Council Members Call for Countdown Clocks at Bus Shelters

With BusTime set to expand citywide by the end of 2013, after launches in Staten Island, the Bronx and with pilot routes in Brooklyn and Manhattan, City Council members want to bring that technology to the streets — or more specifically, the bus stop — and are asking MTA, DOT and bus shelter operator Cemusa to help make it happen.

Council Member Brad Lander speaks at today's press conference. On the bus shelter behind him is a mock bus countdown clock. Photo: Stephen Miller

To that end, Council Member Brad Lander announced a resolution this afternoon at a bus stop outside City Hall, joined by representatives from Transportation Alternatives, the Straphangers Campaign, Riders Alliance and Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled.

With countdown clocks already available in many subway stations, Lander and advocates say bus riders deserve the same convenience, and that not everyone has access to a cell phone or the Internet before catching a bus.

“New Yorkers are an impatient people,” said John Raskin, of Riders Alliance. “We are not good at waiting. But we are much better at waiting when we know how long we have to wait.”

Lander’s office estimates that the counters cost between $4,000 and $6,000 to purchase and between $1,000 and $1,600 to maintain each year, based on figures from other cities with bus countdown clocks, including Washington, DC, Boston, Albany and Syracuse.

The MTA has argued that countdown clocks at bus stops provide marginal benefit to riders at relatively high costs, and is focused on rolling out its BusTime program citywide by the end of next year.

By that time, Lander would like a plan for bringing countdown clocks to the city’s 3,300 bus shelters. The route to achieving that goal is murky; Lander introduced the resolution to start the discussion.

Lander said that, ideally, revenue from advertising on countdown screens would fund the installation and maintenance of the clocks. If advertising could not cover all costs, he suggested they could be borne in part by Business Improvement Districts, council member discretionary funds or other local partners interested in bringing clocks to their areas. Lander added that bus countdown clocks were a popular idea during the last round of participatory budgeting in his district.

However they are funded, bus countdown clocks would have to go through the citywide street furniture contract held by Cemusa and managed by DOT. The contract does not specify the terms of how countdown clocks would be installed and would require negotiations between the city and Cemusa, according to the resolution.

“They need a brand new framework to do it,” Lander said. “They either need to reopen the Cemusa agreement, or establish a new agreement.”

DOT said it “is currently working on a project to bring real-time bus arrival information to bus stops around the city,” but would not provide details.

BusTime, a project of Streetsblog’s parent organization OpenPlans, makes the real-time locations of buses public, so users can see online or via text message how many stops away their ride is. Although the service does not provide an estimate of how long a rider will wait for a bus, bus location data is available to developers who are free to develop these services.

This isn’t the first time New York City has broached the development of bus countdown clocks, with unsuccessful attempts dating to 1996 and 2005:

Other sponsors of the resolution introduced today include Levin, Sara González and Vincent Gentile of Brooklyn and, from Staten Island, Debi Rose and Vincent Ignizio. Council Member James Oddo and transportation committee chair James Vacca were also named by Lander as supporters, though neither is listed as a co-sponsor.

Council Member Mark Weprin passed the press conference on his way to City Hall. Streetsblog asked if he would like to see bus countdown clocks in his district. “Absolutely,” he said. “How many hours do you spend out there in the cold and the rain? This way you can go get a cup of coffee.”