MTA: Don’t Ask Us to Do More for NYC Bus Riders

NYC's buses are the slowest in the nation. Image: TransitCenter
NYC’s buses are the slowest in the nation. Image: TransitCenter

Bus ridership in New York City has steadily declined since 2002, and bus riders put up with the slowest average speeds in the nation. But the MTA is in no hurry to fix the problem.

At a City Council hearing this morning, MTA representatives touted the agency’s piecemeal efforts to improve bus service while pushing back against recommendations from transit advocates to address the entire bus system.

Advocacy organizations with the NYC Bus Turnaround Coalition have called for a citywide overhaul of NYC buses. While the scale of their proposal is large, many of the solutions they put forward can be implemented in, say, a single Andrew Cuomo term as governor.

Today, transportation committee chair Ydanis Rodriguez and other council members pushed MTA and DOT officials to adopt a comprehensive approach to solve the problems facing the city’s bus system. The MTA insisted that it’s already doing what it can to turn around bus service.

Transit advocates want the MTA to do more, faster. “What we’re calling for in this campaign is much more widespread implementation of those solutions and implementation much more quickly than we’ve been seeing,” TransitCenter’s Tabitha Decker said at a rally before the hearing.

New York City Transit Executive Vice President Craig Cipriano said congestion is the main cause of declining speeds and ridership. Congestion is undoubtedly a factor, but advocates have identified several ways besides letting buses bypass traffic that the MTA can make a difference for bus riders, like rethinking streetcar-era bus routes for the 21st century, speeding up the boarding process with “tap-and-go” fare collection and all-door boarding, and more effective dispatching to keep buses from bunching together.

Echoing the MTA’s response when advocates released the Bus Turnaround report this summer, Cipriano listed ongoing efforts like neighborhood-based bus service studies and the Select Bus Service program, which has sped up 11 bus corridors in a city with hundreds of them.

Those efforts have worked, and the agency just needs to stick with them to turn around bus ridership, Cipriano argued. In other words, the MTA will keep on doing what it’s been doing, at the same scale and pace it’s been doing it. But those efforts have not been enough to prevent systemwide bus speeds and ridership from continuing to deteriorate in recent years.

Riders Alliance member and Queens bus rider Natasha Saunders speaking alongside elected officials and advocates before this morning's hearing. Photo: David Meyer
Riders Alliance member and Queens bus rider Natasha Saunders (podium) speaking alongside elected officials and advocates before this morning’s hearing. Photo: David Meyer

Cipriano seemed more concerned about the costs and potential controversies tied to fixing bus service than the underlying need to fix bus service. He was especially bearish about all-door boarding, which he acknowledged could speed up buses but said may not be “feasible and cost-effective.”

“We must exercise diligence in considering all the operational and cost implications, in addition to the benefits, in evaluating a possible future decision to expand [all-door boarding] beyond SBS routes,” he said. Meanwhile, San Francisco has had citywide all-door boarding since 2012.

The MTA’s lack of enthusiasm was somewhat counter-balanced by DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, who called for all-door boarding, route reevaluations, and expediting the installation of transit signal priority technology. (One piece of good citywide news from Cipriano is that starting in 2018, the MTA wants to equip its entire NYC bus fleet with signal priority capability. The agency is playing catch-up, since all 12,000 traffic signals already have transit priority tech.)

Still, Trottenberg agreed with MTA reps that full-on bus rapid transit, with bus lanes physically separated from car traffic, would not be a good fit for New York City. MTA Senior Director for Bus Service Planning Sarah Wyss said sidewalks are not large enough to handle the passenger volumes, while Trottenberg argued that many of the city’s streets are too narrow for fully separated bus lanes.

“I have to disagree, ” Rodriguez countered. “We need to do better on working in an expedited process to bring as many BRT [routes] as possible to New York City. The [service] that we have [is] too slow.”

  • Alicia

    Slowest in the nation? There are seven cities mentioned in the graph. What about all the other cities not listed? (To name a few, Atlanta, Houston, Phoenix, Detroit, Minneapolis, Seattle, Denver, Las Vegas …)

    Is there any more comprehensive list of data around?

  • Kwyjibo

    The MTA, like DOT and NYPD, is run by unimaginative clock watchers whose main concern seems to be getting in their 20 (or whatever, depending on the contract) while doing the least they can get away with. I see lots of evidence to back this up and very little to the contrary.

    I’d love to be wrong but as far as competing with other world cities, NYC is over.

  • ItsEasyBeingGreen

    Wow, really low energy. Sad!

  • Joe R.

    It looks like they’ve focused on cities with a high percentage of public transit use. I agree about seeing other cities. Just to throw in an anecdote I used to take a bus to Princeton sometimes back when I was in college. It covered ~55 miles in 1:45 if I remember correctly. That’s about 31 mph. You might have similar numbers for buses in other cities which might make a handful of local stops, then do large parts of their runs on highways. Then again, I think the study focused on buses which are strictly used for local transit, not what might be considered commuter express buses.

    That said, the numbers in the other cities are still nothing to write home over. Buses pretty much suck compared to decent rail but there’s plenty we can do to make them a lot better.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Cipriano seemed more concerned about the costs and potential controversies tied to fixing bus service than the underlying need to fix bus service.”

    Here is what the MTA is hearing.

    “We demand that the MTA, which will be going back into fiscal crisis as the latest bubble deflates, propose improvements in bus service for which we will provide no funding, so that we politicians can grandstand and accuse the MTA of ignoring local residents and having two sets of books.”

    Is the city serious?

    https://larrylittlefield.wordpress.com/2014/02/26/the-city-of-new-york-should-take-over-its-bus-and-paratransit-system/

    And it should insist that the money the MTA would no longer pay to subsidize bus service be used as the city’s contribution to the capital plan, on a pay as you go basis.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Buses in Chicago move much, must faster than buses in NYC. And ridership is higher than on the El.

    But the reasons would be hard to replicate. The streets are wider, population density is lower, and there is less congestion.

  • Joe R.

    Two things tend to delay buses in NYC a lot—auto congestion and traffic signals. Chicago has a lot less of both from what I understand but we can duplicate some of that here with exclusive bus lanes (protected by physical barriers) and traffic signal preemption. But as you mentioned above the MTA isn’t interested if it means spending more money.

  • Larry Littlefield

    it’s like the planners at city planning, back when I was there. The force of NIMBYs and other interests had beaten them down to the point they saw no point in trying to do anything. The MTA has its funding, debt service and pension issue on top of that.

    Consider the idea of tail tracks on the L train. It’s basically a hole with tracks in it — nothing else required, because other than operator error/a failure of the CBTC system trains would never go there. It’s just a place for trains to roll to a stop in the event of such a failure, so they don’t have to crawl up to a wall.

    So why not do it? No money. And years of “progressive” public and environmental review. After all, we’re not talking about four extra lanes on the Staten Island expressway or something.

  • Jesse

    Any street that’s wide enough for two lanes of parking is wide enough for separated bus lane.

  • Andrew

    Buses can’t pass other buses if there’s a single separated bus lane. That’s a problem on any frequent bus corridor, where buses often pass other buses. (Limiteds/SBS and locals, or multiple bus routes with split stops, or wheelchairs, or simple recovery from bus bunching.) It’s fine on streets that see infrequent bus service, I suppose, but there’s also little benefit.

    If there’s enough space to devote to a pair of bus lanes, then separation is great! But if there’s only one bus lane (per direction), camera enforcement is the way to go. Put cameras on every bus, and only on buses, so that no drivers can claim that they weren’t obstructing bus service. But that, of course, would require Albany’s blessing.

  • sbauman

    The fixation on travel speed is misguided. There are several factors that influence how long a bus trip will take from origin to destination.

    First, what’s the average trip distance? Average trip length in NYC is less than any of the cities listed. Longer trips in these other cities are taken by subway in NYC. The NTD data, which was used to derive the average vehicle speeds, shows that the average bus trip in NYC is 2.2 miles. Trip distance for the other cities is: 2.3 for San Francisco; 2.5 for Chicago; 2.7 for Boston; 3.2 for Washington; 3.0 for Philadelphia and 4.0 for Los Angeles.

    Now, how long does the average trip take? The average speed and now the trip distance are known. The results are: 17.6 minutes for NYC; 16.9 minutes for San Francisco; 16.1 minutes for Chicago; 16.3 minutes for Boston; 18.4 minutes for Washington; 17.6 minutes for Philadelphia and 22.6 minutes for Los Angeles. NYC doesn’t come in dead last, when trip length is considered. It’s in the middle of the pack between 16.1 and 18.4 minutes The shortest average bus trip is Chicago at 16.1 minute. That’s only 90 seconds less than NYC.

    The short trip distance brings up a complication about trying to speed up rides by making bus stops further apart. Each extra block a passenger has to walk to/from the bus stop adds a minute to his trip. Removing a stop reduces travel time between 18 and 29 seconds.

    Increasing distances between stops was suggested by many speakers at the Council hearing. An examination of the MTA schedules reveals the following for a typical weekday (Wed, 21 Sep 2016). Locals average 7.7 mph and have 6.7 stops per mile. Limiteds average 7.8 mph and have 4.0 stops per mile. SBS buses average 9.7 mph and have 2.3 stops per mile. Take the average 2.2 mile trip at the average speed for that service, add the walking distance to the stop @ 3 mph. The trip times become: 20.2 minutes for the local; 21.9 minutes for the limited and 22.3 minutes for the SBS bus.

    That’s right – the origin to destination trip time for an SBS bus takes 2.1 minutes longer for the average trip than the local. Limited service isn’t an improvement either.

    Many council member questions directed to the MTA were requests to add stops to SBS routes. The real world is corroborating what the statistics show. These statistical results are counter intuitive. Vehicle speed isn’t the only parameter that influences trip times in the real world and rider satisfaction.

  • Andrew

    Your math is correct only if we assume that local, limited, and SBS riders all share the same distribution of riders.

    That’s clearly not a reasonable assumption. On any line offering a mix of stopping patterns, longer-distance riders will tend to ride the buses that make fewer stops while shorter-distance riders will tend to ride the buses that make more stops. Furthermore, one of the criteria for targeting a bus line for SBS improvements is that running times are excessive; the interesting comparison is not to local routes overall (which include light-ridership lines in uncongested areas) but to the the services along the same corridor prior to SBS. Finally, the stops picked for SBS and limited services are not arbitrary; they tend to be the busiest stops on the line – so, while some riders do have longer walks to or from the bus, a disproportionate share of riders start and end their trips at SBS/limited stops, with no extra walking required.

  • Joe R.

    Lower bus speeds might be a reason that average trip length is shorter in NYC. Perhaps longer trips where it’s technically possible to use the bus are instead done by private car precisely because those trips just take too long. You can’t read too much into those numbers either way.

    I will say I think the idea of removing stops to speed up buses isn’t always the best solution. There are reasons why extra stops delay buses beyond just the time to stop and get back up to speed. In NYC often an extra stop means being stuck at another red light. It often also entails delays merging back into traffic. If you discount these two things, and assume the riders who board at a removed stop will board at another stop, then the only source of delay of the time it takes for the bus to stop and get back up to speed versus staying in motion. This is probably on the order of 10 seconds, if that. The remainder of the delay is from the sources I mentioned.

    Bottom line—the focus should be on eliminating the delays from merging back into traffic via a bus lane and the delays from traffic signals via traffic signal preemption. If running times are still unacceptable, then maybe consider removing stops, but focus first on places where stops might be ridiculously close together, like 2 blocks apart.

  • Andrew

    Average bus trip length is shorter in New York because New York has a far more extensive rapid transit system than any other city in the U.S., and longer-distance riders generally prefer the far faster subway (if there is a bus component to the trip, it is a relatively brief one, to reach the subway).

    A nit, but traffic signal preemption means that the light turns green within a matter of seconds of the vehicle’s approach, cross traffic and pedestrians be damned. It’s employed in some cities for emergency vehicles, but as far as I know it is not used by any mainstream bus system. In a city like New York, true preemption would result in a lot of dead pedestrians and would probably slow bus service overall, as the preemption system overrides the traffic signal patterns and worsens general traffic congestion, trapping buses with it. What’s used by bus systems is traffic signal priority, which gives buses a slight leg up on general traffic (by slightly extending the green phase if a bus is a approaching or slightly abridging the red phase if a bus is waiting) without throwing the entire signal progression in the trash.

  • sbauman

    Do you have hard statistical data that shows population and job densities in the vicinity of SBS vs. local stops?

  • sbauman

    Consider the idea of tail tracks on the L train. It’s basically a hole with tracks in it — nothing else required, because other than operator error/a failure of the CBTC system trains would never go there. It’s just a place for trains to roll to a stop in the event of such a failure, so they don’t have to crawl up to a wall.

    That’s not quite the entire reason for tail tracks. They permit trains to enter 8th Avenue at higher speeds. This allows more than 24 trains per hour to use this station and the entire L line. There is an alternative solution that does not involve any new tunnel construction.

    The MTA is not interested in any large service increase on the L train or any other line. Moreover, their choice of CBTC made such service increases exceedingly expensive.

  • Andrew

    No, I simply have reason to doubt your unstated but implicit assumption that averages apply to locals, limited, and SBS’s alike.

    It isn’t only population and job densities, incidentally – it’s also transfer points, which tend to see higher-than-average boarding and alighting volumes regardless of the surrounding population/job densities. Limiteds and SBS’s serve most transfer points.

    Do you have hard statistical data to support your assumption? If not, I will continue to doubt it.

    https://scienceornot.net/2012/12/04/the-reversed-responsibility-response-switching-the-burden-of-proof/

  • Andrew

    The CBTC signal system on the L can support 26 tph, all turning at 8th Avenue, in its current configuration, with no need for tail tracks. (Your 24 tph calculations, as I’ve pointed out before, are based on pre-CBTC running times into the terminal, and your calculations also assume that trains can never arrive and depart concurrently, which is obviously false.)

    The power distribution system, however, can only support 20 tph. And, in fact, the line is scheduled at the maximum capacity of 20 tph. There are plans in place to add three substations to the line, increasing power capacity to 22 tph.

    Building tail tracks might increase the signal capacity of the terminal above 26 tph, but as long as the power capacity is still stuck at 22 tph, there’s no benefit to increasing signal capacity. If there’s a need for more than 22 tph, tail tracks won’t help, but even more substations will – so why waste money on tail tracks when it could be spent on substations?

  • sbauman

    Two things tend to delay buses in NYC a lot—auto congestion and traffic signals

    There’s a third – bus congestion. There are areas where more than 400 buses per hour are scheduled to stop.

  • Andrew

    And a fourth – waiting for large numbers of passengers at busy stops to pay the fare.

  • Flakker

    The City aside, Houston Metro did a reevaluation of their bus service top to bottom so that it works better at the same cost. The MTA should do the same thing.

  • LimestoneKid

    How about just getting people to exit from the rear of the bus? You know like in the way that they do in most major centers in North America.

  • ahwr

    The report cites the national transit database.

    https://www.transit.dot.gov/ntd/data-product/2014-annual-database-service

    Divide total actual revenue miles by total actual revenue hours for ‘average typical weekday’ and mode ‘MB= motor bus’, and you should have a more complete list. RB – rapid bus (SBS in MTA paralance) and CB – commuter bus (express buses in NYC) are listed separately.

    The glossary may come in handy.

    https://www.transit.dot.gov/sites/fta.dot.gov/files/docs/NTD_Glossary_2014.pdf

  • J

    You can try to rationalize MTA’s lack of action all you want, but the fact is that MTA bus ridership peaked around 2004 and has been declining since 2008.

    “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” – Albert Einstein

  • Larry Littlefield

    You don’t have the same NIMBY power in Houston that you do in New York. The special interests and political hacks don’t bother with transit there, so the agency could do what it wanted as long as it didn’t involve money.

  • Larry Littlefield

    To be fair, however, I believe that is because a bus riding, “I’ll never ride the subway” generation is passing on, replaced by a subway and bike riding generation. The days of the “mugger express” are not even in the memory of most people under age 45.

  • J

    If you propose to do nothing, you can’t claim that NIMBYism stopped you.

  • J

    You need strong political support to overcome NIMBYs, and that is exactly what we’re seeing. MTA needs to grow a backbone and use this support to actually do something.

  • qrt145

    I don’t know about all those other cities, but the design of the rear door in many NYC buses sucks, which probably leads people to avoid them. Why do they suck? You have to push them open; supposedly they are “assisted”, but that doesn’t always work. They often slam shut with no warning. They are too high, and not every bus rider feels comfortable jumping down.

  • ohnonononono

    Yes, there are some very fast buses running without all the pesky passengers slowing things up…

  • Emmily_Litella

    Prior to the summer of 1969, you could pay for a 15 cent fare with a $5 bill and get change back. In the exact change era, you could palm a penny and a token, and if you saw that the plate was full of not yet dumped coins, just drop the penny. The full plate meant that the driver gave no fucks about inspecting each individual fare. I must have saved many dozens of fares in the .50 to $1.50 range that way. And how many hours did I spend waiting two to five times the normal headway of the route in shitty weather?

  • Larry Littlefield

    So build the substations too — except it comes down to costs from the past sucking up all the money.
    As I’ve noted, in a forward looking world the MTA would be extending the J/Z to an area adjacent to the LIRR east of Jamaica now occupied by school bus parking, and building another yard. With J/Z trains stored there deadheading would decrease and the MTA could put trains from the East New York yard into service there on both the Jamaica line and the Canarsie line, removing the terminal/yard constraint on L service. With more substations and tail tracks the terminal constraint would be removed. And then perhaps the CBTC money, used to get rid of the signal constraint, would not be wasted.

  • WaRREN DAVId

    SIMPLE AND PLAIN THE REASON BUS SERVICE HAS GOTTEN SO DISGUSTINGLY SLOW AND OFF SCHEDULE IN NYC IS BECAUSE THE IDIOTS HAVE REDEDUCED THE SPEED LIMIT TO 25 TO BRING UP REVENUE IN TICKET MONEY; UNWITTINGLY DESTROYING THE ABILITY OF BUSES TO RUN QUICKLY AND AS SCHEDULED. REMEDY RESTORING THE SPEED LIMIT AND ALLOWING DRIVERS TO DRIVE THE BUS ACCORDING TO THEIR DISCRETION ACCORDING TO ROAD AND TRAFFIC VARIABLES.

  • Jesse

    uh oh! Kwijibo on the loose!

  • ItsEasyBeingGreen

    The point being that boarding could be a lot faster if it were level and through all doors and didn’t require slow fare payment st the same time.

  • JamesR

    This is an A-level parody, bravo, would’ve given you an A+ if you’d included some mistyped exclamation points in the vein of “variables!!!11” at the end.

  • Joe Kal

    The speed limit needs to be raised back to 30 mph without speed cameras or red light cameras. I am a PEDESTRIAN and a driver. So please no bs replies.

  • Andrew

    I’m suggesting that fare payment be taken off-board, as on SBS.

  • WaRREN DAVId

    HUHHH ? WHAT IS THE ACTUAL POINT OF YOUR COMMENT ARE U AWARE OF THE DEFINITION OF “PARODY” #GOOGLEDAT #GOOGLE ISURFRIEND LOOK UP “VARIABLES” TO WHILE U THERE #EVERYLITTLEBITHELPS
    I HAVE SEVERAL FAMILY MEMBERS IN TRANSIT AND AM FRIENDS WTH SEVERAL DRIVERS TWO RETIRED AND THIS IS “THE” UNDERSTANDING AND CONSENSUS THEY ALL SPEAK TO. #ASKAROUND

  • Kar Kei

    Instead of coming up with endless unusable Penn Station proposals, NYC and NYS should put that money into bus improvements across the Metro. It pains me to see so much time, money, and energy wasted on fantasies. If through some divine miracle the city finds a way to relocate MSG, then plan out Penn. In the meantime, the bulk of transit money should be put towards incremental improvements that thousands can see and experience. If I open up the NYT one more time and see yet another Penn Proposal, its time to cancel

  • gustaajedrez

    The thing is that you assume that there is an equal concentration of origins/destinations around local stops vs. limited stops. The limited stops are generally the higher ridership stops and so those people likely aren’t walking much further than average to catch the bus. And it doesn’t take into account that some of the time spent walking is time that would’ve been spent waiting (if a riders walks an extra block to a limited stop to give themselves the option of both the local & limited)

  • Alex Brideau III

    Well, technically all drivers are pedestrians.

  • Alex Brideau III

    #needsmoreCAPS

  • IUO

    The biggest reason MTA buses are soo slow is because there are bus stops every 1-2 blocks! By the time the bus gets going it has to stop the next one. Time to make these bus stops minimum 3 blocks apart and walk a little people! Also can you please be ready with your change or metrocards. You don’t know how many times I’ve waited behind someone that hasn’t counted their change or looks for their card once they get to the farebox. My God what were you waiting for it’s like they forget what they were on this line for!! As this person holds up the bus now the light that was green turns red and the bus is stuck for another 30sec to a minute waiting for it to change. Then in the time the light changes here comes more people (that should’ve taken the next bus running and cramming into this one which holds it up even more). When it comes to delays it’s us (passengers) that delay the buses. Next time your on the bus and you see a person taking their time to pay and holding up the line take a look at the traffic light and you’ll see it’s them delaying service, also take a look at how far apart the bus stops are. How hard is it to be ready and keep it moving.

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