Select Bus Service Comes to Brooklyn

Photo: Ben Fried
Boarding at Nostrand and Flushing on the first day of B44 SBS service. Photo: Ben Fried

Yesterday was the first day of service for Brooklyn’s first Select Bus Service route, upgrading the B44 Limited with a dedicated bus lane, off-board fare collection, bus bulbs, and fewer stops. It’s the sixth SBS route to enter service, following two in the Bronx, two in Manhattan, and one in Staten Island.

In addition to improving transit speeds, these measures should help reduce bus bunching on what has been one of the most unreliable routes in the city — in 2009 the B44 took home the Straphangers Campaign Schleppie Award for NYC’s least reliable bus route.

At noon, Mayor Bloomberg and Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan will announce the launch of the new service, and we’ll have a report from the presser later today. Just a note for now about how the coverage of this bus upgrade is playing out: Whenever a new SBS route launches, it takes some time for people to acclimate, and the first stories tend to zero in on how riders have trouble adjusting to the payment system or the elimination of stops. It’s not until several months later, maybe a year, that the performance metrics come in, showing better bus speeds and increased ridership.

The changes to the B44 are more significant than other SBS projects because northbound service is switching from New York Avenue to Rogers and Bedford Avenues, which are wider, one-way streets that can more readily accommodate transit lanes and bus bulbs. (The local B44 northbound will remain on New York, where it provides direct access to Kings County Hospital.) So there’s certainly going to be an adjustment period.

Yesterday afternoon I spoke to two women, Gem and Meg (they swore those were their real names and the palindrome was a coincidence), who were getting off a northbound B44 SBS bus at Fulton Street. They were returning from a trip to visit family at Nostrand and Flatbush, about three and a half miles away. Most passengers were confused about how to pay fares, they said, but the trip was still about 10 minutes faster than it used to be.

  • J

    Great news! Now if only the MTA would update their online maps when they change their service, customers would be a lot less confused. It’s not as though this opening is a surprise.

    http://www.mta.info/maps/

  • Bolwerk

    Probably the most critical feature of SBS is making the driver agnostic to fare collection, saving several precious seconds and sometimes even minutes per stop. That probably would literally cost the MTA nothing to implement system-wide, whether there are other upgrades or not.

  • Stephen Smith

    Go down south of Flatbush Ave. and ask some of the totally bus-dependent people (since there are no subways) how they feel about the stops between Flatbush and Ave. U being spaced more than a mile apart – far wider than actual subways. There used to be limited stops halfway between Flatbush and Kings Hwy. and then Kings Hwy. and Ave. U – I bet those people probably aren’t too pleased about having to wait for the local. There are some pretty dense 6-story apartment complexes down there, too…not just single-family homes.

    I get that SBS is supposed to have wide stop spacing, but I can’t for the life of me understand why you’d make it so wide that some people who live on Nostrand will have to walk more than half a mile for the SBS stop (nevermind people who live on side streets!). Average subway spacing throughout the world is about 1 km (or a bit more than half a mile) – should be the same for SBS.

  • vnm

    Mayoral candidates (including de Blasio) were stumbling over each other to call for more aggressive expansion of select bus service as a solution for long commutes. This has been very politically popular as a concept and roll-out of another route is a cause for celebration. So when opening day finally came to Brooklyn, Councilman Jumaane Williams could have stood behind this and welcomed a great new transit option for his constituents. Instead he gave a lame quote to NY1 complaining about the termination of sub-par “limited-stop” service, and some of the stops the former limited-stop buses had made. Disappointing.

  • Stephen Smith

    Lemme guess – you don’t live south of Flatbush Avenue? Because if you did, you’d see the gross inequity in stop spacing.

    If 1+-mile stop spacing is appropriate, then how come only those between Flatbush Ave. and Ave. U are stuck with it?

  • I rode it yesterday. Faster than the old B44, even with lengthly pauses at the stops while people dealt with the unfamiliar machine. The bus was packed.

    I wish the rear doors didn’t have No Entry signs on them — confusing.

    The Bus Only lane on Rogers this morning was occupied by a number of non-bus vehicles. Hopefully some enforcement coming soon?

  • Andrew

    Presumably because the other stops were busier. Just a hunch.

  • Andrew

    Installing fare equipment that automatically produces some form of proof of payment is most certainly not cost-free.

  • Bolwerk

    Even within the confines of the TA’s costs, it’s still probably enough of a time and fuel saver to be a net savings.

  • Bolwerk

    The route is long and stop density needs to be balanced against the time it takes to traverse the route.

  • Andrew

    Doubtful. A large majority of bus stops rarely see more than a handful of boardings per bus. The time savings at those stops is negligible.

    Even if I’m wrong, the fare equipment had to be paid for long before any savings are realized. That’s why the current approach is route-by-route, focusing on very busy routes with heavy stops. (It’s also why the S79 didn’t get fare machines – aside from the Bay Ridge terminal, the Eltingville Transit Center, and the mall, no individual stop is particularly busy.)

    This is an issue to be addressed in the context of the new fare payment system currently under development.

  • Andres Dee

    I assume it’s because some local bigwig blocked a stop

  • Ian Turner

    One thing you can do, which is the system used in San Francisco, is allow proof-of-payment boarding via the rear doors, or cash payment boarding at the front door. Then put proof of payment kiosks at the most heavily used bus stops.

  • Bolwerk

    Sure, I could see this a the type of thing that waits until 2020 or 2025 for the new collection system before making the shift. That’s a reasonable position.

    Still, I have a hard time seeing how you’d not be wrong. In theory at least, SBS should be increasing bus throughput and cutting back the number of drivers needed to provide the same service. That by itself is presumably enough to cover the costs of lots of TVMs.

    Though, really, they can’t even get POP right. There should be TVMs on buses and busier stops, not at every minor stop. There should also be monthly farecard subscriptions or and annual cards available at a discount. If you do that, you can just eschew fare machines even on minor routes.

    A large majority of bus stops rarely see more than a handful of boardings per bus. The time savings at those stops is negligible.

    Eh, I find this a little hard to swallow. It should go without saying that negligible + negligible + negligible + negligible + negligible + negligible eventually stops being so negligible.

  • Kriston Lewis

    That’s understandable, but you adjust local service to compensate for any losses. It happened on Staten Island, why didn’t it happen this time?

  • Kriston Lewis

    Umm, Northern Brooklyn has those issues too. After DeKalb Av, the next stop is Fulton St, skipping Gates Av (which was far from a ghost town). Williamsburg has lost daytime local service all together.

  • Kriston Lewis

    You’re overlooking an important factor in this – a bus (local or limited) used to show up at those stops about every 3-4 minutes. Now, it’s a local every 10 minutes. I don’t know about ridership at those points, but that certainly is a loss of service.

    Surely, there’s a middle ground here without running too many local buses or adding too many SBS stops.

  • Bolwerk

    I don’t know. I would guess there are just limits to how many buses they have the resources to run, or how many can be run without working at cross purposes or interfering with other traffic. But I am speculating. Plus, people hate transferring.

    This is a pretty obvious case where the bus line should have a subway paralleling it, and then it wouldn’t matter so much if the SBS stopped a bit more frequently.

  • Bolwerk

    Again, I don’t know the local service patterns or travel habits enough to say whether this is right, but there is nothing wrong in principle with medium-low frequency transit. A local every 10 minutes is reasonable under many circumstances, and people can refer to the schedule if they need to know when the bus will arrive.

  • Andrew

    And when the inspector gets on to ask for proof of payment, all the farebeaters say they paid cash at the front door. What an I missing?

  • Ian Turner

    In the San Francisco system, you get a receipt when you pay at the front door, which serves as your proof of payment (and can also be used for transfers).

  • Bruce

    A good idea but its was poorly executed. The P.O.P system does wonders by eliminating fare disputes at the farebox and also the fare inspectors actually check the receipts rather than before when drivers would just press F5 if there was a fare evader

    The bus lanes are also a nice idea.

    Now one of the cons I see are the moving of the SBS route to Rogers from NY Ave. While I understand it was for the bus lanes, it probably caused great confusion. I also looked at the schedule and it seems that service has decreased somewhat so now the amount of required vehicles is less.

  • Andrew

    The current MetroCard system does not allow for the operation you describe. There is no portable equipment that an inspector can use to verify whether a given MetroCard is an unlimited or otherwise should be treated as a paid fare – hence the clunky system with paper tickets, whether or not the rider has an unlimited.

    A savings of two or three seconds per stop is essentially imperceptible to the rider, and on infrequent routes, the time savings needs to be fairly large to generate any improvement in equipment or operator utilization. (If the headway is x minutes, then each x minutes saved in round trip running time reduces bus requirements by 1.) If there is going to be a short-term focus, it should be on very busy, frequent routes. The big savings come at heavy boarding stops, where on-board fare collection results in dwell times of over a minute.

  • Andrew

    Headways are determined by loads. Normally they are determined after the fact, and service levels are adjusted up or down accordingly. When there is a major change in service, obviously that can’t be done, so service levels have to be determined based on projections instead.

    If the projections are significantly off, the adjustments can be made in a future schedule revision.

    Note that ridership in the first week is not representative of anything. Many riders are now ending up on the local who in the future will find it easier or faster to walk to an SBS stop. (How many people are still walking from Nostrand to New York to catch the northbound bus, unaware of the SBS on Rogers?)

    That said, there should be extra buses in service (or on reserve) for the first week or two to account for this sort of expected temporary issues along with whatever unexpected issues might come up.

  • Andrew

    I’d be concerned that a small number of cash-payers might routinely hold up the bus. As you say, other agencies have implemented POP that way, so they probably have results to share.

  • Bolwerk

    The ability to get a receipt on a bus is the same as the ability to get one on the street. I would prefer to see receipts out of the equation, but maybe that’s not feasible while the MC system remains. In any case, I acknowledged changing this routine could reasonably wait until the next fare collection regime is implemented – the key point is it should change.

    And where do you get 2-3 seconds/stop? Even a lonely stop with a single boarding on it could have somebody fumbling for their MetroCard for considerably longer than that, and “busy” stops where several people board aren’t exactly unusual. This hardly seems trivial to me.

  • qrt145

    2-3 seconds is what it takes a highly trained Navy SEAL who already has Metrocard in hand to pay their fare, because that’s the time that the machine takes to process the card!

    Maybe that number was an average assuming that some stops take 0 seconds because no one boards?

    There’s an additional source of delay that no one has mentioned here: passengers who stubbornly insist on deboarding through the front door. That can easily add another 30 seconds to some stops. That’s largely a cultural thing, although the design of NYC buses also contributes. But on SBS it wouldn’t matter, because if the front door is blocked by people deboarding, you can try another door.

  • Andrew

    What actual (as opposed to hypothetical) piece of equipment would dispense receipts on the bus, and how would it do so without delaying service?

    If only one or two people are boarding, the bus can pull out while they’re looking for their MetroCards. It’s only once the queue is out the door that the bus is held up. Equipping minor stops on infrequent routes wouldn’t generate any savings at all but would still require a considerable capital outlay.

  • Bolwerk

    Have you ever been to NYC? This “hypothetical” piece of equipment is the same “hypothetical” piece of equipment used on SBS, maybe slightly modified to fit on a bus instead of a curb.

    If only one or two people are boarding, the bus can pull out while they’re looking for their MetroCards

    Have you ever ridden a bus in NYC? That’d be nice, but they don’t. And even that simple proposition gets really hairy when it’s 3, 4, 5, 6, or 7 people – you know, really small numbers of people, conceivably all the people waiting at a typical bus stop at rush hour.

  • Bolwerk

    That’s certainly another reason. Pretty much everything points to this: the driver should focus on driving, and not on collections.

    You’d think even the TWU would be jumping at this idea, given how they complain about the risk of assault for drivers when they do enforce collections.

  • Andrew

    The MetroCard fare machines are modified MetroCard vending machines. They are large and need to be connected to a power source (I don’t know if a bus can provide the necessary form of power).

    The coin fare machines are modified parking meters. They are large and solar powered.

    And both have much, much longer transaction times than standard bus fareboxes. On the street, that’s an irritant (it can cause late arrivers to miss the bus). On the bus, it would delay service more than the existing fareboxes do.

    Sure, with unlimited resources, a new piece of fare equipment could be developed and deployed on all bus routes, only to all be thrown out when MetroCard is killed in a few years. But the exercise here did not come with unlimited resources. The existing machines are the ones that are available, and they are available in limited quantities, enough only for a few of the busiest bus lines.

  • Bolwerk

    Well, this is all purely academic, as I said I don’t see anything wrong with waiting the few years for the next fare media when all this needs to change anyway, but:

    – The MC vending machines are probably not very energy-hungry, and certainly don’t need to be. They’re some kind of 1990s era PC hardware. Understandably they might be more energy-hungry than modern hardware because they might be using the same less energy-efficient components from 20+ years ago for ease of replacement. (Admittedly some of the oldest hardware models can be the most reliable, because they are vetted and proven.)

    – The shorter swipe reader mechanism is already available on subway turnstiles, and I rather doubt that it’s too hard to modify that to spit out a receipt instead of unlock a turnstile. Using modern hardware and that reader, we can’t be talking about a particularly huge footprint. The form factor might be mostly dictated by the size of the receipt tape. These kinds of readers are available at retail for the low three figures, and are probably less expensive when bought in bulk.

    – If a new machine is designed, it doesn’t need to be immediately installed on all buses. It can be added on new buses as they come online. The entire bus fleet turns over in about 15 years.

    The only major drawback I can see is, sure, it might only have 5-10 years of life since the MC is heading toward obsolescence. But even then, I have trouble seeing how some kind of drop-in solution for smart card readers couldn’t be accommodated, probably with a carefully concealed USB port to plug in a magnetic reader roughly the sizer of a dongle. :-p

  • Andrew

    Smartcard readers will be added to the existing fareboxes. There is no need to design a new piece of freestanding equipment, which would become obsolete in a few years. All of your other comments are about a hypothetical piece of equipment that does not currently exist, rather than the existing modified-MVM’s and modified-MuniMeters in user today on SBS.

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