Benefits Of SBS And Other Considerations

Today’s special edition of The Commute is a follow-up on yesterday’s column on suggestions and critiques of the planned Select Bus Service (SBS) route on Nostrand Avenue, which will replace the B44 Limited.

THE COMMUTE: Last week I made a slight error by stating that the average SBS passenger making a 2.3-mile trip will save an average of 1.7 minutes. A Sheepshead Bites reader brought the error to my attention. The correct estimated time savings is 4.4 minutes compared to current service. Part of this savings is not due to SBS but because the SBS will be operating slightly more often than the current Limited bus. The 1.7 number referred to the time that would be saved if the Limited service were to be increased to the level of frequency provided by the SBS without any of the SBS features. In other words, the SBS by itself when discounting the additional bus frequency will save the average passenger 2.7 additional minutes.

This is the average time savings for everyone using the B44, not only SBS passengers, and includes additional walking time to and from bus stops. One of my concerns before attending the Open House was that the MTA was not taking walking time into consideration and was only measuring bus travel time savings.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s look at how the MTA/DOT came to their conclusions presented at last week’s SBS Nostrand Avenue route hearing, and why they might be lacking.

How Did the MTA Make their Predictions?

These savings are projected according to a computer model used by the MTA. How accurate is it? According to Ted Orosz, the Project Leader on the MTA side, the information coming out is as good as the information going in. Therefore it is important that we find out as much as we can about the model they are using and what went into it. Thus far the MTA has not revealed any information about its model. Basically what they are saying is that they are the “experts” and we should trust them. It is up to you if you are willing to accept that.

A Little About Models

I know a little about computer modeling. We used it at the Department of City Planning to help us with our 1978 bus proposals. What I can tell you is similar to what Orosz stated. If you make the wrong assumptions inputting data, the data coming out will not be accurate. You have to really understand the system to make the correct assumptions. Computer models have come a long way since 1978, but the same holds true today. So how good is the MTA’s model? I don’t know. But this is what I do know.

In 2006, near the conclusion of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council’s three-year study of transportation in Southern Brooklyn, the MTA made a presentation on the model they were using. Three years earlier, they promised that the model would assess various bus route change options suggested by the participants in the study. Finally, they admitted that the model could not be used for that purpose because it was not sophisticated enough. It could only be used to predict broad regional travel patterns on the macro level, but was useless to study individual routes.

So the question becomes what has changed in the past few years? What model are they using now and if it can assign and predict travel patterns on a route-by-route basis, why was it not used last year when the MTA made its massive service cuts? At that time the MTA indicated it was relying solely on fare box revenue, MetroCard data, and passenger traffic counts to make those changes.  Nowhere in any of their documentation did they refer to any computer model and nowhere in their presentation of SBS are there any written references to a computer model that I could find.

How a Computer Model Works

In simplest terms, origin and destination data is inputted, that is, the addresses where people begin and end their trips. This data is obtained from past surveys that were conducted, usually from census data, unless the MTA performed its own surveys, which is doubtful. The transit network is also inputted. The computer then builds trip tables assigning passengers to what it determines to be the route they prefer, usually the one taking the least amount of time. It is up to the planners to assign other variables the model would not consider on its own; for example, to not allow trips where three or more changes would be involved. The model could also assign a penalty of several minutes to subway stations that many people consider unsafe because they believe it would be too dangerous to transfer there, if the planners believe that doing so would result in more accurate trip planning by the model.

In the Urban Transportation Planning System (UTPS) Model I used at the Department of City Planning in 1975 to develop the Southern Brooklyn bus route changes made in 1978, it was not possible for us to account for three bus trips made with a single fare, which was allowed at that time on some trips, so our model was incorrect in that respect. Today, the MTA has to make allowances for passengers using an unlimited pass and those paying per trip. If, for example, the model is programmed to assign an unlimited pass for 54 percent of the passengers and in actuality, in poorer neighborhoods, only 38 percent of the riders use an unlimited pass, the model would assign more trips that can be made with two fares even if the trip that is actually made is a longer one requiring one fare. The same would apply to college students who may only make their trip three days a week and also choose the pay-per-ride option because it would be uneconomical for them to purchase an unlimited ride pass.

The poorer the assumptions that are made when building the model, the less accurate the results. Good planning practice is to disclose all assumptions to give the public an understanding of the planning process. Although Chairman Jay Walder prides himself on the MTA being a transparent agency, the MTA has not revealed one iota of information regarding their model. We do not even know if they are using 2010 census data or 12-year-old 2000 census data. You can ask the MTA these questions, or you could just trust them. The choice is yours.

Other Considerations

You will be able to transfer between the SBS and the local; however, making such a transfer will deprive you of transferring to a third bus or the subway. Since many riders south of the Junction would transfer to the subway, in essence this means that unless they have an unlimited card, they will not be able to transfer from the local to the SBS or vice versa for a single fare and would either have to stay on the local for their entire trip or walk up to a half-mile to or from the SBS.

It is unofficial MTA policy for a local bus operator to accept an SBS receipt as payment for a fare if the SBS is delayed; however, the MTA will not make this the official policy, according to Orosz. I am not sure how to interpret that. I guess it means you have no recourse if a local bus operator refuses to let you on with an SBS receipt. Also, I do not understand why, if it is allowed, the MTA will not make this official policy. It seems to me that this will lead to unnecessary conflicts between passengers and bus operators.

As for my question about what steps the MTA will be taking to assure that innocent riders will not be receiving summonses for not paying their fare, I was told by Orosz that all passengers who receive summonses deserve them and that passengers that claim to be innocent are liars because they should have been able to produce a receipt when requested. Of course, summonses will not be issued immediately. A grace period will be given until riders familiarize themselves with the new system. However, contrary to Orosz’s statement I believe there is room for confusion and misinterpretation that could result in unfair summonses being given. For example, the signs on the current fare machines in Manhattan state that you should “Speed Your Ride – Pay Before You Board” That could be interpreted by someone unfamiliar with SBS that you could also pay once on board as on the railroads. There have been instances where bus operators have not informed riders wishing to pay on board that they must get off the bus, but rather motioned them to get on to keep the passengers moving. The signs should make it clear that pre-paying is not an option but a requirement and there is a risk of a hefty fine.

I also learned at the Open House that the construction cost for the project is about $20 million including the cost of the fare machines. The cost of the machines will be paid from the MTA Capital Program. The federal government and DOT will foot the bill for all other costs except for the ongoing costs of repairing the fare machines when they need repair, which will be borne by the MTA, I assume after the manufacturer’s warranty expires.

In Manhattan, where SBS is already in operation, the MTA claims that fare evasion is down from 13 percent to seven percent since the MTA began operating on the M15 route, so any revenues brought in from summonses are only pluses for the MTA according to Orosz. I did not seek further information as to how much revenue from summonses are collected or if that amount is greater than the amounts lost through fare evasion, as I had intended.

According to Eric Beaton of DOT, 150 parking spaces will be lost north of the Junction and below the Junction there will be a net change of zero parking spaces. My final question for DOT was which bus stops would be removed from Emmons Avenue since that was mentioned at the Community Board 15 meeting last year. DOT stated they will have that answer on October 25 at their presentation to Board 15. Of course, you will have to ask the question if you want that answer.

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).