Off-Board Fare Payment Means MTA Can Run 24 More 34th St. Buses a Day

Between Ninth Avenue and Third Avenue, the proposal for 34th Street calls for a curbside bus lane on one side of the street and an off-set bus lane with expanded pedestrian space and loading zones on the other. Nearer to the rivers, the bus lanes would be off-set on both sides of the street. Image: NYC DOT

Changes to bus service on 34th Street have improved travel times and bus frequencies and have increased ridership, according to MTA data presented to the transportation committee of Manhattan Community Board 6 last night. Even speedier and more reliable crosstown rides are expected after the next stages of the street redesign are phased in over the next two years.

The improvements to date are already speeding up these famously sluggish crosstown buses. (The M34 won a “Pokey Award” from the Straphangers Campaign in 2004.) Travel times are down 10 percent on 34th Street thanks to the addition of off-board fare payment, according to the MTA’s preliminary findings. By letting passengers pay their fare ahead of time, rather than queue up at the front of the bus to dip their MetroCards one-by-one, M34 and M34A Select Bus Service lines can spend more time in motion and less time at the curb.

Faster speeds don’t just mean quicker trips once you’re on the bus, either. “With that reduced travel time,” explained the MTA’s Joe Chiarmonte, “we’ve been able to increase frequency of the trips.” With off-board fare payment, the MTA has been able to add 24 more trips a day, except on Sunday, when 12 new trips were added.

Faster, more frequent buses mean more riders. At a time when bus ridership is decreasing across Manhattan, ridership on the two 34th Street routes has increased from around 18,000 passengers a day to 20,000 or 21,000. “It’s trending upwards,” said Chiarmonte.

Unlike other routes, 34th Street Select Bus Service is being rolled out feature by feature, and the plans aren’t complete yet. The corridor got bus lanes in 2008, but they’re next to the curb and are consistently blocked by stopped taxis, private cars, and parked police officers. The bus lanes will next be moved away from the curb under plans agreed upon last year, after a more ambitious redesign of the corridor was scuttled due to opposition from Midtown real estate interests.

Construction on the new 34th Street will take place in stages, said a DOT representative, with work west of Lexington Avenue completed by 2013 and work to the east finished by 2014. Once finished, curbside space will be reallocated to make room for a combination of bus bulbs, loading zones and turn lanes. One lane in each direction will remain for general traffic.

The CB 6 committee, not known for embracing changes to the street, didn’t talk much about the thrust of the plan. But there were heated arguments about the details, especially the use of curbside space. Some wanted more dedicated space for special uses like medical centers and hotels; others less. Some wanted more turn lanes.

The most controversial question was the removal of local bus stops at Madison and Lexington Avenues in order to speed up the new SBS service. Around 15 people raised their hands when asked whether they’d like to see the stops restored, even at the cost of slower trips and fewer bus runs. Many argued that it was important to prioritize senior citizens who live in the neighborhood over commuters and others who might prefer faster trips. “The tourists I could care less about and the outer boroughs are not important,” said board member Bob Cohen, who has consistently opposed the bus project.

DOT and MTA reps did not seem amenable to further large-scale revisions of the much-debated project at this point, including the reinstatement of the local bus stops.