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Nobody is talking about NYC’s most pressing transit crisis

Written by
Clayton Guse

Over the last two years, the collective attention of New York City commuters has been fixed on the sharp decline in the quality of subway service. But oft forgotten in the temper tantrums regularly thrown by New Yorkers about the state of the city’s public transportation is the subway’s less popular stepsister: the bus system. 

Subway ridership might have seen a slight dip for the second straight year in 2017, but ridership on city buses has been in a free fall for nearly a decade. According to data presented in an MTA Transit Committee meeting on February 20, 602.6 million rides were logged on MTA buses last year, marking a drop of roughly 36 million from 2016. And another report published by NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office last November notes that the bus system has lost 100 million passenger trips since 2008.

There is a case to be made that New York City’s biggest transit crisis does not lie underground in the subway tunnels but instead on the street level with its floundering network of buses. The MTA currently provides the slowest bus service of any major city in the country (averaging 7.4 miles per hour), according to the aforementioned report, and poor service is hurting the New York communities that could benefit from it the most.

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

The way that Stringer is casting blame here is key. While the city has very little influence over the subway, it is a key player when it comes to managing Gotham’s public bus network. The NYC Department of Transportation (DOT) has sweeping power when it comes to regulating the flow of traffic, overseeing roadway construction and maintenance, and implementing policies that make street traffic flow more efficiently across the five boroughs.

Mayor Bill de Blasio spent a good portion of his first term in office deflecting the blame for state of the subway toward Governor Andrew Cuomo, who oversees the MTA and appoints the bulk of its board. But when it comes to the poor state of the bus system, the mayor’s administration is largely at fault.

The DOT has implemented only 15 of the 20 Select Bus Service routes that it had promised to roll out by the end of 2017. Transit Signal Priority, which programs stoplights to flip green when a bus approaches, has been installed at a meager 260 intersections across the city. And there are only 104 miles of dedicated bus lanes along the city’s 6,000 miles of streets. 

There are obviously a whole medley of factors that have caused the bus system’s ridership to plummet. The rise of ride-sharing apps like Uber, Lyft and Via have given New Yorkers a cost-effective, more convenient alternative to buses. An expanding Citi Bike network has given commuters another street level alternative. A small portion of commuters has even pivoted to the new NYC Ferry service.

But, as Stringer points out, the core of the issue is a lack of collaboration between the MTA and the DOT. Newly minted New York City Transit president Andy Byford has publicly made the bus system one of his top four priorities since taking office, and commuters across the city are eagerly waiting for solutions to be put in place. 

While features like Transit Priority Signal and an expanded Select Bus Service network could go a long way in improving the bus system as a whole, some transit activists believe that more radical solutions are necessary for improving service. One of them is Jim Venturi, the principal architect at ReThink NYC, a local transit think tank. 

He proposes a reimagining of the way the city’s bus network is organized. If the powers that be start thinking of services like Via, UberPool and Lyft Line in the same vein as they do buses, he says the city can make street level more efficient and egalitarian. 

“The Department of Transportation could open up its dedicated bus lanes to certain types of ride-sharing vehicles,” he says. “By doing that, we decongest the streets and increase the return on the investment of that road space.”

Venturi argues that services like Via, which require passengers to walk up to a few blocks to meet at a pickup destination, should be treated like buses. 

“Ad hoc bus routes carrying multiple people along an ever-changing route are already being created by computer algorithms,” he says, noting that simple policy measures could be put in place to both decrease traffic congestion and speed up street level commutes.  

Venturi also compared the current bus crisis in New York City to a similar one in London a decade ago. In 2005, the city’s former mayor Ken Livingstone shifted away from its double-decker buses in favor of the long accordion-style vehicles that are common in New York. Riders hated the switch, and the issue was key in Livinstone losing his re-election bid to Boris Johnson, who implemented a new model of double-deckers. Johnson’s success on that front helped propel him to the British Parliament, where he became one of the more vocal advocates of Brexit. 

While the shabby state of New York City’s bus system will almost certainly not lead to a full-blown secession, it’s important for New Yorkers to remember what’s at stake when it comes to investing in an efficient bus network. The average New York City subway commuter earns $40,000 a year. The average bus rider earns just $28,455. And as the city’s population continues to expand, bus routes will become even more vital when it comes to serving residents who do not live near a subway station.

The subway might be New York’s great equalizer, but the bus system is its essential partner. If neither runs efficiently, then the whole city suffers. So the next time you find yourself emailing your city councilperson about a hellish subway commute, consider asking them why service on your local bus route is so unreliable instead. 

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