A NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign State of the Buses Report
 WINTER 2000


This report documents what riders know from bitter daily experience: Bus service is lousy.

For the third annual NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign’s state of New York City Transit buses report, we reviewed a range of performance measures produced by the transit system. These document a sad truth. In 1999, overall bus service literally stood still and in several key aspects grew worse.

Comparing the performance of New York City Transit’s fleet of 4,100 buses in 1998 to 1999, we found:

  • On-time performance for buses is a joke and the scourge of bus bunching a constant torment. Bus "regularity"—transit officials’ term of art for bus bunching or gaps in service—and on-time performance remained at the same level as last year. That's a dismal four out of ten buses on key routes arriving irregularly and off-schedule.
  • On the most irregular routes—like the Third/Lexington Avenue M101/102/103 and the M104 Broadway routes—a shocking 60% of the buses arrived bunched together or with significant gaps in service. And 58% of the buses were off-schedule on the Fifth/Madison Avenue M1, the route with the worst on-time performance.
  • In 1999, buses broke down more than they did in 1998. While the decline is slight, the trend is disturbing: The average miles traveled between service interruptions caused by mechanical breakdowns decreased by 4% between 1998 and the first nine months of 1999. This drop comes after four years of slow but steady improvement in the breakdown rate. The decline also comes at a time when recent bus purchases reduced the average age of the bus fleet, from 1,315 buses that were 12 years old or older in 1997 to 600 in 1999. (See Chart I.)
  • Worse still, buses are now breaking down far more often than they did back in 1992, the best year for performance in the 1990's: The average number of miles traveled between service interruptions caused by mechanical breakdowns declined by 41%, comparing the first nine months of 1999 with 1992.
  • In the last year, the passenger environment deteriorated on two critical measures: Bus interiors grew filthier, with the number of buses with no or light interior dirt falling sharply from 92% in 1998 to 80% in 1999. There were fewer understandable and correct announcements, dropping from 38% in 1998 to 34% in 1999—an appalling level of performance.
  • Transit officials have fallen well short of their own goals. They promised to improve the breakdown rate for buses by 19% in 1999; instead the breakdown rate worsened by 4%. They pledged to improve regularity by 8% and on-time performance by 4% in 1999; instead these key indicators of service remained unchanged.

What to Do About the Slowest Buses in America?
Like many riders, the Straphangers Campaign is very frustrated by the quality of service documented by these findings—and by the daily reality of slow, irregular, crowded, and dirty bus service. Our findings come on top of New York City Transit's own admission in June 1999 that its buses are "the slowest in the country."3 In other major cities, buses cruise at an average of 13 miles per hour; here they crawl at an average of 8 miles throughout the city and at an excruciating 6 miles per hour in Manhattan—the worst record in the nation.

Who is to blame?
Responsibility must rest chiefly with officials at MTA New York City Transit. They have failed to add enough service to meet an enormous surge in ridership. There was a 38% increase in ridership between October 1996 and October 1999, yielding an astonishing 662,000 more riders just on an average weekday. But that tidal wave of new riders has been met by only a 9% increase in service in the same period.
The result: longer boarding times, slower speeds and more bus bunching as too few buses move many more people.

Transit officials deny that lack of service is the problem. They say that many routes had "available capacity to accommodate ridership increases." They say they’ve added enough service where needed. They say that other bus systems have more crowding, citing Milan, Barcelona, Paris and San Francisco—although admitting that cities like London, Hong Kong, Chicago and Philadelphia are far less crowded.

Transit officials also blame slow and erratic service on traffic congestion. "What's going on is traffic, simple as that. And there's nothing much we can do about it," said a spokesperson for New York City Transit with a shrug of the shoulders in explaining New York's last place standing on bus speeds. "Wear sneakers," he advised, with an insensitivity worthy of a Marie Antoinette.

It is true that City Hall hasn't done enough to speed buses. While there have been some recent welcome initiatives—such as traffic agents on board some buses and increased penalties for drivers who block bus stops—these have not been backed up with adequate resources. And there's been only slight progress on key items, such as expanding the number of exclusive bus lanes; tougher traffic enforcement to make the existing ones work better; redesigning bus stops to discourage private cars parking in them; and giving buses priority turning signals.

But here too transit officials are to blame. They have failed to be vigorous and public advocates for higher street priority for buses, as well as for far greater increases in service.

The explosion in bus riders should mean more clout for the bus system and more energy for new initiatives. But instead transit officials have been moving as slowly as the buses they manage.

Rather than plan optimistically for the future, transit officials have been timid. The business-led Regional Plan Association, for example, has criticized New York City Transit's proposed five-year capital plan as falling 1,000 buses short of what's needed to meet current ridership levels. New York City Transit's plan calls for a ludicrous increase of only 2% in bus service between 2000 and 2004.

Rather than build on ridership gains by increasing service and reducing wait times, they have pursued initiatives that are often a mixed blessing—and worse—for riders. These initiatives include splitting longer routes into shorter routes (requiring riders to transfer to complete trips); rerouting bus services to "avoid congested areas" (taking many riders away from where they really want to go); eliminating bus stops; and lengthening travel times to "improve" on-time performance on paper.

Rather than offer detailed public proposals to press City Hall for new initiatives to speed buses on city streets, they have succumbed to bureaucratic inertia, accepting a few slow-moving pilot projects.

What is to be done to get New Yorkers the bus service they deserve?
The Straphangers Campaign offers two new recommendations aimed at seizing the current momentum provided by the huge surge in ridership:

  • The board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority should replace the current city bus managers unless they achieve their stated goals to improve service by early 2001. The Straphangers Campaign respects the hard work of the current managers at MTA New York City Transit. They have successfully faced tough challenges, from opening new depots to implementing the historic start-up of free transfer between city buses and subways. But in 1999 these managers failed to meet their own goals for improving the current miserable level of basic service.
    The current managers have again promised to improve bus performance in 2000. They say that by the end of the year buses will be breaking down 27% less, that there will be 10% less bus bunching, and that on-time performance will improve 6%.5
    The MTA Board should put the managers on notice: They will be held accountable for their success or failure in achieving these goals. The board should direct the bus managers to produce a clear and ambitious blueprint of the steps needed to be taken by both New York City Transit and the City of New York to make the grade.

  • The mayor should commit the city to increasing the speed of buses on its streets. It should be a matter of civic pride to end New York’s last place finish on bus speeds. The first step would be to issue a blueprint for faster buses and then to commit to specific goals for increasing bus speeds over the next five years. The mayor’s leadership on this is critical, especially to hold his traffic officials accountable.
    In addition to these two proposals, the Straphangers Campaign renews its call for the policies in its "Ten-Point Program for Better Bus Service"—from building more exclusive bus lanes to moving to ending the use of diesel-fuel buses. (The program can be found at the end of the report.)  |  download complete report