Eyes on the Street: Staten Island Express Bus is Great, But Expensive

Express buses speed through Brooklyn in the HOV-3 lane on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Photo: Vince DiMiceli
Express buses speed through Brooklyn in the HOV-3 lane on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Photo: Vince DiMiceli

There is a quick and pleasant way to get from Staten Island to Manhattan during the morning rush, but it comes with a high price tag.

Staten Island’s recently redesigned express bus routes to the city cost much more than other forms of public transportation — and could even be more expensive than driving.

It costs $13 a day to get to and from the Rock in style, on a tour bus with comfortable seats, big windows, individual USB ports and air conditioning, and, for those still buying print newspapers, a reading lamp.

That’s a steep increase over the $5.50 pricetag for a round trip on the Island’s other means of transportation — buses or the Staten Island Railway to the ferry with a free transfer to a bus or train in Manhattan or what Staten Islanders pay to get over the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge with their E-ZPass.

Still, you get what you pay for.

That’s because there is no faster route to the Manhattan that I, a life-long resident of the forgotten borough, have experienced in the more than 25 years of making the journey.

I recently hopped on the new SIM15 bus on Richmond Road and Seaview Avenue in Dongan Hills — about a third of the way down the Railway’s line and home to the incomparable Lee’s Tavern — at 8:10 a.m., and got off at Rector Street and Trinity Place in Manhattan just 37 minutes later.

To be clear, this is a world record. My trips to Manhattan and Brooklyn were nearly alway an hour-and-a-half of drudgery whether I used public transportation or drove. (Full disclosure: My guaranteed fastest route to work in MetroTech in Brooklyn was by bicycle, which took 50 to 55 minutes including a trip on the ferry and a pleasant ride over the Brooklyn Bridge. Best of all? That commute was free!)

What makes this miraculous time possible is the nearly two-year-old high-occupancy vehicle lane that connects the bridge to the Hugh L. Carey Battery Tunnel.

On my commute, we moseyed down Richmond Road and turned onto the expressway’s service road, picking up 23 additional passengers at six stops. The bus was about full when we got on the highway at the foot of the fabled span, crossed three lanes of traffic, and got into the H.O.V. lane on the upper level.

Once there, we zoomed past cars on the bridge that were practically at a standstill, and continued zooming until we got north of Sunset Park, where the H.O.V. lane allows some Brooklyn buses, motorcycles, and other vehicles with at least three passengers in on the fun. Once back in a protected lane, we zipped over the Gowanus Canal and only slowed down at a checkpoint where cops were making sure scofflaws weren’t using the lane. (Note: No one was pulled over.)

All told, it took us about 20 minutes to get from the bridge to my stop. Amazing.

To get to the same place using the nearby train required catching an 8:17 train to the 8:45 boat into Manhattan, which would get me to Whitehall Street by about 9:15 (the ferry ride only takes 25 minutes, but you have to factor in unloading time). And it’s still a 10-minute walk to Trinity Church.

The local bus would be a crapshoot, getting me to the ferry by for either the 8:45 or 9 am boat, depending on traffic. Either way can’t compare to 37 minutes to Lower Manhattan.

And by car? Well, I would have been sitting in that traffic that my bus flew by.

Is there trouble in paradise? Last week, two borough presidents and three councilmen from Brooklyn and Staten Island asked Mayor Bill de Blasio to improve the weekday morning H.O.V. lane in Brooklyn by extending it for two additional hours (from 5 a.m. until 11 a.m. instead of 6 a.m. until 10 a.m.), increasing enforcement to keep scofflaws out, and prohibiting tour buses from entering the lane.

These are all reasonable measures to take to ensure buses can keep getting transit riders from Staten Island to and from the city in such a short amount of time that they’re willing to pay $13 a day. And the pols are right: a good way to get commuters onto these buses and out of their cars is to keep service running smoothly.

But the best way? Lower the price. The $260-a-month cost is still a discount to what New Jersey commuters other than Whoopi Goldberg pay to get to work, but it is much more expensive than $110 your average subway rider pays for his monthly commute.

The price may be part of the reason Staten Island express bus ridership dropped from a high of 34,791 in 2013 to 32,896 in 2017 (2018 numbers aren’t available yet). The fare has gone up $1 each way since 2012. Still, Staten Islanders comprise the vast majority of users of the MTA’s roughly 40,000 daily users of the express bus system, which includes buses from Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens.

In their letter to the mayor, the politicians — including Brooklyn Beep Eric Adams, his Rock counterpart Jimmy Oddo, plus Council Members Steven Matteo, Justin Brannan, and Carlos Manchaca — claimed “there is no panacea that will make rush-hour commuting a quick and pleasant experience.”

But that misses a larger point: Sure, there will never again be such a commute for the single driver. But there already is for those who take the bus.

Brooklyn and Staten Island politicians call on Mayor de Blasio to improve bus service in HOV lanes by Gersh Kuntzman on Scribd

  • Joe R.

    Yes, I agree express buses cost way too much (ditto for commuter rail within city limits). Both could play a larger role if we equalized fares with the subway and allowed free transfers between modes. Basically, a trip entirely within city limits should only cost $2.75, no matter which mode you use.

    The only issue here is even with the $6.50 fare, express buses are still the most highly subsidized part of the MTA’s operations. If you lower the fare, you might be taking money away from the rest of the system. Note I said might. It all depends if the lower fares attract enough additional riders to increase overall revenues, instead of decrease them. Maybe we should experiment dropping the fare in $0.50 increments until revenue is maximized. If that occurs at a number close to $2.75, then we’ll know we can implement a flat fare for travel within NYC regardless of mode.

  • Larry Littlefield

    It’s a luxury service, priced like it. The other way to look at is that Staten Island mass transit is vastly cheaper than mass transit anywhere else in New York City — compared with what it costs.

    I think the way to look at this post is if the special people on the Brooklyn waterfront deserve a special, highly subsidized luxury service the serfs are forced to pay for while their own, lower subsidy mass transit goes to hell, then certainly the people of Staten Island, who are used to getting such deals over and over again, deserve another one.

    In any event, they missed a chance by rebuilding the Staten Island Railway as it was, instead of reconstructing it as a bus rapid transit line. It could have been used by “locals” pulling off at stations and the express buses, and worked like the Transmileno in Bogata, with service to the ferry or direct to Manhattan.

    The neighbors would not have been happy with the noise and smell of diesel engines going by. But advancing technology is apparently about to solve that one.

  • Andrew

    Seriously?

    The operating expense per unlimited passenger trip is $1.77 for the subway, $3.65 for the local bus, $3.14 for SBS, and a whopping $17.89 for the express bus. (Source)

    (Express buses are so expensive to operate because of the low, typically zero, turnover – each spot on a bus is occupied by no more than one person per trip – along with the very high peakiness – demand for reverse-peak and off-peak service is much lower than peak demand. The result is that a single express bus driver may end up carrying fewer than 100 paying riders for an entire day’s shift. By comparison, a train operator and conductor carry thousands on each trip.)

    And you want even more of a subsidy to flow to express bus riders, while the less well-off subway and local bus riders face a fare increase?

    If the express bus is too pricey for your taste, you’re welcome to take the local bus or SIR to the ferry.

  • Larry Littlefield

    If they are redesigning the SI bus system, the might run more locals over the bridge to 59th and 4th in Brooklyn, where the Sea Beach line could take then straight to Midtown.

    Assuming, of course, that we will continue to have a subway.

  • Elizabeth F

    Quit complaining, the express bus in question is far cheaper than Metro-North commuting similar distances to Westchester County. And it’s probably well worth it, given the quality of life and relative affordability on SI.

  • AnoNYC

    That is pretty quick considering the distance.

    Are the HOV lanes reversed during the evening? Why not just run them at all hours buses use the route?

    Do any other express bus routes in the city have HOV lanes? I know that Bronx express buses utilize the 5th and Madison Ave bus only lanes in Manhattan, but has there been performance improvements since their expansion?

  • There is no reason to ban a tour bus from an HOV lane. It is still better to have 20 people on a tour bus than 20 individual cars

  • False, tourists are still comparing time and cost. If the tour bus takes too long, they will drive.

  • Joe R.

    I agree with one caveat. If many of those people taking the express buses are people who would otherwise drive into Manhattan then the end result might still be in the black overall. On the flip side, quite a few express bus routes, like the QM4 near me, pretty much duplicate what local buses/subways do. They’re often not even much faster. The Q64 and E or F train gets me into Manhattan in 40 minutes or so when there are no delays. I’ve even made it in 30 minutes a handful of times. The QM4 takes at least 30 minutes. Maybe the average trip times are marginally faster, but it’s really more a luxury service than a time-saver, and should be priced as such.

  • Very confusing. Is this an MTA bus ? Why the reference to tour bus?
    If it is an MTA route, it should be subsidized as much as the ferry routes are…

  • qrt145

    It is an MTA bus indeed. I don’t think tour bus is the right term, but the point is that it is not a typical transit bus. I believe the term is “coach bus”: a bus for long-distance travel. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coach_(bus)

  • AMH

    Yes, people who choose to spend less on housing typically must spend more on transportation, but the point is that high fares encourage folks to drive (the same goes for MNR). Lowering fares and/or implementing congestion pricing can shift people to transit and cut down on traffic.

  • AMH

    Now you’re thinking too holistically! 😉 You’re right of course; spending on one aspect of the transport system often reduces costs elsewhere, and maximizing the efficiency of the system should be the goal.

  • AnoNYC

    Most people riding tour buses are not metropolitan area residents and are unlikely to have driven to NYC.

  • Elizabeth F

    > but the point is that high fares encourage folks to drive

    Incredibly doubtful. $6.50 each way isn’t that high. Compare to the bridge tolls, plus parking, plus wear and tear. No rational person would claim that driving from SI to Manhattan is cheaper than the express bus. And we also know the bus is a lot faster.

    Driving from Westchester is cheaper and more convenient than from SI, since there’s no super-expensive bridge to cross and there are more roads in. And its trains are about twice the price of the SI express bus. And yet, after living there 3 years, I knew NOBODY who drove daily into Manhattan instead of taking the train. I also knew NOBODY who took cheaper local transit into Manhattan. (the train to Fordham is only $3, then one can switch to the subway). Everyone takes the MNR / express bus, etc.

  • Elizabeth F

    No. A bus can never be a luxury service. Ride the Metro-North to Westchester, and you will understand the difference between that and a bus.

  • Elizabeth F

    Coach buses are standard for NJ Transit commuters. Also for HudsonLink in Westchester/Rockland Counties. They are used all over the region, on any route where the bus might go fast.

  • Elizabeth F

    The Lincoln Tunnel allows any bus in the XBL lane, as long as it has passengers.

  • Larry Littlefield

    The issue isn’t the rubber tires. It is the noise, fumes and getting stuck in traffic.

    The noise and fumes are going down, and electric buses would make them go down more. And these buses get a semi-exclusive ROW for a large part of the trip. The assertion is someone is actually enforcing it!

  • Elizabeth F

    I didn’t say what the issue was. But let’s see…

    Bus inbound: wait outside in the cold
    Metro-North inbound: stations have various forms of shelter, many have a (heated) Starbucks at the platform.

    Bus outbound: wait outside in the cold, or wait in line standing at Port Authority
    Metro-North: Walk right on your train at GCT, sit down and settle into your commute 10 minutes before departure

    Bus: cramped four-across seating
    Metro-North: less cramped 5-across seating in much wider vehicle (and usually nobody claims the middle seat). Space to stand up and walk around if you feel like it

    Bus: Bumps in the road, sharp turns on merging ramps, etc. many people get nauseous trying to read.
    Metro-North: smooth ride, no sharp turns

    Bus: Walk up and down steep steps through narrow doorway to get into coach
    Metro-North: Easy on-off from platform, wide doors

    Bus: Limited luggage available, limited bike racks, especially given constraints at PABT.
    Metro-North: Large suitcases, folding bicycles, baby carriages — NO PROBLEM! Non-folding bikes accepted off-peak.

    No wonder Westchester residents would never move to NJ, even though the buses there are half the cost.

  • Elizabeth F

    > Note I said might. It all depends if the lower fares attract enough additional riders to increase overall revenues

    “We lose money on every seat, but we’ll make it up in volume.” As long as the system is well-run and seat utilization is high (as is the case in NYC), the possibility to lower subsidies by selling more seats is slim.

  • mfs

    Menchaca, not Manchaca

  • Knut Torkelson

    I agree without on some level, but you’d be pretty hard pressed to say that the tourists doing a double decker tour bus in NY would be driving themselves otherwise

  • Joe R.

    Exactly the reasons why lots of people who would never set foot on a bus will gladly ride a train. I personally get nauseous being on any road vehicle for more than 15 or 20 minutes, except my bike. Given a choice between a bus and train, I’ll always take the train. The train is usually faster as well.

  • Joe R.

    There might be some money to be made charging less for those making reverse commutes. Part of the problem with express buses is they usually return nearly empty in the direction opposite the flow of rush hour traffic. If we charge just a regular subway fare for reverse commutes you’re bound to get a few more riders with no increase in operating costs.

  • gustaajedrez

    Yes, they reverse it in the evening (that’s my regular commute home. SIM8 via the Lincoln Tunnel in the morning and SIM4 via Brooklyn in the afternoon)

  • cjstephens

    Yawn. Millennial discovers express buses. Wait until he hears about commuter rail! And, seriously, you’ve lived on SI your whole life and you’re only just now learning about the express bus?

  • Vince DiMiceli

    Knew about it, just never used it. Always used the train-ferry-subway route, even living on the South Shore. Express buses didn’t become relevant until the HOV lane was expanded two years ago.

  • I dont think the hop-on hop-off tour bus is using the highway

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