John Surico is a freelance journalist and researcher who covers New York City transit for VICE and frequently contributes to the New York Times. He is based in Queens, NY.
The MTA’s ambitious bus overhaul plan has long-suffering transit advocates giddy. Now comes the hard part.
When the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) announced its “NYC Transit Bus Plan” in late April, transit advocates in New York expressed something that can seem rare in 2018: glee.
In recent years, the dilapidated state of Gotham’s subway has dominated headlines and local politics. But the plight of New York City’s buses has been a far quieter fight, even as statistics grew increasingly grim. New York City’s buses are now the slowest in America—in Manhattan, they seep through traffic at an average speed of 5.7 miles per hour. As advocates like to mention, there are routes where you can actually walk faster. Accordingly, the system hemorrhaged 14 percent of its annual ridership—a whopping 100 million—in the past decade.
So now, here was the MTA finally promising an ambitious overhaul of what many would consider a low-tech transit system.The 28-point plan leads with the first wholesale review and possible reconfiguration of the system’s 322 routes in decades by 2021, following Houston’s successful lead, with the hope of gaining back some of those lost riders. It promises front- and rear-door passenger access to buses by 2020, which would dramatically speed up boarding processes. It pledges a cashless fare payment system by 2020 and soon a pilot program of London-style double-decker express buses. And perhaps most critically, the plan commits to working with the respective city agencies on bus priority starting this year, with more protected bus lanes and strengthened enforcement in order to get average speeds back up to a respectable level.
The Bus Plan may seem like manna for transit advocates, but it did not fall from the sky. In fact, it looks awfully similar to recommendations put forward by the Bus Turnaround Campaign, a two-year-old coalition of bus riders and transit advocacy groups. And that’s no coincidence: Andy Byford, the new president of New York City Transit (NYCT), the division of the MTA that oversees the buses and subways, specifically credited the campaign for its work.
“We’ve listened to our riders’ concerns and are working tirelessly to create a world-class bus system that New Yorkers deserve,” Byford said, at the time of the announcement. “Our customers will start to see changes this year.”
After years of ringing the alarms, it looks as if engaged riders have convinced this massive transit agency to dedicate serious resources to a failing system. Now they’ll be waiting, and fighting, to see the results.
Transit advocacy has a rich history in the Big Apple, a city where 54.5 percent of households do not own a car. The Straphangers Campaign, a subway passenger advocacy organization, formed in 1977 in response to the last major flashpoint for the city’s transit system: the 1970s fiscal crisis. The organization has since become famous for roasting the city’s worst-performing transit services, New York-style, and over time, that grew to include buses. In 2002, the “Pokey Awards” first started ranking the slowest buses in the city; in 2006, the “Schleppie Awards” began drawing attention to the buses with the worst rate of “bunching.”
Jaqi Cohen, a campaign coordinator, said her first experiences with the bus system’s pitfalls was when she worked in northeastern Queens, which, past the end of the 7 line, is largely serviced by a spiderweb of bus routes. “To get to work, I’d be on the bus for over an hour, because I had to take two buses,” she recalled. “Or I could drive, and it’d take 15 minutes. The days I was stuck on the bus were a nightmare, knowing I could be there much faster, but I was stuck.”
No wonder the system is experiencing enormous ridership losses, especially as congestion thickens with a growing economy and the rising popularity of Uber and Lyft. Not only have buses slowed to a crawl in that traffic, their routes have also fallen out of touch with where commutes are actually headed. The network was originally meant to replace the turn-of-the-century streetcar system, in that it was solely intended to get people to and from subway stations. And the subway was largely designed to funnel folks into Manhattan. But in parts of Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, people are increasingly commuting inter-borough, and not into Manhattan. “It's important to have that connectivity,” Cohen said.
Indeed, reinvestment in New York City’s buses holds immense, far-reaching implications for its transit future. The city oversees the largest municipal bus fleet in the U.S., with an annual ridership of 764 million—double that of runner-up Los Angeles. The bus disproportionately serves low-income, foreign-born, elderly, and disabled populations, folks who arguably need transit investments the most. And the areas where the buses are mainly relied upon (in the outer boroughs, where subway access is harder to come by) are rapidly becoming the city’s centers of job growth.
Besides, Cohen adds, in terms of priorities, buses are low-hanging fruit. It’s cheap and easy to redesign the bus map, at least in comparison to the subway projects the MTA has been able to pull off in recent years, which have dragged on for decades and cost billions of dollars only to produce a few new miles of track.
And yet, in terms of getting you where you need to be on time, buses are performing even more dismally than the much-talked-about subways. There have been some recent improvements—in 2008, the MTA created Select Bus Service (SBS) routes, with dedicated bus lanes, all-door boarding, and payment before getting on—but they still fall victim to the larger problems of crowding, congestion, and lack of bus lane enforcement.
In 2016, the Bus Turnaround Campaign formed as a coordinated effort between the Straphangers Campaign, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, TransitCenter, and Riders Alliance—a mix of both policy-oriented and grassroots groups—to put pressure on the city and state to act.
On the Bus Turnaround website, readers are taken through a digestible narrative of what is happening to 2.5 million riders each day—how slow buses are causing riders to opt for alternative transportation options in hordes, which leads to more cars on the street, more congestion, and, potentially fewer bus routes, if cut by the MTA for lack of use. An interactive feature lets visitors explore report cards for every route and see rider stories from passengers who describe their arduous commutes from the Bronx and Queens.
What may have been particularly effective about the website is that it used the MTA’s then-newly minted “Bus Time” database to strengthen its case. With the Bus Time app, riders not only have access to information to plan their trip, but they’re also able to visibly see how far away, and delayed, their bus really is. “It's helpful on a personal level, but also sort of on a political advocacy level, for the public to have this information,” Cohen said.
Since 2016, the Bus Turnaround members repeatedly made their dashboard of data and proposed solutions known to the public, through press and rallies. Advocates also deployed some of their more tried-and-true tactics to push for better buses: Members of the Riders Alliance, a grassroots organizing group formed in 2012, often testify at monthly MTA board meetings and produce prankster-ish political performances. Most recently, the group acted out a skit in front of the MTA headquarters where a crowd of people tried to cram onto a fake bus—a bit of street theater to dramatize the need for better fare payment and all-door boarding. “I forgot my MetroCard!” one organizer yelled out.
The MTA’s new Bus Plan seems to respond directly to many of these pushes, promising both improved fare payment systems and all-door boarding by 2020. Plans are already in place to replace NYC’s iconic MetroCard with a contactless system, developed by the same company that created London’s Oyster Card.
Pedro Valdez-Rivera, a Riders Alliance member, got involved as a college student in 2013. As a longtime Brooklyn bus rider living with mental disabilities, Valdez-Rivera has many war stories of arriving late to school, doctors’ appointments, and back home at night. He called the new bus plan a huge victory for himself and the transit organizing community, where activists with mental and physical disabilities play an outsize role. “We fought tooth and nail to get the MTA and Department of Transportation [DOT] to listen, and it’s paid off in the biggest way,” said Valdez-Rivera. “Now we’ll be watching to make sure this is successful.”
Last week, at a Riders Alliance event held to celebrate the Bus Plan’s announcement, organizers popped a bottle of champagne, passed cake, and heaped praise on Byford’s plan. But they also pledged to remain vigilant—after all, they are also transit’s watchdogs, raising issues of cost overruns and delays on a spectrum of MTA projects. Not to mention, several important initiatives in the plan hedge on a few bets: lane enforcement and traffic signal priority (TSP) technology—which allows buses to hold green lights, or shorten a red—will require cooperation from the New York Police Department and the DOT. Meanwhile, outside of piloted routes, traffic lane enforcement cameras on the front of all buses—which, like speed cameras, are often more effective than stationing police officers along each route—need legislative approval from Albany, and that’s easier said than done. Another step to consider, panelists said, was joining local community boards in order to push for more bus-friendly improvements.
Attendees agreed that they’d need to continue to their activism. “As a rider myself, it's just something we must do together,” said Latchmi Gopal, a young Riders Alliance organizer who recalled skipping extracurricular activities after high school because of the prolonged bus ride back to her home in the South Bronx. Stephanie Burgos-Veras, another senior organizer on the issue, promised more champagne when the bus plan is implemented.
The call for sustained advocacy is especially important since one of the reasons bus issues took so long to surface in the media was due to a deficit in representation. According to Adam Forman, the chief policy and data officer for New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, who authored an influential bus report entitled “The Other Transit Crisis” in 2017, bus riders are disproportionately folks who can’t necessarily fit in activism into their schedules. “They include low-income, single parents, and many riders who are working outside of the 9-to-5, when a lot of these community board meetings happen,” Forman said. Efficiency efforts for buses have stalled for years because there wasn’t an organizational push to have riders’ concerns heard—at least until more recent years, when the transit advocacy community in New York had the new mobilizing muscle and data to back them up.
“A lot of it was because the loudest voices were the car drivers, and it wasn’t the bus riders,” Forman said. “We need to make sure those bus riders are the louder voices. So there’s a real responsibility, and real imperative, to get involved.”
The road to better buses will be long, but it doesn’t need to be arduous. After the Riders Alliance event in downtown Manhattan, I rode the Q101 bus most of the way back home to Queens. A group of tired-looking riders had assembled at the stop at the Manhattan-side foot of the Queensboro Bridge. Using the Bus Time app, I could watch our GPS-tracked bus slowly make its way toward us. Twenty minutes later, it arrived. (The route’s report card grade is a D.)
It took a long time to board everyone: There was only one door we could access, and someone’s MetroCard wasn’t working. The minute we took off, we got stuck waiting to turn because the bridge’s exit ramp had a green light at the same time as an adjacent service road. Once we managed to get out of the Manhattan traffic, we sped across the bridge into Queens.
Down Northern Boulevard and Steinway Street, we picked passengers up at subway stations who lived further out in transit deserts near LaGuardia Airport. Less than twenty minutes later, I was dropped on a corner near my apartment. The ride would have been as fast as, if not faster than, the best-case equivalent subway ride, if we hadn’t needed to wait so long for the bus to arrive, board, and get moving again.
But like countless other bus rides I’ve taken, the bus’s slow roll was the culmination of several different issues, each solvable. Our bus should have lane priority to make turns without waiting for single-occupancy cars to blow past, and it shouldn’t have to go around cars double-parked on the street. Every door should be accessible to all riders, especially to people with disabilities. And nobody should have to fumble around for paper MetroCards when most of us can pay for pizza with our iPhones, and while other cities are offering free transit trips for the riders who need it most.
That’s what riders have been saying all along: that this can be fixed. And now it needs to be.