Home Buses On NYC’s choices and the struggles with bus bunching

On NYC’s choices and the struggles with bus bunching

by Benjamin Kabak

Are Select Bus Service upgrades sufficient to avoid the problem of bus bunching?

With 2016 starting with a long weekend, with the exception of one quick trip into Manhattan for dinner on January 1, I’ve spent the past few days bumming around Brooklyn. I’ve taken a good mix of buses and subways, and the trips were smooth and efficient. That doesn’t mean everything is rosy with our public transit system, and I had my eye out for ways we can improve. Nowhere is that more obvious than with our bus system.

As I enter my tenth year of maintaining this site, I’ve occasionally examined buses and their problems, but my coverage has often focused on upgrades instead of operational issues. With Select Bus Service the flavor of the decade, the MTA and New York City are working to improve bus service. I haven’t been particularly impressed with NYC DOT’s willingness to stick to its guns (or make the case needed to show why these upgrades are necessary), and I’ve thought that our leaders haven’t shown much leadership with regards to the tougher decisions that need to be made. But that’s politics. I want to take today about operations.

This idea comes to me from a chance sighting on Saturday evening. A little before 8 p.m., my wife and I walked over from our apartment to the Brooklyn Museum. As we passed through Grand Army Plaza, not one, not two, but three Downtown Brooklyn-bound B41 buses arrived at the same stop at the same time. I didn’t notice if any were a limited, and I admit that it’s possible that only two local buses were bunched at the same stop while a third limited simply happened to be passing by at the same time. But still, there they were, all three together in front of Brooklyn’s Central Library.

Bus bunching is of course a symptom of the way we treat buses, but it’s also a symptom of the MTA’s long-standing inability to manage the problem. Buses in New York City bunch of three reasons, each of which could be addressed to varying degrees. In no particular order, they are: uneven dwell times, unpredictable surface traffic (along with a lack of infrastructure that prioritizes buses), and bad dispatching and route-management practices.

Dwell times for buses are an obvious problem. As we’ve seen with Select Bus Service, the number one driver of reduced travel time concerns dwell. By instituting a pre-board fare payment system, the MTA has sped up the torturous process of bus boarding we sit through today. Now, riders fumble for a Metrocard, wait for a seemingly endless dip, retrieve their card and move on. Those that pay cash have to fill up the coin slot with $2.75 in quarters, nickels and dimes. It’s slow and inefficient, and a full-system move to a pre-board payment system or, hopefully before the sun explodes or the ice caps melt, to a new contactless fare system will vastly reduce dwell time. With uneven and long dwell times, crowded buses are delayed while an emptier bus can gain ground quickly. Thus, bunching.

The second problem concerns travel conditions. Buses can bunch if one hits traffic while the other does not. Eventually, the two will meet. By not giving high-traffic routes — like, for instance, the B41 up and down Flatbush Ave. — dedicated lanes and signal priority, the buses are entirely beholden to the flow of traffic. Some speed up; some slow down; and by the time they travel over 5 miles down Flatbush Ave., they bunch. This is a choice we as a city have made with regards to the way we treat buses, and it is a symptom of a fundamentally broken approach to a mode of transportation for over 2 million people per day.

Finally, buses bunch because of route-management issues. As buses are delayed due to the conditions above — or as they make up ground due to empty stations — dispatchers could try to hold buses to ensure even spacing. Invariably though, riders on the the bus making up ground would have to sit out delays in their journeys forced on them by dispatchers, and this is not a particularly appealing outcome for anyone. Headways that aren’t maintained as buses leave their terminals may also cause bunching, but this is supposed to be a problem the MTA could address via the data available from the BusTime system.

Ultimately, though, there’s no easy answer to the bunching conundrum. Transit agencies are still trying to solve bunching, but in New York, we’ve created conditions ripe for bunching. Reducing dwell times and improving infrastructure that prioritizes buses are noble goals that improve service for every rider and can help avoid bunching. Even if they won’t represent a cure-all, getting there is far slower and more painful than it deserves to be, and for that, we can look to the politics of a city and transit agency too timid to make the tough choices and too bureaucratic to adapt to changing fare payment technologies. And so those three buses all arriving at one stop at the same time is a more common sight than we would all prefer to see.

For more on bus bunching, check out this neat interactive that lets you bunch buses.

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BruceNY January 4, 2016 - 7:03 am

The MTA Bustime app has made riding the buses much less aggravating. Now at least I can tell how far away the bus (or a bunch of buses) are and can choose to wait or take another route–such as walking!

Larry Greenfield January 4, 2016 - 7:15 am

Buses don’t carry “over 2 million people per day.” There are over two million fares paid (ridership) per day which represents closer to one million people taking two trips per day. Two million people would have far more political power than one million. That’s why this is an important point to make.

Bolwerk January 4, 2016 - 10:49 am

0 × 1000000 × 2 = ?

I’d guess most people understand ridership statistics here. It probably doesn’t help that those million people are proportionately poorer, browner, and more economically distressed. (Might be they are a little older, which could possibly be leveraged by activists trying to craft pro-transit policy.)

Rob January 4, 2016 - 8:47 am

And don’t forget the other cause, driver variability. Some are much more interested in and able to keep good time than others.

Gian January 4, 2016 - 9:11 am

Perhaps to reduce boarding delays, since it probably won’t be practical to equip every stop with offboard fare payment machines, we can copy London’s New Routemaster bus and have all-door boarding with a place to swipe (or one day, tap) your card at each door. Although, at heavier used stops, there should definitely be offboard fare payment machines.

There’s a lot of ways we could copy London. *ahem* countdown clocks in bus shelters *ahem* route/stop announcements and not just “Please exit through the rear door!”

SEAN January 4, 2016 - 9:37 am

Yes – especially on the last one regarding route stop announcements. NYC is the only large city that doesn’t do it & is the one in most in need of it.

Another thing the MTA must do is invest more money in articulated low floor busses. The standard Orion V or VII 40′ in the fleet isn’t going to cut it anymore.

Outside of NJT, bus systems have switched to low floor busses or are in process of doing so such as Bee-line & NICE.

Joe January 5, 2016 - 12:55 pm

Yes! I miss this from Chicago.

>> *gong* Division. Transfer to Red Line trains. (doors open) Route 22, Clark to Harrison.

I never know where the hell I am in NYC as it’s hard to see the street signs from inside the bus.

Gian January 5, 2016 - 3:03 pm

Agreed. It would make the NYC bus system so much more user-friendly. Hell, even the grossly underfunded NICE system has it.

“Mineola Intermodal Center. Multiple transfers available.
(doors open) Route N24: Jamaica, 165th St Terminal.”

Eric January 5, 2016 - 3:57 pm

Vocal route stop announcements get really annoying really quickly. However a message board which display the next stop is quite helpful. This is from experience (outside the NY area).

adirondacker12800 January 5, 2016 - 5:41 pm

People with vision problems, who don’t drive because they have vision problems, don’t find signs particularly useful.

Eric January 6, 2016 - 7:28 am

People with hearing problems don’t find recorded announcements very useful.

If you have a vision problem, ask the driver or another passenger to announce your stop.

Joe January 6, 2016 - 1:45 pm

They’re only annoying if they’re too verbose IMO.

Chicago’s train announcements are infuriatingly verbose (especially at transfer stations, the guy drones on and on) but the bus announcements are simple and short. Most stops it’s just something like “*bong* Wells”, without even the “street” or “avenue” etc. word appended. If the bus had just turned onto a different street, it will also announce the new cross-street. If there’s a train transfer it’s also announced simply, “Transfer to Metra and Amtrak trains.”

The route announcement “Route 156, LaSalle to Belmont”] plays on the exterior/door speakers only so it’s not very audible inside the bus. Chicago also has LED signs inside the bus that show the next stop and transfer information. It was really a great UX I thought.

Tower18 January 4, 2016 - 11:33 am

I would go one step further. Off-board fare collection is dumb and probably shouldn’t be done at all, outside certain cases. All-door boarding, tap readers, and POP is the way to go, PERIOD.

Gian January 4, 2016 - 12:25 pm

The idea behind offboard payment is that there’s no delay in getting on the bus. I think that’s valid.

Ideally for SBS routes, we’d have “stations” where you’d tap in with your future RFID MetroCard on freestanding readers. Then when the bus shows up, you just get on- no lines. Better yet, also extend that to busier local stops. That would make it more like real BRT.

aestrivex January 4, 2016 - 1:20 pm

So you are also proposing to do targeted enforcement for many local lines rather than the current enforcement on SBS lines. Does the guy doing enforcement ask for your card and check with an RFID scanner that you paid?

That seems perhaps feasible, but wouldn’t you agree that there are other simpler optimizations which are more urgent?

Gian January 4, 2016 - 2:06 pm

Ideally, we’d improve local service with POP, offboard fare payment at busier stops, bus lanes, TSP, and all the fun stuff that is currently mostly exclusive to SBS. Seeing as that’s almost definitely not going to happen with the current management or any likely subsequent management, the feasible and incremental step of having card readers at awwthe rear doors for all door boarding will help immensely.

In either case, an employee with an RFID scanner would check your card. That makes more sense than having paper receipts.

Bolwerk January 4, 2016 - 1:48 pm

No, no “stations.” Maintenance-intensive TVMs should not be at every stop. The right way to do it is to put readers – and preferably a purchase option – on the bus, whether it’s BRT or not. A rule that says you can’t board without validation is arbitrary and needlessly confusing.

And never require pre-validation for anyone in possession of a pass. Possession of a pass should be sufficient for POP checks.

Gian January 4, 2016 - 2:18 pm

I suggested offboard fare payment machines at SBS stops, as well as more heavily used local stops. It would be wildly impractical to have them at every single stop, but it makes sense if we don’t want to have buses delayed because people are lined up to pay, especially on SBS routes.

However, I do agree that pre-validation for those who already have an activated unlimited MetroCard is a bad idea. It’s already validated for unlimited rides for a certain amount of time; therefore another layer of validation just wastes time.

Bolwerk January 4, 2016 - 2:47 pm

The only stops that need outside validation are really busy ones and arguably transfers. Though, again, a previous subway swipe should suffice as validation. Multiple scanners at different points on the vehicle can suffice to prevent queuing issues.

SEAN January 4, 2016 - 3:25 pm

With smartcard techknology, you can avoid the mess that is SBS validation anywhere in the system.

Gian January 4, 2016 - 5:04 pm

I agree that the only stops that need offboard validation are busy or otherwise significant ones (although I still think that should include SBS). in other cases, scanners onboard should suffice. I also like the idea that a previous subway swipe should count as validation; in that case, any fare checks would have you taken care of if you swiped in somewhere in the last two hours.

I also agree with the idea to have multiple scanners; on London’s New Routemaster buses, there’s one up front next to the driver, one or two next to the middle doors, and one at the back door. All-door boarding with card readers at each door is a fantastic idea. However, if you don’t have a driver to make sure that you pay your fare, there should be cameras and random fare checks to ensure that no one gets a free ride.

Brooklynite January 5, 2016 - 7:23 pm

The idea about having an unlimited negating the need to tap is a good one, but how would MTA tally ridership if not everyone is tapping their card?

Stephen January 5, 2016 - 3:02 pm

Funny, I find those ‘please exit…’ announcements extremely annoying. Along with the new announcements at the rear door: “PLEASE STEP AWAY FROM THE DOOR.” With people standing in that area (now that it’s a flat spot & not in the well) that announcement just keeps on coming to the point of wanting to rip the speaker from the ceiling. “DOOR CLOSING.” This one is annoying too, but it only happens once the rear doors are closing. But still, it’s annoying.
I wonder what would actually happen if we started getting stop announcements every 30 seconds or thereabouts. I know I would have to invest in noise-cancelling headphones, although I am thinking about them now what with these new noise bits. I wonder if I can report them to 311 as a noise complaint and have the DEP send the MTA a letter telling them to knock it off (you know, the same way they send a letter to a dog owner that has a continually barking dog after one reports it).

Gian January 5, 2016 - 3:15 pm


I agree that’s annoying and pointless. Route and stop announcements, on the other hand, are very useful, especially for tourists or anyone unfamiliar with the area or even that specific route. That’s why most bus systems have them nowadays. Ideally we’d make it sound like London’s iBus system, which has the perfect voice for it: pleasant and passive enough that if you don’t need it, it isn’t too annoying, but distinctive enough that if you need it, it’s there for you. I do agree that if they don’t use the right voice, it can sound very annoying.

rustonite January 7, 2016 - 9:22 am

They’re also ADA compliance for blind passengers.

Greg January 4, 2016 - 9:43 am

My bus bunching story in my neighborhood is the B67 and B69 rerouting in Park Slope Brooklyn. The B69 used to run on prospect park west and 8ave and the B67 runs and used to run on 7 ave. Now they run together on 7 ave Brooklyn bunching together. I think this reroute was a mistake as it entails a walk from 7 ave to prospect and not friendly to seniors and the disabled due to the uphill walk. They should see about restoring the service back the way it was before .

Joe Steindam January 5, 2016 - 7:12 am

The rationale the MTA gave for giving the B67 and B69 a shared route on 7th avenue was to compensate for the longer headways on both routes and give 7th Avenue better frequencies in Park Slope. As you mention, it hasn’t worked out as planned, as they bunch instead of creating the short headways that were intended. They should probably reexamine the headways to see if they can space them apart more to prevent bunching.

But I suspect there’s no interest in rerouting the B69 back to Prospect Park West and 8th Avenue, since I’m sure some residents on those avenues prefer that heavy buses do not drive by their houses regularly, and are also grateful for the extra parking recovered from former bus stops. Also, Prospect Park West is one lane narrower today than when the B69 used to run.

greg January 5, 2016 - 8:36 am

I guess my argument of not friendly to the disabled and elderly went Over everyone’s head. They reduced the number of lanes due to a bike lane creation on ppw so you couldn’t put a bus back. The parking spaces and noise are a result Of big city living. I feel this should be reexamined as I used to use the service myself which was a great convenience.

Tower18 January 5, 2016 - 10:07 am

No, it’s just that the comment doesn’t make any sense. Your comment presumes that all the elderly people live above 7th. What about the elderly on 6th? Moving the bus back to 8th/9th gives *them* now a loooong walk uphill.

No offense, but many times, arguments that fall back on “but think about the elderly and disabled!” are really veiled arguments for “but this would be much more convenient for ME” without sounding so self-interested. Besides, as is well-discussed on this board, the truly elderly and disabled are better served by better/alternative paratransit service than by inefficient bus routings and patterns that inconvenience *everyone*

7th Avenue is the much better place for the bus.

ajedrez January 5, 2016 - 11:24 pm

The difference is that 7th Avenue (where the B67 always ran) is one block from 6th Avenue. Whereas Prospect Park West is two blocks from 7th Avenue.

Still, there’s plenty of other neighborhoods where senior citizens have to walk similar distances to reach the nearest bus, so it’s not the end of the world (plus, some portions south of 9th Street have the B61 that they can use to travel a few blocks to 7th Avenue).

Peter January 4, 2016 - 11:20 am

I had an epic bunching/ops fail experience on the Wednesday before Christmas while trying to trying to catch the Q70 to LaGuardia. After catch the E from Midtown, I waited outside the Roosevelt Ave station in pouring rain with a growing crowd of other frustrated travelers for 20 minutes with no sign of a Q70, while a steady stream of other local buses paraded by. Finally two Q70s arrive at once, discharge their passengers, then flip on their “Out of Service” lights and drive away empty. It was another 15 minutes before a third Q70 arrived, which of course could not accommodate all the passengers who had gathered by that point. I was lucky I was near the front of the line and got on.

In a rational universe, the MTA would have a dispatcher prepared to take one of those buses going off duty and send it on an extra run. Turning the Q70 into a free, branded airport shuttle is not going to attract new riders if the MTA can’t manage frequency competently enough to provide reliable service on the line.

AMH January 4, 2016 - 12:44 pm

On evenings when traffic is especially heavy, I can see four or five M1 buses idling in traffic along a four-block stretch of Madison Avenue. This is not the way to treat bus riders–we need more bus lanes and less parking (at least during rush hour). The Madison Av bus lanes should not end at 60th Street.

Herb Lehman January 4, 2016 - 12:48 pm

The B41 is an excellent example to highlight the bus bunching issue. I see it daily. And the example Ben provided was on a weekend evening, when there are fewer buses out in general. During the afternoon rush hour, when I ride the 41, three buses at once is pretty much the norm and I once saw as many as *5* buses come simultaneously.

As for solutions, when you have a system that doesn’t allow for multiple door loading or pre-boarding fare payment, I can’t imagine what else would work.

kevdflb January 4, 2016 - 1:40 pm

This is why I always take a dollar van over the B41.

It’s a two fair system if I’m transferring to the subway (i’m probably not) but at least I know one will arrive quickly and get me where I’m going without much hassle. Sadly, the vans don’t seem to run much after midnight. But with bus time and traffic/ridership not being too high, that is one of the few times the B41 isn’t horrible.

kevdflb January 4, 2016 - 1:41 pm

“fare” ugh. I hate it when that happens….

Larry Littlefield January 4, 2016 - 1:46 pm

Contactless can be a big change for the buses. And we are approaching the point where the MTA could get someone else to implement it. Chip cards are on their way in.

rustonite January 4, 2016 - 2:00 pm

On dwell times- do not forget the impact of handicapped passengers. about 7 times out of 10, when my bus is late, there’s a person with a wheelchair or walker on board- and I’d bet 2 of the other times, there had been one. If the curb is odd or damaged, or someone has parked in the stop, or the passenger is just really slow, getting the handicapped on or off a bus can take minutes.

Herb Lehman January 4, 2016 - 2:36 pm

Re: boarding disabled or elderly riders, the amount of time it takes also depends on the model and age of the bus. The newer buses have lifts at the front of the bus that work quickly and almost seamlessly most of the time. But on the old RTS buses (the ones with the small overhead route display and the four, square headlights) the wheelchair lifts can take forever to operate, plus the fact that both the driver and passenger need to physically move to the rear of the bus to operate it. I notice the delays quite frequently on the B41 (which runs a little bit of everything, but still a fair number of the older buses) but not so much on other routes that run newer-model buses.

SEAN January 4, 2016 - 3:20 pm

If the MTA could obtain additional vehicles such as the Nova LF bus in the photo or something similar, you could eliminate or minimize the delays with wheelchair transport.

tacony January 4, 2016 - 2:36 pm

I had the pleasure of sitting on the bus last week while the driver waited for 5 minutes for the new driver to come and relieve her of her shift. Why on earth are driver changes not always scheduled for the end of the route? It’s no wonder bus ridership isn’t up like subway ridership. There doesn’t seem to be any effort on the MTA’s part to use buses efficiently. Even when we get SBS, they stop the buses while the MTA inspectors check tickets. Another 5 minutes down the tube. No able bodied person puts up with this garbage service standard. People with disabilities shouldn’t have to put up with it either, but unfortunately they have no other choice– which leaves many local routes slowly meandering museums of the disabled and elderly, paying the same fare as the subway to travel at a comically slow and unpredictable pace.

Joe Hass January 4, 2016 - 7:17 pm

One of the ideas I’ve considered here in Chicago: use the Bus Tracker System to alert when buses come too close, then send an automated message to the lead bus driver to run quasi-express, where passengers can alight at any point, but passengers can’t board unless there’s a passenger exiting. The lead bus stays mode until it obtains enough space to switch back.

SEAN January 4, 2016 - 9:00 pm

Have you suggested it to the CTA? The CTA has it’s share of issues, but not invented here isn’t one of them as far as I can see.

ajedrez January 4, 2016 - 11:00 pm

They do it on PalmTran in Florida (Palm Beach County), but the downside is that buses apparently aren’t allowed to pass each other for some reason.

But yes, the BusTime system should be used more effectively. In some cases, the lead bus should be short-turned so that it can make its return trip on time, while the follower picks up passengers going the full route.

Brooklynite January 5, 2016 - 7:28 pm

The plural of anecdote is not data, but a few weeks ago I was on a B82 that went drop-off-only because it had a bus right behind it. This was on a Sunday, early afternoon. So clearly NYC dispatchers are aware of the idea…

ajedrez January 4, 2016 - 11:03 pm

They do it on PalmTran in Florida (Palm Beach County), but the downside is that buses apparently aren’t allowed to pass each other for some reason.

But yes, the BusTime system should be used more effectively. In some cases, the lead bus should be short-turned so that it can make its return trip on time, while the follower picks up passengers going the full route.

webster January 5, 2016 - 1:14 pm

You don’t even have to wait for a contactless payment system, just move towards using passes.

Rather than zones (https://c1.staticflickr.com/3/2341/2053526088_0a8c416f88_n.jpg), one type could offer the holder “free” rides during certain periods on certain buses.

Otherwise, you simply purchase a single-use or multi-day ticket – as currently is done for SBS – and validate it at the stop (http://cache-graphicslib.viato.....105270.jpg).

In either case, one simply flashes the pass at the driver…if the types of passes are few enough, and are easy to distinguish (one group of monthly/yearly another of single/daily with a big date printed across it), it should be more than fast enough.

In my humble opinion, unless the contactless fare system is going to be implemented on the buses in order to test it for eventual introduction on the subways, we may as well wait until THAT happens…whenever it happens.


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