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).