Archive for Buses
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.
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.”
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.
Earlier this week, State Assemblyman Paul Goldfeder’s office sent out what I thought was an oddly-phrased press release along with a letter the Queens representative sent to MTA head Tom Prendergast. In the letter, Goldfeder called upon the MTA to include Queens in its plans for BusTime.
“Waiting for a bus in Queens should not be a guessing game,” he said. “I applaud the MTA for using technology to better their services for customers and I strongly urge them to include all New Yorkers in their latest advances and implement the real-time bus locator app for Queens residents as soon as possible.”
What struck me as odd was the fact that the MTA had always said BusTime would be a city-wide effort and that the rest of the city would receive real-time bus tracking info by the middle of this year. Everything I had heard from MTA sources indicated that the rollout was on time, and I asked Goldfeder’s office if they had heard otherwise. His press rep clarified that Goldfeder “sent a letter to the Chairman to make sure the app does come to Queens and there’s no second thoughts.” An app without one borough would be no app indeed.
In response to Goldfeder’s inquiry, the MTA has stressed its commitment to Brooklyn and Queens. If you look closely enough at the MTA’s bus fleet — and know what to look for — you’ll see that the equipment for BusTime is already in place, and the MTA has said that it should be live soon. “We have completed boroughwide installations in Queens and Brooklyn and are currently fine-tuning software,” MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz said in response to various inquiries. “We are on schedule to go online in the next several weeks.”
So there you have it: Ask for an update, and ye shall receive. A citywide implementation of BusTime should do wonders for bus ridership and the overall convenience of New York’s otherwise unreliable local buses. If only now we could do something about the clunky fare payment system.
Every time a think tank or urban policy center starts in on a bus rapid transit kick, I sigh dejectedly. It’s not that bus rapid transit isn’t something we should have, but it’s just a tiring debate. The discussion in favor of BRT focuses on the wrong things, and the solutions have been so half-hearted. Real bus rapid transit — center-running dedicated lanes with platform-level boarding and signal prioritization — should be a gateway to higher capacity transit systems, but so far all we have is Select Bus Service.
The latest round of BRT dreams come to us from a familiar source. The Pratt Center for Community Development has released yet another policy book on bus rapid transit in New York City. They’ve identified eight likely corridors for BRT and a litany of reasons why these routes are ripe for real BRT — not just Select Bus Service — and how BRT is really not that bad for people who drive. In theory, the argument is there, but in a vacuum, BRT can’t stand on its own.
In the policy book [pdf], the Pratt Center argues for the eight routes you see in the map atop this post, and with a new mayor coming in who claims to want 20 more Select Bus Service routes, the BRT approach should take center stage. Here are a smattering of ways in which Pratt makes the case for BRT. If you’re underwhelmed, join the club.
- “There is no realistic prospect of expanding the subway system to serve outlying neighborhoods…Cost aside, subway construction below New York City’s streets and buried infrastructure is difficult and disruptive, subject to unpredictable delays and cost escalation.
- “By locating bus lanes offset from the curb, BRT preserves space for parking.”
- “On most of the densely-built initial corridors, physical constraints were daunting, and pre-existing urban and economic activity were relatively high, reducing the increment of value that a more ambitious BRT model might have delivered. The political barriers have proven to be substantial, as evidenced in the resistance to what would have been a full-featured BRT corridor on 34th Street.”
I realize I’m cherry-picking key quotes and taking them somewhat out of context, but this has been a long-running theme of BRT advocates. We have to preserve free or below-market-rate curbside parking at any costs, and it may be tough to overcome political obstacles. We can’t build subways because of cost and temporary disruptions to the streetscape. Even though these eight corridors — SI’s North Shore rail right-of-way, some airport and interborough routes — are the right focus, this is a fight that doesn’t excite me.
In a distilled version of the report prepared for the Daily News Opinions pages, Judith Roden and Joan Byron make similar arguments. BRT can be transformative, they say, while subway construction is just too complicated. That’s true, and New York needs some intense focus on overcoming Community Board opposition to anything that restructures street space. Yet, BRT is a fractional substitute for subway service, and any successful BRT planning will require frequent service, a network of routes and a plan to move the transit system from wheels to rails.
There’s a map in the Pratt policy book that I think sums up the debate. This map on page 4 shows population growth in various census tracts over the last two decades. While many of those areas without ready access to transit have shown growth, the biggest spikes come in tracts that have direct subway service. The conclusion is right there for anyone to see: Real Bus Rapid Transit would be a great first step, but ultimately, we’ll need rail construction to grow neighborhoods and meet the demands of New York City in the 21st Century. Until we recognize that need and engage in serious conversations about construction techniques and controlling costs, buses will just a passing fad and an incremental improvement at best.
Monday was a momentous day for one corridor in Brooklyn. After years and years of planning, the B44 finally has some upgrades to make a Select Bus Service. This isn’t bus rapid transit for a variety of reasons, but it’s faster service than a local bus. For that, the politicians were out en masse for some back-slapping and ribbon-cutting.
It makes sense, of course, for Mayor Bloomberg to show up for another streetscape initiative. He only has a few more weeks of ceremonies to attend, and the 7 line, his signature transit initiative, won’t be in revenue service before he departs
for Bermuda from City Hall. The city says travel will improve by 20 percent along the 9.3-mile route, and everyone else is thrilled.
Thomas Prendergast, MTA head, called it “a game-changer” for riders of one of Brooklyn’s more popular bus lines, and the Mayor spoke effusively as well. “Improved bus service in all five boroughs has been one of our principal goals under PlaNYC and thanks to our partnership with the MTA, we have increased ridership and improved travel times along our Select Bus Service routes,” Bloomberg said said. “We’ve had great success with Select Bus Service in other boroughs and Brooklyn’s first route will bring a new and necessary mass transit option to more New Yorkers.”
Janette Sadik-Khan had an even more myopic take. “With six routes launched in just six years, SBS has delivered low-cost transit options to underserved parts of the city faster than any transit project in generations,” the DOT Commissioner said. The emphasis was mine. Imagine that! Six whole bus routes in six years.
I’m not going to pass judgment on the B44 SBS route yet. I’m a supporter of better bus service, and I believe that bus service in New York is criminally overlooked. Buses stop every two blocks and inch through traffic at the speed of a snail. They don’t run frequently or on schedule, and they carry with them the burden of low expectations that they cannot even fulfill. I’ve heard some very early criticisms of the B44 route focusing around station spacing and subpar local service, but it’s been a day or two. We’ll revisit that when the time comes.
Instead, I’d like to look at what it is our politicians are so proud of. Why is there a ribbon-cutting for a nine-mile strip of colored pavement? The mayor’s own press release couldn’t name much more beyond bus bulbs, pre-board fare payment and improved customer information boards along the route. The MTA’s release mentioned signal prioritization, a long-planned benefit, but the lanes are physically separated. We’re patting ourselves on the back for just the sixth iteration of a glorified express bus service since 2007, and that’s what counts for transit innovation these days.
Nearly all of these improvements should, for the most part, be implemented in the course of normal MTA operation procedures throughout the city on any major bus route. Pre-board fare payment is the number one driver behind speeding up the buses. Just imagine how much faster the M86 would be if the Lexington Ave. crowds had to pay before boarding the bus. But here we are at the end of the Bloomberg administration, and a bunch of on-street MetroCards are the most exciting initiative DOT could find. Never mind the fact that it takes four years and countless consultations with community members who want nothing to do with street redesigns to get just one route off the ground.
I understand why the ribbon-cutting may be symbolically necessary in that it shows the community these changes are worthy and worth celebrating. It also allows politicians to get out there to discuss changes. But our sights are aimed too low. The city gave up on 34th St.; they gave up, temporarily, on 125th St. Now, leaders want kudos from incremental improvements. Pardon me for not being too impressed.
When we last saw the plans to turn the M60 into a Select Bus Service route, it had died an ignominious death. NIMBY opposition and hollow appeals to the process led DOT and the MTA to shelve the plan. Locals and La Guardia-bound travelers would simply be left with the status quo in which buses sit idle on 125th St. more than 60 percent of the time.
But! Unlikely so many tales of incremental and inoffensive transit improvements, this story has a happier ending than most. After an election that saw a slight but significant power shift in Harlem, community outcry and political pressure, DOT has revived the M60 Select Bus Service plan, and the route — still in its abbreviated form — will debut in May along with some streetscape improvements.
“The 125th Street corridor is a vital thoroughfare for Harlem residents and businesses alike,” MTA Chairman and CEO Thomas F. Prendergast said in a statement announcing the reversal. “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.”
Per details from DOT, new plan will transition the M60 local to the M60 SBS, reducing the number of stops from 11 to six along 125th St. while maintaining connections to Metro-North and the various subway lines across the thoroughfare. Dedicated bus lanes will be in place in both directions between Lenox and Second Avenues, but unfortunately, cars will be able to enter the bus lane to make right turns at various intersections. DOT claims such a move “balanc[es] the needs of other motorists on the corridor.” To cut down on double parking and speed up the road for all, commercial loading zones will be put in place, and meters will be installed east of Fifth Ave. Left-turn restrictions will be implemented at Fifth and Lexington as well.
In addition to the bus lanes and speedier crosstown service, 125th St. itself will see a variety of improvements. The street will be lined with 62 energy-efficient LED street lights that will soon be popping up throughout New York, and the new pedestrian wayfinding signs will be a part of the 12 SBS stations. These signs are supposed to have real-time bus arrival information as well.
In announcing the revival of this key route and corresponding improvements, DOT stressed the 50 meetings they hosted over the last year with “extensive outreach” but Community Board leaders still bemoaned the route, solidifying my belief that Community Boards are generally barriers to, and not instruments of, progress in the city. Meanwhile, while various state officials including Bill Perkins, Adriano Espaillat and Melissa Mark-Viverito joined the announcement, Inez Dickens was notably absent from the parade of political quotes. Read into that what you will. The good news is that this project is happening, and it’ll be live in eight months.
“With new businesses and historic destinations drawing record numbers of visitors to the heart of Harlem, 125th Street has never been more dynamic, yet congestion has kept buses at a standstill,” DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan said. “By bringing dedicated bus lanes and speeding up boarding times, SBS will provide a lifeline to thousands of residents and visitors and bring world-class streetscapes to one of the world’s most famous streets.”
The MTA and New York City Department of Transportation are just thrilled with their latest initiative. For the first time, Brooklyn is getting a Select Bus Service route. The dedicated lane will provide faster service along the B44 corridor, and it will debut on November 17 after five years of planning. That’s right; it’s taken five years to paint some lanes, add some bus bulbs and eliminate some parking spaces. At this rate, city residents can expect to enjoy ones of new Select Bus Service routes before the decade is out.
In a release today, the MTA announced the start of this service along with the details. It was billed as a passing of the torch as agency contractors had to remove trolley tracks that had been buried for decades to pave them over with special SBS bus lanes. Before that, though, as the release proudly (?) proclaims, “New York City Transit and the New York City Department of Transportation have been working with bus customers, neighborhood residents, local merchants and elected officials for five years to bring SBS service to Brooklyn.”
We’ll come back to that five-year time frame in a few paragraphs. First, the operational details:
The B44 SBS will operate southbound from the Williamsburg Bridge on Lee Avenue and Nostrand Avenue all the way to Sheepshead Bay. Northbound SBS will operate on Nostrand Avenue and then via Flatbush, Rogers and Bedford Avenues to Williamsburg. The B44 local bus will continue to operate northbound on New York Avenue between Farragut Road and Fulton Street.
The B44 SBS will connect to nine different subway lines along its route: the J, M and Z at Marcy Avenue; the G at Bedford-Nostrand; the 3 at Nostrand Avenue; the A and C at Nostrand Avenue; and the 2 and 5 at Brooklyn College. The B44 SBS will introduce new three-door, articulated buses to Brooklyn. These high-capacity buses are all-low floor for easier and faster boarding. For customers who are mobility impaired, the buses feature quick-deploying ramps, rather than lifts.
The B44 SBS will feature bus lanes—in both directions—between Flushing Avenue and Flatbush Avenue, a total of nine miles. Generally, the bus lanes are one lane away from the curb, which allow deliveries and neighborhood parking to be retained at the curb. In this segment, every bus station will feature a bus bulb, which extends the sidewalk creating more space for pedestrians and bus customers…While bus bulbs are in use along SBS routes in Manhattan and the Bronx, this will be their first deployment in Brooklyn. As is the case with other SBS routes in the Bronx and Manhattan, B44 SBS will also feature off-board fare collection, which means that customers will pay at the bus station prior to boarding the bus. Every station will include machines to accept MetroCards and a machine to accept coin payment.
People who pay closer attention to the ins and outs of bus planning aren’t too excited by this route. The complaints range from the NIMBY (lost parking spaces) to the operational as there may be less frequent local service along a busy bus corridor. You can read Allan Rosen’s three-part series on the B44 SBS (1, 2, 3) and assess the technical details for yourself. I’m more concerned with this five-year timeframe.
It’s mind-boggling that it took five years for a low-rent version of bus rapid transit to move from concept to reality, and it’s crazy that the MTA is highlighting this timeframe in their press materials. Five years is longer than a presidential term; the amount of time that’s passed since the start of the Great Recession; half a decade. The results are a dedicated bus lane with pre-board fare payment options and some multi-hued pavement. Imagine if the end result were actually transformative.
This process has taken so long because DOT and the MTA have been forced to hold meetings with virtually every single person who lives along the B44. Time and time again, business owners, residents and Community Boards have to offer input every time the plans change. This is no way to build a transit network, and it’s something that needs to be addressed. The mayoral candidates all believe buses are our future, but buses aren’t anyone’s future if it takes five years to get one line’s worth of improvements rolled out.
Amidst much anticipation, Manhattan now has real-time bus tracking as the MTA unveiled BusTime for the County of New York. At around midnight this morning, BusTime — the MTA’s in-house-built, distance-based system — went live on nearly all Manhattan bus routes. The system is available on the web right here, and already, bus bunching is on display for all to see.
In announcing the new technology, a variety of MTA officials made their perfunctory statements. “MTA Bus Time is a game changer and a service that greatly enhances our customers’ experience with bus travel,” MTA Chairman and CEO Thomas F. Prendergast said. “MTA Bus Time has turned your phone into a tool that tells you when to start walking to the bus stop so you can get there right when the bus does. Meet your bus, don’t wait for it.”
Those riders who can now meet their buses — or opt to walk — instead of waiting include those who use the following routes: M1, M2, M3, M4, M5, M7, M8, M9, M10, M11, M14A, M14D, M15, M15 SBS, M20, M21, M22, M23, M31, M35, M42, M50, M57, M60, M66, M72, M79, M86, M101, M102, M103, M104, M106, and M116. The M34 and M34A were already a part of BusTime, and Brooklyn- and Queens-based routes that enter Manhattan will be added as BusTime comes to those boroughs and depots within in the next six months. The MTA estimates that 93 percent of all Manhattan bus riders can now track their routes.
To bring this borough’s iteration of BusTime online, the agency’s small in-house staff had to code in 1800 bus stops while adding GPS hardware to the buses that operate in the city. Since 2012, the MTA has installed this technology on 2852 buses. Conveniently, the MTA also provided a list of apps already accessing the BusTime API. Those include, for iOS All Aboard NYC; All Schedules Free; Bing Mobile; Bus New York City; Google Maps for Mobile; In Time Staten Island; Ride On Time NYC; Roadify; and Transit Times. For Android, Bus Tracker Pro – MTA NY and Sched NYC feature real-time bus information.
As with the previous boroughs, Manhattan’s BusTime is based on distance rather than time. Since travel times are variable and far more costly to get right, the MTA has gone with a distance-based approach that allows riders to estimate potential wait times. It’s not perfect, but any regular rider should pick up on the idiosyncrasies within a handful of uses.
Meanwhile, through the web interface, you can see bus bunching in action. Earlier today, a variety of north-south lines had two, three or even four buses all within 10 blocks of each other with big gaps in service. Jason Rabinowitz at NYC Aviation noted the problem with the M60 and service across 125th St., a particular sore spot after a vocal minority temporarily squashed bus improvements for the congested corridor.
With a wealth of location data now available, hopefully, the MTA can begin to attack the problem of bunching head on. For everyone else, now you know where your bus is and that hopeless stare down an avenue can become a thing of the past.
While exiting the Times Square station near the Shuttle platform’s Track 4 exit today, I noticed the sign you see at the top of the post. For Manhattan bus riders, a big day is coming soon as the MTA has promised that BusTime, it’s real-time bus tracking system, will be available on all of the borough’s buses some time this month. I reached out to the MTA for more details and was told that the announcement will come next week.
BusTime is the MTA’s distance-based bus location system that was developed in-house. While the system does not include countdown clocks, it comes with a text message-based system and smartphone enabled apps as well. For Manhattan bus riders, the arrival of BusTime will take the guess work out of waiting for some of the city’s least reliable and slowest bus routes around. It’s a solid first step.