Select Bus Service Debuts on Manhattan’s Busiest Bus Route

Photo: Noah Kazis
A New York City Transit employee helps riders board at the middle door on a Second Avenue SBS bus. Photo: Noah Kazis

Select Bus Service is up and running along First and Second Avenues, bringing rapid bus enhancements to the second busiest bus line in New York City. Though riders will need some time to adjust to the new system, many are already praising the faster service.

An MTA employee helps a school-bound child learn how to pay his bus fare before boarding. He didn't have any trouble. Photo: Noah Kazis.
A NYCT employee helps a student headed for school learn how to pay his bus fare before boarding. He didn't have any trouble. Photo: Noah Kazis

The thousands of bus riders along Manhattan’s East Side were surely in need of some relief. Though the M15 bus was one of the highest-ridership routes in the country, with 16,541,900 annual rides, it was also one of the slowest in New York City, moving at an average speed of less than six miles per hour. The lack of a decent transit option east of Lexington Avenue also contributes to intense and uncomfortable crowding on the 4, 5, and 6 subway lines.

With the SBS improvements, this critical route should run far more smoothly. Buses will spend less time stopped and more time in motion, thanks to off-board fare collection and three-door loading and unloading. During peak hours, passengers will speed through traffic in camera-enforced bus lanes. New York’s first SBS route, along Fordham Road, improved bus speeds by 20 percent and ridership by 30 percent, according to MTA chief Jay Walder.

First and Second Avenue could see similar gains. On the first weekday of service, at the outset of what figures to be an initial period of adjustment, riders were already noticing the difference.

“It’s definitely faster. You don’t have to wait in line for people to find their MetroCard,” explained Monica Sunwoo, who was headed to work in Midtown.

“It feels a little bit faster,” judged a rider named Miriam, who was traveling from 116th Street to 68th, “especially getting to enter all the doors.”

sbs_lane
A bus traveling in a new, camera-enforced dedicated lane on Second Avenue. Photo: Noah Kazis

Where the lanes were marked with paint, they remained largely clear of obstructions. I saw only one motorist drive or park in the terracotta bus lane over a roughly fifteen minute period, as well as a dozen or so cyclists.

Both this SBS bus and the local bus ahead of it were forced out of their dedicated lane by a car idling in the right turn lane. Photo: Noah Kazis
Both this SBS bus and the local bus ahead of it were forced out of their dedicated lane by a car idling in the right turn lane. Photo: Noah Kazis

With changes as significant as the SBS improvements affecting several miles of streets and tens of thousands of daily riders, there are bound to be some kinks to work out at first, both in terms of the way the service operates and the way passengers use the service. Today there was a recurring enforcement problem where the bus lane paint is interrupted before right turns. In those areas, cars are allowed to pull in next to the curb to turn right. However, the lack of red paint appeared to signal to motorists that this was an unrestricted area. A number of drivers used those zones to park or drop off passengers, often occupying the space with their blinkers on, which forced multiple buses out of the dedicated lane and into mixed traffic.

A line of people waited to pay their fare as the bus pulled away. Photo: Noah Kazis.
A line of people waited to pay their fare as the bus pulled away. Photo: Noah Kazis

As Ben Kabak pointed out on Second Avenue Sagas this morning, the “media moment” of a new bus service’s debut happens at the same time that riders are making their first adjustments to differences in their routine. Riders still lined up at the front door and sometimes entered at the middle of the bus. Only very rarely were all three doors employed. And despite the best efforts of the MTA staff on-site, one woman managed to break an off-board payment machine at 116th Street by trying to force her MetroCard into the receipt slot. These kinds of small inefficiencies are to be expected on the service’s first weekday.

On a day like this, it’s very easy to get quotes from New Yorkers who are skeptical of change. Almost every person I spoke with, for instance, complained that you wouldn’t be able to run for the bus anymore, because you have to get your fare receipt first.

But paying fares before boarding will, overall, make Select Bus Service more attractive by shaving a lot of time off people’s trips. We can’t measure that effect on the first day or the first week of the new service, but the real success or failure of SBS on the East Side should be clear a few months from now, when we’ll know how many more riders are opting for the M15 because it gets them where they want to go faster.

There was a line to get on at the front door, but only one woman entered at the middle door and no one at the back. Photo: Noah Kazis.
Riders are adjusting to the fact that they can board at any of the SBS bus's three doors. Photo: Noah Kazis
  • Mark

    I tried the new M15 yesteray. There was a reporter on the bus. I listened to her interviews. Overall, the riders thought the new system was poorly done.

    What shocked me is that – even though they were paying OT to people to stand near the machines and tell people what to do – none of those people actually communicated the message to the people waiting. At every stop, the driver would turn away a crowd of people and tell them to get the paper receipt and then catch the next bus. One clever family had a child stand in the doorway so that we could not leave while they swiped their metrocards.

    I left from 96th st (which has been moved to 101, requiring people to walk through all of the Second Avenue Subway construction) and got off at 14. There was a guy there who hadn’t swiped and gotten his receipt. I was a nice guy and gave him mine. It was still valid.

    If people keep paying the fare at all once enforcement becomes lax, I hope that passing along your receipt to the next person to get on, or leaving it in your seat will become the standard.

    It seems like a better fare collection method should be possible. Why not RFID cards and touch pads at every door? That’s what they do in China, and it works well. You swipe in and out. The system beeps to let everyone know you’ve paid.

    The paper receipts are a waste of paper, contain BPA, and it’s frustrating that all of these new street-level machines can’t sell metrocards or accept cash.

    What percentage of the cost of a ride is taken up by fare collection efforts? Might it actually be cheaper to just make buses free?

  • I have seen this in the Bronx. Honestly I think A LOT of the people don’t pay to get on the bus. I’m not sure if this will happen in Manhattan, but I don’t think the security checks are made all that often. I guess we’ll have to wait back and see.

  • kapes

    this kind of fare collection – or really, ticket checking – works perfectly well in every German speaking city in Europe. This is nothing new or revolutionary or even complicated.
    Send plain clothes ticket inspectors through frequently enough issuing $100 fines, and the problem goes away very quickly.

  • mfs

    how do you know the receipts contain BPA?

  • SG

    I tried this new system two days in a row and it is to make you despair at the level of incompetence of MTA planners.

    – You cannot swipe your card any longer on the bus, and I cannot figure out why. Adding several swipe machines on each entrance would have been so much easier, like everywhere else in the civilized world.

    – You now have to pay before you board, but this means you also need to gamble: if you paid for your ride using the street fare collectors for select bus services and a local bus comes first, you cannot board it with the ticket issued for the limited bus service and the driver turns you down. This means that if you just want to take the first bus that comes along, you need to wait until the bus actually comes to decide whether to swipe your card on the street machine or inside the local bus – so much for efficiency.

    – They now changed the location for most limited stops so that they are several hundred feet from the local stop, meaning you again need to gamble on which bus will come next and end up running to the location where it actually decides to stop.

    – The use of paper tickets in 2010 is really a shame, ecologically and practically. Even if you have an unlimited ride, it seems that controllers on buses will not be able to check it because they will not be equipped to do so (in every other country, controllers carry a small machine to check if your ticket is valid). As a result, even people with unlimited cards need to get their paper receipt before they board, which is a true waste.

    – Most ridiculous of all, the MTA installed dozens of fare collector machines along 1st and 2nd Ave but none can actually deliver a metrocard pass or accept credit cards if you happen to be out of a ticket!

    After the fiasco of the GPS tracking of buses on the M15 line, this spells disaster again. If only service were not cut and prices did not increase every other semester, it could be tolerated, but this is an absolute shame.

  • Mark

    I have not tested the BPA content, but they are the same type as used in many other applications. http://www.ewg.org/bpa-in-store-receipts

  • The POP method seems very badly done.

    Do none of these people check to see how this stuff works in Asia and Europe?

    Boston made the exact same mistake on one of the surface trolley lines. You’re supposed to tap your fare card on a sensor and board. But unlike the european systems, where the fare checkers tap your card to see payment….nooo, you’re issued a wasteful paper ticket which you present.

    And if youre using a single rider paper ticket, you insert the paper ticket in the machine, and get it back along with a second piece of paper showing you paid. Seriously?

    Whoever sells the rolls of paper is making bank at our expense.

  • The use of paper tickets is perfectly fine. The shame is that you need a receipt if you’re in possession of a valid unlimited pass; compare Germany and Switzerland, where having a pass means you can board freely.

    And even the receipt problem is an order of magnitude less moronic than the way POP inspections work on SBS: the bus has to sit still while the inspectors are on it.

  • divten

    SBS has been going on for 2 years, just because its new to Manhattan doesn’t mean its new. Its worked well for me. not having to wait 5 mins at each stop for ppl dip their Metrocard saves so much time. Its hard to tell at first b/c ppl keeping used the front door out of habit and so on, but once ppl get used to it, its a much more efficient system. It won’t be disastrous as some ppl say. It hasn’t been a disaster the last 2 yrs why would it be now, in fact it’ll probably run better in Manhattan they way the bus lanes are set up compared to Fordham Rd.

  • Agnes Lamy

    Got home last nigh in 20 minutes – mostly due to the fact that I boarded at the first stop at South Ferry. This morning, however, was a nightmare…got to 2nd & 14th Street at 9:45 – just missed a Select Bus, got a ‘receipt’ and proceeded to wait until 9:12 for the next Select Bus, which was very, very crowded. After taking and discharging two wheelchairs and changing, mid-ride, into a local bus, I was twenty minutes late to work. Am taking the subway exclusively TO WORK from now on. This service is not in the least a reliable way to get to work. Too bad, a good idea that is headed for a big, fat check in the Failure Column.

  • Joseph E

    Some folks are being quick to judge.

    This service should be much faster once the majority of riders and bus drivers are used to the system.

    It’s true that the paper reciepts are a little silly, but changing to RFID (cards you tap or flash by a sensor, rather than sliding) is a big expense. Read la.streetsblog.org for info on how well that has worked in Los Angeles. The inspections really should be done by plain-clothes officers riding the buses, but other than that, it’s a good system.

    Give a few months for fare evaders to get a $100 ticket, and bus line parkers to get a big parking tickets, and the system will become more reliable and faster.

    Consider that Los Angeles has Proof of Payment on its subway and all light rail lines, with less than a 5% fare evasion rate, and very fast and reliable loading. The Orange Line buses here also have this system (but with a fully separate right-of-way and big stations, more like light rail) and are pretty reliable and fast; the only issue is wheelchairs and bikes, which still take longer to load than they would on a train, and having to stop for red lights.

    As long as the MTA and police strongly enforce the bus lanes and keep cars out, it should be reliable. And when the buses get sensors to change the lights to green (or hold them?) at intersections, it it should be possible to increase average speed and reliability another 10%

  • Defintely a learning process going on. That will end. No bus passenger wants to delay the bus unnecessarily, they just don’t understand how the new system works.

    My first ride on the SBS/M15 this morning confirms Doug’s hypothesis regarding BMW owners.

  • Dave

    I agree Mark, farefree is the way to go to get a real increase in public transit use. No more worrying about fare collection infrastructure and personnel or bus drivers having to be security guards either. It’d take some bold and brave policies to make it happen though. Hell if we’d take just a fraction of what we spend on the DoD and put it towards transit that’d be enough.

  • Joe

    This system is design to remove more lane from auto traffic. 1st and second avenues could benefit from designated bus lanes but only if there are no more bike lanes the mayor is hell-bent on creating enough congestion so he can put a price on it. How much has the cash strapped MTA spent on installing sidewalk machines? Does any of this make sense?

  • Norm

    “Out of service” ticket machines are not promptly repaired. Long lines during rush hours at these machines negate the time saved in boarding buses.
    Traffic lanes reserved for Select Service buses are not policed properly during appropriate hours.

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