Community groups and elected officials have vowed to fight to preserve existing service on three crosstown bus routes scheduled for cuts by the MTA.
Under bus schedules slated to take effect in September, riders on the M31, M66 and M72 routes will see scheduled wait times increase during certain parts of the day. According to the MTA, the reduced service will more accurately align with ridership on the lines, but bus advocates say that ridership is strong and worry that fewer buses will weaken a crucial transportation option in the community.
“There's a disproportionately large number of elderly and disabled people who live on the far East Side who are, in fact, more dependent on bus service,” state Sen. Liz Krueger told Straus News.
The M72, which runs from York Avenue and 72nd Street to Riverside Boulevard and West 70th Street, faces the most significant cuts. Under the proposed schedule changes, headway between buses would be increased from nine to 10 minutes during morning peak hour, from eight to nine minutes during afternoon peak hour, and from 15 to 20 minutes in the evening.
On the M31, which runs from East 92nd Street in Yorkville to West 57th Street and 11th Avenue, via 57th Street, bus headway during afternoon peak hours would be increased from eight to nine minutes. On the M66, which runs from York Avenue and 67th Street to West End Avenue and 66th Street, the MTA has proposed headway increases of 30 seconds during the morning and afternoon peak hours.
The schedule changes, first announced last month, originally included plans to cut service on the M57 crosstown route as well. The M57 cuts were walked back after a July 7 meeting between MTA staff and elected officials.
According to the MTA, the service cuts are intended to “more closely align service with customer demand and meet established bus loading guidelines.”
The transit authority's explanation has frustrated some members of the community, who say that ridership on the lines is healthy and does not warrant service reductions. “There's a huge disconnect between however they do their survey and people's experience waiting for the bus,” said Liz Patrick of the East 72nd Street Neighborhood Association.
Betty Cooper Wallerstein, president of the East 79th Street Neighborhood Association, said that increases in bus headway time are sometimes billed as minor changes, but that they end up having a greater impact due to delays caused by traffic and other factors. “They say, 'Oh, it'll only be 2 minutes more,' but often the bus is already late,” she said.
According to bus advocates, service cuts create a feedback loop of sorts: the MTA responds to decreased ridership by increasing the scheduled time between buses, which in turn causes ridership to drop further because would-be passengers are less likely to endure the longer wait times before instead turning to another mode of transportation.
The cuts also caught the attention of a coalition of local, state and federal elected officials representing the impacted areas, which sent a letter to the MTA New York City Transit's acting president, Darryl Irick, objecting to the cuts and expressing concern that increased wait times “will leave our residents feeling abandoned by our buses.” The letter was signed by City Council Members Ben Kallos and Dan Garodnick, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, Assembly Members Dan Quart and Rebecca Seawright, state Senators Liz Kruger, Brad Hoylman and José Serrano, and U.S. Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Jerrold Nadler. And last week, Community Board 8 unanimously approved a resolution requesting that the MTA reconsider the proposed service reductions.
One source of frustration for elected officials and community members is that the MTA has thus far declined requests to release the underlying data used to evaluate service and ridership, such as farebox data. The elected officials asserted in their letter that the MTA's research and evaluation is “not done in a transparent manner that is subject to public review.”
“They have to show us the data that supports why they need to make these changes,” Kallos told Straus News after the cuts were announced.
Seawright echoed Kallos' call for the transit authority to release the data. “The MTA basically is refusing to share it, saying that it's not in a format that they're willing to distribute,” she said. “I think it's totally unacceptable.” Seawright said she planned to raise the issue of transparency at the MTA's next budget hearing in Albany.
Absent data from the MTA, local community groups have taken it upon themselves to document that ridership demand on the routes does not warrant a reduction in service.
Wallerstein and the East 79th Street Neighborhood Association have sought to quantify satisfaction with bus service by circulating survey cards that riders can fill out and return to report cases of overcrowded or delayed buses. “That way, when we go to a meeting and they tell us it's only a four-minute wait, I can pull out a card and say that on this date and time at this stop, someone waited much longer,” she said.
The East 72nd Street Neighborhood Association performed a bus frequency and ridership study on the M15 route in May that found that bus arrival times were erratic and often resulted in riders leaving stops during long waits. Patrick said the group plans to launch a similar study of the M31, M66 and M72 routes in August. “We want to verify how often the bus comes and how often it's overcrowded and can't pick people up,” Patrick said.
Neighborhood leaders have expressed concern that the MTA's methods for counting riders may not accurately capture the full ridership. Specifically, the M66 and M72 buses serve the East Side hospital corridor that includes Memorial Sloan Kettering, Weill Cornell and Rockefeller University Hospital. Peak ridership around the hospitals, advocates say, is clustered not around normal morning and afternoon rush hours but around shift changes, which often occur at odd hours that the MTA may not have taken into account in its analysis. They also point to the large numbers of young schoolchildren on the routes, who often don't pay fares and thus wouldn't be counted by fareboxes.
At last month's meeting of the MTA Board's New York City Transit and Bus Committee (which took place before the MTA said current service levels on the M57 would be maintained), transit authority officials explained that 21 bus routes citywide face proposed service cuts. The schedule changes also included proposals for increased service on 16 lines and traffic-related schedule adjustments on five other routes. According to the MTA, savings from the service cuts will offset the costs of increasing service on other lines and result in a net savings of $1.6 million.
“MTA New York City Transit reviews and evaluates bus schedules on a regular basis to ensure that they accurately match current rider demand and operating conditions, as well as to ensure there are resources available where needed to provide customers with the most efficient and effective bus service possible,” an MTA spokesperson said in an emailed statement.
Elected officials have said they will continue to advocate for the MTA to maintain current service levels on the routes.
“We hope that residents will vote with their rides and show the MTA that we want our buses,” Kallos said.