Never Stop Stopping: Removing Bus Stops Isn’t Easy — In New York City or Anywhere Else

The MTA desperately needs to attract more riders to its painfully slow buses. One of its methods — removing bus stops — is drawing ire on Manhattan's East Side.

An appeal has slowed down the M14 Busway yet again. Photo: Google Maps
An appeal has slowed down the M14 Busway yet again. Photo: Google Maps

It’s a simple equation: A crosstown bus serving 28,000 riders travels four miles per hour. The route is hemorrhaging ridership, and the MTA has come up with a multi-faceted plan to change that: bus lanes, off-board fare collection, and the elimination of bus stops.

The MTA is getting an earful about that last one. On Monday, opponents turned out in numbers to present nearly 5,000 petition signatures to the MTA board calling for a local version of the M14 remain after the launch of the Select Bus express service, culminating weeks of agitation.

Buses and subways chief Andy Byford promised to listen, but emphasized his bottom-line: bus speeds.

“The reason we are having the debate about stops is because we are trying to speed up service,” he said. “We will try to come up with the best solution. What I’ve learned in 30 years of transit, though, is that you can’t please everyone.”

Last April, Byford unveiled his Bus Action Plan — since collapsed into the agency-wide Fast Forward plan — promising to rescue New York City’s ailing bus system, whose ridership has been dropping for almost two decades.

The plan is a multi-faceted approach: A new fare payment system will facilitate faster board at all door. Bus lanes and camera enforcement will keep private vehicles out of the way. Route redesigns will streamline routes and address the city’s over-saturation of bus stops.

Transit workers installing off-board fare machines on 10th Street at Avenue D. Photo: David Meyer
Transit workers installing off-board fare machines on 10th Street at Avenue D. Photo: David Meyer

But the fight over a few stops along the M14 highlights one of the great contradictions of the larger war to fix ineffective bus service in New York City and across the country. By eliminating closely spaced bus stops, transit agencies can facilitate faster trips, in turn attracting more riders. But doing so risks upsetting the existing customer base.

The primary route of the M14A and M14D is 14th Street — but both bus lines loop through the East Village, stopping 23 times. That’s a big reason why M14 buses spend 25 percent of the time at stops — and why the MTA is hoping to remove 12 of them [PDF].

Standing at one of the soon-to-be-eliminated stops on Avenue D and Ninth Street, Barry Robeson, 57, bemoaned the forthcoming changes. He lives further uptown, but comes to Alphabet City from the Union Square subway station to see the doctor.

The next-closest stop is 300 feet away, on 10th Street. If the Ninth Street stop had never existed, Robeson might have not even missed it, but it does exist — and he’s not happy to be losing it.

“I have osteo-arthritis, so I need the stop,” he said. “What about people like myself who have disabilities?”

Other crosstown buses simply go back and forth from the east and west sides, but M14 buses spend a large chunk of their time serving riders in the East Village and Lower East Side, essentially doubling as a neighborhood shuttle service. On weeknights, the eastbound bus remains packed as it turns off 14th Street, carrying riders from subway connections on 14th Street to the apartment complexes on the far-flung parts of the Lower East Side.

“This decision would make buses faster at the expense of serving the needs of residents in these neighborhoods,” Democratic District Leader Daisy Paez told MTA board members on Monday.

Paez and others have suggested that the MTA continue to operate local service alongside the express Select Bus Service — something Byford warned would lead to “bus jams.”

“We do understand that on the Lower East Side the so-called ‘granny route,’ i.e. the A and D, is heavily used by older people and people who may not be. able to walk so far,” Byford said. “We’re definitely okay with revisiting some of the stops, but if we put them all in, that will keep the service painfully slow.

“We’re trying to improve transit for the majority while still listening to communities, and getting that balance right.”

‘Separating emotions from math’

The key to bus stop spacing, according to internationally renowned bus planner Jarrett Walker, is “separating the emotions from the math.”

The math is straightforward: Ridership tends to decline once walking distances exceed about 1,300 feet. To provide the fastest service to the most people with the least duplicate coverage, stops must be close enough to each other not exceed that distance, but far away enough to avoid excessive coverage.

In the Alphabet City section of the M14A/D route, bus stops are as little as 400 feet apart.

“A good bus stop is designed around the needs of a huge number of people,” Walker told Streetsblog earlier this month.

“When you start running the numbers on the effect on people’s travel time, even if they have to walk an extra block, it becomes impossible to argue that the extremely close stop spacing which you have now in Alphabet City, is the most effective policy. Getting people to gather at fewer stops makes the service faster.”

More coverage means less frequent bus service — and fewer riders. Image: Jarett Walker and Associates
More coverage means less frequent bus service (the map on the left looks good, but buses along each route would run far less frequently than buses on the right map). Image: Jarett Walker and Associates

It’s not just an Alphabet City problem. In Europe, the standard calls for stops that are 2,100 1,500 feet apart. The MTA’s standard distance is a mere 750 feet — and that standard is rarely followed: In Manhattan and Brooklyn, the average distance between stops is 757 feet and 778 feet, respectively, according to a 2017 report by Comptroller Scott Stringer.

Brooklyn and Manhattan are the epicenter of the city’s bus crisis, having witnessed massive declines in ridership in the last five years. With 28,000 daily riders, the M14A/D counts among Manhattan’s busiest routes even as it loses riders along with the rest of the borough.

By removing 12 stops — seven from the M14A and five from the M14D — the MTA will bring the typical distance between stops in the Alphabet City to around 1,000 feet, or the distance between the crosstown blocks on the 14th Street segment of the route.

The agency points to the impact of its 2018 redesign of the Staten Island-to-Manhattan express bus network, which reduced the average number of times buses stopped before leaving Staten Island from 27 to 19. That produced a 12 percent increase in bus speeds.

Across the city, bus stop are too close together because the agency has spent years planning service for only the most dependent riders: seniors, the disabled, and the poor. Because of the needs of seniors and people with disabilities, in particular, the MTA and its sister agencies across the country dolled out bus stops like candy — and were loath to remove them.

Staten Island Borough President Jimmy Oddo probably put it best in 2017, as he set out to redesign his borough’s express bus network: “Who doesn’t want to give Mrs. McGillicuddy a bus stop?”

A nationwide issue

The battle around the M14 isn’t the MTA’s first go-around with bus stop reductions, and it won’t be its last. The Staten Island express bus network redesign incorporated the removal of stops, many of which were returned after rider complaints. And the forthcoming Bronx and Queens network redesigns will also undoubtedly include stop eliminations.

A majority of bus riders surveyed ahead of the Bronx redesign preferred faster service over frequent stops, but riders who lose stops will still emerge to complain once the redesign goes into effect.

Experiences in other cities show that a borough-wide approach may avoid public handwringing of the sort the MTA has faced in the East Village. In Richmond, Vir., for example, the city council passed legislation authorizing a citywide bus network redesign, which explicitly included wider stop spacing. That made the removal of specific stop more digestible for riders.

“It doesn’t get rid of all the mashing of teeth, and people screaming about [fairness], but it makes it much easier for everyone to see that, yes, taking this stop out and all the others has a really big benefit,” said Scudder Wagg, a consultant who worked on the Richmond project. “If you take it to the level of the whole system or the whole borough, you can show much greater benefits for the whole system, for an enormous amount of people, that it tends to break logjams … because you can show the benefits for many more people.”

The network redesign ended up eliminating 12 percent of the bus stops in the system. In practice, that meant five percent fewer homes within a quarter-mile of a stop, but a two percent increase in homes with a half-mile. In Staten Island, the loudest complainers with the most access were more likely to stave off bus stop elimination, according to one former MTA staffer who worked on the project.

“It’s a certain demographic of people. Certain neighborhoods would get stops restored and certain wouldn’t,” the staffer said. “What sucks is [that there are]people for whom it really is an extra hardship.”

Transit agencies must weigh a number of factors — including both bus speed and accessibility — when determining stop spacing.Image: Cincinnati Metro
Transit agencies must weigh a number of factors — including both bus speed and accessibility — when determining stop spacing. Image: Cincinnati Metro

Transit Center researcher Philip Miatkowski recently surveyed nine different staffers from nine different agencies at different points of the stop spacing reevaluation process, and is writing a report evaluating and comparing their methods. Survey participants were split on whether they preferred to eliminate stops citywide or route-by-route.

Cincinnati Metro, which is still early in the process, has opted to do a citywide marketing blitz even as it only makes changes on a few lines.

But that can have its pitfalls. Namely, it can have the adverse effect of drawing out concerns and complaints from people who rarely, if ever, ride transit. In the Seattle region, King County Metro began its efforts with a large media blitz, but eventually changed course.

“It was really gutting up their time and resources,” Miatkowski said of the outreach effort. “They really only want to hear … legitimate reasons to keep a stop. They felt that because they did a media blitz, they were getting all these excessive complaints that were taking up their time.”

King Country Metro has, along with the city of San Francisco, taken the proactive step of stationing bus “ambassadors” at eliminated stops along changing routes. Those ambassadors hear and respond to rider concerns directly, in multiple languages, and are available to walk riders to the next-closest stop, showing them that the extra walk isn’t all that bad.

Ultimately, politicians and community organizations must be brought on board early, according to Miatkowski.

“People in elected office rarely ride transit, and they only hear the negative parts — like, ‘Hey, my bus stop got moved!’” he said. “Most people don’t see the benefits because they don’t ride transit.”

This is the latest in a new Streetsblog series called “Best Practices,” which aims to provide New York State and City policymakers with examples of how their counterparts elsewhere have solved problems and made their communities more livable. The series is archived here.

  • Jacob

    Classic problem of dispersed benefits (better bus network for everyone) and concentrated costs (the people who lose their bus stop). It’s hard to rally people who generally want a better bus system, but it’s pretty easy to rally people who will lose something specific.

  • reader

    I live with my elderly parents on Avenue A. I want those bus stops removed, so we can actually use the bus when they have to go to – gasp – doctors’ appointments. Who do I contact to speak up? Carlina Rivera? CB3? Someone else? Thanks!

  • This is an informative article, and great coverage by David.

    I think the East Village example has become a bit muddied, though, because of just what the MTA has done over time (the proposed gaps between stops, and the amount of service already removed, really is a drastic change) and how the MTA could fix it (just adding back in one or two of the stops, instead of the 7-8 they’re eliminating, would help a lot, and they’re willing to consider that). In fact, although the rhetoric among the pro-bus-stop people is a little over the top, I think there’s a workable compromise there that would make everyone happy.

    It puzzles me that transit advocates are using it as an example of how community interaction DOESN’T work. It indicates that people aren’t really looking at the particulars, and are doing that Internet thing where the facts don’t matter & the story backs up a narrative about “us vs. them”.

    Besides, I wouldn’t think of telling the people on Avenues C and D what to do with their bus service (not that I think David goes there). That is a very poor neighborhood, constantly screwed over by authorities with poor transit decisions and service. The paratransit we provide is awful, and they’re one of the most remote neighborhoods in Manhattan that needs to rely on it. The people who are community advocates down there are not bored plutocrats, they are long-time residents (most of them low-income, subsidized) who have built a strong community political network from the ground up back when that was basically a bombed-out neighborhood left for dead by the city. I am careful to show them respect & hear their needs before making up my mind that what they need is a model bus route that doesn’t take other access factors into account. Yet I would also agree that the bus stop configuration that they have now is simply absurd… but who decided to do that, anyway? If their expectations are skewed by extremely poor planning from years past, it’s understandable, and regional transit advocates should be willing to talk them through improvements as a leadership effort.

  • Urbanely

    Maybe people who lose stops would feel better about it if there was also increased service on the route. There’s nothing worse than walking towards a stop only to have the bus reach the stop and leave it before you get to the stop..and then the next bus is 15 minutes away. In my limited experience in some European cities, the stops were farther apart, but the more frequent service meant that you weren’t spending inordinate amounts of time waiting.

  • ohnonononono

    Great article but the tone in this sentence almost verges on being kind of demeaning toward people who live on the LES and could use some context: “M14 buses spend a large chunk of their time serving riders in the East Village and Lower East Side, essentially doubling as a neighborhood shuttle service”

    Oof, how dare these LES residents muck up the efficient crosstown service for 14th Street with their “neighborhood shuttle”? One should note that the M14 is a descendent of prior streetcars that headed south on the East Side to connect to the Grand Street ferry to Brooklyn and later the Williamsburg Bridge. Of course today we have practically no cross-borough surface transit, but making these connections was once important.

    The urban renewal era brought the NYCHA towers to the far east side of the LES, both concentrating a ton of low-income population there and obliterating the industrial and shipping jobs on the waterfront where residents could walk to work. These decisions basically created a ton of demand for transit on Aves C and D to get to the subway at Union Square, and the M14C and D variations were added to what used to be the M14 which ran on Avenue A. The C and D were basically combined into the D when Con Ed closed the streets around its plant after 9/11. Reading into this history is useful for understanding some of the poor decisions made in post-war planning. It’s not the fault of NYCHA residents on the LES that they need a “neighborhood shuttle.”

  • ohnonononono

    This is important. Unfortunately the MTA seems to basically pitch every SBS project as being a service improvement that does NOT involve more frequent service provided. Transit quantity is the number 1 predictor of transit ridership, which is a dictum that no one at the MTA or really many transit agencies in this country believe because we’re all so scared to death of running a half-empty bus once and awhile. Some of the SBS routes today have less service than they did when they were local routes 10 years ago before the 2010 service cuts and other quiet changes.

  • Start with Carlina. She’s only hearing from advocates who are pushing to retain 400ft bus stop spacing (I don’t know if that’s a gambit or if they really want the rear door of the bus to stop where the front door was on the last stop)

  • The dispatchers are used to quietly cutting this service on a day-to-day basis by allowing bus routes to take way longer than planned + holding drivers back at the garage. Probably lose at least a couple buses an hour from this, and bunching probably also takes out some expected service headways. They’re awful at this & the city is not at all curious about reforming traffic to fix it.

  • See guys, told you not to mess with the Alphabet City crew ?

  • carl jacobs

    Getting people to gather at fewer stops makes the service faster.

    The bus is thus made faster by pushing additional first-mile transit time onto the customer. Does the customer see an overall improvement in his individual trip experience? Is this just a means to improve bus statistics? I see this attitude repeated over and over again on this weblog. “Yes, these changes will be worse for you. But the system will be ever so much better.” Planners very much think of transit customers as inputs to a system – inputs that can be manipulated to maximize the system’s efficiency.

    And you wonder why people prefer to drive.

  • Seereous

    The other thing most European stops have is covered seating. This is vital for the elderly, especially if they have had to walk further to get to a stop.

  • Gersh Kuntzman

    You articulate a good point. But I don’t wonder why people drive. I know: they believe it will get them — but alas only them — from the one spot they want to go from to the one spot to which they want to go. And — isn’t it great? — there’s usually a taxpayer-provided parking space available at their destination. We do understand the sacrifice that some bus riders are being asked to make — but living in a dense urban environment means making sacrifices for the common good. Unless, apparently, you’re a driver.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I think Streetsbloggers need to accept that on some level, the decline of bus ridership is inevitable and unstoppable, simply because buses are so much worse for the customer than growing alternatives — some of which are supported here.

    Bicycles. Bikeshare. E-bikes. E-scooters. E-skakeboards.

    And, for those who can afford it, and for as long as someone is willing to cover their losses, Lyft and Uber.

    Aside from buses with enough BRT characteristics to move like subways, I expect the old, poor and disabled will become the only market left. And if more people ride bikes, it will be longer until they become disabled as a result of becoming old.

    I think the fare should cover as much of the subway is possible. Same with ferries, commuter rail, SBS. These need to be made more efficient.

    At this point, however, I think we need to face reality and just raise the taxes and make local bus service free.

    It already is for anyone transferring to/from the subway. If nothing else, it might attract the handicapped, or at least the “handicapped,” away from expensive paratransit. That would be a better use of money than the “fair fares” mess, and the farebeating crackdown.

    If you are traveling to/from Manhattan, like those driving in, you are certainly getting paid enough to afford the cost of the subway. You want free? Take the local bus, or a bike.

  • Joe R.

    In NYC bus service mostly functions as shuttles to subway stations. It was always bad for local travel, where long waits plus multiple transfers mean a trip of a few miles can take over an hour.

    In the long run I think only the buses which are primarily shuttles to the subway will survive. There’s not enough elderly, disabled, or poor to keep non-shuttles in service, even in NYC.

  • Wanderer

    MTA can’t plan for the reasonable role of buses as long as the subway remains largely inaccessible to persons with disabilities (weaknesses really). The buses are carrying trips which logically should be on the subways, but the passengers can’t get to the subway. Redistributing the trips would help bus operations.

    300-400 feet is really close for bus stops. There’s no reason to have bus stops that close except under extraordinary circumstances.

    It does take longer for people to walk farther to bus stops. So if MTA or any transit agency is going to take out bus stops, it needs to take out multiple stops. I as a passenger am hosed if just my bus stop is taken out, it’s a pure loss for me. But it other stops are taken out, speeding my trip, then I’m benefitted.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I’m the only person left in my family who will take a bus rather than a Lyft. Lyft is so easy, and the bill doesn’t come until later. So people decide “I’m tired” or “it’s a bad day” or “I want to treat myself.”

    We almost never, ever took taxis. Those were for the rich.

    And since I bike a lot of the time, I’m the only person in my family who doesn’t have an unlimited ride monthly. So just based on what they want, not on principle, they are passing on free rides rather than wait for the bus.

    Given the bike, it’s only a couple of bus rides a month for me. I’ll do more when I’m older and retired, I suppose — if there is still a bus to take. But that’s half fare.

    They need to look at that fare recovery level. For the subway, it has to go up, to cover the entire cost on an auto-equivalent basis.

    https://larrylittlefield.wordpress.com/2014/02/26/the-nyc-subway-and-mta-commuter-rail-lines-need-to-cover-their-costs-on-an-auto-equivalent-basis/

    For local buses (not SBS), given all the half fares for seniors, free transit for school children, free transfers to the subway, at some point the fare recovery level is so low that you’d be better off not collecting fares — especially if that would lure people away from paratransit.

  • sbauman

    simply because buses are so much worse for the customer than growing alternatives — some of which are supported here.

    Bicycles. Bikeshare. E-bikes. E-scooters. E-skakeboards.

    NYMTC’s 2017 Hub Bound Report supports this. The 60th St cordon counted 28,749 inbound NYCT and MTA bus passengers over a 24 hour period. Also counted on the same cordon were 21,324 inbound bike riders between 6am and midnight.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I theory this is better. Bicycles provide health benefits, and have far less call on public resources than highly subsidized buses.

    It’s time to recognize that rail and BRT are transportation systems that need to cover their non-ROW and station costs.

    But buses are a social service for most people with so many people already allowed to pay less or nothing — subway transfers, seniors, disabled, school children — that one wonders if it is worth charging at all.

    Let me give you an example of that is happening. My daughter, who grew up riding transit and takes the subway to work every day, had to pick up a table purchased off Craigslist in Bay Ridge. There was a service change on the F, so she couldn’t take the F to R. So she took Lyft both ways, not just one way — home with the table.

    She lives in Kensington. I pointed out that she could have taken the very frequent B35 bus from steps away from here apartment, to 5th Avenue and the B63 or 4th Avenue and the R. She DIDN’T EVEN THINK OF IT until I told here. The financial impact? She lost $10, because she had an unlimited ride card, and the bus would be free. On the other hand, the MTA lost no revenue, for that same reason.

  • david

    I’m all for speeding up the bus but many stops being eliminated are on grand street which is a naturally occurring retirement community. I don’t see much mention of grand street in this story.

  • Joe R.

    It also makes sense to charge less, or even nothing, for the bus since it’s a greatly inferior alternative to the subway. There are loads of people who would gladly take a train if it existed but will never set foot on a bus. Making the bus free might capture some of that market. Charging the same as a train fare won’t.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I’m told that for the kind of short trips typically served by bus, Lyft now offers an option that only costs $3.

    It is a shared ride that drops you off perhaps a block away from your destination, rather than directly at the destination, so the driver doesn’t have to take extra time going around the block due to one-way streets.

    So you get get a ride that gets you closer than a bus, with less of a wait than a bus (as long as there are lots of Lyft drivers about any one of them can be less reliable than a bus with the system being vastly more reliable that a bus), with a seat and less crowding. For nearly the same cost as a bus.

    We took one to pick up a rental car yesterday. If that really did cost $3, buses are toast as along was investors are willing to subsidize Lyft.

  • sid

    not in NYCity…and the airline industry was massively subsidized by the US mail…

  • HamTech87

    Here’s a suburban perspective:
    1. In many suburban downtowns, there is often large spacing between stops. This was not done to improve service, but to replace bus stops with car parking spaces. You often see more stop density outside of downtowns where there is a lot of parking supply.
    2. Decisions around the spacing of stops has to consider the existence and quality of paths to reach those stops. In the suburbs, sidewalks connecting stops often don’t exist even on scary, car-filled, and fast arterial and connector roads. Reaching a stop farther away can be a life-or-death experience. Also, the cul de sac nature of much of the suburbs means that you can’t reach alternative stops any other way. There is no ‘safer’ street to walk on.

  • All great points, HamTech87.

  • 6SJ7

    She was going to carry a table on the subway?

  • 6SJ7

    It’s counter-intuitive but vehicle ownership in NYC has actually increased in the last few years.

    NYSDMV stats:
    2017 (last year available) – https://dmv.ny.gov/statistic/2017reginforce-web.pdf
    2014 – https://dmv.ny.gov/statistic/2014reginforce-web.pdf

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