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.