Fun times...not. Source: Wilderbee / Flickr

Fun times…not. Source: Wilderbee / Flickr

THE COMMUTE: Last week in Part 1, we discussed city hypocrisy regarding transportation issues. The MTA isn’t innocent in this regard either.

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.

What Happened

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.

Conclusion

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.

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  • fdtutf

    “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 or east-west bus route stop within a quarter-mile walk of your home or destination.”

    So this can be EITHER an east-west OR a north-south bus route.

    “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.”

    But now suddenly everybody’s supposed to have BOTH an east-west AND a north-south bus route within reach?

    I understand the distinction between being near a route and being near a stop, but the way you initially state the (original) guideline implies that the bus route that’s near you can be EITHER east-west or north-south, and then, in the Park Slope case, you’re complaining because the only nearby bus routes are north-south. That seems contradictory.

    “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.”

    That, in my mind, is unforgivable, because 70 minutes is not a clockface headway.

    • Allan Rosen

      When the guidelines were established, no distinction was made was made between east west routes and north south routes or the density of neighborhoods. It was just understood that if there was a grid system in the area, there should be an east west as well as a north south route within walking distance. When Staten Islanders compained that routes in many areas failed to meet the walking distance guidelines, the MTA claimed that due to some areas being sparsely populated, the guidelines couldn’t apply to all areas. That did make some sense. When bus stop spacing was increased placing some outside the walking distance guideline, the MTA then reinterpreted the guideline to state you only had to be within walking distance of the bus route, not the bus stop.

      In 2010, when the MTA wanted to eliminate entire routes, suddenly if you had access to a subway or if there was a north-south or east-west route in the area, you were considered to meet the access guidelines. If you don’t consider the guidelines separately for east-west and north-south routes, the MTA could eliminate all crosstown bus routes in Manhattan and still be within its guidelines which of course is ridiculous. So no one ever asked the MTA to specify that the guidelines be met separately. It was just understood that is hat they meant.

      • Allan Rosen

        I should have said “and” not “or”. I will try to get it corrected.

      • fdtutf

        Thanks for the clarification. That makes more sense.

  • gustaajedrez

    Also, the Bx9 operates at 80 minute headways, and the Bx10 operates at 65 minute headways overnight on weekdays. It makes some sense for the sake of minimizing resources spent (reducing the headway would require the route to be truncated, or the requirement of an additional bus).

    • Allan Rosen

      I have always believed that as in other cities, we should have a separate nightime network rather than just maintaining 24 hour service on a select number of routes. That way we could have more frequent service on the routes we decided to maintain around the clock. For example, between 10 PM and 6 AM, there is no need for the B46 to service Kings Plaza. It could be combined during those hours with the B2 to Kings Highway enabling 24 hour service on that route without any added costs. I’m sure you could do similar things with other routes if you study how passengers use the system at night.

      It shouldn’t only be about minimizing costs, but better serving passengers within your budget.

      • sonicboy678

        Do you think it would also be practical to merge the Kings Plaza B41 with the Q35 for night service (should the subdivision practice be abandoned)?

        • Allan Rosen

          Yes, if within existing resources, you could run service every 30′or 40 minutes instead of every 60. No, if the goal is to cut service and run fewer buses.

          • sonicboy678

            I’m more than certain that existing resources can be used for 30 minute headways.

            Actually, while I was with my friend today, I realized that the B41 is one of those routes where the MTA could use an easy loophole to justify the current night headways. Each B41 branch runs hourly at night. The MTA probably only gets away with it because everything north of Avenue P is served at a supposedly approximate 30 minute headway (in actuality, this could be grossly off the mark).

            Unlike the B41, however, the B44 does not have this “privilege”. An hourly headway at night for a route with no proper alternative for most of its run is nothing short of poor planning.

          • Allan Rosen

            I would assume at that hour, the branches operate in sync at 30 minute headways. However, since the trains run at 20 minute headways, that’s not so great. See my response below to gustaajedrez.

          • gustaajedrez

            Well, it depends on the route. If you’re talking about some lower-ridership routes that exist purely for coverage purposes (referring to overnight service), then 60 minute headways are fine. If you’re talking about a major corridor like Nostrand, or even better, Utica, then headways should definitely be better than hourly.

          • Allan Rosen

            When I said it wasn’t great, I actually was referring to something else. If trains run every 20 minutes and buses every 30, it is not possible to coordinate buses and trains more often than once an hour. If they are at either every 20 or every 40, you can coordinate every bus with a train.

          • gustaajedrez

            Right now, the Q35 runs every 30 minutes (25 minute runtime, 5 minute layover, 2 buses). So south of Nostrand has 30 minute headways, except the problem is that the Q35 runs limited. And of course, north of Nostrand (or rather, Avenue N/P) has service every 30 minutes, with hourly service from both branches.

          • Allan Rosen

            They probably haven’t cut the Q35 to hourly headways because the City subsidzes all MTA Bus Co. routes. If one company operated all routes (or if the subsidy issue could be worked out), what I would do would be first to discontinue the Kings Plaza B41 branch and operate the Bergen Beach branch at 40 minute intervals instead of hourly. I would alternate that with local Q35 service also every 40 minutes and schedule both lines to meet every arriving #2 train at Flatbush Avenue all night long and install lights so the bus operator knows if a train arrived already or is due to arrive shortly. I would use three buses on the B41 and three on the Q35 and extend the Q35 as far north as those three buses would take me which would probably be Grand Army Plaza.

            So north of GAP, headways would be cut from 30 to 40 minutes for those who can use either branch, and Rockaway riders would also see an increase from 30 to 40 minutes. In exchange, Bergen Beach riders would see headways cut from 60 minutes to 40 minutes, all riders between GAP and Avenue N would see increased service from 30 minutes to 20 minutes, and all homecoming subway passengers for destinations north of Avenue N would not have to wait for a bus instead of now having to wait up to one hour if you just missed a B41 branch or 30 minutes if you just missed a Q35. I think this is a fair trade-off and would help most riders. This would be a zero cost proposal. Limited service makes zero sense overnight. But can’t Q35 riders use “request a stop” at night?

          • gustaajedrez

            Actually, according to the MTA, it doesn’t apply to limited-stop routes, but then again, the Q35 isn’t an official limited, so I’m not sure (either way, it wouldn’t apply inbound, though): http://web.mta.info/accessibility/transit.htm#buses

            I like the idea of timing the buses to meet the trains at Nostrand.

          • Allan Rosen

            I really doubt it if there are even ten passengers riding into the city between midnight and 5 AM. My guess is zero to five. There are definitely more passengers going home to Rockaway at that time.

  • subwaystinker

    The suggestion that the State legislature should be in charge of changing service guidelines is scary and laughable at the same time. The author has been around a while and he should know better. Why isn’t Rosen more worried about King Cuomo’s planned raid on the $40 million transit lockbox? That will cause more hurt on riders than whether a bus runs north south or east west. Priorities, dude.

    • Allan Rosen

      I am concerned about Cuomo’s continual raiding of transit money. I have written about it several times in the past. I was even considering another article on it. But I prefer to stay away from finance matters when I can. Second Avenue Sagas does a great job of covering financial matters. I prefer to add my own perspective on planning issues.

      I also think you are minimizing the importance of making sound planning decisions. It is certainly important which direction a bus operates.

      Yes, the MTA takes its cue from the governor and they need to have some leeway in making scheduling decisions without the need for continual community approval. But at the same time, they must not abuse their power either. I believe what they have done by reinterpreting and changing guidelines which were put in place to protect passengers is wrong. Operating new routes at 30 minute headways during rush hours is wrong because those routes will never be effective. They are just a smokescreen to give the impression that needs are being met. They are in direct violation of the guidelines as created in the 1980s. Allowing the MTA to have no oversight in changing the guidelines, gives them too much power. I bet the legislators wouldn’t want the responsibility either when they can blame the MTA for making service cut decisions, rather than having riders point to them for giving the MTA permission for changing them. With increasing subway ridership, and increasing delays, the old crowding standards need to be restored. The MTA will not do that on their own. There needs to be more oversight.

      • LLQBTT

        How does it make sense to anyone to start a new route in a densely populated neighborhood, the B32, run it at 1/2 hour headways and expect people to take the bus to J M Z or 7 thus decreasing the strain on the L at Bedford? It seems sometimes that the MTA just has no clue. And we’ve been stuck with them now for 50 years!

        • Allan Rosen

          Unless it was set up to fail as a smokescreen just to give the impression they are improving the system. The same was true with the B51. The communities were asking for that route three years. They wanted it to operate from Grand Army Plaza over the Manhattan Bridge to Lower Manhattan as an alternative to the crowded subways. It would have been very successful. So the MTA finally agrees to run it from Downtown Brooklyn where few used it. It ultimately failed and it MTA could say we tried it and it didn’t work.

    • gustaajedrez

      If you have to go around in circles because you have a bus that goes north-south, but not east-west, that’s still feeling a lot of “hurt” in my book. (And if that $40 million isn’t used properly, it won’t do much to alleviate the “hurt” that a lot of us feel)

      • Allan Rosen

        That’s why I am less concerned with funding, than I am with common sense solutions to problems. People assume, just give them the money and all will be well. As you say, too many times the money is misspent because the focus is not on making it easier for the rider, but how the MTA can spend less money.

  • subwaystinker

    The media has been amply covering the continuing growth in both subway and bus ridership in NYC. Yet, most pundits who write for or on this page complain (quite rightly) about service problems. This is the paradox; proving that lack of quality, frequency or service does not reduce demand. The MTA knows that if the economy is growing and people need to get to jobs, transit ridership will go up no matter how bad or good the ride. Conversly, if the economy is in the tank and fewer people are commuting, MTA could give us carpeted subway cars but fewer people would be riding. The MTA and the Governor know they have us in a corner. The best way to rectify this is thru the ballot box later this year, denying the Gov the landslide he aspires to unless he fully funds mass transit.

    • Allan Rosen

      The media coverage is strictly about the rise in subway ridership. Bus ridership is continuing to decline. Bus service continues to be unreliable. Routes become more outdated. A few new routes at 30 minute headways does not address the problem. More and more are making indirect subway trips and walking more just to avoid the buses. The MTA will never admit this. They attribute the decline in bus usage entirely to slow buses (only partially the cause) and use that fact as justification why we need new poorly thought out Select Bus Service which they are only pushing because of the federal money.

      • Subway Stinker

        Bus demand has stabilized and is not declining. You can look It up. I’ll let you have the last word. thanks.

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