Home Buses Why it’s OK (but not great) to pause Select Bus Service rollouts for now

Why it’s OK (but not great) to pause Select Bus Service rollouts for now

by Benjamin Kabak

NYC Transit may put a pause on rolling out Select Bus Service routes for the next few years. (Photo by flickr user Stephen Rees)

With so many moving financial parts these day, it can be tough to keep track of where the MTA stands fiscally. Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s state of emergency declaration regarding the subways and his subsequent Subway Action Plan, largely ineffectual so far, has allowed the MTA to bypass traditional procurement channels while adding nearly $1 billion to its expense ledger. Meanwhile, relying on the promise of a strong economy and steady fare revenue, the MTA’s out-year financial projections remain as tenuous as ever, and it seems that some cuts may be on the table.

The story took a few weeks to develop after the MTA released its July Financial Plan last month largely because the cuts are buried throughout, but it broke last week in an article in The Wall Street Journal noting that cost reductions required, in part, to find money for the Subway Action Plan may lead to bus and subway service cuts. Most notably, the MTA may be pausing rollout of Select Bus Service routes for at least four years. Here’s how Paul Berger reported it:

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority plans to stop expanding a bus rapid-transit service, reduce bus fare-evasion patrols and cut dozens of positions for subway car cleaning as it seeks $562 million in cost reductions during the next few years.

According to emails reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, some MTA board members are concerned that the authority is taking such cost-savings measures even as it hires more than 1,000 workers under a plan launched last year to improve subway service, known as the Subway Action Plan.

MTA board member Carl Weisbrod, an appointee of Mayor Bill de Blasio, wrote in an Aug. 5 email to fellow board members and senior MTA officials: “It’s hard to escape the conclusion that we’ve giveth with one hand through the Subway Action Plan, and we’ve taketh away, to some extent, through these service cuts.”

In response, MTA Chairman Joe Lhota called the shifting funds a “redeployment of resources,” but a cut is a cut by any name. By holding back on Select Bus Service routes, other than those currently being planned and those needed on 14th Street for bus capacity during the L train shutdown, the MTA saves $28 million, a drop in the $500 million bucket the agency is trying to cobble together. It seems like a Pyrrhic victory as Select Bus Service routes are among the best in the city with touches of a modern bus system, including pre-boarding fare payment and dedicated lanes. So why cut them?

The answer is not quite as black-and-white as it seems, and the MTA may not be cutting off its nose to spite its face. In my view, it takes far too long for the MTA and New York City to roll out Select Bus Service routes. There are far too many hyper-local considerations given far too much weight while the needs of the riders are often backburned by trumped-up concerns over parking spots. We’ve seen this play out again and again and again. So a four-year pause may impact only a handful of routes.

But that’s a bad reason to accept the pause. The better reason is embedded in the MTA’s 500+ breakdown of the financial plan [pdf]. Led by Andy Byford, New York City Transit is currently amidst an analysis and reassessment of the entire citywide bus network. This includes every route, every stop and every 20th century element of the bus network including the boarding process. By 2021, Transit expects to amidst a major rollout of a new fare payment system, and the agency will have completed its review of the bus network. It doesn’t make sense to spend political capital and dollars on rolling out Select Bus Service routes now that may not fit in with the redesigned bus network, and that’s a good enough, but not great, reason to pause so long as the MTA commits to resuming introducing proper SBS (or even real BRT) routes to NYC once the bus turnaround plan is unveiled.

The wild card here though is city politics. Since buses uses city streets, NYC DOT is essentially in charge of permitted Select Bus Service routes, and SBS has become one of the few tools the city has to control its own transportation infrastructure. (Whether the mayor has used this tool efficiently or effectively or frequently enough is open for debate, though I’m sure you know my thoughts.) By pausing SBS rollout and by not informing the city or even working with them to cushion this announcement, the MTA has put itself at odds with the city agency that can by a major ally in pushing forward on the eventual bus turnaround plan. This strikes me as bad city-state politics and a move that could be quite costly down the road.

So ultimately, I think this was a case of bad presentation and mixed messages in a 500-page financial document. The MTA shouldn’t penny-pinch the only good approach to new bus routes over a matter of $28 million spread out over four years, but the agency shouldn’t be introducing new bus routes until it has a handle on how to improve bus service overall on a citywide basis. It’s OK, but not great, to halt Select Bus Service rollout so long as it comes back with a vengeance when the Bus Tunraround plan is unveiled. And if there’s no Bus Turnaround plan, well, that’s a different issue entirely.

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LLQBTT August 20, 2018 - 9:35 am

Will we ever get a new subway line around here? Forget SAS. Adding a Franklin Ave Shuttle every 15 years doesn’t count.

Chet August 20, 2018 - 10:39 am

Yes- think we’ll see actual expansion when the following happens:
1) There is a dependable stream of capital expense funding from a congestion pricing plan and a federal government that has a real infrastructure plan.
2) When we have a governor that really cares about the subway along with mayor that he (actually both) don’t act like jealous schoolkids fighting with each other all the time.
3) When the MTA actually learns how to build subway for at least 50% less that $2.5 billion a mile it costs now. (And yes, I believe that can be done, because the rest of the world does it.)

So, yes, get all of those prerequisites in place and we have a good chance of seeing subway expansion. How long until that happens? I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Stephen Bauman August 22, 2018 - 6:31 am

1) There is a dependable stream of capital expense funding from a congestion pricing plan

Congestion pricing grossly overestimates the amount of net revenue it will generate. Part of its income stream is the additional fares due to people switching from vehicles to public transit. However, they do not include the cost for providing this additional service.

The fare recovery rate (FRR) is approximately $0.60 and $0.30, for the subways and buses respectively. This means that each additional fare dollar represents an net loss of $0.67 or $1.33 for subways and buses respectively.

History has shown that the FRR does not increase with increased patronage. The FRR was $0.75 in 2011 with 2.5B unlinked; it was only $0.60 in 2016 with 2.7B unlinked trips.

BrooklynBus August 20, 2018 - 12:52 pm

Pausing Select Bus Service Rollouts is exactly what I recommended in my last sentence here:


Before it resumes, the MTA must show it really works with actual statistics not the phony ones with poor methodology they have been using.

I also find it difficult to believe that only $28 million will be saved over four years when that is the cost of a single route.

I do not disagree with cutting SBS enforcement. Part of the reason for bus ridership declines is massive fare beating especially in lower income neighborhoods. That is why there has not been any B46 SBS progress report after more than two years. Even the MTA can’t spin the numbers to show the route is successful. Also there is no data available that justifies exclusive bus lanes on the wide portion of Kings Highway.

If the SBS program is resumed in three years, DOT must first step up bus lane enforcement and bus priority signals and show how much time is being saved of total trip time, not only the time spent on the bus. Walking five minutes extra to access a bus and another extra five minutes after getting off to save ten minutes riding on the bus does not constitute a transit improvement and will not reduce the use of Uber and like services.

Alon Levy August 20, 2018 - 5:46 pm

A few points.

1. Ridership is declining throughout the city, and not just in poorer neighborhoods. The fastest declines have been in Manhattan. The UES-UWS crosstown routes were bleeding riders even before SAS offered an alternative.

2. I’m not going to defend some questionable stop deletions like the B44 not stopping at Eastern Parkway, but overall there is extensive literature on optimal bus stop spacing taking into account that passengers would need to walk longer to more widely-spaced stops. The 400-500 meter optimum wasn’t pulled out of a hat. Generally, shorter routes reduce the optimal stop spacing, but then if there’s one dominant destination everyone goes to (e.g. B46 riders unloading at Eastern Parkway) then this favors longer stop spacing because you never have to walk extra to your destination, you only have to walk extra from your origin.

3. I’ve been trying to read literature on both bus lanes and signal priority. Based on public MTA figures, it looks as if bus lanes save around 30 seconds per km, even with weak enforcement and curb lanes. Signal priority is more complicated (and I haven’t read all the literature on it) – it speeds up service by a few percent, but most of its benefit is in stabilizing the schedule and avoiding essentially random delays.

Tower18 August 20, 2018 - 7:48 pm

Re: #3 and signal priority, seems to me that it may also help solve the old “near corner or far corner” problem of bus stop location. If a bus can just turn the light green more or less when it’s ready, you can locate stops wherever they make sense (ie. to better serve popular destinations or transfers)

BrooklynBus August 20, 2018 - 8:39 pm

Point 1: True, but how much of the declines are real declines and how much is increased fare evasion? They will lose more money by cutting enforcement by increases in fare evasion.

Point 2: White Eastern Parkway and a few other are significant destinations, the vast majority of riders do not get on or off at those heavily used stops so reducing bus stops in most cases will increase walking time at both ends.

Stephen Bauman August 22, 2018 - 6:54 am

Signal priority is more complicated (and I haven’t read all the literature on it)

Its savings should be intuitively obvious.

Let’s assume a 45 second green aspect in a 90 second cycle. The average wait time for the green aspect is 0 seconds; the average wait time for the non-green aspect is 0.5 * 45 or 22.5 seconds. The expected wait time for the entire cycle is 0.5 * 0 + 0.5 * 22.5 or 11.25 seconds. Passenger dwell time variability means that statistical independence exists between successive traffic signals. This means that each traffic signal adds an average of 11.25 seconds to the trip journey.

Traffic signal priority adds 3 seconds to the beginning and end of the green aspect. Thus the calculation becomes ((51/90) * 0) + (39/90) * (0.5 * (90 – 51)) = 8.45 seconds. Again assuming statistical independence, the average delay imposed by each traffic signal is reduced from 11.25 to 8.45 seconds for a savings of 2.8 seconds per traffic signal.

Alon Levy August 22, 2018 - 9:39 am

Two complications.

1. “Adds 3 seconds to the beginning and end of the green aspect” is one kind of TSP. There are many flavors of TSP.

2. What do you do when two bus corridors intersect? Which one gets higher priority? (The correct answer is “the bus that’s behind schedule,” but that requires dynamic priority and dispatching.)

Stephen Bauman August 22, 2018 - 10:48 am

There are many flavors of TSP.

There are also many traffic signal flavors regarding green cycle and cycle time. I demonstrated the method for an arbitrary traffic signal and TSP. That method should be applicable to every other flavor. It there a counter example?

What do you do when two bus corridors intersect?

There are two approaches.

First, let’s ignore such conflicts. The time savings ignoring any conflict would be the best possible savings. If that “best” time savings is very little, then TSP might not be worth the cost and effort.

Second, conditional probabilities can be assigned to 2 different scenarios: TSP without intersecting conflict; and TSP with intersecting conflict. There would still be a third scenario baseline – no TSP. The conditional probabilities would be assigned, based on the number of intersecting crossings that are scheduled during the time interval.

One can always determine the sensitivity to intersecting crossings by varying the conditional probability. If the results are insensitive, then the intersecting crossings problem is exaggerated.

The sensitivity would depend on the metric used to measure time savings. Does this metric include both intersecting lines? Is it weighted for different service levels? etc. However, I’d think the performance metric definition would would be defined before one considers TSP and other strategies.

Kenneth Barr August 20, 2018 - 1:40 pm

Pausing SBS is not necessarily in the interest of both riders of the Q66 Northern Boulevard and Q60 Queens Boulevard routes. These lines run so inconsistently, often severely bunching and producing 30 minute wait times followed by three to five buses coming within a span of 5 to 10 minutes. SBS is just one of a multi step process, in fact the last step. In the case of the Q66, the first would be establishing pro-active supervision at the two terminals and at a mid point location at Northern Boulevard and Broadway, where there is a connection to the R/M subway lines. Second would be the elimination of the morning and evening rush hour turn at Northern and Broadway (the former western terminal until the 21st Street/Queensbridge Subway Station opened) of roughly 50% of the buses. This exacerbates the bunching problem. Only then could SBS be explored.

The Q60 suffers from traffic enforcement problems. There are several areas, particularly in front of Queens Center on the westbound route, where the Q60 and other routes are unable to pull in to the stop due to encroachment by taxis and other unauthorized vehicles. Therefore, proper enforcement is a necessary first step. Second, the route stretches from the Manhattan end of the Queensboro Bridge to Central Jamaica. This needs to be looked into as well. Finally, either a Limited or SBS system should be investigated and, if proper, implemented.

SBS, which is New York’s version of Bus Rapid Transit, has had only limited success due to its limited implementation. True BRT/SBS involves dedicated busways and priority right of way rules for mass transit vehicles. This hasn’t happened here and the likelihood that it will is probably years away, given the attitude of the New York Legislature. Advocacy for true BRT/SBS must continue. We are a city of very limited land mass and the proliferation of limited occupancy vehicles is the antithesis of a balanced approach to transit in this region. We must reject the shopworn politics of city versus suburbs and Manhattan versus outer boroughs approaches that continue to dominate the discussion when it comes to public transportation issues. The Robert Moses attitude of cars must rule is completely obsolete and must end. SO, my original contention that a pause in SBS implementation is not in the interest of two lines in Queens may not be in the best interest of the entire system. Therefore, a more judicious decision making approach is needed. I will continue to advocate for these two lines in my home borough as necessary for the system as a whole, especially as they exist on city streets that are also State Highways (Queens Boulevard is NY 25, Northern Boulevard is NY 25A). This means that the efficiency of the bus service is intertwined with the efficiency of major thoroughfares.

Alon Levy August 20, 2018 - 6:06 pm

Why would eliminating the short-turn routes reduce bunching?

BrooklynBus August 20, 2018 - 8:35 pm

The M60 is all screwed up ever since a travel lane was removed from the service road around 2003 and replaced with parking and more recently a bike lane. That has caused great traffic congestion in the service roads near Queens Center most of the time. The solution is to return the travel lane that was removed not to make SBS and move the buses to the main roadway and remove a second lane from general traffic.

DOT creates the problems and now they want to improve bus flow by creating more problems. They are thoroughly incompetent.

Kenenth Barr August 20, 2018 - 1:48 pm

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madbandit August 20, 2018 - 9:30 pm

This move totally makes sense for the upcoming new fare system. Give us all door boarding with all those new buses you want to buy as part of Fast Forward.

Sampson Simpson August 20, 2018 - 10:59 pm

I took an SBS on 2nd avenue home this evening, a man both obese and demented occupied nearly the bus entire back of the bus, save for those who could stomach his ranting, spitting and worse – I could not. He reeked not just of severe BO, but clearly of having shat himself. Are we 8-to-6’ers really supposed to tolerate, or worse champion on some social justice BS, our taxes funding tour buses to low-lives? In less advanced countries you have RFID tags to get on, gimme a break this SBS system is a delusional farce. The MTA is losing money off free riders using means that were outdated upon their inception – if they checked often enough to prevent loses they’d be slower than the old express buses come on!

Phillip Roncoroni August 22, 2018 - 11:57 am

How is this any different than the mentally ill on the subways? If anything, buses usually have a far lower population of homeless and mentally ill riders. This is a mental health issue, not really an MTA issue.

smotri August 21, 2018 - 9:11 am

As a sometimes user of SBS M15, it is noticeably faster than the regular M15, although I would add that, at least on 3rd Avenue, the LTD versions of the various 3rd Avenue bus lines are also noticeably faster than the regular lines. There must be a way to implement more LTD versions of bus lines – or even make all bus lines LTD, and especially with a better fare collection method. This would obviate the need for many or even all these future SBS lines, perhaps.

Alon Levy August 21, 2018 - 11:37 pm

Yeah, in Manhattan the limited buses seem to save around 40 seconds per deleted stop. It’s really high and I don’t know why it’s lower elsewhere (in Brooklyn the average is closer to 25 seconds, in Vancouver it’s around 30).

Michael549 August 25, 2018 - 11:38 am

From a previous message:

” There must be a way to implement more LTD versions of bus lines – or even make all bus lines LTD, and especially with a better fare collection method. This would obviate the need for many or even all these future SBS lines, perhaps.”

A couple of points:

Much, much to often the bus transit situation of Manhattan is offered as a template as to how bus transit in the other boroughs should be changed or adapted with out any consideration of the issues that concern bus riders in those plentiful of places. That has got to stop.

NYC is a very complex place making what may work for one place or neighborhood would bring about greater transit hardship for other riders.

From the borough that lacks any subway lines – making all of the buses that serve Staten Island “limited buses” would indeed bring about MUCH GREATER TRANSIT HARDSHIP.

If I have walk much longer distances to the nearest bus stop, with the usual regularly scheduled 30-minute wait times between buses – does anyone really think that a better “fare collection” system is going to make as a rider happy?

Much too often transit folks confuse the number of bus stops on a line with the idea that those buses have to actually stop at all of those stops. Buses stop at bus stops that a) have people waiting at that bus stop, and b) riders that signal for that bus stop and for their bus to stop at that stop. If a bus stop has “no one” waiting there the bus just keeps moving.

Making people walk longer to their bus stops, having long wait times between buses, removing regular local service (in favor of express or limited type service), making public bus service more difficult to use — simply does not get folks out of their cars. All of these kinds of things makes transit more difficult for the “transit dependent” and convinces the many to not become “transit dependent.”

Just some points.

Bolwerk August 28, 2018 - 1:14 pm

If I have walk much longer distances to the nearest bus stop, with the usual regularly scheduled 30-minute wait times between buses – does anyone really think that a better “fare collection” system is going to make as a rider happy?

No idea if something makes you different than most people (unusual amount of luggage?), but if you save more travel time than you spend time with additional walking, it generally should.

Theorem Ox August 31, 2018 - 8:20 am

In the particular scenario that Mike described, it’s likely that a given individual would experience negligible travel time savings AT BEST.

Seemingly small details ultimately add up and I believe this one has been mentioned often by other commenters in this blog alone: Longer walking times to get to a longer spaced bus stop from the actual origin and to reach the final destination from the target bus stop.

But that would be comparatively trivial when you have this happening too: Bus drivers refusing to wait for you to pay the fare off-board and pulling out before you can get your printed receipt from the damn machine (even if the next bus on the same route is nowhere in sight and is more than 5 minutes away in hindsight). With the longer walk to the bus stop, it’s harder to maintain a reasonable time buffer for buses not adhering to expected schedules / arrival estimates.

(Now you find yourself in a situation where you would’ve likely had a shorter travel time overall under the previous system in place.)

Plus with what the NYCDOT has been doing lately (under the guise of “Zero Vision”), it’s very likely that a bus rider will spend a longer time on the bus regardless of the length of the portion of the bus route they ride on. And that’s despite these little changes that the MTA is trying to implement to speed up travel times.

(I wish I could say all this is just hypothetical, but I have unfortunately personally experienced what I wrote above commuting to/from work and on discretionary trips a few times already.)

Bolwerk August 31, 2018 - 1:05 pm

Bus drivers absolutely should not wait for you to pay before you board. They should adhere to schedules. Except where safety is concerned, bus drivers should be completely agnostic to fares, boarding, and collection.

The proper mitigation for the problem of missing your bus while trying to buy your fare is to encourage as much usage of long-duration transit passes as possible, and offer onboard fare sales for the few people who don’t have already have their fare. They shouldn’t even waste their money maintaining TVMs at low-traffic stops.

TimK August 31, 2018 - 2:48 pm

Of course, on SBS in New York, even if you have an unlimited, you still have to put it in the machine and get a receipt before riding, so.

Bolwerk August 31, 2018 - 2:59 pm

Yes, that is itself an absurdity. But then, New York basically flunks every single principle of good surface transit.

TimK September 3, 2018 - 7:04 am

I can’t disagree.

Theorem Ox September 3, 2018 - 9:32 pm

Neither can I.

Bobbo August 21, 2018 - 9:15 am

“Part of the reason for bus ridership declines is massive fare beating especially in lower income neighborhoods. That is why there has not been any B46 SBS progress report after more than two years.”

What data did you use to arrive at this conclusion?

Theorem Ox August 31, 2018 - 8:48 am

Speaking only for myself, I suspect that the conclusion (which I’m inclined to agree incidentally) was arrived through a mix of anecdotal evidence, inferences from known data and historic precedence.

To my understanding, the MTA relies on Metrocard swipes, cash payments and bus operators keying in (a “manual count” so to speak in the case of those who board without paying) to determine bus rider counts.

In the case of Select Bus Service, the bus operator is not responsible for fare collection and it’s fairly common knowledge that fare enforcement on SBS routes is somewhat sporadic at best, so there’s probably not much manual ridership count to add up on those routes.

So with that in mind, massive fare beating would indeed contribute towards “ridership declines.”

As of the MTA failing to release SBS progress reports, that would fall in the time immemorial political tactic of denying/suppressing anything that does not favorably fit their desired narrative.


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