THE COMMUTE: By now you have heard that subway ridership in New York City has reached a 65-year high. Why has nothing has been said about local bus ridership? It is because as subway ridership keeps rising, local bus ridership is on the decline, only stabilizing in recent years.
It is too early to tell if the trend has reversed, or if increasing numbers of riders are choosing the subway but not the bus. Many are willing to walk extra and take indirect subway trips to Downtown Brooklyn to avoid a bus because the train is quicker and more reliable. You are also less likely to encounter a major subway delay than a major bus delay. I believe you have about a 10 percent chance of experiencing a major subway delay of, let’s say, 30 minutes or more. It is more like a 33 percent chance for a major bus delay. You can expect at least a 10-minute bus delay about half the time. Yes, those are my less-than-scientific estimates. Feel free to disagree.
The MTA will acknowledge that subways are quicker and more reliable. They attribute the slowness of buses entirely to traffic and the recent slight increases in bus ridership to Select Bus Service (SBS). They are now pushing SBS at full speed, aiming for seven new routes within the next five years although the jury is still out on the B44 SBS. This link has more of a description of how the new funding will be spent and a link to the source materials is provided at the bottom. The MTA would also have you believe that these SBS routes and a few new local bus routes operating at 30-minute intervals is all the MTA has to do to keep up with future needs.
I have written many times about the need to do periodic comprehensive studies of the local bus system to assure the system is not outdated and meets the needs of current riders. Aside from a single bus study recently undertaken in the Co-Op City area, the MTA has not done any real local bus studies in more than 20 years, other than the few targeted SBS studies. So we continue to have indirect local routes missing major destination points; inconvenient time-consuming transfers; short, underutilized subway feeder routes with limited transfers to very few bus routes like the B2 and B31; and service gaps recently dubbed “transit deserts.“ In 2012, I recommended extensions to the B2 and B31 incorporating them into other bus routes to better serve Marine Park and Gerritsen Beach.
Poor reliability and outdated bus routes are the major reasons why bus ridership is not at an all-time high as subway ridership is. Bus overcrowding is just as responsible as traffic in causing bus delays. The MTA cannot do much about traffic, but they certainly can relieve bus overcrowding. An interesting fact is that along with the 65-year high in subway ridership, delays have also gone up significantly. Overcrowding, whether on buses or trains, is linked to delays and reliability.
The MTA has to pay more attention to its local buses. Diverting the focus to SBS does not solve the local bus routing and reliability problems. We have more than 200 local bus routes and will never have more than 25 SBS routes, so their impact will always be minimal. I have written much in the past about the B1, the B4 and the B49. I promise to investigate complaints regarding the B36 and will also get around to the B44 SBS.
The MTA has been taking steps to get local buses on schedule, but that is not synonymous with helping riders. In recent years, increasing numbers of buses are skipping stops at the beginning and end of routes or are being short-turned. Sometimes this makes sense. Other times it does not, such as when it causes passengers to wait more than 30 minutes for a bus. Some buses that used to serve passengers making partial trips to and from the depot now operate with “Next Bus Please” signs, supposedly to save money, compounding problems for riders at the ends of routes.
Last week, in about 20 minutes, I witnessed 12 passengers who had to wait at least 30 minutes for a B1 and B49 in Sheepshead Bay and Manhattan Beach during the evening rush hour. The actual number was probably closer to 30. Poor weather was not an issue. I filed a formal complaint with the MTA. Here is that letter:
Late afternoon on 3/20, at least 15 passengers were forced to wait at least a half hour for a bus in Manhattan Beach, Sheepshead Bay and Brighton Beach as bus after bus refused to stop and pick up intending passengers despite having enough room. Since when is an RTS bus with under 55 passengers considered full when it is capable of carrying another 40 passengers?
Either your bus drivers are doing whatever they want or your dispatchers are just incompetent or have absolutely no regard for the passengers. Here are the details. B1 Bus #4875 would not stop for me at Beaumont Street at about 4:50 PM despite my attempts to flag it down. Yes, the bus was fairly full, but certainly had room for one more passenger. Then I proceeded to walk to West End Avenue where six other passengers were waiting. At 4:55 another B1 refused to stop that wasn’t completely full either.
Then B49, bus #5138, arrived at 5 PM with only 9 or 10 standees. The entire front of the bus was empty. However, the bus had a “Next Bus Please” sign displayed. Now after two nearly full buses leave Mackenzie Street, why would any dispatcher instruct an operator with only ten standees to put up that sign and not pickup passengers? Is keeping the schedule more important than serving your passengers?
The bus was stopped for the traffic signal for 30 seconds, longer than it would have taken to pick up those passengers. I proceeded to walk over to the driver’s window and ask him why he would open the door. After he ignored me, I began pounding on his window. Then he pointed to the “Next Bus Please” sign above. I tried to tell him that he was the third bus in a row not to stop, and asked him if he was instructed by a dispatcher to use that sign. But he refused to discuss anything with me.
If the driver of that bus put up the sign of his own accord, I want to file an official complaint against him. If he was instructed to do so by the dispatcher, then I want to file a complaint against the dispatcher for giving improper instructions.
Now here is the rest of the story. At 5:10, another B49 bus #4595, with at least ten more standees than the previous bus pulls in and picks up the seven passengers including me. He makes a meager attempt to ask passengers to move to the rear. No one complies. Does he not have a PA system he could use? No one in the center of the bus could even hear him.
Next we arrive at West End and Shore Blvd and there are another six passengers waiting. The driver does not open his door to the bewilderment of waiting passengers. The same thing happens at Sheepshead Bay Road and Emmons Avenue where another six passengers are waiting to board. Remember, that the bus ahead with his “Next Bus Please” sign had plenty of room for all 19 passengers which the following bus did not. Now with scheduled 10 minute headways and two buses in a row not stopping during the PM rush hour, that is an unacceptable 30 minute wait on the B49.
Since two B1s were also seen not stopping at that time, you can be assured that the same thing was also occurring in Brighton Beach before the Brighton subway with passengers having to also wait 30 minutes for the B1.
Now on my return trip home shortly after 9 PM, B1 Bus #5103 going toward Mackenzie Street runs the red light at Brighton 13 Street one second after it turned red. Are you really emphasizing schedule adherence over safety and serving the passengers? The actions I have seen yesterday leads me to believe that is the case.
I will keep you informed when and if I receive a reply.
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.