Will the MTA Waste Its Opportunity to Save NYC Bus Riders a Ton of Time?

B44 SBS upgrades existing limited-stop service with bus lanes and other improvements. Photo: Stephen Miller
Only a few bus routes in NYC, like the B44 Select Bus Service, allow riders to enter at any door. The MTA’s next-generation fare payment system could expand all-door boarding to every route in the city. Photo: Stephen Miller

The MTA’s next-generation fare payment system can greatly speed up buses all over the city by allowing passengers to board much faster, but so far the agency hasn’t required bidders for the fare system contract to include such technology. With proposals due July 13, a coalition led by the Riders Alliance is calling on the MTA to make the most of this opportunity to improve travel times on NYC’s notoriously slow buses.

The system that advocates urge the MTA to adopt, known as “electronic proof of payment,” would allow riders to board without worrying about dipping a farecard or even carrying a paper receipt. Instead, riders could use mobile devices, credit cards, or electronic farecards to pay either before boarding, or by quickly scanning the fare media at any door as they board. The system would be enforced by on-board ticket agents who check whether riders paid their fares.

On crowded bus routes, this would mean a boarding process that currently takes minutes at each stop would only take seconds.

The problem is that electronic proof of payment is not mentioned in the MTA’s request for proposals. Without such a system, the MTA might waste a once-in-a-generation opportunity to improve bus service for millions of passengers each day.

New York’s buses are the slowest in the nation, and they’re getting slower, according to DOT’s recent “Mobility Report.” So it’s no surprise that bus ridership is also dropping.

DOT and the MTA have sped up a handful of bus routes via the Select Bus Service program, which combines off-board fare collection with dedicated bus lanes, bus priority at traffic signals, and bus stop consolidation to save riders time. The MTA says off-board fare collection alone is responsible for a 10 to 15 percent improvement in travel time, reports the Riders Alliance.

Imagine bringing that kind of improvement to every bus route in the city in one fell swoop. That’s what electronic proof of payment could do.

The new fare payment system could also improve on some of the inefficiencies in the current off-board fare collection system, which make it implausible to deploy everywhere. Fare machines for SBS routes on Fordham Road, the East Side and 34th Street cost $12 million total, according to DOT, and the Regional Plan Association recently estimated that installing those machines at all 16,000 bus stops in the city would cost as much as $1 billion.

Electronic proof of payment technology could retain some off-board fare collection while adding the option of quickly tapping a card or smartphone at any door while boarding. The added expense for the MTA would be hiring more ticket agents with hand-held scanners.

London and San Francisco have run similar systems with all-door boarding for fours years already, but the MTA hasn’t committed to electronic proof of payment. Speaking to the Daily News, MTA spokesperson Kevin Ortiz didn’t rule it out but was cool to the idea, saying “we must balance convenience against the very real threat of fare evasion if ‘electronic proof of payment’ technology is ever to be viable.”

If the MTA omits electronic proof of payment from its RFP, that may doom bus riders to “a whole new generation of boarding slowly, one-by-one, at the front of the bus,” the Riders Alliance writes in its report.

In a letter to MTA Chairman Tom Prendergast [PDF], Riders Alliance Executive Director John Raskin and the leaders of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, TransitCenter, and the Straphangers Campaign called on the MTA to put an addendum on the existing RFP requiring bidders to “include technology that would allow for fare sensors at every bus door and mobile on-board validation of payment.”

“The window of opportunity to move to such a system may close, if the RFP process moves forward without any requirement that the new fare payment system facilitate this option,” the letter warned.

  • BBnet3000

    When they implemented this system in San Francisco fare evasion went down. Lots of other systems around the world use POP and have even before electronic fare payment and fare evasion simply has not proven to be a widespread problem, and in any event the cost of unpaid fares is less than the money saved by running more efficient service.

    Also, conquering the “threat” of some fare evasion has to be weighed against convenience for the millions of paying passengers. Long lines for boarding while buses are not moving need to become a thing of the past on ALL surface transit.

  • bolwerk

    Evasion is good for POP. If you have POP, you want some evasion. It’s expensive to staff inspectors who never catch anyone.

  • J

    Wait, so the MTA is doing something in an incredibly inefficient way that will need to be fixed almost as soon as it’s completed? Shut the fuck up.

  • Joe R.

    What percent of bus rides involve a free transfer to or from the subway? If it’s a rather large percentage, the MTA might do well to just make the buses free. The rationale here is most people will be paying a fare anyway for the subway. The small percentage of fares it loses will be offset by savings on fare collection machinery and fare evasion control. Also, the buses will run faster, so you’ll need fewer buses and drivers for any given frequency of service. Add all these up and perhaps this idea will be revenue neutral. At the very least it should be studied. Free buses might also entice some number of people out of cars, particularly if the buses run faster.

    I also don’t know why NYC is so far behind on traffic signal preemption. Every bus route should have it.

  • I’m shocked. SHOCKED.

  • JamesR

    Yep. I’ll be reminded of their institutional failure later this afternoon, when I’m standing in front of a broken receipt kiosk at the Bx12 SBS stop at One Fordham Plaza as folks bum rush the door of the arriving bus without receipts. Like something out of the circus.

  • bolwerk

    The revenue of an average unlinked bus trip suggests it’s a high percentage. Nonetheless, enough people take only the bus to make it costly to forgo that revenue, if that is what you’re suggesting, unless collection costs are much higher than I’d guess.

  • com63

    Totally agree. This is one of those things that the rest of the world does just fine, but New Yorkers can’t even fathom it working here.

  • kevd

    We’re different! Every other place is the same but totally less different than here! We are the very most special of flowers.

  • sbauman

    What’s the time savings for POP?

    Here are some fare collection figures:

    http://www.nap.edu/read/14647/chapter/13

    prepayment 2.5 sec; single ticket or token 3.5 sec; smart cards 3.5 sec; exact change 4.0 sec; swipe or dip cards 4.2 sec. For two boarding streams, the passenger service times are 1.8 sec for prepayment and 2.4 sec for smart cards.

    The per passenger time savings for prepayment over Metrocard are (4.2-1.8)=2.4 sec. Suppose a full bus load (50 passengers) comes on before one’s stop is reached, the time savings is 2 minutes. Big deal!

  • AnoNYC

    People already board through every door where I live.

    On every bus.

    We need to change the configuration of seats on board buses as well. The narrow walkways are terrible. I wish that we would revert to a subway car like seating configuration.

    I just avoid buses, and so do many other New Yorkers.

  • Joe R.

    My guess is if you factor in the longer running times, resulting in the need for at least a few more buses/drivers on every route, then the costs of fare collection are huge. To my knowledge no study has ever been done which factors in anything beyond just the obvious costs of fare collection.

  • Larry Littlefield

    It works in Rome.

    Of course no one there pays the fare. When we did they looked at us like we had three heads.

    In any event, if there were cameras at the rear of the bus to record those who boarded without tapping, this might work. But Albany would never allow it.

  • Andrew

    I’m not following. The RFP doesn’t give details on specific fare payment mechanisms. It doesn’t include electronic POP nor does it include anything else, explicitly. Certainly, the new system should accommodate electronic POP, but there’s no indication in this RFP that that isn’t in the works already. Am I missing something?

  • Andrew

    A savings of 2 minutes per ride is most certainly a big deal! And the savings increase if there’s been a delay in service and the crowds waiting for the bus are larger than typical, which helps prevent the delay from cascading even further.

    Shorter run times also mean that fewer buses and fewer drivers are needed to provide the same level of service. Faster and more reliable service that costs less to provide? Sounds like a win-win-win to me.

  • Andrew

    Be careful with this line of argument.

    If bus rides were free, there would be an increase in bus ridership, coming from people who don’t need to transfer to the subway and would have otherwise walked/biked/driven rather than pay the bus fare. That would in turn require increased service to handle the additional demand, with no offsetting revenue stream.

    In some cases – bus lines that parallel subway lines, primarily – there might even be a negative revenue stream, as short-distance subway riders shift to the bus in order to avoid the subway fare.

    I haven’t run the numbers (nor do I have the numbers with which to run), so perhaps I’m wrong, but my guess is that the net cost would be considerable.

  • Andrew

    I think we’re jumping the gun here. The concern here is whether the new fare payment technology is flexible enough to accommodate a different mode of paying fares. It absolutely should be – no question about that.

    The actual fare policy is a question to be decided at a later date, likely by a different cast of characters. This should certainly be strongly considered as a component of a revised fare policy when the time comes, but there are other revisions that should be considered as well. At some point there needs to be an analysis of the degree of enforcement needed to keep fare evasion to an acceptable level, and then a whole bunch of inspectors needed to be added to the budget and hired.

    We’re not there yet. We’re at the point of ensuring that the new fare payment system incorporates this capability. (And, as I said in my earlier comment, I don’t see any indication that it won’t.)

  • kevd

    Of course it can work here.

  • BBnet3000

    I agree that this is sort of overblown, readers for taggable cards are cheap enough that other cities manage to put them at every door, so there’s really nothing about the technology that precludes any fare policy that can be imagined.

    The only way I can see this affecting the procurement process is if there was somehow an actual number of units specified and signed into contract that was based on an assumption of 1 per bus, but I’d assume they’d want a lot more flexibility than that regardless of how many taggers the MTA wants on each bus.

  • Joe R.

    My only reason for suggesting this is to speed up bus trips. If we can somehow get fare collection to result in no extra delay beyond the time needed for passengers to board buses then there’s no need to get rid of the fare.

    Personally, I think all public transit should be free to the end user but we as a society refuse to see transit the same way we see education—namely that it’s a net benefit to pay for it via taxes instead of user fees.

  • Larry Littlefield

    People here didn’t get the problem.

    “The problem is that electronic proof of payment is not mentioned in the MTA’s request for proposals.”

    And inspector sees someone go past the reader, without tapping, on a crowded bus.

    “You didn’t pay.”

    “Yes I did, and besides I have a monthly.”

    (No way to tell if he was lying).

    “I’m giving you a ticket. What is your name and address.”

    “Fred Flintsone, Bedrock.”

    “Show ID.”

    “Don’t have it.” Can’t haul him in because NYC is decriminalizing. Etc.

    POP works when people are affluent and busy enough that the fine (which they could actually, profitably be forced to pay) and being required to go with the inspector to pay it is a real threat. There are many, many people in NY for whom that isn’t the case. And when they stop paying…

  • Miles Bader

    What’s supposed to happen with POP is that inspectors would randomly select people or groups of people, would use some sort of handheld electronic gadget to check their ticket/pass/whatever, and would have some sort of police power to be able to give them a ticket if the gadget beeped “no.”

    That said, POP isn’t the silver bullet many transit advocates seem to think it is… it (1) tends to break down on extremely crowded systems, and (2) doesn’t work well with complex fare structures (it works best with a simple one-zone flat-fare system).

    [So basically, POP wouldn’t really work here in Tokyo.]

  • Larry Littlefield

    “What’s supposed to happen with POP is that inspectors would randomly select people or groups of people, would use some sort of handheld electronic gadget to check their ticket/pass/whatever,”

    That is what this article is saying will not be possible with the new system.

    For union power reasons, there are still second guards on the Green Line in Boston, even with the system starved for funds to maintain the trains or add service.

    https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2016/04/25/fare-evasion-may-cost-mbta-million-year/7GUSYPBTg6hr048PJRPGPP/story.html

    The $42 million per year in lost fares may not be much in NY. But take it as a percentage, and scale it up to the size of the NYC system, and the question is how much should the fare be increased extra or what service should be cut to pay for this?

    https://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/editorials/2016/06/01/editorial-how-make-all-green-line-riders-pay-their-fare/ps5FOrNmGHlCttvnXGg8RI/story.html

  • bolwerk

    Could very well be huge in real numbers, as in tens or even hundreds of millions might be spent because of inefficient collection, but even the latter would be a fraction of the MTA bus budget.

  • Protected bus lanes with short bumps ups on critical segments would be as important if not more to speed up the buses .
    this being said we need to move into electronic age and get rid of the stupid ticket.. For pedestrians and especially ADA customers the layout of the pre payment machines is horrible. plus you cannot buy a ticket there if you just have a credit card..

  • Andrew

    Transit fares serve both to partially offset the costs of the service and to manage the demand.

    Public schools serve a limited market, and it is in society’s interest to ensure that that market is well educated.

    The potential market for transit is much larger, and I’m not sure what objective you have in mind in making it free.

    In any case, whatever your objective, if there are no fares, then you need to identify a revenue source to offset not only the lost fare revenue from the trips currently made but also the full cost of providing the additional service to accommodate the new trips attracted by the free fares.

    This is a real issue. It can’t be summarily dismissed or ignored.

  • Andrew

    And POP solves that problem. The inspector doesn’t have to see you pay in order to know whether or not you paid.

  • Andrew

    plus you cannot buy a ticket there if you just have a credit card..

    You can’t pay a bus fare anywhere in the city if you just have a credit card. Either bring coins or, better yet, bring a MetroCard with enough of a balance to cover your fare.

  • ahwr

    That is what this article is saying will not be possible with the new system.

    What do you think a pilot program for SBS would entail?

    http://i.imgur.com/Axx0JvA.png

  • Exactly …. Those 50 million tourists do not carry a metro card .

  • neroden

    Actually, we tourists do get Metrocards.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Back in the 1990s, the Republicans decided that since they were against taxes, reducing enforcement against tax evasion was a legitimate strategy if they couldn’t get even more tax cuts through Congress. Let the liberals voluntarily pay taxes. That was the genesis of the war on IRS funding.

    It occurs to me that some here have the same attitude toward fares. Since mass transit should be free and paid for exclusively by less morally upright drivers, which there shouldn’t be any of, fare evasion is OK. And making fare enforcement more difficult is thus OK.

  • Kevin Love

    Do the “some here” have names?

  • bolwerk

    ? Object lesson in what a strawman looks like. Basically nobody thinks that way.

    Driving is expensive and inefficient, and pricing it makes it work better. Proceeds from the pricing need to be invested somewhere, and may as well be invested in better transportation. Morality doesn’t enter into it. It’s actually the other way around: misguided morality, or more likely misguided naked self-interest, blinds people to the logic of that arrangement.

  • Tower18

    There was a time when tourists were encouraged to use the M60 (or other) bus at LGA, but there was no Metrocard machine there. Hope you arrived from wherever you’re from with $2.25 (or whatever at the time) in coins in your pocket! Welcome to New York.

  • Tower18

    I don’t know where the use of exact change takes 4 seconds. Does that count simply the act of throwing exact change into the hopper and the hopper counting it? What about the fumbling in the pocket, the counting, the asking of the bus passengers for the nickel you’re short, etc.

    And then 3 people do that at each stop.

  • Joe R.

    Not to mention most people don’t have that much change handy. Buses used to take dollar bills. That was very useful in lieu of carrying lots of change.

  • ohnonononono

    And now that there are at least some MVMs at LGA, they’re somewhat hidden inside the terminals at the ends of the hallways, which is obviously confusing to people who don’t realize that the M60 SBS ticket machines out at the stop are just the 2nd part of the ridiculous process to pay for bus fare. It’s total insanity.

  • Joe R.

    There are good reasons for getting rid of the fare:

    1) You save on fare collection apparatus and enforcement.

    2) You hopefully draw ridership from the ranks of auto users. The rationale here is people often use their car, even for transit friendly trips, because the marginal cost of using a car they already own is mainly the fuel. This could be less than the cost of a transit fare, especially if the entire family is traveling. Make transit free, and that line of reasoning no longer exists.

    3) The money formerly spent on fares can be spent on other things, perhaps making the idea close to revenue neutral for NYC as a whole.

    4) The working poor especially would derive huge benefits from saving on the fare. Same thing with schoolchildren who now have to pay the fare if they leave school late due to extracurricular activities.

    5) On principal “public transit” truly isn’t public if you have to pay for it. If fares exist we should call it something else, perhaps just mass transit.

    How to pay for it? Start by implementing congestion fees and higher parking charges on drivers, including charging for curbside parking citiwide. If that’s still not enough then have a sliding transit tax assessed on everyone. Maybe have it start kicking in at incomes over about $100K since this is about the minimum income you need to live in NYC without housing subsidies. Make the tax progressive. Perhaps it starts at 1% of any income over $100K, then the rate goes up by 1% for each additional $100K. Maybe the rate tops out at 10% or so.

    The hard fact is the status quo often encourages driving. Like it or not, we already pay a hidden tax in the form of externalities caused by this driving, like delay, air/noise pollution, injuries/deaths, use of emergency services, etc. Overall I can’t help but think the plus side of the ledger would outweigh the minus side if we got rid of transit fares. We may need to add more service if this happened, but with less congested streets that might mean just buying more buses and hiring more drivers. Long term we could use money from the transit taxes to fund subway expansion.

  • AMH

    Making crosstown buses free was proposed years ago since large numbers board at subway stops and practically everyone is transferring, so the MetroCard dip is a complete waste. It would still be a great way to save money and speed up service without spending millions on SBS machines.

  • AMH

    It might have something to do with the fare inspectors wearing obvious uniforms and boarding in front, thus giving evaders ample notice and opportunity to jump out the back.

  • Joe R.

    Yes, we should at least do this on a case-by-case basis. The Q64 by me mainly runs as a shuttle to the Forest Hills subway stop. Nearly all the riders are either going to or from the subway. Given that this bus is pretty slow, getting rid of the fares could speed it up without resulting in much lost revenue.

  • Joe R.

    There was actually a movie where fare inspectors were the main characters:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kontroll

    It’s worth seeing for the dark humor alone, including a line where the ticket inspector wonders if he’ll see all the people he fined in hell.

  • Larry Littlefield

    FYI the threshold is adjusted for inflation every year.

    It is the concentration of more and more income above that threshold that leads to reduced revenues.

    My series on federal finance, which I do every for years, starts here.

    https://larrylittlefield.wordpress.com/2016/02/09/the-phony-federal-campaign-and-our-real-future/

    And includes this detailed discussion on revenues.

    https://larrylittlefield.wordpress.com/2016/02/15/federal-revenues-recent-history/

    In the end somebody has to pay. The idea that you can take more out, or put less in, and “they” will be forced to adapt only works for certain powerful groups. Transit riders are not among them. Who, in the end, is paying for the big inflation-adjusted cut in the fare (and tolls) in the late 1990s?

  • Joe R.

    I was specifically talking about this: https://faq.ssa.gov/link/portal/34011/34019/article/3831/must-i-pay-taxes-on-social-security-benefits

    If your combined income exceeds $25,000 (single), or $32,000 (married) then you have to pay taxes on part of your Social Security benefits. Those thresholds haven’t been raised since Reagan was President. They were originally put in place to get some taxes from those whose combined incomes made them fairly well off. Inflation has meant those who are strictly middle class are now subject to the tax. $25,000 in 1984 when the law was enacted is equivalent to $57,800 today. The law should have indexed the amounts for inflation, just like we already do for tax brackets, personal exemptions, and standard deductions.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Right.

    So there was a game of chicken in which everyone de-funded the MTA.

    General tax revenues were diverted to other priorities.

    Pensions were retroactively increased in 2000.

    Average fares were slashed after the introduction of the Metrocard. The Russianoff piece.

    Tolls were allowed to fall behind inflation, and in some cases removed.

    Contractors were allowed to charge more and more on capital projects.

    Everybody wins. So now who loses?

    Cut fare revenue again, and that is who will lose again.

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