How Should The MTA Plan Changes To Its Bus Routes?

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A vintage Brooklyn bus map. Source: Enframe Photography

THE COMMUTE: There are two schools of thought on this. One is that changes should be made incrementally as the need arises. That is known as ad-hoc planning. The other is that changes should be made using a comprehensive approach by periodically studying all the routes for deficiencies, for example, once every 10 years, by performing origin-destination surveys and using other data.

I strongly believe in the second approach. The MTA believes the first approach is correct and the only bus data they use for planning are passenger counts and fare and transfer information from MetroCards. They only know how crowded existing routes are and what percentage of passengers require at least one transfer. No information is provided regarding walking distances, number of fares paid, or how long trips take. That data is only provided by origin/destination surveys, which are no longer performed. Also, there are no latent demand studies to assess demand for services that do not exist.

The problem with studying routes, individually or two at a time, as the MTA does, is that many routing problems remain unresolved and connections become cumbersome when only route extensions are made without routing revisions. The system has to be viewed as a whole, and routes studied in groups of about a half dozen at a time. Route need to be taken apart, piece by piece, and then reconfigured, much like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, in order for routing problems to be resolved. The comprehensive approach recognizes that the bus system is greater than just the sum of its parts.

By failing to understand that, every added extension makes the system overly complex and more difficult to use. That discourages occasional use of the system as well as necessitating indirect travel and inconvenient connections. When areas are developed without new routes to serve them serious service gaps become an issue or as Transportation Alternatives calls it “transit deserts.”

The Comprehensive Approach

In just over six months we will mark the 35th anniversary of the Southwest Brooklyn bus routes changes, the largest number of service improvements made on a single day, in which about 10 routes underwent major changes. A typical MTA change involves changes to only one or two routes.

The Southwest Brooklyn changes began as a comprehensive study of all local bus routes in Brooklyn by the Department of City Planning. Funding issues prevented study of the entire borough so it was scaled down to just the 86th Street corridor and a study of bus routes in East New York. The 86th Street portion was then increased in scope to encompass all of Southwest Brooklyn at the request of the MTA.

Although the changes that were made were massive, only approximately 25 percent of the study’s recommendations were accepted at the time. A few more were made at later dates, such as extending a Staten Island bus route from 96th Street to 86th Street, and creating an 86th Street route from Fourth Avenue to Manhattan Beach. (The Southwest Brooklyn study proposed the 86th Street route begin at Shore Road.)

Separate routes for Fort Hamilton Parkway (to serve Maimonides Hospital) and 13th Avenue and other recommendations were rejected due to cost factors. Then, as now, the MTA only considers additional operating costs without factoring in increased revenues, which would offset some of those costs.

Why Ad Hoc Planning?

After the completion of the Southwest Brooklyn Bus Study, the MTA completed its own borough-wide comprehensive studies in the early 1980s. They failed. In the early 1990s, the MTA embarked on several smaller comprehensive studies, which also failed. They then concluded that this approach just does not work and for the next 20 years proceeded to make only ad hoc changes, ignoring longstanding routing problems. The comprehensive approach was not at fault, but rather the MTA’s approach in dealing with communities was, in that the MTA refused all suggested changes to its plans. As a result, no changes were made.

In 2010, the focus shifted to service cuts. Now, with the budget situation improving, the ad hoc approach has made a comeback, with the MTA planning to implement five new routes or major extensions citywide in 2013. Are these enough? The answer is a resounding “No.”

What Is Needed?

The bus system still needs a comprehensive study, not only of local bus routes, but other changes as well. In 1980, the Transit Authority experimented briefly with Zone Express service in southern Queens. A zone express is like the way elevators work in skyscrapers, where most travel is destined for, or originates at, a single location — for elevators, that would be the main floor — or a railroad or subway station for buses. Some service operates local to the major destination while a zone express picks up and discharges in a single zone, then operates express to the destination. In the evening, the process is reversed, picking up at the origin and operating either local or express to the destination zone.

Zone express would be beneficial on some routes. Some routes are more suited to limited service or Select Bus Service. For other routes, local service is adequate. Sometimes, exclusive bus lanes are needed for only a few blocks or fare prepayment is needed at a few locations. Major commercial, employment or residential centers could benefit from express bus connections between them. However, the MTA has limited its options for changes to new local services at 30-minute intervals or Select Bus Service, its one size its fits all solution.

Public Hearing For Proposed B32 & B67 Extension In Downtown Brooklyn & Williamsburg, 4/29/13

The MTA held a public hearing to hear the public’s comments regarding these proposed changes. All information regarding these proposed changes have since been removed from the MTA website. Maps and route descriptions are still available on Subchat.

I attended and submitted the following testimony:

The MTA is being penny-wise and pound foolish with these proposed routes. How do you propose a new service like the B32 so that it only connects with one route, the Q67, while missing two other routes, the Q69 and the Q39 one block away? The B32 also falls short of connecting with five other routes by not terminating at Queens Plaza.

Similarly, the proposed B67 terminus falls short of Williamsburg Plaza missing connections there. If one didn’t know better, it seems that the MTA is setting these routes up to fail by missing vital connections and operating them only at 30-minute intervals to prove that the existing route structure works just fine.

Scheduling buses every 30 minutes is a huge deterrent to attracting new riders when other options are available, especially since 30-minute headways doesn’t even guarantee that a bus will arrive every thirty minutes. The actual wait will most likely be greater. Especially with the $40 million in additional funding that the MTA did not predict, these routes need to operate at 15 to 20 minute intervals for them to have a chance at being successful.

You will not accurately be able to determine demand at 30-minute intervals. At 30-minute headways, they will never be able to attract more than a half dozen riders per bus. The B4 in Sheepshead Bay carried 6 to 12 riders per bus at 20-minute intervals and you discontinued service in 2010 claiming there were not enough riders. So how many riders to you expect these new routes to attract?

If the 1978 Southwest Brooklyn changes, which I was responsible for, were implemented at 30-minute headways, they never would have been successful. Instead, we increased 15-minute service on Brighton Beach Avenue to every 10 minutes. Today with the extra school service, headways are as frequent as every 3 minutes. You don’t build patronage by being cheap with the service.

Did you even consider ridership in your budget projections with these new routes? If you did you would realize that a route operating every 15 minutes will attract twice as many passengers as one operating every 30 minutes or did you only consider operating expenses as you usually do?

Finally, the B67 should not be the route extended to Williamsburg. You should extend the B69 instead because it provides a more direct travel path from Park Slope. Why would anyone from Park Slope wanting to go to Williamsburg first want to make a time consuming detour to Downtown Brooklyn? The route makes no sense. If the MTA wants to better serve Vinegar Hill, they could reroute the B57.

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).

Disclaimer: The above is an opinion column and may not represent the thoughts or position of Sheepshead Bites. Based upon their expertise in their respective fields, our columnists are responsible for fact-checking their own work, and their submissions are edited only for length, grammar and clarity. If you would like to submit an opinion piece or become a regularly featured contributor, please e-mail nberke [at]sheepsheadbites [dot]com.

  • Guest

    In general , ad-hoc is a recipe for an eventual inefficient, spaghetti-like structure, and one that ends up costing more. I guess that’s what the bus system is. Good article!

    • Allan Rosen

      Thanks. Exactly my point!

  • fdtutf

    I agree that comprehensive planning is clearly preferable. I would also assume that it costs more, and I wonder whether it’s just something that the chronically underfunded MTA can’t afford.

    As for this, from your testimony:

    “Did you even consider ridership in your budget projections with these new routes? If you did you would realize that a route operating every 15 minutes will attract twice as many passengers as one operating every 30 minutes or did you only consider operating expenses as you usually do?”

    Certainly a route operating more frequently is likely to attract more custom than one that operates less frequently, but I don’t think the relationship is as simple and linear as you seem to assume.

    • Allan Rosen

      The problem is that although more service equals more customers, it also means more operating expenses so depending on the specific circumstances, it may not make economic sense to provide more service.

      But if you only consider one side of the equation, costs without considering revenue, and you predetermine that you will only provide 30 minute headways regardless of potential demand,you can’t make an intelligent decision. That was my point.

      • fdtutf

        That raises the question: How many of the MTA’s bus routes recover their costs, even their direct costs? Probably not very many; it’s generally quite difficult to make money in passenger transportation today. So generally speaking, increases in service are money-losing propositions.

        I happen not to think that cost recovery is only one of many criteria on which public transport services should be evaluated, but then I also think the MTA and other big-city transit agencies should be adequately funded. Sadly, there don’t seem to be many people who agree with me.

        Are we certain that the MTA is consistently unwilling to provide better than 30-minute headways on new routes, regardless of demand? I don’t know.

        • Allan Rosen

          All the new routes they have talked about starting or extending this year are scheduled to operate every 30 minutes. I bet they will do the same for the proposed routes to La Guardia.

  • sonicboy678

    It’s no surprise that the 30-minute gap between buses is a setup for failure. Even I’ve been saying that. That’s one of the reasons for routes getting the ax in 2010 (Q79, which probably had 15-minute gaps during the morning rush at best, among others). I use the Q79 as an example because despite its fairly isolated location, the MTA didn’t really think service out there was important. The bus had horrible frequencies (most buses were actually scheduled 30 minutes apart) and didn’t even operate on Sundays. It would only be natural for the MTA to render it useless with these botched studies. The Q89 could probably serve as an even better example: waiting an entire hour for a bus that only starts after the morning rush and continuing until early evening rush. Not operating on weekends at all, that was even more likely to fail. It doesn’t help that it was the only local bus on the stretch of Linden Boulevard between 135th Street and Merrick Boulevard (the QM21 and X63 are express buses). I don’t see how trying to maintain that service pattern was logical. The MTA’s flawed logic will result in the downfall of these partial restorations and additional services.

    • http://www.facebook.com/aemoreira81 aemoreira81

      The Q89 was what one calls a “franchise-holder route”. At one time, it did have a good purpose, but that ended in 1977 when the J train got cut back to Queens Boulevard and the el was torn down east of Sutphin Boulevard (tail tracks existed to there because there was and still is a substation at 144 Street). 168 Street was close to the 165 Street Terminal.

      What happened there is that improvements for the Q9A/89 were never able to be implemented beore the MTA took over. The Q79 and Q89 were the only bus routes in all of NYC to connect with no subway lines.

      • sonicboy678

        Besides all Staten Island routes bar the S53, S79, and S93. Even then, whatever potential for improvement existed was overlooked and shoved down the drain in 2010. With the Q89, which was in a prime position when compared with the Q79, I would at least have tried to ensure adequate service along Linden Boulevard. One bus per hour during a period of lighter usage will not help people trying to get to/from Jamaica. If absolutely necessary, they could possibly have extended the Q89 so it could serve the area around 179th Street, much like how certain alternate Q110 buses serve that part of Jamaica.

        • http://www.facebook.com/aemoreira81 aemoreira81

          That could be accomplished at least west of the Van Wyck by redoing some of the JFK routes as follows:

          Switch the Q9 and the Q41—the Q9 would use its current route to Linden Boulevard, but then run down Linden Boulevard and Rockaway Boulevard and follow the current Q41 route into Howard Beach. This would also even out the route network in Ozone Park and give the Q112 and Q41 distinct footprints.
          2. The current Q41 would, south of 109 Avenue, use 130 Street instead and share a terminus with the Q37.

          Service along Lincoln Street would be discontinued, but customers could walk a few blocks over to the Q41 on 130 Street. On the east side of the Van Wyck, while there wouldn’t be service on Linden Boulevard, you have north-south routes running to Jamaica at 142 Street and Sutphin and Brewer Boulevards.

  • http://www.facebook.com/aemoreira81 aemoreira81

    The B67 is being extended to connect DUMBO with Downtown. However, what I would actually do is the following:

    1. Extend the B67 into DUMBO, but have it terminate there.

    2. Route the B24 through the Brooklyn Army Terminal and extend it to Downtown Brooklyn where the B62 terminates. On the northern end, have the B24 terminate at 46 Street/Bliss Street, and discontinue B24 service on Greenpoint Avenue

    3. Redo the B32 route—it would serve western Williamsburg up until Greenpoint Avenue and West Street, but then it would run on Greenpoint Avenue just over the bridge, then have it serve the industry via Review Avenue (northbound) and Starr Avenue (southbound) to Borden Avenue, then take 21 Street and Jackson Avenue to Queens Plaza. The savings for this would come from B24 service being discontinued to Greenpoint. Evenings and weekends, the B24 would terminate at Williamsburg Bridge Plaza.

    To be fair now, the real issue may be where to assign the B24 route, as it would be a long deadhead regardless of which garage gets it on weekdays (evening and weekend service could be out of Grand Avenue, but would Gleason or Grand Avenue be better for the weekday service)?

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