Southern Brooklyn

The Commute: Why Transit Is A Last Resort For Many – Part 1 Of 3

Source: Allen81 / Flickr
Source: Allen81 / Flickr

THE COMMUTE: It’s a last resort, because the MTA makes it that way.

It’s just another example of MTA hypocrisy. Tell people to leave their car at home and use mass transit whenever possible, yet do little to make transit more enticing, such as opening closed station entrances. Most passengers use mass transit because they have no other choice. If your trip is too far for it to be comfortable to walk or cycle, your remaining choices — if you don’t have access to an automobile — are cab or car service, of if you do, the car or a bus. Taxis are prohibitively expensive for one person making a long trip. Express buses are limited in their destinations and are also not cheap. If parking is scarce near your destination or is prohibitively expensive, then the subway and or local, limited or Select Bus Service (SBS) are the only choices left. It is the choice of last resort for most. Few make the decision to leave their car at home if parking is not a problem. Why?

It is because trains are often crowded and uncomfortable and buses are slow and service is unreliable. Yes, the MTA has a limited budget, but many problems could be solved without great expense, but with more concern for the passenger. They waste far too much money of what they do have. I have written before about the MTA’s misplaced priorities and real estate boondoggles, and have given examples of how poor long range planning has resulted in a waste of resources. The biggest example is the boondoggle known as East Side Access, which will save some Long Island riders 20 minutes by increasing access to the East Side of Manhattan, but will make service worse for Brooklynites traveling to Long Island by forcing all riders to always transfer at Jamaica using an inconvenient transfer.

This project was conceived and started more than 50 years ago. The East River tunnels were completed more than 40 years ago, and have yet to see revenue service. Opening date is always five years away and the MTA or the riders have yet to reap any benefits. The scope and cost of the project is constantly increasing and the opening date continues to be postponed. No one can get me to believe that that many mistakes have not been made or that much money has not been wasted along the way. Yes, there are always unforeseen circumstances in such massive projects and some delays will occur, but did anyone foresee the project taking this long? No. One must ask was the entire scope of the project necessary given all the other MTA needs?

The Subways

Subway trains have always been crowded during rush hours. Now, with the greatest amount of ridership since World War II, and much fewer route miles and stations with the elimination of many elevated lines, they are more crowded than ever. Deferred maintenance since the 1950s, which continued into the mid-1980s long after the MTA took over the subways in 1968, now results in dozens of stations shut down each weekend. That forces inconvenient reroutes for passengers doubling trip times. Even with Fastrack, there is no end in sight to these repairs. Once limited to overnight hours or a few weekday afternoons on a few lines, today there are times when nearly half the system is affected by repair work. It’s just another reason not to leave your car at home.

In 2010, the MTA instituted massive service cutbacks that mainly affected bus lines and increased subway crowding. Some bus routes were restored, but changing the crowding standards to ensure fewer riders get a seat intentionally increased off-peak subway crowding. Is that what you want to do to encourage more ridership? Of course not. When I was a child in the 1960s, alternate Brighton expresses were removed from service at Brighton Beach beginning at 6:00 p.m. Today, they start taking trains out of service at 5:00 p.m. That is because many lines used to operate at maximum capacity for the entire rush hour period from about 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Today, there is less service during the shoulder periods and there is maximum capacity only for the peak 30 or 45 minutes.

I recently took the Q train after 11:00 p.m. on a weekday night and was amazed to see rush hour crowding conditions near Times Square, with standees all the way from there until Church Avenue. A week later, a friend of mine rode the Q close to midnight and reported the same conditions. Why? It is because the B ceases operation shortly after 10:00 p.m. when it needs to operate until midnight.

If the MTA truly wants you to leave your car at home, they would at least see that you get a seat at that time of night. Any wonder why a group of people traveling together would rather opt for a taxi, especially in Manhattan?

The Buses

Why after waiting 30 or 40 minutes for a bus, should you have to wait another 10 or 15 minutes because the first bus, which may even have seats, has its “Next Bus Please” sign displayed? That is because in an attempt to reduce bus driver overtime and get a late bus into its proper place, the MTA will instruct drivers to only stop to discharge passengers. Why is this wrong? It is because after waiting so long for a bus, you should not have to unnecessarily wait any longer.

Passengers are concerned with buses and trains arriving at regular intervals. They aren’t concerned if all buses are 10 minutes late. However, the MTA is very concerned about this because it means having to pay overtime, unless trips are cut short. So if avoiding overtime results in worse passenger service, so be it.

That is not to say there aren’t legitimate reasons for the “Next Bus Please” sign. Yes, if two buses are traveling together, and one is late, the late bus should attempt to get back on schedule, and skipping stops is an acceptable strategy to accomplish this. However, to use this technique when no other buses are nearby shows a greater concern for minimizing operating costs than serving the passengers better.

That is exactly what happened to me a few weeks ago on the B49. I needed to buy a few small items at Doody’s. I could easily have driven there and parked for free. I probably could have made the entire round trip in 30 minutes. However, it was a nice day and I figured I could use the exercise by walking one way and taking the bus back. So I waited for the bus for my return trip at Avenue Z and East 18th Street. A B4 arrived after several minutes. I decided to let it pass, because I still would have had to walk halfway home and now I was tired from the heat. In the other direction a B4, B36 and two B49s arrived while I was still waiting for my B49. Two more B36s came in my direction, but still no B49.

After about 30 minutes, I asked another passenger to consult BusTime since for some reason my cell phone refused to connect me. BusTime showed a B4 0.8 miles away, two B49s 1.8 miles away, and a third B49 2.8 miles away. Ten minutes later, the B4 arrived. A few minutes later, a B49 arrived with its “Next Bus Please” sign and a few standees. Another five minutes later, the pair of B49s arrived. That meant the wait on the B49 was at least 45 minutes just before noon on a weekday. Forty-five minute to one hour waits are not unusual for local buses although they may be scheduled to arrive every 10 minutes. Yet another reason, not to leave your car home and rely on the bus.

Next week: How the MTA’s newest bus routes have been far from successful.

The Commute is a weekly feature highlighting news and information about the city’s mass transit system and transportation infrastructure. It is written by Allan Rosen, a Manhattan Beach resident and former Director of MTA/NYC Transit Bus Planning (1981).

Disclaimer: The above is an opinion column and may not represent the thoughts or position of Sheepshead Bites. Based upon their expertise in their respective fields, our columnists are responsible for fact-checking their own work, and their submissions are edited only for length, grammar and clarity. If you would like to submit an opinion piece or become a regularly featured contributor, please e-mail nberke [at] sheepsheadbites [dot] com.