NYC Is Redesigning Its Slow, Old, and Unpopular Bus System
Like the Empire State Building observation deck and a Circle Line cruise ship, the view from the top of a double-decker bus in New York has long been reserved for tourists and maybe the occasional local cajoled into showing them around. The bus part, however, is about to change: Starting this spring, Staten Island commuters will begin boarding blue-and-yellow double-deckers that will whisk them from their outer borough homes to the heart of Manhattan’s business district.
Yes, New York City is getting a bus makeover, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority announced this week, complete with 10 electric buses, already testing in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens. And if you can believe it, the addition of shiny new vehicles to the fleet isn’t the most exciting thing about it. The MTA is also giving the city’s bus system—all 325 routes and 16,350 stops, used by 2.4 million riders every weekday—a “top-to-bottom, holistic review and redesign,” its first in decades. By reexamining the entire bus system, the city has a chance to fix its routes, ease congestion, give better options to transit riders, and maybe even relieve the pressure on its strained subway network.
In terms of direness, this revamp is closer to an episode of Hoarders than your standard spring cleaning. Since 2009, New York City’s annual bus ridership has plunged by almost 11 percent, even as the city’s population booms and its overcrowded subway flirts with collapse. The pattern repeats itself all over the country. In the LA area, annual ridership is down 25 percent over the same period, as more cars plug up highways and side streets. Austin, Texas, Denver, Colorado, and Washington, DC—all with growing populations—each saw bus use drop in recent years.
The problem isn’t the bus itself. The success of bus networks in countries like Brazil, China, and Germany—where nearly 100-foot-long human-toters have their own lanes and traffic signals, and race through congestion at 25 mph—makes clear that people are down with the things, as long as they’re practical, efficient, and safe. In Manhattan, buses average 5.5 mph. Chances are you could jog at that pace.
Part of the problem is that New York’s bus system was designed around the city as it once was, with lines connecting to the streetcars, busy wharfs, and big businesses of the time. The city has changed, of course. The bus network, not so much. Take the three lines that terminate in Port Richmond, a Staten Island ferry terminal. Those were probably super convenient—until 1962, when ferries stopped using the port.
A recent series of radical bus redesign projects have shown that smarter routing and scheduling can make all the difference. In 2015, Houston cut low-frequency routes in favor of a high-frequency grid that operates 24/7, and improved connections to the city’s light-rail network. Transit ridership climbed 7 percent. Seattle, Portland, and Columbus, Ohio, have seen similar results from their own network rejiggerings.
New York’s plans are still a bit sketchy, timeline-wise, though transit advocates are heartened by the involvement of new New York City Transit Authority president Andy Byford, who stepped into his role in January after establishing himself as a get-‘er-done kind of transit official in Toronto. We do know, however, that the redesign effort will kick off in Staten Island, where new routes (announced last summer) will have their debut in August.
But how does one go about redoing an entire city’s bus network, and making it easier for residents to get around? First things first: gathering data, so you can fit routes and stops to current patterns of living, working, and commuting. Fortunately, most cities have access to a wealth of data about how people are moving around inside of them.
The census offers a good baseline. New York can also track MetroCard use to know how many people are getting on which buses. It has years of GPS data to help determine where their vehicles are most likely to get stuck in traffic. It even has some intel about where ride-hailing companies are picking up and dropping off passengers, offering a better sense of what’s happening on the roads.
There’s the good, old-fashioned, underrated human too. “Operators know which stops are the busiest and which are not, and the most successful agencies we’ve seen in redesigning their networks engage operators at the very beginning,” says Kirk Hovenkotter, who studies transit agencies at the New York-based research and advocacy group TransitCenter.
Even the public can be helpful. In Houston, conversations between the transit agency and various community groups began in 2013, almost two years before the city officially launched its new network. Just know that you won’t make everybody happy. “You’ll definitely get some grumbling,” says Jon Orcutt, who directs communications at TransitCenter. “It’s inherent in change.”
The goal is to get a fresh picture of where people are, and where they go, and make the buses match up. If this neighborhood suddenly has hundreds of thousands more people in it, time for a bus line. If this waterfront area has a new ferry, maybe build some connections to it.
With those inputs in hand, start craft routes that do cure the maladies that plague many a system. Today, many routes curve and swerve, trying to cover the entire map, and get riders as close to their destinations as possible. That sounds nice, but hurts efficiency—too many stops, too many turns—and leads to infrequent service.
Organizations like the National Association of City Transportation Officials have encouraged metros to make long bus routes less circuitous, valuing efficient grid service. Cities are also thinking about cutting down the number of bus stops. This is doubly attractive in places—like a lot of New York—where sidewalk infrastructure makes it easy for riders to walk an extra block or so for the bus. New York (and other cities) are thinking seriously about bus-only lanes, bus stops that don’t block traffic, and traffic signals that give public transit—and not private cars—the jump on green lights. It’s even going for all-door boarding, making it faster to get everybody aboard. When San Francisco’s transit agency did something similar, dwell times at bus stops dropped 13 percent.
Cap that off by sending the buses where the people are, and voila: a bus system that might actually work. Now, NYC just has to fix the dang subway.