With Ambitious Asks, Bus Advocates Await MTA Plan

The M101 bus, which travels down Lexington Ave. and up Third Ave., has an average workday speed of under 5 miles per hour. The M31 and M57 don’t even hit 4 miles per hour. | Photo by Sydney Pereira

BY SYDNEY PEREIRA | A coalition of public transit groups has called out buses in a scathing. report card-style fashion. The Bus Turnaround Coalition included three lines serving Midtown and the East Side — the M101, M57, and M31 — on a list of nominees for major upgrades late last year, including technological upgrades ranging from bus lanes to queue-jumps. Solving the city’s plummeting bus ridership through improving speed and reliability is critical, according to the coalition. The issue — historically overlooked compared to subway performance — requires cooperation from both the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the city’s Department of Transportation.

“We have bus riders from all over the city who are experiencing really slow commutes,” said Stephanie Burgos-Veras, senior organizer at the Riders Alliance, one of the four groups in the coalition. “This is a way to pressure the city.”

Dedicated bus lanes, she said, would be a tangible first step the DOT could take, that city agency — and not the MTA — having authority over designating such lanes. In a rejoinder to the report, the DOT noted that the three Manhattan bus lines already have dedicated lanes in large swaths of their routes, including along 57th St., Lexington Ave., and Third Ave.

Burgos-Veras said the coalition’s agenda is about more than just painting the roads, but also about improving enforcement where bus lanes already exist. Parked cars and drivers dropping off passengers can block the lanes, causing the buses to crawl through the city, sometimes at speeds hardly faster than a person walking. The data driven-approach used by the coalition identified the three Manhattan routes after considering existing street designs, how high the ridership was, and the difference in speeds between off-peak and peak hours.

All three lines received an “F,” joining some 80 other routes across the city. The M101 crawled at 4.9 miles per hour (a typical walking speed is 3.1 miles per hour, by comparison) between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when measured from May through October of last year. The M31 and M57 moved at 3.7 and 3.8 miles per hour, respectively. For comparison, London and Boston buses cruise at more than 10 miles per hour, according to the coalition.

“Slow speeds are one of the reasons that bus ridership is plummeting,” said Tabitha Decker, the deputy executive director of the TransitCenter, which researches transit systems across the country.

One in six buses on the M101 were bunched, which is another metric the coalition used, indicating that buses were arriving at stops too close to one another, leaving some riders waiting longer than they should. On the M31 and M57, one in 11 and one in 14 buses buses were bunched, respectively. All three routes were on-time less than 60 percent of the time. Ridership dropped between 19 and 26 percent on the routes since 2010.

For Ted Moy, a Midtown resident who works in finance, his biggest annoyance is the accuracy of the countdown clocks at the bus stops. On a Monday around 5:30 p.m., the M31 time estimate was inaccurate and the M57 wasn’t showing an estimate at all.

“What’s the point of having it?” Moy asked, as his seven-year-old son trailed behind him while waiting for the bus. “It seems to be a pattern.” He added, “I feel like I’m waiting longer than I’m supposed to be.”

Another bus rider shrugged when asked about the M57 and M31.

“It’s just a lot of traffic in Midtown Manhattan,” Maureen McGean said. She added that the two bus lines are no worse than others.

The coalition formed back in 2016, with the Riders Alliance, Straphangers Campaign, TransitCenter, and the Tri-State Transportation Campaign collaborating to bring data wonks together with grassroots groups. Their recommendations also include adding bus bulbs and boarding islands as well as queue-jumps and optimizing traffic signals, three additional approaches aimed at improving reliability and timeliness.

Bus bulbs and boarding islands are infrastructure changes that expand the boarding area into the street to eliminate the need for buses to merge in and out of traffic, which slows them down, and to add waiting space for passengers. Queue-jumps are smaller bus lanes near intersections that help buses reach the front of a line of traffic. Optimizing traffic signals involves employing “signal priority,” in which a green traffic light can sense an oncoming bus and stays green a little longer than it would for a car. Buses spend an average of 21 percent of the time at traffic lights, so this technology would improve timeliness.

The DOT, with oversight of roads, sidewalks, and traffic signals, has in recent years implemented some of these technologies. Transit signal priority has been implemented on five bus lines, and the DOT announced last July that the travel times on those routes dropped by nearly one-fifth. Some select bus service routes have implemented bus bulbs and queue-jumps, as well.

“DOT recognizes that each route operates on very congested streets resulting in speed and reliability challenges,” a DOT spokesperson said by email. “We are open to studying design and curb modification to better enforce bus lanes on these routes.” Those design changes, the department added, would have to incorporate community input about local transportation priorities.

All-door boarding on buses, which falls under the purview of the MTA, is another recommendation that could shave off a significant amount of time at bus stops. Some SBS routes already have this in place, as well.

“Getting our buses moving again is absolutely essential,” MTA New York City Transit president Andy Byford said in an email. “Working with our partners at the city to unclog the streets and improve bus lanes, we are committed to delivering for our riders. In fact, I explicitly made buses one of my four equal priorities on my first day in office.”

Byford, who was appointed as president of the city’s public transit system in January, is expected to release a bus action plan sometime this spring, according to the MTA.

Burgos-Veras voiced optimism about the upcoming plan.

“We’re pretty confident that they have been hearing us,” she said, referring to both the MTA and DOT. “We have high hopes that the things that we’ve been calling for are included.”

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