At long, long last, the MTA finally has a plan to get the city’s buses moving again. The Bus Plan, which was presented to the New York City Transit board on Monday, is a sweeping proposal to reimagine bus service in New York. The set of new projects was met with barely restrained enthusiasm from the transit advocacy community, whose Bus Turnaround Coalition called for just such an initiative in July 2016. In fact, the plan addresses all six recommendations from the Coalition’s website, something New York City Transit president Andy Byford said is not an accident.
The Bus Plan includes a host of important customer-experience improvements — like more and redesigned bus shelters, digital screens on the buses that provide bus stop information, easier-to-understand maps, and new buses. But none of these will do much to speed up service, and that’s the single biggest reason fewer New Yorkers are taking buses.
Darryl Irick, the senior vice president of the department of buses, told Monday’s New York City Transit board meeting that city buses spend half their time traveling under two miles per hour — or not traveling at all — because they’re stuck in traffic, stopped at traffic lights, or loading passengers. This is the single biggest issue any bus plan must address, and the MTA knows it. But how, exactly, does the MTA plan to make the buses go faster? Or, perhaps the better question is: What can the MTA do?
One of the biggest challenges to reforming bus service has been that one public body, the MTA, controls the buses and their routes; another, the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT), controls the roads they use; a third, the NYPD, is largely responsible for enforcing bus lanes and other traffic laws that facilitate speedy bus service; and a fourth, the state legislature, controls whether cameras can enforce bus lane adherence.
This works about as well as you’d expect. There’s only so much the MTA itself can do, and an awful lot it has to work with DOT, the NYPD, and the state legislature on. So it’s worth breaking down the MTA’s Bus Plan into two categories: things it can control and things it cannot.
New York’s bus network was largely conceived after World War II as a replacement for the streetcars the city had begun phasing out in the 1930s, and many of the current bus routes still follow those old streetcar lines. But New York is not the same as it was in the 1950s, or even the 2000s. A recent report by City Comptroller Scott Stringer on the bus crisis found that “from 2006 to 2016, the number of jobs located in Brooklyn jumped by 49 percent, in the Bronx by 35 percent, in Queens by 34 percent, and in Staten Island by 27 percent, but only 5 percent in Manhattan. As a result of this growth, the share of New York City jobs located outside of Manhattan rose from 35 percent to 42 percent over this period.”
The city’s commuting patterns are very different than they used to be, but the buses aren’t. So the MTA is setting out to “redesign the network from top to bottom” based on demographic changes, travel demand analysis, and customer input. They have already redesigned the Staten Island express bus network, and one of the features is fewer turns on every route, which should speed up service. However, this won’t happen quickly: The MTA has set a target date of 2021 for the systemwide redesign.
In the meantime, the transit agency is going for a quicker win by optimizing its existing bus network. Most of these plans are within the MTA’s control, such as eliminating underutilized stops — there is no good reason, in most cases, for a stop on every block — with a general guideline of changing the stopping patterns from every 750 feet to every four-tenths of a mile. However, the MTA cannot control the street design changes it wants in order to facilitate better bus movement into and out of stops; that’s DOT territory. The MTA also plans to expand off-peak service on “strategic routes” starting in the fall, which might mean more frequent service on heavily utilized routes or (here’s hoping) ones that help ameliorate changes from planned subway work.
The boarding process on most New York City buses is one of the silliest exercises a New Yorker can undertake. Currently, all prospective bus riders must gather at the front door of the bus and slot their MetroCard into the fare reader (or pay an exact-change fare). Meanwhile, there is a whole other door at the back of the bus no one is allowed to use for entry. The bus must remain at the stop, motionless, until everyone is on board. Then it can proceed roughly 750 feet and do it all over again.
This is a problem humans have solved, and finally, the MTA is ready to solve it, too. Using the new fare payment technology (well, new for us) to be rolled out across the subways and buses, riders will be allowed to “tap in” at fare readers at both the front and back of the bus. Anyone who has taken the bus in a city with tap-to-pay technology, like London or Paris, knows this will drastically reduce the amount of time buses are stuck at stops. In conjunction, the MTA will step up fare enforcement — although it has yet to provide any details on this, it has plenty of time before the new payment technology rolls out starting next year — to ensure riders don’t abuse the system.
For anyone concerned about how such a system will affect those without debit cards or smartphones, the MTA will debut “contactless transit cards from new vending machines and through an out-of-system retail network.” Meaning, people without (or who do not want to use) credit cards or mobile devices will be able to buy and reload a transit card from vending machines in subway stations or from stores throughout the city. This is similar to London, where Oyster cards, the city’s contactless transit cards, can be purchased at convenience stores around the city, many strategically located next to bus stops.
Traffic Signal Priority is a nifty system that turns traffic lights green for approaching buses. It is already in place on Select Bus Service routes, but the MTA wants to “aggressively increase TSP activated routes” starting this year. Unfortunately, the MTA doesn’t control the traffic lights; DOT does.
Adding more bus-only lanes — or exclusive busways like the Fulton Street Mall in downtown Brooklyn — are other initiatives the MTA must work with the DOT on.
Bus lanes only work if nobody’s blocking them, and any bus rider knows that cars clogging bus lanes rank high on the list of reasons buses are so slow. The MTA relies on the NYPD to enforce the bus lanes DOT allows, and the NYPD has been known to occasionally be the ones blocking the bus lanes to begin with. (Board member Veronica Vanterpool told the board meeting that the NYPD was responsible for “some of the most egregious violations” of bus lanes.) See the problem here?
As one possible way to circumvent the issue, the MTA recommends “dedicated transit-priority traffic teams” — though Irick acknowledged during Monday’s presentation that this idea is “not fully baked.”
There was widespread agreement among board members and NYCT management that the police cannot be relied upon to monitor every bus lane in the city at all times. As a result, some type of enforcement by camera — preferably ones mounted on the front of buses — is necessary. But the state legislature needs to approve camera enforcement. Currently, only sixteen bus routes have approval for such enforcement, and those provisions sunset every five years. The MTA — and, to a lesser extent, the NYPD and DOT — will have to lobby in Albany to change the law.
Overall, the most promising measures for speeding up bus service are not entirely within the MTA’s control, but largely rely on other agencies like DOT and the NYPD that don’t have a direct stake in good bus service. While DOT is tasked with providing “the safe, efficient, and environmentally responsible movement of people and goods” — which would seem to include a robust and rapid bus network — it has no financial stake in the matter, nor is it directly impacted by declining ridership like the MTA is.
Of course, this shouldn’t stop these agencies from cooperating with every recommendation in the MTA’s bus plan, but it also demonstrates the plan’s unavoidable shortcomings. Whether or not buses become an exciting transit option in New York is largely dependent on how much traffic and policing authorities — and the state legislature — are willing to make faster bus service a priority. We just have to hope everyone can get along.