Home Asides Without flashing blue lights, confusion over SBS buses

Without flashing blue lights, confusion over SBS buses

by Benjamin Kabak

The MTA and DOT Select Bus Service initiative is a rather fragile and frail imitation of real bus rapid transit, and even a slight shift in the way the service is set up can have deep ramifications. When two Staten Island politicians more concerned with space for cars rather than the letter of the law raised a stink over SBS’ flashing lights, I figured turning off the blue indicators would have an impact on the service, and a recent article by Dana Rubinstein confirmed as much.

According to unnamed bus managers who oversee Select Bus Service, turning off the lights has resulted in slower buses that don’t move as quickly as they used to. “It’s really affecting the quality of service,” one said to Capital New York. The reasons are twofold: First, riders not accustomed to the system cannot easily distinguish between SBS buses and local buses, thus delaying boarding and travel times. Second, cars are not as quick to vacate supposed bus-only lanes as the blue lights no longer signal approaching vehicles.

In January, the MTA vowed to find another color for its flashing lights — one that wouldn’t violate state law — but results has been slow in coming. Recently, two City Council members have urged the agency to restore the flashing lights, but all the MTA has said is that they’re working on it. “We’re aware of customer concerns about being unable to distinguish between regular and SBS service, which is why we’re intently studying the best alternative to flashing blue lights,” MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg said to Rubinstein. Only action though will speed up the buses again.

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Andrew Smith March 18, 2013 - 1:09 pm

I’d much prefer they equip their buses with cameras that photograph license plates and send tickets to drivers in the lanes.

I don’t think the lanes should be entirely off limits to cars. It’s crazy to let a resource sit unused, but drivers should be responsible for getting out of the way. If a bus gets within 200 feet of the back of your car, you get a ticket.

Alex March 18, 2013 - 1:16 pm

If you really want the bus lane to be effective, it needs to be clear of other traffic. If traffic is heavy a bunch of cars will move into the bus lane and when a bus comes along they’ll all try to merge back in at once, causing backups for both cars and the bus. Bus lanes need to be reserved for buses and the penalty for a car using it must be enforced regularly, preferably with on-bus cameras.

Someone March 18, 2013 - 1:25 pm

Also, with bus lanes that operate within certain times (in this example, a bus lane that is exclusively for buses from 7 AM-7 PM), the cameras should be turned off after 7 PM.

Alex C March 18, 2013 - 11:17 pm

The problem is nobody actually pays attention to the bus-lane rules. The 2 Ave bus lane is, during bus-only times, constantly full of NYPD cars, parked delivery trucks, and just random motorists parking or driving their cars through them. The worst part is politicians go for the MTA’s throat if they actually try and enforce the laws. Because how dare people get penalized for knowingly and willingly breaking the law.

BBnet3000 March 19, 2013 - 11:37 am

The resources isnt sitting unused if buses are using it.

Dont fall into the “empty lanes” trap, particularly not given the ridership of the few bus lines the MTA has bothered to lay down terra cotta bus lanes for.

Bolwerk March 18, 2013 - 1:10 pm

Multiple times since the lights went off, I had drivers pull into the lane and block the bus AS IT WAS PULLING IN while I was waiting. I’ve taken to pulling my camera out and conspicuously photographing them blocking the lane. It’s funny how often they scurry away.

But, the lack of reliability has pretty much made it useless for me during time crunches. Most times, I just use the Lex IRT again.

Alek March 18, 2013 - 1:16 pm

Not related to topic reminder: Queens Blvd Fastrack tonight kicking off in Queens. Extra 7 service until 2:30am

Benjamin Kabak March 18, 2013 - 1:21 pm

I know. Post going up about it later.

Someone March 18, 2013 - 1:20 pm

The MTA should start using purple or pink LEDs. Or even green ones.

Alex C March 18, 2013 - 11:18 pm

Green is for volunteer ambulance services in NY state DOT rules. It’ll have to be violet or magenta.

Christopher March 18, 2013 - 1:40 pm

When SBS started, I thought the flashing blue lights were silly, but as I began to rely on the M15 SBS up First Avenue (the service is useless going down Second until you get to 57th Street, thanks to the SAS construction), I also began to rely on the flashing blue lights. Why? The distance between the regular M15 stops and SBS stops is often a full block apart, and seeing the blue lights coming up First gave you enough time to get from one stop to the other. Now that the lights are gone, many of us find ourselves making a mad dash to the SBS so that we can get our tickets in time to board. The drivers usually don’t drive off if they see someone buying a ticket, but I can see how the extra waiting is ruining their schedules and slowing down the service for everyone.

Please, bring back the lights, whatever the color.

Bolwerk March 18, 2013 - 5:39 pm

They really need to let you buy tickets on the bus, too, so 50 people don’t have to wait for one buying a ticket. It’s so frustrating how New York City can’t get things right that other cities learned decades ago.

Patrick March 18, 2013 - 8:08 pm

You can buy tickets onboard all regular or limited stop busses with exact change on board, but one of the main points of SBS is off-board fare payment, so there wouldn’t be a line of 10 people stumbling to get $2.50 in quarters out of their pockets, thus cutting dwell times at stops.

~Patrick @ The LIRR Today

Phantom March 18, 2013 - 8:30 pm

I think that it should also be possible to buy on the bus. I have had to let SBS buses pass because itis not possible to do so

If you approach the bus stop as the bus door is open, you will be just too late to catch the bus by the time you go through the one step too many acquisition of a bus ticket

When you just miss a bus more than once for this reason, it doesn’t exactly make you want to use SBS again.

I see this as a design flaw – I’ve used buses in Italy where you could pay the fare on the bus. SBS would be better if prepaying or paying on board were both options.

Patrick March 18, 2013 - 9:35 pm

But then everybody decides they are going to buy their tickets on the bus and not bother with the fare machines beforehand and you’re back where you started in terms of the slow boarding process…

Phantom March 18, 2013 - 10:12 pm

No because if you are there before the bus arrives there is no reason not to buy the ticket before the bus grts there

It does not have to be either / or

You can have most buying early and late arrivals buying on board

The fact that you can’t do this is a design flaw — on top of the first design flaw – the unnecessary pressing button step at the machine

Bolwerk March 18, 2013 - 11:21 pm

What Phantom says.

Also, in some cities the practice is have TVMs in cars, but make them available at larger stations as well. When only one or two people trickle on at quieter stations, there is little point in wasting money maintaining a TVM.

Meanwhile, having them on vehicles means they can be maintained centrally. The SBS strategy is really a combination of incomplete and ass-backwards.

Phantom March 18, 2013 - 11:55 pm

The entire system is not well thought out. I’ve tried the M15 a number of times.

One of countless irritations – at a normal stop, there are two fare machines

At the South Ferry station, where passenger flow is very irregular because big crowds arrive at once when the ferry comes in – you have the same two fare payment machines!!! And wholly unnecessary lines, with passengers left behind for no good reason.

Bolwerk March 18, 2013 - 8:42 pm

There should be TVMs on the buses. Yes, of course drivers should not be involved in fare collection.

Patrick March 19, 2013 - 7:44 pm

I just want the MTA to do away with the paper receipts for something similar to the receipts from MuniMeters. I can understand it’s the first time for off-board fare collection for the MTA, so lets choose something easy for Proof-of-Purchase, like flimsy paper receipts. Now it’s some years later, it’s a success, now can we make the tickets actually be “tickets”?

An on-board Point-of-Sale for last-minute customers would be a good benefit, of course at a slightly unnoticeable cost to the time saving perks of +SelectBusService+. My questions, if there was an on-board POS for SBS, would it also be the first machine on buses to accept $1 bills? And where (obviously behind the Driver) would it be located?

-The Patrick Without a Blog

Josh K. March 18, 2013 - 1:44 pm

Green flashing lights on the front of a vehicle are, under NYS V&T Law, currently reserved for use as a courtesy light for use only by members of a volunteer ambulance corps.

As a current volunteer firefighter in a northern NYC suburb, I have a blue light on my truck. I do not use it unless I’m within a 5-7 minute drive of my fire district when responding to a call. I really could care less if the MTA uses the same color in NYC, as SBS is not in any of the areas of NYC with volunteer firefighters.

With modern LEDs, we now have an entire spectrum of color available to use for flashing lights. Why not make some sort of really DIFFERENT color combination of LEDs on the front of the SBS buses and call it done. How about Orange & Purple, or rainbow of flashing lights?

Jim D. March 18, 2013 - 3:22 pm

There’s a fairly simple solution to the identification issue. White and multi-color LED destination signs are now readily available for buses – equip the SBS buses with a diffrent color sign than the regular buses. The white LED signs in particular are very noticeable from blocks away.

As for the flashing lights having a deterrent effect to automobile drivers invading bus lanes – I’m not convinced this will be a lasting solution. Only a sustained enforcement program complete with violations being issued will convince other drivers that cheating by using the bus lanes is not worth the risk of being caught. Equipping buses with cameras and allowing the MTA to issue citations and collect fines would be a fine start.

Someone March 18, 2013 - 3:35 pm

White is a color reserved for emergency vehicles.

MaximusNYC March 19, 2013 - 1:06 pm

How many colors need to be reserved for emergency vehicles? White, blue, green, red, what else? It’s ridiculous.

Someone March 19, 2013 - 1:39 pm

Orange as well.

I know, it is ridiculous.

Jim D. March 19, 2013 - 2:23 pm

I’m not talking about flashing white lights – I’m referring to white LED letters and numbers on the destination sign, as currently used on buses in Syracuse, Albany and elsewhere.

SEAN March 18, 2013 - 4:57 pm

While we debate what color the front lights should be on the busses, the most importent point about SBS is being glossed over. A pair of polititions from SI successfully nutered the whole concept by causing public confusion on multable fronts.

Where do I go if I cant identify an SBS bus when it comes?

Is the right lane exclusive to SBS?

Will I get a moving violation if I’m in a lane that may or may not be exclusive for SBS?


Bolwerk March 18, 2013 - 5:46 pm

I suspect this was part of the point of SBS. It was designed so it was easily reversible, something for Mayor Quinn or Liu to horse trade away in exchange for some other evil. There was no desire to make surface transit a fixed part of the modal mix.

With Bloomberg/JSK leaving us, this actually leaves us with the terrifying prospect that every level of government will be controlled by “Car Guys” eager to make the lives off the plighted overweight SUV driver easier at the expense of the city. It’s one more reason the BRT advocates should have been pushing for LRT; it’s harder to let suburban pols rape it once it’s built.

Flatbush Depot March 18, 2013 - 7:25 pm

and what exactly might you mean by “some other evil”?

and are you suggesting that every possible mayor and DOT commissioner is a “car guy” or something along those lines?

Bolwerk March 18, 2013 - 8:37 pm

What is so hard about the word “prospect”? Every candidate (e.g., any Democrat with a shot at the primary) with a prayer is, yes. Maybe a long-shot will win, maybe a saner candidate will at least build up a power base to push Quinn the winner in the right direction.

On the Repuglikan side, I’m not sure I consider Lhota viable, but his views on transit as a candidate seem to range from non-committal to non-existent.

Isaac B March 18, 2013 - 6:35 pm

Of course, it’s “unheard of” for NY motorists to equip their cars with flashing lights and sirens, even though they are not involved in any legitimate emergency service…and to use them to clear traffic when the mood suits them.

Someone March 18, 2013 - 7:17 pm

To-do list:
1: Get a 2004 Crown Victoria.
2: Purchase some sirens and flashing red lights.
3: Paint car in NYPD livery.

Seriously, I wish people would not get the idea. By the way, it’s not unheard of. Some jerk actually did that in Canada.

MaximusNYC March 19, 2013 - 1:12 pm

Where I live in Brooklyn, there are a lot of volunteer ambulance vehicles that seem to turn on their flashers all the time for questionable reasons.

Matthias March 19, 2013 - 3:17 pm

Yup, and police cars do this all the time too (they often don’t even bother to flash their lights before running a red light).

Toby March 18, 2013 - 7:22 pm

It seems to me that MTA management is at fault for selecting and deploying a color that wasn’t legal. If they hadn’t, the SBS buses would be flashing away today.

Someone March 18, 2013 - 8:07 pm

Um, actually, it was the Staten Island reps who bitched about it.

Patrick March 18, 2013 - 8:13 pm

If a motorist can’t differentiate an emergency vehicle from a bus they have bigger problems than the flashing lights being the same colors.

~Patrick @ The LIRR Today

Terra March 18, 2013 - 10:04 pm

My thoughts exactly … I have never mistook a bus for an ambulance, flashing light or not … the flashing lights were not confusing anyone especially since they were “framing” the yellow lit bus route sign in the top center of the front of the bus … was ANYONE confused by this? I don’t think so (except for two Staten Island politicians). Couldn’t there be a small amendment attached to any bill requesting a addendum to the original bill .. flashing blue lights for volunteers and steady blue lights for the SBS? (on the other hand, purple may look nice …)

John S March 18, 2013 - 11:07 pm

Thank you for the most rational post I’ve seen in awhile.

All other sorts of frivolity aside, this is the kicker, and the ‘wonderful’ lawmakers should be ashamed of themselves in the face of such logic.

Someone March 19, 2013 - 8:32 am


Alex C March 18, 2013 - 11:22 pm

The MTA suffers in reputation because of idiocy like this. This “problem” should’ve been solved 48 hours after the blue LEDs were ruled illegal. Go through the general list of colors that are easy to differentiate for people, then narrow down to those not used by any emergency vehicles under NY state law, then choose from those. Right now that leaves us with either magenta/pink or violet. Call up the LED manufacturer you use and order a big batch of LEDs in that color. Install the LEDs in place of the blue ones on SBS buses. Problem solved, the end.

Jim D. March 19, 2013 - 2:34 pm

Here’s a wild and crazy idea – instead of relying on flashing lights to help customers tell an SBS bus apart from a plain old local or limited bus, why not paint the SBS fleet in an entirely different and easily visible color? If SBS buses were, say, bright green, there is no way they would be mistaken for the typical blue and white MTA bus.

Terra March 19, 2013 - 5:52 pm

Well you see … then a little leprechaun would be complain’ that you would be using the color of the little people of Ireland … 🙂

Peter Laws March 19, 2013 - 7:39 pm


Read and heed.

But read between the lines: Note the exception for yellow lights in cities with more than 1M people. Since the number of SBS riders and potential SBS riders far exceeds the number of volunteer firefighters in the counties of New York and Kings[1], it should be ea$y enough to get the $tate legi$lature to make a $mall exception in the regs to accommodate SBS’ blue lights. I’m not saying you’d need to buy the legislation, but y’all don’t seem to hold much sway in Albany despite the 8M people.

A better option might be to go for green lights since 1), it’s not really an emergency vehicle color and 2), the lobby for volunteer ambulance co staff is *way* smaller than that for volunteer firefighters.

1 – may not be true in Queens and Richmond Counties!


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