Laura Bliss is CityLab’s west coast bureau chief. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
A short film allows riders to vent about—and share their best hopes for—the city’s underperforming transit workhorses.
Buses are the unloved sluggish workhorses of New York City’s transit system. Close to 2.5 million riders rely on them on any given weekday—more than twice the number as in L.A., the second largest system in the country. Still, that’s a big drop from where Big Apple bus ridership was a decade ago, even as population and subway ridership has boomed. Bus passengers are fed up with pokey speeds (7.4 mph on average, compared to L.A.’s 10.7), unreliable schedules, and painful service cuts that leave vehicles ever more crowded.
Yet, especially for all the neighborhoods unreached by the city’s famous subway, buses are still essential links to jobs, schools, shopping, and medical care. “It’s a very long route in terms of getting where we need to go on time,” says one woman waiting for her connection in a new short documentary by STREETFILMS. Besides describing her commute, that could also characterize the road ahead for turning around NYC’s poor bus performance. In between bus-stop interviews packed with bitter complaints (it’s New York, what do you expect?), the film floats several recommendations by the NYC-based transportation advocacy group, TransitCenter for how to improve the system: use new technology to speed up passenger boardings; create more bus lanes to prioritize mass transit on the street; adopt new dispatch methods to keep drivers on schedule; and redesign routes to make service more frequent and efficient, much as Houston recently did to great success.
It seems it’s time for NYC to re-invent the wheel, so to speak, with the people who rely on it the most in mind. “New York has changed a lot in 60 years, but our bus routes really haven’t,” says Tabitha Decker, director of research and learning at TransitCenter. Some routes might need to be added, others might need to be straightened out, while others might be obsolete. “The bus system we have today would never be built to deliver the service it does,” Daniel Squadron, a New York State senator representing parts of Brooklyn, tells a crowd. “It was built haphazardly over a lot of years, and it has survived because bus riders have too often been ignored.”
Soon policymakers (and fellow riders) will have an easy way to tap into New Yorkers’ collective bus-misery psyche: The advocacy group Riders Alliance has just launched a campaign to collect tales of frustrating experiences aboard the system, with plans to create an interactive website cataloguing epic bus fails. Sounds like a cathartic opportunity for fed-up locals, and with any luck, a wake-up call for transit leaders.