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MTA and DOT Aren’t Acting Fast Enough to Turn Around NYC Bus Service

New buses are nice, but without improvements like all-door boarding and transit signal priority, they don’t make service faster or more reliable. Photo: Flickr/NY Governor’s Office

The slower New York City bus service becomes, the faster the MTA and DOT should act to improve speeds and reliability. But neither agency has responded to the decline of bus service with the urgency the situation demands, according to a report card that transit advocates released this morning.

A year ago, transit advocates launched the Bus Turnaround Campaign with six key recommendations for the MTA, which operates the buses, and DOT, which manages city streets. In the first annual evaluation of the agencies' progress on bus improvements, the Bus Turnaround Campaign says the MTA is flunking on the job in some respects, and DOT isn't doing much better.

While both agencies have taken some steps forward, advocates say any progress has been too halting and sluggish. The lack of improvement shows: Bus ridership is down more than 2 percent in the first half of 2017 compared to the first half of 2016 -- a much bigger loss than the .04 percent decline in subway service.

The MTA gets its worst mark -- an "F" -- on dispatching. Advocates want the agency to ensure bus runs start on schedule and to use GPS technology to keep buses on the same route more evenly spaced. They say their recommendations have been ignored by the MTA, which is one reason bus bunching remains such a problem.

Image: Bus Turnaround Campaign
Image: Bus Turnaround Campaign
Image: Bus Turnaround Campaign

The agency also got an "incomplete" for its progress on a tap-and-go fare payment system and all-door boarding, which could significantly speed up the boarding process. The MTA has yet to commit to implementing a faster bus fare system when it makes the transition to the MetroCard's successor.

The MTA gets its best marks — a “B-” — for redesigning bus networks. Both the Staten Island express bus revamp and the division of the M5 into two shorter routes indicate that the agency is will to reconsider routes that haven't been updated in decades. Advocates say the agency has refrained from issuing “clear policy statements” committing to implementing these fixes system-wide, however.

DOT, meanwhile, gets a "D+" on redesigning streets to prioritize buses. To date, the city has added just two blocks of bus lanes this year, on the M79. Select Bus Service improvements, including dedicated bus lanes, are slated later this year for the Bx6 in the South Bronx and along Woodhaven Boulevard in Queens, but both projects have been in the works for years.

Otherwise, the city is doing very little to expand bus lanes or even enforce them where they already exist. Just .2 percent of moving violations issued by the NYPD this year were for driving or parking in bus lanes -- which should come as no surprise to bus riders.

On improving the bus rider experience, both agencies received a "C" for taking small steps -- DOT with its real-time bus countdown blocks and the MTA with its pilot of service information screens for Select Bus Service.

Other initiatives got "incomplete" grades. DOT's "citywide transit plan" could lead to more bus lanes and redesigned routes,  but it's not slated to be released until the fall. Open data on bus performance is still lacking, but MTA Chair Joe Lhota's plan for a "customer-facing public dashboard" could be a promising step in the right direction. And MTA officials outlined strategies for reviving the city's buses at the agency's March board meeting, but without an actionable plan or timeline for implementation.

"For the many neighborhoods without subway stops and many New Yorkers for whom the subway isn’t accessible, increasingly slow and unreliable transit persists due to a lack of leadership and the absence of a serious plan to fix NYC’s bus system," the Bus Turnaround Campaign says.

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