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Bus Week

City Traffic Helps Make Bus Service Unbearable, Expensive And Difficult To Improve

Bus riders didn't win the same kind of improvements as subway riders. And here's why.

File photo: Gersh Kuntzman|

Pity the poor bus rider.

It's Bus Week!

Welcome to Streetsblog's annual "Bus Week," where we'll spend the next five days exploring why New York City buses are so horrible, what can be done about it, and what Mayor Adams is and is not doing. We opened with a look at Bus Rapid Transit, a global phenomenon that New York turns into a pale facsimile. And today, we'll look at shortcomings in Albany. For all "Bus Week" coverage, click here.

New York City congestion costs bus riders better service in Albany this year.

Transit advocates won a number of victories to shore up the MTA's finances in Albany in 2023, and also managed to snag $35 million worth of targeted service increases on 11 subway lines throughout the city. Those service increases didn't achieve the holy grail of six-minute subway service that the Fix the MTA campaign sought, but they did chop two minutes off scheduled subway wait times for more than three million riders.

But bus riders didn't win the same kind of guarantee, even though the Fix the MTA campaign specifically sought an across-the-board frequency increase of 20 percent. That ask couldn't be realized for one simple reason: city streets are so traffic-clogged that buses can't be sped up that much.

"Their calculation was it didn't make sense because it was going to cost more and achieve less," a source familiar with the MTA's stance during this spring's budget negotiations.

Bus service is expensive in New York City compared other cities, especially in terms of efficiency. For instance, a New York bus costs $35.06 per vehicle revenue mile (the amount of miles a vehicle travels when in service) compared to $15.82 for the subway in 2022, according to the MTA. In Chicago, buses cost $17.35 per vehicle revenue mile, and bringing New York buses up to Windy City efficiency standards could save the MTA over $2 billion per year.

Bus service is also three times more expensive than subway service per passenger mile traveled, coming in at $2.66 versus $0.76 for the subway.

Buses will never beat a subway in terms of the total number of people one bus can move compared to a full subway train. But that doesn't mean buses need to provide significantly less bang for their buck, which is what happens when they're caught in a sea of double parked cars and trucks parked in the bus lane.

Pity the poor bus rider. On a bus, stuck in traffic.File photo: Gersh Kuntzman

And that inefficiency costs more than just money. It also eats into the argument for investing more money in bus service.

"Bus trips are more heavily subsidized than subway trips, just because one operator moves many fewer people than one subway train, that that is the sort of absolute inefficiency of adding bus service as opposed to subway service," said Riders Alliance Director of Police and Communications Danny Pearlstein. "But then the relative inefficiency is also that the MTA can't control the reliability of buses because they operate on city streets."

But legislators who represent bus-dependent parts of the city still want increases in bus service in their neighborhoods.

"Traffic is like the third sure thing in life," said state Sen. John Liu (D-Flushing. "The schedules can and should be worked around the given of traffic. The reality is that there are plenty of parts of the city, especially in Queens, where the traffic does move, and we need more bus service."

Liu said that even with this year's budget wins for the MTA, legislators aren't opposed to finding more money for targeted improvements, meaning there's a path in Albany to more frequent bus service. And even without adding money directly for service this year, the legislature at least allowed the MTA to ramp up the use of Automated Bus Lane Enforcement cameras and start zapping drivers who park in bus stops and double park.

ABLE cameras have improved bus speeds by 5 percent on routes where they're used, and faster buses are of course one way to get more bus service for less money, as the Citizens Budget Commission pointed out in a policy brief on MTA finances in the dark days of 2021. Back then, the budget hawks said that a 15-percent increase in bus speeds could save the MTA $268 million per year.

"A more attainable 15-percent increase in bus speed would permit an average reduction of 13 percent of vehicle-hours while still delivering the same total number of vehicle-miles and system wide average bus stop frequencies," the organization's reachers wrote at the time.

That being said, advocates for riders want those efficiencies to lead to service increases, not fiscal trimming.

"We need more and better bus service. The lesson of the past year is that they're intertwined," said Pearlstein. "With better service, the path to more service is a much clearer one. Both because it's more efficient, it's more affordable, and it's more justifiable because the MTA knows those buses will actually move and not just sit in traffic."

Unfortunately, city streets have proven hostile to the prospect of faster buses, especially as more and more New Yorkers have gone out and bought cars. Local, limited and Select Bus Service were moving at 7.5 miles an hour as of September 2023, the exact same speed they were running in September 2018.

That state of affairs earned then-Mayor Bill de Blasio the nickname Bill de Busisslow. His successor, Eric Adams, has not received a rude bus-themed nickname yet, but advocates are already questioning his support due to his seeming disinterest in building out bus priority projects, the cancellation of an upgraded Fordham Road bus lane and the disappearance of the Flatbush Avenue bus lane effort.

Adams's first busway will finally open on Tuesday on Livingston Street in Downtown Brooklyn. The mayor started his administration promising to build 150 miles of bus lanes in four years, but recently told Department of Transportation employees that reaching a specific mileage target is not something he thinks will be part of his legacy.

Obviously, traffic isn't the only thing that slows down buses. City bus stops are notoriously close together compared to international peers, which means buses are constantly stopping and starting. The buses also run on long and circuitous routes that haven't been updated in decades, forcing drivers to navigate tight streets and wait out traffic to make left turns.

So on the MTA's part, there's a need for effective and useful bus redesigns in Queens and Brooklyn that can mirror the results in the Bronx. After the bus redesign went into effect in the Boogie Down in June 2022, bus speeds on local, limited and SBS buses have regularly averaged over 7 miles per hour, something that was not happening in 2018.

The agency had to restart the process in Queens, after a disastrous rollout that maybe sought to make the bus too efficient, by ripping up the map and starting again. The redesign also took flack because it was said to be revenue neutral, meaning there was no promise that the money saved from a new and more efficient map would go to more service, whereas the new Queens map creates 19 new lines out of thin air or by combining pieces of existing lines into new bus service.

The MTA also declared the Brooklyn bus redesign would not be revenue neutral, but that bus redesign effort relies on lots of nice ideas about making investments and improvements in bus priority corridors — which, as previously discussed, are no longer part of the mayor's legacy.

The DOT did not respond to a request for comment.

A spokesperson for the MTA did not dispute the tenor of the budget negotiations, but focused on the fact that the transit system survived at all.

"The debate this year was not about subways vs. buses," said MTA spokesperson Mike Cortez. "It was about whether there would be adequate funding for all of mass transit to continue without massive service cuts and layoffs, and fortunately Gov. Hochul stepped up to assure its survival."

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