Home Buses Subway problems get headlines, but who’s going to solve NYC’s other transit crisis?

Subway problems get headlines, but who’s going to solve NYC’s other transit crisis?

by Benjamin Kabak

A recent report by NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer highlighted the ongoing problems with NYC’s bus network.

New York City’s subway crisis built very slowly over the past few years before cascading into a disaster in early 2018. So far, in the early going this year, nearly every rush hour commute has been plagued by delays on multiple subway lines, and the MTA’s subway action plan, as Nicole Gelinas recently detailed, hasn’t been a single dividend yet. Delays are, in fact, up since Cuomo announced this initiative.

This is of course the well-covered transit crisis, but the city is suffering through another transit crisis as bus ridership and service reliability has been tanking in slow motion over the past decade. In fact, based on trends through the end of October, without a massive influx in riders in November and December, average weekday bus ridership for 2017 will be below 2 million riders per day, a low mark not seen since the early part of the last decade, and a decline of over 170,000 riders per day since the high-water mark in 2012. Buses serve a key segment of New York City, and regular riders are less wealthy and more dependent on transit than the average subway rider. That ridership is cratering amidst worsening service and few are focusing on the issue is alarming.

A few weeks ago, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer released an extensive report on improving the bus system. “Falling ridership, major slowdowns, and a bus infrastructure in decline is having an effect across the five boroughs,” he said in a release accompanying the report. “If we’re going to have a thriving economy tomorrow, we need to rebuild our bus system today. By unleashing innovative technologies, as well as honing in on strategies that improve reliability and service, we can change the game for New Yorkers. This cannot be a problem that is swept under the rug – this is an economic and social imperative that is critical to our future. The status quo is unacceptable, and we have to do better.”

The report covers some familiar ground — New York city’s buses average, for instance, 7.4 miles per hour, slowest among the United States’ major bus networks and average speeds in Manhattan aren’t much faster than walking. In fact, thanks, in part, to these slow speeds, Manhattan has seen a 16 percent decline in ridership since 2011. Stringer’s report rightly places this decline in a larger economic context of shifting job centers as “residents of every borough are now more likely to commute within their home borough than to,” a reality the subway network cannot accommodate but one the MTA has not considered as part of a badly needed update to the bus network.

I’ll come back to the issue of network design shortly, but first, a glimpse at how technology is affecting speed and service. Stringer’s report finds that buses are in motion only around half the time. Much of the travel time is attributable to waiting at red lights (21%) and waiting at bus stops (22%). Bus stops are, of course, unavoidable, but dwell times can be reduced through a pre-board fare payment system or all-door boarding. The MTA hasn’t definitively committed to such approach when it phases out the Metrocard over the next few years, but without this promise, buses will continue to be slowed down by the MTA’s own choices. Meanwhile, signal prioritization on major bus routes, a long-sought-after reward, has been slow in coming, as NYC DOT and the MTA have not coordinated particularly closely on bus technology. Truly dedicated lanes with aggressive enforcement should also improve speed and reliability. This is of course hardly a secret, but one worth hammering at every opportunity.

Winding bus routes are indicative of a network in need of a redesign.

And what of that network design? It’s totally inadequate, Stringer charges. Here’s Stringer on the long and winding bus routes:

In Budapest, the typical bus route does not exceed 25 minutes from end-to-end. There is a clear logic to this policy: the longer the route, the greater likelihood for delays to accumulate and cascade down the entirety of the line. New York City buses do not follow this standard. Routes can span nearly two hours and travel well over ten miles. In fact, the average local route in Staten Island is 10.6 miles and the average citywide is 6.8 miles. Of the ten longest routes in the city, four are in Staten Island and three are in Brooklyn.

These ten routes are not only long, they are also meandering, averaging 13 turns each. Frequent turns along a route will slow down a bus, forcing it to wait for an opening in traffic and carefully maneuver onto a new road. This can be dangerous, as turns carry a higher likelihood for collisions. Most importantly, turns are indicative of indirect, slow routes that are riddled with detours. On dozens of the city’s routes—particularly in Staten Island, Queens, and Brooklyn—buses will intermittently exit a major road to do a quick loop around local streets. This can be infuriating for riders, who wish to get to their final destination as quickly and directly as possible.

The MTA has, in fact, acknowledged the efficacy of straighter routes, stating that “bus service is more reliable when operated in a straight line than when many turns exist along the route.” Unfortunately, they too rarely follows their own dictum. Among the city’s 220 local routes, 38 feature at least 15 turns and 97 have ten or more.

To solve this problem, Stringer urges the MTA to take Chicago’s lead. The Windy City has implemented a streamlined grid approach with shorter routes and less duplicative service. By offering more frequent service and well-timed connections (as well as a robust transfer policy), a better designed bus network can offer better service. (And this doesn’t even begin to touch upon stop spacing, another problem Stringer highlights in his report, as bus stops are too close together and spacing is largely inconsistent throughout the city.)

Ultimately, the report includes numerous recommendations across a variety of topics, and I’m hitting only the highlights in this post. I’d urge you to browse through the entire report and digest the findings. In the end, the current bus network is not designed to provide good connections to the subway and hasn’t been restructured to get people from where they live to where they work (or otherwise want to go). The technology to speed up buses lags behind global leaders in the field, and the MTA and NYC DOT haven’t committed to creating a bus infrastructure that will combat the massive ridership declines. Meanwhile, with regular bus riders making on average just $24,000 per year, this sagging infrastructure and collapsing mode of transit hits hardest those who can least afford another route home.

So while the subway collapse is spectacular and very public, borne out through daily delays and the general frustration of a city at its wits’ end, the bus crisis is an insidious undercutting of the city’s most vulnerable. Stringer’s report garnered some headlines late in the fall, and it deserves to be rebroadcast, but are the right people listening? Are they ever?

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Larry Littlefield January 16, 2018 - 9:37 am

“New York City’s subway crisis built very slowly over the past few years before cascading into a disaster in early 2018.”

I would say subway service melted down in 2014, but this wasn’t noticed by the MSM until late 2017. But back to the buses.

I believe the decline in local bus riding is partly generational, and thus cannot be reversed. Buses were used by seniors, and those who feared crime on the subway. NYC has far fewer of both today, and young people are using other choices — bicycles, Uber and Lyft. My guess is they will continue to do so as they aged, just as the prior generation of bus riders continued to ride buses.

Rather than “save the bus system,” therefore, the MTA needs to think of reducing and abandoning the bus system, and creating an entirely new surface transportation system in its place.

I expect that in 20 years, all remaining surface lines will the equivalent of SBS or greater, and they will mostly be located in areas beyond the subway or on crosstown routes. Eventually, if the traffic is high enough and NYC’s obscene costs go down, track may be laid and steel wheel vehicles substituted.

Other, lower-traffic routes will be serviced by vans and car services for those who seek to avoid exercise, and bicycles for everyone else.

Al January 19, 2018 - 11:03 am

The problem with transit in this state is that many politicians have been using short sited thinking when it comes to dealing with transit. As opposed to saying that younger people are using Lyfts and Ubers because they dont need the bus system, maybe it might be better (and more accurate) to think that these car services are in use because of inadequate transit options. Scrapping an entire system as opposed to fixing it will only lead to further damage down the line.

Marsha January 16, 2018 - 9:50 am

Where’s the fewer bus stops suggestion? There is no need to have north-south buses stop every two blocks. Fewer stops would result in faster service.

Larry Littlefield January 16, 2018 - 11:04 am

Seniors and the handicapped — and seniors who react to bus cuts by claiming to be handicapped — stand in the way of fewer bus stops. They end up being entitled to para-transit at $90 per ride.

Perhaps the case could be made that given internet retailing, if these folks aren’t working, they can order their shopping online and have it delivered, reducing the need for transit service. But there is still visiting, doctors appointments, and religious observance.

SEAN January 17, 2018 - 1:57 pm

Seniors and the handicapped — and seniors who react to bus cuts by claiming to be handicapped — stand in the way of fewer bus stops. They end up being entitled to para-transit at $90 per ride.

Larry, are you sure about that? It is far more difficult to get para transit service if you are within .75 miles of a bus stop unless you are functionally unable to use the existing transit system. Para transit is no longer a separate door to door service unless cercomstances require it

Perhaps the case could be made that given internet retailing, if these folks aren’t working, they can order their shopping online and have it delivered, reducing the need for transit service. But there is still visiting, doctors appointments, and religious observances.

This is a slippery slope in that if what you say is true, then there would be little reason to go out at all witch everyone here knows that’s unhealthy both mentally & physically.

Larry Littlefield January 18, 2018 - 9:58 am

That’s an interesting, broader question. The internet allows people to shop at home. Many people can work at home. More and more people can take courses at home. Entertainment can be downloaded into the home.

And yet you have people who show up to collectively watch a movie outdoors, or show up to work on their own computer at a coffee shop, just to have a social experience.

One result might be more interaction within a neighborhood, as opposed to large scale groupings outside it.

SEAN January 18, 2018 - 10:52 am

So let me see if I understand your premise… what you are saying is there’s less of a need to travel far for anything except work do to the internet. And even that maybe in doubt since you can plug in at a Starbucks & work from there.

Oh I know I’m over simplifying a bit, but I want to illustrate the bunker or neighborhood bubble mentality that you are putting forth.

ron shapley January 25, 2018 - 12:22 am

Bravo……….. It’s so obvious !!

Stephen Bauman January 16, 2018 - 10:43 am

There is no need to have north-south buses stop every two blocks. Fewer stops would result in faster service.

The strategy of increasing stops from every other block to every 3 or 4 blocks (in Manhattan) was instituted a long time ago. The rationale was that it would speed service and increase ridership. It hasn’t worked out.

NYC bus trips are fairly short compared with other cities. The average bus ride is about 2.2 miles. Stops are placed approximately every 1/4 mile (5 blocks). This means @ 7.4 mph the average trip takes 18 minute travel time, plus walking time to/from the bus stop and waiting time for the bus. The average bus trip would include 8 stops.

Let’s assume the average distance between bus stops were increased to 1/2 mile. The same average 2.2 mile bus trip would pass 4 stops. The time spent entering and leaving a bus stop is approximately 30 seconds. This would result in a time savings of 2 minutes.

The dwell time spent in the bus stops would be the same because there should be no reduction in passengers. There would be twice the number of passengers entering and exiting at half the number of stops.

The passenger still has to walk to and from the bus stops. With stops spaced every 1/4 mile, the average walking distance is 1/8 + 1/8 or 1/4 mile. With stops spaced every 1/2 mile, the average walking distance is 1/4 mile. The average passenger would have to walk an extra 1/8 mile on each trip. At 3 mph, the extra walking distance translates to an extra 2.5 minutes.

Thus “faster service” by reducing the number of stops has increased the total trip time by 30 seconds for the average passenger.

Adam Forman January 16, 2018 - 12:00 pm

I agree that the time spent *walking to* the bus stop is often overlooked, so fair point.

That said, I don’t agree with all of your premises. First, you’re assuming that every bus stop has an equal number of riders — and thus the average increase in walking distance is equally distributed. We know that’s not the case and (I’d like to believe that) the MTA would strategically eliminate the least popular stops. Second, as the report demonstrates, average stop spacing is significantly lower than 1/4 of a mile. That will affect the trade-offs between bus speeds and walking distance.

BrooklynBus January 16, 2018 - 12:23 pm

Strategically eliminating the least popular stops which is definitely the wrong approach as is eliminating the heaviest stops. It is moderately used stops that are very close to other stops that need to be targeted for elimination.

Eliminating heavily used stops merely overloads neighboring stops.

Eliminating very lightly used stops inconveniences more people than it helps. Here is a specific example. In 2006 the MTA eliminated a very lightly used bus stop (my bus stop) because of a single complaint by a homeowner who knew the DOT Commissioner. DOT asked the MTA’s opinion and they did not object.

I asked for the data. It turned out that the bus stop on a typical weekday had 56 users boarding in a 24 hour period. (The numbers alighting were most likely much fewer.) So if you divide the number of passengers by the number of buses passing the stop in a 24 hour period and assume no more than one passenger boarded each bus at a time, you will find that only one in eight buses ever stopped at the bus stop anyway, and none for more than a few seconds. With acceleration and deceleration the most amount of time saved was perhaps 30 seconds, quite minimal.

Now look at the affects for the 56 daily users. The extra walk now put some users beyond the quarter-mile maximum walk guideline to a local route. It also meant that the extra minute or two walking greatly increased your chances for missing a bus which could add from one to 20 minutes to your trip. So there is like a 30% chance that elimination of this stop could turn a 30 minute trip into a 50 minute trip for the purpose of saving 30 seconds for one out of eight buses. So was it worth it?

BrooklynBus January 16, 2018 - 12:07 pm

The only intelligent remark thus far is from Stephen Bauman. Larry Littlefield and Marsha are much too simplistic. Local buses are not dead, but is there any hope to revive them? The Comptroller obviously thinks there is.

While Stringer is to be commended for bringing buses to the forefront and summarizing the problems well, I thought the recommendations were weak and often too simplistic. First of al too much emphasis is placed on bus speeds, slow service and long and meandering routes.

While we would all like straight and simple routes, the complicated irregular grid system, especially in Queens requires many long irregularly shaped routes.

The most important variable is passenger trip times, not bus speeds or bus travel times which is all that the MTA focuses upon. Shorter routes and more SBS routes with greater stop spacing are also not adequate answers for quicker and more reliable service. Neither is a greater s[acing of bus stops, although some certainly can be eliminated on a case by case basis, not by any formula like every four or five blocks. Changing or adding bus stops are also very political.

Just watch this News 12 report. If the MTA is not capable of operating a short route like the B42 on schedule, why would we want more shorter routes that require more transfers?


Some of the recommendations are over simplistic. While more of a grid-like system is desirable, many exceptions are needed. For example, the report recommends in a map that the B9 be moved from Avenues N and M to Avenue L. However, M and N are the commercial streets and N connects with 60 Street. So although Avenue L would be a quicker route, it would not be close to the origins and destinations needed on the commercial streets. So quicker trips on the bus would merely be replaced by increased walking times. That’s why it is passenger trip times that are more important than bus speeds and bus travel times.

However, passengers would be served better by continuing the route along Avenue N in Bergen Beach instead of routing it to Kings Plaza to improve needed bus connections. I proposed this in 1973 when the route terminated at Flatbush and Ave L. The MTA is now first proposing this as part of the B41 SBS. What took them 45 years? (It also took the MTA, NYCTA, and the BMT, 50 years to offer free bus transfers between all routes.)

What is most needed is for the MTA to start caring about its passengers rather than only being concerned about its budget. They need to stop making excuses to not implement every rational suggestion that is made to them . I am waiting 2 1/2 years for them to review a proposal I made to them regarding the B44 SBS to send alternate buses to Kingsborough Community College. They keep assuring me they will study it. Former Chairman Tom Prendergast even issued a memo to all employees that every suggestion be fairly evaluated and not automatically dismissed. Without follow up, it fell on deaf ears.

Check out the frustration here at a recent city council hearing expressed to Ronnie Hakim by Councilman Deutsch of Brooklyn.


These were my comments to the report last December in the Queens Chronicle


ajedrez February 3, 2018 - 2:38 am

It’s just giving an example, not an actual proposal. They also eliminated the east-west routes through Borough Park, the B103 through Canarsie, and left out the B17 in both the “Current” and “Grid Pattern” maps. I think that part of Brooklyn has a relatively straightforward grid, and they could’ve used parts of Staten Island or Queens as better examples.

BrooklynBus February 3, 2018 - 10:25 am

Most of Brooklyn does have a straightforward grid and that’s good. I was responsible for straightening the grid on 86 Street. But he was a little unfair when discussing meandering routes because many just can’t be avoided because of so many grid system irregularities resulting from Queens absorbing so many pre-existing local towns. How could you straighten the Q58 for example?

BronxSteve January 16, 2018 - 1:45 pm

Where do you get that bus stops are every 5 blocks? NYC local bus stops are spaced every 2 to 3 blocks.

Stan-Clare Closendawes January 17, 2018 - 1:17 pm

I don’t understand the argument presented by a few commenters here that eliminating bus stops does not lead to a time savings. If that’s true, then why are there limited stop buses, or Select Bus Service?

My local bus is the B16. I personally choose not to use it unless I’m desperate not to walk, because there are intervals where it stops at *every* corner. It’s so painfully, maddeningly slow.

BrooklynBus January 17, 2018 - 1:47 pm

Where there are Limited or Select Bus Service, there is usually a local bus alternative. What some are objecting to is a blanket removal of bus stops to every four or five blocks without any alternative. Where you have a subway alternative of stops five blocks apart, there is no sense in having the same stop spacing for buses. When the average bus trip is 2.3 miles, the time saved in removing bus stops just adds to the walking time, resulting in no or negligible time savings for passengers.

Also some stops are near high traffic generators. Just removing stops ignoring places like high schools, hospitals, beaches, etc. also makes no sense. Any bus stops that are removed need to be done on a case by case basis to be sure it makes sense.

There are no routes where buses stop every corner (every 200 feet). There might be a few instances of this because the bus is making a turn. Also, if bus stops are further apart, sone may have to walk more than the ideal quarter mile meaning routes need to be spaced closer together. Not everyone lives on the street where the bus operates.

The B16 needs to be made into two routes to make it useful. One route on Fort Hamilton Parkway and another on 13 and 14 Avenue (where 13th is one way.) But that requires a major reorganization of bus routes in the area, something the MTA isn’t capable of understanding how to do and they won’t listen to those who do know how to accomplish this. The communities have been asking girls this reroute for over forty years.

Stan-Clare Closendawes January 17, 2018 - 4:32 pm

Thank you for your explanation. That does make some sense.

That being said, the B16 absolutely does stop on back-to-back corners in some instances, as do a number of other buses in some cases (the S74 route on Staten Island, where I used to live, is another example).

Traveling toward Bay Ridge, there are two stops between Narrows Avenue and 91st Street along Shore Road, a distance of just two blocks. There’s a stop on 49th Street and 13th Avenue and a stop on 50th Street and 13th Avenue. Eliminating one of those stops would bring the maximum walk someone would have to make to about a tenth of a mile. The point is, even if it doesn’t actually save much time to make the stops, to the casual rider the bus *feels* so slow that it’s an extremely unappealing option. That, I think, is why bus ridership keeps plummeting; no one but the elderly has the patience to ride buses in NYC.

BrooklynBus January 17, 2018 - 6:11 pm

The reason there are stops at 49 Street and at 50 Street is that there is a crosstown route on both those streets and it is a heavy transfer point. While B16 through riders would save a minute perhaps, transferring passengers would have to walk an additional 200 feet taking three minutes and could easily miss a B16 because of that adding 20 minutes to their trip. So sometimes it just isn’t possible to please everyone.

When I was briefly head of Bus Planning in 1981, one thing I did was to eliminate a lightly used B49 bus stop that was 200 feet from another stop. I knew that the two close stops were just an accident of history and never planned so I eliminated one of them and there wasn’t a single complaint because it really wasn’t necessary and I knew that.

ajedrez February 3, 2018 - 1:33 am

The northbound stop is mid-block between 49th & 50th Street, so riders have an easy transfer to/from both eastbound and westbound B11 buses. The southbound stop is essentially in the same location, but there’s an extra stop one block away. If I were transferring to the eastbound B11, I would personally get off at 49th Street and walk down the block to 50th Street anyway, because it means I have a better shot at crossing 13th Avenue in time to catch the B11. (If the bus stops at 49th Street and misses the light at 50th Street, I have to be inside the bus, waiting for the light to change). Out here on Staten Island, I can think of a couple of stops with a similar situation: Victory & Van Duzer (S78) and Victory & Bay (S51/74/76) and Clove & Rhine (Southbound S74/76) and Clove & Targee (Northbound S74/76). Heading westbound, the stop is before Targee and after Richmond, so that’s fine, but eastbound, due to the configuration of the road, you’re better off just keeping the Rhine stop and eliminating the Targee stop.

BrooklynBus February 3, 2018 - 10:31 am

I will check out the northbound stop on the B16 the next time I am there. But maybe that is the solution. To place both stops mid-block so they are fairly accessible to both east and westbound riders and you get to eliminate close stops on the B16. They may have to be a little longer though if they are midblock.

BronxSteve January 17, 2018 - 2:38 pm

Any argument that halving the number of stops has no effect on bus trip time because the same number of people get on at the remaining stops is flawed. It fails to account for halving of the deceleration and acceleration requirements of the bus, halving the opening and closing of the doors, halving the kneeling time of the bus, and also reducing the likelihood that while stopped picking up passengers the bus will let a green light at the corner turn red.

Al January 19, 2018 - 11:06 am

I cant speak for buses in the outerboroughs, but in Manhattan its still very much a bus stop every 2-3 blocks.

Alon Levy January 20, 2018 - 6:42 am

I only saw your comment now, and I’d like to inject something you haven’t looked at: differences in schedules between local and limited buses. In New York, I looked at a few different bus lines, and found that the difference in schedule corresponds to about 35-40 seconds of time saved per skipped stop. In Vancouver I looked as well and found a smaller amount of time, 20-30 seconds.

At the time difference in New York, 35-40 seconds, the time saving from going from 200 meters between stops (current standard) to 400 (European, Australian, and East Asian standards) is 4.5-5 minutes over the average bus trip, which is 3.4 km. This is a bit more than the extra walking distance in the worst case, which is 400 meters (200 meters at each end).

But the worst case isn’t even that likely, because a large number of bus riders transfer – about half, judging by revenue data. The transfer stations all stay. If passengers are guaranteed that their destination stop stays as is, then stop consolidating still saves about 4.5 minutes, but now worst-case scenario extra walking time is just 2 minutes.

It’s a 2.5 minute difference in the worst case for the average bus trip, and a 4.5 minute difference in the best case. The average bus trip in New York today is just under 20 minutes, so this is a 13-25% reduction in trip time.

See more detailed analysis on my blog.

BrooklynBus January 20, 2018 - 11:00 am

You are making a few assumptions. You say the standard between stops in NY 200 meters or a little over 600 feet. This is true when where there are standard Avenue blocks. However, where blocks are every 230 feet apart or so, the stops are either every 460 or about 700 feet apart. Also, if the stops every 460 feet apart were increased to every 700 or higher, you would still have cases where some stops are close together if you keep all transfer points as is as you suggest.

Also, when you state limiteds save 35 to 40 seconds per stop over locals, you are assuming the schedules actually reflect real world traffic conditions which is not always the case. Just look at the case for the Woodhaven Blvd SBS. DOT was claiming that rush hour riders would save up to 30 minutes per trip because of the exclusive bus lane, from 90 minutes down to 60 minutes. But the schedules never allowed for 90 minutes. They only allowed 60 minutes when the trip regularly took 90 minutes, so the buses were always late.

Then there are increased waiting times with wider spaced bus stops that you do not consider. Even an extra one minute walk to the bus increases your likelihood of missing a bus and adding ten or more minutes to your trip.

That is not to say as I have stated, that there aren’t bus stops that can’t be removed to speed travel with little negative impact. But I believe this needs to be done on a case by case basis, not by any generalized standard.

Also, if you do not want midblock spacing which makes it more difficult to find bus stops for unfamiliar riders, you are really limited by the block lengths. So if you believe every 700 feet is too close, then you are talking about stops every 1400 feet which is too far apart in my opinion.

I believe most cities that bus stops that are far apart are ones where the buses double as subways. Far apart bus stops are not feasible where the population of elderly and handicapped is high unless you expect them all to use a service like Access a ride which costs far more to operate.

ajedrez February 3, 2018 - 1:46 am

I’m sure you remember the Subchat thread regarding the Q52/53 at Atlantic Avenue, correct? We agreed that the only additional time was the extra walk. If the connecting bus runs every 30 minutes (which it generally doesn’t) and you have 3 minutes of extra walking, then you have a 3/30 (10%) chance of missing the bus and a 27/30 (90%) chance of catching the same bus you would’ve anyway. 30*0.1 = 3 minutes

The only time where the average wait time would signficantly increase would be if the buses were deliberately timed to miss each other, but that’s a separate issue.

BrooklynBus February 3, 2018 - 10:36 am

Why do you use every 30 minutes as an example for a connecting bus when you say it isn’t generally the case. Wouldn’t a bus every ten minutes or 15 minutes result in more frequently missed buses?

ajedrez February 3, 2018 - 2:43 pm

The math works out the same. Expected Additional Travel Time = (3/10)*10 + (7/10)(0) = 3 minutes (30% chance of missing it but the penalty for missing it is smaller) and there’s still a 70% chance of catching the same bus.

Michael Thaddeus Doyle January 16, 2018 - 11:36 am

I would note that the subway crisis hasn’t been coming on for the past few years, but for the past two solid decades. As far back as 1998 when I was on the central staff of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA, we spent a lot of our time calling out the agency at board meetings and in the media over the inexplicably ballooning costs of the capital plans. We constantly questioned the costs, pointed out that they were far above engineering and construction costs in other countries, and sounded the alarm that eventually the debt service would grow so large that it would start to be taken out of fares and tolls in a sizable chunk, causing the cost of getting around the city and the region to skyrocket.

We said that over, and over, and over for years. But the MTA is a creature of the governor and ever since it’s creation in the beginning of the multi-year capital plans in the 1970s, the cronyism that the New York Times recently highlighted has been going on. It is nothing new. It was actually built right into the organizational structure and its governmental relationships from the start. And that’s why 20 years ago the governor ignored us, and because the governor ignored us–and all of our peer groups at the time as well (e.g. Straphangers Campaign)–the media didn’t take it seriously and nothing changed.

And because nothing changed, exactly what we want about 20 years ago came to pass. What started happening more recently is that that the incrementally growing negative effect of cronyism-generated capital costs and debt service on transit service, fares/tolls, and state of repair could no longer be ignored or denied in the media by the MTA or the governor’s office. But the fact that there is no easy fiscal way out is because of the scale of the problem, and at this point it’s a multi-generational problem–made worse by a governor with fewer qualms about using the MTA as a political football and making false promises about service improvements than any other governor in the history of the agency.

Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s awesome that the NYTimes finally dug into the issue. But it’s also kind of criminal that it waited two decades to do so. We were screaming in their ears in the late 90s about all of this.

On a side note, since this is really a post about bus service, although I grew up in Queens and lived in the city until my early thirties, I left New York 15 years ago and have spent all of that time living in Chicago. Whenever I go home and visit my family, taking the subway or the bus in my hometown is an acutely depressing experience. I’m not a big fan of Rahm Emanuel, but he’s right about the differences transit experience between the two cities. Here, over the past decade and a half I have experienced half of our L stations (both elevated and subway) be renovated or completely rebuilt, the construction of three entirely new stations, automated announcements implemented across the entire rail and bus fleet, real-time train and bus tracker systems universally rolled out, digital vehicle arrival time signs installed in every L station and at nearly every single bus stop, half the rail fleet replaced with new-technology cars, the entire bus fleet replaced with modern low-floor buses including low-floor articulated buses, rail cars and buses kept clean both inside and out, a BRT system rolled out throughout downtown, a universal city and suburban fare app, and strong and continually increasing L and bus vehicle reliability.

And then I visit my family in Queens and I get on a bus that is so filthy and smelly and in such a bad state of repair that I don’t even want to sit down. Or I get on the subway and wonder why the insides of the doors of every new car I ride I covered with rust and grime. More than anything, I wonder why all of the technology and all of the systems that Chicago has long had rolled out, New Yorkers still can’t enjoy.

And the reason for that, and the only reason for that, is that the governor’s office in collusion with MTA leadership has allowed capital funding and, by dint of the effect on the farebox and tolls, operating funding to be siphoned off in alarming and increasing proportion for forty years. Only one city between my hometown of New York and my adopted home of Chicago has a truly modern, European level of service and style of system. And it’s not New York. In fact, that “European level of service” over the past decade has pretty much become par for major American transit systems, too. It isn’t just Londoners or Parisians who go to New York and wonder what the hell happened to the transit system. At this point, it’s a Chicagoans, and Angelenos, and San Franciscans, and Dallasites, and Portlanders, and on and on.

That’s saddening and an incredible shame. It should not be that way and the only person who can ever change it is the governor, because it’s the governor’s office that started it in the first place.

BrooklynBus January 16, 2018 - 12:34 pm

I feel your frustration as to why it took the NY Times so long.

I feel the same frustration with the Comptroller’s bus report. Many of the problems and suggestions I made in my 1973 master’s thesis, are now revealed as revelations by the comptroller.

I would also like to note that I haven’t heard a single peep out of the PCAC for like ten years. I am beginning to wonder if they are doing anything these days.

Adam Batlan Forman January 17, 2018 - 5:32 pm

Allan, your countless blog posts and message board comments were thoroughly reviewed in the run-up to this report and deeply influenced its conclusions and recommendations. Thank you for your decades of service to this city and its transportation system.

BrooklynBus January 17, 2018 - 6:13 pm

Glad to be of help but I was wondering why that wasn’t noted in the bibliography.

John January 16, 2018 - 11:45 am

This story would seem anecdotal if it wasn’t told time and time again by many people about many different bus lines. There should never be 6 (!!!) of the same buses driving down the street in succession. It makes absolutely no sense. On Saturday, coming back from a movie, we took the L to DeKalb to catch the B38 toward Downtown Brooklyn. BusTime says the next bus is 2.8m away plus layover at terminal, meaning, the buses are just sitting there at the terminal in Ridgewood. Meanwhile, 6 B38s toward Ridgewood are passing us – mostly empty, mind you. It’s about 10 degrees outside, so we had pretty much no other choice than to hire a Lyft. Occurrences like these are probably happening by the hundreds if not thousands on a weekly basis. People who can afford to are abandoning the inefficient bus service for private cars, and people who can’t afford it are literally left out in the cold. Why is there no communication, letting drivers know (hey – there’s 6 buses headed your way to the terminal, maybe somebody should start driving the other way?).

BrooklynBus January 16, 2018 - 12:31 pm

I recently had two bad experiences with BusTime. Twice it led me to believe that the next bus was 30 minutes away. Both times the bus came in five minutes. One time I was lucky to catch the bus several stops away, but the other time it passed me between to stops and I had to walk all the way home.

BusTime certainly is an improvement, but it doesn’t always work. Same thing with the B Division subway countdown clocks. Hope they can work out the bugs. Guess they ran out of money, It is ridiculous that time clocks at Herald Square can only show the next arriving train when there are four lines at that platform.

Watch the B42 video, I posted.

BruceNY January 16, 2018 - 2:08 pm

Ironically I think that I ride the bus more than I used to since BusTime came to be. Now I can at least see if it’s worth waiting for the bus or find another way home. Yes, I’ve experienced the same issue of some buses “disappearing”, but all in all it’s still an improvement.

But you raise a really good point about B Division countdown clocks. They don’t tell you anything except for the next train that’s already pulling into the station. Why don’t they scroll to the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, trains that are next–particularly on multi-line routes, as they do on the IRT Lines? It’s great that the next two trains are an N and a W, but where’s the next Q?
But to add insult to injury, the MTA decides that only one monitor per platform is sufficient (never where I need to stand and wait), or in the case of the brand new 63rd/Lexington station, only before the turnstile! Once you’re on the platform there’s no telling where the next train is, since you’ve already missed the one you were hoping to take because you had to wait for a working elevator to show up.
I know that they chose a different system to save money but it’s so inferior to the IRT that to me it seems to have been just a huge waste.

John January 16, 2018 - 9:19 pm

The B division clocks piss me off to no end. Why are there so few per station? There’s literally two per platform, if that. At W 4 it’s a nightmare. Should I take this F to Essex for the J/M or risk it in the hopes there’s an M right behind? I’ll never know because it only displays the approaching F and the next B/D across the platform. There should be two clocks side by side – one for the local and one for the express. It’s 2018, this shouldn’t be so difficult to get right.

ajedrez February 3, 2018 - 1:59 am

If you have a smartphone (or ask one of your fellow riders) at a station with cell service, you can go to SubwayTime.mta.info to check the information for the specific line you need.

Adam Batlan Forman January 17, 2018 - 5:30 pm

Allan, your countless blog posts and message board comments were thoroughly reviewed in the run-up to this report and deeply influenced its conclusions and recommendations. Thank you for your decades of service to this city and its transportation system.

ajedrez February 3, 2018 - 1:56 am

Both the Metropolitan Avenue and Seneca Avenue terminals are about 1.1 miles away from the DeKalb Avenue subway station. So if the next bus was about 2.3 miles away, those buses that you saw heading towards Ridgewood were the next buses that would’ve went back towards Downtown Brooklyn (there were no buses at the terminal, at least on BusTime).

I agree that they should’ve short-turned some of those buses to provide service in the other direction.

Paul Berk January 18, 2018 - 12:23 pm

Long ago before 5th avenue re-developed I was frustrated the city wouldn’t run a quick turnaround short-distance service along 7th avenue between Flatbush Ave and Green-Wood Cmtry to bring Park Slope & what later got called South Park Slope closer together, commercially speaking. Don’t care now. I’ve got a bike.


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