During yesterday’s Transit Committee meeting, the topic of conversation between the assembled MTA Board members and agency president Thomas Prendergast turned to bus ridership figures. As I’ve detailed here before, bus ridership is suffering from a slow, steady and long decline. As subway ridership nears record highs, the buses just aren’t drawing passengers.
Under fire from Charles Moedler and others, Prendergast reiterated the MTA line that the 2010 service cuts, in which numerous bus stops were eliminated and service was pared down across the board, were not the main drivers behind this decline in bus service. Rather, Prendergast said, the weak economy has stiffled discretionary trips and the MTA is recapturing many former bus riders through the subway system instead. After all, who wouldn’t rather have a ride faster and more reliable than a New York City bus?
As a contrast to this doom-and-gloom back-and-forth over the steady decline in bus ridership, city and MTA officials launched the latest Manhattan Select Bus Service route along the 34th St. corridor, and NYC DOT issued a progress report praising the M15 SBS. Regular old local bus service may be on the wane, but New Yorkers are flocking to the Select Bus Service routes, and the differences in service could provide an easy path to a better bus network throughout the city.
The story along 34th Street is a familiar one to us. After a rancorous debate amongst residents who did not want an ambitious Transitway in front of their lobbies, the city settled for a typical SBS route instead. Buses along the corridor will feature pre-board fare payment (with proof of receipt), dedicated and off-set bus lanes and camera enforcement of those lanes. Despite the reduction in plans with the death of the transitway, city officials are trumpeting SBS success stories anyway.
“Select Bus Service is proving to be a success wherever we install it,” said Mayor Bloomberg. “Travel times go down, ridership increases and safety improves with Select Bus Service. We expect to see the same positive results here on 34th Street and we will continue to look for more opportunities to expand this great service. We all know that when mass transit works well, more people use the service, which helps to free up our streets – a boost for our economy and our environment.”
At the 34th St. unveiling, DOT and the MTA also revealed a progress report on the SBS M15. So far, the new bus service is a success. Ridership along the SBS corridor from around 25,000 limited bus riders per day in 2010 to 35,000 SBS riders per day in 2011. Although some of that increase has come from riders shifting from the M15 local to the SBS routes, overall M15 bus ridership is still up by around 11 percent per day as overall bus ridership drops by 5-8 percent.
Meanwhile, travel times are dropping as well. An end-to-end run on the M15 Limited would take nearly 81 minutes. Forty of those were spent traveling while 19 were spent stopped at the bus stop, 18 at red lights and three minutes spent at other delays. The M15 Select Bus Service takes 68 minutes end-to-end. Of those, 35 are spent in motion and just 12 are spent at bus stops while the delays due to red lights remain the same. That drop — from 19 minutes to 12 at bus stops — is the key. By removing the line at the point of payment, the MTA doesn’t even need flashing buses to improve service.
So then can we see the key to better bus service in the stories of the SBS? By improving frequency along 1st and 2nd Avenues and speeding up the on-boarding process, the MTA has made bus service attractive, and it was rewarded with increased ridership. Elsewhere, buses run less frequently and involve long waits to board. Thus, ridership is down, and the MTA seems to know it. “If we are able to further reduce travel time through faster boarding and improved fare collection, we can expect an additional increase in ridership of five to ten percent,” Darryl Irick, the Senior Vice President at the Department of Buses, said.
If the authority is intent on improving bus convenience and combatting declining ridership, the answers are in Select Bus Service. Pre-board fare payment and regular and predictable service would go a long way toward improving the bus network. The buses simply must be treated as something more than second-class transportation. Otherwise, ridership will decline on every route but the glorified Select Bus Service.