How to get riders back on the bus

Fixing New York City's bus network could be key to rebuilding New Yorkers' faith in the city and state’s ability to deliver high-quality mass transit.

New York City bus.

New York City bus. Anton_Ivanov/Shutterstock

With all of the excitement and focus on autonomous vehicles and ride-hailing companies like Uber, Lyft and Via, this year is poised to be the year of the bus in New York City. Since Jan. 1, Mayor Bill de Blasio committed to increasing bus speeds by 25 percent, Council Speaker Corey Johnson began surveying bus passengers to find out how to improve service and Transport Workers Union Local 100, one of the unions that represents bus operators in New York, launched a campaign to bring separated bus lanes to Flatbush Avenue – one of Brooklyn’s main arteries.

De Blasio, Johnson and TWU are responding to a crisis in the city’s public bus system.Between 2012 and 2017, annual ridership on buses declined by more than 60 million rides. As travel speeds have slowed, the bus system has grown less reliable, which is why multiple buses pull up to a bus stop bunched together rather than spaced apart as the schedule promises. By addressing the problems that plague the bus system, elected officials can help New York’s most vulnerable populations. Bus riders, on average, have lower incomes than subway riders, and New Yorkers as a whole. Bus riders are also more often minorities and/or foreign-born.

Buses have moved into the spotlight because transportation policy in New York is out of sync with what is happening on the streets – and beneath them. Traffic congestion is growing, the subways are breaking down and shedding passengers, all while the work rehabilitating streets and bridges is draining capital budgets. The rise of new options, such as ride-hailing apps, short-term bicycle rentals and e-bikes, are straining existing planning and policy paradigms. Growing bus ridership would remove riders from overcrowded subways and cars from gridlocked streets.

To get New Yorkers back on the buses, it needs to become a mode of transportation that New Yorkers can rely on rather than a mode of last resort. Fortunately, New York City isn’t the first city that’s needed to recast its bus system. Barcelona, Spain, Bogotá, Columbia, and Seoul, South Korea, have increased bus ridership by freeing buses from congestion, limiting how often they stop, increasing the number of buses along key routes and redrawing bus routes to match changing demographics and land use patterns. If the New York City Department of Transportation and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority implement similar strategies, it could make New Yorkers actually want to take the bus.

To get buses out of car traffic, which slows them down and makes wait times unpredictable, more bus routes need dedicated lanes.The first thing the city transportation department should do to transform bus service is redesign streets to include two-way separated bus lanes in the median along key corridors. One might think that the existing bus lanes that are painted red would be enough to keep buses free of traffic; however, these lanes are more often at a standstill than neighboring travel lanes. Part of the problem is that when bus lanes run next to the curb, it invites conflicts with delivery trucks, taxis, double-parked cars and turning vehicles. Ideally, key corridors would be redesigned with two-way bus lanes in the median to keep buses free from these conflicts.

The next key to speeding up the bus network is getting the MTA to consolidate the number of bus stops along each route. When Alon Levy and I proposed a redesigned bus network in Brooklyn, we found that of the 1,500 bus stops we examined, the average distance between stops was 720 feet. Cities in Asia and Europe typically space bus stops every 1,300 feet to 1,800 feet. By increasing the distance between stops, buses spend more time traveling and less time pulling up to the curb, waiting for passengers to pay and exit, and re-entering the flow of traffic. Boarding through all doors and giving buses priority at red lights would also be important upgrades.

Another key plank in getting New Yorkers back on the bus – without increasing its operating costs – is to eliminate routes with inefficient jaunts through areas with low ridership and reallocate that service to routes with greater demand. Frequent, reliable bus service is critical to rebuilding ridership. In Barcelona, buses came every 12 minutes, on average, before its redesign. Now the average time between buses is five to eight minutes. When buses come more frequently, people can access much more of the network by transferring between buses without worrying when the connecting bus will arrive.

Finally, it’s critical to redraw bus routes to match changing demographics: Bus routes in Brooklyn haven’t received a comprehensive overview since at least 1978. By examining old trolley maps, it’s obvious that many bus routes are holdovers from nearly 100 years ago. As neighborhoods in eastern Brooklyn, such as East New York and Canarsie, have seen land converted to housing, the buses haven’t kept up with these changes.

The reason to support quality bus service is obvious: It takes advantage of the existing road network and, as a result, is cheaper and easier to improve quickly than the subway system. The drawback of the bus, from the perspective of its detractors, is that improvements require taking travel lanes from cars or taking parking spaces that are either free, notoriously underpriced or hoarded by drivers with dubious parking placards.

Based on efforts to introduce Select Bus Service – the joint program between the MTA and New York City Department of Transportation to improve bus performance by having passengers pay before boarding the bus and giving priority to buses on the city’s streets – in the BronxBrooklyn and Queens, we know that there’s opposition to change. Local business owners and elected officials worry that the loss of parking or travel lanes will increase congestion or make it difficult for people to access shops. This concern, however, overlooks the obvious fact that the busiest bus routes in New York carry more than 40,000 New Yorkers a day. Elected officials need to find the language and messaging to convince their constituents that sacrificing a few dozen parking spaces along a handful of routes will enable more New Yorkers to access schools, jobs, subways, medical appointments and New York’s retail and cultural amenities.

Fixing the bus system requires vision and political courage, but – unlike a lot of the city’s problems – many of these upgrades are within the city’s purview. The city and the MTA will need to coordinate their efforts and work together, but it’s not a function of getting the state to fund a multibillion-dollar capital plan, as it is with the subways. Street redesigns implemented by the city transportation department, for example, help buses operated by the MTA run more efficiently, which means fewer hours of overtime and more money for other transit needs.

Improving bus service also works as a carrot to entice outer-borough residents to support congestion pricing, the proposal to get cars off Manhattan’s streets by charging drivers to enter the heart of Manhattan. Mustering the votes for congestion pricing will depend on winning the support of outer-borough elected officials and voters, who may balk at paying to drive into Manhattan until improvements to the mass transit system demonstrate that it is a reliable alternative.

Fixing the bus network is a good, cheap first step to rebuild New Yorkers’ faith in the city and state’s ability to deliver high-quality mass transit.