How Transit Agencies Can Stop Worrying and Love Bus Network Redesigns

The MTA is preparing a major bus network overhaul on Staten Island, and more changes could be coming to the rest of NYC.

The MTA's overhaul of the Staten Island express bus network, set to take effect in 2018, will increase service frequency on key routes, simplify routes so buses make fewer turns, and reduce the number of stops in both Manhattan and Staten Island. Image: MTA
The MTA's overhaul of the Staten Island express bus network, set to take effect in 2018, will increase service frequency on key routes, simplify routes so buses make fewer turns, and reduce the number of stops in both Manhattan and Staten Island. Image: MTA

More American cities are coming to grips with the fact that their bus networks leave a lot to be desired. Routes haven’t changed in decades and no longer align with population and employment patterns. Service is allocated inefficiently, arrives too infrequently, and doesn’t connect people to the places they want to go.

Redesigning bus networks, like Houston did in 2015, promises to make transit more useful to more people by expanding where and when they can catch buses that arrive frequently. But it can also make people angry.

Modifying routes and eliminating bus stops unmoors people from their routines, and that won’t sit well with everyone. In Baltimore, a bus network overhaul (which was presented as a consolation prize after Governor Larry Hogan cancelled a light rail project) met with staunch opposition from both riders and operators.

Policy makers who’ve gone through bus network redesigns say some contentiousness is unavoidable, but a well-run process can work through that and ensure that the final plan emerges better for it. Last night, TransitCenter hosted officials from NYC, Houston, Richmond, and Los Angeles for a discussion of bus network redesigns and how to do them right. (Video from the event is available on Periscope.)

By their nature, bus network redesigns create tradeoffs, so it’s important that the improvements feel worth it for riders. And that, said Houston Metro board member Christof Spieler, requires having frank, in-depth conversations with transit riders, not just talking at them.

“I think that’s a kind of conversation transit agencies aren’t used to having,” he said. “We tend to talk in these very generic terms, like, ‘We are trying to improve mobility.’ That’s a meaningless phrase.”

Houston’s network redesign succeeded in part because it touched every corner of the city. “Just about every rider gets a benefit, even if their bus stop might be going away or their route is further away, the rest of their trip is getting better,” Spieler said.

You also have to anticipate and brace for a certain amount of pushback and stress throughout the process. “The agency staff alone can’t do it,” Spieler said. “You need decision makers who are willing to give the staff the room to operate and are willing to get yelled at a lot, in order to actually implement it.”

In New York, the MTA is starting with Staten Island. Its relatively small population and self-contained bundle of bus services makes it a good testing ground for redesigning the bus network.

The impetus for the redesign came from conversations with Borough President James Oddo, who remains supportive as the MTA has revealed concrete plans. Agency officials have been meticulous in their outreach, conducting in-person surveys and workshops and presenting the initiative to the editorial board of the Staten Island Advance.

“We’re using the local political network as part of our early outreach,” said MTA Senior Director for Bus Planning Sarah Wyss. The goal is to create a “sense of ownership” among Staten Island residents and leadership.

Advocates have called on the MTA to extend the bus network redesign throughout the other four boroughs. Wyss seemed receptive to the idea while cautioning that it will be more complex than the undertaking on Staten Island.

“Certainly we do need to look at all of our service,” she said. “What we would be really looking at is one network at a time, and the networks don’t necessarily line up with the borough boundaries.”

  • Samuelitooooo

    Are local buses in Staten Island getting the redesign too? Last I checked, it was only the express buses, and the comparison maps reflect exactly what was recommended by MTA for express buses, where they offered no proposals (yet) for local buses.

  • The plan for express buses has been released. The plan for local buses is still a work in progress.

  • Is New Jersey still uncharted territory? Or is there some law banning people who live in one state from working or shopping in the other.

  • rao

    Please don’t oversell bus network redesigns. The Houston system is bleeding riders, including on the core high-frequency routes. The decline is likely due mainly to regional job loss, but it’s clear that the large increases in ridership projected by staff were totally unrealistic. The one bright spot is that the redesign does seem to have boosted weekend ridership.

  • sbauman

    The big difference between NYC and the successes mentioned in the article is the short length of the average bus trip. This is because 75% of NYC residents live within 1/2 mile of a subway stop. Strategies that try to increase bus speed by reducing the number of bus stops, tend to increase total travel time. That’s not a recipe to gain passengers.

    Bus use has been in decline for decades. The Metrocard free transfer halted the decline for a while. However, it’s again declining. Given the short travel distances, active transportation like cycling, might be a better alternative. It would certainly be less expensive and less polluting.

  • Danny

    Seriously. An express bus from Atlantic Terminal, Brooklyn to Secaucus Junction, New Jersey would be pretty useful. (A direct train connection would be even better if you don’t like carrying luggage on stairs but let’s start with a bus.) The existence of a reliable and convenient Bklyn-NJ transit connection, together with viable last-mile options like local transit, Uber/Lyft, and bike lane networks would allow thousands of people to sell their cars.

  • 6SJ7

    When it comes to altering or expanding the local bus routes the MTA is limited by the lack of a boro-wide street grid on Staten Island and few wide 2-way streets.

    Supposedly the SI Railway Dongan Hills station was made wheelchair-accessible with the intent of extending the S52 bus from SIUH along Seaview Ave to Richmond Rd and back via Garettson Ave. That was about 20 years ago and the proposed S52 extension idea seems to have faded away.

    A east-west cross-island route from the South Avenue/Teleport office complex to somewhere on the east shore (New Dorp?) is another idea frequently mentioned. The problem there is narrow Travis Avenue which floods out after even a moderate rainfall.

    The 1969 SI bus map and a ‘Motor Coach Age’ 1973 history of SI bus routes (pdf) –

  • 6SJ7

    Last January I attended one of the SI bus workshops. I suggested an SI NJ express bus roue for the increasing numbers of Staten Islander who work at finance jobs in Jersey City. The MTA rep said that the MTA’s primary mission was transit within the MTA region but that didn’t meant that such a route couldn’t be developed in the future, just not now.

  • mfs

    I found this idea really appealing until I looked up the car vs transit times:

    Leaving right now transit beats a car by 10 min. That doesn’t meant that good bus lane policies wouldn’t make it work, or that there isn’t an advantage to a one-seat ride, but time savings aren’t there.

  • Hoboken Urbanist

    I’d kill for a redesign of NJ’s local bus system