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NYC Buses: Time for a Turnaround

New Yorkers take 2.5 million rides on the city’s buses every day. While NYC’s buses provide essential transit, especially in areas beyond the reach of the subway, they are among the nation’s slowest and least reliable.

Now a coalition of transit advocates are promoting practical strategies to improve the performance of NYC buses systemwide.

Transit advocates knew something was wrong when they observed declining bus ridership despite increasing population, a growing economy, and record-high subway ridership. To figure out what could be done about it, they spoke to industry experts and researched successful efforts in peer cities to identify common sense solutions to NYC’s bus problems. This research is summarized in their report “Turnaround: Fixing New York City’s Buses”.

The bus system faces big challenges, but these challenges have clear, proven solutions. By transforming how riders get on and off the bus, designing streets to prioritize buses, adopting better methods to keep buses on schedule, and redesigning the bus network and routes, policy makers in city government and the MTA can turn around the decline of the city’s buses and attract riders back to the system.

We’ll get to see how serious public officials are about tackling these problems on October 6, when the City Council transportation committee holds an oversight hearing on how to improve the quality of NYC bus service.

This Streetfilm was produced in partnership with TransitCenter, the second in a series of four films examining transit in American cities. If you enjoyed this one, check out the first film, “High Frequency: Why Houston is Back on the Bus.”

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How the MTA Can Improve Access-a-Ride Service While Cutting Costs

The per-ride cost of New York's paratransit service far outpaces those of other cities. Image: Citizens Budget Commission of NY

The cost per trip of the MTA’s paratransit service is staggering. Table: Citizens Budget Commission of NY

For customers, the price of a trip on Access-A-Ride, the MTA’s service for New Yorkers with disabilities, is the same as a subway fare. But for the MTA, the cost of providing the service is much higher. At $72.65 per trip (the cost has risen since 2014, when the figures for the above table were compiled), Access-A-Ride is the most expensive paratransit system to operate in the nation. The high costs of the program eat into the MTA’s ability to provide subway and bus service.

It doesn’t have to be that way. The MTA can provide service for passengers with disabilities at much lower cost while improving the customer experience, according to a new report by the Citizens Budget Commission with support from TransitCenter [PDF].

The MTA began operating Access-A-Ride in the early 1990s, taking over a city program created after the Americans with Disabilities Act required “door-to-destination” service for people unable to access fixed-route subway and bus lines. As Access-a-Ride use grew in the first decade of the 2000s, costs more than doubled.

When the recession took out a big chunk of MTA revenues, the agency took steps to rein in Access-A-Ride costs by renegotiating contracts, tightening eligibility requirements, and increasing the use of taxis and livery vehicles instead of large vans. While the program isn’t growing as fast as it was a few years ago, the cost per trip continues to escalate.

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MTA Teams Up With City DOTs. Which Transit Agency Will Join Next?

Last week, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority joined the National Association of City Transportation Officials, the federation of local DOTs whose policy guidance and street design manuals are popularizing a more multi-modal approach to urban transportation policy.

Until now, NACTO members have all been city agencies in charge of streets. While some members also operate transit (most notably SFMTA), New York’s MTA is the first “transit-only” agency to join.

If more transit agencies follow the MTA’s lead, this could be an important precedent with big implications for city streets and transit across the country — here’s why.

Teamwork between streets agencies and transit agencies matters.

This is the angle NACTO emphasized in its announcement. Most city transit service in America runs on streets, and, as former NYC DOT commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan put it, “transit must be designed into the street from the centerline to the sidewalk, not tacked on as an afterthought.” To implement service improvements like transit lanes, better bus stops, or signal priority for transit vehicles, DOTs and transit agencies need to collaborate.

Transit agencies need to share expertise. NACTO excels at that.

NACTO’s bread and butter is sharing good ideas and helping them spread. Applied to streets, that’s come in the form of training, policy guidance, and design manuals about how to make transportation systems more multimodal. More cities are overhauling streets to create safe conditions for walking and biking thanks to NACTO. If other transit agencies follow the MTA and join, the same tactics could accelerate changes that significantly improve service, like redesigning bus networks or procuring modern fare payment systems.

A new type of political muscle for transit.

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New York City Subways and Buses, All on a Single Map

Downtown Brooklyn on the Bullet Map

Downtown Brooklyn on the Bullet Map

Here’s a really cool project years in the making: Queens native and OpenPlans alum Anthony Denaro put New York City subway and bus lines on one map.

Denaro says the idea was to include all lines accessible with a single swipe or an unlimited MetroCard. To wit, the “Bullet Map” covers all subway lines, New York City Transit and MTA Bus lines, as well as the Long Island NICE Bus and Westchester’s Bee-Line Bus. Not included: the Long Island Railroad, Metro-North, PATH, express buses, and NYC EDC ferries.

As he explains on a Medium post detailing the project, one thing Denaro hopes to accomplish is to make the MTA’s complex bus system more legible to New Yorkers who might use it more if they saw the full extent of its connections with the subway.

Millions of NYC residents live beyond a 15 minute walk to a subway station. Hundreds of thousands of people start their commute by boarding a bus and then transferring to the subway. This is a map for us.

The attention to buses is apparent, with bus lines in the foreground on the map, and subway lines in the background. And there are no insets. “The densest parts of a transit diagram are the most important,” says Denaro.

Denaro told Streetsblog he’ll be launching a Kickstarter campaign in a few weeks, and will be selling pocket maps as well as poster prints. An app may eventually be in the works, too.

In the meantime, he’s looking for feedback on how to make the Bullet Map better for transit users. You can find him on Twitter, or leave your impressions in the comments.

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De Blasio Sounds Prepared to Let the L Train Crisis Go to Waste

The impending L Train shutdown should be a blessing in disguise — the impact of losing service west of Bedford Avenue for 18 months is so great, there’s no good option that doesn’t involve carving out lots of street space for buses, biking, and safer walking. Major redesigns of 14th Street, the Williamsburg Bridge, and the streets connecting to the bridge are called for.

It’s up to City Hall to claim that space from cars. Fortunately, that happens to align with the mayor’s two main transportation priorities: better bus service and safer streets for biking and walking. With hundreds of thousands of people in need of L Train substitutes, Mayor de Blasio would have the wind at his back if he decided to set new precedents for street design that prioritizes transit, biking, and walking.

But this week de Blasio has resorted to finger pointing at the MTA instead of laying the groundwork for a major rearrangement of how streets function.

The mayor was at it again this morning on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show. Asked about the city’s role in addressing the shutdown, de Blasio deflected responsibility:

Of course we will very energetically be dealing with the MTA, both privately and publicly, on these issues to get fairness for everyone who takes the L train. Yes, I am concerned. The MTA — I like to remind all New Yorkers — is run by the State of New York, not the City. And therefore, we see the MTA do things sometimes that are not pleasing to us as New Yorkers. So, this decision — although I’m sure it has a practical, underlying rationale — announcing it without a plan to deal with the impact is troubling to me. It’s a long time. And we’re certainly going to push hard to see — does it really have to be so long? Is there any other way to go about this?

The primary responsibility for mitigation, for providing alternatives — falls on the State and the MTA — and obviously buses along the route would be the most obvious. But it’s a tough situation. It’s a very crowded line. It’s an area where it’s hard to get buses around compared to some others. So we’re going to look at different things we can do. One good news piece of the equation — our new Citywide Ferry Service starts next year. And that’s going to actually — because it happened to hit some of those areas to begin with where the L train serves — that’s going to be a helpful piece of the equation. So that was happening anyway. We might adjust schedules — one thing or another — in light of the L train dynamic.

Ferries that connect piers on each side of the East River are no substitute for a train that goes from Bedford Avenue to Eighth Avenue. The projected ridership of de Blasio’s entire expanded East River ferry system is below 15,000 passengers per day, an order of magnitude less than the 230,000 people who travel under the East River on the L train daily.

But when Lehrer raised the prospect of making 14th Street car-free, de Blasio again deflected:

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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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