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The Great Select Bus Service Conspiracy: Part III


mta select bus service route

(photo: MTA/Patrick Cashin)


This is part three of a three-part series

Previously discussed: the promises and the reality, the difference between bus travel time and passenger travel time, who benefits and who is hurt by SBS, how the mayor, MTA and DOT mislead, the true costs of SBS (part one); the denigration of local bus service, problems with enforcement, other SBS problems, negative effects on traffic and local businesses and how public participation is inadequate (part two).

Not a Cure-All
SBS is not the cure-all for local bus service problems as purported to be. Some SBS routes do not even make sense. In one case, there is a nearby unused rail line that could be reactivated at a fraction of the cost of constructing a new subway line without disrupting traffic and local businesses as SBS does. Yet it was never considered as an alternative to the Woodhaven Boulevard SBS.

The MTA and DOT want to spend $2 billion on SBS over the next ten years, but will not alter, add or extend existing bus routes to fill transit deserts. Some have been indirect or outdated for over 70 years. The MTA claims it would cost too much to increase service because they refuse to consider the resulting additional ridership from better service. They have rejected route improvements with increased annual operating costs of only $50,000.

Instead, they make foolhardy proposals to eliminate bus stops, such as on the Q22 where there is a high elderly population. The MTA suggested those riders use Access-A-Ride instead. Each one of those trips costs the MTA over $50. New bus routes are scheduled only at 30-minute intervals, which the MTA insists is sufficient. The actual wait for a bus is often longer. Is it any wonder that these routes are among the most lightly-utilized routes in the system?

Important transfer points are missing from SBS routes. For example, there is no way to transfer between the Q52/53 and the B15 Kennedy Airport route, which is also slated for the SBS treatment. “Dollar vans” continue to illegally compete with MTA buses, draining revenue from the MTA.

There is no desire by the MTA to connect new neighborhoods, thereby really improving mass transit. In most cases, SBS is merely replacing existing Limited Stop routes. The Southern Brooklyn SBS needs to connect Bay Ridge with Gateway Mall and Kennedy Airport, not just replace the B82. Potential economic benefits of such new routings are ignored. SBS construction costs (if applicable), operating costs, and ridership are the only variables considered.

How does the mayor know that 21 additional routes will be needed in the next ten years even before any SBS meetings are held? Why aren’t other solutions being discussed or analyzed? Perhaps routes need to be altered or added, more short services need to be provided or a zone express would make more sense than SBS. A short service does not operate for the entire length of the route. A zone express is a bus that picks up passengers bound for a single destination such as a major subway stop until it is full and then operates non-stop the rest of the way.

Can SBS Work?
Yes, if it is done correctly.

By imposing a deadline on DOT for 20 routes by the end of 2017, the mayor rushed the planning process so that some routes were not properly designed. It is now difficult or impossible for trucks to turn onto the Woodhaven Boulevard service roads, necessitating lengthy detours. SBS is most beneficial on very long routes where the average trip length is much greater than 2.3 miles. On the S79, for example, many riders travel a considerable portion of the route, at least five miles, and some travel ten or more, so many do save time. However, the S79 only includes three SBS features (two is the minimum number required to qualify as an SBS route), exclusive bus lanes (rush hours only), and longer distances between some stops than Limiteds; and more recently, TSM. There is no off-board fare collection, hence no additional enforcement costs, and standard 40-foot buses are used so there are no extra labor or fuel costs.

The effect on other traffic resulting from the bus lanes must also be considered to determine if the benefits afforded bus riders are greater than the harm done to motorists. The S79 Progress Report showed that traffic volumes declined on both Hylan Boulevard and parallel roadways. That is understandable when traffic congestion increases, which it did. That does not indicate a lower demand, but a lengthening of the peak period. We know congestion increased because in one instance the time it took to travel between two points increased by 50 percent from 10 to 15 minutes, but declined to a lesser extent in other instances. DOT explained away the time increase by attributing it to “daily roadway fluctuations.”

Responsible traffic studies do not draw conclusions from just two days, and Mondays and Fridays usually are not studied because they are atypical of weekday travel. If DOT averaged three midweek days before and after implementation and allowed at least a month for drivers to become accustomed to the elimination of traffic lanes, perhaps then it would be clear if the increased travel times were really a result of daily fluctuations or not.  DOT, however, is really only interested in the effects on bus riders, not on other traffic.

Other routes may also work fairly well like the Bx6, the Bx12, and the Q70. The M15 works well in the late evenings, providing a quicker alternative than the subway from the southern tip of Manhattan to the Upper East Side.

Proposed routes such as the B82 could work if they connect new neighborhoods. The B44 could have been designed better so that Kingsborough College students were better served and employees of Kings County and Downstate Medical Centers were not so inconvenienced. That, however, would have involved creating or rerouting other bus routes in the area to fill a needed service gap, something the MTA is hesitant to do. It also would have required public hearings. The MTA usually prefers the easy way over the correct way.

B44 SBS ridership south of Avenue X would greatly increase to at least a seated load per bus if a branch to serve Kingsborough Community College were instituted as was first proposed in 2013. No increase in service would be necessary because new riders would ride in the off-peak direction. Presently the 60-foot buses south of Avenue X only carry six or fewer passengers even during rush hours, except for a handful of trips when health care workers are changing shifts.   

Both proposals were made to the MTA or DOT and have been dismissed or ignored.

Is SBS worth it?
Consider that a simple state law requiring all non-emergency motor vehicles to give the right of way to buses pulling out of bus stops would save bus passengers more time than SBS because it would apply to all 326 bus routes, not only 17 or 38 SBS routes. It would also save the MTA money by shortening bus travel times. Best of all, it would cost virtually nothing, and would disrupt traffic less than exclusive bus lanes.  

The first SBS route began in 2008. Using 2011 as a base year and adding up the riders in the 12 SBS corridors we get 101,455,632 passengers. For 2016, the number is 98,800,534 passengers, or a 2.6% decline, while all local routes (NYCT and MTA Bus) declined by 3.3%. (It should be noted that the Q70 became an SBS route in 2015.)

Ridership on SBS routes declined by 0.86% from 2015 to 2016 while the system in general declined by 1.5%. SBS routes performed slightly better than all local/limited routes but did not reverse the declining trend in bus patronage, one of its goals. The M15 First and Second Avenue route alone lost over 3 million annual passengers between 2012 and 2016, more than the total bus ridership in many cities, and that does not consider the opening of the Second Avenue subway. Many local riders could have just decided that walking is now quicker with less frequent service.  

Another possibility is that patronage didn't actually decline on SBS routes but fare evasion on those routes is higher than on routes where you pay on board. The MTA insisted for a long time that a fare-evasion rate of three percent was acceptable and within industry standards. After a newspaper expose, it finally admitted fare evasion on local bus routes was 14 percent and took temporary mitigating actions to reduce it. 

Fare evasion rates for SBS are unavailable. The MTA admits that each SBS inspector costs $100,000 per year in salaries and accounts for the biggest ongoing cost. But how much enforcement is there? One daily SBS rider claimed to have seen the Eagle team on the bus only once in the past year. We need to know if fare evasion rates for SBS are higher than on traditional bus routes.

What will happen to all the fare machines, which cost $50,000 each, when they become obsolete in a few years as the MetroCard is replaced with a tap and go system? Is additional investment in these machines worthwhile or should we place a moratorium on creating new SBS routes at least until MetroCard is replaced?

Mayor Bloomberg had suggested that Manhattan’s crosstown routes be free due to the high percentage of those transferring from other buses and subways who have already paid their fare. This would allow all-door entry without the expense of SBS machines and enforcement. The Riders Alliance questioned if it was worth the cost to convert and operate the Q70 (LaGuardia Airport route) to SBS since 80 percent of riders are already paying their fare on the subway and recommended the route be free. A cost-benefit analysis should have been performed in both cases regarding how high the percentage of passengers paying for their trip elsewhere needs to be before it becomes more cost effective to run SBS rather than operate the route for free. Those analyses were not done.

SBS costs are not transparent; benefits are marginal. Passenger travel-time savings, which should be the key metric of SBS improvement, are unavailable. Yet we are asked to embrace SBS without adequate proof it is a success and ignore all negative effects.

What is the driving force behind SBS for state and local officials? Is it that the federal government is paying a portion of the costs and this is regarded as “free money”? And that if New York City doesn’t apply for these funds, another city will? If so, that source may soon dry up. Is the mayor more interested in raising revenue from levying heavy fines while the MTA shoulders most of the enforcement costs? Is the real goal to improve transit or is it just the perception of improved transit?

Summary and Conclusions
SBS is not low-cost and has not been a massive improvement. Don't let the unconditional support by so many groups and officials fool you. SBS may be an appropriate solution in some cases. It is not the solution in every case. Don’t believe the SBS hype. Concentrate on results and actual numbers, not promises and percentages. Look for data other than what is easily accessible from DOT and the MTA. Ask questions and arrive at your own conclusions. Don’t believe 95 percent of bus riders are satisfied with SBS. If that is true, why is ridership on SBS routes generally down? There are reasons why so many are unhappy with SBS and why so many communities vigorously opposed SBS and are opposing planned routes.

According to reliable sources, the proposed B82 SBS was in danger of being scrapped altogether due to heavy opposition and Flatbush Avenue merchants are prepared to lay down in the street when the proposed B41 SBS becomes a serious threat.

To date only the proposed Merrick Boulevard SBS was dropped, and that was early on in the process. It is not as if communities do not want better transit. They just want transit done right without wasting funds unnecessarily and causing unnecessary inconvenience, economic hardship or decreasing safety. 

Is it worth spending $2 billion over the next ten years just to save an average SBS passenger only three or four minutes of bus travel time, despite DOT claims of travel time savings up to 20 or 30 percent? True passenger travel-time savings are unknown because of inadequate data. The negatives of SBS must not be ignored. We must insist on adequate public input and data. SBS problems must be corrected; other solutions must be considered. Poorly planned SBS routes are increasing the cost of bus operations without much benefit to the public. There needs to be a moratorium on new SBS routes now.

This is part three of a three-part series. Read part one here and read part two here.

***
Allan Rosen received his Master’s in Urban Planning from Columbia University (with a transportation concentration), planned the massive southwest Brooklyn bus route changes in 1978, was a Director of Bus Planning for MTA New York City Transit, now retired, and wrote a weekly column on transit issues for five years for the blog now called Bklyner.com. 

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