Our Town Zipping across 79th street? by LAURA HANRAHAN
One of Manhattan’s busiest — and slowest — bus routes will soon join the growing list of select bus services (SBS). The M79 crosstown bus, which serves more than 14,000 riders each day, is expected to make the change in service later this May. The select service will require riders to pay at kiosks on the sidewalk before boarding the bus, in an attempt to cut down on time spent idling and improve the route’s 4.3 mph average speed. Signs with real-time arrival information will also be installed at each stop. The annual operating budget is expected to be approximately $1.73 million, according to the January 2017 MTA Transit and Bus Committee meeting handbook.
Council Member Ben Kallos, who represents the Upper East Side, personally requested that the service be implemented.
“Our crosstown buses serve tens of thousands of passengers a day and it makes a huge difference and cuts a lot of time off people’s commutes,” he said. “On 79th Street I, like many residents, have had to wait in lines around the block to get on the bus and I’ve often found that when the lines get that long it’s faster to just walk where I’m going instead of waiting for the bus.”
In a presentation by the MTA and the Department of Transportation (DOT) to the Upper East Side’s Community Board 8 in October, results from the M86 SBS were presented as an example of how the service could work for 79th Street. The daily average of time saved after switching to SBS was 2.6 minutes on eastbound travel and 1.7 minutes on westbound travel. Dr. Arline Bronzaft, professor emerita of environmental psychology at CUNY and a longtime Upper East Side resident, was concerned by these numbers.
“I listened to their presentation and they said that maybe you’ll save about two minutes on a trip. Would you call that a lot?” Bronzaft said. “The critical question is how much would you save during the rush hours when people are really concerned about getting across faster.”
The MTA and DOT did not respond to calls for further information. “If you’re going to make a presentation you should come with data,” Bronzaft said.
All stops will remain unchanged with the exception of an eastbound stop at West 81st Street and Amsterdam Avenue, “due to low ridership and close proximity to a stop at 79th Street and Amsterdam Avenue,” the MTA said. Changes to the street and sidewalk have also been proposed by the MTA and DOT to facilitate traffic flow, including lane realignments to allow for designated areas for buses to pull up in front of stops.
“I asked the obvious questions because the woman said she ‘hopes’ the proposed methods to set up the street in a way to increase the flow of traffic would help,” Bronzaft said of the Community Board 8 presentation. “I asked, if these procedures had been used elsewhere to hasten the traffic, may I see where they’ve been used and how successful they were.”
Bronzaft said she was not given an answer. According to a DOT spokesperson, roughly $2.5 million will be spent on signage and construction before the launch of the M79 SBS.
“I find that coming to a meeting and allowing people to just say this will work without demonstrating any proof to the potential success, other than the word ‘hopeful,’ I find lacking in responsibility,” Bronzaft said.
Roadway construction and signage implementation is set to begin in April.
First and Second Avenues, which have run the M15 select bus service line since 2010, have designated bus lanes, with exceptions between 58th and 61st Street on First Avenue and 68th and 100th Street on Second Avenue. East 79th Street has no bus lanes. For Betty Cooper Wallerstein, president of the 79th Street Neighborhood Association, this is a problem.
“We have to have designated bus lanes,” she said. “If the goal of the city is that we want to have less people in cars then you have to make the bus service work.”
Wallerstein says she takes the bus three to four times daily and is familiar with the bumper-to-bumper traffic that often happens in the morning. At the March 16 East 79th Street Neighborhood Association meeting, community members voted in favor of creating a designated bus lane.
“That will now go to Community Board 8’s transportation committee to hopefully bring to DOT and MTA,” Kallos said. “I think dedicated bus lanes are a good thing when they are supported by the community. If the community wants it, I work for the community.”
While bus ridership is decreasing overall in New York City, SBS routes have seen roughly a 10 percent increase in ridership, according to an email from an MTA representative. Despite Kallos’s support of select bus service, he does not necessarily see this as the future of bus travel.
“Other jurisdictions have tap-and-go, allowing people to board at all doors even without off-board payment, and Long Island at Nassau, people can pay with an app and just flash their phone to the driver as they’re getting on and off, so all of those are items I have sent letters to the MTA about on multiple occasions,” Kallos said. “If you can use your phone to pay at Duane Reade, why can’t you use it to pay to get on and off a bus?”