THE COMMUTE: The bus service cuts last June were devastating. No neighborhood was spared. In Sheepshead Bay, the worst change was the elimination of the eastern portion of the B4 during middays and on weekends. Privately, several people have complained to me how much they miss the B4 and how travel for them is now more inconvenient. It was an essential route, providing the only east-west access between the Brighton line and the United Artists multi-plex cinema, several nursing homes, assisted living facilities and senior housing, as well as eateries such as Jordan’s Lobster Dock and TGIF.
The UA Cinemas, the only remaining movie theater in this entire portion of Brooklyn with the demise of the Kings Plaza cinemas, could only be accessed from much of Sheepshead Bay, Gravesend and Bensonhurst by the B4. The current B4 schedule requires precision timing and luck to use it now to go to the movies.
Most people including the press did not realize the severity of these service cuts until months after they went into effect. Several communities in Manhattan, Bay Ridge, Staten Island, and the Bronx did not remain silent. They bombarded their local officials who were forced to act so that the MTA made some route restorations. Parkchester seniors in the Bronx were hit particularly hard with a senseless route cut of the Bx14 until service was replaced with the Bx4A and Bx24.
More recently, with the aid of State Senator Marty Golden, it was recently announced that the X37 and X38 will be restored as a result of a lawsuit he filed charging discrimination against the elderly and handicapped. Had B4 users complained to him, he could have easily included it in his lawsuit due to the large number of senior facilities at the Knapp Street end of the B4 since that area also is within his district.
To those unfamiliar with the X37 and X38, they were direct midtown express bus services from Bay Ridge. Originally, part of the X27 and X28, they were renumbered as the X37 and X38 to lessen confusion. The service cuts combined midtown and downtown trips via the X27 and X28 (eliminating the X37 and X38 designations) so that Midtown passengers now had to ride an additional 20 minutes through Downtown Manhattan before arriving in Midtown. Not very “express” for $5.50.
Last week, the MTA announced, also due to political pressure, that it would restore weekend service to the M50 (50th Street Crosstown) eliminated last June. According to the MTA, this change will be cost neutral because in exchange the neighborhood of Turtle Bay agreed to shorten the route at all times so that it will no longer go as far south as 42nd Street on the East Side. How the MTA could even think of eliminating weekend service on this route with all the midtown tourists is beyond me.
Weekend M50 riders numbered 2,200; weekend B4 riders numbered 2,300. The difference is that M50 weekend service is returning while weekend B4 service is not. Sheepshead Bay was hit harder because an additional 2,100 midday weekday riders also lost service.
Would B4 riders also have to agree to a route shortening in order to get midday and weekend service restored? I don’t think so. The MTA could make other economies to pay for it. (More on this later.) They do not because they are entrenched in doing business the way they have done it for a number of years.
The planning methodology the MTA uses is that any improvement in bus service must be accompanied by a service reduction preferably on the same route. This is a foolhardy way to plan because it makes any major improvements virtually impossible, e.g. extending the B4 via Knapp Street to Avenue U or Kings Plaza. You cannot do effective planning when you consider operating costs in a vacuum, not relating them to additional revenue generated by a proposed service extension and the effect on neighboring routes. For example, a B4 extension up Knapp Street would attract some current B36 riders because of a shorter walk to the bus, thereby reducing demand on that route. At least one B36 could be shifted over time to the extended B4 reducing projected operating cost increases resulting from such an extension.
The MTA is ignoring untapped demand believing that it is fixed, which it is not. For example, a teenager without access to a car would make a discretionary bus trip to see a movie if public transportation were available and would not only make the trip when his parents are able to drive him.
How the MTA Could Pay for a B4 Service Extension
At this point you may be saying to yourself that the MTA has to deal with fiscal realities and just cannot afford to restore or extend routes like the B4 even if they wanted to. Also, not exactly true. Here is one example how the MTA is wasting money that could be applied to the B4:
The MTA is spending loads of money providing school bus service that the city and state should be fully subsidizing but are not. To keep costs down, the MTA operates what they call “school open” and “school closed” schedules that are exactly what they sound like. Extra buses are provided only on days when school is open. In some cases, the number of extra buses are substantial, for example, at least a dozen extra buses are assigned just to Kingsborough Community College service at 3 p.m (This is not the only additional service KCC gets.). That is more than the number of buses that operate on some routes in their entirety.
Here is the problem: On Fridays, KCC has a half-day schedule. Most of these extra buses are not needed at 3 p.m., but operate nearly empty anyway. Why couldn’t the MTA operate a Monday through Thursday school open schedule and a separate Friday school open schedule with fewer buses? They operate a special holiday schedule for Christmas, Thanksgiving and other major holidays, which is lighter than their Sunday Schedule, so there is no reason why this also could not be done, other than none of the MTA’s $100,000-plus geniuses has thought of it. If this change requires union approval, it definitely should be part of the next contract negotiations.
Who knows how many other colleges operate lighter Friday schedules and how much money could be saved if the MTA bothered to investigate and made this change system-wide? The $64,000 question is if the money saved would be reinvested in improved bus service or just be used to reduce the deficit without the MTA changing their planning methodology. What do you think?
The Need for a Better Planning Process
The planning process needs to be more transparent, so the public can determine if service cuts are indeed justified. The last round of service cuts presented data in an inadequate manner, minimized inconveniences and grouped data so that they were difficult to analyze. The MTA did not inform anyone prior to the B4 shortening that it would result in only being able to transfer between the B4 and B68 in one direction but not in the other, making the connection nearly useless. They suggested that B4 weekend riders take a long walk to the B36 instead, but later cut weekend service by 17 percent on the B36, forcing residents to choose car services. Then the MTA complains how ridership is steadily declining and how more service reductions are necessary (Other problems with the revised B4 are discussed here.).
The hearing also was held in an inaccessible location for many, and those who did attend had to wait hours to speak, some going home before it was their turn.
The Need to Speak Up
Is Sheepshead Bay complacent because it believes that speaking up will serve no purpose? If so, that is not true. There is power in numbers, as the service restorations mentioned above have shown. Even one person can make a difference. My testimony at the public hearing convinced the MTA to retain the eastern end of the B4 between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. and from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m., Monday to Friday. Original plans called for service to be discontinued at all times.
Since the service cuts, I have been attempting to convince the MTA to at least extend B4 service from Coney Island Avenue to Sheepshead Bay Station during the hours it has been cutback, restoring transfers to the B68, B49 and the Brighton Line. It would be possible to do that without spending additional money. Buses currently lay over at Coney Island Hospital for 20 minutes, more than enough time to travel the additional distance to Sheepshead Bay Station. If extended, the time-consuming loop to the Shore Parkway service road in the westbound direction would be unnecessary, saving money and shortening trips by five minutes. My request has gone unanswered since last October.
If more people focused their energy productively by speaking up instead of complaining privately, we could get back the eliminated portion of the B4. Residents didn’t even request NYCDOT to allow parking on weekends when the bus no longer stops there, like their Marine Park neighbors did regarding the B2. Prove that Sheepshead Bay is as politically savvy as parts of Staten Island, Parkchester, Bay Ridge and Turtle Bay who were successful in lobbying their elected officials to get the MTA to do a reversal. It is not too late.
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).