New York: Mayor Vows to Increase Bus Speeds

In all my years of working on transit in North America, I’ve heard lots of mayors make announcements about rail projects and various new technologies.  I’ve heard many make vague supportive statements about bus service. I’ve even heard them advocate for more bus service.  But I’ve never a big city mayor promise to dramatically speed up buses all over a city.  (Correct me if you have.)

Vin Barone at AMNY reports that New York Mayor Bill de Blasio will announce a commitment to increasing bus speeds across his city by 25%.

This is a very high number!  Admittedly, it’s a low base, with so many New York city bus routes running so slowly that it’s sometimes faster to walk.  Most individual interventions I’ve encountered improve speed by much less than 10%.  So hitting 25% will require a huge range of actions.

These actions can be sorted into two baskets:  Cost and Controversy.

Some problems can be solved with money, without too much controversy.  All of the following are planned, either by the City or by the transit agency (MTA).

  • Improving signal priority systems, which is a matter of signal technology. (City)
  • Improving enforcement of bus lanes.  (City)
  • Improving active supervision to reduce bunching, via a “Bus Command Center” (MTA)
  • All-door boarding via fare-card readers at rear doors, and roving fare enforcement (MTA)

All that is mostly money, both capital and operating.  Lots of it.  And all together, it is unlikely to get you to 25% citywide.

The other big step involves controversy rather than money.  More bus lanes need to be created, and the space for them will come from some other street use, usually parking lanes, traffic lanes, and versatile curb space for pickups and deliveries.  Bus facilities cost money too, but winning these battles is the bigger struggle, so the cost is really in political capital rather than money.  All of these impacts are profoundly controversial in a dense city, which is why cities tend to do them only after they’ve exhausted all the other options, and why so many bus lane plans are watered down, and made less functional, through the public outreach process.

The mayor’s target will work if it becomes a consistent direction to city government, fully explained to the people, so that not achieving it is not an option.  When we work on this process, we do a lot of work in explaining why the target is what it is, and building some consensus around it, so that staff will have political support to not compromise as the inevitable objections roll in.  The mayoral declaration is a huge step.  It remains to be seen if the target holds in the face of the controversy.

Because ultimately, while money is an obstacle, controversy is a much, much bigger one, and is the main reason big-city bus service usually doesn’t improve.

Visualizing Transit Reliability

Reliability is one of those essential features of transit that you can’t take a picture of.  It’s an overwhelming issue in the lives of transit customers but can seem abstract to others who make transit policy.  And it’s a major issue in many transit systems.

Poor reliability of buses has many causes, mostly having to do with the traffic congestion and other causes of random delay to which they’re exposed.  But when a rail line runs in an exclusive right of way, never interacting with traffic, there aren’t a lot of excuses.

The Miami organization Transit Alliance has done a nice visualization of transit reliability on that city’s rail transit system.  It looks at the system right now and shows how many trains are running late.  It’s important to note here that late does not mean behind schedule.  It means that the maximum wait time is longer than scheduled, by a given number of minutes.  (That’s the only rational way to talk about reliability in high-frequency services.)

Some insitute really needs to create a database of reliability info across many agencies, searchable many ways — and always based on this headway reliability rather than on-time performance.  Most transit agencies now have real time vehicle location feeds, and they are already released in standard formats for use by apps.  Yet we see remarkably few of these kinds of analytics that could help people understand the severity of the reliability problem — even on services like grade-separated heavy rail that have few external causes of delay.