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
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.