Do Bus Cams Cost Too Much? Actually, They Pay for Themselves

We have yet to get an official reply from the state Assembly about why bus lane cameras were not included in their budget proposal last week, but the excuse that’s floating around is that camera enforcement just costs too darn much. That’s what Assembly member Jim Brennan said in a constituent letter, and one reader reports getting a similar message from Assembly member Denny Farrell’s office. (The powerful Farrell chairs the ways and means committee, which held the only vote on the Assembly’s bus cam-free budget resolution before it reached the full floor.)

mta_in_bus_lane.jpgBus cams would keep riders on routes like the Bx12 from getting delayed by bus lane blockers, boosting ridership and generating more fare revenue for the MTA. Photo: Brad Aaron.

Taking this excuse at face value, it suggests that lawmakers not only don’t understand the worth of better bus service to their own constituents, but that they don’t get how better bus service is good for the MTA’s bottom line, too. The claim that bus cameras cost too much just doesn’t hold water.

First off, I’m not sure where Assembly members are getting their numbers. The MTA says it hasn’t put a pricetag on the cameras yet. But lets assume for the sake of argument that Jim Brennan is on the money and bus cams cost $4 million to set up. That would still be an excellent investment for the MTA. Here’s why.

Basically, better bus service attracts more riders. That’s the common-sense effect that researchers have documented in London [PDF], where congestion pricing has cleared the way for faster buses, boosting total ridership. More riders mean more fares.

So how big would the effect be from bus cams?

Well, the buses that use the current bus lane network on Manhattan’s major crosstown routes and avenues move about 240,000 people on a typical weekday, according to the most recent figures on the MTA web site. (That’s buses on 34th, 42nd, and 57th Streets, and First, Second, Third, Lexington, Madison, and Fifth Avenues.) Add the riders on the Bx12 in the Bronx and the B44 in Brooklyn, and you’ve got more than 325,000 New Yorkers riding on bus cam-eligible routes, if Albany adopts the same program that the governor’s budget proposes.

That works out to about 12 percent of the total average weekday bus ridership in New York City. If camera enforcement improves bus speeds in New York as much as it did in London — 12.6 percent — then average bus speeds would increase about 1.5 percent. Since the numbers we’re using aren’t precise (not every part of the affected routes would have bus cameras), let’s knock it down to 1 percent. It may not sound like much, but it’s enough to attract thousands of new bus riders.

If you plug a 1 percent increase in bus speeds into Charles Komanoff’s Balanced Transportation Analyzer, the BTA calculates that annual revenue from new fares would come to $4 million. For a small upfront investment in these cameras, then, the MTA would be able to institute a service improvement that makes life easier for hundreds of thousands of bus riders and nets millions in additional fare revenue every year.

  • The Jim Brennan Bus Patrol

    Maybe JB would listen up more if someone periodically keep delaying his daily car drive at completely random moments making him late to everything. Maybe he would understand. Maybe.

  • Streetsman

    That’s great that they pay for themselves without even counting the savings from the reduced need for traditional traffic enforcement, reductions in number of buses needed on a given route to carry the same number of riders, and revenue from the economic value of time savings to passengers, not to mention – the revenue from the tickets themselves.

    These politicians aren’t that dopey. This all smells like typical Albany foulness at work and some unrevealed motivation, be it a political connection, auto lobby, donations from a camera contractor, law enforcement lobby – somewhere some group is giving these pols motivation to prevent NYC transit riders from getting better, faster service and as usual Albany will happily capitulate.

  • Bolwerk

    Somewhat counter-intuitively, faster bus service also means fewer buses to operate. If buses could run their routes end to end and back more quickly, it would mean less equipment needed, less fuel consumed, and less sitting around in traffic. (And if the union were willing to be pro-active, it might mean fewer drivers.)

    Any of that could mean lots and lots of money saved too.

  • Streetsman

    Oh now I understand. Here’s the problem – no one saw the sign:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/30/nyregion/30hallway.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

    I have never in my life felt like Albany was less interested in actually helping the citizens of New York. I would advocate for all New Yorkers to blame each and every one of them and vote against all incumbents on sheer principle.

  • JK

    What a relief to have concerned lawmakers like Brennan, Farrell et al scouring the MTA’s $9.9 billion operating budget and finding $4 million items that transit and transportation professionals mistakenly want. It’s especially thorough of them since the Assembly is not funding the MTA. Brennan and Farrell should sit down with Jay Walder and Janette Sadik-Khan, and really school them on what should and shouldn’t be bus funding priorities.

  • Larry Littlefield

    (Somewhat counter-intuitively, faster bus service also means fewer buses to operate.)

    Ridership increases would offset that, but perhaps the TWU is worried fewer delays might mean less overtime.

  • Streetsman

    I wouldn’t at all be surprised if the TWU or CWA Local 1182 (NYPD TEA’s) was behind this. Selfishness by unions trying to keep jobs at the expense of better service for NYers is nothing new – in fact it’s their M.O.

    What is the number of ticket vending machines the ticket agents’ union is allowing the MTA railroads to put out these days? Some day maybe every platform could actually have one.

  • Mazewalker

    love that its an MTA car that’s in the bus lane…

  • Yeah, I’ve had a dispatcher’s car parked in the bus stop force me and my son to disembark in the street. I asked the dispatcher whether he thought he was allowed to park there, and his only response was, “you must be a lawyer.”

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    I guess Streetsman has a basis for his cynical view of trade union self-interest regarding bus lanes. However, his view collides with the long history of at least the last twenty years (probably longer, how old are the bus lanes) of TWU and ATU actually lobbying for greater bus lane enforcement which would, yes, increase driver productivity. I have always understood that since the legislature always answered them by saying that the city should hire more cops that the PBA was pushing from the other direction.

    To the extent the membership determines that this will be a bad thing for their economic well being and to the extent that they will blame the leadership at election time productivity cynicism can prevail. Unions swing from either side of the plate regarding productivity though. They can view productivity increases as something that will help grow the system, attract riders (constituents) and therefor be in their long-term interest. Or, they can view it as something that costs them jobs (overtime). Which side they choose is up to the overall political environment and the relationships upon which they grow to depend. In part the choice is yours. Cynicism feeds cynicism, trust feeds trust.

    The sneer at the TCU rules regarding vending machines is a good example of cynicism breeding cynicism and I have answered it previously on one of these blogs, I won’t waste my bandwidth again. Unions negotiate lots of rules when they can’t negotiate other things and at one point TCU had one limiting ticket machines which they gave up a couple rounds ago. In negotiations it takes two to tango and eventually the two parties danced on TVMs. However, the windows are still very popular at GCT. Check out the lines to speak with a human being and the many open, untouched TVMs. The key with negotiating work rules, like with the example of the bus lane enforcement above is social capital formation in most cases, trust between the parties. There will always be a Luddite element but for the most part leaders can’t keep power for long if they will not make a deal, either in Union leadership or in labor relations.

    On a blog though, hardliners on both sides will probably prevail and cynicism breeds readership. Fortunately, most of the people with responsibilities to negotiate these things can look over productivity cynicism wherever it raises its ugly head.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “I have always understood that since the legislature always answered them by saying that the city should hire more cops that the PBA was pushing from the other direction.”

    Or go with one man patrols in all but high crime neighborhoods, since we already have 2 1/2 times the average number of cops per 100,000 people.

  • Maybe New York has a lower crime rate than other large US cities because it spends more money on policing? (And maybe the fact that it spends so much money on schools is related to why it ranks at the top of inner-city school districts?)

    Look, I’m all for cutting chaff, but sometimes the mentality of paring budgets to the bone only breeds cost escalations. This is one of them.

    By the way: bus cams may well cut into schedule recovery time, instead of overtime. If a bus keeps running behind schedule due to congestion, then bus cams will make it run on time; they’re not going to prompt schedule revisions to make it late again. It’s only the buses that run early that might get overtimes cuts.

  • JK

    My take on bus cams is simple transactional politics. Shelly has something valuable and doesn’t want to give it away for free. That something valuable is his ability to guarantee passage in the Assembly. Bus cams were a tiny item stuffed into a massive, complex budget bill. Shelly gets nothing in exchange for passing the cams in the budget. With bus cams as a stand alone bill, Shelly can extract something from the MTA, governor or less likely, the mayor, in exchange for passage. I doubt Shelly cares about bus cams either way. He might even view them as a minor public amenity. But he does care a great deal about maintaining his power and negotiating leverage. When it comes to passing legislation, Shelly has all the time in the world — because others want what he has, and have to pay his price. Shelly will wait until he gets something for passing the cams. Heck, he probably doesn’t even know what that something is yet. Bus cams are a drop in the ocean of issues sloshing around Planet Albany.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Shelly will wait until he gets something for passing the cams. Heck, he probably doesn’t even know what that something is yet.”

    Perhaps a doubling of the income tax rate for everyone born after 1960, used to fund more pension enhancements? Sounds like a good way to solve the problems that New Yorkers don’t pay enough and get too much from Shelly’s backers, without offending our dear seniors.

  • Streetsman

    Niccolo,

    I haven’t the slightest idea why the the red light cams were actually taken out of the budget. I think that’s what everyone here is frustrated about – the cloud of secrecy under which Albany operates when a perfectly sensible transit-supporting and revenue-generating proposal is suddenly scrapped. Larry brought up the idea that the TWU could be behind it which is really no more or less likely than any other union or interest group. My point is that if by chance it was them, my level of shock would be: zero.

    Also I believe the cap on TVM’s is still in place. Personally I prefer buying tickets at the windows when I’m at Grand Central, but that has nothing to do with the fact that all along the MNR system are stations with TVM’s only on one platform, or none at all because of the cap. And then you have to pay EXTRA to buy the tickets from the ticketmaster on the train. I don’t think the union should ever be negotiating to limit customer conveniences but it is clearly something they HAVE done before.

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