It was revealed last week that Metro-North gave a higher priority to on-time performance than to safety, possibly contributing to last December’s fatal accident in the Bronx. Like the Department of Transportation (DOT), the MTA has long insisted that safety always comes first.
Service Planning Guidelines
Service Planning guidelines criteria were set in the 1980s after some elected officials believed the MTA favored some neighborhoods over others in deciding service levels. So, in order to ensure that service was equitably provided across the city, and trains and buses do not get overly crowded in certain neighborhoods, crowding standards were developed. These standards also assured minimum service levels on lightly-patronized bus routes where bus routes were never crowded.
If I remember correctly, passengers were assured a minimum amount of square footage for standing room during rush hours on the subways at the peak load point. During non-rush hours, at the peak load point, if there were standees for 15 consecutive minutes, additional service had to be provided. Conversely, if for 15 consecutive minutes at the peak load point a fully-seated load could not be maintained, the MTA had the right to reduce service as long as minimum service levels were provided.
Minimum subway headways during rush hours on any route were to be every 10 minutes during rush hours and every 20 minutes at all other times. The same was true for buses, except during overnight hours the minimum service levels were every 30 minutes for routes that maintained 24 hour a day service. Also, the goal, except in very sparsely populated areas of the city, was for passengers to walk no more than a quarter mile to the nearest bus line, although obviously this wasn’t practical in every situation. It was just a guideline.
Sometime during the 1990s, the MTA decided that it could no longer maintain 30-minute headways during overnight hours on bus routes, so the guideline was changed from every 30 minutes to every 60 minutes and service was reduced on most routes, except on very short ones, to every hour.
More recently, when the MTA decided it no longer wanted to provide minimum 20-minute midday bus service, the guideline was changed to every 30 minutes, and service was reduced on some routes. Now, new routes that are initiated operate at a 30-minute headway at all times. When was the rush hour guideline changed from every 15 minutes to every 30 minutes?
When the MTA wanted to cut subway service in 2010 due to a budget crisis, it merely changed the non-rush hour seating guidelines from 100 percent to 125 percent of a seated load, meaning more standees during non-rush hours, at the same time when they say they are encouraging mass transit and subway ridership is at a 60-year high.
The MTA also changed how it applies its bus route spacing guideline by changing how it interprets the guideline of no more than a quarter-mile walking distance to the nearest bus route. Traditionally it meant that in most cases there will be a north-south and east-west bus route stop within a quarter-mile walk of your home or destination. Now it merely means you should be within a quarter-mile of any bus route except in sparsely populated areas. Notice I said bus route, not bus stop. So if you are now within a quarter-mile of a bus route, you still may have to walk an additional several blocks to get to the bus stop and the bus may be going north-south when you need to go east-west. The route you need may be a half-mile or more away, but now the MTA still considers you within the walking distance guideline.
Consider the elimination of the B71 on Union Street when huge service cutbacks were made in 2010. There is now a one-mile gap in east-west bus service between Bergen Street and Ninth Street in the high density, transit-dependent area of Park Slope. However, since there are numerous north-south bus routes in the area, the MTA still considers everyone to be within the walking guidelines of a quarter-mile to the nearest local bus route. The truth is that you are now required to walk up to a half mile to the nearest east-west bus route.
Increasing bus stop spacing on some routes to every three blocks instead of every two blocks also increased walking distances for some to over the one quarter-mile guideline. Yet the spacing between bus routes was not decreased.
The walking guidelines are only used to justify why additional routes are not necessary rather than as a guide to provide additional bus routes where guidelines are not being met. If you request additional service citing that the walking distance guideline is not being met, you will most likely receive a response that the budget situation does not permit the guideline to be met. Although the overnight service guideline is now 60 minutes, in a few cases the MTA now operates buses every 70 minutes, totally disregarding the guideline figuring 70 is close enough to 60, when 60 used to be considered the maximum permissible.
When you say safety is number one, it should be number one. You should not emphasize on-time performance before safety. Do buses sometimes speed to stay on schedule? Was the fatal bus accident in Manhattan Beach a few years ago the result of speeding? And why wasn’t the official NTSB report ever made public?
When you create guidelines to ensure you are treating all areas equitably and to ensure minimal levels of comfort, maximum walking distances and waiting times, you shouldn’t change them whenever you feel like it. Service guidelines were adopted precisely to ensure minimum service and comfort levels. The standards were supposed to protect the transit user.
To cite the walking guidelines only to eliminate bus routes, never to add new routes is unfair. Changing subway comfort levels due to a budget crisis is precisely what the standards were designed to protect us against. You do not eliminate bus routes by redefining how you interpret the walking distance guidelines.
You don’t create new bus routes at 30-minute headways during rush hours when the guidelines called for minimum 15- or 20-minute rush hour headways that you decided to change or just ignore.
When a number is selected as a maximum overnight headway, you don’t exceed it in order to save a bus and then consider that you are still meeting the guideline. Doing all this is being hypocritical.
Changing guidelines should require the approval of the state legislature and should not be made at the MTA’s whim because that violates the spirit of why they were created in the first place.
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.