New York Times Express Bus Service Shows Promise in New York by Michael Kimmelman

New York Times
New York Times
Express Bus Service Shows Promise in New York
Michael Kimmelman
07/19/2015

Last week, the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled its first express bus line: the 86th Street crosstown, running back and forth between York Avenue on the east side and Broadway on the west. There was a news conference to celebrate, at Columbus Avenue. Polly Trottenberg, the mayor’s transportation commissioner, hailed “modest investments” yielding dividends in terms of saved time for long-beleaguered riders, to which Ben Kallos, a city councilman, added that time saved translates into revenue for businesses whose taxes help pay for further transit improvements: a virtuous circle.

The route is not actually full-dress express service. It doesn’t include a dedicated, camera-policed lane all the way across town or traffic lights programmed to stay green when buses approach. There are just short segments of bus lanes that let buses jump traffic queues at strategic places. Even so, with 24,000 daily riders, 86th Street is notorious for endless lines of passengers waiting to swipe their cards. Any upgrade helps.

I gave the new bus a road test. Off-board fare kiosks, the big addition, mean that riders pick up tickets before boarding, then get on and off as subway passengers do, through all doors at once. Some first-time riders were befuddled and annoyed, but the long lines instantly evaporated. Compared with speeds in the past, buses crossed town in a New York minute.

Express bus service — Select Bus Service, local officials call it — is a no-brainer for underserved routes across the city. The installation of new rapid lines, however, has been anything but rapid. Mr. de Blasio and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo don’t see eye to eye on much at the moment. On this score they ought to come together, because public officials could hardly do anything more useful, transportation-wise, to improve the lives of countless working New Yorkers than getting bus service up to speed.

It’s an equity issue. New Yorkers living outside Manhattan have the longest average public transit commutes in urban America. New York City buses, express routes aside, are the slowest in the country. Three-quarters of a million New Yorkers now take more than an hour to travel to work. Two-thirds come from households that earn $35,000 a year or less. A study by the Pratt Center found that black New Yorkers have the longest commute times of all, 25 percent longer than the average commute time for whites.

The gap is widening as escalating housing costs around subway stations push poorer people toward southeastern Queens and parts of Brooklyn and Staten Island cut off from decent public transit, where they’re forced to rely on slow, frequently delayed buses.

As commuting patterns have changed, transit hasn’t kept up. Subways were designed a century ago to funnel riders into Manhattan’s core. But between 1990 and 2008, Bronx residents traveling to work in Queens and Westchester County rose by 38 percent, those traveling within the Bronx by 25 percent — and those into Manhattan, only 13 percent. It’s the same story in Brooklyn.

In other words, New Yorkers who tend to have the least flexible work hours — who can least afford delays — are more reliant than ever on buses.

An expansion of Select Bus Service has been in the works for years. The city’s Department of Transportation and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (the governor’s domain) jointly introduced the express service in 2008. The first seven routes arrived across five boroughs during the next six years.

Select Buses buses cut 3.5 million hours in travel time. Ridership boomed. Passengers fumbling with MetroCards typically account for 25 percent of delays on bus trips. Off-board payment did away with much of that. Skeptics fretted about cheaters and lost revenue. Fare evasion turned out to be lower on rapid bus routes. Hefty fines were an obvious deterrent. I suspect it also matters that express service treats bus passengers with dignity, for a change.

Of course, this being New York, there have been storms of protest from fretful shopkeepers and car owners who don’t like to give up lanes and parking spaces. A study of bus rapid transit along First and Second Avenues revealed that retailers wildly overestimated the number of customers who arrived by car. Forty-five percent came by bus or subway; 43 percent walked or rode a bike. Rapid bus service turned out to be a boon, not a hindrance, to business, with similar results along other express routes like Fordham Avenue in the Bronx.

Mr. de Blasio has pledged a dozen more routes. But progress is slow, in part because the mayor wants to ensure consensus. The mayor has also campaigned vigorously for safer streets with his Vision Zero program. Dedicated bus lanes, policed by cameras, promise fewer collisions. Transit signal prioritization, the fancy term for traffic lights that wait for buses, means that bus drivers don’t have to gun their engines to make the lights or fall behind schedule.

Off-board fare collection, which alone could be installed widely and help countless riders, relieves bus drivers of a major distraction. Select Bus Service and Vision Zero go hand in hand.

On 86th Street the cost was $5 million. Fare koisks are $50,000 per stop; bus lanes, $100,000 per mile; transit signal prioritization, $20,000 per intersection. Fortunately, the federal government picks up a chunk of the tab. Yes, New York ought to invest in newer technologies than ticket kiosks, like contactless payment cards — old news in London and elsewhere.

But the transit authority has enough trouble just maintaining the status quo, with a budget shortfall in the billions and a boss who’s not sympathetic. Earlier this year, Mr. Cuomo proposed a train to La Guardia Airport that went in the wrong direction. Not a public transit guy, he is a gear head who boasts about tinkering with muscle cars.

That said, gear heads appreciate clever fixes. Rapid bus service is efficient, cost-effective and a proven winner, producing tangible results voters see and feel.

Not incidentally, the system is good for the environment, nudging more drivers to take (clean energy) buses — so it’s even good for drivers like Mr. Cuomo, since fewer cars on the road mean less traffic. What the city desperately needs is congestion pricing to deal with that growing problem and raise money for better streets and services.

As for now, there’s really only one question for those in charge when it comes to express buses and off-board payment.

What’s the holdup?

Issue: 
Transportation