The Correct Path The MTA Needs To Take

Map announcing the undoing of most of the B36 in Coney Island. Courtesy of Allan Rosen (Click to enlarge)

THE COMMUTE: In Part 1, I discussed the success of the 1978 Southwest Brooklyn bus route changes, and why this is how the MTA should do its bus route planning. In Part 2, I showed how the MTA is on the wrong track. This week I show the future direction the MTA must take to avoid destroying the local bus system, the path it is currently on, as well as relating my experiences in Operations Planning.

The MTA should be attempting to attract new bus passengers, not try to lose them to the subway or to car services. You cannot attract new passengers by constantly reducing service and increasing service gaps resulting in making travel more difficult. You must plan by considering latent demand, i.e. passengers who would use the system if the routes were improved, something the MTA has never done.

The MTA, however, would disagree with my entire hypothesis. They would claim that the entire purpose of Select Bus Service (SBS) is to make local buses more attractive to passengers. They would say that they have no intention of destroying the bus system and they want it to flourish but are limited by economic realities. Where are the additional Select Bus passengers coming from, which the MTA is bragging about [PDF]? Are they being siphoned from parallel bus and subway lines or are they really new passengers? Are any of them choosing to leave their cars at home in order to ride the Select Bus? I haven’t seen any of those questions answered in any of the data the MTA has provided.

The MTA would also point to Bus Time, the pilot project on the B63, which informs passengers where the next bus is, to show they care about their customers and how that will increase bus usage.

You can make the argument that, in the current financial climate, the MTA cannot afford to provide new or improved service. However, even when there were budget surpluses about 10 years ago, the MTA still showed no interest in improving bus service, insisting that any service improvement must be accompanied by a service cut so that the net result is no total increase in operating costs or bus service.

The MTA refuses to project any revenue increases from service enhancements in making their proposals. By only considering operating costs, not new revenue that might be created toward offsetting those additional operating costs, new or additional service that might attract more revenue than it would cost to provide is never considered. Their assumption is that no bus service could ever make money, no matter how attractive.

Why The MTA Made The Southwest Brooklyn Changes

The lawsuit by the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, spurred the MTA into implementing the Southwest Brooklyn changes of 1978. As soon as the MTA became aware of the lawsuit, at the very next meeting they told the Department of City Planning (DCP) they were ready to start negotiating. That was after two years of using stalling tactics by first telling us we needed to enlarge the scope of our study. Once we did, they came back and told us the scope was too large. The MTA never would have made those changes without that lawsuit which required them to change bus routes in southern Brooklyn to improve air quality south of 59th Street in Manhattan.

Is The MTA A Business?
The MTA pretends to operate like a business, but what business will not make any investment to attract new clientele? Regarding SBS, the MTA is only paying for the cost and maintenance of the fare machines with others paying for construction. The project is only being undertaken to reduce operating costs, not because it will encourage ridership. Its wider bus stop spacing and penalization for transferring between a local and SBS bus by charging you another fare if you require another bus or train to complete your trip will be a negative for many especially the elderly. No one is denying that some people will be helped by SBS but the MTA has not proven — only alleged — that more will be helped than hurt.

Why The Success Of The Southwest Brooklyn Changes Could Not Be Repeated

The Southwest Brooklyn changes cost the MTA $250 million in additional annual operating costs. The number of additional passengers it attracted over the years to offset those costs was never measured. We know the changes attracted new passengers because of the dramatic resulting increase in frequency of service for the routes that were changed. Under the MTA’s operating guideline of balancing service cuts with service additions, so as to spend no money in additional operating costs, it would be impossible to make those types of routing improvements today.

My Experiences At The MTA

The MTA realized the success of the 1978 Southwest Brooklyn changes because they hired me three years later to head their Bus Operations Planning Department, then known as the Surface Planning Department. My mission in 1981 was to salvage their failing Brooklyn Transit Service Sufficiency Study, where the survey data had been sabotaged by their own employees due to certain actions of management, and after they spent two-thirds of the monies allocated while only accomplishing 50 percent of the tasks. I successfully applied for a $250,000 federal grant and a two-year time extension to complete the study.

However, due to being forced to work in a location infested with diesel fumes and thus unfit for human habitation — especially for someone with asthma, like myself — half of my staff and I were transferred after six months and much complaining to the existing Rapid Transit Operations Planning Department at Jay Street in Downtown Brooklyn, to form a newly created department simply known as Operations Planning. As my boss stated, “It’s much easier to transfer you and your staff than to address the air quality problem here in East New York.”

My new boss sabotaged my efforts by insisting on my staff developing and costing out five separate sets of alternative proposals for each of the 18 Community Boards in Brooklyn over the course of a year. This involved 100 or more bus routing changes instead of the 30 that were needed. At DCP, we only presented one set of proposals that did not include any alternatives. Under my boss’s approach, the amount of work increased five-fold and it would be necessary to change each bus route as many as six different times, whereas under the staged methodology I was employing, no route would have to be changed more than twice. The notion of making all the changes at once would have been an operations nightmare. My boss’s approach was thoroughly impractical because if any Community Board rejected any part of the plan, you could be left with a nonsensical route if part of the route had already been changed. It would be then necessary to undo the changes that had already been made.

I unsuccessfully attempted to logically reason with him during a three-hour meeting of the minds, explaining why it was not feasible to develop separate sets of proposals according to Community Board boundaries, as he had insisted, since some bus routes traversed six different Boards. He finally admitted he was wrong and that my approach and routing proposals were superior to his. However, he still insisted we go forward with his methodology since he was the boss and I had to comply. He made no secret that he wanted me to propose a specific route change just to provide a direct bus route from his house to the office so he would not have to use the subway.

After one year of trying to please him by producing five separate sets of proposal drafts, when he finally accepted my work, or rather his work, I informed him that the proposals he had me develop were so dumb and impractical, that I would deny any connection with them if asked. I was afraid of ruining my reputation and appearing like a fool in front of the communities when asked to present the ideas to them.

Having no confidence in his own proposals, since he respected my opinion, all of the proposals died that day. I was transferred out of Operations Planning soon after and never allowed back. Someone else produced a meaningless 500-page report with 20 pages of text and 480 pages of tables for the federal government, which was probably never even read, in order to justify the $900,000 in federal money we just wasted, $650,000 of which was spent before I arrived on the scene.

In order for the success of the Southwest Brooklyn changes to be repeated, the MTA must take –

A New Direction

The new MTA chairman must steer the organization away from the iceberg it is heading toward, that of destroying the bus system through service cutbacks and creating new service gaps, instead of filling the ones we already have by failing to make needed local bus routing improvements — some of which were needed as long as 70 years ago.

The bus system cannot survive with only a few super local bus routes, a few Select Bus Service routes and Express buses. There will not be enough patronage on the high frequency routes to maintain frequent service without having moderate and lightly-used routes needed to access those “super” routes. Express buses are inherently costly to operate and MTA Bus especially is making no attempts to make them more efficient, since their operating losses are covered by New York City, a condition the MTA imposed upon takeover from the privately operated companies.

As the bus system erodes with the MTA getting out of the bus business, the illegal van industry and car services will flourish, which is exactly what the MTA wants. They would much rather someone else serve the demand for what they consider to be a money-losing bus operation with no future.

The MTA must make the 10 needed changes I outlined last June. They must devote attention to solving the most serious inefficiency of local bus service — bus bunching, the bus passengers’ number one complaint. It is a problem they have been ignoring, and one which has gotten worse over the last 40 years, as the MTA has continually reduced operating supervision personnel, while at the same time creating numerous additional layers in its upper management bureaucracy. In 1981, when I was hired at the MTA, I was three levels below the president. By 1992, having never been demoted, I was seven layers removed from the president.

After three or four failed attempts at creating a GPS system to track buses and wasting upwards of $20 million, a pilot project called Bus Time finally started last February on the B63 to be expanded system-wide by 2013, if it is not abandoned like all the previous GPS attempts to track buses. However, nowhere has the MTA promised that this tracking system will be utilized to reduce bus bunching and help keep the buses on schedule, only that it will tell you how long you will have to wait for the next bus.

If it is not used to reduce bus bunching, and you know in advance that the next bus will not arrive for 30 or 45 minutes, it will have the effect of reducing bus ridership further, not increasing it, resulting in further service reductions. The iceberg is approaching fast. Will MTA Chairman Lhota see it in time to steer clear?

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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