Saturday, May 25, 2013

A safe, comfortable bus network

Recently I drew your attention to Kimberly Matus's story about being groped on a downtown 2 train, and the fact that the only way she could be reasonably sure of avoiding a repeat of that situation was to take a taxi to work, or buy a car. The Death Valley of Commute Options means that Matus - and people like me who just want to sit down - have no reasonable transit alternative. We can take a cheap, fast train or a cheap, slow bus, and both of them force us to deal with crowding and noise. Even the taxis are hard to find, and the legal options for sharing are rare. The system is set up to force us into cars.

The frustrating thing is that it doesn't have to be this way. Whenever there's crowding or queuing, chances are someone is willing to pay to escape it. If the government sets up an alternative it will get customers, and if barriers to entry are low, private businesses will set up alternatives.

Sadly, barriers to entry are not low. The City DOT refuses to allow any private bus lines to operate within city limits, the City Council won't authorize commuter vans to pick up passengers legally, the NYPD won't let them use the bus lanes, and the State Legislature is driving intercity bus operators out of business, based on bad data from the Federal DOT.

I'm proposing that instead the City allow well-regulated private buses to bid on selected routes, charging whatever fare the market will bear. And no, not on the routes with the lowest demand, which basically ensures failure without an anchor, but on high-demand routes, paralleling subway lines. It would help if the city also provided dedicated bus lanes and bus bulbs along these routes, but I don't think they're absolutely necessary. From what I can see, the demand is there even if the buses are much slower than the subway.

I can envision a million objections, but there are two serious ones I can think of. The first is that it will undermine the strength of the transit unions and the quality of life of transit workers. Because of this, I propose (1) that all bidders be required to operate a closed shop on these routes, employing only members of the transit unions that are currently active in the city.

The second, raised by Zoltán, is that it's not fair to make women pay more to avoid sexual assault. I completely agree, and I think we should be working towards a system where such offenses are rare and swiftly punished. But I don't think we should have to wait for that, and it's not the only reason to provide comfortable alternatives to the subway.

The third is that it will poach customers from the existing subway and bus routes. In the comments to my previous post, Alon Levy tried to argue that this would mean a "mass exodus from the subway," and that it was somehow okay for New York subways to be operating at 100% of recommended capacity because Tokyo subways have much higher loads.

I'm not convinced. I think we should be aiming for passenger loads below 100%, something like the Shoupian ideal of 85%. Why shouldn't people be comfortable during rush hour? But I agree that the government should not be subsidizing competition to its own transit system, the way it currently does by building and widening highways. But to address these objections, I suggest the following additional conditions:

(2) That there be no direct subsidy to the private operators. If there are enough people who think they can make a profit, they should pay the city an amount to be determined by competitive bidding.

(3) That the routes be rebid every year, based on a survey of passenger loads. The routes should connect subway stations that currently require travel on a line that sees loads greater than 85% capacity at rush hour (or even outside of rush hour, with reasonable deviations. If a route drops below 85% on a survey, it is no longer eligible for parallel bus service.

In addition, I think these two conditions would help ensure consistency and satisfaction:

(4) That the routes be served at least every fifteen minutes from 6AM to midnight, seven days a week. If an operator fails to provide that level of service, the DOT should rescind the authorization to operate on that route. If the operator cannot make a profit, there should be a formal process for abandoning a route.

(5) That the MTA allow the private operators to accept Metrocards and any other standard MTA fare payment system, if the operator desires it.

What would such a network of bus routes look like? Ultimately, that would be up to the operators bidding for the routes. But I have some ideas about what I would bid on if I had a bus company. First, if we assume that the chart above is still correct, it would mean paralleling the 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, E and L trains. Those lines roughly parallel Eric Fischer's travel map of geocoded tweets:

Knowing that most people are commuting to jobs in East Midtown, I set up a bunch of routes that focus on that area.

I would definitely pay five dollars for a guaranteed seat on one of these buses during rush hour, even if I had to sit on it for an hour, as long as it meant avoiding a crowded subway. I'd pay even more if it had BusTime, legroom, outlets, broadband internet and an espresso machine. I bet some people who currently drive or take taxis or black cars into the city would take one of these buses instead. Surely it's worth a try?


Alon said...

I didn't say that private buses would cause a mass exodus from the subway. What I said is that you can only guarantee everyone a seat if you had a mass exodus, which isn't actually feasible due to lack of on-street capacity. Surface transit has speed and capacity problems and always has, and the only example of high bus capacity in the area is the Lincoln Tunnel XBL, which feeds directly into an enormous bus station. Any investment into new bus infrastructure of similar magnitude is a waste because the same investment into new subways can produce higher capacity. In addition, comfort levels are higher on trains than on buses because they don't have sudden starts and stops.

BruceMcF said...

When you say bid, you mean that money changes hands, right?

So put the money into a subway capital improvements fund.

Capn Transit said...

Oh, I see where the confusion came from, Alon! I didn't say you should guarantee a seat on the subway, only that the subway should have enough room in it that a woman can get away from an attacker like that. It's on the bus that I would guarantee a seat.

Capn Transit said...

Good idea, Bruce! That should be requirement number (6).

Alen said...

if you want to lessen the load on the E train, have the LIRR run more trains that stop at Forest Hills

can't beat 15 minutes into Penn

Adirondacker12800 said...

Why would someone in Forest Hills take the LIRR to Penn Station to get to 53rd and Lex when they can get on the E train a block away from the Forest Hills LIRR station and go directly to 53rd and Lex? Or the World Trade Center? Or the Museum of Natural History? For anybody not going to the Penn Station area the E train works "better" which is why most of them take the E train instead of the LIRR.
Having the LIRR train stop in Forest Hills for people coming in from the Island sucks.

Alen said...

if you work around Penn or times square its faster than the E. i've been late for the 8:12 or 8:25 and its faster waiting the 15 minutes for the next LIRR train than taking the E to Penn.

my wife loves it too. drop the kid at school and take the 8:49 to Penn and walk 2 blocks. 20-25 minutes. and no one crushing you after the human wave at roosevelt ave station. on the way back you know what time the train comes so you can be on it a minute before it leaves. no leaving work early and wait 10 minutes for the train. i leave 10 minutes before the train, run the few blocks to Penn and that's it. by 5 i'm at forest hills

busplanner said...

Cap'n - Your suggestion to allow "well-regulated" private bus companies "to bid" on routes is almost certainly doomed to failure.

1. Define "well-regulated" - Will the city specify driver qualifications, maintenance procedures, size of buses, frequency of service, span of service, or other major variables? This is the only way one can have competitive bidding. The city has to be able to compare bidders on the same set of standards and the city needs to protect its citizens by insuring those standards lead to safe operation and maintenance of the buses and the frequency of service that meets your goals.

2. If the city is bidding out the service, the city has the responsibility of making sure the bid winner actually operates the service according to the bid specifications. The city thus will incur the cost of both contracting out the service (the procurement process) and monitoring the service (the compliance process).

3. Will the service operate on a reservations basis? Without reservations, the bidder is either going to bypass potential riders on a regular basis (that is, all seats are taken) or operate so much service that he will almost definitely lose money.

Adirondacker12800 said...

if you work around Penn or times square its faster than the E. i've been late for the 8:12 or 8:25 and its faster waiting the 15 minutes for the next LIRR train than taking the E to Penn.

Hence the caveat about the Penn Station area, If you are going anyplace else it's not because the E trains gets you to the places ... the E train would get you when you get to Manhattan. Or a block away from where the 1 train, more or less, would get you if you got on it at Penn Station.
It's only faster to Times Square if you get lucky and the 1 train is pulling in as you get to the platform. Or you jog to Times Square.
Using the LIRR from Forest Hills is good for people who want to get to or from Penn Station. It's not for people who want to get someplace else. The subway is better.

jazumah said...

The City of New York has no expertise whatsoever to manage a transit system of any complexity, public or private. The city wants to pipeline everyone onto MTA services because they do not like competition.

Therefore, the only way to make this happen (in my opinion) is to create a private bus grid that would provide access to New Jersey/Westchester/Nassau. In that manner, the city is unlikely to be able to illegally sabotage any further services.

It is my contention that the Rockaway Ferry weekday service will be closed after July 4 because it is hard for me to see how they would maintain 350 passenger trips/day with intense subway competition. This market could be converted into an express bus route to Lower Manhattan and Jersey City. In this configuration, all that would be needed is a willing operator.

Commuter rail is instructive in this respect. If an operator can integrate spokes that operate beyond NYC in a regional bus service configuration, then the parochial interests would be kept at bay. Large traffic generators such as Journal Square, Jersey Gardens, Cross County Shopping Center, and Green Acres would provide solid building blocks for a new private regional bus system. $5 is a nice round number for such a service.

Connor.C said...

Was this not tried already with NYC DOT bus routes? Now MTA Bus Co?