More advertising on mass transit could pump money into the system, if not for missed opportunities (Source: CarbonNYC/Flickr)

THE COMMUTE: In Part 1, I provided examples of MTA waste. In Part 2, I discussed a few examples of waste I personally observed during my nearly 25 years working for the MTA. Today we conclude the series discussing missed opportunities and double standards.

Missed Opportunities

Who is watching over the MTA Real Estate Division to determine why so many properties are vacant for years? Are they asking for more than the market will bear, or are lease terms unrealistic? Decades passed when buses carried no interior advertisements at all. Even now, interior ad space on buses is not fully utilized. Perhaps more local businesses could be attracted to advertise if rates or terms were more conducive?

The MTA is now first selling off properties that have been unused for decades and recently started to place ads on the outside of some subway trains, and on stairways. Why couldn’t these measures have come sooner? It’s because, in prior years, whenever the MTA pleaded poverty, Albany obliged with additional funding. Finally they said “no” and began taking away money instead. This forced the MTA into action.

Then why were lucrative wrap-around advertisements on the exterior of buses used by the private companies removed once the MTA Bus Company took over bus operation? It simply was not MTA policy. No explanation was ever provided. Perhaps revenues from that type of advertising on a select number of buses could have prevented some of the 2010 service cuts.

The MTA is now considering renting out space in unused mezzanines, but retailers would only be interested in areas with high traffic volumes. While sounding like a good idea, it is not new or innovative. For many years, retail outlets or food vendors occupied mezzanine space at many busy stations like Union Square and Times Square. They were forced to close up when the MTA decided decades ago that it wanted a cleaner look and to improve pedestrian flow. (Remember the closed arcade with a half dozen businesses at the Sheepshead Bay Station leading to the old B1 stop prior to 1978?) The MTA was willing to sacrifice the revenue by eliminating these establishments. So why today, with subway ridership at an all time high, would returning pedestrian space to retail use be feasible? Isn’t pedestrian flow still an important consideration? Or is the MTA planning on renting other unused space?

Unfairness and Double Standards

The MTA wants to minimize waste and look for new sources of revenue. They consider the loss of $16 million a pittance, not worth going after. But they will reject a service improvement that increases operating costs by less than $100 a day. They also regard the millions lost through fare evasion as within acceptable levels and take no steps to reduce it. Instead, they try to recoup these losses on the backs of its customers.

They do so by handing out summonses to riders at 3:00 a.m. for occupying two seats, or when passing between cars at a terminal station to get a seat, although the train is idle and the activity is posing no safety hazard. Still, riders are hit with huge fines when the law is enforced.

Recently, a Staten Island mom was told by an M15 Select Bus Service (SBS) driver to get on the bus when she informed him the fare machines at the bus stop were broken. He told her she could get off at the next stop and buy her ticket there, a common practice. However, when she tried to get off, enforcement agents prevented her from doing so without first giving her a $100 fine.

The MTA claims to use discretion when giving summonses, which it obviously does not do. One could argue this is a rare occurrence, but it is an occurrence that should never happen. You should be allowed to walk though cars at a terminal station, and listening to a bus driver’s instruction should not cost you $100.

You do not improve the MTA’s image and credibility by harassing passengers and treating them unfairly. Credibility is built only when you show you care about your passengers, are honest with them, and you eliminate double standards and conflicting logic. If you are concerned about spending an additional $100 a day in operating costs, you should also be concerned about losing $16 million.

Conclusion

The abandoned desks and file cabinets at 370 Jay Street, the union shows on its web site, MTAMoney ThrownAway.com, are just representative of little bits of waste common at the MTA.

Another example? At the recently rehabilitated Brighton Line stations, the MTA decided to use extra long metallic signs, which only adds black space, looks ugly and wastes metal. It does not improve customer service.

That is not their priority, which is further evidenced by the new exit sign at the same station.

Wouldn’t it be more useful if, instead of confusing riders, the sign showed the walking direction to the streets instead?

That does not involve additional money — only a little thought. Yet, chances are, if it was suggested to the MTA, it would be rejected for some inane reason, like it would violate their graphic standards.

Some have argued that initiatives that are seemingly customer oriented such as countdown clocks and Bus Time are being instituted to lessen the impact of future service cuts. (After all, if trains and buses arrive every five minutes or less, who needs to know when the next one is coming?) That SBS, which speeds bus running time, is primarily a cost-cutting measure, not a customer service initiative. It generally saves little travel time for the passenger, especially for shorter trips, and the majority of bus trips are short. It also makes buses more difficult to use by the elderly and handicapped when the extra walking distances are factored in, since stops are spaced up from one half to three quarters of a mile apart.

In spite of its efforts to improve efficiency such as through FastTrack, waste continues and is more prevalent than most realize. The MTA does whatever it pleases with little oversight and accountability; and customer service is not a priority. Rather than MTA meaning “More Trouble Ahead” or “Money Thrown Away,” MTA should mean “More Transit Accountability.”

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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  • TITANIUMDX

    Close all bus lines, and just take car service.

    I’m sure most of us don’t like riding on these buses that are slower than turtle, dealing with New York’s Worst, and overcrowding.

    • http://twitter.com/Lostinservice Lostinservice

       Translation: “Let them eat cake!”

    • Allan Rosen

      I’m sure the MTA would love to do just that if they could.

    • Flatbush Depot

      Your first sentence was very ignorant and I will ignore that display of ignorance.

      Although I do agree with your second sentence.

      SBS is a good start to improving bus service, but two problems with it are the broken ticket machines and the slow traffic speeds on various streets, which SBS (in its current form) cannot do much about.

      Now, my takes on the effectiveness of each SBS line: The M34 SBS is a straight-up disaster. The Bx12 SBS is so-so. I find it rather sucky because of the traffic it deals with by 207 St bridge and by Fordham Plaza. Also because it makes too many stops. But little can be done about this because all those stops it makes are important for the bus/subway/RR transfers, and are probably needed due to the fact that there is little redundancy in service over there. The M15 SBS is better, but the only place where it is really effective is on 1st Ave between 2nd St and 125 St. 2nd Ave is crap because of the construction and because a high-volume bridge and high-volume tunnel feed directly into it. Southbound trips are also annoying because of the turn the buses make onto Houston St and the traffic they deal with on that street. Water/Pearl Sts/St. James Pl are also very congested, so I find the line quite ineffective on just about all stretches except 1st Ave from 2nd to 125. That stretch is pretty sweet even when the traffic is at its worst.

      I do not like riding buses that are slower than turtles either. But buses, including local/limited buses (although I do have a hangup with them due to past experiences and the testimonials of others), are still needed because they are more environmentally friendly than cars. Even if this is becoming less true as time goes on and alternative fuels continue to be developed and gasoline modified for the better, there is still the fact that less fuel is needed to power a bus (moving at a decent speed) than to power five cars.

      I have said before that I think lines should be combined and extended so that every bus route has ridership above a certain minimum (“super-routes” I suppose, but hey this is just my opinion), and then perhaps MTA would have an incentive to boost frequencies on these lines so that even if they were rather long, they could still be very frequent, which would hopefully minimize dwell times at each stop.

      Not only that, but perhaps it would create more lines that would be suitable for SBS. I think off-board fare collection at the very least needs to be pushed hard on all lines, but the thing is we cannot have these ticket machines at every stop. So make lines long so that they pick up more people and the service levels can be beefed up, now put SBS (or at least off-board fare collection with stops much further apart) on these lines. Locals versions of the lines should still be kept though.

      See two posts I made elsewhere. I like these ideas very much and I think my proposals could justify headways no worse than 10 (maybe even 8 or 6) minutes off-hours for all the routes involved:

      http://nyctransitforums.com/forums/index.php/topic/34400-an-overhaul-of-brooklyn-bus-routes/#entry525271

      http://nyctransitforums.com/forums/index.php/topic/34400-an-overhaul-of-brooklyn-bus-routes/#entry525309

      I actually really wanted to hear what Allan might have to say about these.

      • Allan Rosen

        I’m not sure which first sentence you are referring to.  Is it who watches over the MTA Real Estate Division?  If you know the answer, please let me know. I know the NYS Comptroller and the MTA IG engage in some oversight if they suspect wrongdoing, but do you feel that is enough? Have you ever heard of an instance when the Chairman questioned anything that Real Estate has done?

        I really don’t know why you went into such a long discourse on SBS, when that really wasn’t the subject of the article.  So I will just say this.  Your observations regarding existing SBS routes seem to make sense.

        I finally had some experience with one.  I went to the Javits Center and intended to take the M34 SBS from 8th Avenue and was not at all impressed.  There was a Bolt Bus in the stop with the M34 behind, but I couldn’t get in because I didn’t have a receipt yet. The machines were located about 40 feet in front of where the bus stopped and it wasn’t obvious where they were without looking around for them. It took about 30 seconds to find the machine and to get the receipt and the bus had already left by then so I walked to 10th Avenue and boarded there when the next bus came. In the 3 blocks between 8th and 11th Avenues, there were three trucks parked in the bus lane and the Bolt Bus, rendering the lane useless. Also, the lane markings were very worn out only after a few months of operation. 

        When I got on the bus, the driver was explaining to passengers how the system worked. Also, it was an extra bus without any SBS markings other than on the digital display. It was very easy to mistake this bus for a regular bus and very unfair for anyone to get a $100 summons because of it. 

        Coming back I took the 42 Street bus and at 5:05 PM, it only took 13 minutes to get to 6th Avenue because I didn’t have to wait for a bus.  Is the M34 any faster?

        Frequencies are determined based on passengers per mile and how frequent the turnover is, not on how long a route is, so I don’t agree with your hypothesis that routes should all be long.  Very long routes are more difficult to manage.

        Regarding your ideas, I haven’t had a chance to look at them yet.  I’ll try to get to it tomorrow and will respond on the transiforum site when I do.

        • Flatbush Depot

          “I’m not sure which first sentence you are referring to.  Is it who watches over the MTA Real Estate Division?  If you know the answer, please let me know. I know the NYS Comptroller and the MTA IG engage in some oversight if they suspect wrongdoing, but do you feel that is enough? Have you ever heard of an instance when the Chairman questioned anything that Real Estate has done?”

          No no no I was not referring to what you said; I was referring to what TitaniumDX said. I did quote him.

        • Flatbush Depot

          I mean I clicked the reply button specifically for his post and mine said “in reply to TitaniumDX” next to my username. There was a reason for that. I was not calling you or your writings ignorant at all, Allan.

        • Flatbush Depot

          Also I went into a long discourse about SBS because I was trying to explain exactly what the deal is with SBS in my response to what TitaniumDX said about how people do not want to ride slow buses. I referred to SBS so that I could explain one of the ways in which buses are improving/speeding up.

          Currently the only SBS route that is creating any real results is the M15, and from my experience the only stretch on which it is effective at all times is 1st Ave from 2nd St to 125 St. The other stretches essentially suck except during off-hours (maybe just weekends, early mornings, and late nights, not even middays).

          • Allan Rosen

            It was my mistake. Your response was in the right place. I should have realized you were replying to Titanium. Regarding his comments, I don’t think he meant them seriously which is why I didn’t bother responding. People often comment here without really thinking about what they are saying and sometimes don’t believe it themselves.

            As I often stated, even if SBS were successful without any problems, it still would not be a solution since do few routes would qualify. I hold out more hope for Bus Time than I do for SBS.

    • TITANIUMDX

      Here is an example of New York’s Worst in the bus system.

  • http://twitter.com/SarcasmAndBeer BorderLine Guy

    Did MTA ever get their million$ that Titan screwed them out of?

    • Allan Rosen

      I’m not aware of Titan. What was that about?

  • LLQBTT

    Yeah. I just don’t get the MTA’s inflexibility and resistance to so many things.  Your exit sign is a good idea.  I think that also big route maps on station walls are another (instead of those you’re lucky if you find ‘em route maps they’re trrying out on station columns) And I also agree about advertising.  I guess that they are not yet desperate enough yet, but plaster station walls top to bottom with ads, same with buses as you mentioned.  Any surface is an adverstising opportunity, floors and ceilings too.  And an added benefit is that all these surfaces will stay a lot cleaner! Look at what they’ve done with the Grand Central shuttle for years now.  So why is this limited to only 10 cars in the fleet?

    I’m not so sure that BusTime is a nefarious plan to curtail service.  My guess is that it’s the best thing since sliced bread to come to SI buses which are pretty infrequent already.  I’d rather wait somewhere other than a bus stop for 20 or 30 minutes for the next bus.

    But is also has application on busy routes too.  The B68 for example, a notorious buncher or the B3.  OK, so they run every few minutes, at least in theory and at least during peak periods, but what good does that do if there are 4 B3′s stacked up at Kings Plaza, and I just missed the bus at CIA and now have to wait for 1 of the B3′s to slowly work it’s way down the route.  I’d either go grab a cup o joe nearby or if I’m not going too far, just walk.

    But at off hours, later at night, or early on a Sunday morning when service is infrequent, it can also help (particularly at night on the safety front)

     

    • Allan Rosen

      I can easily see how the MTA would say that according to their graphic standards, all arrows have to be to the left of the text so the sign would require three lines and be unfeasible. But they violate those standards whenever they feel like. They installed new Wall Street and Fulton Street signs in Times New Roman, not in Helvetica. I thought they were switching to a new typeface. If so, why did they do back to Helvetica for the Brighton Line renovation?

      Regarding Bus Time I wasn’t reflecting my opinion there but what some others that were expressed to me.

  • Lenny

    Allan, I always look foward to your column and, with your 25 years of inside experience, I always respect your opinions. However, your comment “the abandoned desks and file cabinets at 370 Jay Street, the union shows on their website, MTAMoneyThrownAway.com, are just representative of little bits of waste common at the MTA”. is really just too much. Do you really consider the wholesale trashing of a 540,000 sq. ft. office building “little bits of waste”? The way that TA management left that building is a disgrace. It is also indicative of the total disregard that TA management has for the taxpayer money that they are entrusted with. As you know, 370 Jay Street was renovated in the mid 1990′s at considerable cost. The fact that they trashed and abandoned this building, that they lease from the city for a DOLLAR a year, only to move to a downtown Manhattan office building at a total cost to the taxpayer of $4 billion dollars, is not just negligent, it is criminal.

    • Allan Rosen

      The union showed several instances of several areas being trashed. From those pictures it is impossible to tell if it is just those six areas or so or if it was indicative of every area on all 13 floors. I gave the MTA the benefit of the doubt since I have not been there myself to see the condition on all the floors.

      Yes it is waste, but it’s not major waste when you consider that they feel $16 million to lose from the lack of credit card security to be trivial.

      If you believe there needs to be an investigation of how tey left the building, report it to one of the comptrollers and the MTA IG.

      • Ignatzzz

        Allan, The issue is not that the MTA managers left 370 Jay Street in disarray, (those pictures were taken on many different floors, by the way.) although that is pretty bad in and of itself. The issue is that they have abandoned a perfectly good building that costs the MTA peanuts ($1 a year) in favor of a rental property that costs them $63 million a year. 2 Broadway is an un-necessary expenditure to the tune of $4 billion dollars (including renovation costs) over the cost of the lease. Even if they moved out of the building now, it would save the taxpayers $2.3 billion dollars, not exactly “little bits of waste”.                                                      Your story about the Howard building was a real eye-opener for me. I too, used to see the managers shuttling up and down Jay Street in the cold and think about how wasteful it was. I never realized to what extent though. Your story pointed out how a, better suited, less expensive, building was available, right next door to 370 Jay Street and yet they chose to renovate an unsuitable building that was more expensive and 8 blocks away. Why? Because the good of the service and the responsibility to the ridership and the taxpayers often take a back seat to private interests in the MTA. Nowhere is this more apparent than in their real estate plan.

        • Allan Rosen

          Lenny, I fully agree with you. While 370 Jay has some structural problems such as needing new windows for the past 30 years, they are not insurmountable and certainly wouldn’t cost $63 million a year for 49 years to fix. And of course, virtually every floor was rehabbed in the nineties, so the interior is in great shape, much better shape than MTA headquarters which is decrpid where the public doesn’t see.

          The 2 Broadway plan was sold to the MTA Board as a means of increasing efficiency.  They were supposed to be trading 53 leased properties for one property they would buy outright.  After approval, that purchase was somehow turned into a 99 or 49 year lease with the MTA paying for all the renovations on top of that.  That change was explained nowhere, and I wonder how it could even be made legally after the Board approved another plan.

          Then 9-11 changes the plan to get rid of the leased properties and they instead by the Madison Avenue properties that they were to abandon.

          Then there were all the cost overruns, corruption and mafia involvement with 2 Broadway and no one is held accountable except for one person. And when the corruption is made public, those making the accusations are fired for supposedly unrelated reasons.  It makes you wonder how high up the corruption really went.

  • Lenny

    Thanks for deleting my comment Allan, nice job of censorship…so much for impartiality. To be honest I expected more from you.

    • http://www.nedberke.com Ned Berke

      Allan does not have the ability to delete comments. Only I do. And I have not deleted any comments from this thread. I still see yours. 

  • Bigfish

    Bring back the B4 bus full time and on weekends too!!!!!!

  • FranM

    This series was a real eye opener!!!Keep up the great work!!1

    • Allan Rosen

      Thanks. It’s good to know when you are appreciated.