Adi Talwar

On a recent Friday evening, commuters boarding a Bx12 (Select Bus Service) on 207th street just East of 10th avenue in Manhattan. Some had to wait for the next bus due to crowding.


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This story is the first in a series about the city’s bus system.
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It is not hard to find complaints about the city’s bus system. On the Rider’s Alliance website, there’s an ebook titled “Woes on the Bus” that highlights missed opportunities, being late to appointments, and getting in trouble at school or at work thanks to bus delays. A resident from Brooklyn identified as Chris B said that he takes the B67, which is never on time. He’s often late to work. His boss is running out of patience. “I’m not allowed to make up missed time, so they take the money out of my paycheck,” his blurb read. Sade G, a commuter from Queens, talked about how the bus often makes her late to pick up her son after school, and that having slow buses near her made her lose a previous job. Over 1,000 New Yorkers from over 100 bus routes were interviewed for the ebook. Many of them lost job opportunities, missed an important meeting, or had to pay extra money for something because their bus was stuck in traffic.

Their stories are significant to the state of public transit since city buses carry more than 2 million passengers every single day. But while train ridership reached record levels in 2016 according to the MTA, and New York City’s population has increased more than 5 percent since 2010, bus ridership is trending down. “The MTA bus system has lost 100 million passenger trips in the last eight years,” according to a recent report from city Comptroller Scott Stringer.

The decline in ridership might reflect the fact that 38 bus routes were cut entirely, while 76 others were changed to run on shorter routes for shorter hours in 2010, according to a report from WNYC. Several of the lines were express buses that used to run on weekdays and weekends.

Or it could be the slow-motion impact of long-standing flaws in the city’s bus system: The endless lines to board the bus; the agonizing trudge through traffic; the crowded aisles; the gaps between buses that, ironically, then seem to arrive in pairs.

But while ridership has declined, the importance—and potential role—of the bus system has not. There are train deserts near New York City’s two major airports, and clusters of Central Brooklyn, Eastern and Central Queens where no train lines run at all. A 2010 study titled “New York City’s Green Dividend” showed that around 23 in 100 New York City residents own a car as compared to 77 per 100 in most urban areas in the country. Without steady access to a car or train, buses are the best option for a lot of New Yorkers in transportation deserts. This is especially true if residents are low-income or work in an area without access to steady parking. According to a 2015 CityLab post, more than 90 percent of the city’s population lives within a quarter mile of a bus stop.

Within recent years, a lot of attention has been paid to fixing subway issues. The MTA announced it’s NYC Subway Action Plan in 2017 and has constantly released information on delays. Another recent report from Stringer’s office shows how even minor delays of just a few minutes can cost New Yorkers over 100 million in a year.

But there isn’t an action plan for the bus system or as much information about the number of delays or what they cost commuters. When Mayor de Blasio or Governor Cuomo need to stage a transit-related photo op, they tend to descend the steps to a subway station and maybe step on to a train for a stop or two. They do not stake out a bus stop or crowd onto a packed bus.

But the days of buses being the neglected element of the city’s transit network might be coming to an end. The Regional Plan Association has called for a dramatic expansion of bus service in its new Fourth Regional Plan. Meanwhile, subway repair work will shift massive numbers of New York commuters into the bus system: When the L train, which cuts through Northern Brooklyn, is shut for repairs in 2019, many of the 400,000 that regularly take the L train will have to rely on buses.

Hard to pinpoint problem routes

Stephanie Burgos-Veras, a senior organizer for Rider’s Alliance, a grassroots organization that advocates for better service for everyday mass transit riders, says that it’s hard to pinpoint which buses are the worst or the best since so many have issues with wait time, while others may be overcrowded all the time, or always bunch up along the route.

“There’s poor service throughout the city, and it’s spread out,” she says. “There’s no communication between buses, which makes it worse, and then people don’t want to take the buses.”

To combat bus issues, Rider’s Alliance launched the Bus Turnaround Campaign at the end of 2016. Burgos-Veras hopes that with the combined efforts of New Yorkers and the campaign, the MTA will turn more of its focus towards improving and expanding bus service. And though she knows how important the trains are, she doesn’t want buses to be neglected.

“It’s a much easier and cheaper fix… nothing has to be built, it’s more about scheduling and adding features,” says Burgos-Veras.

The campaign has a section on their website that serves as a report card for each bus service.

It highlights how slow the bus is, how dramatically its ridership has decreased since 2010, and what percentage of buses have bunched up. Their site also has a tool for anyone to search the status of how slow buses are in their area according to state assembly districts or community board districts.

Like Burgos Vera, Jon Orcutt, a spokesperson for TransitCenter, says it’s hard to really say where the worst buses are, because there are so many issues that stem from different causes like traffic, bunching, or connectivity to other lines and modes of transport.

For example, the B12 a bus—with over 15,000 riders per day—got an F rating. Its ridership has gone down more than 20 percent since 2010, and it’s on time only 38 percent of the time. One in four of the B12 buses is bunched up along the route, meaning that commuters are often waiting for buses for more than 15 minutes—and then see two buses come at once. On average, the B12 travels at five miles per hour, compared to London buses that go 10 miles per hour and Boston buses that go 10.4 miles per hour. Many buses throughout the city have similar issues.

Because of delays, many New Yorkers post on Facebook or Tweet about being late or about what they hate about bus service on social media.

Michael Patrick, a model who lives in Brooklyn used to live in Maspeth, a part of Queens that is far from any train station. He claims that he could write a novel with stories about how bad bus service has made his life difficult. He used to rely on the Q58, Q59, and Q54 and says that he has waited up to 45 minutes between buses. Patrick says the worst part had to be the long line to get on the bus when it finally came; having to wait in the winter made it unbearable. It was one of the reasons why he moved to Brooklyn, where he could be near a train line.

“[It] made me late for work often. I worked in Midtown, left 2 hours before my meeting and ended up late,” he says.

Wade Wiggins, a Bronx resident who works in Harlem and regularly takes the Bx27, Bx36, and the Bx39, is frustrated with bus service. He says that he feels that the MTA doesn’t care about commuters.

“Leadership at MTA should take off their fancy suits, leave their offices and ride the bus for an entire month,” says Wiggins in an email. “As a matter of fact, they should do this during colder months, and warmer months. Perhaps then, they will understand how frustrated passengers are.”

He doesn’t think it’s right to have ever-increasing fares when he has to wait 30 or 40 minutes for a bus to work or to a meeting. Wiggins says that a bus driver told him that bus issues come from commuters not showing up to town halls to discuss their concerns with local buses. But Wiggins feels that service should be a priority regardless of who goes to a meeting.

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Roxanne Lim, a student at St. John’s University, lives in Far Rockaway and recently tweeted about the infrequent bus service near her. She takes the Q58, which is now a Select Bus Service route, where buses travel along specially-marked lanes and make fewer stops, which has cut down her commute from almost two and a half hours to an hour and a half.

But she thinks her commute could be even better if buses didn’t bunch up, which often makes her wait more than half an hour to get on a bus. It’s often made Lim miss her transfer bus, or the train.

“You can sometimes feel the difference when there aren’t as many people lining up to swipe…the main issue is the lateness that affects everything,” says Lim in an email.

A push to restore routes

Nily Rozic is an Assemblywoman who represents New York’s 25th district. It includes areas in East Queens including Flushing, Douglaston, Fresh Meadows, and Bayside. Many of those areas do not have a train station in them and so residents rely on cars and buses.

For example, if a resident in Bayside wanted to attend a Mets game at Citi Field, or visit the New York Hall of Science nearby in Corona, they would have to take the Q27 or Q12 to the 7 train. The trip would take almost an hour. If that resident used a car, it would only take 15 minutes. Anyone who doesn’t have a car or doesn’t live near the 7 train would have to use the limited bus options.

Rozic says she wanted state agencies to understand that it wasn’t just about commuting to work. Many New Yorkers need transportation to get around in their own neighborhoods. Rozic also wants routes to be interconnective in a way that makes sense.

“The Queens bus map looks like a bowl of spaghetti. It’s so erratic,” says Rozic.

She appreciates that Select Bus Service has increased and will continue to do so in the coming years. She also thinks it would be a great idea to continue expanding bus lanes. Rozic says that budget hearings are in full swing and that she wants as much attention paid to areas like hers that rely mainly on steady bus service.

Rozic advocated in 2017 alongside other local officials for the Q75 bus from Bayside to Jamaica to be restored, a route that was eliminated in 2010. Parts of Jamaica are a transportation hub for both buses and trains, so eliminating the Q75 made it even more difficult for East Queens residents to get around. The bus line has yet to be restored, but Rozic says that it’s important to make sure agencies like the MTA are aware that areas like Eastern Queens aren’t left behind or isolated from the rest of the borough and the rest of the city.

As more New Yorkers raise their voices about bus service in their area, local groups and officials speak up for faster changes.

Community Board 3 in lower Manhattan released a resolution in 2017 about the need for improvements in the M14A bus. Though a lot of the borough is connected through subway stations, some areas (including the edges of CB3) rely on bus service.

The resolution said that a number of elderly residents, schoolchildren and teachers in the area rely on the bus, and it asks that the MTA and other state agencies conduct research on how to stop congestion and to expand bus service.

David Crane, the chair of the community board’s transportation committee, says that he personally avoids the bus.

“I walk to the movie theater over on Houston and I take the route the bus takes and go from stop to stop,” he says. “It’s a half-hour walk and I get there before the bus.”

Crane thinks that if bus service throughout the city were more reliable, the bus system wouldn’t be seeing a dip in ridership. Since low ridership can give the MTA a reason to scrap a route when budgets get tight, there’s the potential for a vicious cycle. Instead of cutting routes, Crane wants the MTA to consider investing in those bus lines so that more commuters want to use them.

In October of 2017, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office announced that the city and the MTA would be expanding Select Bus Service to more than 21 routes in the next 10 years. The new service would allow more commuters on more lines to pay at the curb and to board at all doors, speeding up stops. SBS buses travel on designated bus lanes, change routes to emphasize stops that are the most important to riders on that particular line, and make fewer stops.

The city says that the service would reach around half a million riders across the city, almost quarter of the current bus ridership.

As of the end of 2017, 12 percent of bus rides went over SBS routes, but with the proposed expansion, 30 percent of buses would go over such routes. According to Bus Forward, a report on the select bus service expansion from the Department of Transportation, the average city bus travels at 7.4 miles an hour. But with select service, bus speeds can increase from 10 to 30 percent faster.

In early 2017, TransitCenter and Riders Alliance released a report outlining which 10 buses should be given priority for the bus lane expansion. Routes identified included the Q58 that goes through Broadway, Corona Avenue, and 108th Street in Queens and the S48 on Victory Boulevard in Staten Island.

Burgos-Veras says that the expansion is sorely needed, and that Riders Alliance supports it. But she’d like to see it be implemented a little faster, before bus ridership dwindles even more than it already has.

“We used to call for 20 routes a year to be switched over, but now we want 10. It’s still more than the city is going to implement and it’s too slow,” she says.

Burgos-Veras understands that planning for a large transit system takes time, but many other cities have begun to improve their buses, so she doesn’t see why New York City can’t push to do the same.

“It’s going to be an interesting year for transportation. My job is to work closely with local groups and with other policy makers to make sure buses in Queens aren’t neglected,” says Rozic.

Burgos-Veras feels that with the combined efforts of the city to expand select service, and officials like Rozic who are actively doing something about the decreased ridership, bus service could become a desired way of getting around.

“Without it, it’s like cutting blood circulation. The city wouldn’t be as great as it is without this kind of transportation,” she says.

Research assistance by Rolando Cruz.

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What’s wrong with the city’s buses? What’s right with them?

A video by Marc Bussanich with Jarrett Murphy.