Jay Walder’s Well-Placed Priorities: Doing More With New York City Buses

“In London, you
carry nearly twice as many people in the bus system as you do on the
Underground.” In New York, the opposite is true. “We must close the gap and
make more of the bus system.”

— Jay Walder, MTA chairman, as quoted in the New York Times

london_bus_stop.jpgImprovements like real-time arrival displays led bus ridership to grow significantly during Jay Walder’s tenure at Transport for London. Photo: King Huang Chung/Flickr.

In the transit landscape inherited by Jay Walder, the MTA’s new chairman, buses are a rare
potential bright spot amidst an otherwise dismal world of funding shortages, fare hikes,
labor unrest, stalled mega-projects, and feckless
politicians. Judging from recent
remarks, Walder seems to recognize this and is poised to make better bus
service a major focus.

While it may seem obvious that
the chair of the MTA should devote considerable energy to buses, this is rarely the case. The head of the MTA is typically consumed by planning, funding, and managing
mega-projects and the capital plan. Historically, the MTA has been
heavily oriented toward subways and commuter rail. On the average weekday, the agency’s
subways carry 5.2 million trips and its buses 2.4 million.

But these are not
normal times at the MTA. Walder has one year to make a big impression. After that
he will almost certainly have a new boss as governor, who will have two options: fire Walder or rehire
him. Bus improvements can be done relatively quickly and cheaply, and by
reducing delays can actually save money while resulting in better service and
higher ridership.

Buses are also attractive to
Walder because the mayor and DOT are already aggressively pushing bus corridor
improvements. DOT and the MTA have launched a successful Select Bus Service route on Fordham
in the Bronx, with new routes planned and funded for First and Second Avenues in 2010. The mayor is a
good friend to have. He controls streets, parking enforcement and seats on the
MTA board.

But Select Bus Service only helps a handful of the MTA’s
250 bus routes. Also needed are system-wide
improvements. Walder has identified three of these as priorities.

First is a
swipe-free or "contactless" MetroCard like London’s Oyster Card, which is
waved over a sensor on buses and subways. This would reduce boarding times.

Second is GPS-based, real-time information for riders waiting at bus
stops. This would reduce uncertainty over travel times and help reduce
bunching. The MTA has struggled with GPS location for years, while similar technology has been adopted by transit systems around the world and in New York City taxis.

Third, but most
emphasized by Walder, is improved enforcement of bus stops and lanes, especially
with automated enforcement cameras. Enforcement cameras are in widespread use
in London. But here, they will require approval by the state legislature. Given
that the legislature is struggling with profound internal dysfunction, massive
state budget deficits, and a collapsing MTA capital plan, it will likely be a tough lift for bus lane cameras to win approval. It took DOT decades of effort to win its
relatively small number of red light cameras.

Regardless of the exact
improvements he undertakes, there is a powerful logic steering Jay Walder
toward bus improvements. And that is good news for long-suffering bus riders.

  • Excellent post. Since cabs account for as much as 1/3 of overall traffic volumes during high-congestion times/locations, NYC BRT buses should be equipped with sensors and cameras that can automatically fine yellow cabs blocking traffic in BRT lanes. I don’t think that would require approval from Albany. Could the same thing be done with black cars?

  • Countdowns are extremely important for buses, especially when the route is less frequent. Do you take the subway, which may take a longer route but will require at most a 10 minute wait, or do you take the bus, which will get you there faster but maybe come in 1 or 30 minutes?

    The biggest barrier to bus ridership is uncertainty. While some high frequency routes remove that by having subway-like headways, all other lines need a countdown. Put screens in the major stops, and do the rest via cellphone (NextBus in DC uses text messaging)

  • rlb

    “Do you take the subway, which may take a longer route but will require at most a 10 minute wait, or do you take the bus, which will get you there faster but maybe come in 1 or 30 minutes?”

    In these situations, the subway arrival time is also important. That is why that information belongs on the street, at the subway entrances, instead of (or in addition to) on the subway platforms, where the subway commitment has already been made.

  • Another means of speeding up bus service is moving toward an entire fleet of low-floor buses. The high-floor articulated buses, which run on some of the city’s busiest routes, are slowed down by their especially slow loading process for the handicapped and elderly.

  • J:Lai

    this is an interesting subject. Improving bus infrastructure seems to be the clear winner in terms of getting results quickly and without massive capital outlays. However, which types of improvement should get most focus often splits pretty clearly on a Manhattan vs. Boroughs line.

    For instance, enforcement of bus stops and lanes has the most benefit for Manhattan buses (and to some extent select bus service – although that is a tiny share of total bus service). Outside Manhattan, buses generally do not have dedicated lanes.

    In general, most Manhattan bus service is redundant – it duplicates subway routes. There are certain subgroups of riders who depend on bus service (elderly and disabled being a major component) because they have difficulty negotiating subway stations, or can not easily walk a few extra blocks. Crosstown service is an exception, but speeds are slow and distances are relatively short, so improving crosstown service will have limited effect on total ridership.

    To dramatically increase bus ridership, such as bringing it up to parity with subway ridership, I think the majority of the effort and resources have to go to the Boroughs.

    Realtime info would be great, and could even use text messages or something like twitter, as jass has suggested. (uncertainty is a killer in the decision of whether to use public transit.)
    Decreasing boarding time would also be great. A touch card would help, but even better would be a turnstile system that forces people to exit through the rear (this is a pet peeve of mine!)

    To really make this happen, though, I think it takes a radical re-design of existing bus routes. There should be a clear definition of goals. For example: Buses should 1) cover areas without subway options, 2) provide connections between different subway lines, 3) provide transit service for those who have difficulty using subways (in that order.)
    I believe this would lead to more of a “hub and spokes” system where you have a short routes with more frequent service radiating out from major subway stations, with a de-emphasis on long bus routes, especially where they duplicate subway service.

  • John Kaehny

    Thanks for these insightful comments. The next installment is a brief summary of things Walder can do versus things he’d like to do, or should do. Walder has very little time until a new governor arrives. For the first time in decades, perhaps since WWII, there is a city administration and a transit boss who agree that buses are the fastest, cheapest way to expand and improve the transit system. The political system hasn’t caught up yet. A lot depends on who gets elected mayor and governor in the next year and whether NY State continues to face plunging tax revenue.

  • zach

    My greatest impression of London this last summer was not congestion pricing or ample free museums or cider on tap everywhere, but rather the free maps available in a rack at every tube station. Each station has a different map, a map just for that station, with less than a mile radius around it, highlighting the buses that pass within that range. Some of the maps even had churches and pubs. The process of figuring out buses became less intimidating.

    That, and with gas taxes and congestion pricing the buses are damned fast.

  • I wonder if he’s thinking of introducing double-decker buses in New York.

  • J. Mork


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