Bus ridership in New York City is falling, but the MTA has a plan to fix it

New York City bus service, which is already the slowest in the country according to a 2017 report, is causing the MTA to lose out on an estimated 100 million trips. There have been moves to better the services in the city through Select Bus Service, bus lanes and transit signal priority, but these are being implemented halfheartedly and slowly, the report concludes.

There's around 2.5 million people who rely on the city's bus services each day, but the bus speeds only travel an  and spend approximately 43 percent of their time at red lights or bus stops. The city has the slowest bus speeds among transit services in North America because buses are not prioritized among traffic. Routes are slow, lengthly and don't often go directly from end to end, meandering through neighbourhoods first. Many of them were designed a half century ago when the city was very different in terms of where people live.

Weekday ridership on local and commuter buses in millions

The city first introduced bus service to replace streetcar routes throughout the city in the 1930s and as such, most bus routes follow their paths. Fast forward a half century and you'll find the MTA carrying 2.5 million people per day on buses that go an average of 7.4 mph and spend approximately 43 percent of their time at red lights or bus stops. New York has the slowest bus speeds among cities in North America and routes are slow, lengthly and meander through neighbourhoods before reaching their destination. Jobs in Manhattan have stayed relatively stagnant, but in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island there's major job growth going on with no transit additions to cope with it. In short, New York's infrastructure is in the 20th century while the city itself is in the 21st.

The population of New York is booming and with it subway ridership, but the amount of people taking the bus has gone down significantly in recent years, and by a total of 16 percent since 2002.

With this information in mind, the MTA has unveiled a plan to improve bus service across the city's five boroughs, including a major redesign of all its 300 routes, that will increase inter-neighbourhood connectivity, give bus routes more priority in traffic, accelerate boarding and provide arrival information. The transit agency is also adding double decker buses to its fleet on routes between Staten Island and Manhattan, which are longer routes with less stops. Led by Andy Byford, the Toronto Transit Commission's former leader, these improvements should be implemented by 2021.

As old-school as it may be, the MetroCard will help the MTA track how many people get on which buses and with GPS data, how often buses get stuck in traffic. This information will make it easier to determine which routes need the most improvements and what those improvements should be.

There are some moves that don't need approval from the city which can be acted upon more quickly than others — like ensuring arrivals are evenly spaced out so that bunching or periods of no buses become near non-existent. The issue of bunching should be addressed when the MTA upgrades its Bus Command Centre to take into account the GPS location of buses. Then there's the issue of buses being stuck in traffic for too long, which is why the transit agency redesigned many routes to eliminate bottleneck turning points and route overlap, speeding up service in the process.

The existing network has lots of turns during bus routes, overlap and are not direct, making journeys longer for passengers. 📸: MTA

Bus service will be quicker because of simplified, more direct routes and the elimination of troublesome turns. 📸: MTA

The plan is to add all-door boarding on buses and to add new fare payment devices to allow riders to pay with contactless smartcards as well as the MetroCard once it's been updated. This could take up to six years to implement, but once it is, riders will be able to pay by simply tapping their debit, credit or MetroCard to pay. By allowing all-door boarding on routes the amount of time it takes to load passengers will decrease drastically, as evident from San Francisco's implementation of it. Fare evasion might increase as a result though as evident on some SBS routes that's not always the case, and the MTA can add more fare inspectors to deal with that if it wants.

In other digital improvements, screens will be added to new buses and 1,000 of the existing fleet to show stops and other useful announcements. For cellphone addicts or workaholics, WiFi and USB charging ports are being built into new buses that the transit agency receives.

NYC Councillor Mark Levine introduced a bill recently that requires the Department of Transportation to change traffic lights along ten routes per year for the next four years to include transit signal priority measures, which are technological improvements that shorten red lights or extend green ones when buses are detected near them. This hasn't been put into law yet and shouldn't be thought of as happening for sure, though the bill has 30 co-sponsors — there's a chance other councillors could oppose if drivers voice too many objections.

There's also the issue of helping people actually get around the city and to know what service to take, something that the MTA is taking into consideration as they prepare for the release of the MYmta app. Once installed, it will allow for users to plan subway, bus and commuter rail trips, see real-time arrival and elevator outage info and show the nearest stations for both buses and trains.

This doesn't mean that the MTA needs to consult with an outside agency every time it wants to make changes to its routes, but it does need to do so a good chunk of the time. Whether or not bus service improves in New York is all up to how much traffic and policing changes and spending people will be accepting of, and whether or not state leaders are willing to make faster bus service a priority.

📸: Unsplash and the MTA 📈: MTA