Buses can ease New York City's transit crisis. Yes, buses

Crains.pngBy Council Member Mark Levine

New York City's "summer of hell" will be remembered for the subway system's delays, overcrowding and derailments. But there's another transit crisis that has been playing out in slow motion (literally), and it involves the buses.

As beleaguered straphangers look for alternatives, the 2.5 million New Yorkers who already rely on buses are suffering slower speeds and longer travel times. On dozens of routes, buses now move at less than the pace of walking. Reliability is a growing problem as well, as anyone who has waited interminably—only to have three buses finally show up at once—knows. Not surprisingly, bus ridership is down 16% since 2002, even as the city's population has grown to record levels.

Many who no longer take buses are instead using private cars or taxis. This only adds to congestion, making buses even slower, in turn pushing more people into cars. It's a downward spiral.

We urgently need to address this crisis. The good news is that fixes for our bus system are faster, easier and cheaper than the solutions being weighed for the subway. Significant improvements to bus speed and reliability can be achieved at costs in the millions of dollars, not billions.

And unlike the subway system, which is entirely run by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, major pieces of bus infrastructure are controlled by the city: street design, boarding areas, traffic lights and more. Working in concert with the MTA, the Department of Transportation could create dedicated bus lanes backed up by real enforcement, implement a faster payment system, allow for all-door boarding and manage bus spacing to prevent bunching.

Just last month a new Select Bus Service route was christened as part of the city's SBS expansion. While we wait for more of these high-tech routes, a relatively simple solution is begging for a rapid rollout: technology that speeds buses through traffic lights.

On congested routes, city buses spend 21% of their time at red lights. The Transit Signal Priority system could reduce that using technology already in place.

Every MTA bus is equipped with GPS, advanced signal controllers are installed at all intersections, and the city has a secure wireless network serving agencies including the NYPD and the FDNY. The DOT has tapped this infrastructure to try out a system in which buses communicate with traffic signals to keep lights green until the buses pass and shorten red lights when they are waiting.

Transit Signal Priority is now running on the M15, B44, S79, Bx41 and B46 lines, and it shaves an average of 18% off travel times. With the hardware already in place, the cost is just $1 million to $2 million per line, mainly covering software upgrades and staff planning time.

The DOT plans to extend signal control to an additional 15 lines by the end of 2020. In a sprawling system of 238 routes, that's not enough. To dramatically accelerate installation citywide, I've introduced legislation in the City Council to require that 20 lines be upgraded each year for Transit Signal Priority, as recommended by the Bus Turnaround Coalition, an advocacy group.

New Yorkers have a right to a reliable transit system. We need this kind of bold action to save our bus system from the vicious cycle of slower speeds and falling ridership. Anything less risks the "summer of hell" becoming a year-round phenomenon.

Read the full story here. 

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