125th St., the city could have taken the opportunity to rebuild the street space. The street is wide enough to support true BRT with center-running lanes and dedicated boarding areas. It has the ridership to warrant such improvements as well. Instead, Community Boards concerned with the loss of a few parking spots and one quarter of the local bus service threw up road blocks after road blocks to the point that the MTA and DOT never shelved the idea for good. Even after local politicians intervened, the plans are a watered-down version of the initial proposal, and parking will still obstruct the bus lane at certain points. Certain Community Boar members too are still unhappy with any plan that removes parking spaces and improves transit.

So again, the needs of the few and loud outweigh the needs of the many, and we applaud the SBS M60 plans because they will exist in a few weeks. It will be easier for commuters, students and New Yorkers to journey down 125th St. and for travelers to reach Laguardia. For the airport, ultimately, though, what New York City truly needs is a direct subway connection, and for a cross-street, we need bus rapid transit. For now, we’ll just have to keep dreaming.

Categories : Buses, Manhattan
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