MTA Finds Replacement for Flashing Lights on Select Bus Service

When Select Bus Service launched in 2008, the front of each bus featured two flashing blue lights to help passengers distinguish between SBS and local buses. Years after Staten Island lawmakers exploited a legal technicality, forcing the MTA to shut the lights off, the agency has figured out a solution.

With flashing blue lights no longer an option, the MTA is changing the destination displays at the top of each Select Bus Service vehicle. Photo: Brad Aaron

The lights are important because they help people determine whether an approaching bus is an SBS vehicle, which riders have to pay for before boarding, or if it’s a local bus with on-board fare payment. With no way to distinguish between the two, passengers take longer to board and bus trips get slowed down.

Later this summer, the MTA will change the front-facing destination displays on SBS buses to distinguish them from local buses. The new signs will likely use different colors than the MTA’s default orange or yellow signs, and they may also flash to be more visible to riders at bus stops.

The first route to receive the new lights will be the M15 SBS on First and Second avenues, according to minutes from the Manhattan Community Board 6 transportation committee [PDF]. CB 6 has been leading the charge to get the flashing SBS lights restored. The MTA will make a formal announcement about the change soon, said agency spokesperson Kevin Ortiz.

The original flashing blue lights operated without incident, starting in 2008. Then in 2012 SBS came to Staten Island, where local elected officials pointed to a state law limiting the use of flashing blue lights to volunteer firefighters and other emergency responders.

Even though the lights hadn’t been a problem, the Staten Island pols claimed the “partially blinding” lights confused their constituents and created “apprehension and undue distraction” for drivers, who might think an MTA bus was actually a volunteer firefighter and become “desensitized” to blue lights.

Albany could have rewritten the law to restore the flashing blue lights, but bills from State Senator Jeffrey Klein and former Assembly Member Micah Kellner stalled last year, leaving the MTA to come up with a new solution.

  • Hooray, I guess. This is the least enthusiastic I could be over what sounds like a pale imitation of something that was very useful.

  • This is such a laughably bad compromise, and it really angers me because SI opposition to the flashing lights is 100% symptomatic of why NYC is falling so behind in the transit realm these days. Pathetic.

  • Joe R.

    What about something like green or violet? Those are both colors which can’t be confused with anything else on motor vehicles, particularly if you make them flashing.

  • Brian Howald

    Is there a reason that they could not use solid blue lights? It’s a lot easier to discern the flashing obviously, but was it tested?

  • Mark Walker

    I wonder how this could change things for the color blind — for the better, for the worse, or not at all?

  • Alexander Vucelic

    can’t we just give SI to New Jersey ?

  • BBnet3000

    AC Transit does this in the Bay Area and it seems to make their limited stop buses (which they call “Rapid”) identifiable.

  • c2check

    We shouldn’t need flashing blue lights—We should have off-board fare payment all over the system, or at least RFID cards already.

  • Right? How many years did we waste trying to figure out a way around this? While other bus improvements and signage languish or aren’t even on the table. Systems (DC, SF to name two) have on board LEDs to announce the coming streets, which makes riding the bus so easier. MPLS has arrival clocks for their rapid buses (I’m sure SF does by now too, they were testing it in the early 00s when I lived there). We can’t innovate or even catch up if we are playing political whack-a-mole (CBs, Pols).

  • I must say, I really don’t get this. Stopping the use of flashing lights seems to be nothing more than spite from these politicians. Which is really sad. When people make things worse out of spite, they’re the worst types of human beings. That being said, I’ve never used this system, is the flashing light really that important. The buses have a big display on the front, can it not say SBS right there? Buses already have a good for of communication between the bus and those outside. And if lights really are needed, and blue is not permitted, there’s a whole bunch of other colours of the rainbow that could have been tried. Am I missing something? Why is this difficult?

  • al

    One could’ve solved this quickly with either a LED sign mounted on the front of the bus or a bulb change out. If the bus was running SBS, the bus driver flips a switch, and the bright bulbs, running steady state, would supplement the daytime running lights and increase its visibility.

  • It’s just tragic that the structure of U.S. laws makes this impossible. The few examples of changing state borders either happenned before one of the units became a state (Michigan Territory ceding Toledo to the state of Ohio in the 1830s), or were part of an extra-legal event during wartime (the creation of West Virginia out of Virginia during the Civil War), or affected no residents (the Supreme Court creating a recognised state border between New York and New Jersey on Ellis Island in 1998).

    The only occasion of a populated place changing from one existing state to another existing state that I know of was in the 1850s when the town of Boston Corner in Massachusetts — located not near Boston, but on the western edge of the state — switched from Massachusetts to New York. The town was cut off by forests from the rest of Massacusetts, and had become a lawless and dangerous place. So the residents asked to join New York, and both states agreed. I am not sure, but I don’t think that such a switch could happen today, even if all parties (the local population and both state governments) were in favour of it.

    Anyway, I’d settle for getting Staten Island out of New York City; but even their seceeding from our City is horribly difficult. When the secession movement was at its height in the late 80s, I was hoping that it would happen. But, for some reason, the City government was against it. We’d have a much better city without Staten Island. For one thing, we’d never have had Giuliani; and we’d have much less obstructionism to worthwhile policies and programs.

  • Bolwerk

    It shouldn’t be expelled. It should be colonized and civilized using tendrils from the Subway system!

  • Impossible. It would take a lot more than a subway connection to civilise that wasteland.

    I say cut it loose.

  • Bolwerk

    It could really be handy given this city’s housing crunch.

  • DragonflyBeach

    So I don’t understand this at all? Is the MTA trying to make limited routes? Why all the flashing lights and stuff, just put an ‘L’ in front of the destination sign. I didn’t know express/limited buses are hard concepts.

  • ohhleary

    They are when they share the same stops but have different forms of payment. Select Bus Service buses require someone to swipe their Metrocard and get a receipt before boarding; local buses require someone to swipe their Metrocard as they board the bus.

    If you’re waiting for whatever bus arrives first, you won’t have enough time to get your receipt once an SBS bus pulls up. If a local bus pulls up first and you’ve already swiped for an SBS receipt, you’ll have to pay a second time on a pay-per-ride card to board the local bus.

    SBS is different from Limited Stop and Express Bus service.

  • Yes, but that doesn’t take account of the current residents, who are just as hostile to affordable housing and to urban-level density as they are to everything else that characterises a city. The sad fact is that that place has already develped along suburban lines; as such, it is a terrible fit for the entity of New York City. Let them be a real suburb.

    Now, if you are fantasising about some kind of programme which would remove the current residents, blanket the island with subways, and turn the whole thing over actual New Yorkers, then I can dream along with you on that.

  • John Fisher

    All the MTA has to do is put a red gel, or transparent red paint over the blue lights, and voila, they will be purple lights. No emergency vehicles that I know of have purple lights. And it would cost virtually nothing. Do it.

  • Honkingeese Watchgoose lll

    How fucking ridiculous. Banning blue lights…..which worked like a beaut.


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