As Subway Crisis Takes Up ‘So Much Oxygen,’ the Buses Drag Along

NYTimes.pngBy Sarah Maslin Nir

The M15 bus rolled through Manhattan, traveling south along Allen Street. As it approached a red light at Hester Street, the signal turned green. Then the same thing happened a block down and again at the next intersection, allowing the bus to slice through the congested warren of Lower Manhattan streets at a surprisingly swift clip.

The run of green lights had nothing to do with luck — it was intentional, made possible by a special system that gives the bus the power to use its GPS system to turn traffic lights green or keep them green longer, a relatively cutting edge technology that reduces travel time.

“The lights turn green for the bus? Wow,” said Steve Matos, 32, who abandoned the subway when navigating steps with a cane became too difficult after he sprained a toe. “They should do it on every line.”

They do not and, in fact, the M15 is the exception. Though the system was introduced seven years ago, it operates on just 11 of the 317 public bus routes in New York City, even as the tool could significantly improve a lumbering and unreliable bus network.

While the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is undertaking a widely promoted $836 million emergency plan to reverse the New York subway’s precipitous slide, an equally consequential crisis has been brewing aboard the city’s public buses, which provide more than 725 million rides a year and reach places that are not close to a subway line. Despite the city’s growing population, bus ridership has been slipping, declining about 14 percent between 2006 and 2017, to about 725 million riders from about 843 million, with commuters shifting to the faltering subway, bicycles or ride-hailing apps like Uber.

“I think in general the subways have soaked up so much of the attention, and so much oxygen, that the crisis with the buses has gone out of sight,” said Councilman Mark D. Levine, a Democrat, who represents parts of northern Manhattan where buses are essential, and who is pushing a bill to accelerate the rollout of the green light syncing system. “Bus transit is less glamorous and sexy than the subways, but it’s a vital piece of our infrastructure.”

Advocates say failing bus service is not just an issue of commuting, but also of equity — bus riders earn about 30 percent less than their subway counterparts, according to the city comptroller’s office, and tend to be primarily immigrants and minorities. Buses are also fully accessible to the disabled, unlike the subway, where less than a fourth of the stations are accessible.

The Regional Plan Association, an urban research group, has identified improving buses as crucial to the city’s financial future. “With the right combination of smart technology, greater availability, faster travel times, and new lines, riding a bus or streetcar would no longer be the last and least desirable option in the region’s transit system — it may even be the first,” the organization said in a report focused on the region’s future.

But the buses are freighted with problems — for example, in October buses were on time just 59 percent of the time, according to M.T.A. data analyzed by the Bus Turnaround Coalition, a network of advocacy groups focused on improving the system. Another persistent problem is known as bunching, buses on the same route traveling one after another, resulting in large gaps in service and aggravatingly long waits. New York also has the slowest buses of any large American city, with an average speed of about 7 miles an hour, and even slower speeds in parts of Manhattan where walking is sometimes the faster alternative.

Bus riders have grown increasingly exasperated by the lack of reliability. Krista Kaszycki, who lives in the Bronx and works in Chinatown in Manhattan, abandoned the subway after enduring a cascade of delays last summer, believing buses to be more reliable and safe. Now she takes three buses to get to her job, a journey that typically takes an hour when service is running reliably, which has not always been the case.

“It’s a sin what’s going on with the M.T.A.,” Ms. Kaszycki, 25, said.

At his first meeting of the M.T.A. board in January, Andy Byford, who became president of New York City Transit that month, called for a bus action plan to mirror the subway’s turnaround plan. But he has since moderated his stance, outlining a more piecemeal approach. Any changes, he said in a recent interview, would rely on money that the M.T.A. already has in its budget, rather than an infusion of cash from the city or state, as is the case with the subway.

Mr. Byford has convened a working group inside the M.T.A. to develop strategies to improve bus service and promised to provide specifics in the coming weeks. “We have to get it right,” he said.

One of the most significant bus initiatives in recent years has been the introduction of buses with designated lanes, all-door boarding and kiosks to pay at before boarding. The service, known as select bus, has been installed on 15 routes over the past decade, where travel times have dropped as much as 25 percent, according to the city. Twenty new routes are planned over the next 10 years, a pace that frustrates advocates.

“The city and the M.T.A. together lay siege to a bus route, and they spend two or three years doing that and the need for better bus service is much more urgent,” said Jon Orcutt, a spokesman for the Transit Center, a research group.

Showing his interest in buses and how they work, Mr. Byford rode one recently as it lurched down Lexington Avenue and outlined his priorities for the system. They include expanding the traffic light syncing program, encouraging the police to step up enforcement to keep bus lanes clear, dispatching buses in a more even and rapid succession and allowing more riders to pay before they board. Transit officials are also looking at the possibility of redrawing bus routes to more accurately reflect demand, a process underway in Staten Island.

The GPS-traffic light program — officially known as the Traffic Signal Priority and widely used in cities like London and Los Angeles — remains a pilot, even though all buses already carry the necessary equipment. On one route, the B44, which runs along Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn, a dense section of the route is equipped with the system and has cut travel time during the evening rush hour on that part of the journey to 22 minutes from 29 minutes, according to the city.

Some of the challenges in upgrading buses are the result of the different jurisdictions that are involved — while the M.T.A. runs the buses, the streets are overseen by the city, requiring collaboration and cooperation between different agencies that can stretch out the time needed for projects. At the same time, making it easier for buses to navigate their routes can be a delicate traffic engineering equation, since officials want to avoid exacerbating the problem on the city’s already congested streets.

So far, 500 intersections have been modified for the GPS program with plans to double that number by 2020, and expanding the technology to more routes, said Polly Trottenberg, the city’s transportation commissioner.

“I don’t want the narrative out there to be we kind of lack will, we don’t,” Ms. Trottenberg said.

Mr. Byford said he had met with the New York Police Department about strengthening the enforcement of violations for blocking bus lanes. Advocates say an inconsistent policing of the lanes undermines any efforts to get buses moving faster.

As he stood on the bus as it headed down Lexington Avenue, Mr. Byford suddenly turned toward a window and watched as a police officer cited a livery cab that was blocking a bus lane. “Yes!” Mr. Byford shouted. “I don’t mean to seem callous, but that’s what I like to see.”

“It’s like Groundhog Day, delivering transit; every day you set out to do the same thing,” Mr. Byford added. “But you should do it better than the day before.”

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