Home Buses Seeking a solution for the MTA’s bus woes

Seeking a solution for the MTA’s bus woes

by Benjamin Kabak

Bus ridership figures have declined dramatically over the past few years.

As the MTA touts the fact that subway ridership is on the up-and-up, its ever-shrinking bus network is telling a different story. Authority board members want to do something, anything, to reverse the downward trends, but a simple fix lies right beneath the authority’s nose. Will it be enough to save the bus system or are more dramatic changes in order?

First, the numbers. Subway ridership, we learned last night, is at levels not reached since 1947 before white flight, the true rise of the automobile and the general decline of New York City and its infrastructure. Bus figures though are going the wrong way. For 2011, bus ridership was 665.3 million — a hearty number, yes, but one that is 31.6 million trips fewer than the total from the year before. Bus ridership, in other words, declined 4.5 percent from 2010 to 2011.

These declines were not isolated to any time of the week either. Weekday rides were down 4.3 percent while weekend ridership shrunk by 6.4 percent. 2011 marked the first full year after the June 2010 service cuts that decimated the bus network, and it seems as though those cuts have driven a stake through the heart of the bus network.

Interestingly, the MTA doesn’t believe it’s losing transit riders, and the numbers bear them out. Average subway ridership increased by more than the number of bus rides lost between 2010 and 2011. Perhaps as the buses grow more inconvenient and less frequent, transit riders will opt for the subways instead. That’s the line Transit is pushing at least.

Yet, we shouldn’t be so accepting of that argument. A healthy and vibrant bus network is a component to any transit system. Although buses aren’t nearly as environmentally friendly as a subway, they serve to localize trips and offer more flexibility than a subway track. Buses can carry people over shorter distances and could offer interborough trips that are more direct than the round-about subway routing that invariably carries nearly everyone into and out of Manhattan.

So how to fix the buses and reverse this long-term trend? At the MTA Board committee meetings yesterday, some board members floated various ideas. “We have to start looking at the possibility of smaller buses in areas where there are not many people who need that service, and maybe a discounted fair for off peak hours, so as to encourage people back to using the buses,” Charles Moerdler said.

MTA officials, who described the declining bus ridership totals as “dire,” did not seem to embrace Moerdler’s idea. “Reducing off-peak fares is not something that we are considering at this time,” an authority spokesman said in a statement. Transit officials, meanwhile, are hoping that they will one day have the money to restore buses lost to the cuts but do not know when that time may be.

Even if we wait for money to materialize to restore these lost routes, the solution probably isn’t added service. Instead, it is to speed up the bus system. Buses in New York, as I’ve said many times before, are slow, plodding and unreliable. They’re at the whims of surface traffic and suffer through endless boarding delays. The secret of the faster and more popular Select Bus Service is the pre-board fare payment. That alone is responsible for the bulk of the service’s faster speeds. Enforced dedicated lanes and signal prioritization will help, but nothing gets buses moving faster in New York City than an end to the interminable wait for people to figure out how to dip their MetroCards.

Of course, instituting pre-board fare payment in its current form at every local bus stop in the city would be costly and inefficient. Many bus routes do not attract enough people for such a measure, and those are the ones that would benefit from more service. Transit then should try a balancing act: A faster roll-out of SBS-like services along popular routes coupled with more reliable service along others could make buses more attractive. Only then will New Yorkers return to the city’s surface transit network.

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Alex C February 28, 2012 - 12:07 am

I like SBS, but you need serious enforcement of payment in the city to avoid jerks who think they’re slick getting in through the back doors never having paid.

Cap'n Transit February 28, 2012 - 12:11 am

No, Alex, you don’t. SBS increases revenue without the kind of enforcement you’re talking about.

Alex C February 28, 2012 - 12:18 am

I don’t suggest it is bad, I just don’t trust New Yorkers to not eventually take advantage en masse. The report you cited especially doesn’t make me comfortable. Of course, regarding M15 +SBS+ we would need pre-SBS data on profitability to compare to. And lastly, a few of BusChat’s resident bus drivers and other bus/rail observers suggested the B44 has serious issues with farebeaters. That may explain why the route is doing so bad financially. Artics on that line would be hell for covering costs without patrols. A $500 fine for farebeating would help.

Bolwerk February 28, 2012 - 1:02 am

A sensible system of inspection and fines makes some evasion desirable. Seriously, the formula is almost like insurance: the fines should cover the cost of inspection and enforcement plus the revenue lost by evasion. There could even be a little left over in profit.

Alon Levy February 28, 2012 - 4:15 am

What would help even more than a $500 fine is a system that makes it easy to just obey the law. Offer large unlimited monthly discounts so that most riders will have already paid, and let riders with valid unlimited passes board freely, and you’ve eliminated most of the incentive to cheat.

putley March 11, 2012 - 6:47 am

Ask discouraged people waiting at bus stops. Buses on many lines, for example the M7 and the M 10, often run in twos or threes. They apparently pass no dispatcher, whereas you can see dispatchers talk to them when they are running uptown. When buses run in threes, fours, fives and sixes (as I used to see when I lived on 1st Avenue), most of the drivers are simply enjoying a long break at the end of the line so they can sleep, eat, or stare into the air.

JimD February 28, 2012 - 12:49 pm

I’ll be surprised if SBS fare compliance doesn’t nosedive now that riders realize the fare enforcement is so lax.

Cap'n Transit February 28, 2012 - 12:09 am

The Magic Formula for Transit Ridership, of course!

Jacob Mason February 28, 2012 - 12:28 am

When you say local bus, do you mean only the “local” buses that stop every 2 blocks, or does that include limited stop buses and SBS? In either case, while SBS projects are amazing for ridership, it still takes a lot of time and money for each route, and will do little to address system-wide bus ridership decline. A more effective solution would be to systematically address the problems facing local buses. People choose travel modes based on variety of factors, but a critical factor is convenience. The mode which gets people to their destination with the least delay and most convenience will be chosen. The way I see it, there are 3 main areas where bus convenience could be increased and/or delay reduced. Addressing these issues could be done systemwide fairly quickly, and with relatively minimal expense, compared to SBS projects.

1) Real time bus information. This is already being done systemwide, and it will do much to improve ridership on lines that suffer from erratic service.

2) Stop consolidation. I know it’s a dirty word to many, but the simple fact is that stopping every 400ft slows buses down dramatically. If the system-wide policy was to locate stops closer to every half-mile, as is typically the case in Europe, the buses would travel much faster, and walk distances would increase only slightly for everyone. Faster buses lead to more riders, which then justify more buses, making the bus much faster once you’re on it. This is not a money issue, though, it’s a political issue, as many bus routes in NYC have stops spaced as close as 1/10th of a mile apart. As trial and error in SF has shown us, you need to do it systemwide, and it needs to have a strong educational component. Yes we have limited-stop on some very-high ridership routes, but I’m talking about stop consolidation on the rest of the routes.

3) Off-board fare collection. If this can be done in a way that doesn’t require machines at every stop, it would dramatically reduce time spent at each stop.

Do these 3 things and ridership will increase dramatically. We’ve already seen this on the SBS routes, which basically do the above and more (bus lanes, signal priority, branding). Do nothing, and ridership is only going to keep going down. LA has experienced dramatic success with Metro Rapid, which follows the same idea.

Matthias February 29, 2012 - 11:01 am

Yes yes yes! Your items are right on the mark. How could off-board fare collection be done without the pricey machines? I like your use of the more palatable word “consolidation” (as was used with the M34 SBS) rather than “reduction” or “elimination”.

I was riding a bus in DC last weekend, and almost screamed when the bus made a new stop 500 feet away on the same block. Then we waited for the farebox to accept crumpled bills–at least NYC buses don’t accept bills, but the fareboxes are still too slow.

BrooklynBus February 28, 2012 - 12:35 am

I’m surprised you didn’t mention updating antiquated bus routes as a means of attracting bus riders back to the system. The MTA never surveys latent demand so they have no idea of how many people are using car services where the routes don’t take them where thy want to go.

Also, any wonder why subway service is up when bus service is down? It’s because the MTA severs bus connections everytime it cuts off the end of a bus route. When the B4 operated on weekends you coud take it directly from one end in Bay Ridge or Bensonhurst directly to the UA Sheepshead Bay theaters on Knapp Street. Now your only alternative is the the indirect trip through Downtown Brooklyn via the D, N, or R to Pacific Street, (if you can even walk to one of those lines) transfer to the 2 to Flatbush Avenue and then take the B44 to the theater.

Alex C February 28, 2012 - 12:41 am

Not to mention the B103 tweaking they did. The B103 has seen a rise in ridership, so what do they do? They change the northbound routing to go through 3 different avenues (7 av-9 st-5 av) instead of Prospect Parkway and then 3 Ave. Over/under 2 months before Park Slope demands (and gets) a B103 stop, further slowing down an important bus route for Canarsie and Flatbush residents.

Alon Levy February 28, 2012 - 2:26 am

Out of curiosity, what kind of bus route updates are you thinking about?

BrooklynBus February 28, 2012 - 11:19 am

Go to my website. http://brooklynbus.tripod.com/ I’m not saying these are the perfect changes but it’s a point where discussions can start. Also, I have not updated it in six years because what’s the use when the MTA only wants to cut and not invest in the system. You don’t have to look at it all or agree with everything. Just read about what the problems on Fort Hamilton Parkway and 13th Avenue. You have one slow indirect route trying to do what two routes should be doing. It makes transferring inconvenient, adding 15 minutes just to make a transfer from 60th Street westbound to 14th Avenue northbound and provides a major institution like Maimonides Hospital with only one east west route and no north south route. The route was designed in the early 1930s when 13th Avenue did not cross the Sea Beach LIRR ROW. That bridge was built several years after the route started operation but no one bothered to change the bus routes so buses could use it.

John February 28, 2012 - 1:04 am

Why not make it a little easier to take a bus?

I tried to board a bus once last year (one of the last times I ever tried to take a bus) and my metro card was out. I’m sure many people on the site just know this but I’ll put it in all caps for everyone that doesn’t.


9 quarters… and that’s just one way! Who would ever carry around that hand grenade worth of shrapnel? The quarter-payment policy is just too crazy to keep.

Bolwerk February 28, 2012 - 10:51 am

I generally agree with you, though wouldn’t two $1 coins and a quarter also work?

Terratalk March 2, 2012 - 2:50 pm

US is suspending production of $1 coins because no one will use them. http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/po.....l-1-coins/

Anon256 February 28, 2012 - 5:22 pm

Really, cash payment is so slow and inefficient that it just shouldn’t be allowed at all (as on many systems in Europe and elsewhere). The cumulative value of other passengers’ time wasted when someone boards a crowded bus and pays in cash almost certainly exceeds the value of their fare.

ajedrez February 29, 2012 - 10:36 am

It depends. I’ve seen passengers who are able to dump a handful of quarters into the farebox as fast as it can handle them, so it’s only a second longer than dipping in a MetroCard.

BBnet3000 February 28, 2012 - 3:55 am

Faster fare payment, more dedicated rights of way, and upgrades to streetcars for some of the higher ridership routes (though construction costs being out of control would probably prohibit that last one).

Marc Shepherd February 28, 2012 - 7:37 am

I don’t understand this post at all. NYC has never had select bus service in our lifetimes, except recently on a few routes. The lack of it therefore cannot be the reason why bus usage has declined so precipitously. NYC buses were always “slow, plodding and unreliable.”

I’m in favor of SBS for other reasons, but before we tout it as the reason for the recent decline, we ought to figure out if that’s true.

John T February 28, 2012 - 7:46 am

Hi – to me, this article doesn’t clearly explain why bus ridership is down, specifically what has changed in the past couple of years versus problems with bus transit from a decade ago.

The M15 express service is faster and I do use it, but why does everyong focus on the pre-paid aspect but ignore the fact of the fewer stop? From Fulton Street there are just 7-8 stops to 34th Street, less than half the regular M15 run. Take the local M15 and subtract out the paying time, and you won’t see much difference from teh express M15.

John of the Bronx February 28, 2012 - 9:25 am

What has changed in the past couple of years is the introduction of the “Hybrid-Electric” buses which are TOO SMALL (4000 series). As a result, even a small group of people causes severe overcrowding, jostling, extreme humidity in the summer even with AC etc. This problem did not exist with the use of “normal” sized buses (6000 series). Now, almost every bus ride is a “rush hour.”

I have seen the result on 3 Bronx bus lines: BX10, BX26, BX36 and am not surprised that people don’t want to ride them. One specific example, on the BX26–eastbound. The first stop is Jerome Avenue and the hybrids are filled to standing room only so that by the 2nd stop on the Concourse, no one can sit down. This was not the case with normal sized buses. People do want to sit down on a bus trip and with the hybrids, a seat is luck and a luxury.

Second and specific to the Grand Concourse’s BX1, BX2. Here accordion buses are used. The problem is bunching which has become extremely severe since bike lanes were established in the service lane–reducing it to only 1 lane. Just about no one uses the bike lanes. The BX1 and BX2 are so unrealiable that people just use the D train.

AK February 28, 2012 - 9:27 am

John, while the frequency of stops certainly affects speed, data from the MTA comparing the M15 Limited to the SBS suggests that the off-board payment does have a profound effect. See the chart on page 17 of the following report:


Note that the Limited does have a few more stops along its route that the SBS, so the “stopped at bus stops” savings is a combination of fewer stops and off-board payment.

Larry Littlefield February 28, 2012 - 9:21 am

There was a set of now older New Yorkers who wouldn’t ride the buses because of fear of crime on the subway. They are dying off, and younger people who like the subway are taking their place. End of story.

What to do? What I said. Transfer the bus/paratransit system, and the MTA Payroll Tax revenue, to New York City and the counties (if the counties want the payroll tax). Let all the state operating assistance for downstate go to the MTA, for the subway and commuter rail lines.

The buses are stuck in the same traffic as private motor vehicles, without the privacy. They are stuck at lights. They are a lousy mode in general in a place like NYC. And they can only be improved by NYC, which controls the streets the way the MTA controls the rails. Let NYC deal with it.

Larry Littlefield February 28, 2012 - 9:22 am

By the way, in the face of national transit resurgance, and much higher subsidies as a percent than the subway or MetroNorth, LIRR ridership is dropping. That’s a bigger story.

SEAN February 28, 2012 - 10:47 am

One explamation for the LIRR may lie in the fact that the a greater exitus from Long Island compared to the rest of the tri-state area. There have been several references in the past few months regarding this in the media.

Nathanael March 1, 2012 - 5:48 pm

Probably just as well; Long Island is going to be pummelled by global warming in a way that the rest of the state won’t be.

Nathanael March 1, 2012 - 5:52 pm

It is definitely time to talk about reorganizing the LIRR.

It has the highest cost structure in the industry, due partly to particularly intransigent steam-era union rules.

It has an intransigent management unwilling to even consider merging with Metro-North.

It has dropping ridership. And the places with increasing ridership are the horribly neglected in-city stops. On the whole, ridership patterns have shifted significantly since the current structure was established.

It’s about to get a fourth city-end terminus.

It has incompatible electrification from Amtrak, and is badly subject to “leaves on the rails”.

A complete reinvention of the LIRR would be wise.

Christopher February 28, 2012 - 10:00 am

I think there is even more demographic shifts away from buses as a viable option. The more we can make buses like light-rail — with better prediction of next buses, better boarding, dedicated routes and better on-bus information systems — the more we will attract lost riders. Of course the expansion of biking in NYC has also hurt buses, and having buses with bus racks would also help.

Maybe. Buses come really close together in NYC. With the L out this weekend, I found myself taking the bus around Brooklyn a lot this weekend and was really impressed. Buses are no slower than here than in other cities … and they come so often. In SF and DC, you were lucky if the bus came every 30 minutes in most pats of town. Partly by planning, partly by just poorly run service. So I’m not sure if adding bike racks to buses would just slow things down even more.

I do think the buses need better on-bus information … what street your at and LED signage is something that is part of the bus systems in cities around the country for a decade.

John-2 February 28, 2012 - 10:37 am

It will be interesting to see the results of Bus Time when it’s eventually moved onto routes that have possible rail alternatives (I suppose SIRT and the S-78 could be a comparison, but the SIRT’s schedules are more like commuter rail than they are a regular subway line).

We live in an immediate gratification world, where people want something now. And while they are willing to wait a little longer in the out-of-the-weather subway stations for their train to come, standing out on the street waiting for the next bus without any idea of how long that wait might be is something a lot of people just don’t want to put up with, if the wait is long enough to become an irritant. If you can get the system to the point that they can do something else until they know it’s time to go to the bus stop, that could lower the irritation levels and boost ridership.

Christopher February 28, 2012 - 12:53 pm

But the buses come so frequently. We don’t have enough shelters though. I will say that. I do think you are right that bus tracking will boost numbers but there is more than that. It’s a total experience of waiting, boarding, riding, routes, and information that provides an experience that helps to suggest a level of importance and quality. Buses for better or worse are down market. Bikes provide freedom and are obviously a higher priority and that takes away those who are looking for something as alternate to walking or subway.

Bolwerk February 28, 2012 - 1:00 pm

Behl, shelters. The ones we do have are made for Miami. I’m not sure I find the niggling leaks in them better than I find just standing miserable in the rain. 😐

ajedrez February 16, 2013 - 2:24 pm

Depends on what lines we’re talking about. If you’re talking about the B46 during rush hour, yes they do come frequently. If we’re talking about the S54 during middays (with 30 minute headways), then that’t not frequent, especially if the bus comes late or early or goes missing or something.

jros February 28, 2012 - 11:49 am

the payment system for the buses is chaotic and most people pay as if is their first time, then they stand in the front bocking everyone else. Why not eliiminate the process and have everyone either show a valid ticket to the driver or do random enforcement ala sbs. The city had virtually eliminated stand alone parking meter with paper voucher. The parking payment machines are available on virtually every block where meters used to be, putting a similar machine at every bus stop can’t be that impossible.

Shannon February 28, 2012 - 12:57 pm

Once you start using the SBS on a regular basis you really grow to hate having to take a regular local bus.

I absolutely love SBS. The only thing I’d change is still having to get a ticket when you have a monthly MetroCard. There should be some sort of marking on the monthly’s that set them apart so that they can be shown to agents checking for tickets. Or perhaps the agents have a hand held scanner to verify that you have a monthly. Something… seems a meaningless waste of paper when we already have a card in our hands.

Jessica February 28, 2012 - 1:22 pm

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to denote when an unlimited card is actually valid (and not expired) since they can be used in any 30 day period. If unlimited MetroCards looked like the monthly Metro North and LIRR dual MetroCard/Train Pass, it would be possible. However, that would require a loss in flexibility, because the MetroCards would be tied to that specific month.

Bolwerk February 28, 2012 - 1:24 pm

Two solutions: hand-held card readers and on-board card readers. Inspectors really shouldn’t care whether the unlimited is “validated” or not.

Alon Levy February 28, 2012 - 3:19 pm

One possible compromise, using paper tickets, is to have unlimited cards valid for 30 days from purchase rather than from first swipe. This way, the TVMs can be modified to print the expiration date in large font.

Bolwerk February 28, 2012 - 3:25 pm

I thought of that, but wasn’t sure whether that expiration date was printed by the TVM or during manufacture.

Hank February 28, 2012 - 3:43 pm

Traffic! Why do I ride the train when I could take the bus? time. I actually prefer the M15 SBS, but even that is often slower than the train getting from where I live by the SAS launch box to midtown where I work.

Solution? Congestion Pricing in Manhattan! Everything above 86 in the east and 96 in the west, who’s with me?

Peter Laws February 28, 2012 - 3:59 pm

Having multiple bus sizes is crazy. There’s no way you can efficiently match the size of the load to the size of the bus over the span of service.

Not being a local, I was surprised to find that there is no monthly MetroCard … Now that I think of it, I guess Chicago’s cta is the same way.

A monthly “flash pass” seems the easiest solution to boarding delays if off-board fare collection isn’t an option (and really, it isn’t for all routes). One potential problem you get into though is that it puts the vehicle operator into the role of fare collector because you’re substituting the operator’s eyes for the farebox.

Another way to speed boarding would be cards that use proximity devices so you can tap and go instead of having to dip a mag-stripe card.

ajedrez February 16, 2013 - 2:26 pm

There is a monthly MetroCard. But on the SBS, you still have to dip it in and get a ticket.

Anon256 February 28, 2012 - 5:29 pm

This article seems to be looking at things backwards, treating buses a solution searching for a problem. If we have particular transport needs that can’t be served by rail, then we can talk about how best to serve them by bus. But if fewer people are riding buses because their transport needs are more often met by rail, and thus both ridership and efficiency are increasing, that sounds great!

dungone February 29, 2012 - 1:41 am

New York traffic is probably worse than ever… the city posted a record population in the last census. A good reasons to use the subways more and avoid the bus.

SIR North Shore February 29, 2012 - 2:43 am

MTA Bustime… It’s currently doing wonders for staten island right now and I’m sure it will have the same effect for the other boros. The buses arrive on-time, hold if they are early, speed up if they’re late, the crowds are more even and you can see where your bus is at before you even leave the house. I’ve certainly noticed a sharp increase in riders because of bustime & the new bus fleets over the last month on staten island.

Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines February 29, 2012 - 9:00 am

[…] How Can the MTA Reverse the Trend of Declining Bus Ridership? (2nd Ave Sagas) […]

Michael February 29, 2012 - 9:28 am

I stopped taking the bus because the three busses (B24, Q60 Sunday, BXM4C) I would normally take to see friends and family have all either been cut completely or no longer run on the weekends.

ajedrez February 29, 2012 - 10:41 am

The Q60 wasn’t affected.

Michael February 29, 2012 - 11:51 am

Try taking it towards the city on Sunday, its only ever 30 minutes now. It used to be every 10. Or I can just take the R.

Today’s Headlines | Body Local NYC March 1, 2012 - 10:19 am

[…] How Can the MTA Reverse the Trend of Declining Bus Ridership? (2nd Ave Sagas) […]

Peter Smith March 1, 2012 - 12:22 pm

from what i’ve read, there are two very effective ways to increase transit:
1) increase transit frequency
2) drop prices.

So, drop fares. Done. Overnight you achieve more ridership.

Bus travel should def not cost as much as comfortable travel anyways.

Start by dropping off-peak fares, watch ridership stabilize, then drop them again and watch ridership tick-up again.

Then continue to move towards free public transport as we can, maintaining non-crushload conditions — that is, maintain congestion pricing to make sure NYC buses don’t end up like Bogota’s sex assault/robbery bus system, Transmilenio.

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