The Perfect Storm For Bungled MTA Beach Service

THE COMMUTE: Sheepshead Bites reported on overflowing crowds at Manhattan Beach bus stops last Memorial Day, with inadequate bus service to handle these crowds leaving the beach. Now some neighborhood residents want assurances from the MTA that this will never happen again.

What happened last year could have had disastrous consequences and the MTA needs to do something, but the question remains whether the obvious solution to increase service is worth the cost involved. First of all, the beach only gets crowded on a summer holiday weekend when the forecast calls for temperatures in the 90s, which certainly does not happen every holiday weekend. Scheduling extra buses to the subway on a regular basis could just be a waste of scarce resources.

Last Memorial Day weekend went beyond a hot summer weekend. It was “the perfect storm” not likely to reoccur often. Let us examine all the factors causing the chaos of last year.

  1. The MTA’s summer bus schedule, which places extra buses in service on beach routes such as the B1, B49, B68, etc., does not occur until after the school semester ends, which is the weekend prior to July 4. Memorial Day does not typically see heavy beach crowding and uses a winter holiday schedule.
  2. The temperature was unusually warm, especially for Memorial Day.
  3. The police closed off Coney Island following a stabbing and directed beachgoers to Brighton and Manhattan beaches.
  4. There was a thunderstorm in the late afternoon causing a mass exodus from Manhattan Beach of what was perhaps the largest crowd in 30 years. Yet everyone behaved. Even if the MTA had provided a dozen extra buses, it would have made little difference when thousands are exiting the beach at the same time.
  5. The police closed Sheepshead Bay Station due to a fight and someone pulling the emergency chord causing further chaos.

A historical perspective

As I mentioned last week, prior to 1985, the MTA had no handle on bus usage until “traffic checkers” (the people sitting alongside the driver wearing an orange vest) were hired to regularly monitor bus usage on every route.  Of course, heavily utilized routes are monitored more frequently. However, checks are also conducted to ascertain specific problems, e.g. beach routes.

Back then, the only ridership numbers available were annual figures collected from farebox revenue and passenger checks conducted at major bus stops by bus dispatchers.  It was widely known at that time that the data conducted by dispatchers was highly suspect. Often times, they would jot down the times a bus was supposed to arrive rather than when it would actually come.

They would also “adjust” the passenger counts to make it appear that the ridership was fairly uniform to hide the late buses that were overcrowded. That way it would appear they were doing a good job keeping the buses on schedule. Farebox revenue also had problems because there was no record of transferring passengers

The MTA had no understanding of non-rush hour ridership patterns as a result of the lack of data.  They knew where massive numbers of passengers were transferring to subways, and virtually nothing else. They provided some extra school bus service and beach service, but these also were highly inadequate. No more than two or three extra buses were provided at school dismissal times at any particular school, forcing students onto regular buses, preventing anyone else from using buses near schools.

My experience

Having grown up in East Flatbush without the luxury of an automobile, I traveled frequently to Brighton or Manhattan Beach.  Although extra beach service was provided on the B49 from Church Avenue, it was so inadequate, and buses were so overfilled that on a hot day in the 1960s, buses only stopped south of Avenue J to let someone off. People would literally have to wait hours to get picked up by a B49 at perhaps half the bus stops.  The reverse was true in the evenings.

When I was hired by the MTA in 1981 as Director of what then was called the Surface Planning Department and also in charge of a Brooklyn borough-wide bus study, I made sure to devote specific attention to convincing the MTA to pay more attention to beach routes. I had a team of people do passenger counts on a hot summer beach weekend on the B49 and B68 bus routes, and those counts confirmed my worst fears regarding beach service inadequacy and irregularities.

In the evening, I found a 90-minute gap in northbound B49 service stopping to pick up passengers at El Greco due to buses packed with beachgoers. One bus driver was spotted operating his bus “Not in Service” for three round trips after carrying over 100 passengers on his first trip. Several buses were spending 40 minutes waiting at Mackenzie Street when hundreds were trying to get home, only to leave “Not in Service.”  I confronted one of the drivers who told me he was having radiator problems.  However, the depot had no record any operator reporting a radiator problem that day.

On one particularly hot weekend in the summer of 1981, there were 300 people waiting at Mackenzie Street for a bus as late as 7 p.m., having walked to the first stop after waiting an hour for buses at Falmouth and Hastings Street that would not stop because they were too full or only operated as far as Avenue U.

I phoned a Senior Dispatcher who reported to me; he had another dispatcher meet me there in 30 minutes. That dispatcher forced a driver waiting there to work overtime and drove with me to find other buses. We found one at Kings Highway. He ordered that driver to transfer the two passengers he was carrying to the empty bus behind, turned on his siren and ordered the bus to follow him to the beach and pick up the waiting passengers, instead of clocking out for the day. We repeated that process until all the passengers were aboard buses around 8:30 p.m., saving them about an hour and a half.   That was the most fulfilling day I had on the job and was not even paid for it. The same weekend several hundred were stranded at Orchard Beach and Riis Park, having to spend the night there. At least at Manhattan Beach there was the option to walk to the subway.

I made one small change that had the effect of tripling evening service on the B49, which actually saved the MTA money. Beach usage is down over the last 30 years, and service is up due to the regular passenger counts, and the MTA is no longer in the dark regarding beach and school service. Crowding is nowhere like it used to be with 40-foot buses carrying 100 passengers, bypassing massive numbers of passengers at bus stops.

Back to today

Dispatchers are on duty every school day at Kingsborough Community College to ensure a smooth service for the thousands of students who use the buses daily when school is open. One or more dispatchers should be on duty every hot summer weekend. They would need the ability to summon extra buses to the beach when they see a threat of rain. If the forecast calls for an unusually hot weekend, shuttle buses to the subway should be placed into service if operators who are willing to work overtime can be found several days in advance.  However, building this into the schedule, on a regular basis is unwarranted.

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).