Over the past few years, the phrase “lipstick on a pig” has been bandied about so many times that it’s nearly lost all meaning, but now and then, it’s still an appropriate way to describe a laughably feeble attempt to do something. Today, that something is Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s push to improve bus service or make New York City buses more attractive to Millennials or all riders or someone by slapping some new colors on the outside of the bus and adding wifi service and USB charging ports on the inside. Without a commitment to improving bus service, whether through more frequent service, better routing, pre-board fare payments or dedicated lanes, this is the very definition of putting lipstick on an exceedingly slow and unreliable pig.
The MTA’s bus ridership issues have been pronounced over the past few years. Even as subway ridership has shown historic growth, bus ridership — spurred in part by deep service cuts in 2010 that were never reversed — has declined for much of the past decade. Even last year, as the subways saw rush hour expand and ridership hit 6 million on over 40 weekdays, local bus ridership declined by 2.5 percent, and if this trend continues through 2016, ridership on the MTA’s local bus routes could dip below 2 million per weekday.
Over the years, the MTA has wondered internally and publicly why this trend is a downward one. When BusTime, the MTA’s real-time bus tracking application launched, the agency hoped access to information would drive ridership up. After all, an informed ridership should be one that better exploits the system. Rather, ridership has decreased. Maybe informed riders who realize the next bus is 20 minutes away simply choose to walk or take a cab instead of waiting as they used to.
Now the latest efforts at making buses a sexy and attractive option involve elements that do nothing to get at the core of the problem. Following his State of the State tour that involved a mention of state-of-the-art buses, Cuomo, with MTA Chairman and CEO Tom Prendergast at his side, unveiled the details. The 2042 new buses, some of which will begin arriving next month, include a new look and feel and feature USB charging ports and on-board wifi. In describing these new buses, the governor said they have “European flair” with an “almost Ferrari-like look,” which led many to wonder if Cuomo has ever set eyes on a Ferrari.
In discussing these upgrades, Prendergast stressed how the MTA is trying to appeal to Millennial riders who, he claims, expect these amenities from buses. “As more and more millennials enter the system and use it daily, these are expectations, not desires on their part,” he said. “Many of the young people using our system today grew up with a smartphone in one hand and a tablet in the other.”
According to MTA estimates, adding USB ports and Wifi service to new buses will cost around $5000 per bus or around $10.2 million overall. For an agency currently working through a $28 billion capital plan, $10 million is pocket change, but $10 million is also enough to restore or expand a significant number of bus lines. And therein lies the rub.
It’s true that these upgrades, by themselves, are not totally useless. In particular, new buses will also have information screens (at an even higher cost of $15,000 per bus) that will show next-stop information, available transfers, weather and, I assume, some advertising. Plus, for those who have long bus rides, wifi and charging stations may be useful features.
But they cannot be the only improvements made to the bus network if the MTA is serious about making buses better. Millennials, just like the septuagenarians who ride the buses, simply want better service first and amenities second. They want buses that are faster than walking and reliable enough to show up regularly and on time. They want buses that move smoother through congested streets and a stop a little less often than ever other block. That’s how the MTA could build a bus network to attract more riders. Wifi, to a certain degree, and USB charging ports are simply elements of window dressing for a redesigned decal stuck on the outside of city buses, none of which all that European or Ferrari-like. It is the quintessential lipstick for a rather slow pig, and that pesky funding question hovers above all of Cuomo’s hollow initiatives.