Southern Brooklyn

Why The MTA Is On The Wrong Track

Map distributed on the reverse side of the flyer announcing changes in 1978 to the Southwest Brooklyn bus routes. Courtesy of Allan Rosen. Click to enlarge

THE COMMUTEIn this three-part series, Allan Rosen discusses, in Part 1, the back-story and success of the 1978 Southwest Brooklyn bus route changes, and why this is how the MTA should do its bus route planning. Last June, Allan explained what is wrong with how the MTA does its short-range planning. In Part 2 of this series, he goes into more detail explaining how their approach is leading us toward disaster. Part 3 shows the future direction the MTA must take to avoid destroying the local bus system, the path it is currently on.

Last week I discussed the Southwest Brooklyn bus route changes made in 1978, which was the correct path toward improving service. This week I discuss the current path the MTA is on, where that path will lead, and the need to regain control of the system.

The MTA’s Misguided Mission

Unlike DCP’s goal, to cultivate ridership by restructuring bus routes to improve connectivity between neighborhoods, the MTA’s mission is to reduce costs by cutting service even if those service cuts result in more inefficient services. They mix improvements with service cutbacks, necessitating the use of three buses to complete a trip where only two buses were required previously, or severing bus connections entirely, forcing former bus riders to rely on car services or make a longer more inconvenient subway trip. When that is the way you plan, there is no wonder why bus ridership keeps going down, but the MTA finds that a mystery.

The MTA’s Current Direction In Bus Route Planning And My Predictions

The MTA is attempting to create a few “super routes” with its local bus system [some of them Select Bus Service (SBS) routes] spaced every mile with good headways compared to the current standard of half-mile spacing, eliminating all other routes except for routes necessary to feed the subway. Those routes, because they serve only one purpose — to get people to the subway — are only well-utilized during rush hours and inefficient at other times. Increased spacing between local bus routes and increasing distances between bus stops, which is what they are also doing, will increase walking distances to bus routes more than the quarter-mile walking standard used in the industry, making them less attractive. In some cases, increasing bus stop spacing does make sense, but sometimes it does not.

The MTA is taking these steps to force more passengers away from local buses and onto the subway because it is cheaper for them to operate the trains since they carry more people and use less direct labor. If those subway trips take longer, are more inconvenient, or are more indirect for the passenger, that is not the MTA’s concern.

What the MTA does not realize is that in order for many passengers to use those super bus routes they are creating by destroying parallel routes, moderately- and lightly-used routes must still exist to permit access to those super routes because most people do not live near thoroughfares such as 86th Street, Flatbush Avenue, Nostrand Avenue, Utica Avenue, Church Avenue or Flatlands Avenue, where those super routes operate. Those routes targeted for eventual elimination are the ones they are reducing service on and truncating, for example the B48 and B64, where the process has already begun.

In another example, the B49 along Ocean Avenue used to operate at eight-minute headways. Service has been reduced to 12 minutes, even during rush hours. The B44 SBS, with more frequent service, will divert some B49 riders to the SBS, resulting in the MTA further reducing B49 service to perhaps every 15 minutes. This will have the effect of increasing the actual frequency you have to wait for a bus to 30 or 45 minutes due to bus bunching or buses not stopping due to overcrowding. That will further discourage bus usage, causing more riders to use longer, indirect subway trips to get to where they are going, resulting in additional reductions to bus service. The MTA is not dumb; this is their intention; they want to provide less bus service.

I will go one step further by predicting that, within a few years, they will propose to reroute the B44 SBS northbound local from New York Avenue to Rogers Avenue beside the SBS and seek to terminate the B49 at its northern end at Foster Avenue and Flatbush Avenue, cutting it back from Fulton Street. This will further erode ridership due to fewer connections with other bus routes and cause headways to be reduced to every 20 minutes. By 2020, the MTA will declare the B49 redundant and not necessary because it parallels the Brighton subway, and will seek to eliminate it entirely. The B44 SBS will also siphon some passengers from the B4 due to its superior headways when compared to the B4. That will be enough reason for the MTA to once again propose that the B4 be entirely eliminated east of Coney Island Hospital. Since there will be no public outcry, this time they will succeed.

The B44 SBS will result in a degradation of service on the B44 local, the B49 and permanent elimination of the eastern end of the B4 within the next few years. It will only be a significant improvement for a few, attracting riders from other bus routes, which will suffer, and not cause anyone to leave their car at home to take the bus instead. Parking availability or lack thereof at someone’s destination is the major reason one decides whether to leave his car at home or not; a savings of four minutes to the average SBS passenger will not alter that decision.

If you find these predictions difficult to believe, just look at the history of the B2. The MTA took a route that used to have one of the best service levels in the borough during rush hours — a bus every two minutes — and steadily reduced service until it barely operates at all despite the opening of Kings Plaza in 1971 at its eastern end. Overnight service was eliminated a few years ago and weekend service was eliminated just last year. The route is one step away from total elimination.

The MTA had numerous opportunities to make the B2 successful again by turning it from a subway feeder, primarily used during rush hours, to a multipurpose route by extending it westward, filling a service gap along Avenue P and extending it into Bensonhurst or Bay Ridge. They chose not to.

Monthly passes will become increasingly more expensive and more people will be forced into buying them as increasing numbers of trips require three buses and a double fare. The MTA would like that. This is what happens when your only concern is reducing costs, and you do not care about your customers.

Regaining Control Of The System

A sensible route restructuring plan for the B49 with the implementation of the B44 SBS would be to reroute it straight along Ocean Avenue to Empire Boulevard, a thoroughfare lined almost exclusively with six-story apartment buildings, making it more direct, and removing some of the mystery to new users of the system. However, the MTA believes that no one chooses to use the bus system but does so only because they have no other choice. They also believe that Ocean Avenue is too close to Flatbush Avenue for a route to be viable there because Flatbush Avenue already has a bus route of its own. The fact that the Flatbush Avenue route veers away in an opposite direction toward Kings Plaza and Bergen Beach, whereas the B49 goes toward Sheepshead Bay and Manhattan Beach, is not a consideration by the MTA. Nor do they consider that where the B49 currently operates — on Bedford Avenue and Rogers Avenue — is also one block away from two other bus routes and the residential densities there are lower than on Ocean Avenue.

No one questions why there are four routes in Manhattan all operating along the same portion of Fifth Avenue, so what would be wrong with straightening the B49 and making it more direct to ease transferring? Currently, someone traveling north along Ocean Avenue wanting to go to Kensington, for example, must first veer out of their way to Rogers Avenue, adding a needless 15 minutes to their trip. Needlessly complex routing discourages bus usage.

The MTA must not be allowed to continue down its current path — one of destroying many local bus routes. We must regain control of the system by insisting they fill long-standing service gaps like the ones along 13th Avenue and Fort Hamilton Parkway in Borough Park, and in East Flatbush, where bus travel has been difficult for 70 years. They must not be allowed to create new service gaps like they did when they cut back the B4 and eliminated the B71 on Union Street in Park Slope, a route that saw ridership increase 29 percent in the past five years, a fact the MTA chose to ignore when making its decision to eliminate that route.

MTA’s Planning Assumptions

When you plan under the following assumptions: 1) That you lose money with every bus passenger you carry; 2) No one uses your service unless they absolutely have to because they have no other choices; 3) When you cut service all passengers will use an alternate mass transit route and you will not lose any revenue; 4) When you add service you will not attract new passengers; 5) When you do lose passengers to other alternatives like car services, they no longer need to be considered as part of demand; and 6) You make no attempt to attract new passengers who are not currently using the mass transit system; you are dooming yourself to failure. This is the course we are on.

You assume the only way to cut your deficit is by reducing service and therefore you erode service, causing further patronage losses. Your reduction of service is accomplishing your goal of reducing your deficit by driving passengers away to other modes of transportation or causing them not to make trips they otherwise would have made. You do not care if your service reductions make the system more inefficient by increasing the cost per passenger to provide service. You only care that you are spending less money to provide service.

Next Week, in the final part: My experiences in Operations Planning and the Correct Path for 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).

Comment policy


  1. Great article. One comment I have, something you said. That MTA is trying to force people from buses  to trains. Well, this hurts lots of seniors, because they can’t climb the steps to the train. Yeah, yeah, supposedly they all were supposed to have escalators or elevators or at least ramps. Well, West 8th doesnt, Ocean Parkway doesn’t, the escalator on Brighton works maybe 50% of the time, Sheepshead Bay doesn’t.  Seniors are badly hurt by this policy.

       I thought MTA learned lessons from the 70’s when they cut train service and the system got worse, not better, less people used the trains, creating the snowball effect you talk about re buses. When they made the improvements, i think starting in the 80’s from what I saw, people started using the trains again (especially later at night, improving safety), and revenue went up. Guess it’s never to late to NOT learn a lesson!

  2. If you remember when the fare was 35 cents and only half the buses in Brooklyn offered a free transfer (and none in the Bronx or Manhattan), I was telling everyone that if all the buses transferred for free, bus ridership would automatically go up by 30%. Everyone thought I was nuts. But when they introduced half fare free transfers (add-a-ride) when the fare went to 50 cents, bus ridership rose by about 10% and then another 20% when they were made free with MetroCard. Then when MetroCard Gold introduced bus and subway transfers, ridership on both trains and buses took another dramatic rise. Unlimited ride passes boosted ridership even further.

    Now if they could dramatically improve bus reliability and route connectivity, you would see another dramatic increase in bus ridership. Ridership will just fall whenever you cut service and go up when you add service. That’s just the way it is.

  3. i remember it all, yes. I have to admit, when they started the metrocard thing, with all the free transfers, I was one of those who thought MTA couldn’t sustain it, that it would lose money,and would be changed. I couldn’t believe it was done. But it worked! I was so dead wrong on that one. But now you say, they’re making the same goof. It’s sad.

  4. There is a problem with the underlying political structure that makes it difficult to resolve these and related issues. The NYCTA, as managed by the MTA, is not directly accountable to the electorate. The City administration is. The NYCTA was set up to manage the then-existing transit routes of the Board of Transportation, and several other companies operated other routes. But the overall structure of the transit network was and remains controlled by the City (then through the Board of Estimate, and now through the Department of Transportation). That is, the City managed the public transportation route structure, and City officials could be held accountable. The NYCTA was really just another bus company, albeit a government-owned bus company and controlled by the City administration through the use of consents rather than franchises. Moreover, the routes of the NYCTA are all owned by the City of New York, and leased to the NYCTA pursuant to the terms of a 1953 lease (and to MaBSTOA pursuant to a 1961 lease).

    The problem today is that the City has abandoned its essential role in ensuring that the public transportation system meets the needs of the City’s residents. It no longer enforces the requirement that the NYCTA receive the consent of the City in order to change routes. The accountable City officials point their fingers at the MTA, saying “I’m not responsible,” and the electorate cannot “throw the bums out” from the MTA.

    Nassau County figured it out. The MTA, through MSBA, was just a contract operator to the county, and when the county leadership realized that the MTA was not operating in the interest of the county’s residents (regardless of whether or not the county leadership was factually correct . . . that will be determined through the next election of county officials), it yanked the agreement and sought another contract bus operator. The City could the threat of the same with the NYCTA, and compel the NYCTA to act in the interest of the City, and to seek out the City’s consent for route changes. But this would require City officials to make themselves accountable, and they all find it to their political benefit to remain unaccountable. Any the MTA bureaucracy persists.

  5. There was a time when under the MTA, the City did take an interest in bus routes. In 1981, Carol Bellamy, then head of the City Council, somehow made it a requirement that the MTA come up with service guideline criteria to decide how to structure service levels. The MTA has been following them but have interpreted them as as they see fit, not as some were originally intended. Today, the MTA keeps them a secret and does not display them on their website.

    Bellamy also made it law that the MTA must hold public hearings for major changes involving more than 20% of existing service. In some cases the MTA has gotten around this requirement by cutting 15% of the service on a route, then cutting another 15% a year later.

    Both these moves were sparked when during the city’s fiscal crisis of the 1970s, the MTA cut as much as 50% of the service in rush hours on the most heavily utilized lines like the B46. Service was cut from 2 to 3 minutes which began the gypsy cab industry. When ridership was reduced because people couldn’t fit into the buses, they cut the service to every 4 minutes. It got to the point where 50% of the subway passengers were carried by these gypsy cabs, which evolved into the dollar vans.

    It wasn’t until MetroCard Gold which allowed bus/subway transfers, that the MTA began to recoup lost ridership and were forced to restore some of the lost service.

  6. Al, are you sure that the B49 operates every 12 minutes during rush hours? The schedule on the MTA’s website says 6-8 minutes rush hours, 9 minutes middays, 12 minutes Saturdays, 15 minutes Sundays.

    I will say that what is happening to the local bus system is unfortunate, but I still firmly believe that the only way to save lightly used routes is to kill off the quiet stops, institute off-board fare payment on these bus routes, allow people to use all doors for entry, and beef up service. The first three procedures would kill off most of the variables that slow buses down, decrease their reliability, and result in people walking to their destinations or using a nearby subway unless there is a bus in sight.

    Either that, or they have to raise fares, or both. Perhaps they should simultaneously raise fares and create a bunch of new bus routes in addition to improving several routes. That seems like the way to go, given their budget issues. Nothing is easy and I do not know the right answer, if there is one. Nor can I take a strong stance on the issue.

  7. Very informative analysis. What do see happening to the Brooklyn, Queens and SI express bus services? Some Brooklyn express cuts to the Bay Ridge X27 were recently restored.

  8. Why are they forcing people on to an already overcowded and incomplete system?

    What I mean by incomplete, for example, is that there is no Nostrand or Utica Ave subway extension.  There is no subway to Southeast Queens. An A or E extension would be nice.

    There is no Triboro RX, crossing southern Brooklyn along Ave H and 62 St and greatly expanding travel options.

    Additionally, it’s not even appropriate, necessarily, to have a subway operate in certain areas because there is insufficient ridership to support such infrastructure.

    Lastly, I’ve ridden the M15 +SBS+, and believe me, it is nowhere as fast or efficient as a subway.  It’s more like a Limited on steroids.

  9. I was there around 5:20 PM the guide a rides said every 12 minutes. I think from 6:00 to 6:30 or 7, it may decrease to every 8 minutes, which I didn’t realize when I wrote the article, but it definitely is not every 8 minutes from 5 to 7 which is what we believe the rush hour to be.

  10. Service will only be restored if elected officials fight for it and that depends on how much flack they get from their constituents.

  11. Is there anything wrong with a little competition though?  On Flatbush Ave., the MTA cut and cut and provided lousy service.  There was a big gap between a needed service and provided service, and thus the van service was born and kicked the MTA’s butt so to speak.  The MTA tried to ban the service but that didn’t work and the service was eventually legalized.  Then the MTA responded by providing better service, but by then it was too late.  And now the services operate side by side.

  12. Agreed. Are the bus stop schedules in your area effective September 2011? September 4, 2011 is the effective date on the B49 schedule on the MTA’s site. I was at Ocean & Avenue K 1.5 year ago and the northbound B49 schedule there was definitely out of date. All the buses arrived about two minutes after the times posted. I think the buses were on time but the schedules were incorrect.

    The fail-safe way to corroborate this information is to look at the bus operators’ paddles (schedules) for all the runs on the route, or look at the picking boards in the bus depot, which show you every run on every route based out of that depot (Flatbush for the B49), but you gotta be an employee or have the right connections in order to do that. =)

  13. Those subway lines you want should have been built 50 years ago. No money for such massive projects anymore. Highest taxes in the nation, even Andrew Cuomo says it. The “Triboro Subway” using the LIRR Bay Ridge line looks nice on a map but money aside I don’t see how it could generate ridership because it doesn’t enter Manhattan. And homeowners along the ROW will fight it.

  14. Reason I ask is because some claim that the express bus services are a “luxury” that the MTA should drop. The SI routes are probably safe because no subways there. But I wonder about the other boroughs.


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