Let's talk about how to make buses better.

Bottom line, up front: The New York MTA's bus redesign is a good start, but its reforms are too timid.

I spend a lot of time here talking about how transit in the U.S. doesn't work, and much of it is about how American transit operators get things wrong. One problem I know particularly well is just how terrible New York City buses are. They're barely faster than walking, and unreliable because they constantly get stuck in traffic. Only 69% of MTA buses ran on time. (The MTA has a whole report summarizing this stuff.) To its credit, the MTA is redesigning its bus network, one borough at a time, and it includes a lot of the right ingredients to make the bus network work better.


Thus, in that light, I'm going to analyze the MTA's bus redesign of a two-mile section of Fulton Street, Brooklyn, shown above. I know this area exceedingly well, because it was my old commute. There are four services on this corridor: the local B25 and B26 buses, the C local subway and the A express subway.

Just to preface things, there's no silver bullet to improving a bus line. Rather, it's a collection of incremental improvements that shave off a couple minutes here and there. The gold standard of bus service is the G (Orange) Line in Los Angeles, which has a dedicated busway, railway-style crossing gates for cross traffic, ticket machines at stations, platform-level boarding, and you can enter and exit using all doors, with stops every mile or so. It's basically light rail on rubber tires, but it requires a lot of infrastructure improvements and a political commitment to using street real estate for buses. But it's not all or nothing. The nice thing about buses is that you can introduce busway elements to normal city bus lines to make them faster, more reliable, and cheaper to run. The MTA's proposed reforms introduce some of these characteristics. Let's talk about some of them.


1. Fewer stops.

Most European cities have a local bus stop every 400-500 m - that is, 3-4 stops per mile. This is not what they do in the US. The MTA averages a stop every 240m, a little less than 7 per mile. The European approach makes for a slightly longer walk to the bus, but it also makes buses significantly faster. On this two-mile stretch of Fulton Street there are eight stops per mile, or a stop every 200 meters or so. This is too many.

Like, the buses stop at the Clinton-Washington C train station twice: once at the west end of the platform and once at the east end of the platform. Same thing with the Fulton St G station, the Hoyt St 23, and the Nostrand Ave AC. Between Jay Street and Flatbush Avenue - a third of a mile, or a 7-minute walk - there are four stops. Each additional stop slows the bus by 20 seconds or so, and decreases the reliability of the schedule.

The MTA's new proposal changes this. The B25 stays as the local bus and a few stops are consolidated. The B26 has been totally revamped to acts as a subway feeder route. There's a stop every half-mile once it clears downtown Brooklyn. This is also a good change, because once the B26 leaves Fulton Street it enters an area of Brooklyn with poor subway service. These changes are good, but I don't think the MTA's cuts to the B25 are aggressive enough.

There's three additional B25 stops on the route which could also be cut to speed up the route, and this is in just two miles' worth of Fulton Street. The Hoyt-Duffield stop is only 500' (150m) from the Bond stop, the Classon Ave stop is 850' (250m) from the Franklin C station, and Carlton Av-Adelphi St stop is 600' (180m) from the Lafayette G.  (GIF comparison below.)

2. Boarding through all doors.

On MTA local buses, like the B25 and B26, you can only board and pay the fare through the front door. This is the traditional way of boarding a bus. It also dramatically slows down the boarding process. The better way to do it is to let passengers enter and exit through both doors and to install an OMNY reader at the back door for passengers to tag off. This is universal in San Francisco and Tel Aviv; the MTA's Select Bus lines already do this. In San Francisco, this cut passenger boarding times by 38%.

There are concerns that all-door boarding will lead to increased fare evasion, but that wasn't borne out when San Francisco switched to it. Fare evasion actually marginally dropped in SF after they introduced all-door boarding.


The MTA's bus reforms don't go nearly far enough, though. Some of these changes the MTA could do itself, but I realize that not everything is within the MTA's control. That said, if you made me transit dictator, I'd also make the following changes:

A. No cash.

Cash boarding is slow, and cash-counting infrastructure is expensive to maintain. For transit agencies, about 10 cents out of every dollar collected in cash goes to the cost of cash handling. After all, that's a LOT of quarters to be carrying around. You can kill two birds with one stone by getting rid of cash fares on buses and requiring people to use a fare card. London does this, as does Tel Aviv. (When London switched to accepting only its Oystercard, it saved Transport for London £26 million a year.)

I am aware that many passengers need to use cash to load their farecards, but the MTA already has arrangements in place with Walgreens, CVS, CFSC and 7-11 to load OMNY cards with cash. You could expand this, too: in Tel Aviv, RavKav cards can be reloaded at most ATMs, and in Madrid you can buy transit cards at the estancos, which are their equivalents of the bodega.

B. More bus lanes, and actual enforcement.

The inner section of Fulton, between Jay and Flatbush, is a busway. During the daytime, there are bus lanes on the middle section between Flatbush Ave and Fort Greene Place, and there are rush-hour bus lanes between Fort Greene Place and Grand.

While the busway inbound of Flatbush is well-enforced, the sections outbound of Flatbush are regularly blocked by illegally parked cars and trucks unloading. There just isn't consistent enforcement. Exacerbating the problem, the bus lanes don't have consistent rules for when they're in effect.

The MTA can't solve the lanes problem alone, because bus lanes are the City Department of Transportation's responsibility. The political lines of accountability just don't run the same way. (My former city councilor, Laurie Cumbo, is responsible for this mess because she reduced the bus lane hours.) This is one of the problems that could be partially addressed by putting the City in charge of the MTA.

C. Reformed handicapped boarding regulations.

Wheelchair passengers are unusually dependent on buses in NYC. The big reason is, most of the NYC subway is old and it was built before the Americans with Disabilities Act. Making the subway accessible has been a total nightmare, because the MTA construction bureaucracy is bad at its job.

The regulations for wheelchair operations make bus operations even harder, because the ADA regulations require bus drivers to physically lock down wheelchairs using a seatbelt-like contraption. This process is slow and inefficient, and can take a minute or more for each passenger.

This process is not necessary. In the EU, disabled passengers use ramps to get on and get off the bus, and there are dedicated wheelchair spaces. Otherwise, handicapped passengers ride the bus like every other passenger. Their logic is, city bus riders don't have to wear seatbelts, so there's no reason to require wheelchair passengers to be belted down as well. I haven't seen any literature explaining why the ADA requires this tedious process but Europeans don't. (If anyone has a comparative analysis of this, I'd love to see it.) Given that Europeans take transit far more than Americans, we should just adopt their procedures and abolish the wheelchair restraint requirement. This would take federal action, but it's a regulatory reform, not one that requires Congressional input.


Buses don't have to be the transport of last resort.

While doing the research for the Lost Subways book, a couple things struck me. When I went to Toronto and Montreal, my cousins told me I should just take the bus if I wasn't going to take the subway. The same thing happened when I asked friends in Vancouver and Tel Aviv about how to get around. "Just take the bus, it's not that complicated." Same thing in Madrid. These things can be fixed in the US. It's not brain surgery. But it does require importing best practices from elsewhere and getting in line with how they do things elsewhere in the world.

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