What I Learned Riding The B4

Photo by Allan Rosen

THE COMMUTE: Last Wednesday, I rode the B4 bus to obtain some signatures for the petition started by the Sheepshead Bay-Plumb Beach Civic Association to restore service to Plumb Beach on mid-days, evenings and weekends. I boarded the first bus of the afternoon that was due to arrive at Avenue Z and East 16th Street at 1:52 p.m. because it would, presumably, have more passengers than the following buses. There were between 15 and 20 on board and not enough time for me to ask everyone to sign the petition. Most were very eager to sign; a few declined. On my two round trips I collected about 30 signatures.

It gave me the opportunity to speak to the passengers as well as the bus drivers. What was most surprising was that about five riders on the first trip had no idea that they were on the first bus since 9:00 a.m. That tells me that, after two years, there still are people waiting for the bus all day long, eventually giving up after waiting 30 minutes or an hour when they finally decide to check the bus schedule.

One of the passengers, who did not know she was on the first bus, asked the driver where to get off for the fishing boats just as we were about to arrive at Knapp Street, the end of the line. I told her we already passed them because you cannot see them from the Belt Parkway service road and she should wait until the last stop and ride back. It was her first time in Sheepshead Bay and she made the trip just to see the bay because she heard it was such a nice place to visit.

Now the MTA believes everyone who rides a bus does it because they have to get somewhere and have no other choice. They don’t believe anyone makes discretionary trips, just because a service exists. There are many other things the MTA does not know about its passengers, like those who are forced to take car service during times the B4 does not operate. If they had sent a representative to last week’s Transit Town Hall, they would have known that.

I also learned, from the addresses on the petition, that not everyone who uses the B4 is local. In addition to the riders from Emmons Avenue, Bragg Street and Brigham Street, East 12th Street and East 13th Street, there were passengers from West Street in Gravesend and 65th Street in Bensonhurst. More surprising were those who were from Eastern Parkway and St. John’s Place in Prospect Heights and a couple from Staten Island.

So it is not only the people from Sheepshead Bay and Plumb Beach who depend on the portion of the B4 that was truncated. If the MTA would perform origin destination surveys as part of their planning procedure, they would also learn this about their riders. They would know how many people require one, two or three buses, or a bus and train to make their trip. That information is not available merely by counting passengers and using MetroCard data to verify those counts as the MTA does.

If the same planners would ride the routes they are planning, they would know that you often have to wait 40 minutes for a bus that is supposed to arrive every 20 minutes. If they would ever speak to the bus drivers to solicit their opinions, they would know that traffic is not the only cause of bus delays. One of the drivers I spoke to complained that his leader — the driver in front of him at 2:00 p.m. — purposefully leaves early and screws up the entire route.

Another driver told me that he has been driving the B4 for seven years and that the last few trips that operate as late as 2:00 a.m. to Coney Island Hospital are not necessary. That service could end by midnight, according to him, with the savings applied to additional midday or evening trips to Knapp Street, where they are needed. I am sure that if the MTA looks further, they could find other savings or opportunities to pay for increased bus service instead of insisting that any service increases be accompanied by service decreases.

Truncating routes by only considering operating costs and not potential revenue is shortsighted. It is also destroying the system by reducing the system’s connectivity, increasing the number of trips that require three buses to complete. Yes, the Knapp Street end of the B4 carries only a half dozen passengers per bus most of the time when it operates. But when there is no college in session at Kingsborough, and no one is going to Manhattan Beach, the B1 also carries a half dozen riders or less near the end of the route. Does that mean we should also truncate that route in Brighton Beach and ask everyone to also walk three quarters of a mile as we do with the B4?

Perhaps all the bus routes in the city should be truncated at all the ends since the middle of the route usually has the highest ridership. However, if you start doing that, the old middles will soon become the new ends, and in a short time there won’t be any bus system left.

New Revenue Needed

But we also have to face reality. The MTA is in a budget crisis and needs new sources of revenue to maintain existing bus service, and to expand it. So why, then, has the interior advertisement space in New York City buses been virtually vacant, at least in some parts of the city, for more than 30 years and how much potential revenue has been lost? How much more bus service could be provided if this ad space had been sold? The next time you ride a bus take a look at all the empty interior advertisement space. The last bus I rode had two interior ads when there is space for about 50.

Years ago, when the MTA was asked about this their response was that although they have no trouble selling ads on the bus exteriors, no one wants to advertise inside a bus. No one? Really? What are they charging and what are the terms? Do you have to take out an ad for an entire year and advertise on every bus in the city? Are the rates charged higher than what the market is willing to pay? Any smart businessman would know that it would be better to give away the space at very cheap rates than to have the space remain empty for 30 years. Surely some local businesses would be willing to pay to advertise on bus routes operating out of the depots that serve their area. They may not be willing to spend thousands of dollars to advertise on buses in other boroughs, which may be the only terms the MTA is offering.

Lost Revenue

Another way the MTA is losing money is through fare evasion. According to the MTA, this is not a problem because it is within acceptable business limits: under one percent. How did they arrive at this percentage of fare evasion and how accurate are they? Are checkers stationed at turnstiles to count fare evaders? Can they easily be spotted as MTA workers? Are they getting a representative sample? As with all MTA numbers, the methodologies used by the MTA are never revealed. Although former Chairman Jay Walder pledged transparency, most of the time we just have to trust the MTA, and they are often proven wrong.

According to one of the bus drivers I spoke with, fare evasion is a major problem, and it is the same people who are constantly doing it. Bus drivers are instructed not to make a big deal if someone does not want to pay, to ensure the bus drivers’ safety, which has become a bigger issue since bus driver Edwin Thomas lost his life a few years ago on the B46 after telling a passenger his transfer was not valid.

That driver told me he doesn’t mind when someone is a few cents short or even if they only throw in 50 cents in the farebox. He will still let them on because he realizes that some just cannot afford to pay the $2.25 cent fare. What annoys him the most are the passengers who get on and just refuse to pay at all, and it is the same ones who do it over and over. He told me this just as a passenger boarded with an invalid transfer, with the excuse that he mistakenly threw the valid one away. “Doesn’t he realize I recognize him every day with a different excuse? Does he think I am stupid,” he asked me rhetorically? His retaliation will be on a rainy day he will not stop for him. So the question is: How does the MTA estimate the number of bus cheats? Or, is the assumption that everyone on the bus entering through the front door pays his or her full fare? Where are the inspectors when dozens of school children enter through the back door without paying? The MTA needs to pay more attention to fare evasion.

One Final Point

The B4 operates every 20 minutes. So when I took the first bus to Knapp Street, I expected it to be the first bus leaving. It wasn’t. The MTA sends a second bus out to Knapp Street directly from the depot to leave at the same time the first bus arrives in order to give the first bus operator a 15-minute break. It does the same thing for other buses. Why, I don’t know. So wouldn’t it make sense for the buses leaving from the depot to pick up passengers on their partial trip so that they are scheduled evenly between two buses providing 10-minute service instead of 20? They are paying for the driver and the fuel anyway. Doesn’t it make sense to pick up passengers along the way?

Not according to the MTA. They have greatly increased the number of non-revenue trips all over the city during the past five years because they believe it is more efficient to operate buses without passengers than with them since they save five or 10 minutes of operator pay by operating in non-revenue service. Using that logic, the system would be most efficient if we just got rid of the passengers all together. The MTA is well on their way to accomplishing just that, by continually reducing service and not pumping the savings back into the routes.

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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