While testifying before the City Council’s Transportation Committee on Tuesday, the MTA’s Michael Chuback, the director of the MTA’s budget, claimed that ridership on the city’s buses are down not because of deteriorating service, but rather, because the trains are becoming better.
“One of the major reasons, we believe, is competition. Essentially the subway has improved over the last 20 or so years,” Chuback said in front of the city’s transportation committee. The MTA later told the Voice that Chuback misspoke, and that he was there to testify on the MTA’s budget, not its ridership figures.
But his testimony underlines the long-standing impression that the MTA is only sluggishly working through its bus service problems, even as some hope appears far down the road — behind all those delivery trucks and bunched behind two other buses.
At a board meeting last week, the MTA outlined ways in which it’s going to start looking into improving its bus service, from expanding the use of devices that hold onto green lights longer for incoming buses, to more enforcement on cars and trucks parked in bus lanes, to even a rethinking of the entire network based on updated ridership information. It was the first signal in some time that the MTA was taking its bus service issues seriously, and just in time, too.
According to a report from the Transit Center, bus ridership has declined by 16 percent since 2002, all while the city’s population has increased by 5.7 percent. At the same time, subway ridership is up by almost 25 percent, meaning, yes, as Chuback pointed out, way more people are taking the trains — but the correlation between the two would appear tenuous at best.
MTA figures show that in areas with service redundancy (both train and bus), some people actually are opting to take trains instead, just not because of better train services (trains have only gotten worse over the past few years). In areas like downtown Brooklyn or Manhattan, congestion has gotten so bad, from both ride-sharing and delivery trucks, that even a crowded and delayed train is preferable to sitting in gridlock. With a system-wide average speed of 7.4 mph, the MTA’s buses are officially the slowest in the nation.
But while the measures laid out by the MTA last week are a good start, they don’t come close to what’s needed to get people riding the buses again. One encouraging sign from the presentation was that when the MTA does put in its version of Bus Rapid Transit (which provides a dedicated lane for buses, as well as off-bus payment), known as SBS, more people end up riding the bus. The MTA is expanding SBS gradually this year again, as it has done so for the past decade.
But the pace is so slow in SBS expansion, it hasn’t come close to covering the service gap in congested areas or areas without subway options. Each time the MTA proposes SBS, it spends years fighting communities to agree to give up parking spots or traffic lanes, and when the MTA does finally succeed, it admitted at its board presentation that it’s fairly ineffective in getting cars to stop using the dedicated lanes and slowing down bus traffic. So while the MTA knows some of the solutions to its problems, its not moving quickly enough or with the enforcement to back it up.
Expect buses to remain crawling along for years to come, unless the city takes larger action to clear its streets. This might just be on the horizon — the de Blasio administration is gearing up for a new congestion plan, which, for city bus riders, can’t come a moment too soon.