THE COMMUTE: Bus Time was first rolled out in the Bronx and Staten Island. Later it was expanded to Manhattan and finally Brooklyn and Queens. It is a system that predicts bus arrival times using a computer, mobile device or by sending a text message via a cell phone. It is also available at a few selected bus stop locations with plans for expansion to additional bus stops. The ability to predict arrival times at bus stops was first promised by the MTA 35 years ago, so you can understand my skepticism why, after three failed attempts and tens of millions of dollars wasted, I thought it would never happen.
Still knowing when a bus will arrive is only half the battle, because if published schedules were accurate, there would not even be a need for BusTime. The biggest problem the bus rider faces isn’t not knowing when the bus will arrive, but the bus arriving on schedule. BusTime was also supposed to help in that regard, along with its companion system Bus Trek, which, as far as I know, is still in the testing phase. We have not heard anything recently about its status.
Bus Time Has Its Limitations
It does not work all the time. Not only does it not tell you how long you will have to wait for a bus, but instead, the number of bus stops or miles away a bus is. The number of stops does not matter if a layover is involved since you are usually not told the length of the layover, which could be anywhere from three to 30 minutes, if it includes the operator’s break. I discovered this a few weeks ago when I had to spend considerable time in bed due to a back problem. I decided to check various routes using Bus Time, continually checking back at the same intersection for a two-hour continuous period.
Here Is What I Noticed
If you see the next bus is three miles away, you can’t assume it is safe to grab a coffee. Consider what happened on Avenue Z and Ocean Avenue if you were waiting for the B49 going north. BusTime was actually misleading. The display said next bus was 3.2 miles away. Two minutes later, a bus was inserted at East 15th Street (probably turned around at Sheepshead Bay) and the display changed to “2 stops away.” So, if you left the bus stop to grab a cup of coffee, for example, chances are that you would have missed the next bus. The only way to protect yourself would have been to repeatedly send text messages.
Also, if the operator does not have the “Next Bus Please” sign displayed — in which case the bus is temporarily removed from the BusTime display — and the bus is crowded, there is no guarantee that the bus will stop for you anyway, although BusTime might tell you the bus is a short distance away.
MTA Is Working On A Real Time Display
At a presentation of new methods of fare payment and bus time on May 20, the MTA announced that they are developing a system that would provide the bus rider with a system that would provide minutes instead of miles. Initially, the MTA rejected providing that information, because they did not want to pay NextBus royalties for the use of their algorithm, used in other cities, so they are developing their own.
Even better news is that, for the technologically impaired, two Manhattan councilmen and one Queens councilman have allocated a total of $720,000 from their discretionary budges, once the budget is finalized in June, to install real time bus information at 32 bus stops mainly at selected Manhattan crosstown bus stops and at four stops in Queens. Let us hope that some City Council members from Brooklyn also join in. However, at $20,000 per sign, technology does not come cheap.
This, however, may actually be a two-edged sword lowering bus usage rather than increasing it. The reason being that if Bus Time can’t make service more reliable, more people will walk to their destination if they know the next bus will not arrive for 15 or 30 minutes and they can reach their destination quicker by walking. Revenue may not be much affected if this happens at transferring stops where riders have already paid their fare or will do so at another bus or the subway. However, if the MTA reduces bus service based on lower bus usage, as they have done in the past, this will result in even lower reliability due to bus bunching.
According to a Subchat post, during a City Council hearing two weeks ago, a question was posed as to why Bus Time countdown displays cannot be placed into the existing space intended for them in the newly replaced bus shelters operated by CEMUSA. The MTA stated that CEMUSA is charging too much money, and they don’t believe it is a good deal. I am not questioning the MTA’s judgment and will take them at their word.
However, I do have critical words for NYC DOT and CEMUSA. I wonder what type of open-ended contract NYC DOT signed with CEMUSA that allows them to decide now how much they will charge for utilizing the space that was intended for real time information, without any upper limit placed into the contract. One would think that using an existing display would be much cheaper than constructing a completely new one. Apparently not.
I have criticized CEMUSA before, for the removal of Guide-A-Ride strip map information once provided at bus shelters and required by the contract, which were lit up and easy to read at night, as were the bus number designations, which are also being removed from bus shelters. Why was this allowed without any protest from the city or MTA? If the contract was renegotiated, why?
BusTime is helpful to many, though it is far from perfect. Expanding it to bus stops is a good idea, but very expensive if done all over the city. It would seem wise to somehow combine displays with advertisements to reduce the costs. Also, legal attempts to get CEMUSA involved should be investigated since the original contract did require them to provide bus information, which they are not doing.
Most importantly, BusTime must be used to monitor and regulate buses so they adhere more to their schedule. This is not being done. This past Friday, May 30, I spent another two hours watching BusTime on the B69 route primarily in Clinton Hill and Prospect Heights because of a discussion I was having in the comments of a past article. This route, which is supposed to operate every 16 to 24 minutes between 5:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. southbound at Fulton Street, actually arrived at 5:35, 6:09, 7:04, 7:22, and 7:36. Those are gaps of 34 minutes, 55 minutes, 18 minutes and 14 minutes. Note that the 14-minute spacing occurred when buses were scheduled at every 24 minutes. Arrival times bared absolutely no relation to scheduled times. Also, according to BusTime, Bus #711 stayed at the southern terminus for 53 minutes from 6:18 to 7:11 when he went out of service. That was enough time to make a complete one-way trip. If he was on his dinner break, he would have resumed operation and not have gone out of service. Clearly if this route was being managed at all, the operator could have made a partial trip to and from Grand Army Plaza in the time he was getting paid for standing still. There is absolutely no excuse for what happened now that we have BusTime, if management used it properly.
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.