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

THE COMMUTE: You can read yesterday’s “The Role of Buses and How to Make Them More Effective: Part I” here. Today we investigate the causes of bus bunching and discuss examples of the MTA being unresponsive as well as being responsive.

The Causes of Bus Bunching and Possible Solutions

Bus bunching, one of the reasons why bus service is so inefficient for the rider as well as the operator, starts when heavy loadings delay a bus at a specific bus stop for a few minutes. It could be a movie theater letting out, a school dismissal, or a train arriving at a station discharging large numbers of passengers. A bus stopping several times to load and unload wheelchair passengers also delays it as does heavy traffic or hitting several red lights in a row while its follower gets green lights. (Sometimes buses leave the terminal already bunched.)

When the first bus is delayed, the interval between buses grows shorter than it should and then there is a domino effect. The first bus picks up passengers that should have been picked up by the second bus, slowing it down even more. In turn, the second bus gains speed by picking up fewer passengers. Soon it catches up to the first bus and the two then travel together. This phenomenon can even extend to three or four buses, all arriving at the same time, with a very long wait for the next bus.

If both buses are late, they can leap frog each other, usually alternating bus stops, whereby both buses can pick up time and slowly get back to schedule. However, more often than not, one bus is late and is overcrowded while the following bus is nearly empty and ahead of schedule. The early bus is not allowed to pass the late bus because it will then run further ahead of schedule. In such instances, the MTA is spending almost twice as much money as is necessary, to provide service, since we are not getting effective use out of the second bus.

This is why we need to pay more attention to bus bunching and reduce it. Increased supervision may help, but is expensive to provide. Altering schedules, providing increased travel times between time points where buses are held if early, buses running without passengers from the beginning of a route for the first mile or so, late buses discharging passengers and turning before they reach the end of a route if there is another bus able to pick up those passengers, are all techniques that could be employed to reduce bunching, but often are not.

Bus Time is slowly being rolled out across the city and offers the greatest hope to reduce bunching, if the MTA decides to use it for more than notifying passengers of the next arriving bus. Now comes another hope.

What is important to the customer is that buses arrive at consistent intervals, not regulating a bus so that it is not early or late, which is where the current emphasis lays. That is the theory behind an experiment performed by John Bartholdi III and Donald Eisenstein, explained in an upcoming issue of “Transportation Research Part B” and outlined in an article entitled “How to Keep Buses from Bunching” in Atlantic Cities.

Although intriguing, and I cannot say that I fully understand it, I also have my doubts if it will actually work on a typical route in New York. So far it has been tested with promising results only on a three-mile loop route on a Georgia campus carrying 5,000 riders a day and “in simulated tests of an 18-mile bus route in Chicago (Route 63).” The major problem, as I see it, is that if you are not concerned with a written schedule, how do you ensure that drivers work a full eight hours? Also, how do you pay them if some drivers finish in seven-and-a-half hours and others in eight-in-a-half hours, or do they stop driving wherever they are after eight hours, allowing for time to get back to the depot?

On a short three mile loop where the buses are stored on campus, not completing a full trip, making extra trips or having a driver work an extra 15 or 30 minutes after completing a full trip may not pose problems, but the theory of not bothering with a schedule may not be feasible in New York. You would have to ask drivers who make their trips in a short amount of time to drive several extra miles in order for them to obtain a full day’s pay — miles that may not attract any passengers. That extra distance traveled may leave them further away from the depot and instead result in overtime being paid for no good reason. The Chicago simulation may not have taken drivers’ pay into account. The article summary does not go into details and only discusses the theory. It is, however, worth further investigation. Solving bus bunching has never received the attention it deserves.

MTA Unresponsiveness

Regular readers know that I frequently criticize the MTA for not being responsive. Ignoring customer complaints, providing answers that do not address the problem, or providing excuses why a suggestion cannot be implemented rather than performing an objective evaluation are some examples. Specifically, I have criticized the Operations Planning (OP) Department for being arrogant and projecting an attitude of superiority. In some instances, it is the local communities who are more familiar with a specific problem because they see it every day, rather than OP, who may visit a site or survey a route once every three years. Sometimes issues are only addressed when there is a great political outcry, such as when the high density neighborhood of Parkchester, in The Bronx, was deprived of needed bus service after the 2010 service cutbacks, stranding thousands of seniors.

After first promising me they would investigate changing the current B4 terminal at Coney Island Avenue (on weekends, middays and evenings), I received no further response from OP despite numerous reminders, which were ignored. My three-year battle to get a bus stop restored on Oriental Boulevard failed, even after OP admitted to me privately that neither the bus rider nor the MTA benefitted from the bus stop’s elimination after I successfully refuted every one of their arguments. The result was that about 50 passengers daily, who previously used the stop, were now inconvenienced by frequently missing their bus because they had to walk an extra block to the next bus stop. This added at least 10 minutes to their trip. I have also suggested that in some cases OP may be the victim, not being permitted to make improvements due to guidelines dictated to them by the group in charge of budgeting.

Some believe I have an axe to grind with OP. Others think most MTA problems are not caused by management but by the rank and file, or that the MTA is a completely innocent victim of limited funding and the politicians. It is my opinion that, at the lower levels, the MTA wants to do a good job and here is an illustration.

The MTA Can Be Responsive

My experience with Bus Operations has been totally different than it has been with OP. I have written on many occasions about the Kingsborough end of the B1 bus route, mostly about overcrowded buses bypassing passengers due to the extra heavy demand placed upon the route by Kingsborough Community College students. I have also contacted the MTA several times during the past four years explaining the problems I witnessed. Operations met with me at least four times, sending one half dozen MTA personnel on several occasions. Each time I was promised that the situation would be corrected. Although changes were made each time, problems still persisted, but not for a lack of trying.

Last October, I met with a senior superintendent who offered to meet with me again if the problems were not resolved. For a time it appeared things were getting better, but earlier this month I noticed a repetition of what I had previously observed. On Friday, March 9, I sent him an email explaining the situation. The following Tuesday, there was a dispatcher at West End Avenue. Two days later I received a response to my e-mail. Rather than the usual litany of excuses or denials I normally receive from OP, this email explained that they were aware of ongoing issues with the B1 and the B49 and were taking actions such as increasing service on Mondays through Thursdays where I indicated B1 service was deficient. They were also adding buses commencing April 8 and investigating the effectiveness of supervision, which they expect will resolve the problems. We will continue to observe the B1 and report what we find.


Offering different types of services or buses to serve specific needs, such as interborough travel, more exclusive lanes (and enforcement) where they can be justified by the frequency of buses operated, more off-board payment of fare without the full Select Bus Service treatment, filling service gaps, modifying routes more often, and making buses more reliable, are all important in improving the effectiveness of buses as a mode of travel. But sometimes it just comes down to a willingness to listen and make some changes.

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).