Home Buses Musings on the role of buses in cities

Musings on the role of buses in cities

by Benjamin Kabak

When the Straphangers Campaign released their latest takedown of the MTA’s bus system last week, something about it bothered me. While the Campaign doled out its usual Pokey and Schleppie awards for, respectively, the slowest and least reliable bus routes, they added a Trekkie, highlighting the MTA’s longest bus routes.

On the surface, the purpose of the Trekkie seemed to be to highlight the inanities of long bus routes. The M4 won the award for a rather circuitous route that runs from Penn Station up Madison Ave. to Fort Tryon in Northern Manhattan. The route is slightly more than 11 miles, and on-time end-to-end trip would take an hour and 50 minutes — or 23 minutes longer than Amtrak’s Northeast Regional service from Penn Station to Philadelphia.

Two items with similar themes that I read over the weekend made me realize the problem with this new award: It doesn’t highlight an understanding of local bus service. First, Andrew left a comment on my original post over the weekend. “I don’t see the point of the Trekkie,” he said. “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.”

Then, in a Brooklyn Eagle piece in which he tries to verify the Straphangers’ findings, Harold Egeln offers up a critique of the Straphangers’ survey. Although he focuses on the B63, winner of Brooklyn’s borough-specific Pokey Award, his observation is just as valid for the Trekkie:

Slow, yes. But the fact is that the bus serves an economically vibrant route brimming with shops, restaurants, schools and businesses, and directly serves Business Improvement Districts in Bay Ridge, Park Slope, Sunset Park and the proposed Atlantic Avenue BID area.>

That hyperlocal nature of the bus route is what makes the system effective. That ride along the B63 covers approximately 7.3 miles and does so at an average speed of 4.9 miles per hour. By any standard, that is a slow ride, but the point of the bus isn’t to provide end-to-end transportation. For that, a non-physically disabled rider would simply take the R from 95th St. to Atlantic Ave./Pacific St.

Rather, the bus is designed to provide easy access across various commercial strips, BIDs and residential neighborhoods. A properly designed and routed bus system will allow residents from nearby residential areas fast and reliable service to business areas that are just too far to walk. A good bus system will complement a subway system by providing service to those in-between areas. For someone at 60th and Fifth Ave. who wants to go to the Guggenheim, It doesn’t make sense to walk all the way over to Lexington Ave. to take the subway, but it does make sense to wait for that Trekkie M4 bus for a 28-block ride.

New York City’s bus system runs into problems when the bus is viewed not as a complement to the subway but as a replacement. It runs into problems along busy corridors — Fordham Road, 34th St., 2nd Ave. and 1st Ave. all come to mind — across which there is no subway service. Here, where buses are subject to the whims of surface traffic and the subway is just too far away or not an option at all, buses drag. No pre-boarding fare payment options create long load times. Non-preferential signal treatment and no dedicated bus lanes or adequate lane enforcement leaves buses stuck in traffic.

In the end, the Trekkie is a funny idea from the Straphangers Campaign, but it doesn’t work. It highlights the absurdity of long bus rides while ignoring the purpose of long bus routes. To enhance public transit, we need those long local routes. To improve the buses, though, we need a better Bus Rapid Transit plan.

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rhywun November 10, 2009 - 7:02 am

Aren’t they splitting the B61 in two precisely because long routes are less reliable?

E. Aron November 10, 2009 - 8:04 am

If the M4 is running up 5th Ave it’s running in the opposite direction of a lot of traffic. No wonder it takes so long to get uptown!

Scott E November 10, 2009 - 8:47 am

The only relevance to the length of a local route, be it bus or train, is the possibility that an incident at one end could affect service at another end. And if that’s the case (or if ridership varies greatly in one segment versus another), maybe there could be an argument for splitting it. Of course, you’d anger people who want to ride through the split. (Just imagine terminating all 4/5/6 trains at Grand Central!)

Julia November 10, 2009 - 10:42 am

This is exactly what was done with the M10. There’s more opportunity for delays with a longer line — just ask Amtrak — but it’s a pain if you want to ride past the point where the routes split.

Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines November 10, 2009 - 9:06 am

[…] Does the Trekkie Award for Longest Bus Route Make Sense? (2nd Ave Sagas) […]

Jonathan November 10, 2009 - 9:28 am

I was on the M3 in upper Manhattan at midday last week, and nearly 50% of passengers were senior citizens paying reduced fare with change and going 15 blocks or less, then exiting through the front. It’s my opinion that such riders will take the bus no matter how slow it travels or how long it takes to arrive.

DMIJohn November 10, 2009 - 10:25 am

The problem with the B63, and I know because it is in my neighborhood, is that it does not run frequently enough to truly serve the neighborhood like it should. I’m guessing the buses’ overall speed has an impact on the frequency of service; if buses ran faster, they could run more of them.

Bus bunching is a serious problem as well.

Alon Levy November 10, 2009 - 3:02 pm

No, some of the slowest buses in the city, such as the M14 and M86, run at 3-minute intervals at rush hour. Local buses can’t run more frequently than that because of bunching issues, regardless of speed.

rhywun November 10, 2009 - 8:00 pm

Alon’s right–there’s no relation between speed and frequency of service. The reason the B63 is so slow is because 5th Avenue is a very busy commercial thoroughfare with tons of traffic and cross streets (and a traffic light at every one of them). Of course, that describes most bus routes in the city so I’m not sure why that particular route is any slower than the others….

ell November 10, 2009 - 12:06 pm

many times I am on the M4 there’s a wheelchair. This is the only way that wheelchair bound people can get from point A and point B without worrying about if the elevator is working or not. Also many M4’s end at 135th street in both directions. I also used it to get home to Washington Heights from the upper west side, though the M2 and M3 do the same thing with much better routes.

Alon Levy November 10, 2009 - 7:09 pm

If New York City Transit wants to be accessible, it should spend the money on getting the elevators on the subway to work – and to install them in more than just 100 key stations.

ell November 10, 2009 - 12:06 pm

sorry I meant upper EAST side.

Renovations for Adventure Playgrounds Completed - City Room Blog - NYTimes.com November 10, 2009 - 12:41 pm

[…] the Straphangers Campaign survey of New York City transit routes for the longest bus route, is an uninformative measure of transportation’s efficiency? [2nd Ave. […]

Jerrold November 10, 2009 - 3:10 pm

The example of the old M10 is what immediately occurred to me, even before I read Julia’s message.
What’s wrong with a LONG bus route?
You only take it from wherever you’re starting from to wherever you’re going.

It’s like a subway line that goes from Coney Island to the North Bronx or Eastern Queens. Nobody complains about subway lines being “too long”.

If your ride overlaps the place where a route like the old M10 has been split into two routes, it means the unnecessary nuisance of changing buses. Also, you might have to use up the transfer that was encoded on your MetroCard when you boarded.
Therefore you will not be able to transfer to another bus, such as a crosstown route, without paying another fare.

Alon Levy November 10, 2009 - 7:08 pm

Jerrold, people most definitely do complain about long subway routes. On the Straphangers boards, it’s a commonplace that the R sucks because it’s the longest local in the system, leading to delays upon delays.

rhywun November 10, 2009 - 8:03 pm

Also, one of the reasons cited for why the 7 always gets the highest grades (and this was even before they got new trains) was the fact it is a short route.

AlexB November 10, 2009 - 3:25 pm

Overall length of a bus route, or a train route, is relatively not important, so long as it is not too short as to be useless. As Ben points out, the point of a local bus route is to provide service along a corridor, with huge possibilities of potential trips; A and B can be anywhere along that line.

However, service is based on ridership and routes are based on where people start and finish their journeys. Certainly not every stretch of the M4 route is equal to every other stretch. That the route is so long implies that it is not being efficient. Ridership should match service as much as possible. A very long route is subject to a variety of delays based on traffic, handicap use, etc, that could slow it down considerably and make it less reliable. Hopefully, the ends of a long bus route have actual potential as the start and finish, otherwise, its role may be better served by breaking it up and creating routes that better match the needs of the users and provide more reliability.

Duke87 November 10, 2009 - 6:00 pm

it does make sense to wait for that Trekkie M4 bus for a 28-block ride.

Well, if it’s freezing cold, blistering hot, or pouring rain, sure. In nice weather, 28 blocks one way is very much within walking distance for me…

Jerrold November 10, 2009 - 6:44 pm

28 blocks, almost a mile and a half?
Maybe you’re young and healthy.
Not everyone is young, and not everyone is healthy.

This somehow reminds me of how some people argue that Down
escalators are a ridiculous waste of energy and should all be permanently turned off.

SEAN November 10, 2009 - 7:12 pm

In Orange County CA, the OCTA runs a route from Long Beach south through the county to I believe Newport Beach or somewhere near there. The run time is over 2.5 hours one way. The required the route to be split into two segments.

Wiley Norvell November 11, 2009 - 1:36 pm

The metric behind the Trekkie Award isn’t one of distance; it’s one of time. It’s true that buses fill a much-need niche in the transportation network by facilitating shorter trips, but for many populations and many neighborhoods they are the sum-total of public transportation. Buses are not just an extension of the subway system, they bear the full weight of a subway system that never expanded citywide and that to this day remains more or less inaccessible to the disabled and frail elderly.

The Pokeys, Schleppies and Trekkies aren’t about bashing buses or the MTA; they shine a spotlight on desultory bus service that most New Yorkers simply accept as inevitable. In the case of the Trekkies, the purpose is advocate on behalf of those for whom 90-minute or 2-hour bus commutes are a reality. Wait for an M15 during rush hour and you’ll understand just how many long-distance commuters rely on local buses, and need improved service. While many of us have the luxury of only stepping on a bus for a few blocks at a time, many of our neighbors watch the hours tick by stuck in traffic, and they deserve help.

Wiley Norvell
Transportation Alternatives

Andrew November 11, 2009 - 9:56 pm

But what does any of that have to do with the M4?

Yes, there are long, slow routes that people have to ride from start to finish just to reach the subway. But the M4 is not among them. There is no reason that anyone for whom time is even the slightest concern would ride the M4 from start to finish.

I have no problem with the Pokeys or the Schleppies. Speed and reliability affect bus riders whether they ride an entire route or just a small segment. But end-to-end running time is only relevant on routes that carry many passengers from end to end.

What would be more interesting (and much more of a challenge to determine) is the bus route with the longest running time for its average rider.

Elizabeth November 16, 2009 - 1:32 pm

I’d like to add to what a couple of people have already said about the importance of buses for people who can’t negotiate subway stairs. (Many stations don’t have elevators, and at those that do, the elevator is often out of service.) If there are no elevators at the beginning and end of my trip, I take a bus. I do it because I have arthritic knees, and I have noticed that many other people besides wheelchair users take elevators: the elderly, the injured, the obsese, people with baby carriages, people with heavy shopping bags, people with luggage. These same people will mostly take the bus if there’s no elevator available.

Andrew November 17, 2009 - 7:55 am

Nobody’s denying that buses are important. That doesn’t mean that a bus route that happens to have one terminal at Penn Station and the other terminal at the Cloisters is in any way useful for trips from Penn Station to the Cloisters. The M4 doesn’t take a direct path – it swings over to the East Side and then back to the West Side. That’s entirely by design – the actual function of the M4 is to connect Penn Station to the East Side, and to connect the East Side to Morningside Heights, and to serve local trips along 5th/Madison and upper Broadway and Fort Washington Avenue.

If you’re in a wheelchair and you want to get from Penn Station to the Cloisters, you can take the A train from 34th Street to 175th Street (both stations with elevators) and then transfer to the M4 for its last mile and change. That’ll get you there in a fraction of the time of taking the M4 the whole way. Or if you really want to get there by bus, walk a block east to 34th and 6th and take the M5 most of the way – the M5 takes a far more direct route and runs limited on weekdays. Google Maps shows a 23-minute savings by taking the M5 to 163rd Street and transferring, assuming a 5-minute wait at the transfer point.

Finally, why does a route like the M4 take so long to get from one end to the other? Because it makes a lot of closely spaced stops. Whenever NYCT tries to space bus stops more widely, the elderly and disabled groups complain that they want closer stops. An 11-mile route is going to take a long time to get from one end to the other if it stops every two or three blocks. So – which do you prefer, faster service or frequent stops? You can’t get both.


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