The MTA’s Bus Redesign Plan

Two weeks ago I wrote about the Brooklyn bus redesign I’m working on with Eric Goldwyn. The MTA, which is aware of our efforts, came up with its own plan. So far details are scant; there is a presentation available online, which talks about goals (“network redesign,” “higher frequency”) but no specifics (“a more gridded network,” “6-minute off-peak frequency on the main routes”).

At least so far, the goals seem solid. The MTA has the following list of improvements:

  • Redesign the network from top to bottom based on customer input, demographic changes, and travel demand analysis. Provide better connectivity and more direct service in every neighborhood
  • Optimize the existing network with community consultation by removing closely-spaced and underutilized stops and making street design changes on select corridors in coordination with NYC DOT
  • Expand off-peak service on strategic routes using a toolbox of service strategies including increased frequency and demand based service adjustments
  • Expand Traffic Signal Priority (TSP) to allow an approaching bus to hold a green light or shorten a red light
  • Seek exclusive busways on priority corridors to give buses full access in major congested areas
  • Identify opportunities for new bus lanes and queue jumps in 2018
  • Advocate for strengthened NYPD enforcement of bus lanes to keep bus stops and travel lanes clear throughout the system
  • Recommend dedicated transit-priority traffic teams to focus enforcement in key areas to ensure buses move quickly through trouble spots
  • Use Bus Lane Enforcement Cameras mounted on buses to automatically identify violations and issue tickets. Advocate for legislation to expand beyond the existing 16 authorized routes
  • Install tap readers to speed up the boarding process so buses spend less time waiting at stops
  • Introduce all-door boarding to allow riders to get on through any door of the bus
  • Explore options for a future cashless system to maximize reductions in boarding time
  • Expand fare enforcement on regular bus service to reduce evasion and restore fare revenue

The main problems only appear toward the end, with the implementation of off-board fare collection and all-door boarding. The insistence on “fare enforcement,” which could mean regular proof of payment (POP) inspections but could also mean worse, such as armed cops (not practiced in New York on SBS but practiced on some other US systems, like BART) or holding the bus during inspection (which New York does practice, unlike Berlin and other German-speaking cities). Overall I’m relatively sanguine about Andy Byford specifically – he’s not American and is not used to American levels of police militarization.

However, another aspect of the POP proposal is troubling: the connection with tap readers. The plan’s full text (which is barely more detailed than what I quote above) mentions that POP should come with the so-called New Fare Payment System, or NFPS, which New York is currently planning to roll out starting in 2019, continuing until 2023. The NFPS is based on worst industry practices cobbled from American and British ideas. Here is my second post ever, discussing the plans for smartcards in New York in 2011. New York ignored (and keeps ignoring) the smartcard implementations in a number of East Asian cities in its zeal to make people treat their credit card as a transit fare card, ensuring the agency can surveil all passengers; perhaps Americans lack the values of freedom and individual privacy of Japan and Singapore.

New York also ignored (and keeps ignoring) the POP implementations in cities with paper tickets, such as most of Central Europe. Smartcards are not required for POP: the German-speaking world has POP with paper tickets, as did Vancouver on SkyTrain and some bus lines even before the Compass Card debacle. In Singapore I saw a ticket inspection on a bus even before EZ-Link; I had a magnetic farecard at the time. Given the enormous waste coming from making passengers line up and pay the driver, it’s imperative to move toward POP as soon as possible, even if it means equipping inspectors with MetroCard readers rather than smartcard readers. MetroCard may only last for five years if the NFPS schedule doesn’t keep slipping, but handheld magnetic card readers are a cheap technology whereas making buses idle while passengers dip cards one at a time is not so cheap.

The zeal to go cash-free is the final troubling aspect of New York’s ideas about fare payment, especially when bundled with the idea that the bank card is the fare card. Not everyone has a local bank account. Tourists don’t (and even cards that are supposed to work abroad don’t always). Low-income city residents don’t, either: 11.7% of New York households have no bank account, and they disproportionately appear to be in poverty, judging by which neighborhoods they are most concentrated in. The MTA has always treated anonymous smartcards as an afterthought, and going cash-free means there is no recourse for the unbanked or even for many tourists.

Nor is cash-free operation even necessary. An on-board farebox is compatible with POP. In this system, riders can board from any door, and the driver will begin moving as soon as all passengers have boarded, even if not all passengers have paid yet. Riders with valid transfers or season passes need not do anything. Riders with a pay-per-ride smartcard and no transfer should tap their card at a validator at any bus door or bus stop (validators are cheap that blanketing the system with them is practically free). The remaining passengers should walk to the farebox and pay there; perhaps some busy stations should get fareboxes, as all SBS stops do in New York today, but if the MTA only expects a few smartcard-free, non-transfer passengers at a stop, then having them pay on board a moving bus should not be a problem.

I’d like to stress that other than the ongoing hiccups of the English-speaking world with fare payment systems (hiccups that it seems to export to Paris), the plan appears good, from what few details the MTA has released. There are plans for increasing the average distance between bus stops, adding more bus lanes, getting serious about signal preemption, raising off-peak frequency, and letting passengers board from all doors. The MTA really is noticing that its bus system is collapsing and really is making serious plans to avert a death spiral.


  1. Joel N. Weber II

    “signal preemption” is a technical term that can imply abruptly changing a crosswalk from walk to don’t walk without a flashing don’t walk phase and immediately giving a green to conflicting traffic. You might want to be talking about “transit signal priority”, “early green”, and “extended green”.

    • Joey

      Regardless of the method, there needs to be enough time for the signal to change before the bus gets to the intersection. But I’m pretty sure that’s a solved problem.

  2. Henry

    IIRC, part of the reason why they’re waiting for smartcards is that the Metrocard was proprietary and vendor locked to Cubic. Knowing nothing about the internals of how Metrocard is setup because that isn’t public knowledge, it’s entirely possible that there simply are not enough available readers that are compatible with that proprietary solution now that Cubic has EOL’ed Metrocard for quite a while. The MTA, at the very least, stockpiles turnstiles for that reason.

    Not all magstripes are created equal, and for all we know Cubic used a weird data format or put up some other technological barriers to truly vendor lock their customers.

    Aren’t Ventra (Chicago) and Presto (Toronto) implementing very similar credit-card style systems?

    • threestationsquare

      SBS rollout has involved installing a lot of new Metrocard readers at stops so they’re evidently still willing and able to buy them in some situations.
      Looking over this source code suggests that the Metrocard format is nothing particularly weird, especially if you just want to read and not write it.

  3. threestationsquare

    Anonymous cards being an afterthought seems okay as long as the afterthought happens? Chicago has anonymous Ventra cards and they work fine, I expect NYC to manage to copy them. (The original anonymous Ventra cards also functioned as prepaid debit cards, while recent ones are transit-only.) This will be necessary not only due to unbanked riders but (unless things change) due to the very poor adoption of contactless by US banks; I have fifteen credit cards issued by major US banks and not one of them supports contactless. (Some but not all of them support being added to Android Pay, but I’d prefer not to rely on that in case my battery dies.)

  4. James Sinclair

    In regards to paper PoP, I’ve always enjoyed the mini-tickets used in Paris.

    I noted we were also able to pay a bus driver in cash (2 euro). Oddly, he seemed to have a tablet that printed a ticket which we then validated, rather than a fare box.

    New Jersey, which is even further behind MTA in regards to modern fare collection now allows people to buy tickets on their phone and activate them when boarding. It is interesting because it shifts the cost of the technology to the rider, rather than the agency.

    There is zero cost for validation machines. You simply show the conductor or bus rider your screen. Just as fast as flashing a monthly card where the month is nice and big. I dont know of any other large system that uses this method. I know Boston now also allows this on commuter rail, but not on the other modes.

    The downside is that it requires visual validation at boarding or near boarding time, because if there are random fare checks, you simply hit activate when the popo board. For that reason, the light rail lines which are PoP still require validated paper tickets.

    • Fbfree

      Chicago’s Metra uses the same system. It’s branded as a Ventra payment system, although it’s incompatible with the Ventra cards. It was a cop out to a state law requiring the adoption of a common ticketing system to all Chicago transit agencies.

  5. James Sinclair

    Also, maybe take a look at SEPTA. They managed to be one of the last systems to the modern fare era with their new Key system, which gave them the benefit of absorbing all the best practices.

    And then they fucked it up in every way possible. Every way!

    It will require skill for the MTA to botch it as badly as SEPTA did.

  6. Nicolas Centa

    Suica, Pasmo and the other compatible cards in Japan work very well because they are very simple.

    They can contain money and/or monthly passes, you can get a card at any ticket vending machine for a small refundable deposit, you can charge the card with cash easily at the same machines.

    The money (and the passes) are really stored on the IC chip, so you don’t need your bus or conductor to be connected in real time to any network. You have no online account where your money is, so there is no service outage. If you want a refund for your pass, you put the card back in the machine, it will correct the data and give you your money back.

    And now all these cards are compatible, so you can charge them and use them in almost all urban rail in the country, many buses, and of course all convenience and many other stores.

    There are a lot of features you can add to build on on this system.

    Auto-charging from credit card was added, so if your balance below a certain level your card will be charged a predefined amount in real time from your account when touching it on the turnstile.

    Feature phone, then smartphone support was added, so you can use them instead of a physical card and charge or auto-charge them from your account. Even dedicated support for the iPhone was added by Apple.

    High speed rail ticketing was added, though with 3 different technologies : in the East you can pay for a free seat by touching at the turnstiles (like in the subway but for Shinkansen) or store a reservation on your card ; in the West you register your card ID online and it is then associated to the tickets you will buy on the website, that will be validated at the turnstiles.

    The only thing that can’t be done, though it seems essential to all the systems mentioned for the US, is post payment. But I think this is simply adding too much system complexity, and often dependency on banks, for very few benefits compared with auto-charging.

    I wish other countries would adopt the system as it is instead of adding too much Visa and Mastercard-dependent cyber-features… But Suica is old technology from 2001 so I guess agencies feel they have to do the 2.0 thing now.

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  8. erejnion

    Hiccups with fare payment systems in the English-speaking world? Don’t complain, for the last decade Sofia has been promised every year that a new fare payment system will be introduced within three years. Of course, nothing has happened yet: the metro, the trams (and trolleybuses) and the buses essentially use three different ticket systems, even though the fares are the same. The universally ~1usd ticket for an overground transport can’t be used in the metro and vice versa; and the buses are strictly analogue, so you can’t use in them the tap cards that work in the trams (and in the metro – but with “different” tickets on them). And don’t even get me started on the local trains.

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