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Mayor de Blasio Needs to Step Up to Keep L Train Passengers Moving

This morning the MTA announced that starting in 2019, it will close the L train between Eighth Avenue and Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg for 18 months to repair damage caused by Superstorm Sandy — surprising no one who’s been paying attention.

For several months now, it’s been obvious that the MTA and the de Blasio administration will have to work together on a plan to keep hundreds of thousands of L train passengers moving during these repairs. The MTA will have to adjust subway service and run more buses, and the city will have to allocate space on the streets for high-capacity busways and safe bicycling.

But in a statement to the Times, Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris framed the shutdown as a problem of the MTA’s own making:

We are deeply concerned that it would announce an 18-month shutdown of this critical service without a clear plan or a commitment of resources for mitigating the impact of this closure on hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers. Well before this shutdown occurs, New Yorkers deserve clarity from the M.T.A. on how it intends to minimize inconvenience and keep people moving throughout the duration of the construction.

And when Mayor de Blasio addressed the L train shutdown this morning, he didn’t stray from that message:

So, we’re looking at that very seriously. First of all, I’ll remind everyone the MTA is run by the State of New York. The amount of time that they have projected — the 18 months — is a very big concern for me and for the City government. We’re going to have some very serious conversations about the MTA, about whether it has to take that long and how it’s going to be handled. I want to make sure there’s a lot of redundancy in place. By the time it happens, one — small but important factors — we’ll have the citywide ferry service in place, so that’ll be helpful, but we’re going to need a lot more than that, obviously. So I want to press the MTA to show us that 300,000 riders really will have good and consistent alternatives. And we’re certainly going to look at what we have to do in terms of the bridge as part of that. We’ll have an answer on that after those discussions with the MTA.

Noticeably absent from de Blasio’s statement is a specific mention of buses and bikes as “redundancy” measures. Ferries can help, but setting aside street space to move large numbers of bus passengers and bike riders will do more to make up for the loss of L train service.

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Stuck With Slow Bus Service? Cuomo Is Completely Oblivious to Your Pain

You can tell Governor Cuomo doesn’t get on a New York City bus unless it’s for a photo-op about on-board USB ports.

The latest evidence came yesterday, after a coalition of transit advocates released a major report on the deterioration of bus service in New York City. With bus speeds declining, ridership has dropped 16 percent since 2002. In their “Turnaround” report [PDF], TransitCenter and other advocates outline proven techniques to improve bus service, pointedly noting that it will take concerted political leadership to reverse the decline of the city’s bus system.

Cuomo is the politician whose leadership is needed most. But Politico’s Dana Rubinstein reports that the governor blew off a question about improving bus service yesterday afternoon. “If people in Manhattan are choosing to jump on the subway because the subway is faster, because there’s traffic that a bus has to deal with,” he said, “that’s not an imprudent choice, right?”

In one sentence, the governor betrayed his ignorance of NYC’s bus system in several ways. Here are three of them.

Buses and trains don’t do the same things

The subway system is largely a radial network, with lines converging in Manhattan below 60th Street and extending out from there. It works well for an astounding number of trips, but New Yorkers still have to get places that the subway doesn’t reach efficiently. For these trips, there is no parallel subway service that people can just “jump on” instead of taking the bus.

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It’s Time to Think Big to Turn Around Lousy Bus Service in NYC

 Image: TransitCenter

Bus ridership has dropped 16 percent in NYC since 2002, even as population and subway ridership have increased. Image: TransitCenter

Bus service in New York is getting worse and losing riders, and unless policy makers step in and make systemwide improvements, those trends may accelerate in a vicious cycle. New York can turn things around, advocates say, with a suite of policies to get buses moving quickly and reliably again.

Today a coalition of transit advocates unveiled their blueprint to fix the city’s surface transit system and win riders back over. The solutions they propose in “Turnaround: Fixing New York City’s Buses,” a new report from TransitCenter, are broad and thorough but eminently achievable — rethinking the bus network, modernizing fare technology and dispatching, and expanding street design features that have already sped service on a handful of routes to improve routes all over the city.

The poor state of bus service in New York amounts to a crisis, said Riders Alliance Executive Director John Raskin. With an average weekday speed of 7.4 mph, New York’s buses are among the slowest in the nation, and they’re getting slower. Making matters worse is the lack of reliability — traffic congestion, lengthy routes, and shoddy dispatching often cause long gaps in service as buses bunch up in clusters of two or more vehicles.

It’s no wonder that bus ridership in New York has steadily declined even as population and jobs have increased.

TransitCenter’s report touches on a number of ways the MTA and NYC DOT should improve bus speeds and reliability while redesigning routes to reflect current rider needs, including:

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That’s More Like It: Cuomo and MTA Commit to High-Capacity Subway Cars

Governor Cuomo and the MTA announced today that up to 750 of over one thousand new subway cars will have "open gangway" designs. Image: MTA/NY Governor's Office

Governor Cuomo announced today that the MTA will purchase up to 750 subway cars with open gangways. Image: MTA/NY Governor’s Office

After spending the first half of the year touting frills like Wi-Fi and charging ports on buses, Governor Cuomo finally delivered some news this morning that will make a real difference to transit riders. The MTA plans to buy hundreds of open gangway subway cars, which can carry more passengers and help relieve crowding on maxed-out lines.

Later this week, the MTA will release its request for proposals for the construction of 1,025 new subway cars, up to 750 of which will have the open gangway design, as well as an RFP for the redesign and construction of the first three stations of 31 across the city slated for upgrades.

Open gangways are accordion-like passageways between cars, which create a nearly seamless space inside the train and yield as much as 10 percent additional capacity. The train design unveiled this morning also calls for 58-inch-wide doors, which the MTA said will speed boarding 32 percent compared to the current 50-inch design.

Both design changes should improve reliability by reducing crowding-related delays, which the MTA says account for a substantial share of all subway delays.

Previously, the MTA had said that it would only try out 10 open gangway cars in its next train purchase. A purchase of 750 cars is a vast improvement and should make a noticeable difference on crowded lines, though the MTA has yet to announce where the new cars will be deployed. It also bodes well for future purchases as the MTA refreshes its 6,400-car subway fleet.

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When Cuomo Talks About Transit, He Doesn’t Talk About What Riders Want

In four MTA-related speeches this year, Governor Andrew Cuomo said much more about Wi-Fi and cell phones than fast, reliable transit.

In four MTA-related speeches this year, Governor Andrew Cuomo said much more about Wi-Fi and cell phones than fast, reliable transit.

There’s a huge disconnect between the way Governor Andrew Cuomo talks about transit improvements and the service upgrades that transit riders actually want to see.

You're phone will have plenty of time to get to full battery on NYC's slowest buses in the nation. Photo: YouTube/NY Governor's Office

Your phone will have plenty of time to charge on NYC’s slower-than-walking buses. Photo: YouTube/NY Governor’s Office

Cuomo began the year hyping his “transformative” agenda for the MTA. But to hear the governor tell it, the future of transit in New York City is all about bells and whistles like USB charging stations and underground Wi-Fi. In four major MTA-related speeches or announcements so far this year, Cuomo mentioned “technology,” Wi-Fi, and mobile devices more than twice as much as basics like reliability, speed, and frequent service.

But it’s the basics that matter most to transit riders, according to a major report released by TransitCenter earlier this week [PDF]. In a survey of 3,000 transit riders across the nation, charging outlets and Wi-Fi ranked dead last on their priorities for service improvements.

What improvements do transit riders want? Shorter trip times, more frequent service, and affordable fares ranked at the top:

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B44 Moving 15-30 Percent Faster After Select Bus Service Upgrades

Total travel times have gone down since the implementation of Select Bus Service on the B44 route. Image: DOT/MTA

Total travel times have improved 15-30 percent since the implementation of Select Bus Service on the B44. Image: DOT/MTA

As bus speeds decline in NYC, the few routes that are getting dedicated bus lanes and off-board fare collection are bucking the trend. The newest evidence comes from the B44 route along Nostrand Avenue and Rogers Avenue in Brooklyn, where buses are moving 15-30 percent faster since NYC DOT and the MTA upgraded the line to Select Bus Service, according to an update the agencies released yesterday [PDF]. Ridership on the route increased in 2015, going against the borough-wide pattern, following years of ridership losses before and during SBS implementation.

SBS upgrades make routes faster and more reliable via camera-enforced bus lanes, off-board fare collection, bus bulbs that expand waiting areas and enable bus drivers to make stops without pulling in and out of traffic, stop consolidation, and traffic signals that prioritize buses. On the B44, which runs between Sheepshead Bay and Williamsburg, total northbound travel times improved 31 percent during the morning peak and 20 percent in the evening after SBS launched. Southbound travel times improved by 19 percent in the morning and 15 percent in the evening.

The SBS improvements reduced the amount of time B44 buses spend motionless at stops, traffic lights, and stuck behind general traffic. While total time in motion before and after SBS remained relatively steady on the B44, it now accounts for 57 percent of travel time, compared to 45 percent before implementation.

The most substantial reductions in travel time occurred where dedicated bus lanes were installed, primarily north of the intersection of Nostrand and Flatbush Avenue. Between Flatbush and Fulton Street, where most of the bus lanes were installed, northbound travel times improved by 37 percent in the morning and 33 percent in the evening. (The lack of bus lanes on the southern part of the route shows: The agencies note that overall B44 speeds are lower than on other bus lines where DOT installed dedicated lanes along the entire route.)

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Maloney: Use L Train Shutdown to “Upgrade Our Bus Service”

New York City should use the impending L train shutdown to make long-term improvements to bus service, U.S. Representative Carolyn Maloney said at a public forum last night.

Carolyn Maloney

Carolyn Maloney

To repair the Sandy-damaged L train tunnel under the East River, the MTA will either close the subway line west of Williamsburg entirely for 18 months or run it at 20 percent capacity for three years. A decision is expected in the next few months, but in either scenario, hundreds of thousands of people will need other ways to get around.

Maloney’s district encompasses both sides of the river. Speaking after an MTA presentation on the project to a joint meeting of Manhattan community boards 3 and 6, she said her Brooklyn constituents have made it clear they need answers as soon as possible.

“We can sort of grab this time to upgrade our bus service, which always needs to happen,” Maloney told the room. “A lot of times when you start a service, it never ends, you know, we hold onto it. You’ll get 30,000 people doing it every day, it’ll be impossible for them to cut it.”

More efficient bus service along 14th Street will be needed to make up for the loss of the L train. It would also help the tens of thousands of people who already ride buses in sluggish 14th Street traffic. Last week, Transportation Alternatives and the Riders Alliance launched a campaign to turn the corridor into a car-free “PeopleWay” dedicated solely to buses, biking, and walking.

MTA reps last night said that signal priority and dedicated bus lanes will be essential to keeping people moving, but that the city — not the transit authority — has the final say on the design of the street.

When TA volunteer Willow Stelzer asked about making 14th Street off-limits to private motor vehicles, New York City Transit Vice President for Government and Community Relations Lois Tendler said that MTA is working on a traffic study in cooperation with NYC DOT.

“I think there is a recognition that we all have to think bold,” Tendler said. “If, you know, out of lemons you make lemonade, 14th Street could be a very interesting proposition for the whole city.”

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MTA Says Proof of Payment May Increase Fare Evasion, History Says Otherwise

The introduction of the MTA's "Eagle Team," which checks for fare compliance on city bus routes, has resulted in a decrease in fare evasion. Image: MTA

The introduction of proof of payment on Select Bus Service routes has resulted in less fare evasion, not more. Image: MTA

Last week, transit advocates called on the MTA to ensure that its next-generation fare payment system allows for “electronic proof of payment” on buses. By enabling bus riders to board without dipping a farecard or carrying a paper receipt, such a system would simplify and speed up the boarding process, saving passengers time on every route in the city.

In response, the MTA cited the “threat of fare evasion” as a reason not to embrace electronic proof of payment. But experience suggests there’s no cause for concern. In fact, in San Francisco and right here in New York, proof of payment systems have led to less fare evasion, not more.

New York’s Select Bus Service routes rely on proof of payment via ticket vending machines and paper receipts to speed up trips. To ensure people don’t cheat the system, inspectors occasionally check for receipts on board. The MTA’s own data show that on these routes, fare evasion is lower with the proof of payment system than without — between 50 and 80 percent lower, depending on the route.

The experience has been similar in San Francisco, where the SF Municipal Transportation Agency implemented proof of payment and all-door boarding on its bus lines in 2012. A 2014 SFMTA report on all-door boarding showed that fare evasion continued to decline after the new fare system was implemented. The rate decreased from 9.5 percent to 7.9 percent between 2009 and 2014.

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Will the MTA Waste Its Opportunity to Save NYC Bus Riders a Ton of Time?

B44 SBS upgrades existing limited-stop service with bus lanes and other improvements. Photo: Stephen Miller

Only a few bus routes in NYC, like the B44 Select Bus Service, allow riders to enter at any door. The MTA’s next-generation fare payment system could expand all-door boarding to every route in the city. Photo: Stephen Miller

The MTA’s next-generation fare payment system can greatly speed up buses all over the city by allowing passengers to board much faster, but so far the agency hasn’t required bidders for the fare system contract to include such technology. With proposals due July 13, a coalition led by the Riders Alliance is calling on the MTA to make the most of this opportunity to improve travel times on NYC’s notoriously slow buses.

The system that advocates urge the MTA to adopt, known as “electronic proof of payment,” would allow riders to board without worrying about dipping a farecard or even carrying a paper receipt. Instead, riders could use mobile devices, credit cards, or electronic farecards to pay either before boarding, or by quickly scanning the fare media at any door as they board. The system would be enforced by on-board ticket agents who check whether riders paid their fares.

On crowded bus routes, this would mean a boarding process that currently takes minutes at each stop would only take seconds.

The problem is that electronic proof of payment is not mentioned in the MTA’s request for proposals. Without such a system, the MTA might waste a once-in-a-generation opportunity to improve bus service for millions of passengers each day.

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Brewer to DOT: Start Looking Into a Bus-Only 14th Street

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer wants bus-only lanes on 14th Street. Photo: David Meyer

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer wants the city to study making 14th Street car-free so buses can carry the load while the L train is shut down for repairs. Photo: David Meyer

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer is calling on DOT to study making 14th Street a bus-only thoroughfare while L train service is disrupted during Sandy-related repairs.

To allow for urgently-needed fixes to the L train tunnel, the MTA is considering either a full shutdown of service between Bedford Avenue and Eighth Avenue for 18 months, or a three-year variation that preserves about 20 percent of current service. At a press event this morning, the Riders Alliance revealed that most L train riders who responded to an online survey prefer to get it over with in 18 months — a position the MTA seems to share.

In either case, said Riders Alliance Deputy Director Nick Sifuentes, the city and the MTA need to take steps to keep people moving: “No matter what the MTA does, a shutdown will profoundly change transportation options for commuters on both sides of the East River.” Sifuentes said survey respondents “called broadly for robust, supplementary bus service in Manhattan and Brooklyn.”

In the survey, respondents suggested bus lanes in both Brooklyn and Manhattan and along the Williamsburg Bridge, as well as a number of other measures, including Citi Bike expansion, more capacity for bicycling on the Williamsburg Bridge, increased service on nearby subway lines, and increased ferry service.

“The shutdown will not be easy, but a robust set of alternatives would reduce the pain,” said Kate Slevin of the Regional Plan Association. “For example, 14th Street could become reserved for buses, pedestrians and bikes, and the Williamsburg Bridge could offer dedicated bike and bus routes. The MTA and DOT need to be bold.”

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