I recently visited New York. I stayed in Kew Gardens Hills, a neighborhood located between Jamaica and Flushing, just close enough to the subway that it’s plausible to walk but just far enough that this walk is uncomfortable and I preferred to take a bus. The bus route, Main Street, is one of Queens’ busiest (see data here and here). I’ve been calling for investment in it for years, going back to a fantasy spite map I drew so long ago I don’t remember what year it was, and continuing more recently in my post on where New York should and shouldn’t build light rail. Last year, the route did get Select Bus Service, and I took it a few times. The result is not good.
Main Street maintains two bus corridors: the local Q20, and the Select Bus Service Q44. Almost every SBS route is an overlay of a local route and a rapid route; on the local route passengers must board from the front and pay within view of the driver, and on the rapid route passengers must validate a ticket at ticketing machines beforehand and can then board the bus from any stop, with the fare enforced via random checks for ticket receipts. This leads to the following problems, some preventable, some inherent to this setup:
- Passengers who can take either the local or the SBS route need to decide in advance whether to validate their tickets at the machines or not, based on whether the next bus is SBS. The resulting last-minute validation delays boarding. After the mayhem caused by the introduction of SBS to the M15, on First and Second Avenues, bus drivers on local routes began to accept the receipts spitted out by the SBS ticketing machines. However, this practice is either inconsistent or not widely-known among occasional bus riders, such as the people I was staying with, who own cars.
- The combination of local and limited buses on a medium-frequency route such as Main Street makes it impossible to maintain even headways. Even within each route (Q20 or Q44) I repeatedly saw bunching, but the different speeds of the Q20 and Q44 make bunching between a local and an express inevitable at some point on the route. Off-peak weekday frequency is 10 minutes on the Q20 and 8 on the Q44, which isn’t good enough to justify this split, especially given the bunching within each route; some stations will always be scheduled to have 8-minute service gaps, and in practice could see 15-minute gaps because of the bunching. See more on this problem of locals and rapids on infrequent routes on Human Transit.
- The expense of the ticketing machines ($75,000 per stop for a pair of modified MetroCard vending machines and a machine that takes coins) limits how widely they can be installed. Everywhere else where proof-of-payment is used, holders of valid transfers and season passes can just board the train or bus and show their pass to an inspector. This would be especially useful in New York, because the biggest crunch at SBS stops occurs when many passengers arrive at the stop at once, which in turn is the most common where passengers transfer from the subway. The slow process of validating a ticket leads to queues at busy times, and adding more machines is difficult because of their cost.
- Stop spacing is never what it should be. Most developed countries have converged on a standard of about 400-500 meters between successive bus stops. North America instead has converged on 200 meters, leading to slow buses that stop too often; see an old Human Transit post on the subject here. The stop spacing on the segment of the Q44 I was using was two stops in 1.7 km, leading to long walks between stops.
- On the schedule, the Q44 makes 15 stops in 9.2 km between its origin in Jamaica and Flushing, and takes 42 minutes in the midday off-peak. This is an average speed of 13.1 km/h. In contrast, Vancouver’s limited-stop buses, which average about a stop per kilometer on Broadway and 4th Avenue, average 20 km/h and 30 km/h respectively; the 4th Avenue buses do not have off-board fare collection, but there’s less traffic than on Broadway, and the stoplights give priority to through-traffic, both private and public, over crossing traffic.
The basic problem with New York’s approach to Select Bus Service is that all North American bus rapid transit ultimately descends from Jaime Lerner’s sales pitch of BRT as a cheap subway on tires, at grade. Lerner implemented BRT in Curitiba successfully, in the context of low wages: construction costs appear to only weakly depend on wealth (see e.g. my posts here, here, here, here, and here), but bus driver costs rise with average income, making replacing fifteen bus drivers with one subway driver a crucial money saver in rich cities and an unaffordable luxury in poor ones. North American BRT imitates Latin American BRT’s role as a cheap subway substitute, and ignores the superior usage of bus services in Europe, with which American transit planners do not dialog; there’s no systematic dialog with Latin American planners either, but Lerner has aggressively pitched his ideas to receptive audiences, whereas no comparable figure has pitched European-style reforms to the US.
In cities that think of BRT as a subway substitute, the BRT network will tend to be small, consisting of a few lines only serving the most important corridors, and bundle various features of improved transit together (off-board fare collection, larger vehicles, bus lanes, signal priority). After all, a line can’t be partly a subway and partly a bus. In Bogota, whose BRT system has eclipsed Curitiba and is the world’s largest, the BRT lines run different vehicles from the local lines: local buses have doors opening on the right to the curb, BRT buses have doors opening on the left to a street median bus station, some hybrids have buses with doors on both sides (see photos on Spanish Wikipedia). ITDP, which promotes Latin American-style BRT around the world, has a BRT scoring guideline that awards points to systems that brand their BRT lines separately from the rest of the bus network, as New York does with SBS.
In the European thinking, there’s already an improved quality urban transit service: the subway, or occasionally the tram. The bus is a bus. The biggest difference is that subway networks are smaller than bus networks. Paris and London, both with vast urban rail networks, have a number of subway lines measured in the teens, plus a handful of through-running commuter services; they have hundreds of bus routes. Instead of branding a few buses as special, they invest in the entire bus network, leading to systemwide proof-of-payment in many cities. Bus lanes and signal priority are installed based on demand on an individual segment basis. New York installs bus lanes without regard to local versus SBS status, but retains the special SBS brand, distinguished by off-board fare collection, and only installs it on a per-route basis rather than systemwide.
The other issue, unique to New York, is the ticket receipts. Everywhere else that I know of, bus stops do not have large ticket machines as New York does. Vancouver, which otherwise suffers from the same problem of having just a few special routes (called B-Lines), has no ticket machines at B-Line stops at all: people who have valid transfers or monthly passes can board at their leisure from any door, while people who don’t pay at the front as on local buses. SBS in contrast does not give passengers the option of paying at the front. In New York, people justify the current system by complaining that the MetroCard is outdated and will be replaced by a smart card any decade now; in reality, systems based on paper tickets (including Vancouver, but also the entire German-speaking world) manage to have proof-of-payment inspections without smartcards. Small devices that can read the MetroCard magnetic stripe are ubiquitous at subway stops, where people can swipe to see how much money they have left.
The right path for New York is to announce that every bus route will have off-board fare collection, regardless of stop spacing. It should also engage in stop consolidation to reduce the interstation to about 400-500 meters, but this is a separate issue from fare collection. Similarly, the question of bus lanes should be entirely divorced from fare collection. There should be no ticketing machines at bus stops of the kind currently used. At most, stops should have validators, similar to the MetroCard readers at subway turnstiles but without the fare barrier. Validators are not expensive: smartcard readers in Singapore are consumer items, available to people for recharging their cards at home via their credit cards for about $40, a far cry from the $75,000 cost in New York today. People with valid transfers or unlimited cards should be able to board without any action, and people without should be able to pay on the bus.
Finally, the split between local and rapid routes should be restricted to the busiest routes, with the highest frequency in the off-peak. Conceivably it should be avoided entirely, in favor of stop consolidation, in order to increase effective frequency and reduce bunching. The city’s single busiest route, the M15, has 7-minute SBS and 8-minute local service in the midday off-peak, and given how slow the local is, it’s enough to tip the scales in favor of walking the entire way if I just miss the bus.