THE COMMUTE: Select Bus Service (SBS) is due to arrive either later this year or mid-2012 on the B44 (Nostrand Avenue) bus. If you want an overview of how it will work you can get it here. According to the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, SBS on the B44 is the greatest invention since sliced bread. I have written on more than one occasion how the B44 SBS has been poorly thought out and how it can be improved.
Many riders along First and Second avenues in Manhattan like it because they believe it saves them time. My main gripe is that, for many, this may only be a perception, since bus travel times and numbers of passengers using SBS are the only indicators being tracked. No one is measuring door-to-door travel time for the passenger, which includes the additional walks to and from the stops that are spaced further apart than the Limited that the SBS replaces.
Also, transferring to the local bus is difficult since the local and SBS stops are separate and distinct and often are not adjacent to each other. It may also cost you an extra fare if you require a third bus or a train. So many who would like to use SBS might not be able to take advantage it.
The MTA admits that a B44 passenger making an average 2.3-mile trip will save under five minutes for local passengers and only 1.7 minutes for Limited passengers by using SBS [PDF]. Don’t forget, if local passengers could use SBS, they would be on the Limited now, so the five-minute savings really is a meaningless number and 1.7 minutes is the number you should be looking at.
That’s right. About $20 million dollars is being spent to save the average passenger less than two minutes, when simple traffic enforcement near the Junction to prevent illegal parking could save at least five minutes. SBS is not only expensive, it comes with disadvantages such as reducing the width of the roadway by 33 percent for all vehicles except buses in areas where an exclusive bus lane is proposed. (This is not mentioned in any of the literature describing SBS.) It will also reduce parking availability and increase traffic congestion throughout the corridor. Who is measuring those costs? Only the MTA will be saving money by reducing the cost of bus operations since the SBS bus route will save about 20 minutes end to end. The passengers will be saving zilch and many could be faced with longer trips, such as current Limited passengers who will be switching to the local because the northbound SBS will not operate on New York Avenue but two long blocks away on Rogers Avenue.
It is also unclear if the 1.7-minute timesaving includes the extra time it will take to walk to and from the SBS stops, or the five minutes it takes for inspectors to board and check receipts while they keep the bus from moving. Probably not. Then there is the confusion of the local bus operating on a different street from the SBS in the case of the B44 and the fact that if the SBS is delayed, you cannot board the local once you purchase your SBS receipt, even if more than one local comes first. The proposed system for the B44 is pure lunacy; there is no other way to describe it.
Also, the MTA claims that, in Manhattan, SBS is increasing bus usage, but no one is counting the numbers of people being diverted from the subway, so it is misleading to assume that additional passengers equates with additional revenue.
Fines for Doing Nothing Wrong
But that’s not the worst of it. Any new system will have its growing pains until people become accustomed to it. However, you would think that after two years of operation, the MTA would have already worked out all the kinks regarding SBS. Broken fare media machines, where one must purchase their SBS receipt to ride the bus, are still plaguing the M15 along Second Avenue, eight months after SBS’s initiation there. Since you are not allowed to use your MetroCard or pay once on board, if the machines are broken, you risk a $100 fine if an inspector boards to check receipts even if you have an unlimited MetroCard.
That is exactly what happened to Aaron Goldberg last week, according to NY1, since inspectors do not carry portable MetroCard readers, which could have determined his MetroCard was Unlimited. In other words, if the MTA does not repair its machines, it’s your fault.
This is similar to the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) philosophy that, if an alternate side of the street parking sign falls off (and is not replaced for years), you are liable for a summons. That is because the law states that the more restrictive sign like a “No Parking Anytime” sign — which could be located 500 feet away — and not the sign closest to where you are parked, is the one in effect. The conflict exists because the sign showing where one restriction ends and the other begins is missing. It all depends on the direction the agent is walking when writing the summonses.
DOT and the MTA have little incentive to replace missing signs or repair broken fare machines quickly, as the case may be, since additional revenue from issuing summonses is collected the longer the problem remains.
Each SBS bus stop has two machines but in rare instances both malfunction. The receipt could get jammed, the machine could be out of paper, or there could be a software problem. According to the MTA website, if both machines are out of order, the passenger should notify the bus operator when they board the bus who will call in the problem to alert inspectors. Mr. Goldberg did not do this, but why should the onus be on him when he wasn’t evading the fare? If a farebox is out of order on a local bus, the passengers ride for free. Was he wrong in assuming the same for SBS although he had a valid unlimited MetroCard and did not have to pay an additional fare for the SBS, but just get a receipt?
What is even worse is that, in Mr. Goldberg’s case, the MTA admits to knowing the machines were out of order, but still will not dismiss the summonses until the “victims” go to court to plead their case which could involve the loss of a day’s pay, and paying additional fares to get to and from court. That means paying four times for a single trip plus the cost of the summons if found guilty. Like DOT, the MTA is hoping that paying the fine will just be easier even if you are innocent.
Now some are wondering if the summonses are nothing more than a cash cow for the MTA, with $1.4 million in tickets issued on the M15 SBS only in the first four months of operation. This is just another example how the MTA values reducing their deficit more than it values fairness or customer service.
The chances of an inspector boarding are minimal, but one person received a summons because two inspectors boarded on the same trip. After showing her receipt to the first inspector, she threw it in her purse. When a second inspector asked her for the receipt near the end of her trip, she mistakenly dug up an old one and was immediately given a summons and thrown off the bus before her destination. If a $100 fine is not enough punishment for doing nothing wrong, why are you also made to get off the bus and pay another fare to re-board, not to mention the loss of time and inconvenience? What a way to encourage bus usage! So much for using discretion in issuing summonses as the MTA promised it would do.
Yet another flaw in the system is that receipts are only valid for one hour after purchase. So if you should decide to ride an SBS route from one end to the other, where waiting for the bus together with the trip could take more than one hour, you also risk a summons for an expired receipt if an inspector boards the bus shortly before you are due to get off, although the ticket was purchased for that trip.
Fare evasion was a big problem on the first SBS route, the Bx12 in the Bronx. After enforcement was stepped up, it became less of a problem, according to the MTA, with a fare evasion rate of only 10 percent. However, confidential sources within MTA Revenue reported to me that the fare evasion rate on SBS is closer to 30 to 40 percent. Will it also be fare jumper heaven for B44 riders?
I would like to see statistics comparing revenue lost through fare evasion with revenue gained through fare evasion summonses. You would think with the MTA, being so transparent, as MTA Chairman Jay Walder claims, this information would be readily available on the MTA website, but it is not. According to The Daily News, most fare evaders get away with it. At the same time the innocent ones have to pay. Not a very fair system.
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).