Making Sense of New York City’s Bus System

M104 Bus

(c) 2013 C. Walton

What would New York be without its buses?  Probably just an urban jungle with an underground cavern of concrete, metal, and steel dust.  However, where the subway lacks coverage, the buses fill in…for the most part.  That the bus network in this city is extensive is only helpful and useful for the person who understands it.  Double that for the outer boroughs due to the lack of a grid structure in the street network.  Nonetheless, in the outer parts of the outer boroughs, the buses are the backbone that carry thousands of riders to and from the farthest reaches of the subway.  Manhattan has so many subway routes and tunnels that the subway by itself could be a city within a city, but the buses help with getting people around on the surface when subways cannot provide nearly door-to-door service.

In some parts of the city, mainly in the outer boroughs, the buses are the only way to get around, simply because the subways don’t reach their neighborhoods.  If you live in neighborhoods like Springfield Gardens or Lindenwood in Queens or Gerritsen Beach and Sea Gate in Brooklyn, you know what I’m talking about.  Even in some neighborhoods like Fort Greene in Brooklyn or Morrisania in the Bronx where there are many subway lines, buses reach the “remote” parts of the community and the subway is that faraway place only reachable by bus to go anywhere outside the borough.  With many bus routes criss-crossing within the outer boroughs and a handful that cross borough lines, any casual unfamiliar rider would think they were looking at a bowl of spaghetti, not knowing what goes where and why.

With that said, how can you make sense of the bus network?

Well, let’s first start with the basics.  New York City’s bus network consist of close to 300 local, limited, and Select Bus Service routes as well as roughly 60 express bus routes, divided between MTA New York City Transit and MTA Bus Company.  (MTA Bus Company was formed in 2005 to take over the franchises of 7 private bus companies contracted by the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) to provide bus service in Queens, Brooklyn, and The Bronx.)  There are about 5,900 buses between the two MTA agencies, all of which are wheelchair-accessible either via a lift mechanism or a deployable ramp.  Most of the current bus routes were former streetcar or trolleybus routes that were either privately or publicly operated up until about the 1960s.  Even though neighborhood demographics have changed dramatically since then, much of the ridership trends have changed relatively little, and thus the MTA appears to keep everything the same so that they can maintain an efficient operation.

So what is it that I would like to see in regards to the bus network? Well, a few things including, but not limited to:

  1. A comprehensive study of the bus network, all of its routes, their functions, and ridership trends over a 20- or 30-year period, or even just now
  2. Once the above is done, a slight redesign of the bus maps as we know them, color coding bus routes more purposefully as opposed to random with exceptions
  3. Real-time bus information with BusTime data at major transfer locations and transit centers, much like what was piloted on the B44 SBS
  4. Special subway feeder lines and even direct-access “express” bus routes to reduce commute times for riders heading to subways
  5. Better use of articulated buses on heavy routes
  6. Restructuring of bus routes for better clarity and ease of use (which I talked about briefly in an earlier post

Those are some of the ideas that I have, some small and others larger, but I think it’s time for riders to see how they can make better use of the bus system, for people to understand the tangled web of color lines on the maps, and the MTA to look at other ways to improve their network while still maintaining a reasonable operation.

The new routes and route extensions that the MTA has created over the last few years is part of the solution.  There was a need to connect the Williamsburg waterfront area with bus service via the B32.  Service to the Navy Yard needed improvement via the B67 weekday extension.  Alternate service to Gateway Center Mall in Spring Creek was a great idea via the B84.  However, I’m not too sure that making these new routes run every 30 minutes during a short span of the day is a great idea to build ridership.  It’s almost saying, “well, we want to create a new service, but we don’t want a million buses serving a route no one will use,” or even “well, let’s create these routes so that they fail and people will see that our routes as they are function they way they were intended.”  Now, the public isn’t asking for a bus on every street, but at least create a route that has potential and make it attractive enough so that it will allow you to break even or come close to it.  It all boils down to costs per passenger per hour, which is a metric that the MTA uses to determine whether a route would be cost-effective or a boondoggle.  It’s all about cost.  Money.

I just feel that if the MTA complains about stagnant ridership on its bus network, instead of adding buses to busy routes or converting routes to Select Bus Service (not to say it isn’t warranted, though), maybe it’s time to think outside the box a little bit…more.  BusTime is a great out-of-the-box idea…if used effectively.  Tell us how far away the next bus is, but how about estimated wait time?

My purpose here is to get the conversation going, not a criticism of the MTA (whether I work for them or not), but merely something to think about when the MTA proposes any changes to our system that might be helpful or detrimental to us while they ask us to pay a little more for a ride.

Now that we have that out there in the open, it’s time to really dig deep into some of this brainstorming I have been doing over the past few years.


Stay tuned…

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