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New Yorkers are abandoning the bus in droves. Between 2009 and 2018, total bus ridership fell more than 17 percent, with a 4.7 percent decline in 2018 alone. Slow, unpredictable service is costing New Yorkers time with their families, making them late for work and appointments, and exacerbating the city’s gridlock as more people turn to road-clogging ride-hail services like Uber and Lyft.
According to the Bus Turnaround Coalition’s analysis of real-time MTA data, bus speeds for the average passenger were just 6.6 mph in 2018, down from 6.8 mph in 2017. On frequent routes, where buses are scheduled to arrive at least every 15 minutes, 1 in 9 buses arrived bunched, creating frustrating, unpredictable gaps in service.
There’s nothing inevitable about falling bus ridership. Working together, New York City Transit and NYC DOT can deliver faster, more reliable service that will get New Yorkers back on the bus.
This year’s grades show some evidence of widespread improvement compared to 2017, though it may be imperceptible to most riders. In 2018, 30 fewer bus routes received a failing grade than the year before, due largely to reductions in bus bunching. On frequent bus routes, the rate of bunching declined from 14% to 11%. The MTA attributes these reliability gains to better dispatching practices that keep buses more evenly spaced.
And on a handful of high-ridership routes, bus priority improvements made tangible impacts:
The impact of bus lanes, all-door boarding, stop consolidation, and signal priority on SBS routes is clear to see. Overall, SBS bus are faster than local routes (8.2 mph vs. 6.4mph) and have significantly lower bunching rates (7.9% vs. 11.1%).
These successes show that improvements are possible, but they’re too few and far between. Half of all routes still got a “D”. There were 58 “F”s, 124 “D”s, 57 “C”s, 8 “B”s, and a single “A”. Full report cards for every bus route, as well as grades for all NYC legislative and community board districts, are available at the redesigned busturnaround.nyc website.
Instead of rolling out changes on a handful of routes each year, City Hall and the MTA must make policy that’s commensurate to the problem and implement changes on a citywide scale.
Public officials are setting good goals. Mayor de Blasio has committed to a 25% increase in bus speeds by the end of 2020 through a dramatic expansion of bus lanes, better bus lane enforcement, and more signal priority for buses at intersections. The MTA says it will adopt all-door boarding citywide and fully redesign the bus network by 2021.
The Bus Turnaround Coalition applauds these objectives. Now bus riders need City Hall, the City Council, and the MTA to follow through. The Coalition calls for:
City government and the MTA are aligned on the need for the full suite of policies to improve bus service. If they execute their plans as promised, they will turn around the city’s surface transit system, and millions of New Yorkers will get bus service they want to ride instead of service they can barely tolerate.
“New Yorkers have a right to a reliable transit system, but millions who rely on buses – particularly those in the outer boroughs – suffer because of slower speeds and longer travel time that leave most buses crawling not much faster than walking speed,” said Councilman Mark Levine. “Unlike the subway system, major pieces of bus infrastructure are controlled by the City. That’s why I have been fighting for the City to drastically increase the pace of transit signal priority (TSP) technology for the past two years—a fight we recently won as the Mayor announced DOT would be implementing TSP in 300 intersections a year for the next five years. But as this report card makes clear, we still have more to do.”
“It is disappointing to see that nearly half of our City’s bus routes continue to be reliably slow,” said Council Member Ben Kallos. “Our City knows what it has to do to fix the problem, but we are not doing it fast enough and every day that passes is a lost opportunity to improve the lives of the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers in every borough that rely on buses for transportation. I am proud of the work my office and the DOT has accomplished in my district getting several of the critical bus routes converted into Select Bus Service leading to improved service proof that it is possible. We need to do more of this throughout Manhattan and New York City as a whole. Thank you to the Bus Turnaround Coalition for their commitment to this goal, you have my complete support.”
“These grades reflect a lack of partnership between City Hall, MTA and the people of New York,” said Council Member Andy King. “As we are all affected and benefit from public transportation, it is our responsibility to ensure that the services being provided are meeting standards. I do acknowledge the improvement of our bus system I also see that our commuters are choosing Lyft and Uber because they are able to get them to their destinations on time and faster. It is unacceptable that our buses are performing at the level to which they are and I am motivated to work with the Bus Turnaround Coalition, my colleagues in government and the MTA to improve bus performance.”
“Another year, another failing grade,” said Council Member Keith Powers. “Recently, some of my neighbors raced the M14 on foot from Stuyvesant Town to Union Square. Pedestrians were able to walk faster than the bus that is the proposed option to replace the L train during service interruptions. When buses do arrive, they move all too slowly to get commuters from point A to point B. New Yorkers deserve better and I thank the Bus Turnaround Coalition for a continued focus on upgrading the system.”
“I represent the only city council district with no train service, so buses are absolutely critical,” said Council Member Barry S. Grodenchik. “Faster, more frequent, more reliable bus service would make a tremendous difference in the quality of life of so many residents of Eastern Queens.”
“The only reason most of my constituents can’t walk faster than their bus is that they fell asleep waiting for their bus,” said Council Member Justin Brannan. “While buses are becoming a little more reliable, it’s still not enough and barely noticeable to the average commuter. Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bath Beach and Bensonhurst deserve reliable, on-time service and we will settle for nothing, less.”
“In 2018, the average local bus traveled at a sluggish 6.4 miles per hour,” said TransitCenter Research Associate Mary Buchanan. “That’s even slower than last year’s average, and considerably slower than another New York City transit fixture: the rats running through the subway, which can sprint faster than 8 miles per hour.”
“Bus riders deserve much better than service that fails them,” said Riders Alliance Senior Organizer Stephanie Burgos-Veras. “The good grades announced today show what is possible with commitment and follow-through. The bad grades let us know how much more work needs to be done. Buses can deliver for riders when elected leaders put riders first on our streets and in our budgets.”
“When bus service doesn’t make the grade, bus riders are the ones who get held back,” said Jaqi Cohen, Campaign Coordinator for the NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign. “These grades show just how pervasive poor bus service is citywide, and exemplify why it is so important for the MTA and New York City DOT to work together towards an aggressive revitalization of New York City’s bus system.”
“New York City’s bus riders are still struggling with slow and unreliable bus service,” said Nick Sifuentes, Executive Director of Tri-State Transportation Campaign. “Fortunately, both the MTA and Mayor de Blasio have committed to making substantial improvements to bus service. Riders need them to live up to their promises, because if they do, New Yorkers will finally have the kind of bus service they can rely on for work, school, and opportunity.”
“These bus performance report cards show that commuters who need buses the most cannot rely on them,” said Julie Tighe, President of the New York League of Conservation Voters. “In order to reduce emissions from the transportation sector, the #1 contributor to climate change in New York, public transit needs to be reliable for all. We need to prioritize buses on our streets in NYC — with bus lanes and transit signal priority, as well as by transitioning to a cleaner fleet.”