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NYC buses failing riders with poor service, transit advocates say

Only one route in the city earned an A on the Bus Turnaround Coalition's annual report card.

Bus riders wait as a crosstown M66 bus

Bus riders wait as a crosstown M66 bus on East 67th Street arrives on Wednesday, March 6. The M66 is one of 58 bus routes to receive an "F" from the Bus Turnaround Coalition on its annual report card. Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

This year’s bus report cards are in and the D grades abound.

The Bus Turnaround Coalition advocacy group released its annual grades for the city’s bus routes Wednesday, with 58 routes earning Fs and another 124 routes — half the bus network — receiving Ds.

"In 2018, the average local bus traveled at 6.4 miles per hour. That's even more sluggish than last year's average speed and considerably slower than another New York City transit fixture: the rats running through our subway system, who can sprint faster than 8 miles per hour," said Mary Buchanan, a researcher at TransitCenter, one of the coalition members, during a rally Wednesday on City Hall steps.

Still, there was some promise for the slowest major bus system in America: 30 fewer routes received failing grades in 2018, compared with the year before. The group grades service depending on speed, on-time performance and the level of bus bunching on each route — that is, the frequency with which buses on the same route travel back to back.

Only one route in the city received an A: the Q52 on Cross Bay and Woodhaven Boulevards. Advocates credited the addition of bus lanes, all-door boarding and a 66 percent reduction in bunching year over year for the high mark. Additionally, the report notes 57 Cs and eight B grades across city bus service.

"We know how this bus got this great grade; the simple answer is that it uses solutions that we know could work across the city," said Jaqi Cohen, of the Straphangers Campaign.

Riders waiting for the bus outside Queens Center mall Wednesday praised efforts made on their route.

Ariel Taveras, a waiter and Queensborough College student from Woodside, rides the Q52 to his job off the last stop in Rockaway. He appreciates how all-door boarding reduces the amount of time the bus is stopped at the curb.

“The buses are bigger, so you can get more people in, and it’s quicker,” he said. “There’s not one long line of everyone waiting to swipe.”

Leah Gray, a construction worker from Richmond Hill, said clear bus lanes were key to speedy service.

“It’s gotten better — it’s express, it’s on time,” she said.

Paraprofessional Nicole Heckstall, of Rockaway, is not pleased, however, with the MTA's policy of briefly halting service for enforcement officers to check riders' receipts.

“It can actually be an inconvenience sometimes. The officers come on when the bus is stopped to check your tickets and the bus is held,” she said. “It’s ridiculous.”

The coalition, which includes Riders Alliance, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign and the NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign, called for the city and MTA to focus more on bus service and bus-friendly policies that can turn Ds into As, with measures like more bus lanes and transit signal priority.

The poor grades follow a continuing sharp decline in bus ridership. There was a 5.9 percent drop in local and express bus trips during weekdays last year, a drop of 113,000 rides per day. Still, almost two million commuters rely on the city’s painfully slow and unreliable bus service.

About 75 percent of bus riders are people of color, and the average median income of riders is $28,455, according to a 2017 report from City Comptroller Scott Stringer.

“Failing buses fail these riders the most — and that’s a crisis of social equity that we cannot ignore in the 'fairest big city in America,'” said Ashley Price, an advocacy associate at TransitCenter, borrowing a phrase from the mayor.

Both the MTA and the city have promised to improve service. Transit President Andy Byford last year said he would redraw each borough’s bus networks in five years as part of his modernization plan, Fast Forward. And Mayor Bill de Blasio earlier this year pledged to increase bus speeds by 25 percent come 2020. 

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson has gone further, advocating for city control of subways and buses. Johnson on Tuesday called for the establishment of a Big Apple Transit system in his State of the City address.

"We've won commitments from the MTA to improve service… and we've won those same commitments from the city to make sure that they're putting in new bus lanes and enforcing those bus lanes," said Nick Sifuentes, of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. "But we have to hold them accountable."

Manhattan Councilman Mark Levine, who's district received an F for bus service that features an average speed of 5 mph, worried of a "death spiral" that could come: If riders continue abandoning the bus, the MTA could be inclined to reduce service, he said. 

"We have to put our money where our mouth is and implement the changes that we know will solve this crisis that are working in cities around the world and have already worked on some lines in New York City," said Manhattan Councilman Mark Levine, who attended the rally alongside Councilman Ben Kallos.

MTA Spokesman Max Young said the authority acknowledges there's still much work to be done.

"We have been very focused on improving our bus service around the city, and we thank the Bus Turnaround Coalition for that recognition. Despite the progress we’ve made, we have an enormous amount of work to do on this issue, in order to improve speeds and reliability to help riders get around the city," Young said in a statement. "In order to achieve this goal we need congestion pricing to pass, in order to reduce traffic on the streets and provide additional technological and infrastructure improvements."


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