Op-Ed: The Queens Bus-Network Redesign May Hurt Transit Deserts

The MTA plan would strand Eastern Queens residents and send them back to their cars. But better, cheaper LIRR access could be a game changer.

Bus access to LIRR stations such as Auburndale, and reduced LIRR fares, could help residents of Eastern Queens's transit deserts. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Bus access to LIRR stations such as Auburndale, and reduced LIRR fares, could help residents of Eastern Queens's transit deserts. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

City & State NY is hosting a full day New York in Transit summit on Jan. 30 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. This summit will bring together experts to assess the current state of New York’s transportation systems, break down recent legislative actions, and look towards the future of all things coming and going in New York. Join Keynote Speaker Polly Trottenberg, commissioner of the NYC Department of Transportation, along with agency leaders, elected officials, and advocates. Use the code STREETSBLOG for a 25-percent discount when you RSVP here!

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s recently released Queens bus-network draft redesign proposes to curtail express-bus service in the transit deserts of Eastern Queens in order to improve service borough-wide, including in transit-rich areas.

That’s unfair, and the MTA ought to fix it. A better redesign would treat the MTA services in Queens — the buses, subways, and the Long Island Rail Road — as an integrated system. The key would be to provide better bus access to — and cheaper fares on — the LIRR, and to create dedicated lanes to Manhattan for remaining express routes. Otherwise, the MTA risks sending Eastern Queens residents back to their cars.

Joby Jacob
Joby Jacob

It’s true, as the MTA explained recently in its blueprint for Queens buses, “A Better Way Forward,” that almost all Queens express-bus routes need large subsidies — some to the tune of an eye-popping $52 a day per rider — and that redistributing that money to local buses would serve more riders. The bus planners and some advocates see express buses as a “premium commuting service” — which may be true in neighborhoods near subways. 

But the express bus is a lifeline for people with mobility issues and for neighborhoods — such as Bay Terrace, Fresh Meadows, Glen Oaks, and Oakland Gardens — far from subway lines. The redesign cuts service in these neighborhoods from all-day, seven-day service to weekday rush hours only — even as passengers in those neighborhoods, lacking transit choices, rely on express buses. Stranding these riders exposes the failure of the redesign to look at buses as part of an integrated MTA system that includes buses, subways, and the LIRR.

For example, the plan doesn’t include: bus stops at Station Road near the LIRR’s Auburndale Station for the QT84 and QT64; a route that connects Glen Oaks to either the  Little Neck or Floral Park LIRR stations; or service to Hollis Station (although several buses pass nearby). 

Better access to the LIRR would be a game changer for many residents in Eastern Queens — providing them with faster, more reliable service to fill in express-bus service gaps. 

Yet an LIRR monthly pass and unlimited MetroCard for a Bayside resident costs a combined $357, for about $9 a trip. That is way too expensive to be a replacement for express-bus service, which costs $6.50 a ride. 

The LIRR runs under capacity during weekend and off-peak hours. It could pick up the slack for express buses at those times today. The MTA could reduce off-peak fares on the LIRR and provide free transfers between buses, subways and the LIRR — by adopting some form of Comptroller Scott Stringer’s proposal to make the commuter-rail fare the same $2.75 as the buses and subways within city limits. 

A map shows the MTA's proposed Queens express-bus network. Image: MTA
A map shows the MTA’s proposed Queens express-bus network. Image: MTA

Presumably, once the East Side Access project is complete (scheduled for the end of 2022) this fare reduction could become 24/7. East Side Access will enable the LIRR to run another 24 trains an hour to Grand Central Terminal, giving the LIRR the capacity to take on more riders.

Along with express-bus service cuts, the MTA also proposes to reroute three Eastern Queens express buses to Hudson Yards  — the QM1, x64, and x68 — renaming them the QMT115, QMT116 and QMT117. The rerouting provides a unique opportunity to adopt best practices from New Jersey’s profitable express bus system, which is successful largely because it has dedicated lanes and easy subway transfers. 

The MTA should work with the Department of Transportation to establish bus-only lanes on the Long Island Expressway, the Queens-Midtown Tunnel and 34th Street. Such lanes would keep the express buses moving and boost ridership and profitability. 

Better service for Queens as a whole cannot come at the expense of Eastern Queens neighborhoods that don’t have the same choices as others. To cut our car-free options right in front of the introduction of congestion pricing in 2021 only works to encourage more driving even as driving costs more. The accommodations I’ve outlined would reassure Northeast and Southeast Queens residents that the MTA is giving them something to replace our express-bus service. In its current form, the redesign is unacceptable.

Joby Jacob (@Joby_Jacob) volunteers for Transportation Alternatives Eastern Queens Committee and founded Motor Parkway East.

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