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.
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.