The Commute: Bus Bunching Is Rampant And Nothing Is Being Done About It — Part 1

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Source: Brooklyn Reader

Source: Brooklyn Reader

THE COMMUTE: While recently attending Councilman Chaim Deutsch’s site visit at Avenue R and Nostrand Avenue, in an attempt to convince the MTA to convert the current local bus stop into a local bus stop that would accommodate Select Bus Service (SBS) buses as well, I took the opportunity to arrive one hour early to once again observe B44 SBS and local service. Last April, I documented a wait of 37 minutes for the local and 16 minutes for the SBS at the tail end of the morning rush hour at Avenue Z as well as extensive bus bunching with multiple buses arriving one after the other.

This time the monitoring was performed between about 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. at Avenue R where more buses are in service and one would expect shorter waits. Northbound local service was fairly regular, with buses arriving at 11-, 10-, 14-, 10- and eight-minute intervals. The SBS buses passed the stop at five-, eight-, one-, five-, six-, six-, six-, six- and eight-minute intervals, also fairly regular service.

However, that was not the case in the southbound direction, which I monitored from 8:25 a.m. to 9:11 a.m. after I noticed several SBS buses right behind the other. Their intervals were zero, three, eight, 19, zero, five, three, one, four and zero minutes. Local service was just as irregular. Buses arrived every 22, two, 13 and three minutes. I was not paying attention to destination signs this time, so it is possible that the gaps south of Avenue U were even higher as some buses terminate there. Here is the link to the original data.

The fairly regular northbound service is probably attributed to the fact that the monitoring was performed closer to the beginning of the route whereas the southbound monitoring is toward the end of the route. However, should that really matter that much considering many schools have already closed for the summer, lessening passenger loads and lessening the opportunity for delays? In fact, of all the buses I observed, only one carried more than about 35 passengers. That was the southbound SBS, which arrived after 19 minutes, and was fairly crowded with many standees. Southbound SBS buses are scheduled at every four minutes during the time I was observing.

Since that bus was 15 minutes late, it is obvious that those passengers were not saving any time, since one has to ride at least three-quarters of the route just to save 15 minutes over the discontinued Limited service.

I also understand that there is major long-term construction on a portion of Nostrand Avenue north of Atlantic Avenue. If that is a major problem, why couldn’t the schedule be adjusted with buses terminating at Fulton Street, so as to minimally affect service at the southern end of the route?

What Is Being Done About Irregular Service On The B44?

According to Andy Inglesby, deputy director of Government Affairs for MTA New York City Transit, the MTA is very aware of the service irregularities and is addressing the problem. But how? Weren’t the exclusive bus lanes supposed to reduce traffic delays? Yet the delays on the SBS appear to be greater than on the locals, which do not use exclusive lanes for a good portion of its northbound service. One SBS bus was delayed at least 15 minutes, whereas the maximum local delay observed was about 12 minutes, assuming a 10-minute headway. So are the exclusive lanes really helping and is there any enforcement?

One can also wonder if the southbound delays were so extensive on a day when patronage was light due to many schools being closed. Are the delays worse when patronage is higher?

The MTA is concerned about the irregular service. However, the questions are: Are they concerned enough? And what are they actually doing about it? The SBS riders were promised faster, more reliable service. The service is somewhat faster for those who are able to take advantage of it. However, many riders still have to rely on the local, such as the riders using Avenue R, and for them service is definitely worse than when they had access to the Limited. One troubling comment made by Inglesby at the Avenue R site visit was that the MTA is most concerned about serving “the majority” of its bus riders. Shouldn’t the MTA be concerned about serving all of its riders?

Is counting the number of transferring passengers at Avenue R and usage at that bus stop all that is important in evaluating if SBS buses should stop there? Isn’t a mile between SBS stops excessive? Wouldn’t some Quentin Road and Avenue S passengers also gravitate to Avenue R if it were an SBS stop? Wouldn’t some B9 passengers use the B2 instead if it was closer, and also use the Avenue R stop if SBS buses stopped there?

Assuming the technical problems of extending the bus stop could be worked out, hundreds of additional daily Avenue R passengers would save time by being able to take advantage of the SBS and save up to 20 minutes each when you consider waiting less time for a bus. The SBS buses would only be delayed by about 15 seconds — negligible in terms of the schedule. Are hundreds of daily passengers not important because they are not “the majority” of riders?

Other Routes

On June 22, 2014, I monitored Sunday service on the B1 and B49 routes. I have frequently written about inadequate service on those routes due to the very high numbers of Kingsborough Community College students using that route. Apparently, service is just as irregular on Sundays. I will share those observations next week in Part 2.

In summary, the questions are: What is being done to improve reliability? Why, after more than seven months of operation, is service on the B44 SBS and B44 local so irregular? Will the service problems ever be reduced? And how about a Vision Zero for bus service delays?

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.

  • fdtutf

    “The SBS buses would only be delayed by about 15 seconds — negligible in terms of the schedule.”

    What bus stop only takes 15 seconds? I realize SBS works differently from a normal bus where fare collection takes time, but I’ve ridden several of the SBS routes, and 15 seconds is a really short stop, even if you only count the time the bus is actually stopped dead (i.e., that ignores the time the bus loses by decelerating and having to accelerate again).

    • Allan Rosen

      I wasn’t counting acceleration and deceleration. That would only add another 30 seconds, making the delay one minute. Still, that would be nearly negligible for existing SBS passengers while a considerable number of daily passengers in the many hundreds would be helped.

      If the stop were on the nearside, which is probably what would happen in the northbound direction if the stop were added, there would no be any increase in time for acceleration and deceleration when the bus would have to stop for the red light anyway.

      • fdtutf

        …except in cases where the bus would have made the light if it hadn’t had to stop nearside.

        I still think 15 seconds is an underestimate, even ignoring deceleration and acceleration.

        • Allan Rosen

          From what I saw, only about five passengers got on or off the bus using one or two doors and the bus was only stopped for about 15 seconds. SBS has three doors and boarding should even be faster. Also, boarding would be split between the SBS and the local.

          • fdtutf

            I think extrapolating from one instance is unsound.

            I do want to make clear that I am questioning the reasonableness of the 15-second estimate, not the overall reasonableness of adding an SBS stop at Avenue R.

          • Allan Rosen

            It would only be unsound if the stop were much more heavily used during the peak of the rush hours or when more schools are open. If that were the case, it only strengthens the case, not weakens it.

          • fdtutf

            Um, no, it’s always unsound, because specific circumstances that don’t generally apply can affect any one instance.

  • Subway Stinker

    I think Allan wins this particular argument; that adding that extra bus stop will greatly improve the ride for many at minimal additional delay. Let’s not make our desire for Perfect service the enemy of the Good service.

    • Allan Rosen

      I could see an argument if many more stops need to be added which isn’t the case. The only other place where I think a stop may be needed would be Myrtle Avenue because of the transfer. Avenue R is the only remaining place where the SBS bus stop distance is excessive.

      • Andrew

        Is the distance from the Sheepshead Bay B station to the Kings Highway B station excessive?

  • Subway Stinker

    On a related topic, I think a.m. rush hour service on the B3 departing from Brennan And Carr’s has improved over the past few months. The buses seem to be evenly spaced, most of the time, and now that school is out, less crowded and less time loading and unloading. Now, if only MTA could figure out how to accommodate the School kids ridership during the Academic year.

    • sonicboy678

      Sadly, I doubt the MTA has even the faintest idea of how to do that. I’ve noticed that crowding in general is worse when school is in session, especially when all schools are open. Hell, some of the time students are heading to another borough entirely (I go to school in the Chelsea area and have to take a train). If, for example, those students have to head to Manhattan, they can’t simply take an express bus if one is nearby unless they have an accepted card, as Student MetroCards are invalid on express buses. If they could, they could potentially even out some of the loads on local buses and the subway, thereby reducing delays on a large scale and boosting ridership on express buses. It may be a small boost, but it would be a boost nonetheless. Unfortunately, that will never happen. Whatever. The main issue is the issue of delays. Many buses get delayed and then bunch, even on routes where the problem makes absolutely no sense (read: SBS). How does that happen? Poor dispatchig is all I can think of.

      • Subway Stinker

        Dispatchers. Harrumph. Back in the day, I could never understand how a grumpy man in a transit dispatcher uniform with a pencil and cardboard-stock timetable standing on the corner of major bus routes could help make buses run on time (and not using computers or tablets in this computer era) until the MTA cut back on these guys and service actually got worse.

      • Allan Rosen

        If you think it is bad now, it was much worse before the MTA started doing traffic counts in 1984. Schools could always use more service, but it is a little unfair to blame the MTA for not providing it, without the City chipping in more to pay for it, since they are the ones who benefit by not having to pay for yellow school buses, as most other cities do.

        • sonicboy678

          It sad that it took the Dark Age of NYCT to actually make serious reforms and improvements. Unfortunately, we still have plenty of catching up to do across the board.

    • Subway Stinker

      Beg pardon, I meant to say the morning B 36 has improved. That is not to say the service is Great, but has shown Improvement. The B3 mainly stinks.

  • TwoNotBetterThanOne

    It seems to me to be an official MTA policy at this point. About 3/4 times I take the bus, two come at once.

    • Linda

      I take the B68 in the morning to Brighton to catch the train and the B36 at Sheepshead Bay at night to go home. Since the beginning of 2014, I’ve noticed that both routes have gotten really bad with regards to bus schedules. Whatever times are listed on the bus stop schedule should be ignored. I wait about 20 minutes every morning for the B68 and then 2 buses come at once. I can wait 20-25 minutes at night for the B36 and again, 2-3 buses come at once. And forget about the weekends. I waited over 30 minutes at 9:00am on a Saturday morning for a B68 to Brighton recently and 2 buses came by “Out Of Service”. At the 35 minute mark, 3 buses showed up together. What the hell kind of service is this? According to the bus stop schedules, most buses should be coming at 6-8 minute intervals. If you ask the bus driver what is causing the delay, most of the time they simply ignore you.

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  • Andrew

    There are two approaches one could take toward the question of bunching.

    One could take an analytical approach, looking at performance data (e.g., wait assessment) on bus lines across the city over time, seeing where service has gotten more reliable and where it’s gotten less reliable. One could furthermore look closely at what, if anything, has changed over time on selected bus lines (new bus lanes? heavier traffic? increased or decreased ridership?). One could also look at other transit systems across the globe to evaluate their approaches to the question of bunching. The result would be a comprehensive report with a solid assessment of the magnitude of the problem and a collection of potential solutions. I’d find that very interesting to read.

    Alternatively, one could take an entirely anecdotal approach, clocking buses on one or two lines for an hour or two, not placing them in any historical or geographic context at all, and conclude that life isn’t perfect. Not nearly as interesting or productive.

    You seem to prefer the anecdotal approach. Yes, buses bunch. I doubt that’s news to anyone here.