Advocates Question Mayor de Blasio’s Desire to Fix NYC’s Ailing Buses

The city needs to look beyond Select Bus Service towards the next generation of bus improvements, advocates say.

Mayor de Blasio en route to his most recent bus-related press event -- last October 20. Photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor de Blasio en route to his most recent bus-related press event -- last October 20. Photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photography Office

“D” as in damn that’s bad.

The city Department of Transportation and the NYPD nearly flunk out for their stewardship of the bus system, according to agency report cards released by the Bus Turnaround Coalition on Monday [PDF].

DOT got a D+ for its efforts to prioritize buses on city streets, while the NYPD got a D for its poor performance keeping bus lanes clear of parked vehicles and other obstructions.

“Mayor de Blasio’s Department of Transportation has a critical role to play in getting buses moving too, but has yet to commit to a serious plan to do so,” the report says.

New York City’s buses are the slowest in the nation, and ridership continues to decline more than two years since transit advocacy groups launched their bus campaign. In the first half of this year, bus speeds are down 4.5 percent from 2017 and ridership has dropped 5.4 percent, according to data compiled by advocates.

There is reason to be hopeful, however: the MTA’s subways and buses chief Andy Byford’s “Bus Action Plan” is currently moving ahead with a redesign of the Bronx’s bus network. All-door boarding is in the works, and the agency’s effort to improve bus dispatching has brought bus bunching down to 9.5 percent from 13.1 percent last year. In the Bus Turnaround Coalition report, the MTA didn’t get any grade less than a B.

But the mayor, DOT, and NYPD have a key role to play as the administrators of the city’s streets. So far, they’re not rising to the challenge. The city’s pace of bus lane and transit signal priority implementation remains unchanged, and bus lane enforcement has similarly stagnated.

For months, advocates have harped on the mayor’s apparent disinterest in addressing the bus crisis. They’ve called on him to break out of the decade-old Select Bus Service model, a remnant of the Bloomberg administration, and install at least 60 miles of bus lanes on routes across the city before his term wraps up. They’ve also asked that transit signal priority be implemented with more urgency.

In response, the city has pointed to its continued expansion of Select Bus Service, seemingly missing the point of the coalition’s call for the SBS toolkit to be implemented citywide.

“Since 2016 the Bus Turnaround Campaign has sought a bigger, faster program, urging the de Blasio administration to scale its efforts to the bus system and its crisis itself,” said Jon Orcutt of TransitCenter. “We don’t understand why the ‘Fair City’ administration won’t step up on behalf of low-income commuters who are spending so much time (and more time as speeds decline) just trying to get to jobs and make other necessary trips.”

Last month, the MTA revealed that it had nixed plans for new SBS routes until 2021. The suspension of the program should be an opportunity for the city to think big, advocates argue, but so far its playbook hasn’t changed.

“The SBS program demonstrated that better bus service in the city is possible, but it was wholly insufficient to address the magnitude of the crisis facing bus riders on the city’s 246 local routes,” the report says.

In response, DOT provided the following statement, which Orcutt called “lame propaganda” because some of it dates back to before de Blasio was even mayor:

The de Blasio administration has committed more for transit than ever before by committing to 20 new SBS routes, and has committed to bring SBS-style improvements to routes citywide through the Bus Forward program, and has:

  • Worked with the MTA to implement SBS on 15 routes (on Oct. 1, 16), carrying over 375,000 riders, and achieving results like 10-30% faster travel times
  • Implemented Transit Signal Priority at over 500 intersections, achieving results of up to 12-14 percent faster travel times
  • Constructed over 75 bus bulbs and over 30 bus boarding islands
  • Installed 60 miles of new bus lanes, and upgraded and additional 20 miles of bus lanes to better designs
  • Installed 400 Real Time Bus Information signs in all five boroughs.
  • This Administration has committed a total of roughly $270 million in new City funds to the SBS program.

In addition:

  • The B82 SBS launches Monday Oct. 1 with five miles of new bus lanes, new bus routing to speed buses and changes to traffic signals and pedestrian safety.
  • On Monday, Oct. 1, the bus lane mileage in NYC will increase from 106 to 111 miles.

Some of the projects completed or in progress this year include: Upgraded bus lanes on lower Broadway and Madison Ave in Manhattan

  • Creation of a second bus lane on Fifth Avenue
  • Extended bus lanes on Fulton Street, Brooklyn
  • Traffic signal and operations improvements along Woodhaven Blvd in Queens (which speeds the bus)
  • Planning and implementation of bus street priority along 14th Street and the future L train shuttles in Brooklyn and Manhattan
  • Transit Signal priority implemented along Church Avenue, Brooklyn using a new streamlined analysis process
  • Commitment to make at least 10 inaccessible bus stops accessible in 2018 – this goal has already been achieved
  • The addition of bus boarding islands on Seventh Avenue in Manhattan
  • Larry Littlefield

    Take the buses and paratransit away from the MTA and turn them over the city. When they are responsible, they will have to care.

    Covering the operating deficit for those services, net of money the city would no longer have to pay to the MTA, could be the city’s contribution to the rail-based services.

  • r

    The mayor doesn’t give a shit. He really doesn’t. Tons of people on delayed buses or buses that never show up, but he is concerned with the mythical working class New Yorker who drivers to Manhattan every day to go to the doctor.

    Republicans aren’t the only ones who lie to hold on to their unearned privilege.

  • sbauman

    The fare recover rate for NYC buses is approximately 30%. It’s been pretty constant over the years and is consistent with the rest of the country.

    This means for every dollar in fare revenue represents a net expense of $2.33 due to operating costs. This is an expensive proposition, unless somebody has a method for drastically reducing operating costs. Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to scale operating costs with demand.

    NYC bus trip lengths are short, compared to the rest of the country. This means that despite their slow average speed, a NYC bus rider’s trip takes less time than those in most other cities. Those other cities don’t have as comprehensive subway system and NYC’s.

    What role buses and other modes should play in NYC’s transit policy should be answered before embarking on programs to reverse the downward ridership trend.

  • Andrew

    NYC bus trip lengths are short, compared to the rest of the country.

    …because NYC also has a subway system, unlike most other transit systems in the country, and that subway system tends to carry much of the longer distance traffic.

    This means that despite their slow average speed, a NYC bus rider’s trip takes less time than those in most other cities.

    If you’re looking at unlinked trips, that may be accurate. But anybody who transfers from bus to subway doesn’t care about unlinked trips.

  • sbauman

    But anybody who transfers from bus to subway ..

    How many are there?

    within 1/2 mile of subway station (walking distance): citywide 72%; BX 77%; BK 82%; MN 98%; QN 49%; SI 26% (SIRT)

    between 1/2 and 2.5 miles from a subway station (biking distance): citywide 23%; BX 22%; BK 27%; MN 1%; QN 39%; SI 54%

    more than 2.5 miles from a subway station (bus to subway): citywide 5%; BX 1% (3.54 mi max); BK 1% (2.99 mi max); MN 0%; QN 12% (5.07 mi max); SI 20% (5.74 mi max).

    The bus to subway area in Queens is the area beyond the subway terminals in Jamaica and Flushing. The congestion problem is the absence of a street grid near these stations and the number of buses trying to get there.

    There are 3479 scheduled NYCT/MTA bus trips crossing the Parsons/Archer intersection each weekday. The figure for Main/Roosevelt is 3106 scheduled NYCT/MTA bus trips. That’s simply too many vehicles for these intersections to handle. By contrast the busiest Manhattan intersection 5th/57th has only 2278 scheduled NYCT/MTA bus trips.

  • Joe R.

    The problem isn’t the number of buses at those intersections, but the fact we don’t ban cars from the general downtown Main Street and Jamaica areas (as well as similar “downtown” areas in other parts of the outer boroughs). In fact, citiwide private cars are what delays buses. The city can easily deal with that problem if only it had the political will.

    Also, 0.5 to 2.5 miles from a subway station generally means taking a bus to the subway, not biking. There’s nowhere to securely store bikes at subway stations, as much as I wish otherwise.

  • Joe R.

    Once autonomous vehicles are ready for prime time, which should be in less than a decade, you have your answer on how to drastically reduce operating costs. Sure, the TWU will fight it, but in the end it’s more important that the MTA deliver transit in a cost effective manner than it is for it to function as an employment agency providing what would be essentially make-work jobs. Of course, the MTA will still be liable for the pensions of past workers, but at least it won’t continue to incur those liabilities. Once all those receiving or eligible for pensions pass on, there will be no direct labor costs associated with operating a bus. There will only be maintenance, but in the long term those functions will be automated as well.

  • Andrew

    I prefer to determine how many people transfer from bus to subway by looking at how many people actually transfer from bus to subway, not by making outlandish assumptions about who you personally might expect to transfer from bus to subway. Hint: The closest subway line may not be particularly useful for every trip; some people who live or work very close to one subway line still take the bus to a different subway line in order to achieve a more direct trip.

  • sbauman

    Once autonomous vehicles are ready for prime time, which should be in less than a decade,

    It’s going to take a lot longer than a decade to develop AV’s that are capable of operating in a city environment. You may see them on selected limited access highways where the number and types of external stimuli can be enumerated. Unfortunately, Godel’s theorem still applies to AI.

    It’s clearest manifestation to date is that the collision rate for AV vehicles is about 20 times greater than that for human operated vehicles. The annual liability expense for NYCT/MTA buses is about $40K per bus. AV’s need to be 10 times safer, for their operating cost (which includes liability) to break even with a human operator.

    The question remains whether the NYC would tolerate an AV vehicle on the road that’s got twice the collision rate as one that’s operated by a human.

    There will only be maintenance, but in the long term those functions will be automated as well.

    Are you sure the MTA currently performs all the required maintenance on its buses? Automated maintenance cannot compete with no maintenance on a cost basis.

  • sbauman

    the fact we don’t ban cars from the general downtown Main Street

    Southbound cars are already banned on Main St in downtown Flushing. It has not helped.

    as well as similar “downtown” areas in other parts of the outer boroughs

    Can you be specific regarding these similar areas? I mentioned Jamaica and Flushing because their bus congestion is so acute. There are 7 intersections in NYC where there are more 3000 scheduled bus crossings. 5 are in Downtown Jamaica and 2 are in Downtown Flushing. There are 7 intersections with 2500 to 2999 scheduled bus crossings. Again, 5 in Jamaica and 2 in Flushing. There are 13 intersections with 2000 to 2499 scheduled bus crossings. 9 are in Jamaica; 2 are in Flushing; and 2 are in Manhattan. Do you see a pattern emerging?

    In fact, citiwide private cars are what delays buses.

    You neglected pedestrians crossing intersections (with the signal).

    0.5 to 2.5 miles from a subway station generally means taking a bus to the subway, not biking. There’s nowhere to securely store bikes at subway stations, as much as I wish otherwise.

    This should be bike share’s natural market. Rebalancing will be the biggest challenge. This is also true for scooters.

  • sbauman

    I prefer to determine how many people transfer from bus to subway by looking at how many people actually transfer from bus to subway

    Could you be a bit more specific regarding how far these people travel on their bus to subway trip and their numbers?

    outlandish assumptions

    This is my methodology. I used the census block data. I calculated the distance from the geographic center of every census block to every subway station. I then took the minimum distance for each census block to determine the closest station.

    Given the differential between buses and subways in both speed and frequency, it seems to me logical that the vast majority of people would choose the closest subway station to minimize their travel time to work.

    some people who live or work very close to one subway line still take the bus to a different subway line in order to achieve a more direct trip.

    I have calculated the number of journey to work one seat bus trips using the LEHD census. The numbers are too small to be anything but a niche market.

  • qrt145

    ” it seems to me logical that the vast majority of people would choose the closest subway station to minimize their travel time to work.”

    Have you looked at the subway map? 🙂 From personal experience, often the closest station is practically useless, because it would require a roundabout trip with two river crossings and two transfers.

    Not sure how to quantify whether this is false for “the vast majority” or not.

  • sbauman

    From personal experience, often the closest station is practically useless, because it would require a roundabout trip with two river crossings and two transfers.

    Not sure how to quantify whether this is false for “the vast majority” or not.

    Let me try my hand at quantifying the origin/destination for the journey to work.

    There’s the LEHD census that gives the home and workplace census blocks for every worker who fills out state workman’s compensation forms. I’ve limited this to people who live and work in NYC for private sector jobs in 2015. These are the borough to borough results.

    Where BX residents work: BX 30%; BK 8%; MN 51%; QN 11%; SI < 1%
    Where BK residents work: BX 3%; BK 38%; MN 48%; QN 10%; SI 1%
    Where MN residents work: BX 5%; BK 7%; MN 82%; QN 6%; SI < 1%
    Where QN residents work: BX 4%; BK 12%; MN 48%; QN 36%; SI < 1%
    Where SI residents work: BX 2%; BK 19%; MN 38%; QN 6%; SI 35%

    Is your personal experience an outlier?

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