Home MTA Politics Everyone (running for mayor) loves buses!

Everyone (running for mayor) loves buses!

by Benjamin Kabak

Oh wow! More buses!

The motley crew of New York politicos and business men running for the chance to serve as our next mayor gathered yesterday at a transportation forum, and boy, do they love buses. For a few hours, they opined on everything relating to the city’s transportation policies. They railed on the Taxi & Limousine Commission as being too secretive; they bemoaned bike lanes for no valid reasons whatsoever; and one — John Catsimatidis, who’s running on the platform that Gristedes is somehow an acceptable grocery store — called upon the city to build a monorail. But over and over again, buses were a major theme.

I didn’t have the opportunity to attend the forum yesterday, but I was able to follow along via Twitter updates. Both Streetsblog and Transportation Nation have write-ups that capture the essences of the various discussions, but the broad contours are out there for all to see. Somehow, someway, despite the fact that New Yorkers don’t readily embrace buses, that they’re slow with routing that can be more challenging to interpret than the Talmud, the mayoral candidates all want more and more buses.

Buses, you see, are easy. In a sense, the city has more control over its buses than anything else, and control too has been a major theme of the mayoral campaign. During the Democratic forum, everyone there called for more city control of the MTA. Without establishing how New York City would compensate for the state’s substantial funding obligations, both Anthony Weiner and John Liu called for city control of the MTA. During the Republican half of the discussion, Joe Lhota noted that such a scenario is unlikely but urged the next mayor to try to gain more control, whether through Board appointments, more subsidies or bus routing.

As the MTA controls the subways, so too does it control the buses, but NYC DOT and the MTA have worked together to develop Select Bus Service. DOT controls the allocation of space on the streets, and the mayor controls DOT. Thus, mayoral candidates know they can talk about buses and, by and large, deliver on their promises. But what are we getting in return?

So far, we’re getting promises that basically amount to a pledge to continue on our current path. The City is already expanding Select Bus Service, and while that expansion is painfully slow and drawn out and prone to rollbacks if any politicians raise a mere peep, it’s happening. Even if “better” doesn’t necessarily mean “good” or even “adquate,” we’ll have better bus service along certain high-volume corridors soon enough. The mayoral candidates never mention off-set dedicated bus lanes with signal prioritization. They don’t mention a sweeping pre-board fare payment system or a way to clear cars out of bus lanes. They’re not promising anything we wouldn’t otherwise be getting.

Meanwhile, New Yorkers aren’t exactly clamoring for more buses. Buses are ideal for short-range trips that can’t be taken by foot or via the subway. Maybe some people would benefit from, say, a Flatbush Ave. bus lane or a connection from Coney Island to JFK, but buses aren’t going to be truly transformative. Buses are buses, and the mayoral candidates are fixating far too much on them because they can’t do as much with the subways.

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Roxie June 20, 2013 - 1:04 am

we needed an advocate for mass transit that will actually work

we’re getting half-assed mumbling about “maybe a bus i guess, that might work, idk” that won’t even get beyond the pitiful amount of lip service they’re paying the idea

splendid. just… utterly splendid

David Brown June 20, 2013 - 7:20 am

The MTA is a great whipping boy for politicians and interest groups. That said, I think the City would be far worse manager (look a what happened with the taxi situation…40 years of reduced options because of City control and political contributions). Taking this to the busses, does anyone think they can do a better job than the MTA? If so, what about some ideas? I might start with the “M-14A” which is so slow, it is much faster walking to and from either Delancey St or East Broadway. Here is another issue. We know how angry people are at the idea of a train station entrance (Yorkshire Towers) or a waste disposal area next to them. It would be good luck, overcoming NIMBY’s putting in another bus depot anywhere in the City after Mother Hale is finished. You know the usual issues: Noise, traffic, smog, parking, passengers and idling. After years of tough guys like Koch, Gulliani & Bloomberg, running things (Dinkins was the exception: A weak disaster), now we are faced with the prospect of a Quinn who no one thinks she can stand up to Unions (such as the TWU) and interest groups. I dread the idea of her running busses (let alone trains), and I can only imagine what she would do with a new Penn Station Project? Gut feeling it would make the Fulton St/ PATH Station pit look like a bargain.

John T June 20, 2013 - 7:41 am

None of these people understand transit – we need expanded subways!

Or – everyone sing along “Monorail! Monorail” (just like Shelbyville)

Bolwerk June 20, 2013 - 7:56 am

Pandering to the TWU. They actually hate buses, and hate the people they inflict buses on. More buses just means more jobs for bus drivers, without the threat of shrinking the TWU’s payroll. It’s a cheap, safe policy, and they don’t even have to follow through with it.

Still, SBS is sort of a mixed bag. It is somewhat more reliable, but if you ask me many of the features of SBS should just be standard on any bus route that can handle them (which is perhaps most of them).

tacony palmyra June 20, 2013 - 9:37 am

SBS is bad for taking short trips on low-frequency routes where “I’ll take the bus if it comes; otherwise I’ll walk.” You can’t decide to jump on an SBS bus because it pulls up. You have to wait on line to get the ticket in advance. I think the 34th St SBS is kind of worthless outside of rush hours because really most able-bodied people should just walk if there isn’t a bus right there.

Bolwerk June 20, 2013 - 10:09 am

I dunno. SBS is a really bad implementation of a good idea, separating collection from the duties of driving and enforcement. So far as I can tell, each candidate is so unfamiliar with best transit practice that the shortcomings are just beyond them. A big shortcoming is, nobody with a pass should ever have to wait in line for a receipt.

That said, 34th does seem like a time-saver getting from the west side to the east. At least if they can keep the stupid lane unobstructed, which they can’t seem to do.

Alex June 20, 2013 - 11:51 am

Cops are the biggest offenders of blocking the 34th St SBS lane, at least between 8th and 9th. There are ALWAYS cops parked in that lane. Next are trucks and tour buses. The thing is practically useless on that block. And there lies the fatal flaw with NYC SBS. Until we can actually create or at least enforce separate lanes for buses, they’ll continue to be painfully slow and unreliable. Wish a mayoral candidate would bring THAT up when talking about buses.

Bolwerk June 20, 2013 - 12:58 pm

That probably goes to the heart of the issue: they don’t take buses, and are indifferent to those who do.

If pols had to take transit to work, we’d probably have okay transit.

Tower18 June 20, 2013 - 2:00 pm

This is why we need some sort of modernized fare collection system more than anything else. Forget off-board fare collection. If everyone had a touch card or similar technology, you could just board the bus from any door, tap your card at some point in the first ~90 seconds (readers at each door), and sit down. Proof of Purchase is stored on your card.

Folks paying cash or other scenarios board at the front door. Of course you have the problem in NY of wayyyyy too many people refusing to give up cash for bridge tolls, buses, etc…which creates problems in itself.

Bolwerk June 20, 2013 - 2:21 pm

I think that is probably best, but there is still a place for a piece of paper for occasional users or tourists.

On European trams, you can often just buy your fare after you board. Works fine.

Marc Shepherd June 20, 2013 - 8:45 am

Ben, you seem to confuse funding and control. Giving more control (or complete control) of the MTA to the city does not necessarily mean that the city would need to supply all the funding. After all, the MTA receives considerable federal funding, but the federal government does not control the MTA.

Benjamin Kabak June 20, 2013 - 8:50 am

Do you think Albany would magnanimously cede control of the MTA to the city while maintaining current funding levels? If so, there’s a bridge near my place that may be for sale. 🙂

tacony palmyra June 20, 2013 - 9:33 am

despite the fact that New Yorkers don’t readily embrace buses

I really think it’s that the voters that the candidates are pandering to disproportionately don’t live within walking distance of the subway. The long-time New Yorker, non-immigrant, homeowning minority who live in the lower density parts of the outer boroughs. Those are the reliable voters. The poor, the immigrants, the transient Manhattanites and Brownstone Brooklynites who still hold out-of-state IDs? They don’t vote in mayoral elections in droves. The people who have to take a bus to get to the subway do. And they hate that bus.

Benjamin Kabak June 20, 2013 - 9:34 am

Except those folks don’t take the bus in droves. They drive — which makes this entire thing more confusing because who exactly are the candidates pandering to?

tacony palmyra June 20, 2013 - 9:42 am

When they drive off to work every day they worry about their elderly mother taking that bus to go get groceries, and that time their car was in the shop they had to take it, and that one time in 1997 when they took it to the Yankees game (I think Quinn actually did mention going to a game when asked if she takes the subway, right?) etc etc

Bolwerk June 20, 2013 - 10:00 am

Um, the TWU? It was a TWU forum, and AFAIK the TWU hasn’t made an endorsement yet. Buses may not help New York appreciably, but they sure as hell mean more TWU work.

Good transit is literally the antithesis of the TWU’s perceived interest, since it would reduce the number of bodies needed to operate the system.

John-2 June 20, 2013 - 9:44 am

Calling for more buses is the option that threatens the politicians’ least amount of political capital, since if there are problems with the buses, you can always blame the traffic and/or the condition of the streets, and buses don’t require the infrastructure investment and potential NIMBY challenges subways do. Plus, subways cost more, and in terms of vote bought per every dollar spent, are very inefficient on a short-term basis. (Bloomberg won’t get to bask in the glow of his completed 7 extension as mayor unless he declares a work train to be ‘in service’ on Dec. 31, and we don’t even know who the city, suburban and state pols will be who’ll get to preen when East Side Access finally opens, except it will be a long way from the ones who first green-lit the 63rd Street tunnel.)

Buses can be ordered, built and delivered within the lifespan of one political term in office, so buses are the preferred mass transit option. If you’re a resident of the outer boroughs and you hear Comptroller John Liu say, “I don’t believe we’ll have enough money out there to expand the subway system in the boroughs outside of Manhattan,” you’re basically hearing a guy who sees being the caretaker for the status quo on mass transit as no big deal, and knows there are far better ways to spend government cash that can translte into votes at the next election.

Mark S. June 20, 2013 - 10:20 am

None of these candidates mentioned signal prioritization or separated bus right-of-way or better off-board payment, because none of them actually depend on the bus. If they did, they would understand how much low hanging fruit there is and how many people would benefit.

Larry Littlefield June 20, 2013 - 11:40 am

And find out how much opposition there is to giving the serfs on the buses more space relative to the oligarchy in the cars.

llqbtt June 20, 2013 - 11:41 am

It looks like we’re in for another 4 to 8 (12?) years of transit wasteland.

Kai B June 20, 2013 - 12:53 pm

Any candidate that proposes a monorail clearly hasn’t done their homework. It’s one of those things that sounds cool and futuristic but when you do the research you see that aside from tourist attractions, they’ve long been out of favor versus traditional rail setups.

Bolwerk June 21, 2013 - 12:26 am

The transit-for-thee-cars-for-me crowd loved monorails a decade ago, thinking it was somehow a mode that would attract other people to transit to get out of their way on highways. Of course, all those people have moved on, and now prefer BRT as their object of masturbation.

BrooklynBus June 20, 2013 - 8:27 pm

Major bus route changes can make a significant improvement to our transportation system but not when your only guideline is to spend as little as possible without examining the benefits of major changes. Operating new routes at 30 minute headways is nothing but a joke as is extending one route (B67) and starting a new one (B32) and having them end within a quarter mile of each other. That is plain dumb.

We need major changes to fill in areas where the distance between routes is too great. You also should not have to pay two fares if three buses or two buses and a train is required to get from place A to place B.

JVM June 20, 2013 - 11:19 pm

I agree with the sentiment that buses aren’t dreaming big, but you were yourself just complaining about the demise of the streetcar system connecting Brooklyn and Queens:


For all practical purposes, buses are approximately equivalent to streetcars; they are both slow, make many stops, have similar capacity, etc. If Brooklyn/Queens transit is really an important missing part of the system, buses sound would be an easy way to fill the gap, at least in terms of restoring whatever was lost with the demise of the streetcars.


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