Select Bus Service: A Critique

NYCT SBS M34

New York City’s Select Bus Service

I decided to start a series of posts about Select Bus Service (SBS) in New York City with commentary about practically everything from the features of Select Bus Service to the name itself to the ideas behind it.  Let’s talk about some of the specifics of SBS.

First, the whole concept of SBS.  Select Bus Service is a form of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) for the City of New York.  It’s operated by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority with cooperation with the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT).  The MTA operates the service, while the DOT produces the signs, bus shelters, bus lanes, and other things that are supposed to make SBS special.  For most of the SBS routes, the buses used are pictured above, the NovaBUS LFS Artic, produced in Quebec and Upstate New York.  SBS is supposed to make buses faster once a line is converted, whether it be with bus lanes, farther stop spacing, ticket machines for pre-boarding payment, or transit signal prioritization.  These are all things that make BRT systems pop out to the average transit rider or transit advocate as something special.  New Yorkers are told to imagine SBS as a “surface subway” (DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan’s words) since you cannot compare BRT to light rail for New Yorkers who are largely unfamiliar with that concept.  OK, fine, call it a surface subway if you want.  However, if it looks like a bus, smells like a bus, rides like a bus, and feels like a bus, who are you fooling?  Nevertheless, this is the DOT’s effort to make the Mayor happy and endorse his PlaNYC initiative for greener streets and greener communities by 2030.  So far, the SBS initiative falls short of the hype.  I will not call it a failure, since it has its success, albeit limited.  I will say, however, that most of what we have come to expect from SBS hasn’t really materialized and may not materialize at all.  After all, this is New York, the greatest city in the world.  (end of sarcasm)

I want to talk about off-board fare collection for a second.  Off-board fare collection is a concept that is relatively new in New York City but is practiced in many areas of the country, mainly with newer light rail systems (much like the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail) and in some commuter rail systems.  Basically, instead of paying on the vehicle when it arrives, you pay BEFORE the vehicles arrives at a stop, which means less time spent boarding the bus and looking for correct change.  This system is normally referred to as a “Proof of Payment” or POP system for short, which involves paying before boarding, validating a paid fare with a receipt, and random checks by special fare enforcement personnel to ensure that everyone has paid.

In New York City, the MTA deploys their “Eagle” Team, a force of the MTA Department of Security made up of MTA Security Personnel and former NYPD officers, to ensure everyone pays the fare, or else they issue $100 fare evasion summonses to those who don’t.  They are randomly deployed on SBS lines at random stops to do checks, some while the bus is in motion, some while the bus is stopped at a station, and occasionally at a station before the bus arrives.  Some lines  and some stops seem to get more spot checks than others, but the Eagle Team can patrol at any time the SBS lines operate.  Some lines like the Bx12, believed to be fare evasion central, don’t really see too many checks, unlike a line like the M15, where it is believed that everyone pays, and I am not sure why this is, even to this day.  Usually, the Eagle Team tours together, in groups of 3 or 6 to ensure there are one to two officers for every door of the SBS bus to check fares and/or write summonses.  Being that this is mostly the case, there shouldn’t be any issues with patrolling the Bx12 more than the M15, unless there is a political motive.  Nonetheless, due to the recent acknowledgement that the MTA is losing tons of money on uncollected fare revenue in recent years, the Eagle Teams have been out much more often (and even on non-SBS lines).

Now, on to other matters.

Personally, I would not have chosen the NovaBUS LFS Artic as the bus of choice for SBS, due to the decrease in interior standing space and negligible decrease in seats compared to older articulated buses in NYC Transit’s fleet, but it was chosen because of the sleek exterior styling, low-floor design, ease of maintenance but durable enough to withstand New York streets, and among the best fuel economy of any low-floor clean-diesel bus available in the North American transit bus industry.  We have over 400 of these buses (in the 1200, 5700, 5800, 5900, 5200, and 5300 series) between SBS and non-SBS routes in all boroughs except Staten Island.  I would have preferred the New Flyer “Xcelsior” model which addresses certain design concerns, looks eye-catching, comes standard with energy-efficient LED headlights, has a raised ceiling in the rear section for better headroom, and can be fully customizable for any transit agency’s needs.  We have 90 Articulated Xcelsior buses, all in the 4700-series, and all running in the Bronx.

As far as route branding goes, I would have picked a better name for the BRT service, since “Select” sound premium yet a bit elitist.  It kind of eludes to the fact that people who may ride the BRT service might choose BRT over regular buses but might get carried away with some of the wow-factor features of BRT.  With that said, I am a bit content with New York City choosing “Select” since most other cities with BRT in the US have such cliche names for their service, usually with “rapid” or “quick” or “rapid ride” or something like “fast way” or “bus way” in the name.  New York chose to be unique, maybe because trying to advocate faster service in an environment that doesn’t foster fast service might be a recipe for political disaster.  Besides, how much worse of a name could you come up with?  “Jump,” Chicago’s BRT service, comes to mind.  Though the meaning of “Jump” is sensible, they could have done a lot better than that…but I digress.

As far as SBS street treatments, because of the nature of some city streets, putting all of the SBS treatments such as offset bus lanes (a term the DOT came up with to refer to the lane next to the curb lane which in some cases is used as a parking lane and in other cases used as an extra travel lane), bus bulbs (another DOT creation, meaning the bus stops where the sidewalk is constructed to meet the bus as opposed to the bus pulling into the stop), and transit signal priority are prohibitive depending on the corridor, which is why I plan to talk about each current SBS corridor individually.  Not to mention the audacity of the DOT to try to change the streetscape for the better even though businesses in the corridor might not like the potential loss of parking spaces for their customers (who often walk and take transit, too!)… Also, let’s not forget the community boards and their resistance to change without addressing long-standing transit issues within their sphere of influence.  Nonetheless, the implementation of SBS elements, even if they are included, has been slow if not lackluster, from the rapidly chipping bus lane paint to the slow progress of bus bulb construction on 1st Avenue (although most of the Nostrand Avenue bus bulbs are completed).  If we are to continue with SBS, there needs to be much more done quicker and possibly BEFORE the implementation of SBS and not during.

Let us talk about each corridor a little bit in depth:

Fordham Road/Pelham Parkway (Bx12 +Select Bus Service+)

First and Second Avenues (M15 +Select Bus Service+)

34th Street (M34 and M34A +Select Bus Service+)

Hylan Boulevard/Richmond Avenue (S79 +Select Bus Service+)

Webster Avenue (Bx41 +Select Bus Service+)

Nostrand/Rogers Avenues (B44 +Select Bus Service+)

125th Street/Astoria Boulevard (M60 +Select Bus Service+)

86th Street (M86 +Select Bus Service)

Main Street (Q44 +Select Bus Service)

Future Corridors:

Woodhaven/Cross Bay Boulevards (Q52 and Q53 +Select Bus Service+)

East 163rd Street/Hunts Point (Bx6 +Select Bus Service+)

Utica Avenue/Malcolm X Blvd (B46 +Select Bus Service)

Kings Highway/Flatlands Avenue (B82 +Select Bus Service+)

23rd Street (M23 +Select Bus Service+)

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