Home Buses Waiting for a bus that isn’t coming

Waiting for a bus that isn’t coming

by Benjamin Kabak

My gym inhabits an old bank at the corner of 5th Ave. and Union St. in Park Slope. The building has a pair of mezzanines on either end, and the treadmills are lined up facing out the windows on the second floor overlooking the avenue. With a clear view of the B63 bus shelter on the Bay Ridge side of the street, while running, I watch people wait for the bus.

A few Fridays ago, an interesting story unfolded, and while most people wouldn’t think much of it, I thought the tale is a clear indication why New York City’s transit technology is out of date and in need of an upgrade. This sordid story starts at six in the evening. I walked to the gym and noted a larger-than-usual crowd of people at the bus stop. After stretching, I hopped onto the treadmill and noted that the throngs of people were still there.

As the minutes and miles ticked by, I was struck by the scene at the bus stop. Thirteen minutes into my run, no bus had shown up. I could see frustration on the faces of those waiting for the B63. Some stood with their grocery bags staring futilely up the avenue. Others were attempting to keep their children from dashing into the street.

Nine minutes later, as I cleared the 2.5-mile mark, people started to leave. An older woman with what I guessed to be a grandson hailed a cab to points south. The younger child was growing far too impatient to wait for the bus. Four minutes later, a mother and her son headed west on Union St., bound for the R stop on Fourth Ave.

By the thirty-minute mark, as I passed 3.5 miles, nearly everyone else had left. After a series of frantic phone calls accompanied with the exasperated arm motions of someone stymied on the way home, a twenty-something woman with red hair found a cab. Others started walking along Fifth Ave. They would try to get closer to home while waiting for the bus to catch up.

By the time I hit five miles at around 41 minutes, nearly all of the original commuters had found other means of transit. New bus riders had shown up to wait. Still, though, one woman sat there. She had been sitting there when I had arrived at the gym, and she was still there afterward. I had run the equivalent of the distance from the gym to 95th St. in Bay Ridge, and still one woman waited for the bus.

On my way home, I detoured by the bus station and asked her how long she had planned to wait. “A few more minutes,” she said with a laugh. For someone waiting over 50 minutes for the bus, she had a sense of humor about her. “I thought maybe 200 people are dead somewhere,” she said. She had a book, though, and didn’t mind waiting.

As I walked back home, I glanced up Fifth Ave. and saw not one but two southbound buses heading my way. The wait would be over, and no one would ever know why the B63 didn’t show up for nearly an hour at rush hour on a Friday. With no digitized arrival board and centralized system for announcements, bus riders in the city are left with that tried, true and not too useful technique of waiting and peering. One day, we’ll catch up.

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The Secret Conductor June 8, 2009 - 2:31 am

I have 2 “wow” statements to make about this.

1) it took you 41 minutes to go 5 miles? lol dude I would beat that easy (of course I would be on a bike while doing it lol)

2) the bus totally not showing up is like my worst fear when traveling ANYWHERE! all you can do is stand there and wait. if you leave, you’re afraid that the bus will come and zoom right past you. if you stay, you wait as alternative buses and other modes of translation passes you. it is a real issue that gets scarier at night when the next bus doesn’t come for an hour.

know your bus line depot so you can call them. this is only useful if the bus is really late i.e. more than 12 minutes
(mostly because they will just tell you to wait a little longer because the bus is in traffic or something)

have alternative routes to take if possible

call the MTA’s 718 number or 411 for help

hope that helps

rhywun June 8, 2009 - 7:15 am

Ah, the B63, a/k/a the slowest bus in Brooklyn. I’m sure the fact that 5th Avenue is a slalom course of double-parking has nothing to do with it.

Scott E June 8, 2009 - 8:35 am

“One day, we’ll catch up.”

Note to anyone waiting for our transit system to “catch up”: You’ve got more patience than that woman waiting for the B63 — and practically all other New Yorkers, for that matter. An admirable, though arguably futile, personality trait.

A-W June 8, 2009 - 10:01 am

You could just as well have titled this post, “Move on folks, nothing to see here.” It’s sad that we as New Yorkers consider these SNAFUs to be perfectly normal. But it is always easier to complain about the MTA and to oppose higher fares than it is to come up with a solution.

Benjamin Kabak June 8, 2009 - 10:14 am

Well, sure it’s “easier to complain,” but who’s complaining? I know that plenty of my readers would rather be paying higher fares for better service. I’ve written about that more than once.

Transit fares in the city are dirt cheap. Even with the June 28th increases, the average ride for a moderate-to-heavy transit commuter will be below $1.25. We should have higher fares.

A-W June 8, 2009 - 12:32 pm

Sadly Ben, you are right about most riders not complaining because they accept these scheduling screw-ups (my point). I’d be shocked if anyone stranded on that day wrote to the MTA, or even called to complain. I know I’m guilty of that sometimes.And I agree with you about the fare. They should be higher, and I think people would object less if the MTA could deliver better service with that higher fare.

Alon Levy June 8, 2009 - 3:25 pm

The per-ride fare of a person who uses an unlimited monthly the average number of times will be $1.62. A moderate to heavy user, who swipes twice per day, will pay $1.48. This is still low by the standards of London, but high by those of most other cities, including Paris, Madrid, Seoul, and for short trips even Tokyo.

Benjamin Kabak June 8, 2009 - 3:29 pm

Last time I ran the MetroCard Challenge, I swiped 73 times in 30 days. That’s less than 2.5 rides per day for a cost of $1.11 per ride. Under the new fare, that would cost me $1.20.

$1.62 would be 54 rides or less than two per day. Without looking at usage patterns, that seems low to me.

Anyway, forget London. It’s low in comparison to the $1.70 it costs to ride the T.

theloosh June 8, 2009 - 10:16 am

I live in Chicago and depend on its transit system. I follow SAS because it’s fun to compare the systems and ways we could learn from NY. Often, I make fun of NYC Transit because of the lack of technology. Today, I can’t really, though. You see, we have all that technology. An online bus tracker, train “next arrival” boards, and an up-to-date announcement system (well, mostly…they try…) but it doesn’t necessarily help. The other day, I was waiting for a #11 Lincoln-Sedgwick bus downtown northbound, at the very southern terminus of the route. Not an incredibly busy route, but it is still used. This was from like 4:45-5:30pm, the height of rush hour, I and about 10 other people ended up waiting 45 minutes at this stop for a bus that was supposed to come every 15. Sadly, the technology didn’t help, because a woman kept checking the Bus Tracker on her iPhone and twice it said a bus was supposed to be coming around the corner, but there was none. Eventually it did come, but by that point there were so many people waiting that it was completely full by the second stop. So, people further down the line who had been waiting ended up not being able to board. Not sure why this happened. All our cool gadgets should have prevented it. So, technology isn’t necessarily the answer.

Jeffrey W. Baker June 8, 2009 - 10:37 am

I know the arrival boards seem handy, but let me tell you from my experience living with Nextbus in San Francisco, the supposed arrival times are lies. I waited recently at 5th & Brannan for a 47-Van Ness that was supposedly coming in 16 minutes. Nextbus dutifully counted down from 16 to zero, displayed “Arriving”, and then went right back to 20 minutes, without any bus in sight.

Yesterday, I was waiting on a route where I could have taken the 33-Stanyan or the 9-San Bruno just as easily. Nextbus said the 33 was coming six minutes sooner, so I walked down to a stop where I could get the 33. Eventually, the 9 came first (on its predicted arrival … the 33 has slipped by six minutes).

Later yesterday I waited for a J-Church inbound at 18th St. Nextbus said 6 minutes, counted down to 2 minutes, and then jumped to 44 minutes. Naturally, I left on foot.

So just take it from me, those GPS-based bus prediction services are worthless.

Noah June 8, 2009 - 10:40 am

This happens all the time and come from multiple factors to my knowledge. However really on of them really isn’t a matter of money, though perhaps partially as one more driver per route and shift would fix the problem.

One factor is that the way they schedule the routes has very little down time for the Buses, now this is bad because these are people driving some of the heaviest vehicles on NYC streets carrying thousands of people a day. We want these people to be as prepared and able to keep us and pedestrians safe.

Also these people really don’t get much time to even eat so they will skip on one go in order to grab a bite to eat, now it sucks for us the riders that we have to wait, but I’d rather a driver who isn’t starving while driving me, the problem comes down to the schedule.

Yet another problem, which is vaguely understandable, the bus drivers like to talk to each other so they hang out at the end of the line and cause these clumps, we’ve all seen this.

Also the MTA doesn’t do an adequate job at keeping drivers to the schedule, why I don’t know, it might just be that they are sympathetic to the poor work conditions as outlined above. Now GPS technology could make this easier, but using your radio could be adequate enough and having a bus specific hot line for reporting late service, perhaps there are individuals who are particularly bad about keeping schedule.

Cap'n Transit June 8, 2009 - 10:41 am

According to the schedule (PDF), there should have been buses at around 6:05, 6:20, 6:35 and 6:50. Let’s assume that the buses you saw were the 6:35 and 6:50, delayed and bunched because so many people were waiting.

What I really want to know is, why did the dispatcher allow two bus runs in a row to be missed? And what are the consequences for this? What kind of accountability is there?

AlexB June 8, 2009 - 11:03 am

Even if all those people knew the bus would take 50 minutes to show up, isn’t the real problem that the bus took 50 minutes? No amount of double parked cars or emergency detours could create that kind of delay. There had to have been a mechanical or bus driver problem.

Scott E June 8, 2009 - 12:10 pm

Remember not so long ago when these looming service cuts were on the table? MTA said that the personnel downsizing would happen through “attrition” – so if a bus driver left his or her job, no new driver would be hired as a replacement. Rather, drivers from cancelled routes would get shuffled to fill those slots. This led to a shortage of drivers. Now that the threatened routes were not cut, they’ve got a backlog of positions to fill – undoubtedly a long, administrative process.

So you can blame the dispatchers, blame traffic, blame lack of technology, or whoever/whatever else, and you’d be partially right. But I think, in this case, the politicians in Albany deserve some of that responsibility as well.

Ariel June 8, 2009 - 1:26 pm

Let me start off by saying that Ben, this is one of the best posts you’ve written so far. It nicely portrays the pain and frustration New Yorkers regularly go through because of the MTA and explains why they are so bitter when discussing topics like the MTA bailout plan.

Having GPA tracking devices and arrival boards would go along way in improving customer service. But, like theloosh and Jeffery W. Baker explained above, those devices cannot be fully trusted and do not guarantee better arrival times.

I think a good incentive to improve arrival times with new technology is to make bus driver salary raises and bonuses merit-based. Each bus should also display the anticipated arrival time to the bus driver. The better the bus driver is at consistently meeting the anticipated arrival time, the better his rating is.

The drivers with the highest ratings should get the bigger salary raises and bonuses at the end of their terms and the drivers with the worst ratings should be fired and replaced. Ratings system should also be applied to the bus dispatchers and anyone else involved with the bus arrival times.

With a system like this in place, I will guarantee you we would see much better service and arrival times than what we get now.

Woody June 9, 2009 - 12:48 pm

Best point on here is that this kind of “situation normal all f-ed up” service from the MTA has embittered its passengers and made them unbelieving and unsupportive.

Remember that Mike Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan included more buses, more frequencies, and new routes all over the city, but heavy on the underserved outer boros. Nobody believed it. Nobody.

They might have believed Mayor Bloomberg. Recently when he and Commish Sadik-Khan said they were going to close Times Square and reform traffic on Broadway, the public seemed ready to let them try it.

But on the promised far-flung benefits from the funds raised by the congestion pricing plan, well no, the MTA, its employees, and its unions were involved, and so all credibility was gone.

Now we have a dog-and-pony show going around to promote BRT-type enhanced bus service. Let the City handle it and the plan will get a fair hearing. Put the MTA in front of the proposals and get a 9 million ‘no confidence’ vote.

Adam June 8, 2009 - 2:23 pm

The drivers with the highest ratings should get the bigger salary raises and bonuses at the end of their terms and the drivers with the worst ratings should be fired and replaced.

^ You might not see the service gains you’d expect. With incentives this strong for bus operators to provide on time service, what reason do they have not to blow by stops with people waiting that nobody on the bus had called a stop for? If it’s their job/money on the line, I think many people would do a lot to improve their performance..

Adam June 8, 2009 - 2:24 pm


After living in San Francisco for 2 years, I can second the above sentiment that the GPS based tracking system (at least in SF) is worthless.

MichaelB June 9, 2009 - 10:24 am

The tracking system is only really useful if the scheduled service is unreliable to begin with. Make adjustments so that the buses run according to the schedule, and its superfluous. It’s fundamentally a management problem, not a technology problem.

B63 BusTime pilot officially live :: Second Ave. Sagas February 1, 2011 - 4:27 pm

[…] As I explained this morning, the new tracker, developed with OpenPlans, uses an open-source software program along with a GPS device with dead reckoning, an on-board wireless modem and an internal computer to keep tabs on the buses along the B63. The MTA is offering web- and text message-based tracking for buses and is working with merchants to install LCD signs displaying bus locations in real-team along the route. For customers used to frustratingly long waits for buses and glances down busy avenues, this should take the guess work out of waiting for buses that sometimes don’t show up at all. […]


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