The New York City Subway system has been making headlines for over a year because of a deluge of lengthy delays, nearly deadly accidents and a state general decline. The riding public, journalists and politicians have become laser focused on both the daily beat of delays and on the larger structural problems that are behind them. In response, Andrew Cuomo declared that the Subway was in a State of Emergency in the summer of last year. Work has since begun on the Subway Action Plan, which aims to stabilize service for six million passengers that depend on the Subway every day. The Subway is not however the only transportation mode in New York City that is in crisis.
Obscured by recent coverage of the Subways are severe problems that plague New York City’s buses that have been growing for years. Since 2010, Subway ridership has exploded, growing at a rate faster even than the expanding population of New York City. However by 2010, Bus ridership was already two years into a steady decline that has continued unabated. Buses, the often forgotten and derided cousin of the Subway, carry almost two million passengers every weekday on a network that puts over 95% of New York households within a quarter of a mile of a bus stop. Buses are a lifeline for the disabled and for New Yorkers who live outside of the reach of the Subway system; a lifeline that is increasingly failing those who depend on it.
While the Subway crisis is born out of years of deferred maintenance and associated infrastructural decline, the factors contributing to the deterioration in the quality of bus service are not entirely under the MTA’s control. Buses are by nature dependent upon the conditions of the streets they operate on. Though pavement quality and construction can cause breakdowns and delays, I am referring primarily to automobile and truck traffic, which has markedly increased in the last ten years. Increased population and the rise of for hire vehicles driving for Uber and Lyft are two significant contributors to an increase in cars on the road and a decrease in speeds for all vehicles trapped in a citywide stranglehold.
A bus is one of the most efficient means of transport in a dense city like New York. A bus carrying up to 70 passengers uses the same road space as three single occupancy cars. However, if a bus is trapped in traffic, its efficiency is diminished and riders will ditch it for taxis, which further exacerbates the problem. In New York, overall bus speed decreased 6% from 2016 to 2017 to just 7 mph. New York buses are officially the slowest of any city in the United States.
There are numerous ways that bus service can be improved in all five boroughs and at a fraction of the price of Subway upgrades and extensions. Cities around the world can serve as a model and a roadmap for how bus service in New York can be improved using both hi and lo-tech methods, which will each make a huge difference for millions of daily bus riders.
Adopting a congestion pricing plan for Manhattan’s Central Business District would go a long way towards speeding up all traffic in the borough. However, there may be unintended consequences for traffic conditions in other boroughs as cars and trucks drive further to circumvent Manhattan tolling. While all bus service improvements require some degree of political support, Congestion Pricing is perhaps the most contentious, its success reliant on obstinate upstate politicians and New York’s transportation regressive mayor.
Painted Bus Lanes
There are very few miles of “bus only” painted lanes on New York City streets. Those streets that do dedicate space to buses suffer from a lack of enforcement. Delivery trucks and even NYPD police cars are some of the worst offenders, frequently parking in bus only lanes, belying their usefulness. Buses in New York require more dedicated space so that they are not choked by normal traffic. But, this can only be effective if bus lanes are enforced and if official vehicles play by their own rules and stay out of the way.
Traffic Signal Priority
Traffic Signal Priority (TSP) is a one of the more technologically advanced methods for improving bus service that can make a large impact. Censors mounted at intersections communicate with buses as they progress along their route. If a bus is close to a light that is about to turn red, TSP will keep it green or yellow long enough for the bus to pass. At a red light, TSP will turn lights that govern bus lanes green before lights for other vehicles so that buses can get a head start and avoid getting cut off by turning cars. Currently, there are only a handful of TSP equipped intersections in New York. Expansion throughout the city will require close coordination between the NYC Department of Transportation, which controls the streets, and the MTA, which runs the buses.
All Door Boarding
Perhaps the most important proposal for improving New York’s bus service is the implementation of all door boarding on all buses. With the exception of Select Bus Service, passengers still must line up on the curb, step on to the bus and dip their Metrocard one by one by one. It is an incredibly cumbersome process that adds significant time to every bus trip. On crowded lines, passengers will often resort to using the bus back door to avoid the crowded front, neglecting to pay their fare in the process.
It is unsurprising that the prospect of allowing passengers to board at all doors, without anyone to ensure that a fare is paid, causes the MTA serious consternation. However, cities like San Francisco that have recently switched to all door boarding have actually seen a decrease in fare evasion. Similarly Select Bus Service, with off-board fare collection and all door entry, has demonstrated lower levels of evasion than normal lines. The Transit Workers Union is even in support because disputes over fare evasion are a leading cause of assaults on bus operators. Taking away fare-policing responsibilities from bus operators will surely result in fewer employee injuries.
Redrawing the Bus Network
Many bus lines have followed the same street route for decades. Because of changing population and work patterns, buses may not be operating as efficiently as they could be. Further, some bus routes follow circuitous paths with twists and turns that add distance and time to trips that would be better served if they were straightened out.
Eliminating Bus Stops
Buses like the M104 in Manhattan stop every two blocks for the entirety of their route. At every stop, buses must pull over to the curb, allow passengers to step on board one at a time and then turn back into the street, all while avoiding other vehicles. Often, buses will get caught by unyielding traffic and at traffic lights. While I am not suggesting that bus stops on local routes be spaced out as a far as Subway stations, bus service could be markedly improved if even a small number of stops were eliminated, allowing buses to travel further without slowing down and sidling up to the curb.