The Most Important Bus Routes in NYC Tend to Perform the Worst for Riders

The M79 moves slower than flowing lava, reports the Straphangers Campaign. Photo: Kris Arnold/Flickr

The slowest bus in New York City is the M79, and the least reliable is the local M15, according to the Straphangers Campaign and Transportation Alternatives, which today awarded these two routes the “uncoveted” Pokey and Schleppie awards, respectively.

On weekdays at noon, Straphangers measured the crosstown M79 at an average speed of 3.2 miles per hour, slower than many people walk. On the M15 local, meanwhile, 33 percent of buses don’t arrive anywhere close to the posted schedule, meaning they’re either bunched tightly together or spread far apart, forcing riders to wait.

The Pokey and Schleppie call attention each year to bus service that gets bogged down by city traffic or delays caused by an inefficient fare payment system. Usually, it’s the bus routes with the most passengers that rank lowest in terms of speed and reliability, because they tend to travel on highly trafficked streets and spend a lot of time stopped as people pay to board.

The M15 local has some of the highest ridership of any local route in Manhattan, and the bus routes that Straphangers and TA singled out for poor performance in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island (the Bx19, Bx15, B41, B44, Q58, S48/98, and S78) all have a lot of passengers relative to most other routes in those boroughs. (With about 17,000 average weekday trips, the M79 has substantial but not exceptional ridership for Manhattan.) The takeaway is that the most important bus routes in the city tend to perform the worst for transit riders.

One clear solution, Straphangers and TA point out, is to extend Select Bus Service features like dedicated transit lanes and off-board fare collection to more routes. Mayor de Blasio has pledged to bring “world-class” bus rapid transit to New York, with 13 new routes in four years, and the recent MTA Reinvention Commission report suggested that non-SBS routes should also get off-board fare collection to improve speed and reliability.

SBS features have significantly sped up buses and attracted new riders on several routes, but the unreliability of the M15 and B44 — both operating in exclusive bus lanes along much of their routes — suggests more can be done to improve these bus lines. Double-parked vehicles can still obstruct the city’s bus lanes; passengers on local buses along SBS routes still pay when they board; and passenger confusion about which buses are local and which are “Select” may be having an effect as well. Thanks to Staten Island pols, SBS buses no longer have flashing blue lights to help riders distinguish between the two.

  • HamTech87

    Can’t they have flashing green lights? Or some other color?

  • jt

    I used to take the M79 and it was crazy how slow it was. There would be little old ladies walking cross town as fast as the bus. Or more accurately, the bus would get ahead of them when it was moving, then they’d get ahead while the bus was stopped and loading/unloading. Part of it was that the buses were so full it took a long time to load up. I think more buses would help. Or a real bus lane.

  • BBnet3000

    The two problems with De Blasio’s SBS pledge are:

    1) He’s failing miserably at attaining it
    2) Its led to a complete lack of improvement of “regular” bus routes

    Proof of payment fare collection is a no-brainer, and is done all over the world, including San Francisco. It will be especially easy to do once we get a new fare payment card, where you could tag at any door AFTER getting on.

    3.7mph crosstown… wow. Its too bad the Mayor also doesn’t want to encourage cycling, which would easily allow most people to double or triple that speed AND get them right to their destination, saving even more time.

  • Bolwerk

    Surprise: behemoth vehicles blow at passing each other. The express (SBS) should certainly have a dedicated lane, and the local probably should too.

  • Bolwerk

    He probably never intended to attain it. He’s ambivalent at best about most of the things he promised the plebes.

    I know the NIH is strong in the MTA, but I can’t for the life of me understand the opposition to POP either. Usually when you propose a reform, at least some stakeholder loses something and will want to stall it. In the case of POP, I can’t see a single loser.

  • Andres Dee

    Sorry, flashing green lights are reserved for volunteer road-kill scavengers in Anatevka County. Someone might see flashing green lights and mistakenly get out of the bus lane.

  • Andres Dee

    All Manhattan crosstown lines should be converted to off-board fare collection ASAP. Skip the planning for bus lanes, etc. Just stop collecting fares one-by-one. Please.

  • ahwr

    It will be especially easy to do once we get a new fare payment card

    Sounds like a reason they might want to hold off on setting up POP.

  • ahwr

    You don’t need two lanes. One lane plus stops for the buses to pull into is enough. Double length stops if space for two to berth at once is needed. There’s no reason for buses to pass each other except at a stop.

  • BBnet3000

    I tend to think so, BUT we should be prepared to go POP on launch of a new fare card, not 6 months or a year or two after.

    “Board all doors and tag on board” window stickers will take at least a year or two to procure so we’d better start now.

  • BBnet3000

    Part of the point for a bus lane is to avoid the bus pulling over to stop. I don’t think two lanes is really necessary though.

  • Bolwerk

    There certainly is if locals and expresses are sharing a route. That’s better than nothing, but locals on Manhattan avenues stop every 2-3 blocks, so pulling out for stops is effectively reducing car lane capacity by two lanes without giving buses two lanes.

    I’d rather see locals dumped entirely, but that’s probably politically infeasible. But I don’t think mixed traffic is going to kill them either, though mixed traffic is detrimental to reliable express service.

  • Bolwerk

    They shouldn’t do that whether they have their own lane or not. Streetcar operations that operate in mixed traffic set the pace, and traffic behind them waits. NYC buses should do the same.

  • Bolwerk

    BBnet is right. It’s fair to wait the rest of the Metrocard’s life out, but they don’t even seem to be considering it at all.

    And it’s better to figure something out sooner than later because, at this point, every year we wait is a year where buses come into service that aren’t provisioned to deal with POP. The MetroCard probably will be dead by the time they go out of service.

  • ahwr

    If a local isn’t stopped to let people on or off why would another local, an express, a limited or an SBS bus be passing it?

    If you have two bus lanes are they on opposite sides of the streets? What about people that can any bus on the road, or transfer from one to another? You’d be removing curb access on the entire street too, that’s a harder sell politically. Do you put in a sidewalk/bus stop in the middle of the road to have them both on one side of the street? That increases the foot print of the project to three lanes.

    Take two lanes. One for buses to travel in, the curbside lane you have bus stops. They don’t need the whole block though. That leaves you with a lot of real estate. You could have room for trucks to make deliveries – cameras can be used to make sure they only drive in the bus lane for the block they need to be there, that they yield to buses etc…You could have room for food trucks, or pop up retail spots. Extra sidewalk space. Bike racks etc…By why waste all that space on two lanes of asphalt, no bus corridor away from the lincoln tunnel would see a substantial improvement from having two bus travel lanes over one. Space is limited, use it for other things.

  • ahwr

    You don’t need streetcars, some cities install bulb outs at bus stops without installing rails.

  • Bolwerk

    Who said anything needing streetcars? You don’t even need a bulb.

  • Bolwerk

    When there are two different highly frequent services, there’s no way they aren’t going to interfere with each other if they share a lane. If pulling out doesn’t bungle things sometimes, pulling back into the flow of traffic will.

    I’m ambivalent about center-running. May make sense on Woodhaven, but on First Ave? I’d think two side lanes would be fine on the same side. Yes, you’d probably need to cross the local lane to get to an express island stop, which would happen every 6-8 blocks or whatever. Otherwise the sidewalk basically suffices as a stop for locals, so it’s not that much less space-efficient.

    Not to bash your scheme. It works better than the status quo for sure and probably is worth accepting if it’s the best that can be done.

  • ahwr

    Which corridor would typical runtime increase by 60 seconds per run with my proposed setup over yours? Where does the delay come from?

  • Bolwerk

    The line in question was the M15. Gonna guess it sees peak usage of well over 40 BPH. Big, lumbering articulated vehicles that are slow to transition between lanes. .

    All it takes to meet your criteria is, say, an average of four merges causing 15 seconds of lost time. Or, going by your original description, any number of problems possible by berthing buses together that don’t adhere to the same stopping patterns on the given segment.

  • Andrew

    Before reading too much into this, look at the methodology.

    First: only a small number of bus routes were even considered – 34 for the Pokey and 42 for the Schleppie.

    Second: the Pokey numbers were based on a single round trip on each line, taken in the midday. These surveys were taken between May 20 and August 21 – i.e., some while school was in session and some while school was out of session, some in one of the heaviest ridership months of the year (May) and others in the lowest ridership month of the year (August).

    The Schleppie numbers, which are based on official NYCT performance reporting, are meaningful if not complete. (That is, we don’t actually know that the M15 is the most unreliable route in the city – we just know that it’s the most unreliable of the 42 considered.)

    The Pokey numbers, on the other hand, are completely and utterly meaningless. The specific round trip that the surveyor happened to catch on the M79 (perhaps on a busy day in May) happened to be slower than the single round trips that the surveyors happened to catch on each of the other 33 lines considered (many of them on low-ridership, low-traffic days in August).

    I appreciate the sentiment, but this is bunk.

  • ahwr

    peak usage of well over 40 BPH


    Which sixty minute period has 40 buses?

    15 Second delay to merge into a bus lane that doesn’t see a bus every minute? That’s way overestimating it.

    What problems? I said you would have multiple berths.

  • Canarsie Yankee

    That’s actually most of the time en route.

  • qrt145

    I prefer to see this as a humorous way of pointing out that our buses suck. All of them. Which one is the exact winner doesn’t matter that much.

    Even with the lack of precision, the fact that one bus trip can have an average speed of 3.2 mph is disturbing. Even if it was on a “bad day” (unless you have the luck of measuring on a REALLY bad day, such as the gridlock after certain hurricane…)

  • Bolwerk

    Oh, the 40 BPH number is apparently from before articulateds were introduced. I figured the number would have grown since. My mistake, but it doesn’t change much.

    Might be way underestimating it, especially the 15 seconds and probably the number of times there is an interference. There is an opportunity to interfere every time one vehicle needs to pass another that wants to merge. The locals stop every 2-3 blocks, the expresses could hopefully stay at speed for 6-8 blocks. Probably there is also some chance of interference when locals *leave* the flow of traffic to pull into a stop expresses don’t use.

    I took multiple berths to mean buses queue at stops. It has many obvious problems: a bus at the back berth might need to be passed or waited on. One might be trapped waiting because the one behind it left first. They probably can’t adhere to schedules well enough to arrive at different times or to make sure a local always arrives behind an express.

    Did you mean multiple platforms? I didn’t think so, because you seem to want to conserve lanes.

  • Bolwerk

    I don’t know, Straphangers does seem to have a tendency to be pretty pseudo-scientific. Even when they arguably describe a problem in a way that gets reliable, predictable results, I could question the validity of those results. It’s relatively easy to quantitatively compare routes, but it’s much harder to qualitatively compare routes. And sometimes they seem to just want to piss on the MTA, even when the MTA is probably doing the best it is allowed to do.

    That said, they picked routes that obviously have severe issues.

  • YES UN
    YES #CameronOut #MerkelOut NO I$I$ R€GIM€$

  • Andrew

    Humorous, sure, but borderline dishonest. Frankly, I’m more than a bit surprised that Streetsblog reports on this as it does, as if it’s a meaningful analysis.

    The M79 is a relatively short route, so even a brief traffic jam, our a wheelchair or two, can have a major impact on average speed.


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