The Role Of Buses And How To Make Them More Effective: Part I

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THE COMMUTE: Given the choice, most people would choose to take a train rather than a bus, unless they have a problem with stairs or walking. That is because the train is more reliable and much quicker. However, in most situations, one does not have that choice. If it is a short distance, the choice is usually to take the bus or walk. For longer distances, it is bus or car service. Yes, there are those who bike or skateboard, but they are the exception rather than the rule. I am also referring to those without access to an automobile, since that will probably be your mode of choice, unless parking is limited at your destination or origin.

So what exactly is the role of the bus? What should it be, and how can we make buses more effective? First we need to discuss the different types of buses and bus routes. In New York City we have the local bus, limited stop bus, express buses, and now Select Bus Service, operated by the MTA.

The vast majority of bus routes are local buses. By and large, the routes were designed to complement the subways, to serve areas devoid of subway service. In some cases they parallel subways or act as feeders to them. In Queens, most are feeders, with intraborough travel even more difficult than in Brooklyn. On heavy routes, locals are supplemented with limited stop buses, which do exactly as the name implies, stopping every quarter to half mile instead of every second or third city block to provide a speedier service. Select Bus Service is a faster version of Limited, with stops spaced even further apart, every half mile to three quarters of a mile, with other characteristics such as paying your fare before you board. In a few cases, a Limited route exists without a local counterpart, such as the B103. Virtually all express bus routes, which charge twice the local fare, have one end of the route in Manhattan and usually operate from areas without subway service.

The Bus As A Second Class Citizen

Buses have never received the respect they deserve, relegated to stepchild status in cities that also have subways. While considerable amounts of money are spent to build and upgrade bus depots and to supply new equipment, there is not enough investment in making the mode more effective. Buses are usually slow, plagued by traffic due to having to share lanes with other traffic, and the serious affliction of bus bunching affecting virtually every local route. Most of the MTA’s attention and bias is directed toward the subway and rails.

One of the reasons I became interested in buses is because of their huge potential and advantages over a fixed rail system, a potential that has never been realized. That advantage is flexibility. Whereas once you build a subway or a rail line, which is also much more expensive, the routing system is fairly limited. On the other hand, a bus can operate on any street that is wide enough to handle it and can make turns onto any other street provided there is a sufficient turning radius given the street geometry and the size of the vehicle.

Realistically, opposition from locals prevents buses from operating on many residential streets, and routes rarely change. In fact, back in the days of streetcars, and the early days of buses in the 1930s, routes were far more flexible than they are today and were modified quite often. Although streetcars or trolleys were limited by a fixed rail system, there were special routes that operated to the beaches only in the summer and open air trolleys purchased specifically for that purpose. Also, many streets had more than a single route operating on them.

Today, when we only have buses and no streetcars or light rail, it is the exception rather than the rule when a single street carries more than one route. Third, Lexington, Madison, and Fifth avenues in Manhattan are notable exceptions, each carrying three or four local bus routes just because that is the way it has been historically. Perhaps so many routes are no longer necessary on those streets. Perhaps busy streets in other boroughs, such as Flatbush Avenue or Utica Avenue, should also have three or four routes. Those options have never been explored.

Although bus routes are supposed to be spaced about every half-mile in medium to high density areas, because studies have shown that most people are not willing to walk more than about a quarter-mile to a local bus route, that standard is not adhered to in many areas for a number of reasons, making access to some areas difficult. Sometimes a bus route has never existed and other times there is no suitable street for a bus to operate on.

In some cases, the bus routes are outdated, making it inconvenient and time consuming to transfer by requiring passengers to make indirect trips or necessitating that you double back part of the distance already traveled when making a transfer. Sometimes a route is too long, such as the B6, trying to accomplish too many purposes, making it difficult to adhere to a schedule. Other times, the route is a single purpose route that is too short with limited connectivity, such as the B2, making it inefficient for other reasons.

While there have been some advances during the past decades regarding bus service such as reducing the fare impediment for trips requiring more than one bus, a bus and a train, or an express bus and a local bus, some trips still require a double fare. Also, those types of trips have increased as a result of the 2010 service cutbacks, with the MTA ending a 70-year-old policy that no service changes result in extra fares.

Buses are also more comfortable today than they were in years past, with reliable air-conditioning; low floors eliminating steps, allowing for quicker loading; smoother rides, their ability to kneel and accept wheelchairs; less air pollution; quieter operation, and articulated buses providing additional seating. Despite all these improvements, the general unreliability of buses, outdated routes, the lack of a bus route where needed, and indirect or slow routes, have caused ridership to steadily decline in recent years, while subway ridership is at an all time high.

The Potential

What is so “express” about an express bus route that takes over an hour to get to your destination in Manhattan? Could they be made faster? Why can’t we also have express buses between boroughs other than Manhattan, where there might be enough demand, and where the trip could be quicker than by subway? Not sure if they are legal, but now there are express buses privately operated between Chinatown and Flushing. Why can’t this concept be expanded to express airport buses from major centers, for example? I remember when there were express buses between Sheepshead Bay and the racetracks operated by the Pioneer Bus Corporation. Why can’t there be more interborough routes, say for example, a half dozen local routes between Brooklyn and Staten Island, or between The Bronx and Queens? Why have all local bus routes between Brooklyn and Manhattan been eliminated? Why are there no local routes operating through the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel?

Why couldn’t there be routes utilizing vehicles holding 20 to 40 passengers, if the demand isn’t great enough for a full size bus, as MTA Board Member Charles Moerdler recently asked? Why can’t local bus routes be modified, whenever needs change, instead of remaining stagnant for 50 years or longer? The potential for a much improved bus system is there, but has never been explored. Select Bus Service, which originally was proposed to be an extra layer of service to supplement limited stop service and be instituted rapidly, has become instead only a cost-saving technique replacing Limiteds and getting bogged down for years in the planning and approval stages.

The MTA does not consider latent demand, i.e. potential ridership, and is just focused on servicing the existing ridership. It is also too preoccupied with reducing costs, not allowing for investments to be made to expand service that would increase operating costs. In some cases, potential demand could offset a small increase in operating expenses of several hundred dollars per day, yet such suggestions are rejected. Demand for better bus service is greater than ever, especially now that the price of gasoline is rising steadily, discouraging automobile use. Instead, any service expansion involving a route change must be accompanied by a corresponding service decrease, as dictated by MTA policymakers.

Tomorrow: The causes of bus bunching, potential solutions and an example of MTA responsiveness.

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).