MTA Caught With Their Pants Down: Part II

Students walking two extra blocks to Kingsborough Community College. Photo by Allan Rosen

THE COMMUTE: Yesterday I discussed service irregularities on the B1 and B49 last Thursday afternoon, a day when the temperature reached the mid-90s and passengers were trying to get home from the beach. Today we look at other service irregularities and measures that can be taken, which the MTA resists.

What Can Be Done

Heavy beach traffic does not occur every day so you can’t build extra boarding time into the schedule unless you operate a special schedule for those days. However, you can incorporate delays into the recovery time at the end of a route so buses do not leave the terminal bunched. You could also operate extra buses on days when the temperature reaches the 90s when people flock to the beaches. You can have an adequate number of dispatchers on duty who can communicate with each other to issue special instructions to bus operators to help them get back on schedule. If Bus Time is ever fully implemented, it would be possible to see the locations of all buses on an entire route at the same time, enabling more intelligent decision making.

Layover Time Abuse

The purpose of layover or recovery time is to help get buses back on schedule when delayed. However, I saw bus drivers and the dispatcher on duty seem to treat it as a right rather than as a means to keep to a schedule. Why else would B1 bus #7054, which arrived at Mackenzie Street at 6:13 p.m., not leave until 6:28 p.m., although the previous B1 bus departed at 5:56 p.m. when buses were supposed to leave every 10 minutes? That is nearly a 30-minute gap in service, which could have easily been cut in half if the bus departed as soon as it arrived. Why did the dispatcher allow this? Also, why did he not order B1 bus #9408, which arrived at 6:15 p.m. to pick up passengers until 25th Avenue instead of directly heading to the depot Not In Service when the next bus would not leave for another 13 minutes? Because the MTA does not want to pay overtime, even when it is necessary for reliable service.

MTA’s Obsession With Reducing Overtime

You can make the case that the MTA just cannot afford to pay overtime. Another alternative is to hire more bus operators. However, that is a more expensive alternative than paying overtime. The MTA can also provide better service through more efficient scheduling. In 1981, when I was in charge of Bus Planning, I questioned why you would start returning buses to the depot at 4:00 p.m. in Manhattan Beach precisely when people were starting to leave the beach? It made no sense, so I asked the scheduling department to investigate. It turned out, by having buses run off at Farragut Road instead of Avenue U, 11 additional trips could be provided and at a lower cost. I asked that this be made the practice for summer schedules, and it was for several years.

Today, the MTA still removes buses from service even if others are so crowded that passengers have to stand or cannot board at all. They do this because they find it more efficient for these buses operate to the depot Not In Service than to remain in service for a partial trip. Hence, bus #5188, which I referred to yesterday, loaded up with 75 passengers by the time it reached Falmouth Street while bus #4596 operated Not in Service to the depot ten minutes earlier. If the dispatcher on duty ordered bus #4596 to operate overtime in service to Farragut Road, the loads could have been equally distributed instead of one bus being overloaded and the other returning to the depot empty. If a dispatcher in 1981 could order overtime to help regulate service, it could also be done today if the MTA cared more about its passengers.

Buses Not Pulling Into The Terminal

It was about four years ago when I heard complaints from Community Board 15 that buses routinely do not pull into the Mackenzie Street terminal to discharge Kingsborough College students, but rather discharge them one or even two blocks away at Langham Street or Kensington Street and make them walk the last 1,500 feet to school. Elderly residents living on Pembroke Street also complained about this practice. Andrew Inglesby, the assistant director of Community Affairs, told community board members this happens because there is inadequate space for buses within the terminal. However, residents insisted that it occurs even when there are no buses in the terminal. He promised to investigate because it should never occur unless the terminal was fully occupied with three buses.

Since that time, I witnessed buses discharging at Langham or Kensington on numerous occasions when there were no buses in the terminal. How can the MTA say this practice is against regulations when the dispatcher on duty last Thursday permitted drivers to discharge at Kensington and Langham on six occasions in the few minutes I was watching? Buses #9408, #9489 and #7054, all arriving at 6:13 p.m., discharged a total of about 60 students, who were then forced to walk one or two extra blocks. Again, at 6:31 p.m., buses #5188, #9081 and #4596 discharged another 60 students, who then had to walk two blocks extra to the college while the dispatcher watched (see photo above).

What Was The Dispatcher Accomplishing?

At 5:46 p.m., a B1 bus passed Falmouth Street with the “Next Bus Please” sign displayed. At 6:10 p.m., a B49 bus did the same. It is possible that, if those buses were not returning to the depot, the dispatcher ordered them to skip the first mile or two of service in order to get them back on schedule. If not, he accomplished absolutely nothing by being posted there. He not only allowed buses that were late to take their layover, he also allowed up to seven-minute layovers for buses returning to the depot “Not In Service.”

I find this particularly disturbing. Several years ago, when I wrote to Howard Roberts, then in charge of the Department of Buses, and asked him why so many partial trips on routes to and from the depot across the city were converted to “Not In Service” trips, leading to passengers having to have to wait an additional 10 minutes for a bus. He replied that it was more efficient to operate those buses “Not In Service,” because they would arrive five or 10 minutes earlier at the depot, reducing overtime. This, he explained, enabled the MTA to better allocate existing resources. Too bad Roberts is no longer in charge, because I would tell him that the seven minutes bus #9081 laid over prior to returning to the depot would have enabled it to pick up passengers going to the Brighton Station. This would have saved them at least 15 minutes and wouldn’t have cost the MTA one extra cent.


I like Darryl Irick, who is presently in charge of MTA Bus Operations. I believe, from my interactions with him and his crew of road supervisors, that they do care and would like to have buses operate as efficiently and effectively as possible. However, I question if all bus operators and dispatchers feel the same or would rather do just what is easiest for them. I would like to think that if Road Supervision saw what I saw — buses routinely leaving the terminal bunched, and bus operators who were late taking their scheduled layover anyway — they would take appropriate action.

What is to prevent the dispatcher I saw from fudging the numbers, as some dispatchers have been doing since bus operations began, and providing management with scheduled times the buses should have left Mackenzie Street instead of the actual times? The answer is absolutely nothing if they are not being watched. So how would management even know anything was wrong and the passengers were experiencing such delays without the data to confirm this? They would only know by reading Sheepshead Bites, or if I sent them an email.

There are no excuses for a dispatcher allowing:

  1. Buses to leave the terminal bunched;
  2. Late buses to take their layover anyway;
  3. Allowing buses returning to the depot to also first take a layover they are not entitled to; and
  4. Allowing buses not to pull into the terminal to discharge passengers against MTA regulations.

They do that so drivers could take their break without passengers aboard. That forces intending passengers to stand waiting for the bus when they could be sitting in it instead. It also forces more than 120 students to walk two extra blocks they should not have had to walk (during the 30 minutes I was there). When no supervision is on duty, you can plead ignorance and make promises to correct the situation in the future. However, when supervision sanctions these irregularities, you are indeed caught with your pants down.

The MTA needs to understand how buses operate in the real world and have more and better supervision. What may seem efficient on paper isn’t necessarily efficient when you study what happens under actual operating conditions. It is possible to operate a more efficient and effective system and it doesn’t have to cost more, for example by more effective scheduling.

What it takes is a willingness to recognize the problems and focus your attention on solutions, i.e. “What is best for the passenger,” which may be necessary for effective operations, instead of devoting your entire focus on how to economize by reducing service and overtime.

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.