To Stay Connected to Jobs, New Yorkers Need Better Bus Service

Job growth has been concentrated outside Manhattan in recent years. Transit service hasn't kept pace.

Over the last decades, the economic geography of New York City has begun to shift. While Midtown and Lower Manhattan remain job centers without peer, more and more of the city’s jobs are located outside of the central business districts. As employment shifts into the other boroughs, however, the transit system hasn’t shifted with it. That means longer waits and worse service for many New Yorkers, especially for low- and middle-income workers, according to a new report from the Center for an Urban Future.

To connect people to jobs and expand economic opportunity in the city, the authors write, bus service must improve dramatically and transit must become a “kitchen table issue” for a broader range of New Yorkers.

Increasingly, New Yorkers’ commutes don’t take them into Manhattan. In the Bronx, for example, between 1990 and 2008 the number of commuters traveling to Manhattan grew by 12 percent. The number of commuters going to work inside the Bronx, in contrast, grew by 25 percent and the number traveling to neighboring Queens or Westchester increased by 38 percent. In fact, the Bronx was the only borough to add jobs during the great recession. The pattern, which repeats itself in Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island, is clear: commuting no longer means traveling into Manhattan.

With the subway system designed to funnel people in and out of Manhattan, New Yorkers rely on bus service to take them to these new jobs. Bus ridership is up 60 percent since 1990. But increased ridership and increased traffic congestion mean that bus trips are slower than ever. Last year’s service cuts, which hardest on bus riders, only exacerbated the situation. It’s no wonder, therefore, that New Yorkers’ commute lengths just keep increasing. The problem is particularly acute among low-income New Yorkers, whose homes and jobs are more likely to be in transit-poor neighborhoods and who can’t afford to drive.

The shoddy state of bus service to New York’s new jobs is a major obstacle to economic opportunity.

The Center for an Urban Future report quotes Sharon Valentin, the tenant association leader for Staten Island’s Castleton Houses: “We have a new Target on the other side of the island and the bus lets you off a half a mile away. I know a lot of people here who would like to work at that Target, but getting there every day is too hard.”

Employers, too, see inadequate transit service as an obstacle to growth. “Improved mass transit would allow our expanding business to draw from a larger labor pool, improve our ability to attract and retain new workers and make us a more competitive manufacturer,” said Steve Chen, the vice president the rapidly expanding Crystal Windows and Doors in College Point, Queens.

Queens commuters headed to Manhattan tend to take the subway, but those commuting inside the borough depend on the bus or their car.

To help connect New Yorkers with the new jobs, the Center for an Urban Future suggests a serious investment in bus rapid transit. While it praises the city DOT and the MTA for the successful projects on Fordham Road and First and Second Avenues, it concludes that “to have any real impact on commute times, particularly for the working poor living outside of Manhattan, an even more ambitious effort is needed.”

That means building out the city’s 19 identified candidates for a second phase of Select Bus Service but also adding to that plan in important ways. The report recommends adding elevated platforms to speed boarding and alighting and to provide bus service with some additional cultural cachet. More importantly, perhaps, it calls for adapting that plan to the realities of New York’s new job centers. Not one proposed SBS route travels from Queens to the Bronx or Brooklyn.

It’s also worth pointing out the importance of non-Manhattan commutes for sustainability goals as well. Only a tiny share of car commutes from any borough are to Manhattan; most are entirely within another borough or to an adjacent county. To reduce driving, those routes need good transit.

To make a robust, citywide BRT system a reality, however, the politics of transit need to change. As the report’s authors write, “the MTA and DOT don’t operate in a vacuum.” The MTA can’t take on any major new commitments until its budget is balanced, which will require new revenue (CUF recommends considering congestion pricing or bridge tolls). And BRT won’t be rolled out citywide if local leaders, like those who killed the Queens Merrick Boulevard SBS route, continue to fight against it.

The key, the report argues, is to make transportation more of a “kitchen-table issue.” Right now, they note, only seven percent of New Yorkers making below 200 percent of the federal poverty line identify transit as the biggest challenge facing New York, compared to 11 percent of higher-income residents.

An important part of putting transportation equity on the agenda will be convincing the most important advocates for workers to put it on theirs. “Transportation is a big problem for our lowest wage workers,” said Leah Gonzalez, the communications director for SEIU/1199, the powerful health care union which represents home health care workers who must crisscross the city for work. Gonzalez told CUF, however, that transportation wasn’t generally an issue her union advocated for.

  • Larry Littlefield

    The more I think about it, the more taking away the MTA payroll tax and bus service and offering it to NYC and the counties to operate makes sense.

    If the other counties don’t want the payroll tax, let them pay for their bus systems some other way.

    In NYC, the MTA would no longer be a near monopoly, except for travel from elsewhere to Manhattan.

    The MTA would operate rail services on their own rails, coordinating the two, and the City of New York would operate bus services on its streets, coordinating the two.

    And the NYC Council would be accountable for the quality of bus service.

  • Gonzalez told CUF, however, that transportation wasn’t generally an issue her union advocated for.

    And therein lies the fundamental problem with union organizers in New York City.

  • ‘Transportation wasn’t generally an issue her union advocated for.’ Exactly. This is so short-sighted. SEIU probably has a vision plan for members; why doesn’t Gonzalez take advantage of it?

  • Last weekend I tried Select Bus Service along First Ave. (northbound only) for the first time. I didn’t time the ride on my watch, but wow, that big boat really zipped along. The only significant delay occurred when a ticket inspector boarded the bus. Anyway, all New Yorkers should be so lucky.

  • tom

    Did I read somewhere that at the MTA panel last night that Joan Byron of Pratt remarked the fault was in the media perception…we talk in an echo chamber…among ourselves? Perhaps you got to include some union leadership in the discussion to get the message out.

  • Tom: I had that quote in my coverage on SAS. Getting union leadership on board is a major missing piece in this puzzle, but at the same time, union leadership shouldn’t be told that transportation is a key piece in New York City.

  • herenthere

    Well, a few years ago, the DOT held a survey asking which of several routes being asked would Queens residents want to have BRT installed into. One was the Q17 route from Main St, Flushing to Jamaica, which I had chosen. Since the survey, traffic has snarled downtown Flushing so badly that it adds roughly 5-10 mins to anyone traveling beyond 3/4 mile of the Main St. terminus. Unfortunately, adding BRT to this route is almost impossible for most of the route as the width of the road varies from 1 to 2 lanes per direction in the busiest parts. Many parts of Queens do not have the wide avenues as Manhattan does.

  • Drawing lines on a map, regardless of mode, is not necessarily the same as doing systemwide improvement. Anything short of systemwide off-board fare collection and all-door boarding, which residents of such cities as Berlin and Zurich have had for years, is a letdown. For that matter, having inspections delay the bus is a letdown plainly visible to ordinary riders. Dedicated lanes should then be provided on the segments with the most ridership or congestion – including Main Street between Flushing and Jamaica, as well as some others – without being bundled with systemwide issues.

  • LazyReader

    Who wouldn’t love the bus. “The wheels on the bus go round and round” not the wheels on the train go clack clack clack, damn that’s annoying.

  • Andrew

    Mark Walker:

    Since this issue has come up numerous times before, I’m curious – what sort of delay did you encounter when the ticket inspector boarded?

  • Mark Walker

    Andrew, the ticket inspector boarded the bus and — not surprisingly — checked everyone’s receipt. Then she went back to the front of the bus and talked to the driver for several minutes. The conversation took much longer than the inspection. I didn’t hear what they were saying. Only when she left the bus did it begin moving again. Perhaps someone better informed could explain the procedure. In any case, even with the delay, it was still way faster than the M5 and M7, my usual routes.

  • J:Lai

    Given the limited resources for transit, I do not think it makes sense to provide bus service that is largely redundant with subway service. Many routes travelling north-south within Manhattan, or from various points in the boroughs into Manhattan, could be eliminated or reduced as subways provide transportation on nearly the same route.

    These resources could then be used to add or improve bus service between destinations in the outer boroughs where transit options are sorely lacking. The rezoning of many outer borough neighborhoods for increased density (eg the brooklyn and queens waterfronts), as well as other demographic changes, have created increased demand for travel between non-Manhattan destinations in the city. Many of these trips are extremely difficult to make using current transit options.

    Although some bus riders on the eliminated routes (notably the elderly and handicapped) would be left without good transit options, the majority would be only slightly inconvenienced by switching to the subway.

    The benefits would accrue to far more people as service is increased for outer borough trips. These are the kinds of choices we have to make, and I believe there are numerous benefits, economic and social, to supporting growth outside of Manhattan.

  • D Peterson

    Before adding raised platforms to SBS service, why not provide an adequate number of the receipt-generating machines? I transfer at 207th St to the Bx12 SBS. There are only two machines there and often one is out of service. When a crowd descends from the 1 train a long line is the result — and the buses don’t wait. So it’s possible to be standing in line and watch the bus pull away.

    This probably sounds like one complainers little problem, but it’s the lack of attention to these details that really hurts great ideas like BRT.


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