Home Asides Ironing out the SBS wrinkles

Ironing out the SBS wrinkles

by Benjamin Kabak

In amNew York today, Theresa Juva speaks to some East Side bus riders who are frustrated with the Select Bus Service glitches. Riders at popular stops have found that the machines run out of paper too frequently, and the MTA’s technicians aren’t notified until the paper is out. Furthermore, the machines have been installed too close to the curb and facing the street, thus creating a safety hazard for those purchasing a trip. I’ve also received emails from riders who have found their cards demagnetized by the SBS fare dispensers. It is, in other words, a work in progress.

For its part, Transit officials say they’re troubleshooting the machines. The authority is working to upgrade software to clear paper jams and alert technicians as the paper for the receipts dwindles down. “A lot of times with new equipment you have to do improvements,” spokesman Charles Seaton said. Of course, this could all be avoided if SBS didn’t require something as clunky and 1900s as a paper receipt, but I digress. Ultimately, though, it’s worth remember that the East Side Select Bus Service is still a relatively new service that’s working as a high-volume model for the MTA’s and DOT’s future Select Bus Service plans. If the machines don’t work now, the authority can better plan for future SBS iterations. Some aspects of the improved bus service work better than other, but as the guinea pigs along 1st and 2nd Ave. have found, you can’t beat faster bus service.

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Brandon January 11, 2011 - 1:33 pm

I really dont understand why these machines have to spit out a receipt at all. Your metrocard itself should be proof of payment.

…. They cant move to contactless fares soon enough.

Andrew January 11, 2011 - 10:26 pm

A physical MetroCard isn’t proof of anything, and handheld MetroCard readers don’t exist. For enough money, the MTA could pay for them to exist, but with the MetroCard system nearing obsolescence, would it really be worth it?

Alon Levy January 12, 2011 - 2:09 am

It might be. People with valid unlimited cards shouldn’t need to swipe – it requires the MTA to buy and maintain more of these machines and create special rules for malfunctions.

Andrew January 12, 2011 - 6:32 am

The machines are modifications of preexisting machines – design and procurement costs were clearly deliberately kept low. Most stops only have two MetroCard machines, which would be required regardless of swipe rate.

Special rules for malfunctions are needed no matter what.

What the paper-receipt model increases is frequency of service calls due to paper outages (and jams). It’s still probably cheaper than a major capital investment in a product that will be thrown out in a few years.

Alon Levy January 12, 2011 - 5:57 pm

Stops don’t need any TVMs – the fare system should minimize the number of people who need to swipe, and accommodate them on the bus. Did the MTA even look at how POP works in the German-sphere?

Andrew January 12, 2011 - 10:17 pm

We’re talking in circles. With the MetroCard system, unfortunately, everybody has to swipe.

Moving the swipe location to would delay the bus if a large crowd is boarding – or even if a small crowd is boarding through the front door, since the driver isn’t allowed to move the bus until everyone is behind the white line. (That’s not to say that some drivers don’t care, but NYCT isn’t going to design a system that assumes violations of federal law.)

The ticket machines on the street are modified MetroCard vending machines. They’re way too bulky to put on a bus. So in addition to custom designed portable MetroCard readers for the inspectors, you also want custom designed MetroCard encoders to be installed on the buses – all amortized over a few years, since MetroCard won’t be around much longer.

It’s just not worth it. The current system is temporary. I guess the whole SBS program could have waited until smartcards, but isn’t the current system better than nothing?

Alon Levy January 13, 2011 - 1:46 am

First, I really don’t think buses that sit still while they’re being inspected are progress over anything.

Second, there are ways to circumvent the white line issue – for example, move the MetroCard swipe machines that the buses have to behind the white line. Singapore did that in the pre-EZ-Link days.

And third, the MTA didn’t even try to spec out card readers. It’s pretty standard technology nowadays; why not look at the costs and compare them to the benefits before dismissing the idea?

Al D January 11, 2011 - 3:16 pm

The machines are really not new are they? They’ve been used on the the Bx12 for years now, so the new excuse doesn’t fly with me. It’s just poor management. I agree with the machines being too close to the curb. One person can barely fit between the curb and the machine, with their backs immediately to traffic (wow, that makes all the safety sense!), and there is little room to maneuver out once you’ve bought your ticket since certainly more than one person is buying a ticket at once. Lastly, and this is no surprise, when the bus lanes are not in effect, guess what, SBS has to travel in mixed traffic and is then subject to the same traffic jams that delay the M15 local. I recently rode a SBS bus a few stops on 2nd Ave when the bus lanes were not open, and it was just like to good old days, all over again.

Scott E January 11, 2011 - 5:09 pm

On the Bx12, do the machines also face the street?

Hank January 11, 2011 - 5:29 pm

what times are the bus lanes in effect? the city should enforce them to help the revenue issue!

Alon Levy January 11, 2011 - 4:13 pm

There are entire nations based on paper-receipt POP.

Hank January 11, 2011 - 5:27 pm

I take the SBS every am from 88th to midtown. Generally I am pleased, despite the ridiculousness of the paper system for those with passes (for the single ride tickets it makes perfect sense).

However, in the last two weeks, on 3 out of 5 days, at least one of the receipt dispensers has either been broken or out of paper. This means people get in a very large line for one machine…


1) What do you tell fair inspectors if both receipt dispensers are broken? I have encountered this 3 times since the advent of the SBS and hopped on anyways.

2) Whom do you call at the MTA when they are broken (which they appear to be 30% of the time)?

3) How much would it be to install extra dispensers at high-volume spots (88th, 57th, 42nd)?

4) How much to give pass readers to the inspectors?

ajedrez January 11, 2011 - 8:56 pm

1) I’m pretty sure you just tell them that the machines are broken at “X” stop and they let you go. (Personally, I would just tell the driver as soon as I got on, just so he can back me up)

Andrew January 11, 2011 - 10:22 pm

Definitely tell the driver – that’s the official procedure:

If the machine is broken with an “out of service” message, the service call has already been placed (unless, I suppose, the issue is with the communication network, in which case it might not be able to send the service call).

I think 14th and 1st has had some machines added. I don’t know about the other stops. But that one seems to be the busiest.

AK January 11, 2011 - 11:00 pm

I told a driver at Wall Street once and he WOULDN’T LET ANYONE BOARD the bus. Needless to say, we weren’t happy as he left the stop with an empty bus and a smug look on his face. Good to know most operators are more reasonable than that.

Andrew January 11, 2011 - 11:14 pm

That’s ridiculous. I trust you noted the bus number and time and passed them onto the MTA?

You shouldn’t have to do this, but maybe it wouldn’t hurt to carry around a printout of that web page to show bus drivers who don’t know the procedures.

Alon Levy January 12, 2011 - 2:14 am

If it’s a problem of more than 1-2 assholes, Transit should post the procedures clearly at stations and on buses.

Andrew January 12, 2011 - 6:34 am

Agreed. (Perhaps they’re already posted – has anyone checked the fine print on the machines and on the Guide-a-Ride panels?)

AK January 12, 2011 - 9:27 am

I have– the machines do not give any guidance about what to do when they are out of service/out of paper.

Andrew January 12, 2011 - 10:18 pm

Not good.

Hank January 12, 2011 - 10:56 am

Thank you for the reply.
However, I don’t know if this means that the official procedure is also to let you board, as the site says-

“What to do if you can’t obtain a receipt at a fare collection machine or have some other problem

Take down the machine number.
If a machine is not working, please board the bus and tell the bus operator.
If a machine does not issue a receipt or return your MetroCard or coins ask the bus operator for a business reply envelope or call: 212 MetroCard (212-638-7622).”

Also, I know the M15 local accepts the SBS receipts

Andrew January 12, 2011 - 10:20 pm

Why would it tell you to board the bus and tell the bus operator if you weren’t allowed to board the bus?

What happens on the Bx12, where the local doesn’t serve the entire route?

Shabazz Stuart January 12, 2011 - 1:31 am

Remember the : Just like a Subway but on roads” claim?

al January 12, 2011 - 4:12 am

That claim shouldn’t have been made unless they actually had rubber tired trains on the street.

I’ve been wonder if it were possible to build such a system. It would be like a rubber tire metro but steerable, and with rapidly repairable and replaceable pozzolanic super concrete pavement instead of steel rails. A city block northbound could accommodate a 4 car decoupleable set with the capacity of 4 IRT subway cars. The trains would draw power at stations and short overhead sections along the street to charge onboard high energy capacitors and high power batteries to fill in for the gaps. With enough power they could navigate steep grades and accelerate and decelerate rapidly.

Andrew January 12, 2011 - 6:43 am

Sounds extraordinarily expensive for something that wouldn’t be much faster than a bus. It would also have long headways – the flip side of a high-capacity vehicle is that it doesn’t have to run as often to carry the loads.

Would a 200-foot “train” even fit between intersections?

al January 12, 2011 - 7:13 pm

It might be easier to think of this in terms of light rail running on a street, but with steerable rubber wheels to give it flexibility. The aim is to have high capacity service and lower operating costs like rail based systems and the flexibility of buses.

The flexibility comes in handy when you consider all the situations when a street might be blocked/closed off. We’ve all seen crane and construction collapses, building fires, unstable buildings, parades, street fairs, police investigations, street reconstruction, utility work, and VIP related closures (UN General Assembly, President in town) among other street disruptions.

The concrete would last longer than steel rails or asphalt road surfaces, so would pay for themselves over time.

The investment necessary to setup manufacturing would be expensive if the procurement was small, so a large fleet is necessary to keep per unit costs down. Firms with experience with rail and bus systems, or a consortium of firms with the know how, would be ideal to build such a vehicle. If the MTA could say that they will order 1,000 units, or get other Transit agencies involved, that would get companies interested.

Enforced exclusive lanes and traffic signal modifications akin to BRT systems would speed up travel. Ideally, these would run separated from the rest of traffic on elevated guideways. However, that would erode construction cost advantages vs light rail, and getting residents acceptance would be daunting. Sidebar: There are sections, on the Upper East Side, where the current SBS M15 is hampered by construction and lane issues. It might be a cause for bunching as the bus has to navigate the area.

It can be 4 cars (200′), but 3 and 2 car units (150′, 100′) can be had if 4 proves to be too long. Traffic signals prioritization, and possibly even an onboard operator signal interface, can keep the 4 car units from blocking the box at intersections bracketing short blocks, by letting the “train” pass through to a longer block. Route and stop location adjustments are a last resort.

Another advantage is the high capacity of each car. If the demand is high, low headway multiple car units can have upwards of 50,000 persons/hr per lane. If and when the demand is lower, the option of running fewer/single car units with lower headway, or running longer units with subway like 5-10 min mid-day headways are available. The single car units would have the passenger capacity the equivalent of an IRT car (176). That is comparable to a double articulated bus that is 80’+ long.

This variable length operation needs a rugged and reliable low manpower rapid coupling and decoupling capability.

There is a valid point of overcapacity. This is definitely not suited to low volume routes. It is meant for mid to high capacity routes. Lines running over Northern Blvd and Queens Blvd into Manhattan CBD’s (with exclusive lanes over the Queensboro Bridge) to alleviate crush loads on the 7 and Queens Blvd Lines at rush hour are 2 examples. Routes up and down the avenues in Manhattan to relieve overloaded subway lines would be another example.

Andrew January 12, 2011 - 10:34 pm

Crush loading is a technical term. None of the subway lines are crush loaded on a sustained basis (although crush loads will appear anywhere for a brief period in response to a major service delay).

The 7, F, M, and R carry impressive loads in Queens, but none are overcrowded. The E is the only Queens line that is close to overcrowded. If E riders would rather put up with the crowds that ride the local, what would be the attraction of a fancy bus, which would be even slower than the local?

Let’s say the M15 were converted to this fancy bus. Say each “train” had three times the capacity of a normal articulated bus. Then, assuming no change in ridership, NYCT would cut frequencies by 2/3.

The passenger capacity of an IRT car is 110. The number you use, 176, may be a crush capacity, although it seems quite high even for that. True crush loads are uncommon. With 176 people inside an IRT car, it would be impossible for anyone in the middle to get off the train – by definition, there is no wiggle room at all.

Alon Levy January 12, 2011 - 5:58 pm

Look up “Guided bus.” The short answer is that it’s possible, but all implementations have suffered from derailments, high prices, and other issues.

al January 12, 2011 - 7:36 pm

Yeah, but bigger, with multiple vehicles that can be easily and rapidly linked together to make train like units, and run on electricity. It would combine the acceleration and deceleration of buses to allow for short headways, with the per vehicle capacity of A division cars.

If run separated from traffic (at grade, or more expensively, on elevated guideways or tunnels), and with 10 car units, 1 min headways, and large high volume stations, the capacity could reach over 100,000 persons/hr per lane.

Now, why all this? Trying to find an alternative cheaper and faster to implement than subways with subway like capacity, and similar trip times of the old elevated lines torn down decades ago.

Andrew January 12, 2011 - 10:37 pm

You’re not going to get anything close to subway capacity. If you’re building elevated guideways or tunnels, you’re building a subway line, but with nonstandard rolling stock. I’m not sure what the point of that is. It’s certainly not cheap.

Alon Levy January 13, 2011 - 1:55 am

This is fantasy. Sorry. First, the infrastructure for this is the same as for the subway – tunnels or elevated berms. Second, 1-minute headways simply do not exist on rapid transit; some driverless trains are capable of 1:20 or 1:30, but the more common minimum is 2:00. And third, this technology you’re proposing will still derail all the time.

With any invention like this, think long and hard about questions like “Why they haven’t done this in Tokyo yet?”. (Or Zurich, or Paris, etc.)

Andrew January 12, 2011 - 6:39 am

That wasn’t the claim. SBS was referred to – quite obviously not literally – as a “surface subway.” Meaning that it’s a bus but that it does some things more like the subway. In particular, fare collection is more subway-like (before boarding) than bus-like (on the bus, at least in most New Yorkers’ expectations).

Nicholas January 12, 2011 - 5:16 pm

The main reason they were also called surface subways initially was the promise of a dedicated and physically separated right-of-way. That of course didn’t materialize, although luckily bus-mounted cameras did.

Andrew January 12, 2011 - 10:40 pm

No it isn’t. That was never the promise on the M15, or for that matter on the Bx12.

A physically separated right-of-way would have been disastrous, since it wouldn’t allow buses to pass other buses. Buses on the M15 pass other buses all the time.

Alon Levy January 12, 2011 - 6:01 pm

If fare collection if your standard, then the entire Berlin bus network is a surface subway. Or maybe the U-Bahn is an underground bus system.

Andrew January 12, 2011 - 10:42 pm

New Yorkers aren’t experts in how fares are paid in Berlin. They are experts in how fares are paid in New York. SBS fare payment is more like subway fare payment than (standard) bus fare payment in New York.

Why do you think I said “in most New Yorkers’ expectations”?

Alon Levy January 13, 2011 - 1:57 am

Fare collection is a pretty trivial difference between subways and buses. So if that’s the standard for SBS being a surface subway, then it suggests that the MTA officials who sold it this way either a) are completely ignorant of POP worldwide or b) know how POP worldwide works and chose to mislead the public.

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