Message to Local Bus Users: Take a Hike
Sunday, January 22, 2017
By: Deborah Baldwin
Have you tried to catch a local bus lately? I did one recent bone-chilling evening, craning my neck and scouring Lexington Avenue for one that might lumber my way.
The first “bus” I spotted turned out to be a truck. The next apparition, an actual bus, but...out of service! Finally: a genuine M101. But wait—it wasn’t going to stop! The driver barged by, careful not to make eye contact with bus riders waving their Metro cards in disbelief. Then, maddeningly, another Limited M101 came by almost immediately. Limited as in, limit your expectations, local-bus-service lovers. I ended up taking a cab.
Though New York City’s population is growing, local bus service is shrinking. Those arrival times posted at bus stops? I think of them as a fascinating study in wishful thinking. Yes, I’ve got one of those handy bus-time apps. Unfortunately, it’s unreliable, too.
Ask a bus driver where local bus service went and you’re likely to hear that fewer people want it. That news will come as a surprise to anyone who winces at the thought of long walks or steep subway stairs—people with knee issues like me and many of my neighbors in Murray Hill.
Enter advocacy groups like Riders Alliance, which are pushing to raise awareness of the gradual decline of bus service and providing tools to fight back.
It’s not just local service, of course, but many aspects of the bus system that have been affected by recent changes. According to a study by the nonprofit TransitCenter, New York City buses are slower on weekdays than those in San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Washington, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. The M101, for one, ambles up and down the East Side at a leisurely average of 4.9 mph, with more than 17 percent of its buses “bunching” like bar buddies.
Smarter dispatching and dedicated bus lanes could help speed them along. But it turns out a proposal to put up concrete barriers ran into opposition from the car and truck lobby. The red lanes we got instead aren’t even enforced outside rush hour. (When was the last time you made a doctor’s appointment during rush hour?) No wonder so many buses bob and weave in the middle lanes. It’s easier than fighting for space in side lanes colonized by Ubers, cabs and illegally parked cars.
As if overcoming the political pressure of car and truck drivers weren’t hard enough, better bus service is not even a local battle. The MTA is a state agency that reports to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, explains Stephanie Veras, an energetic young community organizer at Riders Alliance. “Street design falls under the city’s Department of Transportation,” she says, “but then it’s the MTA—a state agency—that says we’re going to add a bus lane. Then it transfers that workload to DOT. Two different cultures, in two different places.”
Hang out long enough at a bus stop, especially after rush hour, and you’ll sense the camaraderie of the disenfranchised. But, as Veras points out, in order to make a difference, bus riders have to make enough noise to be heard all the way up to Albany. City and state elected officials all get to weigh in, but if you want to lodge a complaint, Cuomo’s office is not a bad place to begin.
Her group and others are hoping for strength in numbers by way of the Bus Turnaround Coalition (busturnaround.nyc), whose blueprint includes making practical improvements like boarding islands, bus-prompted traffic lights and improved bus lanes.
Organizers offer two easy ways to jump in: Sign a petition calling on the DOT and the MTA to beef up bus service, and share your woes.
Some transit users prefer to go right to the top. At a Riders Alliance meeting in February, one member held up his cell phone and declared that he had Governor Cuomo on speed dial: 518-474-8390. It’s a good number to know. I plan to start spreading it around at bus stops, including a few I frequent in an ongoing effort to catch the local M101.