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What you need to know for 12/13/2017

Bus service is in crisis, New York City comptroller's report says

Bus service is in crisis, New York City comptroller's report says

Much of decline in ridership occurred in Manhattan
Bus service is in crisis, New York City comptroller's report says
Commuters on a B46 city bus in New York on Dec. 2, 2008.
Photographer: Robert Stolarik/The New York Times

NEW YORK — Though New York City’s buses carry over 2 million passengers a day — more than the Long Island Rail Road, Metro North, PATH and New Jersey Transit combined — they are often treated as an afterthought, even as they hemorrhage riders and strand the mostly low-income New Yorkers who depend on them, according to a report released Monday by the city comptroller’s office.

The buses, which are operated by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, travel at an average of under 8 mph. That sluggish pace, combined with unreliable service, an aging fleet and routes that no longer match the commuting patterns of New Yorkers, has contributed to a steep drop in ridership during the past eight years: There were 100 million fewer passenger trips on the buses in 2016 than in 2008, the report says.

Much of the decline in ridership occurred in Manhattan, where the subways, though troubled in their own right, are at least readily available. But for many people in the other four boroughs, buses are the only public transportation available to carry them to work or school.

And when the buses run late, or barely run at all, those affected are often from low-income, minority or immigrant communities, the report says. The average personal income of bus commuters is $28,455, compared with $40,000 for subway commuters, the comptroller’s report says. More than half of bus commuters are foreign-born, and only 25 percent are white.

“The conversation around our bus system is long overdue,” the comptroller, Scott M. Stringer, said in an interview. “We’ve neglected this. And that’s in part because traditional bus riders tend to be seniors and low-income New Yorkers, marginalized populations that have never had the loudest megaphone.”

Joseph J. Lhota, chairman of the transportation authority, rebuffed the comptroller’s report. “The city comptroller should know better than to blame the victim,” Lhota said. “The MTA Bus System is a victim of inadequate traffic control and failure to enforce the traffic laws by the city of New York. The city comptroller would be well served to focus on the city’s incompetence than blaming the victim.”

The city’s changing economic profile has made the disparity between subway and bus service all the more apparent.

In recent years, job growth in the other four boroughs has far outpaced growth in Manhattan. The number of jobs in Brooklyn increased by 49 percent from 2006 to 2010, in the Bronx by 35 percent and in Queens by 34 percent, according to the report. Jobs in Manhattan, by contrast, increased by only 5 percent.

As more workers are now commuting within their home boroughs, buses, rather than the Manhattan-centric subways, have become increasingly vital lifelines, the report says.

But bus routes have not changed to mirror the city’s burgeoning economic hot spots. The report identifies 12 neighborhoods that offer significantly more jobs than the city average, but significantly less bus and subway service.

And bus schedules have lagged, too, with 12 times more service during the morning rush than at night, the report says — even though much of the city’s job growth has occurred in industries such as food services, hospitality and health care that do not follow a traditional 9-5 workday.

On a recent Saturday morning, Guillaume Blase, 60, waited for the B103 bus in Canarsie to take him to Downtown Brooklyn, where he works as a dishwasher. Blase said he sometimes returned home as late as 2 or 3 a.m., with no bus service to speak of. The nearest subway from his bus stop, the Rockaway Parkway L, is more than 1 mile away and follows a less direct route than the bus.

So he ends up walking — “every day, all night,” he said.

Additionally, irregular service schedules mean that New York’s buses spend more time traveling to and from their depots, rather than shuttling passengers, compared to those in other cities, the comptroller’s report says.

The sight of out-of-service buses idling at his stop infuriates Allen Gross, 69, a taxi driver who relies upon the Q36 bus to travel from his home in Queens Village to his job in Floral Park, because he does not have his own car.

“The out-of-service line is the best line in New York City,” Gross joked.

At the Williamsburg Bridge Plaza bus terminal in Brooklyn, Kayla Johnson, a New York police officer, said she had waited in the rain and cold for out-of-service buses to open to passengers.

While subway service has expanded over the years, Johnson, 36, said she had not seen corresponding growth in bus routes.

“They’re still pretty much the same,” she said. “Most people would agree, there should be more routes.”

The need for expanded transit options, whether subway or bus, in the boroughs outside Manhattan has long been recognized by city officials. But many of the proposed additions have been made halfheartedly, or have yet to materialize.

In 2015, Mayor Bill de Blasio asked the transportation authority to examine the feasibility of extending subway service along Utica Avenue in Brooklyn, through East Flatbush.

The idea had first been proposed more than 100 years ago, The New York Times said in an article in 1910 that bore the headline “Transit Outlook Bright in Brooklyn.”

But if expanding subway service is expensive and time-consuming — the recent Second Avenue subway extension took nearly a century to materialize and cost $4.4 billion — rerouting buses based on traffic and commuting patterns is far more feasible, said Stringer, a Democrat from Manhattan who was re-elected this month.

Yet the city’s attempts at streamlining bus service have been spotty.

The city introduced express bus routes called Select Bus Service in 2008, with designated bus lanes and off-board fare payment. They have improved travel times, but only modestly, the report said. On several of the new express lines, ridership has dropped. And of the 20 Select Bus Service routes that the city’s Department of Transportation had planned to have running by the end of this year, only 15 are in operation.

Gloria Chin, a spokeswoman for the city agency, pointed out that de Blasio’s administration had committed $270 million to Select Bus Service and had announced plans last month to add 21 of the express routes during the next decade. The newest Select line, along Woodhaven and Cross Bay Boulevards in Queens, opened this month.

“While we are grateful to get the comptroller’s support for all of these efforts, several of the report’s recommendations will require his office’s active assistance,” Chin said, citing calls for new bus shelters and additional dedicated bus lanes.

Stringer compared the state of the city’s buses to the deterioration of the subways. They are twin crises, he said, but only the subways have attracted attention and prompted Gov. Andrew Cuomo to declare a state of emergency.

“We have been lethargic about wrapping our arms around the changing bus infrastructure,” Stringer said.

“My takeaway from the subway crisis is that when you don’t invest in something, it just stops working,” he added. “And you just can’t only think about the subway system and think that we could put the bus system on a back burner.”

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