Home Buses As bus ridership declines, BusTime shows gains

As bus ridership declines, BusTime shows gains

by Benjamin Kabak

Without unseasonably warm weather, bus ridership in January would have shown a decline.

Over the past few months, I’ve burned more than a few pixels assessing the MTA’s ongoing decline in bus ridership figures. Select Bus Services has proven popular, but as we know, the downward trend in ridership numbers has been both long-term and steady. MTA Board members would like to see this trend reversed, but it’s unclear how the MTA plans to do so.

In advance of Monday morning’s MTA Board committee hearings, the authority released its latest ridership figures, and again the bus numbers show a decline. As the authority notes, average weekday bus ridership actually climbed in January 2012 from January 2011 by approximately 5.6 percent. However, as the authority notes, “adjusted for weather differences, bus ridership would have had a small decrease.” In other words, had we had winter in January this year, bus ridership would have declined yet again. The rolling twelve-month average decreased by three percent.

So is there a way to solve this decline? Maybe technology can be a part of that answer. Earlier this year, the MTA unveiled its BusTime application on Staten Island. The in-house bus tracking system will soon spread to the Bronx and one other borough this year before a full citywide rollout is completed by the end of 2013. In the meantime, WNYC’s Jim O’Grady reports on the early Staten Island success of the technology.

He reports:

The MTA’s BusTime system has been up and running in Staten Island for barely two months and already an estimated 10 percent of all bus riders use it every weekday. The service lets riders use a mobile device to text or scan a bus stop code and receive a message with their bus’s location.

“Having that information on the phone just revolutionizes the experience of riding the bus,” said Josh Robin, a project director with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which has had its own version of the program since 2009. “You can look on the screen and see the bus moving toward you instead of peering down the road, hoping to see the lights and LED sign of a bus.”

Staten Island is the first of the city’s five boroughs to receive BusTime, which, according to transportation analysts, is off to a flying start. “I think it is a smashing success to have 10 percent of the riders using it within a year of opening the service,” said Dr. Kari Watkins, a civil engineering professor at Georgia Tech who studied real-time bus arrival information in Seattle. She said it has taken two and a half years for that city’s version of BusTime, called OneBusAway, to be used by 20 percent of its riders.

The MTA cannot yet determine if BusTime will lead to an increase in ridership on Staten Island, but I believe as this technology becomes an accepted part of the bus landscape, ridership will inch up a bit. Simply put, BusTime solves the pain of waiting for a bus, and that wait is one of the main reasons why people don’t take the bus. There have been countless times where I’ve glanced down an empty avenue in search of a bus, and with no vehicle in sight, I opt to walk instead. The schedules posted at bus stops are generally useless, and with BusTime, potential bus riders will know when to wait and when to take the bus.

Now, BusTime is only one piece of the puzzle. We need buses that are faster on the streets, have priority signaling and dedicated lanes. We need buses that aren’t slowed down by endless boarding queues as riders go through the painfully slow process of a MetroCard dip. We need bus routes that are maximized to deliver riders from where they are to where they need to be in a way other transit options do not. For now, though, we’ll settle for a good app that tells us when the bus is coming. It’s a start.

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Flatbush Depot March 25, 2012 - 11:51 pm

“We need buses that aren’t slowed down by endless boarding queues as riders go through the painfully slow process of a MetroCard dip.”

Hell to the yes. Also nobody should have to wait longer than 12 minutes for a bus (although even that is a bit of a stretch; it should really be 8) during the day. That is the longest you have to wait for any subway train.

Bolwerk March 26, 2012 - 2:21 am

Sometimes ridership can’t justify that kind of frequency. An hourly commuter bus can have decent financial performance, for a bus anyway, and the only drawback is people have to plan ahead…like suburban railroad users have to do.

Flatbush Depot March 26, 2012 - 12:50 pm

Unfortunately even that does not work sometimes because local/limited buses are subject to so much variability, and this is terrible for low-frequency routes because you will sometimes be out there and expect the bus to come at a certain time, but instead it shows up like 10 minutes later because it got stuck in traffic or there was a wheelchair (fortunately this is less of a problem on low-floors with the lifts at the front door) or some nonsense. Or the running time is inadequate, rendering the schedule useless.

Bolwerk March 26, 2012 - 1:49 pm

I agree, but until peoplepoliticians stop refusing to accept the practicality of pricing POV traffic away even in those situations, it’s not going to change much. Pricing has benefits for just about every party that doesn’t value shirking a fee more than getting places on time, but the people who value shirking fees are the VIPs of New York politics.

Still, it’s hard to defend an SBS lane for a bus that runs once an hour. Better macropolicy would fix that problem anyway, though.

Nyland8 March 26, 2012 - 6:34 am

It sounds like another useful tool in the mass-transit toolbox to me. If I had a smart phone, I’d use it. There are times that I’d know to rush to a corner because a bus was arriving soon, and other times when I’d stop in coffee shop, knowing that my bus was still 7-8 minutes away. I could imagine regular bus commuters not even leaving their apartments until they knew “it was time” to catch the bus.

If we had the same app for the subway system, I wouldn’t walk out my door until I knew a train was 4 minutes away, because that’s how long it takes me to get door to turnstile.

Of course, if everyone used a subway app that way, we’d all arrive at the top of the stairs at the same moment … which, come to think of it, would not be a good idea. But it should work for busses.

Now if we can only get everyone to exit the bus from the rear, that would save time at many stops, too.

Christopher March 26, 2012 - 10:45 am

Bus travel time systems in place in DC and SF don’t require a smart phone. You can text to get the information on next arrival. Or you can call.

I’d REALLY like to see on board LED displays to say what street is coming up and I think would be easier with a tracking system in place.

Benjamin Kabak March 26, 2012 - 10:57 am

BusTime can be used with a so-called “dumb” phone as well. All you need are texting capabilities.

Joe March 26, 2012 - 2:05 pm

Chicago does all of these things and has for years. LED signs and recorded announcements on board announce the stops as they come up. They’ve also started putting estimated arrival time boards at bus stops all around the city. And you can track every single bus by smartphone, text, or call.

Benjamin Kabak March 26, 2012 - 2:12 pm

How much does Chicago pay for its system vs. New York?

Joe March 26, 2012 - 7:25 pm

Chicago uses Clever Devices, and CTA’s budget is a pittance compared to the MTA overall. I applaud the idea of developing a system in-house, but only if it provides the basic features that are actually useful. The MTA basically announced that the 34th Street corridor’s tracker is about to get worse—no more time arrivals, no more LED signs. In that case, what’s the damn point?

Joe March 26, 2012 - 10:10 am

Why doesn’t BusTIME show you how much TIME until the bus is expected to arrive? Like every other bus tracking system ever?

Benjamin Kabak March 26, 2012 - 10:27 am

Because times aren’t static while distance is. A bus that’s 1.6 miles away isn’t always the same amount of minutes away. That time varies based on number of people boarding and surface traffic levels. Distance is a much more reliable indicator than time.

Christopher March 26, 2012 - 10:47 am

But few people know how distance translates into time. Even if other systems are sometimes off, they do give you a rough estimate of when the next bus is coming.

Joe March 26, 2012 - 2:02 pm

I’m sorry, but NYC is not the only city in the world with heavy and unpredictable traffic (see: any other million-plus city), but it probably is the only one that is deploying a bus tracker system that doesn’t estimate how long passengers will have to wait. It’s not particularily interesting to know how many miles/blocks the bus is away. The whole point of a tracker is that it can calculate how long you’ll have to wait for the bus to arrive based on historical data, so I can know when to walk to the bus stop, whether to find an alternate form of transit, or whether to bother waiting at all. The only thing distance tells me is “it’s really far away” or “it’s kind of close, I guess.”

Bolwerk March 26, 2012 - 3:35 pm

Mathematically, it’s more a problem of controlling variance than outright predictability. If we know with 99% certainty that a bus will arrive within 2m of a scheduled time, we’re doing pretty well.

I don’t know what kind of variances New York sees on the lines in question, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re absurd.

Joe March 26, 2012 - 7:27 pm

So you think it’s not possible in NYC? Even though other cities with traffic just as bad have managed to do it for years and years? It strikes me as another case of the “NYC is special” attitude that plagues the city’s deployment of progressive ideas.

Bolwerk March 26, 2012 - 7:49 pm

The only way NYC is “special” in that regard is that it’s willing to inflict such disruptive traffic upon itself, albeit with Albany’s help. So far as I know, other cities that do what you say take measures to control traffic variance or outright dedicate bus lanes. NYC can do that, probably with more technical ease than most places, but it doesn’t because it makes Very Important People angsty to pay the costs of their driving upfront rather than in wasted time and fuel.

Joe March 26, 2012 - 11:42 pm

But this system is used in plenty of insanely congested cities on tons of routes without special bus prioritization. See: Tokyo, London, etc. And using Chicago as an example, routes along Michigan Ave, Clark Street, Lake Shore Drive, etc.—all infamously congested and chaotic routes without bus priority, but the tracker system is considered very reliable.

Bolwerk March 27, 2012 - 11:26 am

I dunno. The only one of those cities I have any intimate familiarity with is London, and they do take traffic control measures and have CP. My uneducated take is: regardless of where you go, heavy traffic is probably not a big deal in and of itself, as far as reliability goes, but highly volatile traffic is. (Reliability ≠ speed, of course.)

I don’t know if NYC is highly volatile for some strange reason (geographic – I could see it), or planners just don’t want to somehow control traffic volatility. My suspicion is the latter, FWIW. (Oh, and anecdotally, they do of course schedule for traffic. When I ride the Third Ave. bus, Manhattan misfits complain about how slow it’s going in light traffic. The drivers can’t get through to them that they schedule for the expected traffic, not the current traffic.)

Andrew March 27, 2012 - 9:53 pm Reply
SEAN March 26, 2012 - 10:11 am

In adition, if the fare collection system was on par with Boston, Chicago or Seattle with smart cards where you wave or tap the card on asencer, people may come back to the bus network do to a perceived sence of faster travel time. However real improvements in travel speeds & easy connections are esential to atract NEW riders & not subway transfers. What you are witnessing are transfers from the bus to the subway.

ajedrez March 27, 2012 - 12:05 am

Staten Island only has the SIR, and you don’t have a lot of riders transferring to buses like you do with the subway. Most of these bus riders are people in areas far from the SIR who don’t have much of a choice as far as walking vs. taking a bus.

Michael March 26, 2012 - 11:27 am

“We need buses that aren’t slowed down by endless boarding queues as riders go through the painfully slow process of a MetroCard dip”

Hopefully the MTA will replace the MetroCard with a contactless card very soon. This combined with stopping cash fares will make a big difference on bus times.

It is amazing how long a bus can stall at a stop waiting for people to board and dip their cards. Whats even more stunning is the number of people who have been waiting for the bus but have to wait until they get to the farebox to start looking for their metrocard in their wallet or purse.

I’ve been on buses where the bus has missed two traffic light cycles just waiting for people to board and pay.

While contactless cards are not instant, They are still much faster than dipping the card in the reader. Some can even work when keeping the card inside a wallet or card holder.

I think ending cash payments on buses is possible with the MTA’s plan to allow contactless credit card payments as part of their smart card system. Those without credit cards could still get cards at subway stations.

SEAN March 26, 2012 - 12:00 pm

Well said. NYC is so far behind other world cities with transit techknology it’s rediculus.

Look at Toronto & it’s new Presto card. It’s valid on suburban bus systems, GO regional commuter trains & soon on TTC busses & subways. Why cant we do something like that.

tp March 26, 2012 - 6:51 pm

And a single ride fare in Toronto is $3.00 CAD ($3.02 USD)!

Alon Levy March 26, 2012 - 12:52 pm

…and that’s why the MTA should bother checking how other cities do it. In Singapore, you can pay cash on board. The bus will start moving even before everyone pays, since most people have EZ-Link (getting one is very easy, which is not true of a credit card), and people are responsible to having a valid fare, enforced with roving inspections.

Ditto other cities. Berlin? Pay the driver, unless you have a valid unlimited pass, in which case you don’t need to do anything to pay the fare.

The speed advantage of smartcards is nice, but the best way to speed up the process while keeping collection costs down is to set the fare payment system in such a way that the majority of riders are pre-paid even before they arrive at the bus stop, and let them board freely.

Bolwerk March 26, 2012 - 2:11 pm

I think, more often than not, when I mention the benefits of POP to NYers – the benefits are obvious for anyone remotely quantitatively literate, and I can’t think of any serious drawbacks – I get an angry, often sanctimonious, backlash. Many people seem to prefer catching everyone who would dare to evade, so the evaders can be punished, to having higher TA revenue, better service, and lower collection costs.

Maybe if risking evasion becomes fair game in exchange for a risk of paying a steep fine, the people most horrified will be the congregants of the Church of the Broken Windows. Either way, it makes me wonder how much that attitude permeates the MTA.

SEAN March 26, 2012 - 4:05 pm

You may have hit the answer without realizing it. Our society is obsessed with variousforms of punishment regardless how small the transgression might be. Some of this is overt while some of it is disguised in one form or another. An obvious example noted here is failure to show a receipt while riding SBS. If a TVM doesn’t print out proof of payment, who’s fault is that? vs who gets stuck with the pennelty?

In L. A. the fine for invalid fare is $250, steep for what is really a small infraction.

Bruce M March 27, 2012 - 1:11 pm

In Singapore, if you don’t pay your fare you’ll probably end up getting caned publicly, vs. here where the driver will probably be spat on or hit when he/she confronts a farebeater.

Bolwerk March 27, 2012 - 3:19 pm

All the more reason to use POP. Trained personnel can deal with farebeaters, and drivers can focus on driving. And money and angst is saved all around.

Alon Levy March 27, 2012 - 9:05 pm

In Singapore, if you don’t pay your fare you’ll probably end up getting caned publicly

Um, no. You’ll get a fine, like in every other city. You get caned for things like drug possession, armed robbery, and vandalism.

The supposed super-harsh punishments for everything are just marketing – that way, Singapore convinces tourists that they’re in an orderly place, rather than in one where taxi drivers routinely spit on the street at red lights.

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[…] « As bus ridership declines, BusTime shows gains Mar […]

Ian March 26, 2012 - 7:22 pm

It would be great if ridership figures for each boro were released. That would help paint more of a picture on what’s happening with bus ridership and the factors behind any trends.

ajedrez March 27, 2012 - 12:08 am

The MTA releases its ridership figures every year. You just have to add the numbers up for each borough. What we’re discussing is whether BusTime has increased ridership in SI.

Andrew March 27, 2012 - 9:58 pm

Why is it a problem that bus ridership is declining? Transit ridership is up overall. As long as people are still getting where they’re going, why is it a problem that ridership is shifting from the bus to the subway?

Bolwerk March 28, 2012 - 1:34 am

Where have you been, man? Rubber tires are the way of the future. We’re going backwards!

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