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.