Map announcing the undoing of most of the B36 in Coney Island. Courtesy of Allan Rosen (Click to enlarge)

THE COMMUTE: In Part 1, I discussed the success of the 1978 Southwest Brooklyn bus route changes, and why this is how the MTA should do its bus route planning. In Part 2, I showed how the MTA is on the wrong track. This week I show the future direction the MTA must take to avoid destroying the local bus system, the path it is currently on, as well as relating my experiences in Operations Planning.

The MTA should be attempting to attract new bus passengers, not try to lose them to the subway or to car services. You cannot attract new passengers by constantly reducing service and increasing service gaps resulting in making travel more difficult. You must plan by considering latent demand, i.e. passengers who would use the system if the routes were improved, something the MTA has never done.

The MTA, however, would disagree with my entire hypothesis. They would claim that the entire purpose of Select Bus Service (SBS) is to make local buses more attractive to passengers. They would say that they have no intention of destroying the bus system and they want it to flourish but are limited by economic realities. Where are the additional Select Bus passengers coming from, which the MTA is bragging about [PDF]? Are they being siphoned from parallel bus and subway lines or are they really new passengers? Are any of them choosing to leave their cars at home in order to ride the Select Bus? I haven’t seen any of those questions answered in any of the data the MTA has provided.

The MTA would also point to Bus Time, the pilot project on the B63, which informs passengers where the next bus is, to show they care about their customers and how that will increase bus usage.

You can make the argument that, in the current financial climate, the MTA cannot afford to provide new or improved service. However, even when there were budget surpluses about 10 years ago, the MTA still showed no interest in improving bus service, insisting that any service improvement must be accompanied by a service cut so that the net result is no total increase in operating costs or bus service.

The MTA refuses to project any revenue increases from service enhancements in making their proposals. By only considering operating costs, not new revenue that might be created toward offsetting those additional operating costs, new or additional service that might attract more revenue than it would cost to provide is never considered. Their assumption is that no bus service could ever make money, no matter how attractive.

Why The MTA Made The Southwest Brooklyn Changes

The lawsuit by the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, spurred the MTA into implementing the Southwest Brooklyn changes of 1978. As soon as the MTA became aware of the lawsuit, at the very next meeting they told the Department of City Planning (DCP) they were ready to start negotiating. That was after two years of using stalling tactics by first telling us we needed to enlarge the scope of our study. Once we did, they came back and told us the scope was too large. The MTA never would have made those changes without that lawsuit which required them to change bus routes in southern Brooklyn to improve air quality south of 59th Street in Manhattan.

Is The MTA A Business?
The MTA pretends to operate like a business, but what business will not make any investment to attract new clientele? Regarding SBS, the MTA is only paying for the cost and maintenance of the fare machines with others paying for construction. The project is only being undertaken to reduce operating costs, not because it will encourage ridership. Its wider bus stop spacing and penalization for transferring between a local and SBS bus by charging you another fare if you require another bus or train to complete your trip will be a negative for many especially the elderly. No one is denying that some people will be helped by SBS but the MTA has not proven — only alleged — that more will be helped than hurt.

Why The Success Of The Southwest Brooklyn Changes Could Not Be Repeated

The Southwest Brooklyn changes cost the MTA $250 million in additional annual operating costs. The number of additional passengers it attracted over the years to offset those costs was never measured. We know the changes attracted new passengers because of the dramatic resulting increase in frequency of service for the routes that were changed. Under the MTA’s operating guideline of balancing service cuts with service additions, so as to spend no money in additional operating costs, it would be impossible to make those types of routing improvements today.

My Experiences At The MTA

The MTA realized the success of the 1978 Southwest Brooklyn changes because they hired me three years later to head their Bus Operations Planning Department, then known as the Surface Planning Department. My mission in 1981 was to salvage their failing Brooklyn Transit Service Sufficiency Study, where the survey data had been sabotaged by their own employees due to certain actions of management, and after they spent two-thirds of the monies allocated while only accomplishing 50 percent of the tasks. I successfully applied for a $250,000 federal grant and a two-year time extension to complete the study.

However, due to being forced to work in a location infested with diesel fumes and thus unfit for human habitation — especially for someone with asthma, like myself — half of my staff and I were transferred after six months and much complaining to the existing Rapid Transit Operations Planning Department at Jay Street in Downtown Brooklyn, to form a newly created department simply known as Operations Planning. As my boss stated, “It’s much easier to transfer you and your staff than to address the air quality problem here in East New York.”

My new boss sabotaged my efforts by insisting on my staff developing and costing out five separate sets of alternative proposals for each of the 18 Community Boards in Brooklyn over the course of a year. This involved 100 or more bus routing changes instead of the 30 that were needed. At DCP, we only presented one set of proposals that did not include any alternatives. Under my boss’s approach, the amount of work increased five-fold and it would be necessary to change each bus route as many as six different times, whereas under the staged methodology I was employing, no route would have to be changed more than twice. The notion of making all the changes at once would have been an operations nightmare. My boss’s approach was thoroughly impractical because if any Community Board rejected any part of the plan, you could be left with a nonsensical route if part of the route had already been changed. It would be then necessary to undo the changes that had already been made.

I unsuccessfully attempted to logically reason with him during a three-hour meeting of the minds, explaining why it was not feasible to develop separate sets of proposals according to Community Board boundaries, as he had insisted, since some bus routes traversed six different Boards. He finally admitted he was wrong and that my approach and routing proposals were superior to his. However, he still insisted we go forward with his methodology since he was the boss and I had to comply. He made no secret that he wanted me to propose a specific route change just to provide a direct bus route from his house to the office so he would not have to use the subway.

After one year of trying to please him by producing five separate sets of proposal drafts, when he finally accepted my work, or rather his work, I informed him that the proposals he had me develop were so dumb and impractical, that I would deny any connection with them if asked. I was afraid of ruining my reputation and appearing like a fool in front of the communities when asked to present the ideas to them.

Having no confidence in his own proposals, since he respected my opinion, all of the proposals died that day. I was transferred out of Operations Planning soon after and never allowed back. Someone else produced a meaningless 500-page report with 20 pages of text and 480 pages of tables for the federal government, which was probably never even read, in order to justify the $900,000 in federal money we just wasted, $650,000 of which was spent before I arrived on the scene.

In order for the success of the Southwest Brooklyn changes to be repeated, the MTA must take –

A New Direction

The new MTA chairman must steer the organization away from the iceberg it is heading toward, that of destroying the bus system through service cutbacks and creating new service gaps, instead of filling the ones we already have by failing to make needed local bus routing improvements — some of which were needed as long as 70 years ago.

The bus system cannot survive with only a few super local bus routes, a few Select Bus Service routes and Express buses. There will not be enough patronage on the high frequency routes to maintain frequent service without having moderate and lightly-used routes needed to access those “super” routes. Express buses are inherently costly to operate and MTA Bus especially is making no attempts to make them more efficient, since their operating losses are covered by New York City, a condition the MTA imposed upon takeover from the privately operated companies.

As the bus system erodes with the MTA getting out of the bus business, the illegal van industry and car services will flourish, which is exactly what the MTA wants. They would much rather someone else serve the demand for what they consider to be a money-losing bus operation with no future.

The MTA must make the 10 needed changes I outlined last June. They must devote attention to solving the most serious inefficiency of local bus service — bus bunching, the bus passengers’ number one complaint. It is a problem they have been ignoring, and one which has gotten worse over the last 40 years, as the MTA has continually reduced operating supervision personnel, while at the same time creating numerous additional layers in its upper management bureaucracy. In 1981, when I was hired at the MTA, I was three levels below the president. By 1992, having never been demoted, I was seven layers removed from the president.

After three or four failed attempts at creating a GPS system to track buses and wasting upwards of $20 million, a pilot project called Bus Time finally started last February on the B63 to be expanded system-wide by 2013, if it is not abandoned like all the previous GPS attempts to track buses. However, nowhere has the MTA promised that this tracking system will be utilized to reduce bus bunching and help keep the buses on schedule, only that it will tell you how long you will have to wait for the next bus.

If it is not used to reduce bus bunching, and you know in advance that the next bus will not arrive for 30 or 45 minutes, it will have the effect of reducing bus ridership further, not increasing it, resulting in further service reductions. The iceberg is approaching fast. Will MTA Chairman Lhota see it in time to steer clear?

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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  • N U

    Do you think that new MTA chairman Lhota will look to improve bus service?

    • Allan Rosen

      Although I haven’t written off the new chairman yet, I am not hopeful.  His first remarks were not encouraging.  He emphasized that the MTA’s most serious problem, I assume other than fiscal, is one of a poor public image and the must improve the public relations efforts by better emphasizing their successes. 

      PR is the least of the MTA problems.  I don’t believe he sees the need to improve bus service and will continue to cut. If the MTA did a better job at providing adequate or excellent transit service more than 50% of the time, which I believe is the current situation, he wouldn’t need to improve PR.  The MTA would automatically improve their image through providing better service.

      They do not need better ways to tell us they are doing a good job.  If they are, we should be able to see it for ourselves.  We are not idiots.

  • Flatbush Depot

    This is a great article Al. In spite of the fact that we have clashed on several occasions, I sympathize with basically everything you have written. Government work, especially city work, is grueling and I am sorry you had these experiences working for the MTA.

    I have always held this opinion about any hard-working person that has ever had to work for them or any other government agency. Do not get me wrong, I have held this opinion about you since I first caught wind of your writings on the web, but it is only now that I come out and clearly state this to you.

    I do not want to get into a big, messy debate about this, but I will say some things about the B44 SBS in Sheepshead Bay: Yes, there are no trip generators along Nostrand or Rogers north of the Junction for people living in Sheepshead Bay. However, there could very well be trip generators for said persons in places such as Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and Long Island City/Court Square, which are all served by the B44 [SBS] or by the (G) train connecting to the B44 [SBS]. 37 minutes is plenty of time to make that trip from the first stop to Bedford Avenue-LaFayette Avenue (Bedford-Nostrand Avenues station). As is 45 minutes, first stop to last stop northbound and 46 minutes, first stop to last stop southbound.

    You have the vast Citibank building right there in Court Square, and the other piece of good news is that they are not even finished developing that area. Speaking of which, they are also gentrifying the rest of Long Island City and are not finished developing that larger area. There is also the Queens Center Mall for people willing to make a second transfer from the (G) to the (E) (and then (R)) or (M) at Court Square. And places along the IRT Flushing line, such as Citi Field, for people willing to make a second transfer from the (G) to the (7) at Court Square. Nice places to go to, up-and-coming areas, but so damn difficult to reach from southern Brooklyn if you are not near a subway. That is indisputable and will be fixed once they implement the B44 SBS.

    For the purposes of these statements I am excluding places in Manhattan, since I suppose most people that do not live near the B36 in Sheepshead Bay either use a bus or car service to reach a subway to Manhattan. That would include people living by the Belt Parkway and Emmons Avenue, east of Bedford Avenue, where there are about 14 seven-story apartment buildings, which is nothing to sneeze at when you relate housing density to mass transit usage, whether it be actual or projected.

    But even when taking into account those who travel to Manhattan, the B44 SBS will probably attract people from car services that they currently use to reach a subway. Because let us be logical: The bus will only make five stops from Knapp Street to Flatbush Avenue. 16 minutes is plenty of time for the bus to make this trip, even without transit signal priority.

    This makes perfect sense to me, given my numerous experiences with other SBS routes and my application of the analyses of those routes; as well as the fact that I have been up and down the B44 SBS corridor many times, by bicycle and by B44 limited bus; to the B44 SBS. Trust me, you *will* see these things for yourself after they make the B44 SBS. Maybe not in that first week since it always takes some time for the people to get accustomed, but definitely by the second or third week or within that first month at worst.

    Currently it takes a B44 limited anywhere from 25-31 minutes to get from the first stop to the Junction, so of course so few people use the thing to reach the IRT from points south of Avenue M. Anybody that has the option to avoid the B44 currently does so since it is so painfully slow. Not to mention the increased frequency of service, increased reliability, and psychological factors to take into account, all of which make the SBS far superior to the limited.

    The point I am trying to make is that the B44 SBS will probably attract more people from private vehicles and car services than the Bx12/M15 SBS. The Bx12 and M15 generally travel through areas where car usage was already low before SBS due to high population density and heavy traffic. If few people switched from cars to the Bx12/M15 SBS, that comes as no surprise to me for these reasons. Not the case with the B44 in Sheepshead Bay. The traffic is not nearly as much of an issue in the case of the B44 along Nostrand Avenue in Sheepshead Bay.

    Now, the MTA/DOT may not measure these things and release these data so readily, so we may never get a definitive answer. But I have a strong feeling it will happen. Again, let us use logic: Brand-new, stylish, three-door articulated buses with blue flashing lights, that have the SBS wrap, move quickly (for those who notice how much less frequently the bus stops, both because of fewer instances in which it has to drop off and pick up passengers and because of fewer red signals), and operate more frequently and more consistently than the old B44 limited, will get noticed and people will start leaving the car at home or leave the car service alone so they can use the B44 SBS to reach (these are the big destinations) the Junction, Brooklyn College, the (2) and (5) to Manhattan or the Brooklyn Museum of Art ((2) only) or Downtown Brooklyn, Williamsburg, or the (G) to Greenpoint, Court Square, and Long Island City. People may not leave their cars right away, but it will happen eventually.

    Then you also have people living outside of Sheepshead Bay that go there to hang out: The UA Theater, the marinas, Roll-n-Roaster’s, fishing, boating, etc. Not to mention patrons and workers that go to the Bay to patronize and work in these places as well as the various nursing homes, restaurants, and inns. I was even on a B44 limited once, and the bus operator was letting a passenger know where to go in order to reach one of the marinas back there, as the passenger had asked him where the marina was. And I do know that people come from outside the neighborhood to fish and boat in the Bay. So there goes the argument about ‘insufficient’ B44 ridership south of Avenue X. Even if it is insufficient right now, there is room for ridership to grow after they make the B44 SBS, and this is indisputable. The B44 SBS will help Sheepshead Bay in the long run (and the short run), and not having it serve Knapp Street would hurt the area in the short and long run, period.

    Also the B44 limited *does* currently serve Knapp Street every 3-7 minutes during the rush hour. All B44 limited buses serve Knapp Street. For about the first hour of limited-stop service each weekday, the B44 LTs operate every 3-4 minutes from Knapp Street. See schedules on mta.info. If there ends up being too much SBS south of Avenue X, they can simply have alternate SBS buses terminate at X when the service frequency is very high (3 minutes). So every 6 minutes a SBS bus goes past Avenue X. They already do this on the M15 SBS during the AM rush, when the buses operate to Houston every 3 minutes. They operate to South Ferry every 6 minutes. PM rush, the M15 SBS operates every 5-6 minutes, so every bus serves South Ferry. MTA might operate the B44 SBS every 4-6 minutes during the PM rush but 3 minutes AM rush. In that case every B44 SBS would have to serve Knapp Street during the PM rush.

    I am just stating facts when I say the following, but you missed me when you said there is demand for the B44 SBS along Avenue Z. Avenue Z is all single-family houses with the exception of the apartment buildings around Ocean Avenue, which is only an 8-minute walk from Sheepshead Bay station. Far more people live south of Z and east of Bedford than along Z. Population density is also higher south of Z and east of Bedford than along Z. People along Avenue Z are right there by the Sheepshead Bay station, so they need SBS or any other public transportation improvement far less than people south of Bedford and east of Z. Not having it serve Knapp Street would hurt the area in the short and long run, period. People would have screamed bloody murder and those nursing homes and other business would have gone straight down the gutter. Good luck getting new patrons if the only transit services back there are the B4 with its evil headways and B44 local.

    • Flatbush Depot

      By the way I did not mean to offend you or lash out at all, but I wrote so much because I am just trying to get you to see the logic here. Trying to get you to be just a little more optimistic about the B44 SBS, ya know? =P

    • Allan Rosen

      I have no reason to see the B44 SBS fail.  I have no desire to tell people I told you so.   I hope you are correct and that it does increase new ridership.  But if it does happen, it will not happen in the first month.  It could take from 6 months to a year.  The MTA will also have to properly market it which I am not even confident they will do.  They will have to tell people about transferring to the G train to Long Island City and how long the trip is expected to take.  That is not something that will be readily apparent.  That also assumes that people will not have a problem transferring in Bed Stuy.  I do agree that Knapp Street service would be good for the nursing homes and the UA Theater.  There is also nothing to preclude that the MTA cannot split the SBS service to serve Sheepshead Bay Station and Knapp Street as well if the Knapp Street service proves excessive.  It would only mean having to add two stops.  The problem is that you cannot negotiate with MTA Operations Planning.  They will just do whatever they want.

      • Flatbush Depot

        Agreed. Especially about the marketing, which I was also thinking about. They do not pay much attention to that sort of thing.

        Although there is also Google Transit and MTA Trip Planner, for those who may want to make these trips but do not know the transit system like we do or know that the B44 transfers to the (G) or know anything about the B44 north of Flatbush Avenue. No offense to those people.

        When I said you will see these things but not necessarily within a certain time frame, I was referring to my estimated travel times. I was unclear. I meant that it may take a while for the buses to move as quickly as I believe they will, due to the fact that some will not immediately understand that they pay outside the bus, which causes some confusion and delays.

        The Bx12/M15/M34 SBS all had these teething problems when they first came into existence. Most are gone at this point because the passengers on those routes have adapted. The B44 SBS, unless most B44 passengers already know SBS well (due to having heard about it, in the news, from friends or by just using the Bx12/M15/M34 if they travel a lot) or can adapt quickly, could very well have these same teething problems.

        So it is not out of the question for the maximum travel times to be, say, 55 minutes at the beginning, but eventually the passengers (and bus operators, who are currently used to driving buses at dreadfully slow speeds, unless some pick into Flatbush depot from Gun Hill, Michael J. Quill and 126 Street depots, which operate the Bx12, M34, and M15 respectively), will adapt and the travel times will be no more than 45-46 minutes unless there is an emergency affecting the B44 SBS. Snowstorm, hailstorm, natural disaster, big fire, etc. You know.

        • Allan Rosen

          When the B44 SBS starts there will be massive confusion.  It will hit everyone by a total surprise, no matter how much the MTA publicizes it in advance.  You will see people on TV stating things like:  Why are they doing this?  And why didn’t they tell anyone?  Why weren’t there any public hearings?  The fact that the SBS does not use the same route as the local will be totally confusing.  People will complain like hell no matter how good it may eventually turn out.  No matter what happens, the MTA will declare it a massive success.  

        • LLQBTT

          I am fearful though that the G may go the same way as the B71.  Even though ridership is up (although nobody counts it) and that the areas it serves are on the upswing (same as the B71), the MTA has little interest in the G.  It should be the reverse because the G is the ‘perfect +SBS+’, a cross-town rapid transit vehicle that is already in place and where there are so few.  And instead of encouraging its ridership, it gets cut instead, a plan the MTA has been trying to implement for well over a decade.  And then they make Citi build its transfer for them.  And at the other end, the Church Ave extension is only stated as temporary until the Culver viaduct is completed.

          Hopefully, and what they should be doing as part of the Culver viaduct work is to reconstruct the switches so that the G can at least be extended 1 stop and terminate at 4 Ave to allow for a logical transfer to the R.

          • Old Sheepshead Hand

            I’m migrating to Windsor Terrace (but I’ll still be an old hand at all things Sheepshead). If the G train is cut off at Smith-9th again or 4th-9th, I want a class action suit against the MTA.

            If anything, the G should be the express train on the Culver line to Kings Highway! And while we’re at it, they should build an express track all the way to Coney Island!

            Bah!

          • Flatbush Depot

            They could reduce service, but they cannot eliminate the (G) entirely due to the presence of the ROW. They would not stop running trains just so when they still have to maintain these long sections of trackage. Also they do treat the trains much better than they treat the buses.
             
            They will never cut a whole subway route and leave all this empty, non-revenue service trackage and stations behind, or say, replace trains operating every 10 minute with trains operating every 15-20 minutes. 12 minutes, yes, as the (2) train operated every 10 minutes on the weekend years ago but now operates every 12 minutes weekends. The (G) currently operates every 6-10 minutes most of the day weekdays, and 10 minutes weekends.
             
            Unfortunately, and much to the chagrin of those who wish the local/limited bus system could be restored to its former glory, they are far more willing to do such things as changing 10 minutes to 15 or 20 for buses than for subways.
             
            But as far as the (G) train is concerned, I would say do not worry about it. Nothing will happen to the (G), at least north of the Culver section since they already reduced it to the bare bones by cutting it to Court Square. As far as the service frequency itself is concerned, they will not reduce that. It will not go the way of the B71.
             
            I could see them trying to kill the B57 west of Kent Avenue though. That parallels the (G) train a lot. If they could add more (G) service in exchange for killing the B57 or some other routes, it seems like it would make some sense. But my disclaimer is that cutting bus routes, regardless of how infrequently they operate or how few people they carry or how much they parallel a subway, is a very sensitive topic that I am not gung-ho about. So I definitely respect the input of other persons on this.
             
            Now it is obvious that if the (G) went to Continental during off-hours like it used to, public transportation would be far more attractive to people living in places like Sheepshead Bay, as they would then have only a two-seat ride via the B44 SBS and (G) train; not just to Fort Greene, north Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and Court Square; but also to the rest of Long Island City, Jackson Heights, the Queens Center Mall, and a bunch of other places along the IND Queens Blvd line.
             
            This could enable them to do away with more services that might be redundant. The ‘redundant’ services would generally be bus services, but again I am not saying I am particularly supportive of such service cuts; I am simply trying to outline incentives the MTA might have to improve the big routes. There are no easy answers to these problems.
             
            I hope the MTA considers that. Only thing is, I would not want them to consider that but then say they have to reduce (G) service frequencies in exchange. That would be pretty messed up. Again, they do not have much of a problem improving the subway system or SBS. They treat these differently from the way they treat non-SBS buses.

  • LLQBTT

    I think that Lhota is there to reduce costs, negotiate with labor, and follow the Cuomo line.  I don’t know much about him, but he’s clearly not the transit wonk that Walder is.  If Walder had about a decade, he’d have gotten the place in order. After all, you can’t turn the Titanic on a dime…

    • Allan Rosen

      I agree with you about Lhota, but I don’t think Walder was on the right track either.  The only thing I give Walder credit for was opening up the technology door to permit outsiders to write applications for smartphones and computers.  He rightly realized that the MTA did not have the talent to do this.  Before Walder, the MTA would not release any internal information necessary because of unfounded security fears.  It was impossible to get anything from the MTA.  I don’t give him credit for the countdown clocks because that was in the works when he arrived.  He might have just speeded up the process a little. 

  • gustaajedrez

    Just one thing about BusTime: I don’t think it’s really going to have a significant impact on ridership. Sure, you may be able to see in advance that the next bus isn’t for 30 minutes and decide to take car service, but the fact that you know it isn’t coming until 30 minutes could also mean that you can find something to do that takes 30 minutes and then get on the bus (say, run an errand, or grab some lunch). If you had no idea when the bus was going to come, you might just call a car service because you could be waiting (meaning you’re not doing anything productive with your time) for an undetermined period of time.

    • Guest

      Given the (Brooklyn line at least) where BusTime is being implemented, it just sounds like a gimmick to lure hipsters.

      • guest

        you’re crazy

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  • Allan Rosen

    This is what the routes looked like prior to the 1978 changes:

    http://www.subchat.com/buschat/read.asp?Id=249123