The declining quality of subway service typically dominates most conversations among commuters in New York, but oft forgotten in these transit temper tantrums is an arguably more pressing crisis: the state of the city’s bus system. In the last decade, ridership on the network of more than 5,700 buses has lost roughly 100 million passengers, in part due to the fact that the MTA currently provides the slowest bus service of any major city in the country.
On Monday, New York City Transit president Andy Byford announced a comprehensive plan to turn the system around. Dubbed the NYC Transit Bus Plan, the whole ordeal is similar to the MTA’s Subway Action Plan that was announced last summer after Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency for that system. The plan aims to make good on Byford’s promise to make improving bus service one of his top four priorities.
“We’ve listened to our riders’ concerns and are working tirelessly to create a world-class bus system that New Yorkers deserve,” he said in a statement.
The plan corrals many initiatives that have already been announced (or at least mentioned publicly at MTA Board meetings), including launching a comprehensive review of the city’s bus route network and strengthening the NYPD’s enforcement of bus lane rules. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Monday’s announcement is the rollout of all-electric buses in the city. A pilot test of 10 zero-emission buses already launched earlier this year, but this spring the MTA will also test a line of double-decker express buses on Staten Island, the first of their kind in the history of the MTA.
Byford also announced a whole host of upgrades to the bus fleet as a whole, including the addition of digital displays that show real-time route locations, service updates and security cameras. What's more, he said that New York City’s bus system will be among the first in the MTA to roll out the new fare payment system that will replace the MetroCard in the next five years. Byford says the new tap-and-pay method will allow riders to board from every door on a bus, making each vehicle more efficient.
The seemingly biggest dent that this new plan could have in improving bus service comes in the form of transit signal priority, a system that essentially makes stoplights turn to green when a bus approaches. That technology has been installed at less than 300 intersections across the five boroughs—Byford’s plan aims to work with the city’s Department of Transportation to expeditiously grow that figure.
Much of the blame for the laughable quality of Gotham’s buses can be placed on the city itself—the Department of Transportation has all but unilateral authority over the management of the city’s streets. The department has drawn the ire of critics for rolling out only 15 of the 20 Select Bus Service routes that it had promised to implement by the end of 2017, as well as its sluggish rollout of dedicated bus lanes.
If Byford’s plan is to be successful, he’ll need to establish a level of cooperation with the DOT and the MTA that’s been largely absent while Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio quibble every chance they get. Still, Byford was at the center of robust transit turnarounds in London, Sydney and Toronto, and he has a long record of navigating political, public and private interests in each locale. New York City is an entirely different beast, but it's one that Byford is uniquely equipped to conquer.