Home Buses Byford’s ambitious bus plan relies on city, state cooperation

Byford’s ambitious bus plan relies on city, state cooperation

by Benjamin Kabak

The following post is my longer analysis of New York City Transit’s bus action plan. I originally wrote this up for Gotham Gazette, and you can read it here. I’ve expanded it for this post with some additional deep-dives into the plan itself.

In the Big Apple’s transit circles, Andy Byford has quickly become the hottest U.K. import since the Beatles. New York City Transit’s new president, brought in this winter from his job as the head of the Toronto Transit Commission, faces the unenviable task of fixing the city’s ailing subway system and restoring faith in its vital transit network. Just three months into the job, Byford is moving at a breakneck pace, and on Monday, he unveiled an ambitious plan to speed up New York City’s snail-like local buses and fight the tide of declining ridership.

The plan sets the bus system on the right road toward improvement but will require city and state cooperation and a change in NYPD culture, two elements in short supply these days that could torpedo Byford’s best efforts. It is also likely to require more money, which is also in short supply.

The New York City bus system is a curious thing. It is notorious unreliable with buses that crawl through city streets stopping every two or three blocks and with average speeds that barely exceed eight miles an hour. With infrequent and unreliable service, ridership has declined by nearly 10 percent since 2012 and 15 percent since 2002. Still, over 2 million riders a day rely on the city’s buses, and the bus system needs to be fixed.

Byford’s Bus Plan comes after nearly two years of heavy lobbying from the Bus Turnaround Coalition, a joint effort by the Transit Center, Riders Alliance, Straphangers Campaign and Tri-State Transportation Campaign. In 2016, this group called for an overhaul of the way buses work in New York City, and in 2018, Byford acknowledged their work in unveiling his plan. “We’ve listened to our riders’ concerns,” he said, “and are working tirelessly to create a world-class bus system that New Yorkers deserve.”

So what exactly is the plan? For now, it is an aspirational approach to better bus service with a 28-point agenda. The images embedded are from the plan, and I have added commentary as appropriate.

Byford wants to redesign the network by optimizing routes based on ridership needs while eliminating some stops to speed up service and expand off-peak bus frequency. Notably, he wants to expand off-peak service on what he calls “strategic routes” to better provide the last-mile connections a reliable bus network can provide. These types of redesigns require MTA action (though DOT will have to be a partner in improving street design).

Here, NYC DOT takes on a more important role. Byford wants to implement infrastructure upgrades that prioritize buses over other vehicles, including dedicated lanes and a signal prioritization system that allows buses to hold green lights or shorten reds. He wants exclusive busways — proposals that have more or less died in the face of driver opposition in recent years — and he will need DOT’s help. He calls for NYPD cooperation and effective traffic enforcement to keep buses moving through dedicated lanes.

Importantly, he proposes a faster boarding process, currently a main source of delays. To reduce bus dwell time — the minutes a bus spends sitting at a stop while riders dip their Metrocards or scrounge around for $2.75 in nickles, quarters, and dimes — Byford suggests all-door border, similar to London’s bus system; a tap fare payment card; and cashless bus fares. The final parts of the plan involve customer-focused improvements including more real-time bus countdown clocks, redesigned system maps, and more bus shelters along with some clean-tech buses to replace New York’s current gas-guzzlers.

On its surface, the plan is exactly what New York needs. Byford has shown that he understands the problems and drawbacks with the current bus network and is willing to propose a multi-part solution that involves every stakeholder and seemingly transcends the dysfunctional politics of the relationship between the city and state. But unfortunately with such an aggressive plan in play, each of these stakeholders are going to have to work together for this bus revitalization effort to succeed.

And to that end, except with respect to the all-door boarding and other technological upgrades to the buses themselves, Byford is now almost a bystander as he has shifted the onus to the city Department of Transportation, the NYPD, and Albany lawmakers to work together to realize his vision of a better bus network. But it’s his plan, and he will have to be a forceful advocate for it. Still, let’s look at the other players involved.

Let’s start with the city’s Department of Transportation. Since DOT controls the city’s streets, any changes to the way street space is allocated will have to start with DOT. Thus, additional bus lanes, dedicated bus corridors and the queue-jumping benefits of signal prioritization require DOT buy-in and support, and so will reducing the number of bus stops and changing street design to better support bus infrastructure. NYC DOT Commissioner and MTA Board member Polly Trottenberg voiced support for the plan during Monday’s meetings, but her boss, the mayor, a reluctant and infrequent transit rider who virtually never takes the bus, will have to be a forceful ally supporting these changes.

And then we have the NYPD. Currently, the NYPD seems to view the city’s bus lanes as, well, parking spots. Take a ride down the East Side’s avenues, and bus lanes will inevitably be filled with cops who have decided to park in curbside bus lanes, thus negating their intended purposes. The MTA, on the other hand, expects cops to be willing partners in enforcing bus lane restrictions and generally helping to ensure that other vehicles are not in the way of buses, impeding speeds and progress through congested city streets. (During a Twitter chat on buses on Thursday, Byford acknowledged that cops should not park in bus lanes. He seems willing to challenge the NYPD more than recent city leaders have.)

But cops alone are a poor and inadequate enforcement method, and NYPD culture is tough, if not impossible, to change. Thus, Albany takes center stage as bus lane enforcement should be automated and camera-based. Until now, the state Legislature has resisted giving the MTA carte blanche ability to install cameras that can assist in automated bus lane enforcement, but to truly tackle the problem of cars in bus lanes, Albany will have to act, and forcefully.

Finally, the elephant in the room is the cost. We do not yet know how much the bus plan will cost. It relies in part on moving pieces that are partially funded (such as a new fare payment system) and others that are not, and it will again be up to the governor to champion transit improvements in New York City so that they receive adequate funding. Facing the pressures and, more importantly, the headlines of a primary challenge, Andrew Cuomo has lately embraced certain positions he has rejected in the past, and mass transit support should be one of them. Perhaps, then, the time is right for the city and state to prioritize bus travel over car traffic.

Ultimately, the buses need fixing, but more importantly, the bus system needs to work efficiently so that New Yorkers have faith in it again. Buses can solve access problems in transit deserts and can be a part of the transit upgrades that a true congestion pricing plan would require. Byford has a vision that will improve bus service, but that is the easy part. Now he just has to convince everyone else to join him as well.

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BrooklynBus April 27, 2018 - 11:23 am

I disagree that Byford is now almost a bystander. He still has a crucial role to play. That is to ensure the MTA redesigns routes with the passenger in mind rather than cost being the dominant factor as has been in the past. To that end the goal of more efficient bus service must not be only that buses move quicker with fewer stops. But that the riders are better served with new areas connected in a better fashion with fewer transfers. Splitting routes with no overlap increases the need to transfer.

Improved service can only be accomplished my measuring the entire passenger journey which includes actual walking and waiting times, not merely bus travel times. The current wait assessment times are inaccurate since there is no record kept of buses that pass bus stops with waiting passengers. Eliminating very lightly utilized bus stops does not save time since most buses skip those stops anyway, and the only result of eliminating such stops are longer waits due to a higher likelihood of missing a bus. Eliminating heavily used stops merely overloads adjacent stops. Eliminating bus stops should be done on a case by case basis as opposed to hard rules like having stops no closer than every three blocks. If you have a hospital or a school, it makes little sense for a bus not to stop directly in front even if that means there is another stop two blocks away.

Finally, he also has to make sure that the MTA stops its lying to the public. MTA spokesman Shams Tarek told a local newspaper, the Queens Chronicle, “The Comptroller’s report affirms that SBS runs much faster than local routes and is a vast improvement over regular bus service, and that riders like it.”

The Comptroller’s report actually said: “Over the last decade, bus ridership in New York City has nosedived and many local routes have become less reliable, slower, and increasingly outdated. While Select Bus routes have performed slightly better, there is ample room for improvement.” It further states: “Select Bus routes travel only slightly faster than the average local route (8.9 mph versus 7.4 mph) and are identical in their on-time performance – a meager 62 percent.”

“Slightly better” and “slightly faster” is not “vast improvement” and “much faster”. This is typical of the lies made by the MTA and DOT to gain acceptance of SBS from the public.

As for passenger satisfaction levels with SBS, the Comptroller’s survey showed a 64 percent satisfaction rate whereas the MTA’s faulty methodology showed a 95 percent satisfaction rate. The Comptroller does not state if local riders were also surveyed. If not, then the 64 percent approval rating would most likely be even lower since those riders did not opt for the SBS service.

Byford is off to a good start, but he has a lot of housecleaning to do if he is to change NYCT culture.. It’s a little premature to celebrate as the Bus Turnaround Coalition is doing. The MTA cannot only dictate, but has to listen also. We will see if Byford keeps that promise to listen.

Alon Levy April 27, 2018 - 2:24 pm

The Comptroller’s report says SBS implementation has been incomplete, not that it’s bad. It’s like if I complain that SAS should serve East Harlem: it doesn’t mean I oppose phase 1 of SAS.

The average speed of SBS vs. the average local is misleading. It’s better to compare SBS with the local buses on the same route, since the busiest buses tend to be slower than average (they’re in areas with more traffic and also have more passengers getting on or off). In Brooklyn, the differences are especially pronounced: at noon on weekdays, the B44 SBS travels the shared segment with the local in 56 minutes and the local 77 minutes. On the B46 the difference is 43 vs. 54 minutes.

SBS is faster on a number of metrics. Stop consolidation alone is one of them. You can compare local and non-SBS limited buses on the same route, but the stop penalty varies greatly based on route. One planner told me the range is anything from 10 to 30 seconds, depending on where. In Manhattan the limiteds save 30-45 seconds per stop over the locals; in Brooklyn the range seems to be 20-30 seconds.

BrooklynBus April 27, 2018 - 3:11 pm

Did I say the Comptroller said SBS is bad? He said its “slightly faster” and “slightly better.” But does that mean we should further expand it before we fix its problems? I don’t believe so.

And you are correct. We shouldn’t be comparing SBS speeds with locals. We should be comparing them with Limiteds and you will find even a smaller speed increase differential. That is because we are changing Limited to SBS, not locals to SBS.

And your travel time differences are also incorrect. The 44 local and SBS operate on different streets with different road conditions for a good portion of the route, so comparing the time saved is not very meaningful. And for the B46, the difference I came up with at 8 AM is 44 and 51, 43 and 54. That’s a six minute difference, not a 9 minute difference, because it varies at least by 30 percent according to the time of day.

Do you also agree with the lie told by the MTA spokesman?

Alon Levy April 27, 2018 - 5:22 pm

Okay, fair, my table of bus speeds is specifically taken at noon on midday, averaging over both directions.

Re SBS vs. limited, what were the timetables before SBS? Right now the non-SBS limiteds have a noticeable improvement in speed on the locals, but nothing like SBS. The B82 is 82 vs. 87 minutes, so 6%; the B41 is 75 vs. 66, so 14%; the B38 is 54 vs. 50 along slightly different routes, so 9%; the B35 on the shared segment is 47 vs. 43, so 9%; the B6 on the shared segment is 68 vs. 63, so 8%.

And my understanding is that the Comptroller’s office wants more implementation of SBS but with more treatments to improve speed, but if that’s unclear I can ask for clarification.

BrooklynBus April 27, 2018 - 10:27 pm

B44 Limited at Noon to Flushing was 65. SBS was 56 to Flushing. At 8 AM Limited was 75; SBS 59 at 8 AM. But SBS route is a little shorter with fewer turns and has fewer stops. So people walk further, especially those going to Downstate Kings County Hospital which is a major destination and former Limited riders at Avenue R now must use local. All that has to be taken into consideration. As I stated what really matters is the passenger’s total trip time, not just the time spent in the bus.

Comptroller wants more SBS with more enforcement and quicker inmolementation of Priority Signals.

Alon Levy April 28, 2018 - 5:32 pm

Okay, but removing a few additional stops from the limited isn’t what makes a 9-minute travel time difference.

And the model I’m using to recommend 550-600 meters between bus stops takes walk time into account at an average speed of 1 m/s, which is less than the guideline for able-bodied adults and is within the range for people with disabilities (link).

Kings County Hospital gets a stop at Clarkson, no?

BrooklynBus April 29, 2018 - 9:52 am

The schedule I provided was for when the SBS was immediately installed before the Avenue L stop was instituted. And the Avenue R stop which is sorely needed because one mile between stops is far to great for this route, was never installed. So counting this stop which the MTA promised to install and later reneged on would reduce the time difference to seven minutes. Then consider that is for the entire nine miles when the average trip length is only 2.3 miles. So the average SBS passenger saves only about three minutes if the buses even run on schedule if they don’t. The question then becomes if it is worth spending an additional $4.8 million each year (the amount the MTA requested in its staff summary) just to save half the B44 riders an average of three minutes?

Yes there is an SBS stop at Clarkson, except where northbound local passengers for Kings County and Downstate are left only about 200 to 400 feet from their destination, SBS northbound passengers must walk an additional 600 feet. If they want to take the B12 for the additional two blocks if a bus is nearby, that would cost them an extra fare if they already used their one free transfer to get to the B44 SBS, unless they have an unlimited pass.

Alon Levy April 30, 2018 - 12:46 am

You’re claiming that adding a stop costs a minute, which seems excessive. The range seems to be 10-40 seconds; I’m assuming 30 in my model. The larger the stop penalty, the most justified long interstations are.

The average trip is 2.3 miles on all buses, but this is one specific route, not the systemwide average, which includes Manhattan crosstowns. Most likely a lot of people transfer at Brooklyn College – but if there’s one fixed destination then people only have to walk longer to more widely-spaced stop at one end of the trip.

BrooklynBus April 30, 2018 - 12:39 pm

I was also including acceleration and deceleration time in my cost estimate, but it also varies depending on stop usage. Ten seconds seems fair if only one passenger is boarding. As fare as 2.3 miles being an average trip length, that was actually the average trip length for this route quoted by the MTA in a 2010 document proposing the B44 SBS. They also stated the average passenger on this route would save four minutes because of SBS.

Alon Levy April 30, 2018 - 9:21 pm

Well, if passengers have to pay one at a time as on non-SBS buses, then they’ll get on the bus anyway, possibly walking longer, so stop consolidation doesn’t matter. This is why the stop penalty is (apparently?) independent of how busy the line is. My numbers come from comparing local and limited buses, not trying to figure acceleration and braking rates from first principles (although Carlos Daganzo’s model does do it from first principles).

Did the MTA try to break down 2.3 miles based on people transferring to the 2/5 vs. people not transferring to the 2/5? The former probably have shorter trip length, but also a single destination stop, so the walking penalty from stop consolidations is halved (it only happens at the origin, whereas normally it happens at both the origin and destination).

BrooklynBus May 1, 2018 - 9:27 am

I don’t remember any breakdown. And I am not saying that SBS doesn’t save some people a significant amount of time. But we need to count all journeys from beginning to end to determine the actual time saved and then balance that with all users of the roadway and compare the total time lost. To be an improvement, more time would have to be saved than lost and that has to be weighed against the costs. None of that is being done.

And regarding your point that bus stop penalty is independent of how busy the line is, I am not sure what you are getting at. But it is not independent of how busy the bus stops are. Where I live there are seven bus stops on the street. Except when the beach is open, only two of those stops have significant usage. Under your plan, you would eliminate three of those stops greatly increasing walking distances and trip times due to higher likelihoods of missing buses, but the buses would save virtually no time if these stops were removed. That is because although there are seven stops, no bus stops at more than four of them, and some stop at three or less or skip all five. So why have most people walk further when the bus wouldn’t save time without these stops?

Larry Littlefield April 27, 2018 - 3:59 pm

“Improved service can only be accomplished my measuring the entire passenger journey which includes actual walking and waiting times, not merely bus travel times.”

Walking is healthy, and not the equivalent of standing in line to board or waiting at a light or stop while on the bus.

Yes I understand older people don’t want to walk as far, but an extra three blocks would probably greatly improve their health.

A typical NYC block is 800-1000 feet in one direction and 200 in the other. Even stopping every block, that’s just one stop and one light per 800 to 1000 feet the long way. So why stop every 560 feet the short way, and hit multiple lights?

BrooklynBus April 29, 2018 - 9:58 am

Where are you getting your numbers from? A typical Avenue block is only about 600 feet. And a city block is about 250 feet apart. So stopping every other city block is every a stop every 500 feet and a stop every three blocks which happens about 50 percent of the time for city blocks is every 750 feet. So if you average out 500 and 750, you get 625 which is actually greater than 600. And you will still hit multiple lights unless drivers are skipping bus stops with stops eliminated.

BrooklynBus April 29, 2018 - 9:59 am

Where are you getting your numbers from? A typical Avenue block is only about 600 feet. And a city block is about 250 feet apart. So stopping every other city block is every a stop every 500 feet and a stop every three blocks which happens about 50 percent of the time for city blocks is every 750 feet. So if you average out 500 and 750, you get 625 which is actually greater than 600. And you will still hit multiple lights unless drivers are skipping bus stops with stops eliminated.

Ted From Queens April 27, 2018 - 8:53 pm

Fair points but I think it’s important to distinguish between MTA and NYCT. Byford, for all his influence does not control the former.

Larry Littlefield April 27, 2018 - 2:51 pm

The best thing Byford could do for buses is to tell NYC that it no longer had to contribute the $400 million to the MTA, nor to the capital plan aside from dedicated taxes and the TBTA revenue stream, and that the MTA payroll tax collected within NYC borders will from now on be turned over to the City of New York.

And that the City of New York is not responsible for subsidizing and operating all NYC surface transit, including the buses and paratransit. The coordination issues thus go away, and it becomes clear who is responsible for what.


Larry Littlefield April 27, 2018 - 2:52 pm

The city is NOW responsible for operating the buses and paratransit is what I meant to write.

And rename the MTA the MRA — metropolitan railroad authority.

Ferdinand Cesarano April 27, 2018 - 3:33 pm

the hottest London import since the Beatles

The Beatles are from Liverpool.

Calling the Beatles a London band is rather like calling the Beach Boys a New York band.

Roy May 17, 2018 - 2:56 pm

Authorizing enforcement cameras for buses will be the key. Drive in a London bus lane and get snapped by a bus? Automatic £100 fine (about $135). Very effective! Even better would be to automatically send the NYPD a bill every time one of their cars is parked in a bus lane.


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