Council Members Call for Countdown Clocks at Bus Shelters

With BusTime set to expand citywide by the end of 2013, after launches in Staten Island, the Bronx and with pilot routes in Brooklyn and Manhattan, City Council members want to bring that technology to the streets — or more specifically, the bus stop — and are asking MTA, DOT and bus shelter operator Cemusa to help make it happen.

Council Member Brad Lander speaks at today's press conference. On the bus shelter behind him is a mock bus countdown clock. Photo: Stephen Miller

To that end, Council Member Brad Lander announced a resolution this afternoon at a bus stop outside City Hall, joined by representatives from Transportation Alternatives, the Straphangers Campaign, Riders Alliance and Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled.

With countdown clocks already available in many subway stations, Lander and advocates say bus riders deserve the same convenience, and that not everyone has access to a cell phone or the Internet before catching a bus.

“New Yorkers are an impatient people,” said John Raskin, of Riders Alliance. “We are not good at waiting. But we are much better at waiting when we know how long we have to wait.”

Lander’s office estimates that the counters cost between $4,000 and $6,000 to purchase and between $1,000 and $1,600 to maintain each year, based on figures from other cities with bus countdown clocks, including Washington, DC, Boston, Albany and Syracuse.

The MTA has argued that countdown clocks at bus stops provide marginal benefit to riders at relatively high costs, and is focused on rolling out its BusTime program citywide by the end of next year.

By that time, Lander would like a plan for bringing countdown clocks to the city’s 3,300 bus shelters. The route to achieving that goal is murky; Lander introduced the resolution to start the discussion.

Lander said that, ideally, revenue from advertising on countdown screens would fund the installation and maintenance of the clocks. If advertising could not cover all costs, he suggested they could be borne in part by Business Improvement Districts, council member discretionary funds or other local partners interested in bringing clocks to their areas. Lander added that bus countdown clocks were a popular idea during the last round of participatory budgeting in his district.

However they are funded, bus countdown clocks would have to go through the citywide street furniture contract held by Cemusa and managed by DOT. The contract does not specify the terms of how countdown clocks would be installed and would require negotiations between the city and Cemusa, according to the resolution.

“They need a brand new framework to do it,” Lander said. “They either need to reopen the Cemusa agreement, or establish a new agreement.”

DOT said it “is currently working on a project to bring real-time bus arrival information to bus stops around the city,” but would not provide details.

BusTime, a project of Streetsblog’s parent organization OpenPlans, makes the real-time locations of buses public, so users can see online or via text message how many stops away their ride is. Although the service does not provide an estimate of how long a rider will wait for a bus, bus location data is available to developers who are free to develop these services.

This isn’t the first time New York City has broached the development of bus countdown clocks, with unsuccessful attempts dating to 1996 and 2005:

Other sponsors of the resolution introduced today include Levin, Sara González and Vincent Gentile of Brooklyn and, from Staten Island, Debi Rose and Vincent Ignizio. Council Member James Oddo and transportation committee chair James Vacca were also named by Lander as supporters, though neither is listed as a co-sponsor.

Council Member Mark Weprin passed the press conference on his way to City Hall. Streetsblog asked if he would like to see bus countdown clocks in his district. “Absolutely,” he said. “How many hours do you spend out there in the cold and the rain? This way you can go get a cup of coffee.”

  • Benjamin Kabak

    This seems pretty straightforward to me. If Lander wants these countdown clocks — or bus-tracking systems — just find $20 million once and $5 million annually. It requires state action, not a press conference. 

  • Ari

    Before spending that kind of money, let’s first determine how many people really need the clocks at each station.  Internet access and smart phone technology is becoming so pervasive that countdown clocks at low volume shelters may not make sense.

  • Joe R.

    This is just a pointless waste of money. Even in the best case scenario, the countdown clocks will be estimates. In most cases with variable traffic patterns, passenger loads, and random red lights, the displayed time will have little bearing on when a bus will actually arrive. Countdown clocks are fine on subways, but they make no sense on congested bus routes.

  • guest

    This is dumb – MTA is working on putting GPS on every bus, and mobile apps will be able to track buses. Yes, it leaves out the population w/o smart phones, but it also allows the private sector to enter the fray, instead of giving one big contract to one big provider. 
    Also, the way MTA releases the information will allow businesses to put up TV screens with the info. 

  • Gary Reilly

    Unfortunately, state action often requires a few press conferences to be nudged into existence.

  • Smart phones are a nauseatingly class-bound way of conveying essential information.

    But this, incredibly, is worse: “Lander said that, ideally, revenue from advertising on countdown screens would fund the installation and
    maintenance of the clocks.”

    The notion that this kind of arrangement is anything like ideal is disgusting. That a huge city full of massive amounts of wealth needs to prostitute itself for something so basic should be repellent to anyone who lives here.

    I know, I know: “political realities.” But those realities are the result in no small part of weak, unprincipled advocacy.

  • Phil

    I agree that if the information is publically available, businesses can use it. If i’m a small shopowner, I would add an accurate schedule in my store through an internet connection and serve food/coffee to bus goers.

  • Ian Turner

    Why all this talk about smartphones? BusTime is available by text message, so we are actually talking about people with no mobile phone at all — a minority to be sure, in the age of Assurance Wireless.
    If access is still a concern, it may be cheaper to set up an IVR system and let people check the status by payphone, than to install these signs.

  • Anonymous

    I have a dumbphone and don’t pay for unlimited text. That means that it would probably cost me about $0.40 to send and receive a bus status message, adding 18% to the cost of a bus fare. Money that would go to the phone company. Multiply that by millions of messages, and I’d rather have the money go to the MTA to be used for installing real clocks. Not to mention the relative inconvenience of sending messages or even using a smartphone when compared with simply looking at a real clock.

  • Anthony Lamesa

    Wow, these are certainly NOT a waste of money.

    Bus travel — especially in NYC — is notoriously slow and unreliable. These countdown clocks make riding the bus tolerable. For example, you can determine which of several buses that might serve your destination will come first and then strategically decide on the best bus. Also, you can decide if it’s worth visiting another bus stop that might have another route serving your home if you see that your bus at a particular stop is not arriving for another 10 minutes.

    These countdown clocks are GREAT — and are a necessary feature of a world class transport system. In London, the countdown clocks make riding the bus almost as pleasant — if not more so given tube crowding — than the Underground.

  • Joe R.

    @2c92d92f4c15ded331899ce6e90d2287:disqus The countdown clocks might make sense if they gave accurate information but that’s not possible in NYC. You hit the nail on the head when you say bus travel in NYC is notoriously slow and unreliable. And that’s exactly why countdown clocks are worthless. What would the ETA be based on? You could use the average time it takes buses to traverse the various portions of the route but that could be wildly inaccurate for any one bus. Load one more passenger, get caught at another red light. Double-parked car-another red light. Disabled passenger-2 minutes delay loading and unloading them. So many things here to delay buses.

    Maybe this idea works in London because they used congestion pricing to control traffic levels, and also don’t have as many traffic lights which can cause random delays. NYC would need to do the same here to get bus running times more reliable before installing countdown clocks would even begin to make sense.

  • jrab

    I am a pleased user of the Bronx iteration of MTA Bus Time via text message. Send the stop code to 511-123 along with the bus line and you will get a message back with information about how far away the next couple buses are. The messages don’t give you the time it will take; that’s up to you to figure out how long “two stops” or “1.2 miles” will be.

    What the politicians don’t seem to understand about Bus Time is that the system is much more useful BEFORE you even get to the bus stop. Once you are at the bus stop, if you decide to run an errand or get a cup of coffee, you need to walk away from the bus stop and then back to the bus stop. If you use the phone-based system, you can pause on the way to the bus stop.

    Another advantage is that if you are transferring from one bus to another bus, you can check to see where the next bus is before you get off the first bus. Very useful if you want to get off a stop early in order to run a quick errand or just get some exercise along the lines of the NYC DOHMH recommendations.

  • Anonymous

    DC has countdown clocks for buses?

  • Steven

    Singapore uses text messages to relay the information.  Countdown clocks should only be used in the most limited circumstances / major hubs.  We build too much expensive / complex infrastructure that we won’t maintain.

  • Anonymous

    I agree with Jrab on this one.
    Some information is better than none.  If I can’t know exactly how many minutes to the next bus, I’d still rather know how far away it is than nothing at all.
    Also, agreed that having this info before you get to the stop is valuable.  Given the density and overlapping of bus lines with other lines, and with subways, there are often multiple alternatives located close by.  Knowing the relative arrival times of those options, or even just a likely order of arrival, is useful.

  • Mfs

    Lander said he’d put his member items towards installation if it was possible.

  • Andrew

    I agree wholehartedly.

    Another advantage is that if you are transferring from one bus to another bus, you can check to see where the next bus is before you get off the first bus. Very useful if you want to get off a stop early in order to run a quick errand or just get some exercise along the lines of the NYC DOHMH recommendations.

    Or if you have multiple transfer options, to different lines at different locations. As you approach each one, you can see where the next bus on that line is and plan your transfer strategy accordingly. If only we could look up subway arrival times in a similar fashion!

  • Andrew


  • Anonymous

    While I concede not everyone owns a smartphone, or even a cellphone, ultimately transit agencies with thin budgets need to prioritize certain information channels at expense of fringes who are “unplugged”. When smartphones have enough penetration among users, it might be the case transit agencies could consider them the standard medium to convey information. 

  • Ian Turner

    @qrt145:disqus : It might be feasible  for the MTA to work out a deal with transit agencies, so that BusTime text messages are free for users. Could still end up cheaper than building out signs.

  • Yes, they are NextBus signs.


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