Home MTA Economics CBC: Subway ops efficient; buses, commuter rail not so much

CBC: Subway ops efficient; buses, commuter rail not so much

by Benjamin Kabak

Over the past year, as the MTA has struggled to maintain a balanced budget, “making every dollar count” has emerged as the authority’s mantra. Since finding itself on the wrong end of a budget crisis, the authority has identified over $500 million in annual savings and, amidst repeated cries for a forensic audit, has identified nearly $200 million more in savings with the potential to save on labor costs as well. But since the state comptroller can’t seem to figure out how to drill down on the MTA’s finances quickly, we have no way of knowing what the MTA should target and if their cuts are efficient.

To rectify that problem, the influential Citizens Budget Commission unveiled a report benchmarking the efficiencies — or lack thereof — at the MTA, and the findings may surprise a casual observer. The CBC found that the MTA’s subway operations are their most efficient and compare very favorably to subway systems across the country. The authority’s city-based bus network, however, is among the least efficient in the country, and their commuter rail network suffers as well. Across the board, the agency must rein in maintenance costs, the report noted.

“This benchmarking analysis highlights both the national leadership of the MTA and specific opportunities for improvement,” CBC President Carol Kellermann said. “It’s a very valuable tool for understanding the efficiencies and inefficiencies of the system and how the taxpayers’ money can be better spent.”

The report — available here as a PDF — is pretty straightforward in its methodology. Using readily available numbers, it compares the MTA’s costs of operations across a variety of metrics to assess efficiency. Using vehicle revenue miles and hours, unlinked passenger trips, passenger miles traveled and vehicles in use, CBC analysts determined a variety of unit cost measurements. It also examined employee productivity levels as well.

The CBC bulleted the findings in a top-line summary:

  • New York’s subways are among the most efficient in the nation. Among the ten largest subway systems in the United States, the MTA has the lowest cost per passenger trip; it has the second-lowest cost per passenger mile (behind Atlanta) and second-lowest cost per hour of service (behind Chicago), and it is third (behind Philadelphia and Chicago) in cost per active vehicle. New York is fifth in cost per mile of service. In non-vehicle operations (stations and other facilities), the MTA scores only in the middle of the group – a notable opportunity for further improvement.
  • The MTA’s bus operations are relatively inefficient. Among the ten largest urban bus systems in the nation, the New York City Transit bus operations rank last in three of five cost indicators: cost per mile of service; cost per hour of service, and cost per active vehicle. The MTA Bus Company ranks seventh or below in all five indicators; the other two being cost per passenger trip and cost per passenger mile.
  • The two MTA commuter railroads, the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North, also are relatively inefficient. Among the ten largest commuter railroads in the nation, the Long Island Rail Road was at or near the bottom on three of five indicators (last on cost per passenger mile; ninth on cost per active vehicle; eighth on cost per mile of service) and below the median on the other two (seventh on cost per passenger trip and sixth on cost per hour of service). Metro-North was in the bottom half of the group on all five indicators (eighth on cost per active vehicle; seventh on cost per hour of service, and sixth on the other three indicators: cost per mile of service; cost per passenger trip, and cost per passenger mile).

When it comes to buses, the CBC fingers both poor road conditions and congestion as the likely culprits for the costs. Because our city roads are in such bad shape, MTA buses break down more frequently. Because the roads are so crowded, buses do not operate efficiently. The MTA has two of the nation’s three bus operators that run their vehicles at an average speed under 10 miles per hour.

Ultimately, this report doesn’t help to highlight specific ways in which the MTA can solve money. Being a leader in efficiency, at least on the subway side of things, doesn’t mean the MTA can’t spend less; they likely could. But these totals should help policy analysts pinpoint ways in which the MTA can save. Right now, buses — and to a lesser extent, commuter rail — remain the 800 pound gorilla in the room. Now who wants to tackle the problem?

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JoshK April 7, 2011 - 12:07 am

One of the biggest problems with the MTA Bus System in NYC itself is that much of it either replicates long forgotten streetcar service that was discontinued and replaced with buses, regardless of what the existing demographics and needs are.

In my opinion, the bus system in NYC should work to feed passengers into the subways and commuter railroads, instead of duplicating (or downright competing) with existing options. Any lines, such as the M42, which largely just duplicate existing subway lines should probably be discontinued altogether.

Matthew April 7, 2011 - 4:30 am

Buses provide ADA-mandated service until the subway is made accessible to the disabled. I’m surprised they got away with discontinuing the B39 across the Williamsburg Bridge. Marcy Ave station is accessible but Essex Street still isn’t.

Joe Steindam April 7, 2011 - 6:54 am

The 7 and the Shuttle are not true replacements for the M42, considering the two trains only make 3 unique stops on 42nd Street, and only in the center of the island. Granted, I don’t know who in their right mind would sit and take the M42 from river to river because it’s so slow, but that service isn’t copied by a subway. East of Grand Central and West of 8th Avenue, some service would still be needed.

Edward April 7, 2011 - 9:53 am

True, but you don’t need an M42 every 5 mins either. Or three buses on Lex/Third Aves (M101, 102, 103) when the Lex Ave IRT runs parallel to these routes. If I had a dime every time I saw a moderately crowded M102 followed by a dead-empty M103, I’d have a big ol’ jar of dimes.

As for 42nd St, how about a shuttle bus from the UN to Grand Central for East Side riders, and another shuttle from 12th Ave to Bryant Park for West Side commuters. There’s absolutely no reason why one bus needs to go along 42nd St from river to river. I doubt 10 riders a day stay on the bus for the whole route.

nycpat April 7, 2011 - 12:22 pm

Elderly and disabled need some kind of cross town service. In general I think we would miss the redundancy if we got rid of it. Only last Saturday the eastside IRT was out for three or four hours. Body outside Spring St. Didn’t make the news.

Edward April 7, 2011 - 1:26 pm

East Side IRT is north/south, so there’s no crosstown analogy here. And shuttle service going east-west from Grand Central makes more sense than a bus running across the entire Island. Less traffic to get caught in if buses do a simple loop on East and West sides.

Chris G April 7, 2011 - 1:17 pm

The real answer for 42nd street is vision 42.

Bolwerk April 7, 2011 - 9:52 am

Those routes generally still call for service. Indeed, it was streetcars and els that often drove the initial density to begin with.

And like others have said, subways are not a replacement for buses. Good surface transportation is still called for.

Christopher April 7, 2011 - 11:33 am

They actually serve two quite different purposes. While providing very essential back-up. Buses, like street cars primarily function as short-haul commutes. They engage the street and the street life. (Bikes also fit into this era, taxis too slightly) and function thus as a rapider form of walking. Subways and rail are long haul commutes. Rail being longer than subway. All three parts are essential to a functioning system of moving people around. And duplication is built into the this three part system in order to balance the loads correctly across the three (and to sort passengers by types of commutes). Systems that are particularly overcrowded don’t always mean there’s a need for duplication of the same type (although sometimes, in the case of the East Side, it probably does) but often that two types of commuters are intermingling. DC’s Metro is an example where better surface transit will take off loads from the subway.

Now caveat, in Manhattan, many of the bus lines replaced a need for East-West transit. This is a different problem and does demand something faster — that was the ideal of the 34th Street transitway.

The point of all this is that this is a complex system of uses and they all serve a function.

Alon Levy April 7, 2011 - 3:19 pm

The Manhattan buses are high-performing, especially the crosstown buses. Because fares do not depend on distance, buses that only go the 3 km width of Manhattan have very good financial performance, and most cover the costs of operation from fares.

The problem with making buses just feed the subway is that the subway does not always run along routes that can just be eliminated. The Flatbush buses can be cut back to Eastern Parkway, but the Nostrand buses would have to run in two segments – south of Flatbush, and north of Eastern Parkway – and that might not improve efficiency much. In Eastern Queens, most buses are already cut back to Jamaica or Flushing, and the frequent bus map looks exactly like how you’d expect a decent feeder system to look.

Bolwerk April 7, 2011 - 12:53 am

None of this should surprise anyone, except those whose theology is that buses are an efficient replacement for a surface rail system (or any rail system). But I wouldn’t take the relative efficiency of the Subway as something to gloat about either. It’s not as good as it could be.

The obvious solutions are the usual suspects – the ones that piss off entitled people:

– congestion charge

– higher cost to park

– dedicated bus lines or light rail

– tolling “free” bridges

– least talked about: encouraging smaller, lighter cars (WTF is a city as dense as New York doing encouraging SUV use?)

Anon April 7, 2011 - 1:31 am

How exactly is the city encouraging SUV use?

Bolwerk April 7, 2011 - 1:46 am

Not charging more for the extra space taken up?

Edward April 7, 2011 - 9:59 am

Most SUVs nowadays are a few inches bigger than compact/midsize cars, maybe 3 or 4 inches longer and wider and a few inches more in wheelbase, so I wouldn’t say they take up all that much more space per se. Gas mileage, however, is another story.

Best way to cut back on traffic? Charge per person to enter Manhattan, not per vehicle. A big ass SUV with 5 riders inside is a lot better than a subcompact with 1 driver and no passengers. I’d be all for charging drivers who enter Manhattan from 6a-6p weekdays a fee that goes down the more passengers there are in the car/SUV. Then again, the infrastructure needed to count the riders may be more than it’s worth. Just thinkin’ out loud here, so don’t get all breathless folks.

Bolwerk April 7, 2011 - 10:40 am

Well, what Americans call compact cars are not even especially compact. Take a look at a large European city, and you find much smaller cars straddling sidewalks over the curb – and the vehicles get better mileage and generally are short enough so people on the streets can see over them. It’s one thing to encourage cars to use city streets, but another thing to encourage not discourage the biggest, ugliest pieces of crap possible.

I don’t think per-person charging makes the most sense, but what would make sense would be a little psychology in the bridge and tunnel tolls. Make the base fee what it costs for a group of 3+ people, and add a surcharge for an emptier car. That way people will feel punished for driving alone rather than simply occasionally rewarded for driving in groups (social norms) — but this would be hard to do if ever we get automated tolling, and it makes little sense that we wouldn’t eventually. But hell, those tolls need to be equalized for every crossing.

Edward April 7, 2011 - 10:54 am

European cars are definitely smaller than their US counterparts (I noticed that when in Paris). But France, Germany, UK et al are physically smaller countries than the US, and Americans (for better or for worse) like their space. Americans as a whole are also wider than Euro/Asia folks, but that’s another disucussion.

I’d be loathe to drive a minicar on a US highway next to 18-wheelers and Buick LeSabres!

Bolwerk April 7, 2011 - 11:01 am

Well, that argument might apply to the suburbs, but New York City is as dense as any major European city. Rewarding (economically or psychologically) smaller cars and discouraging larger one just makes too much sense here.

Edward April 7, 2011 - 11:13 am

True, but Detroit, Japan and the Europeans don’t make cars for NYC. Like it or not, NYC is not representative of the US as a whole. The conditions we live in, and what we put up with, are unusual to most of the USA. That being said, the Lincoln Town Car and Ford Crown Vic (two of the largest cars on the road) would have been phased out years ago if not for NYC limo and taxi fleets, which buy up a large chunk of them. They are going out of production after this year, however.

Bolwerk April 7, 2011 - 11:21 am

There are certainly cars of all shapes and sizes available, from little “smart cars” up to Smalldickmobiles Hummers. If most POVs were smart cars or not much larger, it would help solve some of the parking problems people are always complaining about.

Al D April 7, 2011 - 1:45 pm

Sure they do, but many Americans, inclusive of a good numbers of NYers, do not want to buy them for any number of reasons.

Edward April 7, 2011 - 2:01 pm

Especially fleet owners. The Town Car/Crown Vic was old tech and easy to fix, with parts aplenty available for cheap. Wonder what car they will use after Ford discontinues these models. Chrysler 300 is probably the closest as far as size, cost and ease of maintenance.

Bolwerk April 7, 2011 - 2:12 pm

I can understand fleet owners needing something bigger, at least for some jobs.

But not everybody needs a car for that once-in-a-half-decade couch move.

Christopher April 7, 2011 - 6:24 pm

Actually it’s more likely that American safety regulations have told us — and enforced — the rule that bigger is better. When safety regs started in the 1960s, it was well thought by European and Japanese automakers that this was specifically intended to keep out smaller foreign cars (that were just starting to take off in the U.S.) from competing against the likes of Detroit and the bigger is better ethos. (And the steel and oil industry that fed it.)

Basically we’ve never been given a choice or regulation system has privileged not just automotive transportation but larger cars as well.

Curious Bystander April 7, 2011 - 7:38 pm

Well, the problem with most of the European cars like the SmartCar is that they’re not designed to handle New York’s large amounts of potholes and idiot drivers. Also, they’re not particularly comfortable.

Alon Levy April 8, 2011 - 1:41 am

On the contrary, the SmartCar was designed specifically for the parking-constrained urban environment.

Alon Levy April 7, 2011 - 2:05 am

This report inadvertently highlights what’s wrong with New York: people act as if the world ends at the boundaries of the US. What exactly can New York learn from comparing itself to medium-sized US cities rather than with Tokyo, Paris, Berlin, and other global cities it smugly counts itself with?

Joe Steindam April 7, 2011 - 7:01 am

That’s where this baby comes in: http://www.pwc.com/us/en/cities-of-opportunity

The Cities of Opportunity study compares New York to 20 other leading global cities. And only 2 are other American cities. Transportation and Infrastructure are one of the indicators studied. The study is authored by PwC and the Partnership for New York City.

Alon Levy April 7, 2011 - 3:23 pm

This baby measures taxis per capita, air traffic movements, mass transit track length, and mass transit fares for the longest trip within city boundaries. It is not an efficiency measure, and says nothing about employees per revenue-hour, cost in PPP dollars per revenue-km, turnaround times, cost per passenger, or construction costs.

Bolwerk April 7, 2011 - 10:01 am

I agree that New York should be learning from other places, but it’s not exactly easy to make apples-to-apples cost comparisons between two countries with different currencies, much less several. They could have addressed cost-saving measures and made some superficial operational comparisons (employees/revenue-mile?).

I really don’t see what problem anyone should have with New York being counted with other global cities. I’d very much suspect NYC wouldn’t be worth bothering with if its sense of self-worth was based on how it related to Houston or even LA….

jim April 7, 2011 - 9:20 am

Buses are simple: speed. To maintain the same frequency of service, shorter trip times mean less cost; longer trip times more cost. Longer trip times require more vehicles — more fuel, more maintenance — and more drivers. Run the same route faster: save money. Maybe even attract more passengers. Bus lanes, pre-board payment.

Bus lanes also may cut down on maintenance costs.

Commuter rail is harder. My suspicion is MTA costs more because it owns or maintains (almost) all its track. Other commuter rail systems run at least partly on other people’s tracks and just pay their share (or even less than their share) of maintaining it. If they run less service, they have lower trackage costs. If the MTA runs less service, it still has much the same track maintenance costs, so higher costs per service-mile.

ant6n April 7, 2011 - 9:55 am

Aren’t there other issues, like too many employees on a train. A Commuter train should be run by one person.

Bolwerk April 7, 2011 - 1:42 pm

Well, a subway should certainly (at least most of the day). A commuter train perhaps should, but it’s illegal for now.

The commuter RRs would be a good place to implement POP though.

Alon Levy April 7, 2011 - 3:26 pm

It’s legal to go down to two employees per train. That’s not optimal, but it’s a huge improvement over six, and they deal with the same number in Paris.

However, because the LIRR runs trivial amounts of freight, it could try to do what SEPTA wanted to do and sever itself from the FRA. Or it could team with Metro-North and ask for waivers from the FRA allowing trains to run like in Japan of 2011 and not like in the US of 1925.

Bolwerk April 7, 2011 - 4:08 pm

As long as every ticket needs to be collected by a conductor, two might be too few anyway. LIRR trains are long as hell.

(Obviously, we don’t want anymore of every ticket being collected by a conductor.)

Alon Levy April 7, 2011 - 9:31 pm

Regulations don’t require conductors to collect every ticket. Caltrain already has something like POP – but it still has multiple conductors per train, due to the wanton inefficiency of everything in the Bay Area.

Bolwerk April 8, 2011 - 9:26 am

Regulations say nothing about needing to collect anything, of course. But given the length of an LIRR train, more than a single conductor may make sense as long as conductors are needed anyway.

I actually thought procedure at least used to be something like: a few extra conductors would blitz the cars as the train goes between NYP and the next stop (Jamaica in most cases), and then “deadhead” back to Penn to do it again, leaving 1-2 to handle the rest of the trip.

Donald April 7, 2011 - 3:49 pm

How can a commuter train have only 1 employee? Who is going to collect fares and check tiokets?

Bolwerk April 7, 2011 - 4:05 pm

POP and turnstiles are popular options, just like on local transit services. There is n built-in reason why commuter rail and subways should be treated differently from a revenue collection standpoint.

Bolwerk April 7, 2011 - 4:09 pm


Bolwerk April 7, 2011 - 10:13 am

Ignoring stuff that the MTA and NYS can’t control themselves, most of the commuter rail cost has to do with the fact that it’s run like a fiefdom for cronies of a zany third world dictator. Work rules and entitlements are insane – so pensions are high and then there was that whole disability scam (okay, largely a federal problem, but still…).

Steve April 7, 2011 - 10:45 am

Apologies for the ignorance this question shows (I’m a relative newcomer to New York), but who takes the bus routes that parallel the subway lines (e.g. the M5, which runs from Washington Heights down the west side of Manhattan to South Ferry, largely duplicating the 1.)? Are most riders disabled? Or people taking short trips? Or people who think the subway is dark and scary?

Edward April 7, 2011 - 11:19 am

Tradition. And contrary to popular belief, things change in NYC very slowly, if ever. The M5 is a perfect example. Who the heck rides this bus from South Ferry to Wash Hts? Why is there even a bus that needs to go the whole length of Manhattan Island? Are there workers who live on Staten Island, take the ferry and then travel to Wash Hts and back? Even if there were, would they not take the IRT, which is much faster? Of course not, but the MTA feels the need to send the M5, M15 and M20 all the way to South Ferry even though the 1, 4, 5 and R trains duplicate the service.

Bolwerk April 7, 2011 - 11:39 am

Probably some combination. The purpose of transit is not to bring people from one endpoint to another. If that’s happening, it implies something is seriously wrong. Any transit route should have many, many intermediate trips. Buses tend to have a few sometimes convergent (sometimes not) roles: crosstown service, feeders for the subway, short trips, transit for places with low density, transport for disabled people, or more capacity for crowded subway lines (probably not a good move).

I have a hard time buying that claim about so many routes tending to be outmoded just because they replaced (read: downgraded) streetcars. Some of course are, but most of the useless ones seem to be newer express routes.

Edward April 7, 2011 - 11:50 am

By express, do you mean limited/select buses or outer-boro express runs? If outer-boro express runs, they aren’t useless if you live in an outer-boro. For many workers and students they are lifelines, especially since there is no subway duplication, particularly on Staten Island.

Bolwerk April 7, 2011 - 12:25 pm

You’re right. Useless may be the wrong term – I should have said “least useful,” at least going by ridership and the terrible cost recovery.

Edward April 7, 2011 - 1:32 pm

Agreed that the x-bus runs hemorrhage cash. I often wonder why the MTA uses Greyhound-like “coach” buses for express runs. They have no back door, tiny aisles and are hard to move around in. Wonder why they don’t use articulated buses that hold way more riders, which would obviate the need for numerous buses/drivers on a particular route. One accordian bus could replace 1.5 “coach” buses and would make exit/entry faster if pre-boarding were extended to x-bus runs. It takes forever to board 10-12 people at a time, with commuters forced to walk up very narrow bus stairs and then gingerly walk thru the tiny aisle toward the back of the bus to get a seat. If pre-board fare payment were extended to x-bus runs, it would speed things up greatly.

Bolwerk April 7, 2011 - 1:41 pm

I dunno. Maximize seating/comfort? A back door takes space away from seating. And there’s only one long boarding and another long alighting period – not several, like on any conventional NYC bus with moderate or better ridership.

Also, maybe it’s not safe to drag SRO buses articulated along a highway at 55mph. :-p

Edward April 7, 2011 - 1:51 pm

Highway speeds may be the bugaboo, though reaching 55 on the BQE or SI Expressway is a fantasy on most days. Back door taking space would be negated by extra length of articulated bus. Problem of not having back door is that, though entry/exit is usually done only once (as opposed to local bus where folks get on/off every stop), many x-buses have standees that block the aisles, forcing them to physically depart the bus to let others off, then get back on an do it again until there are no more standees. The aisles are really that tight.

Also, articulated buses could be used on both local and express runs (I really don’t need a cushy reclining seat), though storage at depots may be a problem due to size.

Bolwerk April 7, 2011 - 2:18 pm

Could be regulatory, but that’s a guess.

When people aren’t boarding and alighting frequently, room to move around is less needed, so coaches can be used instead of transit bench-style seating. The coaches probably seat more people, even if they carry fewer at peak capacity (that doesn’t mean average occupancy isn’t higher).

Alon Levy April 8, 2011 - 12:35 am

My understanding of the express buses is that they’re marketed to a richer clientele, and are deliberately made more comfortable, which means more seats. Cap’n Transit calls the constituency for them the “we’re too old for this shit” people.

Curious Bystander April 7, 2011 - 7:33 pm

I don’t understand why we call those monstrosities “express buses” if they stop every two blocks in the outer boroughs. Most people could probably walk a little more or pay the transfer fee (whatever it is to change to an express from a local).

Then again, NONE of the MTA buses should stop every two blocks. The blocks are short – walking isn’t that hard.

Alon Levy April 7, 2011 - 9:33 pm

See explanation here for the express terminology.

ajedrez April 7, 2011 - 9:41 pm

A transfer from an express bus to a local bus is free, but there are a lot of express routes that go into areas with crappy local service, and the express bus riders may not want to transfer to those services.

Edward April 7, 2011 - 2:13 pm

In a totally unrelated comment, I really dig that Citizens Budget Committee logo. Looks like a tiled wall with the missing pieces outlining the shape of NY State. Missing subway tiles, how appropriate!

Alon Levy April 8, 2011 - 2:13 pm

@Bolwerk: 16-car Shinkansen trains run with a single conductor. Length doesn’t mean there need to be extra employees. I’m not sure whether the 10- and 15-car regional trains in Tokyo run with one or zero conductors.

(Sorry, I’m on the threadless mobile version again)

Bolwerk April 11, 2011 - 11:03 am

Yeah, absolutely. But aren’t stops on Shinkansens pretty far apart? On the LIRR, fares often need to be collected in the time between Penn and Jamaica, no trivial task on a packed train 10+ cars long.

Urban Omnibus » The Omnibus Roundup – the NY Apartment, Rooftops, Concrete Coney, City Chickens and Squatters April 8, 2011 - 6:17 pm

[…] agency — our bus and commuter rail systems seem to be two of the least efficient in the US. Second Ave. Sagas has more on the CBC’s findings, or you can download a PDF of the full report here. . America's […]


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