Opinion

New York City needs Bill de Blasio to be a bus mayor

By Alex Armlovich |  

October 25, 2017 |  

A Select Bus Service operating in Manhattan. (Leonard Zhukovsky/Shutterstock)

All summer, New Yorkers have borne grumbling witness to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s crumbling MTA subway system. Meanwhile, Mayor Bill de Blasio has taken every opportunity to remind us all that Cuomo’s deferred maintenance issues are outside direct mayoral control. Sure, that’s true of the subways – but what about the buses?

Cuomo’s MTA does own and operate New York’s buses, but de Blasio’s Department of Transportation controls and funds bus lanes and other Select Bus Service upgrades that make bus commutes faster.

The mayor has repeatedly claimed there were “no quick fixes” to the transit crisis. This may be true of the subways, but not the streets and buses. Stricter bus lane and parking placard enforcement could begin tomorrow; high-occupancy vehicle lanes on city-owned bridges could begin next week; and Select Bus Service routes can be planned and implemented in two to five years.

That’s all a lot faster than a century-long Second Ave Subway or decade-long 7 train extension. But rather than come to the rescue during the subway crisis, de Blasio was happy to blast Cuomo and leave New Yorkers to their “Summer of Hell” with no better alternatives. Now, the mayor’s new “congestion plan” promises to keep building SBS routes at the same pace the Department of Transportation has maintained since the program began under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. That’s certainly better than a promise to stop building SBS lines, but not otherwise a change from current policy.

RELATED: Could Congestion Pricing Save the Subway? 

Today, when a subway line goes down, saying “don’t worry, just take the bus” sounds like a cruel joke to many New Yorkers. Part of that is out-of-touch snobbery, but it’s also that the local buses stop every two blocks and are absurdly delayed by car traffic and on-board fare payment.

Manhattanites acclimated to universal subway access are realizing how bad the backup bus service is outside of decent SBS routes. It’s even more critical in the outer borough subway deserts, where buses are the backbone rather than the backup. 

Mayor de Blasio proudly points out that he has built “nearly 75 percent” of the Select Bus Service routes he promised in 2014. But if the subway crisis was Sputnik for buses – a shocking wake-up for our complacent management – de Blasio’s congestion speech is like JFK promising not to put a man on the moon any slower than we were already doing.

Much of New York lacks the road space to do full rail-style bus superhighways like Los Angeles’ Orange Line or Bogota’s Transmillennio system, though where roads are wide enough we should try. Peer cities like London still do much better than us with ubiquitous and well-enforced regular bus lanes, ideally offset from the curb wherever possible. We could do better still with universal off-board fare payment to help reduce payment confusion between SBS and local buses. We don’t have to wait for the new payment system, which will replace the MetroCard in 2020, to make this change – it’s possible right now.

There’s no surer sign of bus policy failure than the continued decline of bus ridership – to its lowest level in June since 2013 – despite the subway crisis. People apparently still prefer to gamble on Cuomo’s subways than sit in traffic on the bus.  

The city’s Department of Transportation surely knows what to do, but de Blasio won’t let his talented staff off his cautious leash. The biggest mystery is, why not? It’s not just good policy to fix the bus network, it’s a political opportunity to demonstrate real leadership and capitalize on the subway crisis he genuinely didn’t cause. Whoever wins this election needs to stop bragging about a ferry system that carries fewer riders than a single Select Bus Service line and get back to work for New York’s 2.4 million (and falling) daily bus riders. 

Alex Armlovich is an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute and graduate student at the Harvard Kennedy School. Find him on Twitter: @aarmlovi

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