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Straphangers pushing for bus improvements

by Benjamin Kabak

Amidst news of upheaval at New York City Transit and some changes atop the MTA management structure, the Straphangers Campaign announced its latest awards for New York City’s much-maligned bus system. The group closed with calls for bus reform as new MTA CEO and Chair Jay Walder looks to improve the city’s surface transit options.

As has become an annual tradition, the Straphangers doled out awards for the slowest bus and the least reliable bus. This year, the group added an award for the bus with the longest scheduled run time end-to-end. This award could be bolstered with a distance comparison amongst bus lines, but it certainly underscores the absurdities of taking buses in New York City along certain routes.

The slowest bus this year is again a crosstown bus in Manhattan. The M42 was clocked at average speeds of 3.7 mph at noon on a weekday as it ventured across the busy thoroughfare. “The M42,” the Straphangers press release said, “would lose a race with a five-year-old riding a motorized tricycle with a speed of 5 mph, as advertised by X-Treme Scooters.”

This year, the group also highlighted slow buses in the Outer Boroughs. Averaging just 5.1 miles per hour, the B63 was Brooklyn’s slowest. The Bronx’s Bx19 averaged 4.9 mph while Queens’ Q56 reached 6.3 mph, still slowing than my average running pace over five miles. Staten Island’s S42, the slowest of that borough’s buses, was downright speedy at 10.6 miles per hour.

The Schleppie, an award for the bus with the least reliable service, went to a Brooklyn-based route. The B44 “arrived bunched together or came with big gaps in service” 21.7 percent of the time, according to official Transit statistics. The M15 took home the title for Manhattan.

Finally, the group handed out the Trekkie to the M4. This bus runs from Penn Station to Fort Tryon, a route of approximately 11 miles, and is schedule to take an hour and 50 minutes. As the Straphangers note, Amtrak from Penn Station arrives in Philadelphia, 99 miles away, in at most an hour and 27 minutes.

The real meat of the report, though, comes at the end when the Straphangers talk about speeding up buses. “The only way to stem the tide of falling bus speeds is by giving buses more priority on the street than the rest of traffic,” Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives said.

In effect, the MTA and NYCDOT need to implement a few key upgrades to improve bus service. A pre-board fare payment system or a contactless mode of payment would greatly enhance bus loading efficiency. A system of physically separated bus lanes with priority signaling would do wonders for New York’s buses. Finally, enforcement of bus lanes should be a priority as well.

These options are not revolutionary. They are in place in numerous countries and cities around the globe, and Walder should pursue them as low-cost, high-result techniques for improving bus service. The MTA, too, knows this and in a statement responding to the survey, discussed new approaches to buses:

Buses were introduced to New York City more than 100 years ago and despite being, by far, the most efficient vehicles on rubber tires as far as the numbers of people they carry, they are still forced to vie for the same street space as a single-occupant automobile. However, with recent innovations such as Select Bus Service (SBS) and signal light prioritization, as well as plans to further improve service recently outlined by MTA Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Jay H. Walder, it is important for the city’s 2.3 million bus customers to know that we are working to achieve improvements in bus speeds and reliability.

Future plans call for the eventual expansion of SBS routes, new methods of fare payment, stricter bus lane enforcement, the use of cameras to nab offenders and the development of a reliable system offering next bus information to waiting bus customers. Since the start-up of SBS, travel times across the Bronx route have been reduced by 20%, ridership has increased, and an overwhelming majority of customers have indicated that they are satisfied or very satisfied with the service.

Better bus service for all. It’s a simple mantra easy to implement and with obvious immediate benefits. Let’s see it happen.

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Scott E November 6, 2009 - 8:12 am

I wouldn’t be surprised if that M42 statistic comes up again in some sort of push for a streetcar and/or car-free 42nd Street.

Seeing that Walder is bringing a lot of experience and knowledge from London, I can’t help but ask what his experience (and the general perception, overall) is with the buses across the pond. Other than pictures of the iconic double-deckers, I’m really pretty ignorant on the topic. (although they DO have congestion-pricing over there, which must have helped!)

Alon Levy November 6, 2009 - 7:18 pm

The experience in London is that CP increased bus speed. Bloomberg already tried to sell CP in New York with that, and failed. Walder, who is as politically tone-deaf as Bloomberg, won’t be able to add anything to this discussion.

And I won’t be surprised if the M42 statistic comes up again for Vision42, either. The fact that in previous years the winners have often been other crosstown buses, such as the M96 or M14, will naturally be absent from those debates.

Building 11 November 6, 2009 - 8:46 am

How much of this is in the MTA’s power to accomplish, and how much of this is the city’s (I’m talking about you, Mator Bloomberg)?

Benjamin Kabak November 6, 2009 - 9:24 am

It’s a mix. The mayor via DOT can really help with dedicated lanes and priority signaling. MTA has to supply the equipment. There’s really no reason why these improvements can’t be made relatively quickly.

Building 11 November 6, 2009 - 8:47 am

I meant Mayor, obviously.

SEAN November 6, 2009 - 9:44 am

As seperating the bus lane from general purpase lanes goe, the adition of a rumblestrip could help.

In Portland OR the “Transit Mall” has rumblestrips seperating the auto lane from the transit lanes. This includes both bus &light rail trains along the mall. To be most effective where possible two lanes maybe required. One for boarding & the other for passing. This allows for speedier service.

Alfred Beech November 6, 2009 - 12:13 pm

The Portland transit mall (the one on 5th and 6th avenues) also have light rail tracks in the mix. I assumed the multiple lanes for transit were needed to allow busses to pass trains, and vice versa.

I think NYC would see congestion pricing before it saw a streetcar in Manhattan, but a 42nd street streetcar would be an interesting opportunity for the federal Small Starts Grant, which recently funded Portland’s streetcar extension. Surely the need and the opportunity for farebox recovery could be easily demonstrated.

Regardless of the solution, anything on street level is going to require a dedicated right-of-way.

Alon Levy November 6, 2009 - 7:16 pm

The slowest crosstown street isn’t 42nd – it’s probably 125th. The reason the M42 won is that it runs only on 42nd, whereas no bus runs only on 125th. The buses that serve 125th all continue on to faster streets, such as the M60 through Astoria to LaGuardia or the M101 through Lex/Third.

Andrew November 8, 2009 - 12:03 am

I don’t see the point of the Trekkie. Nobody rides a long local bus route like the M4 from start to finish. If you want to go from Penn Station to Fort Tryon, take the A train.

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