Home Buses Along 86th St., some key SBS upgrades but with too much fanfare

Along 86th St., some key SBS upgrades but with too much fanfare

by Benjamin Kabak

Residents in some Upper West Side buildings are already bemoaning these short queue-jump lanes, a small part of the modest SBS-like improvements to the M86 unveiled Monday. (Photo: Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit)

In an alternate universe where New York City politicians and planners aren’t afraid to take risks, yesterday was a big day for the M86. In this alternate universe, after a short planning process, Transit’s second busiest crosstown route, averaging 24,000 weekday riders, saw massive upgrades as the city opted to close Central Park’s 86th transverse to cars during peak hours, install a signal prioritization system from river to river, ensure bus bulbs and dedicated lanes were in place and generally treat the M86 as worth being a crosstown route over 30 blocks north of the nearest cross-Manhattan subway line.

That’s not what happened. Instead, as part of the Mayor’s promise to call 20 routes “Select Bus Service” by some indeterminate time that was originally supposed to be the end of 2017, a bunch of politicians gathered on the West Side to celebrate the launch of the M86 SBS. After eight years of talking about it, the M86 got a pre-board fare system, multi-door boarding, a few queue jump lanes that are already drawing NIMBY complaints, those weirdly unappealing new forward signs that replaced the hallmark SBS flashing blue lights, and the promise of some bus bulbs.

As part of the upgrades, every politician representing both the Upper East and Upper West Sides sent out a statement of support as though these upgrades are worth multiple rounds of back-slapping. In a moment of utter hilarity considering its taking nearly a decade to get here and the bus route was still late by a few weeks, State Senator Adriano Espaillat thanked NYC DOT for “quickly completing this project” while Jim Clynes, chair of Manhattan’s CB 8, noted that M86 SBS will have “a subway feel.” That everyone felt the need to gather in the first place is telling.

What DOT and the MTA did with the M86 will represent massive improvements in travel time for crosstown bus riders. Dwell times — especially at key locations where the M86 intersects busy subway lines at Central Park West and Lexington Ave. — represented the single biggest challenge to speedy crosstown operations, and if the city isn’t willing to give buses dedicated road space during commuting peak hours, pre-board fare payment and multi-entrance boarding are low-hanging fruit that pay key dividends for those 24,000 daily riders.

But these improvements are run-of-the-mill upgrades that are viewed as best practices for local buses the world over. The MTA didn’t eliminate any M86 stops; the bus still makes two stops on the same block of 86th St. between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues. DOT didn’t reallocate street space except for some limited queue jump lanes that allow buses to get a hard start at red lights. So why the press conference?

When I posed this question earlier in the day, a few of my Twitter followers suggested, perhaps cynically but also accurately, that these improvements wouldn’t happen at all if politicians don’t have the opportunity to grab camera space while trumpeting them. Sadly, this is true, but on the flip side, I wondered if these improvements wouldn’t be treated as revolutionary if 15 politicians didn’t insist on showing up to press conferences or sending out statements every time the MTA and DOT implement on one bus line what other countries consider to be system-wide best practices. Every crosstown bus should feature a proof of payment that allows for multi-door boarding, and such a system should be implemented as soon as the fare payment kiosks are installed, not eight years after the first Community Board presentations.

Until we as a city and our politicians as our city leaders get over the need to have a press conference about something as mundane as a new fare payment system on one bus line and a few queue-jump lanes, we are doomed to watch our transit system die from a lack of Great Ideas and the will to implement them. Politicians should be asking “what took so long?” and “how soon can we get these improvements rolled out on the M79, M96 and M106?” rather than falling over themselves to congratulate the M86 for catching up with most of London’s regular bus service. Don’t slap a fancy name on these ops upgrades. Aim higher. Be better.

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Herb Lehman July 14, 2015 - 6:52 am

I agree that the politicians’ response to this is way overblown and disappointing… and typical.

But I very much want to see even these basic improvements on the M79 and B41, the two bus lines I ride regularly.

BTW, I actually like the compromise solution they came up with for the signs. The flashing blue lights, much as you love them Ben, were almost epilepsy-inducing.

Andrew July 14, 2015 - 7:34 am

Sure, most of us want to see a lot more off-board fare collection and bus lanes. But given the politics and costs involved, I’d rather cheer the successes than deride them.

It’s a short line, the busiest bus line per mile, and most of the stops are transfer points to other bus lines, so eliminating stops wouldn’t be appropriate (remember, there isn’t even a parallel local). And since the primary cause of delay is long dwells, off-board fare collection will be especially helpful. Yes, I’d love to have more bus lanes, but I’d rather have the product we see today than one that’s ultimately canceled due to excessive complaints from a few whiny motorists. In other words, pick your battles.

The bus stops at every block between CPW and Broadway. The CPW stop is, by necessity, on the far side, and the Broadway stop is, by necessity, on the near side. Mathematically, there must be two stops on the same block. It’s an 800-foot block (roughly four north-south blocks), so I’m afraid I don’t see the issue.

Herb Lehman July 14, 2015 - 8:41 am

Incidentally, why *can’t* the MTA make pre-boarding payment and loading through both doors universal for all buses, without branding it as “Select Bus Service” and having to go through the political process? The fare machines would cost a significant amount of money and so would enforcement, but I imagine it would still be a lot less money than increasing service, no? This just seems like a no-brainer to me.

Jim D July 14, 2015 - 8:49 am

Well, if the MTA can ever get a smart card launched, you wouldn’t need fare machines at the stops. World-class systems accomplish all-door boarding on surface vehicles by equipping each vehicle doorway with card validators.

AMH July 14, 2015 - 10:33 am

Exactly. MetroCard is holding up so many upgrades. The sidewalk machines will be obsolete once we have a normal smart card–we’ll only need tap targets inside all bus doors and then every route can have multi-door boarding.

Niles July 14, 2015 - 10:17 am

From the MTA Staff Summary on M86 SBS:

“Implementation … will annually increase maintenance of fare machines $832,000, revenue collection $80,000 and fare payment enforcement $700,000.”

The new fare collection system can’t come soon enough.

Herb Lehman July 14, 2015 - 12:33 pm

So… more than $1.6 million per year to be able to load through multiple doors on just one bus line, and a short one at that?

Wow. I stand corrected.

JJJJ July 14, 2015 - 2:08 pm

How much revenue do they bring in? On less popular lines, the most efficient course of action would be to simply not collect fares. No need for ticket machines, no need for revenue accounting, no need for enforcement.

Stephen Smith July 15, 2015 - 10:28 am

Okay, those are the costs and some of the benefits (increased fares), but why no mention of the efficiency savings? Presumably cutting the running time of the M86’s route by 5-10 minutes is going to save the MTA some money, right?

(Unless their labor agreements and scheduling are so piss poor that drivers will just be sitting around for 5-10 more minutes not getting paid in between runs…)

Rob July 14, 2015 - 3:03 pm

Right. “pre-board fare payment and multi-entrance boarding are low-hanging fruit.” The pols may not deserve the blame on this one. Seems to me the mta could do this whenever and wherever it wanted. And you would think extra costs could be compensated for, or exceeded by, lowered equipment and driver costs from turning buses faster.

And could even do it half-assed: people who pay cash fares would continue to use front door, but others could use rear.

Eric July 15, 2015 - 7:42 am

It would *save* a ton of money, because buses would travel 20-30% faster without all the waiting for passenger boarding. That means MTA would need to pay for fewer buses and fewer drivers to provide the same service. Or, they could provide more service with the same drivers and equipment. It’s a no brainer. Except to the decision makers who have no brain.

Brandon July 14, 2015 - 8:50 am

I’m still holding out hope that we can get all door boarding with all door taggers and “pay after you get on” for the whole system when the Metrocard is replaced with a contactless card.

At that point we can pretty much end the SBS designation as there is nothing about any Select Bus in New York that regular buses in other cities don’t have, including other US cities.

BoerumBum July 14, 2015 - 9:25 am

Back when I lived at 89th and York, I’d often take the M86 to the Lexington line when it was either freezing or sweltering. The trip took about 15 minutes, and the first 10 minutes of that was people boarding at York.

This represents a huge improvement, even if it’s only a drop in the bucket compared to what could be done.

Avi July 14, 2015 - 9:55 am

I agree the bus still has a lot that can be improved, but don’t confuse the issue with talk about multiple stops between Amsterdam and Columbus. The current cross town bus plan in general calls for a stop at every avenue. That’s what M86 has. It doesn’t really matter which side of the avenue it stops at. And since the bus can’t stop before CPW and turns at Broadway there needs to be one block with a stop at both ends, it’s simple geometry.

Ryan July 14, 2015 - 10:15 am

In an alternate universe where New York City politicians and planners aren’t afraid to take risks, […] and generally treat the M86 as worth being a crosstown route over 30 blocks north of the nearest cross-Manhattan subway line.

Your premise is flawed – because the busiest crosstown bus route in the system deserves a subway and nothing less. In the aforementioned universe, BRT suggestions were laughed out of the planning rooms because everyone recognized that this corridor had too much demand for buses to handle.

It’s absolutely pathetic that everyone has gathered around for a celebratory victory lap over “select bus service” expanding, but it’s even more pathetic that the vision for crosstown subway expansion is limited to a Fordham subway and forcing 2 Av off of its alignment at 125 St, permanently further handicapping headways to the Bronx that were already going to be handicapped by the one-two combination of interlining and no express tracks.

The Hudson River needs about six to eight new crossings and it needed them decades ago. It’s too late to do anything about Queens Boulevard. It isn’t too late to bring the 7 and the L across the river, and it isn’t too late to run new subway services from Jersey to Queens via 86 and 125.

Lynnette July 14, 2015 - 10:36 am

My perception of Select Service is an express bus with pre-board payment and multiple entrances. Maybe that’s my mistake or poor consumer education by the MTA but I was confused when I saw that the new Select M86 was not eliminating any stops. I think a limited bus that had stops on York, Lex, Fifth Ave, CPW and Broadway would be welcome.

I’m happy to see the new Select but how about a system where riders holding Unlimited Cards don’t have to swipe at all before boarding??

AMH July 14, 2015 - 10:42 am

That’s a flaw of the MetroCard system. This works best with “flash passes” that can be visually verified by an inspector or with smart cards that can be instantly verified electronically–no need to push a button and insert a magnetic card that needs to go in a certain way and is prone to read errors, all to get a piece of paper.

Spendmor Wastemor July 14, 2015 - 11:38 am

In China, they’d just dig a hole under 86th and run an electric bus or airtrain in it.

btw, it’s instructive to read the history of the Erie Canal. It was done ahead of schedule and paid for itself within two years.

Ian July 14, 2015 - 12:44 pm

“Until we as a city and our politicians as our city leaders get over the need to have a press conference about something as mundane as a new fare payment system on one bus line and a few queue-jump lanes…”

They’ve all learned from watching Chuck Schumer. That guy has a press conference every Sunday and the local news always covers it. ‘Today I am proposing a ban on hula hoops, because they are dangerous and offensive to people who wear round-rimmed glasses’ (crowd cheers)

SEAN July 14, 2015 - 3:40 pm

I saw the new SBS machines last week, but not every stop I saw had them installed yet. Perhaps now they are up & ready to go? That is assuming they are filled with the paper slips.

Truthfully it is ridiculous that the MTA & ajacent agencies cant creat a single fare card ala Smartrip or Ventra.

pete July 14, 2015 - 4:51 pm

You can’t let a dirty Joysion get an envelope of cash from the fare media contractor instead of a Nu Yoka.

Notice PA (Airtrain/PATH) does not honor MTA unlimited cards, PA only honors PA unlimited cards and vice versa. MTA also demands much higher anti-robbery security for their fare media. All metal turnstyles, difficult to jump over, salt water in token acceptor resistant, no sucking in of cards (Bus/PA style). PATH uses turnstyles, Airtrain uses gates. If you try to mess with a PA turnstyle, you will promptly get a bullet in the head from the overstaffed PA police https://www.panynj.gov/photo/police/emergency_services_path.jpg . At MTA, NYPD hates entering the subway.

Brooklynite July 14, 2015 - 9:15 pm

Why don’t we go back to the Bloomberg-era idea of free crosstowns? MTA would save the (obscene amount of) money it spends on fare machines, along with savings in enforcement and boarding times.

AMH July 15, 2015 - 3:56 pm

Hear, hear. One of the arguments against the proposal was increased ridership, as though that were a bad thing.


Larry Littlefield July 14, 2015 - 9:55 pm

We’ll get the smart cards soon, if the MTA has a Capital Plan.

U.S. banks were dragging their feet on advanced payment technologies. The MTA would have had to pay contractors to invent the whole thing from scratch. That would have been a disaster. The MTA was right to wait.

The banks have also been overcharging for payment systems.

Soon all the bank cards will have the chip. And Bitcoin and the like are causing what they charge to come down.

Brooklynite July 14, 2015 - 10:03 pm

They could have imported technology, from PATH just next door, or from London, or from Hong Kong. HK debuted their contactless card in 1997, right about when Metrocard Gold was introduced.

BruceNY July 15, 2015 - 7:27 am

At least they finally found a solution to the flashing blue lights: flashing blue signs! I don’t know if it cost any money to upgrade/change the signs on each bus, but if it does, I can think of a certain politician on Staten Island that should get the bill to pay for it.

Christopher Stephens July 15, 2015 - 10:36 am

Agreed. Though I’m puzzled that they need the flashing signs on the M86, as all the buses on this route are SBS, as opposed to the M15.

Bruce Godfrey July 15, 2015 - 9:51 am

There was complete chaos this morning at the 86th St and York Avenue stop at 8:15. One of the two ticket machines had run out of paper so was ‘out of service’ and the line to use the other machine ran down the whole block. Buses came and went as people tried to play by the rules. Then the other machine ran out of paper and became ‘out of service’. No one from the MTA ‘helpers’ were around to see this (though they were at all the other stops on the route – probably hiding behind a wall in fear of the customers at York Ave) so when the next bus came along everyone ‘stormed’ it to get on. The ‘helper’ at the 86th and First Avenue stop looked perplexed as to why no one from that stop could get on the bus. Get to Lexington and there were several MTA workers standing around. Their response to customer complaints? ‘We called it in already’.
The 86th and York stop obviously needs 4 machines like they have at Lex and the MTA should already know this as prior to the SBS service they could have checked the MetroCard figures for boarding the M86 at York and 86th. But no, they are absolutely CLUELESS and I see every day being as chaotic as this because what are you to do if the ticket machines run out of paper which they will because of the high level of usage – walk or get on the bus?

Alex July 15, 2015 - 10:31 am

This all makes me wonder, for a split second, why the MTA doesn’t have an app where you can buy your ticket on your smartphone and present your PoP if asked on the screen. Then I remember this is the MTA we’re dealing with. That’s AT LEAST a decade away.

Greg M. July 15, 2015 - 10:40 am

I was there at around the same time as Bruce. I’ll second everything he said, especially the bit about needing more machines at that stop. It’s got to be at or near the busiest stop on the line and yet it has just two Metrocard machines and one coin machine. Even yesterday when things were moving OK, I missed two buses from waiting in the line to get my ticket. (The three buses arrived in fairly quick succession, but still.) As flawed as fare collection on the bus is, that wouldn’t happen to me previously.

As much as the overall idea behind fare collection at curbside makes sense, botching the rollout gets everyone angry and makes it harder politically to implement other reforms that make sense.

Bruce Godfrey July 16, 2015 - 11:20 am

I made a complaint to the MTA and received a response. What we are supposed to do if the machines have run out of paper is to inform the driver, get on the bus, get off at First Avenue, buy a ticket (if the machines there have paper!) and get back on the bus. Yeah right when you are trying to get to work. Do these people have a clue????

AMH July 17, 2015 - 5:47 pm

Totally believable. We need smartcards so badly.


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