MTA Has Good Ideas, But No Plan, to Turn Around NYC Bus Service

Bus ridership is falling. What will the MTA do to turn that around? Image: MTA
Bus ridership is falling. What will the MTA do to turn that around? Image: MTA

If the first step to better citywide bus service is admitting that NYC has a problem, yesterday’s MTA Board meeting was a breakthrough. Faced with a concerted campaign to reverse the cycle of slower buses and falling ridership, the MTA is starting to acknowledge that it needs to take bolder steps to make buses faster and more reliable.

At the board meeting, MTA Chief of Operations Planning Peter Cafiero presented a set of strategies to address falling bus ridership [PDF]. The ideas echoed messages from the Bus Turnaround Coalition, which came out with recommendations to improve bus service last summer. What’s still lacking is a comprehensive implementation plan.

The MTA wants to expand improvements currently concentrated on Select Bus Service routes — like bus lanes, faster fare collection, and bus priority at traffic signals — throughout the bus network. Cafiero said the agency is working with the city to identify locations that could benefit from either full SBS or pieces of the SBS toolkit.

Currently, bus lanes are in place for only 5 percent of the citywide bus network, said Cafiero, and many don’t work very well. The M101 Lexington Avenue bus lane, he noted, is filled with delivery vehicles and therefore “really never is effective.”

Cafiero seemed to favor speeding up the boarding process with a citywide proof-of-payment system, instead of the one-MetroCard-at-a-time process that bogs down buses today, though he didn’t commit to it. In a departure from previous MTA statements, he did not cite fare evasion as a reason to avoid proof-of-payment.

“We need to study how to make our new open payment system compatible with proof-of-payment,” Cafiero said.

Cafiero also said the MTA wants to “right-size” its bus network and “shift resources from declining routes to areas and routes that are growing and need additional buses.”

The presentation was a palpable departure from previous MTA statements brushing off the urgency of addressing systemwide problems with bus service, but as board member Veronica Vanterpool pointed out, the agency didn’t furnish a timeline or work plan to implement these strategies.

A firm timetable could help avoid dragging out implementation for years. Witness the rollout of transit signal priority, which holds green lights for approaching buses and has been shown to improve travel times 10 percent. The MTA says it’s moving to equip the entire fleet with TSP and will work with DOT to determine which signals will prioritize buses. But TSP has already been a long time coming.

Two years ago, three routes had the technology, and today only five are equipped with TSP (there are plans for the M60 and Q44 to receive it this year). Last year the agency purchased 75 buses with on-board Wi-Fi but no signal priority tech.

  • Vincent Howland

    Even on non-select routes, having kiosks for on-street fares would speed up boarding a lot. Most of the time is spent waiting for people to insert and withdraw metro cards. If the city prioritized the select kiosks before the select buses, we’d see marginal improvements without any particularly expensive implementation. In order to really make this work, make the fare at the kiosk $0.10 cheaper and/or apply a small coupon to future monthly cards for cumulative kiosk uses.

    Obviously all-door boarding and clean bus lanes are the real prizes, though. I ride the Bx41 (which has a bus lane down Webster Ave) frequently, and the most common violators of the bus lane are actually the NYPD at the police station near Botanical Garden. I’ve never NOT seen patrol cars (and there’s usually a dumpster, for some reason) parked in the bus lane, which creates a significant bottleneck and materially slows down the route.

  • Larry Littlefield

    That chart says it all. If the MTA didn’t in effect make the bus free for people who otherwise would have walked farther, or just paid to take the subway both ways instead of taking the bus in one direction for a one-fare round trip, bus ridership would have fallen consistently since 1969.

  • crazytrainmatt

    Re: the precinct by the Botanical Garden

    Despite having a dedicated parking lot above (accessed from the Mosholu overpass), they constantly park personal vehicles on the sidewalk outside. This blocks the Mosholu greenway which, to a first approximation, is the only safe bike route in the Bronx.

  • HamTech87

    Whether it is bike lanes or bus lanes, the real solutions require a serious effort at parking reform.

  • Larry Littlefield

    There is also the matter of money.

    “Cafiero also said the MTA wants to ‘right-size’ its bus network.”

    In Boston, they are talking about ending commuter rail on the weekend.

    At the peak of an economic expansion, which favored New York and Boston over other metro areas and the cities over the suburbs. With a tax burden for NYC that is higher than just about anywhere and higher than it used to be. And less money for the poor than there used to be.

    Where is all the money going? Who benefitted? How did we get here? Who decided? Questions that should be asked, all over the country.

  • Andrew

    In a departure from previous MTA statements, he did not cite fare evasion as a reason to avoid proof-of-payment.

    He pointed to the $700k/route cost of enforcement in order to deter fare evasion.

  • Andrew

    If off-board fare payment is optional, what’s to stop someone from boarding without paying and then, if inspected, claiming that he paid the higher fare on the bus? Inspections only work if every paying rider has proof of payment.

    The fare machines and the enforcement personnel are the expensive implementation. Worthwhile, perhaps (and certainly on busy routes with heavy boarding at each stop), but expensive.

  • sbauman

    The MTA document presents several solutions in search of a problem. Their approach is backwards but that’s a common fault.

    The MTA should start with analyzing their ridership. They might try to determine the disparity in the decline between the different boroughs for clues.

    One fact they might consider, especially since subway ridership is increasing is how close the subway is. Here’s the answer:

    Manhattan: 0.15 mi
    Brooklyn: 0.29 mi
    Bronx: 0.33 mi
    Queens: 0.93 mi
    Staten Is: 1.34 mi.

    Any similarity to the decline in bus use?

    I’m certain the MTA’s response will be to close subway stations in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx, to make subway use as inconvenient as it is in Queens and Staten Island. That strategy should reverse the decline in bus use.

  • Andrew

    Did you bother to listen to Cafiero, or even to skim through the presentation? The decline in bus ridership is much stronger on routes that have subway alternatives than on ones that don’t, and he acknowledges that, to the extent that bus riders have been shifting to the subway because they find the subway faster and more reliable, that’s a good thing.

    Don’t worry, he isn’t going to close subway stations in order to boost bus ridership, and that’s a pretty strange conclusion to reach in light of Cafiero’s explicit comments.

  • Vincent Howland

    idk what it’s like in your neighborhood, but I’ve never had a select bus fare checked on board.

    fare inspection doesn’t seem like a reasonable idea to me; you have to have an extra employee on every bus, and given how frequent stops are, it doesn’t seem like people would actually get checked fast enough, especially if the bus is crowded (and many are).

    Even now, on the non-select buses, fare avoidance is pretty easy. People enter through the rear door or just walk past the driver (what’s the driver going to do?).

  • war_on_hugs

    Proof of payment uses random spot checks, not an extra employee on every bus. As you said, fare evasion is already somewhat common (though not pervasive), and research shows that the percentage of fare evaders doesn’t see a significant change regardless of what system is used. (You can look up the experience of SF’s Muni system when they switched.)

    Plus, as you mentioned, it takes away a major conflict point between drivers and (some) passengers.

  • Vincent Howland

    yeah I don’t think it’s any better or worse on select, and I’ve never seen a random spot check.

    you do have to wonder why every discussion of the bus system devolves into “but what about fare evasion” instead of “how do we get people from A to B”. Fare evasion is a fact of life, a slow bus system is not.

  • Fare evasion is a legitimate concern because fares are so important for the MTA’s coffers. Unfortunately, the solution to this problem — namely, paying enough in taxes to fund mass transit entirely without having fares — is completely undoable according to the bizarre standards by which American politics operate.

  • Andrew

    The idea behind proof-of-payment is that fare inspections are infrequent, yet still frequent enough to adequately deter fare evasion. On SBS buses, I’m typically asked to show my ticket one ride out of every 10, maybe 15. There’s certainly no expectation of an inspector on each bus!

    Fare evasion is lower on SBS than on traditional buses in New York, since, as you say, it’s so easy to fare-evade on traditional buses – but that advantage would shrivel up without enforcement on SBS.

  • Andrew

    Because transit agencies need to pay for their service somehow, and one major source of operating funding is farebox revenue. Without any enforcement whatsoever, fare evasion would go way up and the transit agency wouldn’t be able to pay for the service (let alone any additional service required to accommodate new riders attracted by the “free” “fare”).

    Fare evasion will always happen to some extent, but it can be kept manageably low with adequate enforcement. By no means is fare evasion merely a fact of life.

    (Do you also complain about supermarkets not gladly offering to give away free food to all who aren’t in the mood to pay? Should supermarkets consider shoplifting a fact of life or are they entitled to look for ways to curb it?)

  • Andrew

    Why don’t you believe that people who use transportation resources should pay for those services in approximate relation to the degree to which they use it? Yours isn’t the approach we take to far more basic necessities, such as food and shelter.

  • Jason

    What are the fines if you get caught? You have to pair the frequent-enough enforcement with meaningful fines for getting caught. I remember when I was in Heidelberg a few years ago the penalty for Schwarzfahren was €40. Not a crippling penalty, but not a penalty that you want to get stuck with either.

  • Andrew

    I can’t speak from experience. My vague recollection is that the fine went up to $150 or so around when the SBS program started.

  • Because a transit system serves the general interest, and the broad availability of a good transit network benefits the entire society — including individuals who never use the system.

    Quality transit benefits the local economy by promoting easy mobility, thereby faclitating access to jobs, and encouraging firms to set up shop and provide more jobs that people will want access to.

    The mobility provided by a quality transit network is a general boon to the civic culture and to the morale of the populace. People can easily travel to and experience the various sections of their city; this increases their sense of identifying with that city, which, in turn, motivates them to particpate in civic life and politics, and to work for their city’s betterment.

    In addition, a thorough mass transit system helps arrest the increase in air pollution; every person it lures out of his/her car is a step in the right direction in the fight against pollution.

    And every car removed from the road by someone opting for mass transit reduces congestion for the necessary vehicles (delivery vehicles; emergency vehiciles; the vehicles of people whose jobs require the hauling of tools or gear) as well as for the cars of people who drive because the transit network doesn’t reach where they live or work.

    You wouldn’t want to pay a fare to use the city’s streets. Well, just as you assume that the building and maintence of the street network is a matter that should be paid for entirely by taxes because it benefits everyone, likewise should the building and maintenence of a transit network be paid for by taxes.

    Mass transit is a public good. A society run by sane people would find nothing controversial in the notion of public money being used in order to pay for a public good, as that is the precise purpose of taxes.

  • Joe R.

    I have to agree with Ferdinand here. In order for public transit to be truly “public”, the ability to use it shouldn’t depend upon the ability to pay. While certainly true that those who use it more will derive more benefit from free transit, the fact is others will benefit also if the frequent users replace driving with transit use.

    Free transit will also mean jobs which perhaps weren’t worthwhile to commute to are now suddenly viable. I recall being in exactly this position in college. Summer jobs at the time paid perhaps $4 an hour. That would have been about $140 after income and payroll taxes. However, I lived in a double carfare zone. Just getting to work would have cost me $3 a day, or $15 a week. This would have left me with only $125 a week. Subtract lunch from that and I was probably left with under $110. Remember even if I kept the full $160 a week I earned working was still a marginal proposition given that work plus commuting would eat up 50+ hours per week. The taxes and subway fare tipped the scales in favor of not working when I would have been lucky to clear not much over $1,000 for 10 weeks of work, but essentially would have given up my summer vacation. Much the same calculus is still true for people earning minimum wage, or perhaps those paid $2 or $3 an hour off the books. $27.50 a week for carfare is a big percentage of their take-home pay. It could tip the scales into making people decide it’s better to just collect welfare, or sponge off relatives, than to work. Free carfare at least removes that excuse.

    Those better off still benefit from free public transit. That money which would be spent on transit fares is instead spent on other things. This generates jobs and taxes, partially offsetting the costs of paying for transit.

    Finally, under a “free” system paid for entirely by taxes, the government has greater incentive to control costs. They no longer have to listen to those who say we can absorb increased costs by just continually raising fares. There would be a real incentive to get rid of dead-wood administrators in patronage positions, take the hard line negotiating with unions, use labor saving measures, and so forth. None of that exists today.

  • David Weinkrantz

    In 1967 the New York State Legislature enacted the Taylor Law, which enabled the unionization of public employees in New York State. Then the unions started making donations to the election campaigns of (now) state legislators and governors.

    The result “a tax burden for NYC that is higher than just about anywhere and higher
    than it used to be. And less money for the poor than there used to be.”

  • Yigal

    No Bus lanes will help. NYC MTA drivers just don’t want to get to the destination and purposly stop, miss lights and don’t drive even if they have a special bus lane they pretend they don’t have “room” to pass and just wait in traffic.
    The only way to solve it is riders to stand up and tell the drivers we need to get to work and not taking it as a tour bus – I encourage you all to video on cell phones and post to shame those drivers!