Southern Brooklyn

Why Is Bus Ridership Declining?


THE COMMUTE: Transit ridership reached an all time high shortly after World War II. It has been declining since then, especially after fare increases and during downturns in the economy with a few exceptions. The reasons are many, most importantly the rise in use of the automobile and the building of highways, while transit elevated lines were ripped down without subway replacements. The buses replacing the elevated lines and trolleys were slower and less attractive.

The downward trend was temporarily reversed with the introduction of MetroCard Gold in 1997, which eliminated what was considered two-fare zones, allowing free transfers between subways and buses. This made bus service much more attractive for shorter trips where a subway was also involved, because it essentially cut the transit fare in half. As a result, bus patronage rose 30 percent, sparking the purchasing of additional buses and increased service for a time. Other factors for increased transit ridership at that time were new equipment and better maintenance of the infrastructure.

However, with the recent recession, transit ridership has once again begun to decline and so have service levels. As we have begun to emerge from the recession, a new disturbing and baffling trend is emerging. Subway ridership is beginning to increase again. However, bus ridership is continuing to decline. The Wall Street Journal recently discussed this. For those without a Wall Street Journal subscription, the full text of the article is posted on BusChat.

From the article:

The nation’s largest municipal bus system has endured a slow slide in ridership since 2005. It was down another 1.7% last year despite a sharp drop in the city’s jobless rate… it appears that a mix of factors, including the city’s uneven economy and unprecedented service cuts, all play a role.

Bus riders tend to be less affluent than subway riders, and the economic problems of the past three years have had a bigger impact on working-class New Yorkers in outer boroughs who depend on buses.

On top of that, the MTA eliminated or cut service on dozens of bus routes last summer. Finally, congestion means many buses crawl along at walking speed during rush hour.

None of that completely explains the prolonged drop in bus ridership. There were 13.2% fewer trips on New York City Transit buses in 2010 than there were in 2005. Subway ridership rose 12.6% during the same period.

The MTA offered the following explanation:

“We don’t know exactly why, but we’re seeing a decline in the inner portions of the boroughs,” said Kevin Ortiz, an MTA spokesman.

“One thing that is contributing to that is traffic congestion,” Mr. Ortiz said. “The buses just are not traveling at optimal speeds. Other than that, we can’t really pinpoint why ridership is declining on portions of these routes.”

That explanation is very incomplete.

The folks at BusChat, some of whom I believe know more about what is really going on than upper management at the MTA, weighed in with their explanations. Here is what a few of them had to say. My comments are in parentheses.

The Hat: (Bus driver) Decreased reliability of buses…Non-covering of runs (the term used to describe a day’s work by the bus operator during the course of a day); using antiquated dispatching procedures to “put buses on time”…Also changes in routing w/o enough time to cover new ground. (Typos corrected with some editing.)

Mr. Mabstoa (Bus Dispatcher) there were times before the service cuts that we were instructed at the depot level not to fill runs at all to cut overtime… There were times where we had 20 runs a day open. Of course ridership is down if there are no buses running!

B49 Limited: Buses have longer wait times especially the busier routes like the B 35 at nights…When 20 – 30 min because the new norm for bus waiting (and buses are overcrowded), people are going to look for alternative(s)… Queens and Brooklyn needs to modernize its (routing) system…(There should be) a 10-year review of the bus system. Many routes in Brooklyn need to be modernized…MTA is not making great strides to improve it and since MTA Bus and MTA NYCT are treated “separately. (This prevents making efficiencies such as combining the B2 and B100)  (Typos corrected.)

Joe V: With 3 fare hikes in 4 years, people will walk 15 – 20 minutes rather than take a short bus ride.

BusMgr: Bus speeds are probably a good part of the reason, but the excuse of “traffic congestion” is mere deflection. There might be marginal changes in level of congestion, but the levels of traffic congestion in the City of New York have not changed considerably…In years past, drivers would work their butts off keeping a schedule. They would hustle, encourage their passengers to step lively while boarding and alighting…Dispatchers along the route would encourage their drivers to move along and keep the schedule…Doors on buses, both at the front and the rear, operated more rapidly…

GI Ravage: More people are using “commuter vans” to/from the subway (and the MTA does not consider this demand when determining bus schedules).

Other reasons not mentioned are:

  1. Undercounting of bus passengers due to some buses operating with broken fareboxes (buses used to be taken out of service for that reason), and the increasing number of fare evaders since bus drivers no longer challenge riders who do not have the correct fare and now just let everyone board due to concerns about bus operator safety; also more passengers entering the rear door without paying when buses are too overcrowded to let them board through the front door.
  2. In recent years there is much more deadheading of buses, i.e. buses operating not in service instead of carrying passengers, a hidden service cut.
  3. Bus stops that are spaced further apart making buses less attractive. People would often start walking if they saw no bus coming. With stops further apart, it makes it more difficult to run to a bus stop if you do see a bus a few blocks away so they may decide to just walk their entire trip if it is a short one.
  4. Two-door Articulated (accordion-style) buses on Manhattan crosstown routes greatly slowed down service by increasing dwell times at bus stops and increased the spacing between buses, making walking a more attractive option.

Throughout history it was always possible to travel long distances on a single fare, it was also true that many trips would require multiple fares, sometimes four or more. Extra fares were required for travel to the Rockaways, traveling over toll bridges, changing between some bus lines and to trains, etc.

However, due to the redundancy of the system, passengers could usually figure out a way to reduce the number of fares to one or two and occasionally three, by using bus routes requiring a greater walking distance.

Gradually, most of the extra fares were eliminated so fewer trips would require them. However, with the elimination of many bus routes last year, that system redundancy has been reduced and direct connections between neighborhoods and other bus routes severed, increasing the numbers of buses required for some trips from two to three and hence, an extra fare. Those additional fares have also has encouraged more trips to be made by subway or car service or not at all, affecting buses greater than subways.

While obvious to the users of the system, these reasons remain a mystery to managers making $100,000 plus at the MTA. Can you think of additional reasons why bus ridership should be declining while subway ridership is increasing?

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).

Comment policy


  1. Maybe if they had adequate amounts of buses for the proper routes, drivers that didn’t piss out of the back door at stops like Knapp Street/Voorhies, and I don’t know, a fare that was equalized with the quality of the bus and its maintenance, maybe people would want to take those disgusting buses.

  2. I agree with Samsap. And if the express bus had a monthly, I’d jump on it.  Who the hell wants to have to buy and express bus pass every week? Doesn’t make sense.  Give us more options and we’ll be happy.

  3. I agree with Samsap. And if the express bus had a monthly, I’d jump on it.  Who the hell wants to have to buy and express bus pass every week? Doesn’t make sense.  Give us more options and we’ll be happy.

  4. The DOT also is making it better to drive around NYC so people become more inclined to drive their own cars then go on a bus or a train… also 3 to 4 buses go down Oriental Blvd in MB in a row not one at a time spaced out… I’d also wager buses suck overall. The subway is just better…

  5. The DOT also is making it better to drive around NYC so people become more inclined to drive their own cars then go on a bus or a train… also 3 to 4 buses go down Oriental Blvd in MB in a row not one at a time spaced out… I’d also wager buses suck overall. The subway is just better…

  6. Having adequate amounts of buses for the routes is key.  The MTA tries by doing regular passenger counts, but often some routes have too many buses while others go begging for additional buses. It’s a matter of fine tuning which makes all the difference. As I pointed out here there are too many buses on Friday afternoons. On the other school days, there is not enough service.

    Buses not running on time is also very wasteful when an empty bus follows an overcrowded one.  Better supervision is needed.  The MTA just takes the position that they cannot control traffic so it is not their problem.

  7. since they’ve cut service on the B36, I notice that several times 2 or 3  B36 buses pulled into Stillwell stop almost simultaneously. In fact one Sunday a few weeks back, while eating at Nathans, I noticed that SIX B36 buses stopped at the Stillwell Avenue station in about 7 minutes. Judging from the crowd before the first one showed up, it was probably 45 minutes for it to show up.

      I think they do it on purpose so 5 of those 6 bus drivers had an easy route…. with hijinx like that, no wonder why bus ridership is down.

  8. driving and walking tend to be faster than buses due to the long times they spend on bus stops, especially when people get off at the front door (get off at the back for pete’s sake). The IND Second System would have greatly benefited the outer boroughs, including Queens, where many areas have no subway service like Maspeth, Whitestone, and South Jamaica. A jackass named Robert Moses nearly doomed mass transit in nyc.

  9. Yesterday afternoon i was at the intersection of West End and Oriental and an old women got off the 49 on West End and started barely running to catch a 1 that was across the street at Oriental at a red light which is where the stop is and he didn’t let her on because the light was about to turn green. That bus was almost empty with a quick glance i saw a few people in it. I don’t know how the women didn’t see the other bus right behind him but started walking back across the street when another showed up and i guess there was no one left at the stop so he didn’t even stop there. From what i did see there was no reason not to let her on. Its crazy how in one of the most important cities in the world that the transit system SUCKS.   

  10. I think the Depression and World War II were greater reasons why the Second System was never built.  There is no proof that if Moses weren’t around, the money that was spent on highways would have been spent on transit.  He took just as much money from hospitals and schools as he did from transit to build highways and parks.  He was an SOB, and did some bad things but he gets too much of a bad rap. Can you imagine getting around without the Belt Parkway or BQE or having to ride on Horace Harding Blvd instead of the LIE. It would take you two hours to get to Nassau County by car instead of 45 minutes.  Would they have built another branch of the LIRR instead of the Belt Parkway?  I think not.  

  11. I’m not making excuses for what the driver did, but I think a lot of times they just don’t allow enough time in the schedule because it looks better on paper to have a leaner schedule. So many times the driver will not let people on or skip stops if he feels he is falling behind.  The reason he doesn’t want to fall behind is that he has a more difficult time if he does by having to pick up more passengers.

  12. One thing I noticed as a occasional not but former long-term rider of variously the 2, 31, 3, 41 and 44; there are more lights on streets and avenues than there were in the 1970s because community leaders-stupidly-demanded it. Also, there is more vehicle traffic now than ever. Yet the bus stops themselves are still what they were in 1978. And simply we don’t need stops every other block on a main avenue. Stopping on Avenue U or Avenue R every other block is pointless such than more and more people walk because it’s as fast or faster. They shoudl adjsut it so the buses stop less frequently. I know people will complain, but it’s to the point that the buses simply take too long.

  13. You are right about the increased number of traffic lights.  Instead of crossing guards, communities have demanded lights in front of every school.

    However spacing bus stops further apart is both good and bad. I think it makes sense when buses are moderately utilized, not on very heavy routes where you may already have limited stop service, or on parts of routes where few people are getting on and off anyway.  No time is saved by eliminating those stops. 

    In many cases, the stops have already increased from every two blocks to every three blocks.  On heavy routes, fewer stops might overload the bus stops.

  14. It’s interesting that the 6-bus pileup happens on the Stillwell end of the B36. I live on the U and Nostrand end, and the most I’ve seen clustered and idling at a time is 2 or 3. And there are definitely gaps of up to 45 minutes between seeing any buses at all sometimes (and I’m talking midday and peak times).

    I more often see 5 to 6-bus clusters of B44s than B36s. The B44 has to be one of the worst lines when it comes to timing.

  15. Fantastic article, Allan. It politely sums up commuters’ confusion and rage at the system very well. It’s really a sorry situation.

    I definitely fall into the category of those who would rather walk for 10, 15, or even 30 minutes than waste money on a late and crowded bus that takes longer in the first place. In the time it takes to sit on my ass at the bus stop and check down the street every 5 seconds before a bus finally pulls up, I could be at my destination already and BEAT the bus there. I’ve done this countless times during rush hours and evenings with the B3 (it even became a joke with my mom over the years to see by how much we could beat the bus home from the train), and a couple times with the B36, B44, and even the B9. That shouldn’t happen with an efficient system.

  16. Sadly most of those busses are “not in service”..just driving empty, wasting gas and passing by old folks waiting on the b49!

  17. I was on a B1 bus Wednesday- the odd thing was three more B1 busses were right behind us. Where is the reasoning in that- 4 busses all headed to the same place at the same time?
      I say hand MTA over to a group of A.P. high school students and let them fix all the problems- think of the money that would be saved & I am sure the kids could do no harm. Just a thought.

  18. I must disagree sir. (or madam) All those new traffic lights that are out of sync. Those stupid bike lanes. Slowing traffic to a crawl with the new 20 MPH speed limits popping up. Turning Gerritsen and West 6th into one lanes. Hardly makes it easier to drive. If Khan and the Emperor have their way the whole city would be biking to work. No cars, no buses, no walking. Except for her of course. She’ll just wave her car keys and smile in front of the camera.

  19. I once heard that the bus is not allowed to pickup in between stops, because when the doors are opened in a spot other than a bus stop that’s near a curb, there is a chance that vehicle could come rolling into to space to the right and hit the passenger. The policy seems to have some kind of logic to it, but in the end, it’s just better to let the passenger onto the bus. The person can still get hurt, especially if left standing there.

  20. Whatever happened to the subway system that was running east to west and into Canarsie? Was there supposed to be a line going through Midwood to connect to the (now) B line? I remember something not getting approval many years ago.
    Why is it Ave H-I is impassable, what tracks are there?There’s subway tracks in Bay Ridge that are dormant. I can come up with some locations….I just don’t understand why they were left in place.

  21. What are you daft? The current DOT and Bloomy are horrible to car drivers. Look at all the wide roads with multiple lanes they keep fucking ruining. They just did it AGAIN at Strickland Ave.

    These changes cause congestion, pollution, noise and massive Driver fury. 

  22. You are referring to the LIRR Bay Ridge freight line which operates one train a day.  In 1969 it was proposed to reroute the Canarsie Line along the freight line until Utica Avenue.  There have also been numerous proposals to convert it to a light rail / subway line.  I think that really makes sense.  It could continue eastbound above Linden Blvd in East NY like the JFK Airtrain and go out to JFK and the new Aqueduct Racino.  There also have been proposals for an expressway and housing.  Thus far nothing has been done.

  23. Allan, I used to work at On Time Car Service, which service area is Sheepshead Bay and Gerritsen Beach, and a large chunk of their business came from customers between Bedford Ave and Gerritsen Ave to take a short ride to the Sheepshead or Kings Highway Train stations. 10 years ago that was a 4$-6$ ride plus tip, today its approx 8$.

    People are paying double or triple the amount to avoid the B36, and B3 to get to the Q train. To this day there is a large livery cab presence outside the Sheepshead Train Station where a few people per hour grab a 6$ cab instead of waiting for the bus.

    You know what that tells me? People are willing to pay more for comfort and efficiency and speed.

  24. Arthur, you are correct.  The technical urban planning term for what you are referring to is called “latent demand.” That is something the MTA never measures because they don’t believe it exists. If any of them knew anything about transportaion planning, they would know that it is indeed very real.  That is one reason why I believe extending the B4 up Knapp Street to Avenue U would be a sucess.  It would take some riders from the B3 and B36 routes, leaving them with more capacity, so they would travel faster.  It would also make the B4 more viable and could lead to increased service levels. But the MTA wants to provide less service, not more, so they are not interested in making bus service more attractive.

  25. Are you sure all the buses really were going to the same place? When school is open they go to multiple destinations: 4th Avenue, 13th Avenue, 25th Avenue and Ocean Parkway.

  26. In fact Moses wanted to turn the railroad cut into an expressway exactly as you describe, but it was too disruptive to communities to make exit ramps. Further there have been occasional plans to actually run commuter rail if the 69th Street terminus was extended via tunnel to New Jersey. That exact concept-a rail tunnel from Brookyn to New Jersey-was the original reason the Port Authority was founded in the 1930s.In fact pols as diverse ad Congressman Nadler and Conservative boss Mike Long have proposed the PA get behind it’s original mandet, but to no avail.

  27. That happened to me a few times (I live in Staten Island, but its the same idea). Once, I took the S59 to Forest Avenue and ran when I saw the S48 in front, and even though the light was red, the driver didn’t let me on. I ran to the next stop, where finally the driver let me on (I guess I figured he was going to have to put up with me running after the bus for a few more stops if he didn’t let me on)

  28. Of course, the Checkers are instructed not to count anyone entering via the rear doors. Pulling a revenue bus into a school stop ahead of the (waiting) tripper will fill that revenue bus to capacity, though the traffic log data reflects only the 4 adults who paid the fare via the front doors, not the 20-something punks who rushed into that bus via the rear doors.

    Bus is now full. I’m hitting the flag key and I turn in my flag slip for the day. My data doesn’t match the Checkers data. I’ve logged 20 farebeats. I’ve left 40 people in the street. But hey, I’m back on schedule!!!

  29. But the question is: Do they want to add the service to reduce the latent demand? You have to consider that they would have to run extra buses when most of the people will be paying nothing, since they are transferring from the subway.

  30. One of the the compelling reasons is that bus service has not fundamentally changed in decades whilst the speed at which our society now moves has.  Many, many people can no longer arrive at a bus stop and not know whether or not they will need to wait 5 or 45 minutes for the bus.  Then, the bus creeps along at mind-numbingly slow speeds. Now, imagine the subway worked that way, and what would happen to ridership?    I recently mapped out a trip from hipster Williamsburg to Elmhurst, and it was 45 minutes on the Q59.  And this doesn’t even include the the 5 to 45 minute wait.  Now that same site was happy to provide travel times by taxi and car of 15 minutes. 

    Traffic congestion is not an excuse.  Bus service needs to be re-thought from a clean sheet of paper.  SBS is just an incremental change. I see the M15SBS stuck in traffic all the time. 

  31. Positive. All turned on brighton and made their way to MB. It was pretty strange watching it all the way- the driver was telling people to wait or get on the bus behind us the entire trip. (sadly some people still climbed up- one time when I did not leave my seat for someone older than myself was this trip!)

  32. […] Also, with less frequent service, many passengers using the crosstowns only for two or three blocks decided instead to walk, causing the MTA to reduce service further. I can still remember my transportation professor at Columbia University in 1972 telling us that you would never want to put articulated buses on a crosstown line. Is it any wonder that bus ridership is declining? […]

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