Photo by Allan Rosen

THE COMMUTE: Last Wednesday, I rode the B4 bus to obtain some signatures for the petition started by the Sheepshead Bay-Plumb Beach Civic Association to restore service to Plumb Beach on mid-days, evenings and weekends. I boarded the first bus of the afternoon that was due to arrive at Avenue Z and East 16th Street at 1:52 p.m. because it would, presumably, have more passengers than the following buses. There were between 15 and 20 on board and not enough time for me to ask everyone to sign the petition. Most were very eager to sign; a few declined. On my two round trips I collected about 30 signatures.

It gave me the opportunity to speak to the passengers as well as the bus drivers. What was most surprising was that about five riders on the first trip had no idea that they were on the first bus since 9:00 a.m. That tells me that, after two years, there still are people waiting for the bus all day long, eventually giving up after waiting 30 minutes or an hour when they finally decide to check the bus schedule.

One of the passengers, who did not know she was on the first bus, asked the driver where to get off for the fishing boats just as we were about to arrive at Knapp Street, the end of the line. I told her we already passed them because you cannot see them from the Belt Parkway service road and she should wait until the last stop and ride back. It was her first time in Sheepshead Bay and she made the trip just to see the bay because she heard it was such a nice place to visit.

Now the MTA believes everyone who rides a bus does it because they have to get somewhere and have no other choice. They don’t believe anyone makes discretionary trips, just because a service exists. There are many other things the MTA does not know about its passengers, like those who are forced to take car service during times the B4 does not operate. If they had sent a representative to last week’s Transit Town Hall, they would have known that.

I also learned, from the addresses on the petition, that not everyone who uses the B4 is local. In addition to the riders from Emmons Avenue, Bragg Street and Brigham Street, East 12th Street and East 13th Street, there were passengers from West Street in Gravesend and 65th Street in Bensonhurst. More surprising were those who were from Eastern Parkway and St. John’s Place in Prospect Heights and a couple from Staten Island.

So it is not only the people from Sheepshead Bay and Plumb Beach who depend on the portion of the B4 that was truncated. If the MTA would perform origin destination surveys as part of their planning procedure, they would also learn this about their riders. They would know how many people require one, two or three buses, or a bus and train to make their trip. That information is not available merely by counting passengers and using MetroCard data to verify those counts as the MTA does.

If the same planners would ride the routes they are planning, they would know that you often have to wait 40 minutes for a bus that is supposed to arrive every 20 minutes. If they would ever speak to the bus drivers to solicit their opinions, they would know that traffic is not the only cause of bus delays. One of the drivers I spoke to complained that his leader — the driver in front of him at 2:00 p.m. — purposefully leaves early and screws up the entire route.

Another driver told me that he has been driving the B4 for seven years and that the last few trips that operate as late as 2:00 a.m. to Coney Island Hospital are not necessary. That service could end by midnight, according to him, with the savings applied to additional midday or evening trips to Knapp Street, where they are needed. I am sure that if the MTA looks further, they could find other savings or opportunities to pay for increased bus service instead of insisting that any service increases be accompanied by service decreases.

Truncating routes by only considering operating costs and not potential revenue is shortsighted. It is also destroying the system by reducing the system’s connectivity, increasing the number of trips that require three buses to complete. Yes, the Knapp Street end of the B4 carries only a half dozen passengers per bus most of the time when it operates. But when there is no college in session at Kingsborough, and no one is going to Manhattan Beach, the B1 also carries a half dozen riders or less near the end of the route. Does that mean we should also truncate that route in Brighton Beach and ask everyone to also walk three quarters of a mile as we do with the B4?

Perhaps all the bus routes in the city should be truncated at all the ends since the middle of the route usually has the highest ridership. However, if you start doing that, the old middles will soon become the new ends, and in a short time there won’t be any bus system left.

New Revenue Needed

But we also have to face reality. The MTA is in a budget crisis and needs new sources of revenue to maintain existing bus service, and to expand it. So why, then, has the interior advertisement space in New York City buses been virtually vacant, at least in some parts of the city, for more than 30 years and how much potential revenue has been lost? How much more bus service could be provided if this ad space had been sold? The next time you ride a bus take a look at all the empty interior advertisement space. The last bus I rode had two interior ads when there is space for about 50.

Years ago, when the MTA was asked about this their response was that although they have no trouble selling ads on the bus exteriors, no one wants to advertise inside a bus. No one? Really? What are they charging and what are the terms? Do you have to take out an ad for an entire year and advertise on every bus in the city? Are the rates charged higher than what the market is willing to pay? Any smart businessman would know that it would be better to give away the space at very cheap rates than to have the space remain empty for 30 years. Surely some local businesses would be willing to pay to advertise on bus routes operating out of the depots that serve their area. They may not be willing to spend thousands of dollars to advertise on buses in other boroughs, which may be the only terms the MTA is offering.

Lost Revenue

Another way the MTA is losing money is through fare evasion. According to the MTA, this is not a problem because it is within acceptable business limits: under one percent. How did they arrive at this percentage of fare evasion and how accurate are they? Are checkers stationed at turnstiles to count fare evaders? Can they easily be spotted as MTA workers? Are they getting a representative sample? As with all MTA numbers, the methodologies used by the MTA are never revealed. Although former Chairman Jay Walder pledged transparency, most of the time we just have to trust the MTA, and they are often proven wrong.

According to one of the bus drivers I spoke with, fare evasion is a major problem, and it is the same people who are constantly doing it. Bus drivers are instructed not to make a big deal if someone does not want to pay, to ensure the bus drivers’ safety, which has become a bigger issue since bus driver Edwin Thomas lost his life a few years ago on the B46 after telling a passenger his transfer was not valid.

That driver told me he doesn’t mind when someone is a few cents short or even if they only throw in 50 cents in the farebox. He will still let them on because he realizes that some just cannot afford to pay the $2.25 cent fare. What annoys him the most are the passengers who get on and just refuse to pay at all, and it is the same ones who do it over and over. He told me this just as a passenger boarded with an invalid transfer, with the excuse that he mistakenly threw the valid one away. “Doesn’t he realize I recognize him every day with a different excuse? Does he think I am stupid,” he asked me rhetorically? His retaliation will be on a rainy day he will not stop for him. So the question is: How does the MTA estimate the number of bus cheats? Or, is the assumption that everyone on the bus entering through the front door pays his or her full fare? Where are the inspectors when dozens of school children enter through the back door without paying? The MTA needs to pay more attention to fare evasion.

One Final Point

The B4 operates every 20 minutes. So when I took the first bus to Knapp Street, I expected it to be the first bus leaving. It wasn’t. The MTA sends a second bus out to Knapp Street directly from the depot to leave at the same time the first bus arrives in order to give the first bus operator a 15-minute break. It does the same thing for other buses. Why, I don’t know. So wouldn’t it make sense for the buses leaving from the depot to pick up passengers on their partial trip so that they are scheduled evenly between two buses providing 10-minute service instead of 20? They are paying for the driver and the fuel anyway. Doesn’t it make sense to pick up passengers along the way?

Not according to the MTA. They have greatly increased the number of non-revenue trips all over the city during the past five years because they believe it is more efficient to operate buses without passengers than with them since they save five or 10 minutes of operator pay by operating in non-revenue service. Using that logic, the system would be most efficient if we just got rid of the passengers all together. The MTA is well on their way to accomplishing just that, by continually reducing service and not pumping the savings back into the routes.

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).

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  • Bruce B

    1) I have ridden the B4 bus after midnight from Bay Ridge past midnight, and you are correct. There are usually only 2 other passengers the whole way through. Much as it would hurt me on occasion, eliminating the route at that time seems like a decent way to save a few bucks.

    2) Speaking of fare evasion, I have to say this. Somebody has to. I have seen bus drivers let people of their own race chat them up and get on for free. I am not picking on any one race, I’ve seen them all do that. Seems like whenever a bus driver fights a customer to get a fare, it’s not a person of their own ethnicity. This really sucks.

    3) In a crowded bus, plenty of people go in the back door and don’t pay. That’s losing revenue. But I can’t fully blame these people, i’m tempted to do it myself because of my next point:

    3A)   Something has to be done to GET PEOPLE TO MOVE TO THE BACK OF THE BUS. It sucks to see a bus pass you by because it’s crowded in the first half of the bus and empty (including empty seats!) in the other half. Try waiting for the B1 by Papa Leone’s in the middle of the day. The students crowd up the front. One day I waited FOUR buses because of this. I was actually going to stand in front of the bus if it stopped at the red light of West End Avenue, and protest, but lucky for them (and me) the light was always green for the bus as it whizzed by us.
         You may say, what does this last thing have to do with the topic? Well, maybe we should try to guess how many people who would normally use the bus and pay a fare DO NOT because they’re tired of waiting for buses because buses are passing by half full. I’d say customer satisfaction is pretty important in raising revenues, and I guarantee you that because of the above, there are plenty of people who look for alternative means of transportation, thus losing revenue. Also people going in the back door because of the crowd in front loses revenue.

    • Allan Rosen

      I agree with each and every one of your points, though I have not witnessed the race thing you speak of.

      If you are a regular reader of The Commute” you know that I have written a number of time about the problems at West End Avenue on the B1 and have documented not 4 buses not stopping, but 14! I have also been working with MTA operations people for about three years to get this corrected. When I get a chance I will do another follow-up to see if things have improved, but it may have to wait until the fall since school is finishing up now.

      • Allan Rosen

        Instead of that ridiculous recording that plays every time someone rings the bell on the new buses, telling them to exit through the rear, the driver needs the option to turn it on only when it is appropriate. Their should also be a second recording telling everyone to move to the rear which he coud also turn on when the bus gets crowded. If these are selectively used, people might listen. But when they are always on, people just tune them out and ignore them.

    • MyBrooklyn

      For all the reasons above I avoid taking damn mass transit…but damn assholes only know how to punish everyday car owners with damn bus lanes and bike lanes that you get fine if you get caught using those lanes….

      • Guest 2

        It’s King Bloomberg’s hooker fault.

        • MyBrooklyn

          another way to generate profit for them…bunch of scumbags

    • Guest 2

       The low floor buses has a design flaw. New buses as of right now, has limited standee space towards the rear. You cant really blame the MTA…. Blame the bus builders who designs  it.

      • Allan Rosen

        You can’t have everything in a bus. There are trade-offs that have to be made.

  • Guest 2

    If MTA so smart…. They should put ads on the “NEW” New Flyer C40LF buses with the orange electronic destination signs; on by now! Even of the front space or the CNG tanks cover. Even ad wrap the entire bus! MTA can get even creative to get some revenue in flowing. They are loosing money as we speak.

  • us citizen

    Some of the new buses have little in  the back , and expect you ride faceing someone with your legs intertwined

    • Allan Rosen

      There was an error made in building those buses.  The builder didn’t follow the design.  He was supposed to correct the problem at his expense by moving the rear seats six inches forward so those facing seats would not be so close together.

      • Guest 2

         Yet MTA accepts them without checking it thoroughly!

        last year’s article:

        • Allan Rosen

          That news article wasn’t exactly accurate either.  The headroom problem she spoke of is non-existent.  While you may be correct that the buses shouldn’t have been accepted, perhaps they were needed for service and the MTA had no choice. But I think they did not realize the seats were too close together until that article appeared.

  • guest

    I have witnessed the race fare evasion Bruce talks about. It goes double when it comes to the opposite sex. A young person of the same skintone talk to the driver and say they don’t have any money and be given a free ride but when an older person of a different color boards they are told to get off the bus and sometimes in a nasty way. Ride the crosstowns that go through various neighborhoods and you’ll get a good sampling of this. If you are going to give a free ride to one person, you give it to all. I will dare say that chances are good that 98% of the people riding a bus outside of the city are not making even close to six figures.

    2) The back of the bus issue…for one thing lots of buses tend to harvest strange smells back there. During school hours that’s where most trouble makers sit. This becomes ingrained in a person’s head. So even during the evening rush hour when there are no kids and most people have decent hygiene, you’ve become so accustomed to what the back of the bus represents you just stop short of the back door and go no further. The MTA needs to clean these buses thoroughly.

    There is another way the MTA could save money. There are certain job perks given to employees at all levels and all divisions within the MTA that could be done away with or have the employees ask to at least chip in for. I’m not talking healthcare either and millions could be saved each year. Of course if just the head honchos would take a 0.5% paycut that would probably help a great deal I’d imagine.

    • gustaajedrez

      It wouldn’t save as much as you think. I think the MTA Chairman makes about $350,000, so that would be a $1,750 paycut. With all the excecutives taking a paycut, you probably couldn’t save more than a few jobs (say you have 100 executives, that’s $175,000, which only pays the annual salary for 3 or 4 bus drivers)

      As for fare evasion, you’re assuming that all of them are going to pay if they’re not allowed a free ride. A lot of them would either not make the trip or they’d walk.

    • Allan Rosen

      When the MTA gives its managers raises, and they haven’t received any in 5 years, there should be some type of cap for those earning over $100,000 per year.  Better yet if they gave everyone a flat raise instead of a percentage. When they give a percentage, someone earning $200,000 gets four times the increase as someone earning $50,000 and I wonder how much harder they actually work.

      • sonicboy678

        To make matters worse, the bus drivers, train operators, and cleaners are all putting their lives at risk for the sake of the efficiency of a system that moves millions of other people. Granted, some of the people don’t do their jobs. For those people, I can understand consequences occurring. For those that do their jobs – and do their jobs well – they deserve to have well-paying jobs, benefits like health care, and no fear of losing their jobs because of some irresponsibility in the bigwigs’ plan to become “cost-neutral”.
        Speaking of “cost-neutrality”, Tom Prendergast wants to take out more trash receptacles in the subway system; I find that the very thought will convince people to litter more often, not less. More cleaners will likely be required to get rid of the messes left behind and cost the MTA more money in the long run. I can see all of those preventable track fires now.

  • sonicboy678

    The schedule on the B4 is crap. Routes with schedules like the B4′s are more likely to fail; this especially rings true for routes in isolated areas. Poor schedules and the low ridership that comes as a result will doom any route. Remember June 25-27, 2010? That weekend was disastrous for the entire city and surrounding areas. Many bus routes were eliminated or reduced with the claims of low ridership
    (too many had the aforementioned poor schedules) , redundancy (in some instances with the subway system), and, in a sense, for being short. Examples of routes that were eliminated or had partial elimination were the Q79 and Q89 thanks to poor schedules, the Q24 west of Broadway Junction and the B12 east of said location for redundancy with the subway system, and the B2 and the Q42 with the elimination of service on specific days and portions of specific days. (The Q42 is rather close in length to the B2 and serves a similar purpose.)

  • winson

    bus drivers need to stop being too nice. I got away with riding for free using a half-fare card during my one year at Lincoln High School many times because if the same drivers on the B36 that come when i get out.

  • Adam Moreira

    In terms of raising revenue…now that the MTA has started covering entire window panes with ads (I’m attaching a pic of a bus in Manhattan with such an ad as the first pic), why does the MTA not consider Ultra Super King ads for the window sides? In Nassau County, since the county took control of its system from the MTA, Ultra Super Kings have begun to appear (these are ads that cover from top to bottom between the wheels). Alternatively, why not full wraps that don’t cover the windows? Those could generate more ad revenue…as well as wrapping subway cars throughout the city. The roofline also should have ad space sold on them (a bus with that ad space sold is attached as the second pic).

    Also, the MTA needs to look at how it dispatches buses. The B4, for most of my life, has been out of Ulmer Park or Gleason Depot. Is there a reason why this route can’t be out of Flatbush Depot (at least some runs)  instead of a wasteful deadhead from Sunset Park? (And this isn’t the only route where Gleason, which is in Sunset Park, sends deadheads cross-borough.) Extending the B4 to Kings Plaza via Knapp Street could potentially SAVE money as I see it; it would add running time of about 10 minutes, but the deadhead to/from Kings Plaza and the Flatbush Depot (which is at Utica and Fillmore) would be 2-3 minutes. I also believe that that would add new ridership in a transit desert. If you need to save revenue, this is where a merger of the B2 and B100 shoul be done, using the B2 route to Flatbush Avenue and then passing Kings Plaza via Avenue U. (The B4 would then take the B2′s spot at Kings Plaza.)

  • Guest at Behest

    “That tells me that, after two years, there still are people waiting for the bus all day long, eventually giving up after waiting 30 minutes or an hour when they finally decide to check the bus schedule.”
    Doubt it.

    • BrooklynBus

      Last year I rode the B36 and as we passed Coney Island Avenue at 1 PM, a lady asked the driver how much longer she has to wait for the B4. The answer would have been 2 more hours. But the driver was very nice and did the smart thing by telling her to get on and not pay her fare so he could drive her to Ocean Parkway where she could catch the bus. If she dipped her card, it would have meant a double fare when she boarded the B4.

  • Guest at Behest

    “Now the MTA believes everyone who rides a bus does it because they have to get somewhere and have no other choice.”
    No they don’t.

    • Allan Rosen

      The lady I spoke to was taking a pleasure trip because she could. She had no other business in Sheepshead Bay and most likely if it were a difficult trip for her involving two trains and a bus, she would not be taking it. If there was one, there are others like her. What makes you such an expert that you know so much?

  • Guest at Behest

    “There are many other things the MTA does not know about its passengers, like those who are forced to take car service during times the B4 does not operate.”
    Of course the MTA knows about that!

    • Allan Rosen

      They do not have any numbers because they don’t care to find out.

  • Guest at Behest

    “If they would ever speak to the bus drivers to solicit their opinions, they would know that traffic is not the only cause of bus delays. One of the drivers I spoke to complained that his leader — the driver in front of him at 2:00 p.m. — purposefully leaves early and screws up the entire route.” 
    Does this bus driver you spoke to know that you were going to publicly reveal his comments, potentially causing his leader to get in trouble? 

    Also, did you ask the driver why he hasn’t complained to management about his leader? Isn’t this driver’s goal to provide the best service to the customers?

    • Allan Rosen

      When he spoke to me he sounded like he wanted everyone to know what his leader was doing. Hw do you know that he didn’t already complain and perhaps nothing was done. Perhaps his leader is friends with the supervisor and let the complaint pass?

  • Guest at Behest

    Another driver told me that he has been driving the B4 for seven years and that the last few trips that operate as late as 2:00 a.m. to Coney Island Hospital are not necessary. That service could end by midnight, according to him, with the savings applied to additional midday or evening trips to Knapp Street, where they are needed.”

    Wouldn’t those people who lose bus service to the hospital need to take car services, just like the people who lost B4 service?

    • Allan Rosen

      Yes, but if you read the first comment by Bruce B you would know that zero to 2 people use those trips. Isn’t it better to help 6 to 12 passengers than it is to help two? Sometimes you can’t serve everyone, you ave to do the best you can and use your resources most efficiently. From your comments I’m distinctly getting the impression that you work or the MTA because you are trying to nitpick and find fault with everything I say without making one positive statement. That is typical MTA behavior. And you are certainly not from Sheepshead Bay.

      • sonicboy678

        I’m not from Sheepshead Bay and I can see what you’re saying! In fact, I just remembered something. When the B4 used Neptune Avenue, it enabled more accessibility to the F as well as the B and Q. It may not seem like much, but this actually gave people more options; the downside to this is that there is still no accessibility for the handicapped to those parts of the subway system. Even then, more options were available to people than they are now.

  • Fredrick Wells

    The MTA can start a Q51 from Rockaway Park (and even extend to Coney Island), however the B4 to Knapp Street is strongly needed mainly for the push to Staten Island via the S53, S79 and S93.