Why MTA’s Operations Planning Is All Screwed Up

This is the second in a three-part series by Allan Rosen, examining why service cuts are bad, how ineffective planning hurts the system, and how the MTA can deliver better results.

THE COMMUTE: Yesterday, I mentioned that the MTA is proposing cuts to Manhattan’s bus service as part of its routine service adjustments it does quarterly. These cuts will save the MTA $900,000 per year.  So what is the rationale behind saving this money if, as NYCT President Thomas Prendergast said, the purpose of the cuts is not to save the MTA money?

Did overall patronage in Manhattan go down by one percent to merit a one percent reduction in service? If so, why is it that when bus patronage increased by 10 percent when the economy was doing well, bus service only increased by three percent? The explanation given at the time was that the existing service was able to absorb most of the additional ridership. Perhaps that was a valid explanation, but if service doesn’t increase one for one, it shouldn’t decrease one for one either. What percent of service does $900,000 per year represent? The MTA owes us an explanation.

Between 2005 and 2010 bus ridership declined by 13.2 percent, but subway ridership rose by 12.6 percent. Yet both bus and subway service was cut last year. If subway ridership is continuing to increase, why is it that the routine service adjustments do not reflect this with service being added? The MTA will say that the increases were not great enough to merit the addition of extra trains, which were supposed to be added when the Service Planning Guidelines are exceeded.

Service Planning Guidelines

The problem is that no one knows exactly what these Service Planning Guidelines are and how they are used to plan service. They are not publicly available online, although Jay Walder prides himself in transparency.  There even is a tab on the MTA website called “transparency” but there is no mention of the Service Planning Guidelines there. So why aren’t these guidelines explained on this page?

The process is entirely secret. They are only cited when the MTA needs a reason not to expand bus service, or as justification for taking away service.  They are not used for planning new services as they should be. As best I can determine, there are two types of guidelines regarding bus service — one regards minimum frequency of service for different times of the day and the other relates to the walking distance to the closest local bus route.

Regarding walking distance — originally, this meant that, in most areas, a bus route (or train, if a bus route did not exist) is available within a quarter-mile walk. In other words, there should be no more than a quarter-mile walk to the nearest bus stop.  Somehow this has evolved into a quarter-mile to the nearest bus route, so with bus stops disappearing all the time to reduce operating costs, and sometimes not benefiting anyone, the guidelines are now frequently violated.

If a community attempts to use the guidelines to obtain a new bus route or extension, the MTA merely responds that the money is not available and they are trying their best to meet these guidelines but are not able to in all cases, because they are merely guidelines.

Worse yet, every time the MTA wants to cut service (both bus and subway), they just alter the guidelines to permit making buses and trains more crowded. This violates the exact principle why the crowding guidelines were created in the first place, so that service cuts would not be made if reducing service would break the guidelines.  Therefore, if they are changed every time the MTA needs money, the crowding guidelines may as well not exist at all.

The MTA needs to clarify these guidelines, make them readily available and actually use them to plan service, not merely as an excuse mechanism not to improve service and as justification for cutting service.

How Not to Plan

The Operations Planning Department at New York City Transit currently is a perfect example of this and here are some of the things they are doing wrong:

1. They expand bus service only after the communities and politicians have been clamoring for years, not when new development requires it.

Example 1 – Gateway Shopping Mall in Spring Creek. Only one route was extended with service only every 30 minutes and service did not begin when the development was completed. Service was increased to every 15 minutes only after several more years passed, although the initial extension resulted in an 80 percent increase in the route’s ridership (B13).

It took about seven years for a short extension of a second route and another three for a third route to be extended. Today, the mall is still not accessible from most of Sheepshead Bay with less than three buses and two fares requiring at least a 90-minute bus trip, although the same trip can be made by automobile in about 15 minutes.

Example 2 – A major shopping center, Canarsie Plaza, adjacent to the Brooklyn Terminal Market, which includes a BJs warehouse and other big box stores, opened about six months ago but no bus routes were altered or extended to serve it.

2. When they do decide to expand bus service, they insist that operating costs remain neutral by forcing the community to also accept a service reduction in order to pay for the service improvement even if a reduction is not warranted.

3.  They install limited and Select Bus Service (SBS) to save operating costs but discourage transferring between those services and local buses by creating separate bus stops. Instead of being adjacent from one another, the bus stops are located blocks apart, with those transfers costing a full extra fare for those without monthly passes if a third bus or train is also used.

4. They propose additional service that is not necessary while refusing to provide service that people want. For example, the B44 SBS proposes to double service south of Avenue U where there is low demand. They are trying to encourage more riders to travel to a subway line they do not want (2, 5) while refusing to provide adequate service on the B4 and B36 routes to the Brighton line where the demand exists. A needed B36 shuttle service during rush hours between the Brighton Line and Avenue U and Nostrand Avenue was discontinued years ago and was replaced by a proliferation of car services.  The B4 service to the Brighton line was eliminated last year on middays and weekends.

Although they claim there is no money to restore these services the people need, there is money to double the number of B44 buses south of Avenue U, most of which will operate nearly empty.  Although the number of buses will double, service will not, because the SBS buses will only be making three stops south of Avenue U, and transferring between the SBS and the local will be difficult or cost extra in many cases.

5. They consider non-revenue service to be more economical to operate than revenue service, so that most buses that only operate on a portion of the route to and from a bus depot do so without passengers.  Historically, the New York City Transit Authority did their best to minimize non-revenue mileage because it was considered unproductive. In fact, once upon a time, most routes in Manhattan even allowed passengers to stay on the bus after the bus went off-route to the depot, operating on another route.

In recent years, however, the new budget geniuses in charge decided that a bus without passengers saves money because buses can arrive at the depot five minutes quicker.  This may look good on paper, but would only make sense if most buses operated on schedule, which they do not, and wouldn’t result in empty buses bypassing passengers at the same time overcrowded buses are bypassing them as well, which is sometimes the case.

6. They refuse to change procedures that would allow better matching service to demand.

7. They underestimate demand by instructing traffic counters not to count passengers entering through the rear door; reduce service so as to encourage the use of car services and livery vans then no longer count those trips as part of demand.

8. They alter routes by counting bus passengers instead of using origin destination surveys, the industry practice for route planning.

Tomorrow: Needed Changes at the MTA

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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  1. I wish the city government would discourage driving in the city for alternatives such as mass transport and bicycling. There was a great article in the New York Times about how European cities were making it a pain for drivers to drive. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/27/science/earth/27traffic.html

  2. Hey Kon, how do you imagine construction worker who works in The City should get to job site with all his supplies and tools? How about plumber, roofer, elevator technician?
    Cars are not your enemy, they are single most important invention of 20th century. Without cars human progress is impossible. No one enjoys driving in to Manhattan, no one. People do it out of necessity. At the same time Manhattan elite “walkers” assume the streets belong to them. Let me be very frank here, I don’t give a fuck about any of you yoga excerpting, vegan eating, bicycle riding, groupon using, waste of human DNA Manhattanites. If you don’t like traffic, get the fuck out of the city. Go live in Iowa. Their is no traffic their and the air is fresh. Of course the only job will be available to you will be picking up cow shit on supper organic farm for 12 hours a day. And god knows you will quit in 4 hours because your infantile hands are not used to doing any physical labor what so ever. So if you love your apple laptops, Starbucks lattes, rooftop parties and your super tight jeans leave car driving people alone. After all we are here to cater to your every asshole need.
    Also since when government is in business of making people life’s miserable? If anything I wan improved traffic patterns and wider roads.

    Btw here’s simple way of decreasing traffic in Manhattan: Lower Verrazano Br toll! You have no idea how many people drive through Holland tunnel just because they can’t afford to pay for Verrazano Br 5 days a week.

  3. Allan, the BJ’s in Canarasi is the sole tenant. There are no other stores there. A Tmobile Store is slated to open and a Gym is there. That’s it.

  4. Arthur, are you sure BJs is the sole tenant?  I haven’t had a chance to check it out, but I passed by last month and thought I saw a list of eight or so tenants inside.  I did not read the names to see if they were anything substantial.  I was going by three or four year-old news articles which said that Markowitz was looking to get three or four major retailers located there.  I just assumed that by now it was almost full.  Perhaps it was a poor example.

    The larger point is still valid.  When Ikea opened, the MTA’s initial position was that Ikea would have to subsidize any improved bus service.  I doubt that that actually happened.  They only modified the bus service after their arms were twisted.  It was not something they did willingly.  Five years ago they were asked why only one route was modified to serve the Gateway Mall.  They responded that additional routes would be modified after major new housing was built in the area, as if such a major shopping service didn’t merit decent bus service by itself.

  5. Yes Allen I’m very sure. Right now I’m working Car Service in Canarsie, and our auto body shop is on Foster and Remsen Ave right across the street from the place.

    BJ’s and Planet Fitness are the only current tenants and I think a T-Mobile store is opening though I’m not 100% sure on that. 

  6. He’s not trolling, he’s right. The vehicle traffic we need to discourage in the city is Trucks. The same deliveries could be made using smaller box trucks and vans (refrigerated of course in the case of food). While it might increase the frequency of traffic I think it would improve the traffic conditions because the smaller box trucks are less of an obstruction, easier to avoid, and weigh less so there is less wear and tear on the roads.

  7. As I said, perhaps not the best example, but would you like to make a wager that when and if more tenants move in including some big retailers, the MTA would never make the first move to add any bus service like for example extending every third or fourth B42 from Canarsie, but would only add service under extreme pressure from elected officials and the public like petitions signed by thousands of residents if that were at all possible to obtain. 

    Right now Canarsie would oppose any B42 extension and that would not be because they wouldn’t want the service. They would fear erosion of their existing pretty reliable service to the L train because the MTA is just not trusted.  I wonder why.

  8. I agree except for your B44 +SBS+ comment: Part of the reason why they are extending the locals further south could be because they don’t want to install and maintain the machines that would sell the +SBS+ receipts, so they would rather just make it simple and extend the local down there as well.

    Of course, I don’t think Nostrand Avenue is really a good candidate for +SBS+ service, or should I say that there are better candidates. Kings Highway (B82) would be a much better candidate, as it would complement the subway by intersecting it perpendicularly. Plus, the Marine Park area has absolutely no subway service at all, whereas Nostrand Avenue has the (2)/(5) north of Flatbush Avenue, and is only about 15 blocks from the Brighton Line (like you said, it would be easier/cheaper to just add some service on thr east-west routes).

    As far as entering through the rear door goes (and the people doing it aren’t always trying to avoid the fare. Sometimes there is no space to enter in the front, which shows an even greater need for more service), don’t they go by the farebox numbers? If this is for an origin-destination survey, why not use the data if you already have it?

  9. Well that’s no way to treat a fellow redditor. That one actually hurt man. In fact tard hurt more than assuming I’m 4chaner.

    I think apology would make me feel better.

    How could you not laugh at that meme?


  10. Your point about extending the local may be correct and is something I haven’t thought of, but I still don’t think it makes any sense. The SBS could start at Avenue U with the locals operating all the way and allowing transfers between the two which still allow you to change for the train. You may think this would be inconvenient and that no one would like to change twice, but I don’t think you will be getting more than 6 people per bus on the SBS south of Avenue U if there is local service as well.  Most of the time I predict only two or three.

    As far as other better candidates, I agree.  I suggested a modified B82 instead back in 2005 with a new route number B81.  Mine would start at Cesars Bay and use Avenue P instead of Kings Highway until East 21 Street, then Kings Highway, Avenue K, Flatlands to Schenk, etc to Gateway Mall.

    The traffic counts where they don’t count rear door entries are to plan service levels, not and origin destination survey where you ask people where they bgan and end their trip and how they get there.  They can’t use farebox revenue for that because that doesn’t telll you at what stop the passengers got on and off.

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