Home Buses As 2021 hopefuls jockey on transit, de Blasio’s bus blindspot comes into view

As 2021 hopefuls jockey on transit, de Blasio’s bus blindspot comes into view

by Benjamin Kabak

The mayor’s new plan to improve buses is less ambitious than the city’s network needs right now.

As most of my readers know, when it comes to Bill de Blasio’s transit record, I am not, to say the least, a fan. Although the mayor doesn’t control the MTA, he otherwise sets the agenda for NYC’s streets, and on that front, as I wrote in a piece for Curbed New York last week, his record is a bad one that shows a bias toward planning that goes out of its way to accommodate low-capacity personal vehicles at the cost of transit prioritization and pedestrian and cyclist safety.

The mayor, driven everywhere, has long been a driver in NYC, and his failure to embrace and expand everything from the popular pedestrian plaza programs to a true network of protected bike lanes to bus prioritization has left New Yorkers’ mobility options at least in stasis since the start of his term in 2013, if not worse. My Curbed piece explores this view in detail, and I’d love for you to read it right here. I didn’t hammer the point on expanding the pedestrianization of the city, but to that end, Doug Gordon of Brooklyn Spoke has the topic covered.

What I would like to explore a bit more in depth are buses. The mayor’s agenda essentially set the stage for good (or, in de Blasio’s case, bad) bus service. He decides, through NYC DOT, how street space is allocated to various modes of travel; whether buses get priority, via infrastructure, design and technology, over low-occupancy, private vehicles; and just how many other cars are on the road.

For New York City in 2019, the proliferation of parking placards and placard abuse and the decline in bus speeds go hand in hand. The constant presence of cars illegally parked in bus lanes and buses navigating through slow traffic is one of the greatest failures of de Blasio’s tenure, and we have reached the point where the bus system is now in crisis thanks in no small part to the mayor’s inactions. In fact, when the MTA recently announced service cuts to 11 bus routes with the threat of more to come, the agency noted that certain of the cuts came about so that bus travel times would accurately “reflect current traffic conditions.” In other words, buses can’t meet their schedules these days and service is being cut because the city hasn’t done enough to get cars out of the way, and the buck stops with the mayor.

Lately, the bus crisis has become more of a talking point for New York politicians jockeying to separate themselves from the mayor. Corey Johnson’s transit takeover plan calls for massive investment in buses, and a 2017 Scott Stringer report issued a similar call for more city investment in buses. The MTA is chugging away at operational reforms (unfortunately while cutting service to save dollars), and even the mayor, after years of constituent complaints, put forward something of a plan for buses in April. What’s good? What’s bad? And will any of it be enough before the bus system collapses in on and itself? Let’s find out.

Ridership Snapshot: The Current State of Buses

The latest bus ridership reports show a system bleeding riders for the better part of two years.

In a word, the current state of bus ridership is bad. Average weekday ridership in March was just under 1.8 million, and the 12-month rolling ridership average shows a decline of 5%. As recently as 2017, the 12-month rolling ridership average was over 2.1 million, but ridership has been on a steady downward trajectory as travel times have increased. Bus ridership has essentially never recovered from the last fare hike.

To drive home the point, average bus speeds in New York City are 7.4 miles per hour, the slowest among the 17 largest U.S. bus companies, a recent report by Stringer found. In Manhattan, buses average 5.5 miles per hour, and some crosstown routes are slower than a normal walking pace for a healthy adult. Buses are in motion only around 55% of the time with red lights and bus stops accounting for over 40% of travel time. These unreliable and slow travel times have led to an exodus as those who have the luxury of choice no longer see the bus as the best one.

2021 Hopefuls Jockey for Bus Investments: Scott Stringer’s Take

So far, as I mentioned, both Stringer and Johnson, two local pols with dreams of Gracie Mansion dancing through their heads, have focused on buses lately. I explored Stringer’s proposal in early 2018, shortly after it was published. It’s very much a potential platform plank masquerading as a Comptroller’s report as it included 19 recommendations on everything from bus route design to procurement practices to bus lane design and enforcement.

As politicians look to rescue the buses, the focus on bus lane design and enforcement is the hinge. Here’s Stringer’s take:

First, maintenance should be improved. All bus lanes, whether SBS or not, should be marked distinctly and repainted more regularly so that they do not become faded.

Second, the DOT should continue to experiment with greater separation of bus lanes to physically restrict other vehicles from entering the lane. They should also build more lanes in the center of the road…Not only should these median bus lanes serve as a model going forward, existing curb-side and off-set bus lanes should be converted, where feasible. The City should also expand the number of double bus lanes—like those currently proposed on Fifth Avenue—to better accommodate turns and help mitigate bunching by enabling buses to go around those waiting at a stop.

Finally, the City must improve the enforcement of its bus lanes.

Stringer also urged the city to “place greater emphasis on bus lanes outside of SBS corridors. It can also assist with the introduction of new, inter-borough routes by installing exclusive lanes on more city bridges.” He further called on NYC DOT to do a better job designing Select Bus Service lanes. NYC, he wrote should “introduce truly separated bus lanes to ensure they are protected from unauthorized cars and trucks. It should also work to provide exclusive lanes throughout the entirety of the route, not just segments.”

Importantly, as well, Stringer urged the city and MTA to reconsider stop spacing, especially along routes where stops are less than 750 feet together, a distance well below international standards. Lately, the MTA had been considering just that approach along the M14, but local resistance based on a belief that buses should be door-to-door transit options is likely to torpedo that plan. To fix and speed up buses, though, some stops will have to be eliminated. As Stringer noted:

“Shorter distances between stops may well be appropriate in certain sections of the city, like those with a high concentration of seniors. Yet the fact remains that bunched stops lead to slow and unreliable service that repels all bus riders, both young and old. Across the city, there are nine bus routes with stops located less than 650 feet apart. Four are in Brooklyn, three are in Manhattan, and two are in Queens (see Table 5). All but two saw ridership fall between 2011 and 2016 and collectively, they experienced a nine percent drop, more than double the city-wide average.”

Johnson Calls for Fast Bus Lane Expansion

The Speaker’s Let’s Go transit plan devotes a lengthy section to buses. Noting that NYC’s buses are “extremely unpredictable and the slowest of any big city in the country,” Johnson aptly notes that what we’re doing now isn’t working and criticizes the city for dragging its feet on everything. Only 15 new miles of bus lanes, for example, were installed between 2017 and 2018 in all of New York City.

Johnson’s plan is rightly ambitious. He calls for 30 miles of new bus lanes per year and echoes Stringer’s call for better design:

“Every new bus lane should be camera enforced and physically separated from traffic along appropriate corridors where camera enforcement proves ineffective. In addition to the physical separation of bus lanes, the plan should also prioritize the implementation of two-way separated bus lanes in the median along key corridors, to keep buses free from conflicts with deliveries, turning vehicles, and double-parked cars wherever possible.”

He wants every bus route to have camera-enforced lanes and signal prioritization technology by 2030 and wants to push through on current route re-design efforts to drive bus ridership to 16 percent of New Yorkers’ trips within a decade, essentially doubling bus mode share. It’s aspirational but would help free up significant road space by reducing private auto and for-hire vehicle use while bolstering sagging bus service.

The Mayor Finally Releases a Plan

And what of the mayor? Over a year after Stringer released his report and a few weeks after Johnson’s plan was unveiled, the mayor finally acknowledged that something had to give on buses. To that end, he released his Better Buses Action Plan [(pdf)] last month. As bus plans go, it’s a fine one, but a better fit for a first-term mayor looking to leave an imprint on the city rather than a term-limited mayor who’s seemingly lost interest in the city.

A full list of the specific improvements are available in the press release, but on specifics if pales in comparison with Johnson’s plan. At a high level, the mayor wants to “improve” five miles of bus lanes per year and install 10-15 new ones annually, or at best half of what Johnson proposed. The mayor wants to bring TSP to 300 intersections per year (rather than the 1000 Johnson proposed) and has suggested piloted just two miles of physically separated bus lanes this year. Why we need such a modest pilot of a design that works the world over is a good question.

On enforcement, the mayor spent a good deal of time during his press conference highlighting the seven new NYPD tow trucks. It’s unclear if anyone has seen these tow trucks in action, and they certainly aren’t aggressively removing cop cars from bus lanes yet. Just walk down 2nd Ave. in the East 20s any weekday and count the placards. He doesn’t seem to understand the breadth of the problems with placard abuse — including abuse of real placards, use of fake placards, and traffic enforcement agents willing to overlook illegal parking if you scribble something on a napkin and stick in your dashboard — and can’t comprehend how these cars interfere with speedy buses and mobility in the city.

The mayor’s goal is to increase bus speeds by 25% by the end of 2020, but even that increase — from an average speed of 8 mph to 10 — seems unlikely with a plan as modest as the mayor’s. Maybe it can move the needle on certain routes, but when the mayor’s own action plan highlights just five miles of lane upgrades as a headliner, I see a piecemeal approach to bus improvements rather than a holistic, citywide effort to reform the network.

What’s Next For Buses

For now, we’re stuck with de Blasio’s plan and the MTA’s ongoing network redesign efforts while Johnson’s and Stringer’s proposals remain aspirational at best until after the 2021 mayoral election. That doesn’t mean buses are doomed, but it does mean that projects and lane upgrades and, yes, buses themselves will continue to move slowly. The MTA’s redesign effort has seemingly slowed the rate of ridership loses, at least for Staten Island, in the early going, but routes are just one part of this puzzle. The city needs true bus lanes, real enforcement and faster and more reliable bus service. We know what needs to be done; we just need a leader to do it.

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Larry Penner May 29, 2019 - 7:03 am

Never shy around a camera or microphone, NYC Comptroller and 2021 Mayoral wanna be Scott Stringer will continue issuing a series of useless audits and reports including those critical of the MTA and various municipal agencies. What he will not tell you is that he travels around town by car with driver and police security detail rather than a bus or subway. Unlike the millions of New Yorkers, he doesn’t own a Metro Card and use public transportation on a daily basis. Do as I say, not as I do is his motto. With term limits, Stringer is just another term limited career politician using the NYC Comptroller’s office perks current position while seeking yet another public office. As a former State Assembly member, Manhattan Borough President and currently NYC Comptroller — he has never worked an honest day in his life.

His participation and endorsement of the Bus Turnaround Campaigns press conference earlier this year on the release of their report on problems with 246 bus routes is nothing new. The Riders Alliance, Tri State Transportation Committee and New York Public Interest Research Group Straphangers Campaign along with Comptroller Stringer have periodically issued similar reports with the same complaints about MTA New York City Transit bus service for years. Last November, Comptroller Stringer issued a report “The Other Transit Crisis: How to Improve the NYC Bus System.” This report left much to be desired. He references the NYC Transit 6,000 bus fleet, but sometimes forgot about the MTA Bus 1300 fleet. MTA Bus took over the old NYC Department of Transportation private bus franchised operator program in 2005. This included eight garages and 1300 buses.

His complaints about reduction in speed overlooks its relationship to the corresponding loss in street capacity. Since 2002, hundreds of miles of traffic lanes have been eliminated. This was due to the dramatic increase of bike lanes and street calming projects. Forcing buses to share less street space with cars, taxis, Uber, Lyft, UPS, Fed Ex along with other delivery and commercial vehicles has contributed to a decline in the speed of buses in all five boroughs. Don’t forget police, fire, ambulance, sanitation and utility vehicles. Reduction in spacing between stops has been dealt with by introduction of Limited Stop service on many routes.

Stringer missed the significance of MTA NYC Transit awarding contracts for $200 million to purchase and install a new bus radio system along with $150 million for purchase and installation of a new East New York Brooklyn Bus Command Center. Both projects are already several years behind schedule. What else is new! Riders will eventually see benefits from completion of both the Bus Radio System and Command Bus Center. They will support operations of over 4,500 NYC Transit and 1300 MTA Buses providing service in all five boroughs. Once in use, they will help in proper dispatching and monitoring of service, which will avoid bus bunching. Transit signal improvements affording buses priority movement on streets will save riders time. But it also involves the cooperation and support of NYC Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg and Mayor Bill de Blasio.

There are other issues to contend with in the boarding of buses in both the front and back. While riders are encouraged to exit in the rear, many depart via both the front and back doors. Conflicts will arise between riders attempting to board via both front and back door versus those wanting to exit. How many times have you been delayed by riders who fumble around trying to find their Metro Card, attempt to use a Metro Card with insufficient fare or look for the right amount of change. resulting in more delays before the bus can depart the stop?

In 2017, the MTA awarded a $573 million contract to Cubic Transportation Systems to replace the Metro Card. New OMNY (One Metro New York) fare collection technology will be coming on line between 2019 and 2023 to assist in speeding up passenger boarding.

His reference to “MTA failing to renew its fleet fast enough, noting that 22% of buses are more than 12 years old” left out the MTA Bus fleet. As part of the $32 billion 2015 – 2019 Five Year Capital Plan MTA NYC Transit is in the process of spending $1 billion to purchase over 1,000 new buses. MTA Bus has programmed $300 million to buy over 400 new buses. If Stringer wants the MTA NYC Transit & MTA Bus to accelerate bus replacements and fleet expansion beyond these numbers to increase service, how does he propose finding hundreds of million more in funding to pay for this? Will Stringer ask his good friends Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio to provide more money?

There are other projects and plans outlined in both the MTA 2015 – 2019 Five Year Capital Plan and MTA 2014 – 2034 Twenty Year Capital Needs Assessment Plan for even more investments to support both the NYCT and MTA bus systems. Additional projects and programs will be contained in the upcoming MTA 2020 – 2024 Five Year Capital Plan. This includes hundreds of millions to pay for upgrading existing bus garages to bring them up to a state of good repair. All of the above will benefit riders who use local and express bus routes in all five boroughs.

To this day, there has been no restructuring of routes between NYC Transit and MTA Bus to promote more efficient service. Most routes run along corridors in communities, whose development took place decades ago. Service follows demand and neighborhood density. Other lines feed customers from two fare zones to the closest subway station. Millions have already been spent over decades looking into potential restructuring of existing and potential new services. There is little opportunity for creation of new or modifications to existing routes. Increasing frequency of off peak service has already taken place on some routes. It costs both NYC Transit and MTA Bus $215 per hour to operate, maintain, fuel and clean each bus. How does Stringer proposed offering the MTA additional millions in operating funding necessary to finance increasing frequency of off peak bus service?

Governor Cuomo still needs to come up with $5.8 billion balance of the $8.3 balance he still owes to fund the $32 billion 2015 – 2019 MTA Five Year Capital Plan. Mayor Bill de Blasio still owes a significant portion of the $2.5 billion he also promised to help pay for the same plan.

In the end, quality, frequency and reliability of service is dependent upon secure revenue. We all have to contribute — be it at the fare box or tax revenues generated by different levels of government redistributed back to the MTA.

TANSTAFFL or “There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch” or in this case a free bus ride.

(Larry Penner is a transportation historian, writer and advocate who previously worked 31 years for the United States Department of Transportation Federal Transit Administration Region 2 New York Office. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for billions in capital projects and programs for the MTA, NYC Transit, Long Island Rail Road, Metro North Rail Road MTA Bus, NYC DOT, New Jersey Transit along with 30 other transit agencies in NY & NJ).

cpamarv May 29, 2019 - 9:52 am

taking just the last mile one bus route – the Queens Q46-Union Turnpike:

-for buses to get the last mile to the train station terminus (west from Main Street) is a slow go despite many lanes in each direction in that area – can’t one lane be dedicated for the buses (including the express buses that continue down Queen Blvd?

-the current bus shelters protect just a fraction of the many users who and provide no seating while waiting for the buses – would a full roof covering the sidewalk + benches (even if it means taking one lane to do so) be that expensive?

-the start of the run out to the city line involves a 5 minute u turn in the wrong direction …. why not have the buses make the u turn empty and start the run on the other side of Queen Blvd thus shortening everyone’s trip by 5 minutes?

if such changes could be duplicated across the system we could have a much better system

Bobbo May 29, 2019 - 12:01 pm

To what extent do you think that the mayor’s preferece for using “enforcement” over changes to the city’s physical infrastructure is misguided vs. a cowardly way of avoiding making real change that takes away space from less efficient uses of transit?

Also, what ever happened to the plan to extend the Bx41 to LGA? I may be making it up but I thought that was a plan, and I think the benefits are still there in terms of creating a direct link to the airport from the Bronx and also to providing a connection between the Bronx and Western Queens.

Larry Littlefield May 29, 2019 - 8:27 pm

Let’s start with this. There was $485 million in the city budget for the MTA capital plan in FY 2019, and now that’s being cut. Presumably that was matched by the state, which is also cutting.

Instead we get congestion pricing, but that money is going to borrowed against, and the next 30 years of it will be gone in five years or less.

What do they have to say about that?


J Adlai May 31, 2019 - 7:48 am

Yes, the notion of bonding the future revenue of congestion pricing means that it’s going to really be a one-time shot.

They need to look at a sustainable source of revenue from a combination of sources that funds the capital program every year instead of using debt. You know, the same way that the operating budget works.

Pedro Valdez-Rivera June 1, 2019 - 10:58 pm

Never trust those car happy politicians that’s for sure.

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jonemartin May 22, 2024 - 2:51 am

According to the current survey, the conclusion is that many busses are required for transport. To fix the issue, the Mayor planned to issue more buses so passengers could easily travel.

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