Home View from Underground Study: Frequency and speed matter; wi-fi and USB ports do not

Study: Frequency and speed matter; wi-fi and USB ports do not

by Benjamin Kabak
These Ferrari-like buses won't do much to increase ridership if the MTA doesn't run them frequently or fast enough, a new study shows.

These Ferrari-like buses won’t do much to increase ridership if the MTA doesn’t run them frequently or fast enough, a new study shows.

Over the past few months, it has been exhaustingly frustrating listening to Gov. Andrew Cuomo talk about transit. As I explored late last week, he has latched onto vaporware ideas and thinks he’s investing in smart and rational transit expansion programs. His ideas — AirTrains that go the wrong way, buses he termed “Ferrari-like” with ceiling-mounted USB ports, e-tickets that should been implemented years ago — don’t move the ball forward.

But, in the words of LeVar Burton, you don’t have to take my word for it. A study issued this week by the Transit Center called Who’s On Board [pdf] highlighted the factors that drive people to use transit, and these flashy benefits that Cuomo has been pushing rank dead last. Out of a series of 12 service improvements, wifi and power outlets finished behind the field while service frequency and travel time led the pack. Other leading factors, especially with regards to buses, included countdown clocks, one-seat rides, low fares, and seat availability.

“There’s no magic bullet for transit, but there are some simple rules,” Steven Higashide, the report’s lead researcher, said. “Make it easy for people to walk to transit, put it close to important destinations, and make transit frequent, fast, and reliable. Frequent transit networks in walkable neighborhoods reduce reliance on cars, spark economic growth, and create vibrant urban places.”

The report also served to validate other assumptions regarding transit riders. Higashide and the Transit Center team found that most transit riders walk from to transit, thus highlighting the need to locate stations in busy and walkable areas with safe access routes. More importantly for New York, the report highlights how transit users, particularly those who own cars or have access to other means of transit, are far more sensitive to quality. For years, transit planners and analysts have relied on the idea of a “captive rider” who uses transit because there is no other choice. But the report has found that those who live and/or work near higher quality transit — reliable trains, frequent buses – use transit whether they own cars or not. “When transit becomes functionally useless,” the report notes, “there are very few people who will continue to use it; agencies can take no one for granted.”

Is New York’s current focus wrong then? Highlighting Gov. Cuomo’s promise of Ferrari-like buses, the report states, “Our findings call into question the fad among transit agencies touting free Wi-Fi for customers who don’t care strongly for it.” Instead of focusing on gimmicks, transit investment should focus around more frequent service and faster travel, whether through dedicated lanes or otherwise. The orders from the governor then seem backwards. Slapping a new decal on a city bus and adding amenities that don’t get riders to their destinations faster is about branding that most see through; improving travel times by investing in more routes and prioritizing road space accordingly is a bigger political lift but with a greater pay-off at the end.

Ultimately, New York seems to be spinnings it proverbial wheels, but it’s not clearly who’s listening. And with ridership holding steady on subways and ticking downward on buses these days, it seems that the MTA is a living example of the Transit Center’s findings. Potential riders seek out transit that is of good quality, and declining service, whether through longer waits or slower speeds or disappearing routes, lead those commuters to seek other means. No number of USB ports will ever reverse that trend.

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Roxie July 14, 2016 - 2:41 am

In other news: grass is green, birds fly, sky is blue, etc.

Seriously: most people are generally prepared for a day out in terms of battery. In a properly functioning transit system, you shouldn’t have to be on a bus for long enough that your phone gets more than a few percent. Like, maybe 10%.
The fact that the MTA (well, honestly, more Cuomo tooting his own horn than the MTA, but still) is touting this as a significant improvement is kind of like a slap in the face to all the people stuck dealing with painfully slow buses. Like, “Hey, we know your commute completely sucks, but at least you can top-up your battery, right? Look how much we’re doing for you!”
And as for onboard Wi-Fi… A lot of people have unlimited data. Be it unlimited LTE and 3G through Sprint or limited LTE/unlimited 3G through someone like MetroPCS, they’re good on data. Like, really. Admittedly, it can benefit people who are stuck with low data allotments and 3G, but it’s not as huge a benefit as they’re touting, and again, they should be aiming to get people to their destinations FAST, not trying to pacify them with “amenities”. You provide amenities AFTER you get the basic service right.
If you go to a motel and your room has a moldy bed with old sheets, and a a clogged toilet, they don’t get to ask you for a 5 star rating on a review site even if their continental breakfast is the best thing you’ve ever eaten.

Bolwerk July 15, 2016 - 12:39 pm

Plugging in to partially charge your battery is bad for your battery anyway. Hey, maybe Cuomo has a friend who sells battery repair services….

But, hell, they’ve already decided buses are the future of everything. Maybe they’re just preparing for a world where supercommuters on buses need some connectivity.

Spendmore Wastemor July 16, 2016 - 8:18 pm

Partial charge is not bad for lithium ion batteries. They’re very different from ni-cads, which had the infamous memory effect. It’s best not to run them all the way down, and if you really wanna keep it past when you’d toss the phone anyway, also avoid charging to 100%. Electric cars with lithium batts do this, you can’t charge or discharge them completely.

Once a phone has been out of a year, replacement batteries are cheap, if you have one with a soldered in batt, well, get out your tweezers ‘n magnifying glass, or get one of the 9000 aux power gadgets.

smotri July 14, 2016 - 10:06 am

Can’t agree more. I never use a bus to commute – no amount of web-surfing and texting and talking on the phone could alleviate that pain!

kevd July 14, 2016 - 2:30 pm

It almost seems like you’ve never been on a bus that doesn’t suck!

smotri July 16, 2016 - 12:58 pm

Going cross-town (for example, the M66 or M72) is okay on off-hours or on weekends. I once took the M15 SBS down to my job in the financial district. Mamma mia. What an ordeal. Never again!

Spendmore Wastemor July 16, 2016 - 8:19 pm

Agreed. Many bus routes in Manhattan should be cancelled. Pure waste, just add a subway train or 2.

Eric July 17, 2016 - 4:29 am

“just add a subway train or 2”

At a cost of ~$20 billion per subway line? “Spendmore Wastemor” indeed.

Andrew July 14, 2016 - 10:36 am

Live report from Q70 LGA: 20 minute wait (for me) at Jackson Heights, 100 people in line. 4 Q70 Limited and 4 Q32 buses arrived and departed during that time, barely anyone on them. Multiple MTA workers managing, no one asks cabs to get out of the buses’ parking. Packed like sardines on bus.

Tower18 July 15, 2016 - 4:50 pm

Not sure if some detail was missed, but your message appears to indicate you were waiting for a Q70 but only Q70 LTD buses came…but there is no Q70, only the LTD. Or were you waiting for some other bus?

John July 14, 2016 - 12:31 pm

There was no study needed to confirm this.

Eric July 14, 2016 - 12:53 pm

Wi-Fi and USB ports have much lower benefits, but also much lower costs.

Equipping the entire bus fleet with USB ports might costs the same as buying and running one brand new bus, and have larger benefits.

Bolwerk July 15, 2016 - 12:29 pm

As long as no major retrofitting is involved, the cost is probably some friend of Cuomo has a wifi service to sell, and would love to get public funds to do that. :-p

22r July 14, 2016 - 1:34 pm

How come buses in Europe work well and are clean and functional but here they’re just a last resort for the downtrodden?

Tim July 14, 2016 - 2:17 pm

Because in Europe they connect very well with the rest of the network, come more frequently, and are invested in properly.

kevd July 14, 2016 - 2:28 pm

They have these things called “bus lanes” that car drivers don’t park in because if they do they’re given “tickets”

smotri July 15, 2016 - 3:21 pm

And often the lanes are separated by physical barriers. Imagine that in NYC? Never!

Alon Levy July 17, 2016 - 8:48 am

First, Europe is a big place, with a lot of cities where buses are shit.

With that in mind: in Stockholm, there are physically separated bus lanes on some streets, like Odengatan. All over Europe, buses stop every 400-500 meters, and not every 200-250 as in the US. Boarding and alighting are faster, although there’s no all-door boarding (there is in Copenhagen and Oslo, though).

Alon Levy July 17, 2016 - 8:52 am

Oh, I forgot something: in Sweden, mobile internet is ubiquitous. I pay about $70/month for a phone plan with 40 GB of data. So in a sense, everywhere in Sweden with cell service I have wifi. It’s irrelevant on local transit, but was nice when I rode intercity trains – I’m not even sure SJ was providing wifi, or if it did, it wasn’t as reliable.

pete July 14, 2016 - 9:52 pm

3 hours to go from Queens to Bronx via Whitestone bridge via the F, Q44, then Q50, to coop city and one BX bus. Or 2 hours via F and 4 train. If you use NYC’s buses, you need that USB port because each bus is 15 to 20 minutes away (don’t even look at the schedule, bus bunching is intentional as Q23 and Q46 bus drivers pull out together at terminals against the rules) or moves 3 traffic lights in 15 minutes during rush hour, or bus drivers stop and wait for the light to turn to yellow then red. The USB ports are kind of useless, you need 120v on the local buses like the MTA Express buses have. Some people have real work to do on a real laptop, not watching FB videos.

Peter L July 15, 2016 - 12:17 am

I have to say, the bus in the rendering is nice looking. Sadly, though, it will never look like that out here in Poke-space because glass doesn’t actually look like that. Still, while I have no issues with transit vehicles being boxes on wheels (because they are boxes on wheels), the swoosh really adds a nice touch.

Also, remind me why I want to be riding in a transit vehicle long enough to get a reasonable charge from the USB port? I mean, unless it’s a 2-hour ride from somewhere in Connecticut on Metro North …

LLQBTT July 15, 2016 - 7:35 pm

I am one of those of means who drives instead of taking the bus. Why? For all the study reasons stated. There’s a direct bus route between my home and work (and a circuitous subway trip requiring transfer[s]). The bus is unreliable. A trip can take 40 minutes with no traffic and an initial wait time of 1-3 minutes for the bus. The trip is typically 1 hour door to door, and the trip can easily take over an hour when there is a large gap in buses and/or buses are bunched somewhere on the route. Then there’s the comfort factor of riding that delayed, crowded bus, jammed with people. Another factor is the bus driver. They, like us, have all different skill levels. Most all are very safe, and I never fear of being in a crash on a NYC bus (kudos to you MTA on this point), the drivers operate the buses at all different speeds. Some can drive fast, some sort of average, and others are just slugs. The slugs create the traffic jams and seemingly intentionally miss the lights. One more factor is the driver change in the middle of the route. Occasionally this is only 2 or 3 minutes, but mostly this is a 5 to 10 minute ordeal.

When I drive, the door to door trip is 30-40 minutes, a substantial savings. I’m more comfortable and can take different routes when one has traffic.

Now I have no expectation whatsoever that the bus can rival the car trip, however, if I knew that the bus would be reliable and reasonably quick, I would definitely take the bus more.

Eric July 17, 2016 - 4:35 am

I bring a laptop with me and open it as soon as I get on the bus. In my case, it’s 40 minutes door to door by bus, vs 25 minutes by driving. So 15 minutes extra, but for 30 of the bus minutes I’m getting things done, as opposed to zero of the car minutes. So I find the bus equally convenient, and of course much cheaper (I don’t own a car, I use taxis/Uber on the rare occasions when I need them).

Adirondacker12800 July 17, 2016 - 8:04 pm

If you aren’t driving you can do anything you want. Including using your laptop.

Spendmore Wastemor July 16, 2016 - 8:24 pm

“I am one of those of means who drives instead of taking the bus. Why?”

— Because you’re not a masochist, or crazy 😉

Perchi July 18, 2016 - 2:31 pm

Not directly realated with this article, but it seems as open gangway trains are finally coming to NY. According to Governors Cuomo, they will bring 1025 new subway cars, which 750 of them will be open gangway. http://abc7ny.com/traffic/cuom.....s/1431502/


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