Over the last few years, the MTA and New York City Department of Transportation have worked to make our city streets more bus-friendly. Left twisting in the winds of surface traffic, the current fleet is known more for the shleppiness of rides and for cross-Manhattan trips, being slower than walking. Select Bus Service — the city’s cross between bus rapid transit and glorified express service — has been designed to combat that stigma, and just five months after its first Manhattan implementation along 1st and 2nd Aves., Select Bus Service garnering both praise and criticism from the city’s politicians.
From the get-go, forces lined up against Select Bus Service in Manhattan. Due to the demands of drivers as well as construction work around the Second Ave. Subway area, DOT opted against the gold standard of bus rapid transit: There are no physically separated lanes. Instead, the city can enforce bus lanes through camera-based ticketing systems, and for parts of the route, buses do not even enjoy those bus-only lanes. Meanwhile, pre-board fare payment has come to the city as well, but as machines are often out of paper and enforcement has been cumbersome, paying before boarding hasn’t delivered the promised panacea of speedy buses. Things are faster, but they’re not yet fast.
Yesterday, City Council member Jessica Lappin, who represent’s Manhattan’s 5th District, unveiled a Select Bus Service report card, and she gave the new, speedier a B- after just four months of service. Lappin has been one of the more vocal proponents of faster bus service, but she also must balance that support with a community loath to surrender any parking spaces or curbside vehicle access. It shows in her assessment.
Lappin, who said there was “no excuse” for the service to receive anything less than an A, thankfully hasn’t given up hope after four months. “I am proud to have worked with activists and other elected officials to bring this service to the East Side and I still believe it can be a great thing for our community. but we aren’t there yet,” she said on Monday. “In some ways, the new service is working well, but other areas still need improvement.”
So what’s working well? Lappin, who solicited reactions from her constituents that ran the full gamut of “miserable” to “disgraceful” to “appalling,” highlighted speed as the main benefit. The buses have improved travel times by nearly 20 percent, and for that, everyone along 1st and 2nd Aves. is thrilled.
But Lappin dwelled on the negative as politicians are wont to do. The buses, she claims, are not accessible enough and earned a meager C- here. By her count, 56 percent of seats are not accessible for the elderly or handicapped because they are up a set of steps on the bus, and stations that are half a mile apart are not easily reached by those who cannot walk. To me, this is a strange thing to nitpick. Nearly all new buses have sections that aren’t accessible, and the SBS vehicles have low floors for easier boarding. As the MTA said, these buses are no less accessible than any others, and those who find the station spacing too great can still take local M15s.
The Council member also highlighted problems with fare collection. As I’ve detailed before, passengers left without proof-of-payment receipts have been ticketed aggressively and, shockingly, do not find the fine a welcome one. Some have complained that the MetroCard readers run out of paper, and although the MTA claims those machines are empty only 2-5 percent of the time, Lappin found that 10 percent of machines in her district were out of service. Thus, she gave this component a C. Meanwhile, enforcement efforts, which earned a B, cause buses to idle while cops check tickets, and thus, it slows down the service.
I’m honestly having a tough time wrapping my head around the East Side assessment of the Select Bus Service simply because Lappin readily admits that its significantly faster than the M15 local service. The point of SBS isn’t to stop every two blocks; it’s to offer speedier trips for those in a position to take advantage of it. Right now, politicians should be focusing on securing dedicated lanes, signal priority for buses and better bus lane enforcement. That is how a city can build a better bus service.