Home Buses On Select Bus Service and the missing blue lights

On Select Bus Service and the missing blue lights

by Benjamin Kabak

Due pressure from Staten Island politicians, the MTA had to turn off the flashing blue lights on its SBS vehicles. (Photo by flickr user Stephen Rees)

Picking up on the idea that the MTA needs permanent leadership as well as the ongoing confusion over Select Bus Service in light of the MTA’s move to turn off the flashing blue lights, an interested party sends the following missive:

You note that the MTA has essentially been rudderless in the water for 100 days since Joe Lhota left. One of the consequences of that is that the MTA exercised exceedingly poor judgment, and also failed adequately to cover its legal flank, when it issued a press release stating that it was turning the lights off “in response to specific concerns”. Four months before Mr. Lhota received a letter from a couple of Staten Island politicians opposed to exclusive bus lanes on Hylan Blvd., in which the safety of the flashing blue lights was speculatively called into question — despite the fact they had been in continuous use with all kinds of other vehicles without incident since June 2008. Moreover, this announcement came from out of the blue as there was no prior notice and no public hearing that followed. This, naturally, led to speculation that MTA had been doing something illegal for all those years (although that was not something specifically admitted to in the press release).

This contrasts with the years of public outreach since SBS was announced in 2004, a partnership with NYC DOT, and consultations with NYPD and FDNY about the safety of the new technologies being introduced – i.e., bus priority at traffic signalsl and flashing blue lights on buses. Moreover, the legislature got into the act, passing a law that permits automatic camera enforcement of exclusive bus lanes (but only for the first group of SBS routes).

So, one wonders if the MTA hadn’t thought about its possibly needing additional permission to use these lights? We do not know the answer to that.

Nevertheless, the MTA has now discovered the existence of VTL § 375, subdivision 41, and seems to have reacted in panic. Meanwhile, there is great deal of demand for the blue lights to be turned back on. Without leadership, the MTA shows no enthusiasm, or initiative, for developing a strategy to help its beleaguered bus riders.

I should note: there has never been a traffic summons issued to a bus driver for using the SBS lights. Also, nobody has ever sued the MTA to stop using them. Therefore there could never have been a judicial determination that the MTA’s use of blue flashing lights on SBS buses is wrong. (The MTA decided this entirely on its own, and also decided, in effect, to “plead nolo contendre”.) In hindsight, until a judge stopped the MTA, they should have continued to use the blue lights as they always had.

While we await remedial legislation (which may or may not be passed) to carve-out another exception from the volunteer firefighters’ over-reaching monopoly on the color blue, the MTA might consider giving itself legal cover to turn the lights back on by challenging the constitutionality of VTL § 375, subdivision 41 — because the 2002 law was over-broad — giving unnecessary monopoly control over anybody’s use of an important primary color to one group (whose own use of this power is strictly limited by that same statute).

Regardless of such a case’s outcome, the MTA should have affirmative steps to defend its course of conduct over the previous five years (of using the lights for the public’s benefit), as well as its continuing to use them. And, politically, it comes across as fighting for its ridership, instead of trying to remain invisible until Governor Cuomo puts a strong leader in charge of the entire operation.

Another argument in favor of adopting a litigation strategy is that it would be absolutely ridiculous for this cash-strapped agency to spend a large sum of money to replace a system that is in good working order across its growing fleet of specially fitted-out buses. (This seemed to me to be suggested by the press release.)

By the way, I live along the M15 SBS route, and it is anxiety-provoking for me — and everyone who uses it with me — to be unable to distinguish SBS from non-SBS buses. Also (would you believe?), it appears MTA had never asked for legislative relief from VTL § 375, subdivision 41. FYI A06076 (which incorrectly describes the lights) was introduced March 14th in response to constituent concerns like mine, but so far, it has no counterpart in the Senate.

Now, I don’t think the MTA has been as rudderless as this reader makes them out to be. As I said earlier today, Fernando Ferrer and Tom Prendergast have kept things moving along as a steady clip. But the SBS issue has raised a series of eyebrows from those belonging to East Side politicians on down. A number of riders have raised concerns over the inability to ascertain if an approaching bus is a Select Bus or a local bus, and with stops at opposite ends of the block — or on other blocks all together — boarding properly and in time becomes stressful.

The MTA hasn’t publicly addressed the issue in months, but Community Board 6 in Manhattan is taking up the cause tonight. They’re going to vote on a (non-binding) resolution 1) supporting legislative curative action, and 2) calling on the MTA to examine all options for turning back on its iconic pair of simultaneously flashing blue lights on SBS buses. (The meeting starts at 7 p.m. in Alumni Hall B at NYU Langone Medical Center at 550 First Ave., and anyone can speak.)

While CB6’s vote carries only some symbolism and garners some press, what’s the answer? Maybe the MTA should turn those lights back on, and maybe someone in Albany can lead a charge to secure the proper exemption. The lack of lights does the Select Bus Service and its riders no favors.

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BruceNY April 10, 2013 - 4:37 pm

How about just turning on the blue lights without blinking?
I used to be able to look down 1st Avenue for maybe half a mile and be able to tell if a SBS bus was coming, or a local (prompting a decision if I should just hail a cab instead). Now there is no way to see from a distance which bus is coming, and whether to scramble to a kiosk to buy a ticket or not.

Ryan April 10, 2013 - 7:51 pm

I think the reg is on both flashing and steady blue lights. See this webpage for more details.

Kai B April 10, 2013 - 4:39 pm Reply
Benjamin Kabak April 10, 2013 - 4:41 pm

Referred to the Transportation Committee on March 14. No further actions.

Jonathan April 10, 2013 - 5:11 pm

I’ve found this whole kerfuffle absurd from the beginning.

First, the fact that the MTA didn’t know about the blue light statute.
I remember this being a part of driver’s ed theory class in high school in New Jersey. I don’t know if it is also part of the curriculum in New York, but I do remember seeing articles periodically over the years in the city newspapers about criminals using blue and other lights on the dash to pull over drivers and then rob them or steal their car.

Second, the is the logic used by the Staten Island pol who brought this up in the first place. Drivers couldn’t tell the difference between a bus with flashing blue lights and volunteer fire fighter.

Finally, why the MTA couldn’t have said after they decided to turn off the lights that they would now allow riders to give the paper receipt to bus drivers in lieu swiping a metrocard. The only possible explanation I can think of, as stupid as it is, is the fear of angering the union representing the bus drivers, by giving them another duty.

Hank April 10, 2013 - 5:13 pm

So the blue wrap on the buses, the words ‘+SELECT BUS SERVICE+ on the destination sign aren’t enough to distinguish the SBS M15 from the regular M15? How does he tell the M15 from the M106?

Benjamin Kabak April 10, 2013 - 5:16 pm

It’s not readily obvious when you see a bus approaching from a few blocks away. Local buses, meanwhile, all stop at the same place and do not require special pre-boarding fare receipts as proof of payment.

Ryan April 10, 2013 - 7:54 pm

How about for the M34/A?

Epson45 April 10, 2013 - 5:45 pm

Forget the blue lights… just add BusTime to the SBS routes, problem…. not solve.

Bolwerk April 10, 2013 - 5:53 pm

I never got the impression the MTA has been so good at advocating for itself to begin with, leader or no leader. They seem to see it as their job to passively follow the rules, no matter how dumb or unfortunate those rules are.

The result: transit professionals aren’t even welcome in legislative decisionmaking.

Scott April 10, 2013 - 5:58 pm

I think the MTA should just hire volunteer fire fighters to drive the buses… Problem solved.

Roxie April 10, 2013 - 7:43 pm

When the hell was the last time you saw a volunteer firefighter, anyway?

Scott April 10, 2013 - 10:02 pm

Actually I am a member of the Broad Channel Volunteer Fire Department which is part of NYC in the amazing borough of Queens.

Dave A April 10, 2013 - 11:42 pm

Per the United States Fire Administration (USFA), there are 1,610 fire departments in New York State. 1,523 (95%) of them are volunteer (9 within NY City). That means less than 5% of fire departments are paid, municipal fire departments. It is actually less than 3%, the remaining departments are airport, military, and corporate.

If you count the number of firefighters… There are 18,000 paid firefighters (11,000 are FDNY) and there are 81,239 volunteer firefighters. So ONLY 18% of firefighters in NY State are paid… the vast MAJORITY are volunteers. Not including FDNY… about 10% of firefighters in NY State are paid… meaning almost 90% are volunteer.

So to your comment, most New York State residents see volunteers firefighters every day. Most New York State residents are protected by volunteer firefighters 24/7/365. New York City is a city within the State of New York and needs to follow state law. The MTA made a decision that was contrary to state law. Just because the lights have already been installed does not mean the agency should be able to change state law to make their wrong decision legal.

Most colors are already spoken for… red for most emergency vehicles, green for volunteer EMS and command posts at emergency scenes, blue for volunteer fire, and purple for funeral homes. Pink is available… 🙂

llqbtt April 11, 2013 - 10:08 am

I kind of like fuschia

Ryan April 10, 2013 - 7:44 pm

Even without the blue lights, one can tell whether the bus is a +SBS+ bus just by the colours of the wrap on the bus. Regular buses have just white with a blue stripe. SBS buses have a colourful blue design below where the blue stripe would be.

Though, it is easy to miss a SBS bus without these lights.

Nyland8 April 11, 2013 - 5:59 am

The busses run at night, too.

The Cobalt Devil April 11, 2013 - 2:46 am

As an ex-Staten Islander (thank the gods), i can understand why the rest of the city hates that petty little borough. Nobody in their right mind would ever confuse a huge, articulated bus with a volunteer ambulance. Staten Island pols are the worst, most corrupt boneheads in NYC (and that’s saying something) and only brought this issue up to be petty because drivers didn’t want an SBS bus lane on Hylan Blvd taking up parking spots. God forbid fat Aunt Angie had to walk half a block to get from her Coupe de Ville to grab some Goodfellas pizza.

llqbtt April 11, 2013 - 10:20 am

Wow! They’re still puttering around in their Caddies? Agreed, I just can’t see how a big, fat bus that looks like a NYC bus could possibly be confused with a volunteer vehicle in any part of NYC

The Cobalt Devil April 11, 2013 - 12:30 pm

Monte Carlos and the ubiquitous black Nissan Altima are popular too.

Bay Ridge Guido April 11, 2013 - 11:23 am

A couple of blue flags on the roof should work nicely. Illuminated after dark of course.

Ken Yong April 16, 2013 - 6:36 pm

Please, bring back some signal lights. It’s so confusing to people, especially seniors, to distinguish the upcoming bus is local or not!!

Michael Reilly April 28, 2013 - 1:01 am

I write you today concerned about NYS Assembly Bill # A6076, introduced by Assembly Member Micha Kellner (76th District, Manhattan). The legislation will authorize the use of flashing blue lights on buses owned and operated by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA).

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority recently discontinued the use of the Flashing Blue LED Lights on the Select Bus Service fleet. The MTA acknowledged that the flashing blue lights violated NYS Vehicle and Traffic Law section 375 (41). This section of law reserved the use of Blue Lights for Police, Fire and Ambulance emergency vehicles. Blue lights on emergency vehicles enhance safety for our first responders and the driving public. Most police, fire and ambulance vehicles now utilize blue flashing lights on the rear of the vehicles. As per the NYS VTL, blue lights are limited to the rear of emergency vehicles in NYS, in order to immediately identify emergency vehicles and prevent additional accidents at emergency incident scenes.

Some individuals contend that driver’s can quickly differentiate between emergency vehicles and buses with flashing blue lights. Unfortunately, this is an assumption that can have tragic results. It is important to note that New York City has many commuters from surrounding states. New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania have similar traffic laws that reserve the use of blue lights for emergency vehicles. In fact nationally, a majority of states have reserved blue lights for use only by emergency response vehicles.

Although I sympathize with MTA Select Bus Service commuters, I believe reauthorizing the use of blue lights on MTA buses will endanger public safety. The MTA is exploring alternative identification methods, which will minimize the traffic safety concerns. I believe it is in the best interest of New York City traffic safety to allow the MTA to implement an alternative method of identification for SBS buses and not restore the blue lights. One possible alternative could be to illuminate the route indicator above the front window in steady blue.

Nyland8 April 28, 2013 - 11:47 am

“Unfortunately, this is an assumption that can have tragic results.”

Really ?!? What are they? I was not aware of a single tragic result incurred as a result of running blue lights.

During those many months, and many miles the SBS service ran with blue lights, what went wrong?


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