THE COMMUTE: Last week, I began discussing why the MTA is responsible for transit being the last resort for many while at the same time asking residents to leave their cars at home and choose transit. We discussed unnecessary crowding on the subways, and extra long waits for buses. I left off by giving an example of how, after waiting an unusually long period for a bus, the MTA makes you wait even longer by instructing drivers with one or two standees to not stop to pick up intending passengers.
In my Niagara Falls example two weeks ago, I mentioned how a bus driver decided to short turn the route because she knew that passengers were riding in the wrong direction because of excessive crowding after the fireworks, but needed to get back to their hotels. She first asked passengers on board if anyone was going to Marineland. When no one answered yes, she made her decision to turn around without consulting anyone else.
In New York City, bus operators are not trusted to use their own discretion. However, many do what they want to anyway to make their job easier because of the lack of supervision. They know what they are able to get away with, and some take full advantage. We need more supervision, but at the same time, we should trust our bus operators more by allowing them to make reroutes on their own when there are blockages, which I discussed here.
We give definitive instructions for bus operators to not pick up intending passengers to save time. If 20 passengers are waiting for a crowded late bus and a nearly empty one is right behind, it makes perfect sense for the late operator not to stop. However, what if only two or three passengers are waiting and the bus has to wait for a traffic signal to change anyway? In many instances he is not saving any time at all by refusing to pick up those passengers. He does not have the discretion to pick them up if he knows that, when given the instruction not to.
I have even seen instances in which buses with seats skip stops, leaving passengers to wait for the next bus, which has no seats available. Or worse, buses not being able to stop due to overcrowding while other buses right behind are going back to the depot not in service. That shows a total lack of concern for the passenger. In Brooklyn, Select Bus Service (SBS) was introduced last year on the B44. South of Avenue U it operates with an average of six passengers during rush hours, while neighboring routes are so overcrowded that buses are not able to stop for passengers. This is not an example of inadequate funding, but of mismanagement and inefficiency.
Back to my example of last week, I was curious to see what happened with the B49 that was so late that it was not picking up passengers although it only had a few standees, so I waited to see what happened on its return trip from Kingsborough Community College. It left the terminal after a layover with its “Not in Service” sign. I later checked MTA Bus Time to find it was put back in service later down the line. So how late was that bus that it used its “Next Bus Please” sign for at least the last several miles in one direction and still couldn’t operate in revenue service for the first mile in the other?
Was there some unusual event, such as a fire, that caused four buses to bunch up? Is there just not enough time in the schedule for buses to make their trip on time? Are drivers abusing their layover and taking it regardless, even if they are late? Or, is there another reason? More importantly, does the MTA even keep records of all the stops buses skip by not picking up intending passengers? This would enable them to how widespread the practice is so they can see where the problems are and try to correct them. They certainly have no records regarding how long passengers must wait for buses.
If the MTA truly does not want mass transit to be the choice of last resort, they need to start showing that they care about their passengers more than they care about operating costs. That does not mean they just go ahead and willy-nilly expand service all over the place. However, it also does not mean that they should refuse to provide additional service where it is necessary, by stating that they will only provide service after the ridership appears. You need to assess demand by doing proper market surveys and also study which trips being made by taxi and car service are occurring in great numbers. They cannot limit your studies only to existing routes and existing ridership.
Only recently has the MTA looked at changing land use and population shifts in areas such as Williamsburg. However, their response has been pathetic, with new routes operating only Monday through Friday at 30-minute scheduled headways. Is it any wonder why these new routes have the lowest patronage in the system? The B32 in Williamsburg, operating every 30 minutes, ranked dead last at 181 carrying fewer than 42,000 riders in 2013. Another new route operating every 30 minutes, the B84 in East New York, carried a mere 55,000 passengers last year. The B84 only operated for half the year, while the B32 only operated for four months. If we project annual ridership, assuming no difference between winter and summer months, the B32 would have 126,000 annual riders, and the B84 would have 110,000 annual riders. Yet the MTA considers these new routes, the B32 and B84, success stories. But wait! How many annual passengers did the discontinued B23 along McDonald Avenue and Cortelyou Road carry before being discontinued in 2010?
The answer is 198,000 annual riders — nearly twice what the MTA’s new routes are expected to carry after a full year in operation. Now imagine how many more passengers the B23 could have serviced if it was extended at the eastern end to make a connection to the B8? Or split up attaching itself to other routes such as the B67 or B69, rather than being discontinued? The numbers would be significant.
However, rather than doing real planning by restructuring outdated bus routes, the MTA is content with making minimal nearly meaningless changes that make the system less efficient not more efficient. They view operating expenses separately from revenue, when the evidence is clear that better service directly affects revenue. This is clearly evidenced by the amount of B39 passengers before it was discontinued verses after it was restored.
Ranking 178th, the B39, which was restored last year, carried only 101,000 riders — fewer than 25 percent of the riders it carried in 2008 and two-thirds of what it carried before being discontinued. That is due to the fact that it now operates at 30-minute intervals. Prior to being discontinued, it probably operated at 20-minute headways.
To put these numbers in perspective, the median traveled bus route carries more than three million annual passengers and the heaviest traveled route carries 17 million annual riders. The B44, which had SBS introduced on November 17, 2013, lost 425,000 annual riders, a loss of three percent.
Next week: Why the MTA needs to pay more attention to customer service.
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).
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