Home View from Underground Freemark: Attract riders to transit with frequent service

Freemark: Attract riders to transit with frequent service

by Benjamin Kabak
Gov. Cuomo praised the MTA's new three-door articulated buses for their "European flair" and "Ferrari-like" design. The New Flyer-produced vehicles will hit city streets beginning next month.

Will technology-enabled buses or simply more frequent bus service attract more riders?

There is something so glaringly obvious about proclaiming frequent service as the main driver behind transit ridership growth that we often tend to overlook it when discussing adding riders. Yet, every now and then, it’s worth remembering the basic maxim of transit planning: Above all else, frequent, reliable service is the key driver behind good and popular transit networks.

Recently, it seems, the MTA has forgotten this truth. Despite massive growth in ridership, service increases have been incremental with, thanks to TWU work and shift selection rules, long lead times before the MTA can institute shorter headways. In return, the MTA has turned toward gimmicks to, as officials claim, attempt to attract Millennials to transit (even though Millennials are already major transit users). We’ve seen the MTA to discuss USB- and wifi-enabled buses, and we’ve heard MTA CEO and Chairman claim a long wait for a train is more tolerable so long as the station has cell service. As I said in March, this is lipstick on a pig.

Meanwhile, recently, in Boston, the MBTA had to scale back certain plans for the extension of the Green Line, a costly plan that involves no tunneling but with a scope that grew out of control. To regain control of a project out of budget, the MBTA cut ostentatious station designs with reduced footprints for headhouses and fewer escalators and elevators. These stops won’t be grand designs, but they’ll be functional with constant service. That, Yonah Freemark at The Transport Politic recently wrote is what counts, and it’s worth looking at Freemark’s framing:

Given how reliant the people of New York City are on their Subway, an outsider just looking at ridership data might conclude that the system must be paved with gold, or at least its stations must be decent to look at. After all, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that the comfort of a transit system plays an essential role in encouraging people to abandon their cars and get on the train or bus. That’s why, some would argue, it’s so important to put amenities like USB charging and wifi into transit vehicles.

Yet anyone who has ever ridden the subway knows first hand that its success has nothing to do with aesthetics or access to luxury amenities. Stations are hardly in good shape, trains are packed, and cell service is spotty at best. People ride the subway in spite of these things; they ride it because it’s fast, it’s frequent, and it’s (relatively) reliable.

Too often, this simple fact is ignored by public agencies actually making decisions about how to invest. New York’s own $4 billion World Trade Center Transportation Hub—perhaps the world’s single-most expensive station—is evidence of that; rather than improve service frequency or speed, officials chose to direct public funds to a white monument that does nothing to actually ease the lives of daily commuters.

So be wary when Gov. Cuomo starts touting technology as the solution to the MTA’s woes. No amount of wifi-enabled stations, USB charging points or video screens will eliminate the fact that the MTA should be running more service and building out capacity. More frequent service is what makes transit appealing, and everything else is just a distraction from the real drivers of a better transportation network. We shouldn’t lose sight of that in an era in which the political discussion is dominated by technology rather than by service levels.

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BrooklynBus May 13, 2016 - 9:06 am

There are so many route improvements that can be made for little cost, but the MTA refuses to consider them no matter how small the increase in operating costs without considering the increase in revenue those changes might bring. Some of those have been needed for 80 years. Instead they design new routes which terminate a block or two from a major connection point to reduce additional operating costs which is their only concern. They once rejected a proposal I sent them on the sole grounds it would increase operating costs by $50,000 per year. That’s less than $200 a day that could be recouped by attracting only one or two additional passengers per trip.

This reluctance to improve local bus routing and poor reliability are the two major reasons people shun buses. The MTA is acting like SBS is all that is needed attract more passengers to buses when nothing is further from the truth.

SEAN May 13, 2016 - 9:58 am

Will technology-enabled buses or simply more frequent bus service attract more riders?


The latter statement above is usually the standard, but the MTA is off the mark if they are going to focus on the former. Beyond GPS location, most technology is a waist of resources & aren’t required in most busses. Airlines are dealing with a similar problem & most of them have given in on internet & other tech toys do to pressure from customers.

The real issue if you can believe is… many Americans cant be separated from Facebook & other technology for a few minutes without developing some form of anxiety. Remember what happens when you cant send an e-mail for 10-minutes do to a down server?

Avi May 13, 2016 - 11:53 am

Airlines and MTA buses are a separate category. Passengers sit on an airline for hours at a time. With a trip that long, they want internet access. Also, the difference in frequency of trips is less important when the trip can take 3+ hours vs 30 min on a subway/bus.

Finally, let’s remember, most people on buses do have internet access on their phones. Adding wifi is a marginal impact since you’re not going to take out a laptop while standing on a local bus. It’s not a Megabus driving 4 hours where you have a seat and wifi + power means you can use a laptop.

SEAN May 13, 2016 - 2:56 pm

You proved my point – thank you.

Airlines at there hart are really mass transit in the sky, but we don’t think about it in those terms. The difference is the way we use them as compared to what we typicly refer to as public transit.

Dave May 13, 2016 - 4:01 pm

Not everyone has a smartphone. For a long time I only had a flip phone and an iPod touch.

Eric May 14, 2016 - 5:28 pm

I actually use a laptop on local bus rides, although people probably think I’m a weirdo because of it.

But I don’t use wifi even when it exists (I’m not in NYC). Instead I use “mobile hotspot” on my phone. Partly because it’s more reliable, and partly because tech experts recommend that you not use public wifi for security reasons.

Alistair May 13, 2016 - 10:13 am

This is all true, but there are certainly areas where technology helps. Cell service in stations is one of them for sure, but the biggest technological improvement would be countdown clocks and/or SubwayTime on all lines. I’m still boggled that it’s this hard.

(By the way, what is the lead time for a bus headway improvement? I’d assume that a couple of months would be about right, just in terms of planning where to get the extra buses from and the like — do the shift selection rules really require more than that?)

bigbellymon4 May 13, 2016 - 10:38 am

After reading this article (a little long, but well worth the read for the weekend), you will thoroughly understand why countdown clocks are so difficult: http://www.theatlantic.com/tec.....re/415152/

Eric May 14, 2016 - 5:30 pm

Exactly. Electronics are not as important as increased frequency, but they should be much cheaper. So the cost/benefit ratio may be just as good.

bigbellymon4 May 13, 2016 - 10:30 am

Until the day when the mayor and many other political leaders take the train to work daily, talk about it often, and convince their peers to fund transit, all politicians will only care about the amenities and not the service. It is the same way with buses. Within NYC, the transit system needs and should be given priority over cars. But most people look towards their political leaders as “role models”, so the car will continue to be king until they change. If we all look back in time, the only way to travel through the US was via train, but once the automobile was invented, train ridership dropped. The US also had the most railroad track mileage in the world at one point. We may not go back to those golden days, but as the population continues to soar, we all as citizens need to find and utilize the infrastructure that we have to move people by the millions once again and expand the transit systems to accommodate for growth. Our first transit systems were not built by magic, but by people who dared to change how people were moved from point A to B.

Also, the political discussion should be about technology, but technology that helps to increase capacity and cut down on maintenance costs (CBTC). At the end of the article, it states how the construction costs are out of control there too. It is a shame that the United States spends more time and care on the military than on their own citizens and the nation’s infrastructure. Maybe if they did, construction costs would be lower.

Rob May 13, 2016 - 10:43 am

Re technology-enabled buses/frequency – time to start planning for/introducing driverless buses? Not a huge leap from driverless cars.

And then we could skip OPTO, and go right to driverless trains. E.g. like the PA already has on its airport lines.

Eric May 13, 2016 - 11:48 am

Driverless trains have nothing to do with driverless cars.

Driverless cars are a product of sensor and image development technology. Basically identifying obstacles and staying out of the way of them. This wouldn’t help with trains, because the braking distance for trains is longer (steel wheels have less traction) so by the time you see an obstacle it’s too late to avoid it.

Driverless trains are a product of train signalling technology (measuring where trains are and enforcing minimum distances between them), and it has already existed for decades.

Bolwerk May 13, 2016 - 12:33 pm

I don’t see any reason why driverless car tech couldn’t be applicable on streetcars and LRVs. If anything, it should be somewhat easier to implement in an effectively one-dimensional plane (just account for, probably negligibly, longer stopping distances).

But, yeah, on mainline or even completely separate rapid transit ROWs, it’s probably rather useless and better solutions to get the same result were invented decades ago.

pete May 13, 2016 - 2:30 pm

If riders aren’t standing on the subway at all hours of the day, it is a breach of fiduciary responsibility to taxpayers. Most trains run 20 minutes outside of rush hour now. Add bunching, and the “20 minutes” on paper, is reality 35 minutes for each train. Commuter rail frequency but with no timeliness guarantees or schedule adherence.

SEAN May 13, 2016 - 3:00 pm


orangeonyx May 13, 2016 - 4:54 pm

20-35-minute headway for most subway train lines??

Brooklyn Cowbell Guy May 13, 2016 - 7:05 pm

Charging ports on buses are possibly Cuomo’s worst idea to date.

Has the man ever used a bus? People dont move to the back of the bus as it crowds unless the driver announces it. Put in charging ports & you’re looking at slower loading times as people will block the aisles.

As for Wifi on buses & trains: they should make the cable companies provide it with hotspots to their customers (i.e. TWC, Optimum, RCN, Fios). The city shouldn’t pay for it. [i don’t see the need for us to be connected every waking moment]

Adirondacker12800 May 13, 2016 - 8:31 pm

Amazing isn’t that we won World War II with slide rules and telephone exchanges staffed by actual people pulling on cords. Not even any television.

pete May 15, 2016 - 5:17 pm

The MBTA Green line extension project revision turned “metro line” style stations into a street car/light rail style stations. Removal of faregates in favor of bus-style boarding is the most shocking part. Even though Green line uses LRVs, LR systems can be built as subway/metro style lines, look at LA’s Metro. LA Metro uses high floor high platform LRVs but never runs in mixed traffic. LA Metro allows cheaper ground running with occasional grade crossings at low volume intersections, instead of exclusively grade separated “heavy rail metro” ROWs. Limited grade crossings also allow reuse of any existing freight or commuter rail line with no grade separation projects needed in the cheapest construction plan. UTA’s TRAX also follows the “Light Rail is an electrified commuter rail line” model like LA Metro does.

Adirondacker12800 May 15, 2016 - 7:13 pm

The Boston Subway opened in 1897. I suspect the Green Line(s) has/have some legacy issues to deal with.

Dexter May 16, 2016 - 3:31 pm

Part of the next few batches of new buses will add buses to the fleet and in other cases, convert routes to articulated, thus increasing capacity.

Bus improvements are coming. They will just take a few more years to get where things need to be.


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