On a recent clear and sunny morning, a public bus heading into the Bronx was forced to slow when a car just stopped in the middle of the street. The bus driver, his right hand joining his left on the wheel, swerved around.
“That’s just part of life,” he said, sunglasses-guarded eyes still on the road.
The driver, who is in his 50s and has driven for the MTA for less than 10 years, places street obstacles into two categories — normal and not normal. Normal is the stuff that’s part of life in a city: The double-parked police cars and trucks near a great bagel place off Southern Boulevard. Sex workers who commandeer construction workers’ bright abandoned flags to stop nighttime traffic. Road construction that exposes manhole covers and looks like the surface of the moon. The bus operator affectionately calls that Bronx stretch “the war zone” and notes, “This is not for the amateur.”
But still: “This is fine, this is life.”
It’s what buses are made for, a workhorse scene like the following: At a stop in the South Bronx, four passengers with walkers wait to exit. “Walker getting off,” the first passenger says. The operator tells three people trying to enter to go to the back of the bus without paying, to free up some space. Later, he says that particular stop is often slow because it’s near a methadone clinic, and many people who are a little unwell get on or off.
Again, this is normal New York City. There are, however, other things that aren’t bus life as usual for this native New Yorker bus driver, who agreed to share his double-length “articulated” bus, and explain what was happening on the street in order to demonstrate some of the job’s difficulties. I agreed not to identify him or his exact route so he could speak frankly. And for the record, during the ride, he carefully did his job and I stood behind the white line.
Riders and politicians know the buses are slow. Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised to increase bus speeds by 25% by the end of 2020 via better signal timing, enforcement of bus lanes and initiatives like a bus advisory group. Speeds have been a problem, with recent MTA numbers even showing a slight slowdown between last August (8.2 mph) and this one (8.1 mph).
One reason for the slog, according to the bus driver, is the huge jump in for-hire vehicles. An annual city report last month counted 120,954. One of them zoomed past us on the left and stopped in a bus stop that morning.
“He’s on the phone,” the bus operator scoffed as we weaved around, logging both the TLC plates and the fact that the driver was tapping at the device on his dashboard.
App-cars stalled by the sidewalk waiting for passengers means calculated bus swerving, to say nothing of more traffic.
“This is a mental job, not physical,” the operator says at one point. “You always have to be thinking ahead.”
Then there are the new bike lanes — which our bus driver doesn’t object to on principle, but there may be an unintended consequence. Many delivery trucks are parking to the left of the bike lane, says the bus operator, leaving some room for the bikers but making it even harder for buses to maneuver.
He wonders whether that has to do with city ticketing policy. Trucks making deliveries can benefit from the city’s “stipulated fines” program, which reduces summonses for companies if they waive their right to contest them. The amount charged is the average cost incurred by companies that do contest tickets, according to a city spokesman. Parking in a bike lane is hardly reduced: from $115 to $100 in most areas, vs. regular double parking, which goes from $115 to $35.
How about bus lanes, do they help? “Yes and no,” says the operator. They’re great when open, but a single vehicle edging slightly into the lane makes them useless.
Every little obstacle slows the bus a little more, which can lead to bus bunching — when multiple buses appear at the stop at essentially the same time — and even unintentional overtime.
“Operators get OT when they are in the seat longer than scheduled,” explains MTA spokesman Tim Minton in an email. In practice that means if traffic delays a bus sufficiently, “overtime is paid for the difference between scheduled return and actual return time.”
Minton agreed that buses “don’t move quickly enough in some parts of NYC,” and said, “We have to be innovative.” He cited initiatives meant to help, like camera enforcement for bus lanes, increased fines for vehicles that block buses and eliminating some bus stops that are too close to others.
The bus operator’s morning shift started before 4 a.m. and ended around noon, most of it hectic driving. Through it all, he navigated around cars, jaywalkers, e-scooters going the wrong way, all to get his passengers with their wheelchairs and groceries and luggage and giant kitchen appliances and balloons (all one shift) to their destinations.
He sees it all — the buses and bikes and trains and cars — as part of a big normal city ecosystem. They can be made to coexist.
“We have to figure it out,” he says. “We can figure this out.”