Transit advocates begin campaign to turn around declining bus ridership
by Benjamin Fang
Jul 21, 2016 | 7044 views | 0 0 comments | 171 171 recommendations | email to a friend | print
With bus ridership declining over the past decade, transit groups are taking action to reverse the trend.

TransitCenter, Riders Alliance, NYPIRG’s Straphangers Campaign and Tri-State Transportation Campaign collectively launched their Bus Turnaround Campaign on Wednesday to push a set of policies they believe will address the issue.

The policies are listed in their new report, which gives specific recommendations drawing examples from other large cities across the globe.

“We’re launching a new effort focused on bringing bus riders in neighborhoods throughout New York the fast, frequent and reliable buses that they need,” said Tabitha Decker, NYC program director at TransitCenter. “New York City has the best transit system in this country, but a vital element of it is currently failing.”

According to the report, 2.5 million New Yorkers ride the city’s buses on any given weekday. But that ridership has declined 16 percent since 2002, all while the city’s population has gone up nearly 6 percent. During that time, the city’s subway usage grew by almost 25 percent.

One of the main reasons for the downward trend is just how slow city buses run. According to the National Transit Database, New York City buses traveled at an average of 7.4 miles per hour in 2014, down almost half a mile since 2000. That’s slower than the average bus speeds in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. and San Francisco.

In neighborhoods like downtown Brooklyn and Jamaica, some buses run even slower, often at around 4 miles per hour.

Many riders have experienced late arrivals and buses arriving in “bunches,” or when no buses show up for a long time and then two or three show up at once. Decker said these problems have real consequences for daily users.

“This is taking a heavy toll on New Yorkers,” she said. “People are arriving to work late, they’re showing up at school late, they’re missing doctor appointments. It’s causing a lot of stress and it’s wasting a lot of time.”

As a result, she said, many riders are opting to use the trains instead, which has led to a dramatic increase in subway ridership.

“People are voting with their Metrocards to abandon the bus,” said John Raskin, executive director of the Riders Alliance. “We need to provide good enough service so people can decide to ride it again.”

Decker said the new report lays out a series of “practical strategies” and “sweeping changes” that will get buses to move at the speed New Yorkers deserve. The first recommendation is for the MTA and Department of Transportation (DOT) to redesign the bus network and routes to make service more efficient. The campaign wants to break up long routes and update outdated ones.

Another step they recommended is changing how riders get on and off the bus. The campaign proposed using tap-and-go technology for fare collection, similar to the system in place in San Francisco and the Oyster Card in London. They also want buses to have all-door boarding to avoid long lines at the front.

To keep buses on schedule and avoid bunching, the coalition proposed methods such as “headway-based control” to allow dispatchers and drivers to maintain even spaces between buses and intervening early so bus control centers can constantly communicate any modified services immediately.

They also want bus stops and buses to have countdown clocks and regular on-board announcements.

“The MTA should be making full use of real-time information to stop our buses from bunching,” Decker said.

In terms of street design, the campaign drew from elements of Select Bus Service (SBS) that has created dedicated bus lanes. According to the report, SBS routes have created time improvements of up to 23 percent and increased ridership. They called on the state to add more bus cameras to help with enforcement.

In addition to dedicated lanes to help buses move faster, they proposed installing boarding islands so buses can avoid weaving through traffic and implementing “queue-jump lanes,” which would give buses a three or four second exclusive signal at intersections so they can “jump” ahead of traffic.

Finally, the campaign wants the MTA to regularly report on bus performance “in a way that riders can easily understand” by releasing data publicly.

“Many of the changes that we’re proposing can be rolled out in months and in years, not in decades or in a generation,” Decker said. “The thing that’s needed most urgently to turn around our bus service is for New York to make buses a priority.”

At a rally outside of Brooklyn Borough Hall last Wednesday, the advocate groups were joined by local, state and citywide elected officials who support the campaign’s goals and possible solutions.

“Access to affordable, reliable and efficient transportation is a right to millions of New Yorkers who need to get around the city each and every day,” said Public Advocate Letitia James. “Your commute should be of the same standard and quality, no matter which borough you live in and no matter if you go on a subway, bus or ferry. Here in New York, we often fall short of this basic promise.”

James said many parts of the outer boroughs are transit-starved, and that many riders even have to walk long distances to get to the closest bus stop. These problems are causing anxiety and inconvenience for New Yorkers, she said.

She called for the adoption of these “common sense solutions.”

“To anyone who hasn’t had to use our transit system, these might seem like minor differences, but to each of us standing here today, we know these steps will have a massive impact,” James said. “I urge the MTA to adopt some of these recommendations and improve the lives of New Yorkers and increase the ridership of our buses.”

Holding up a Metrocard, Borough President Eric Adams said he takes the subway and buses on a regular basis. He said it’s the only way to understand the impact of the system on regular riders.

“You cannot be removed and not understand what the tension, the uncertainty of buses arriving on time,” he said. “Not understanding if the bus will be caught in traffic. Not understanding if the bus is going to be too full.”

Adams said many parts of Brooklyn, especially in the south, aren’t connected by trains, so many riders are forced to take the bus. That includes many seniors who physically can’t get to the subways.

As Brooklyn continues to explode in population growth in neighborhoods like Williamsburg, Bedford-Stuyvesant and East New York, more and more transportation options need to be more available.

“We need the transit system to ensure we can match the infrastructure of our new developments,” he said.

State Senator Daniel Squadron, who represents the area, admitted that he wouldn’t take the bus if he could avoid it. He said it works for him because he’s mobile and lives by a subway line, but that isn’t always the case for all riders.

“For New Yorkers who don’t, the world is very unfair,” Squadron said. “The buses are the worst way to get around the city of New York. That is unacceptable.”

Assemblyman David Weprin, who represents parts of eastern Queens, said his district is diverse and vibrant with open spaces that include Alley Pond Park and Cunningham Park. It even has the city’s only working farm.

“There’s so much to see and do across our city and in my Assembly district, you can get there,” he said. “We have a very limited number of subway stations and a small number of LIRR stations, but we also have buses. So far, the people of Queens have been dealing with less than ideal bus service.”

Weprin acknowledged that Governor Andrew Cuomo has made progress by announcing that an additional 2,000 buses equipped with Wi-Fi and USB charging ports would join the MTA fleet. But while adding new buses helps, he said he feels more needs to be done, including more north-south service in Queens and Brooklyn.

“Millions of New Yorkers, including elderly and disabled riders, use New York City buses on a daily basis,” Weprin said. “Each of these riders deserve to have a transit system that works for them.”

Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, who chairs the Transportation Committee, promised he would hold a hearing on this issue and bring the MTA to speak about it.

With the MTA’s rollout of new buses with new technology, Raskin, who leads the Riders Alliance, said it’s a “valuable but insufficient step.” He said the report has recommendations not just on the buses, but also how MTA should operate them, how the city should organize its streets, and even better use of modern technology.

“We appreciate the attention to buses the MTA and city have started to pay, but we’re talking about recommendations that go deep into how we operate buses and how we operate streets,” he said. “What we’re looking for is elected officials to stand up for bus riders and adopt a broad vision for how to improve buses in New York.”
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