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Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Stephen Rees

NYC’s bus system is somehow in worse shape than the subway

Written by
Clayton Guse

New Yorkers have spent a good chunk of 2017 bemoaning the city’s subway service—and with good reason. Delays in the system are on the rise, equipment failures have become rampant and straphangers have lost thousands of hours of work as a result. But missing in this ongoing conversation about the deteriorating train service is the subway’s less attractive counterpart: city buses.

report published on Monday by Comptroller Scott Stringer shows that service on New York City’s bus system is rapidly declining and ridership is following suit. It notes that over the past eight years, the annual ridership on the MTA bus system has dropped by 100 million. The biggest chunk of that drop took place in Manhattan, where ridership is down 16 percent over that period as increased congestion has made traversing the borough at street level a complete nightmare.

Citywide, the average speed of buses is just 7.4 miles per hour, or about that of a brisk jog. In Manhattan, the average speed dips to 5.5 miles per hour, and Brooklyn and the Bronx have average bus speeds of 6.3 and 6.5 miles per hour, respectively. This isn’t normal for major cities—New York City Transit buses are the slowest among the 17 largest bus companies in the country.

“This is not the result of unavoidable circumstances,” the report states, “but rather a product of age-old institutional failures by the City and the MTA to maximize the system’s potential.”

Among those institutional failures, Stringer’s report points out, is the confusing management structure that oversees New York City’s buses. The buses are managed by two agencies: New York City Transit Bus and the MTA Bus Company. The two companies operate at separate depots, which leads to inefficiencies that directly affect day-to-day service.

But Stringer’s report is more than just a rap sheet of the bus system’s shortcomings—it also points out a few key ways that service could be improved. One of those fixes revolves around dedicated bus lanes, which are in place for just 104 of the roughly 6,000 miles of streets on which buses operate in the city. Another intriguing improvement comes in the form of “Transit Signal Priority,” which reprograms traffic lights to flip to green when a bus is approaching. Currently, only five of the city’s 326 bus routes have this functionality. 

What’s more, an inefficient bus system affects lower-income New Yorkers far more than an inefficient subway system, and it ushers in more wealth disparity and gentrification in every corner of the city. The report also notes that a reliable bus system can spur many New Yorkers to forego car ownership, putting money back into their pockets and taking cars off of the streets. 

New York City’s population has boomed this century, and neighborhoods that are not easily accessible by the subway continue to grow. But while Gothamites have spent a good chunk of mental energy bemoaning the quality of subway service this year, they've ignored the declining bus system, which is perhaps just as crucial to the city’s expansion as trains running on time.

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