October 19, 2016

Getting New Yorkers Back on the Bus

By Tabitha Decker

New Yorkers take 2.5 million daily rides on MTA New York City Transit buses, but the busiest bus system in the country is not delivering the service New Yorkers need. Reliability and speed have been in decline for years, and congestion in many parts of the city means it’s often faster to walk than to take a chance on a bus.

Riders are well aware of these shortcomings and are increasingly choosing other ways to travel. According to the MTA’s own numbers, bus ridership is down 16 percent citywide since 2002, despite robust population growth and increases in subway and regional rail ridership.

Ridership decline is a trend we should take seriously. It can mean more would-be riders traveling in single-occupancy vehicles, less mobility for individuals foregoing trips, and a downward spiral where lower usage leads to service cuts, which further drive away riders. New York needs the bus. Buses provide access to places that the subway doesn’t reach and mobility for populations for whom the subway isn’t accessible. Reversing the bus system’s decline is urgent, and it will require leadership and collaboration from the State-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), the City Department of Transportation (NYCDOT), and State and City elected officials.

That’s why TransitCenter and a coalition of New York transit advocates that includes Riders Alliance, NYPIRG’s Straphangers Campaign, and the Tri-State Transportation Campaign have created the NYC Bus Turnaround Campaign. As a first step, we released “Turnaround: Fixing New York City’s Buses,” a report that highlights proven practical strategies for effective bus service in other global cities and that makes concrete recommendations for how those solutions can be applied to New York. In order to reach more New Yorkers, we subsequently released a short film in partnership with Streetsfilms. Most recently, we launched a new website, BusTurnaround.nyc, where riders can find speed and reliability analysis for various routes, compare the experience of our current bus system with what we could have if the strategies of the Turnaround campaign were implemented, and join the campaign.

Recommendations of the Turnaround Campaign include many measures that have already proved successful on Select Bus Services (SBS) routes, and that we believe could be used more widely and rapidly across the city.  Some of these proposed changes fall to the MTA, others to NYCDOT, and still others to the City Council and State Legislature. Some would require capital improvements and entail public hearings and input; others could be implemented administratively at relatively low cost.

They include:

  • Redesigning New York’s bus network to remove unnecessary detours, straighten out indirect routes, and better match how New Yorkers actually use the bus system. [Below is a hypothetical example.]
  • Transforming the bus boarding process to reduce wait times by allowing riders to board at every door and pay through cell phones and tap-and-go cards.
  • Keeping buses on schedule through improved dispatching and technology allowing real-time control of buses in the field.
  • Designing streets to improve bus reliability through dedicated bus lanes and camera enforcement–not just on SBS routes, but across the most congested parts of the bus network.
  • Making the bus intuitive and easy to use through countdown clocks, better onboard announcements, and clearly branded kinds of service.
  • Increasing transparency about bus performance with an open data policy that mandates regular releases of bus performance information in formats easy to analyze, promote, and transform.

At a recent City Council hearing on buses, NYCDOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg indicated that her agency would speed implementation of many proven strategies to prioritize buses on City streets. For its part, the MTA has referred to bus studies of Co-op City (2014) and northeastern Queens (2015) and an ongoing study in Staten Island as examples of what they’re doing to implement reforms. But given the gravity and scope of bus service and ridership decline, these limited studies and the actual changes resulting from them fall far short of the citywide effort needed to fix New York’s ailing bus system.

Instead, leaders must call for comprehensive, citywide reform and support the MTA in taking bigger and bolder steps. The Turnaround effort is already resonating with those who represent bus riders; 35 elected officials including New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams supported the Turnaround launch. At a recent City Council hearing on buses, nearly one-third of Council members were present to press the MTA and NYCDOT on the need to give us the world-class system we deserve and get New Yorkers back on the bus.

Tabitha Decker is the director of the NYC Program at TransitCenter. Its mission is to “spark innovations and support policies that improve public transportation for riders, businesses and communities.” Learn more about the Bus Turnaround Campaign at BusTurnaround.nyc. 

Photo credit: Scott Shaw