by Laura Matiz
In June, construction crews were quite active along 86th Street installing kiosks and signage in preparation for the rollout of a new M86 Select Bus Service. According to the MTA, the M86 crosstown line is the busiest route per mile serving 24,000 riders daily. The Select Bus Service aims to improve travel times by having riders pre-pay before boarding. Using a Metrocard, riders obtain a paper ticket at kiosks located at the bus stops. Time savings occur because all three doors on the bus can be used to let riders on. So, how successful has the July13 rollout been? Here are some anecdotal observations after a few weeks of use.
The layout of the machines seems peculiar. (See kiosk pictures.) For example, the instructions are above eye-level for most riders and the three-step process could be made simpler with better sequencing of physical space — follow the color coding to see what I mean. You start in the middle (blue); then move right (yellow); then move all the way to the left (red). Why is there a need to "push to start"? Why is there a need for such a large screen? A simper "insert Metrocard; get ticket" one-step process would optimize the process. Curiously, the ticket is called a receipt at the most important label.
A real problem is that less than a month into the program, a number of the machines have broken down. For example, just a couple of evenings ago, two of three machines were broken at the east-bound Broadway stop. I saw a number of riders try one machine then a second then run onto the bus, giving up before trying the third and last machine, which was working. They were afraid of missing the bus. There is a small tag at the bottom of each kiosk that has the information on how to report a problem. I hadn't noticed it until I took these pictures.
The Paper Tickets
Dispensing 24,000 paper tickets daily seem tremendously wasteful. The size of each ticket is about an eighth of a letter-sized piece of paper to be disposed of after the trip. Doing some quick math, that's over 1 million pieces of letter-sized paper, or more than 2,000 reams of garbage generated per year. The paper ticket seems anachronistic, a return to the 20th century when the MTA used paper transfers between buses. The paper tickets are ripe for new ideas.
Probably the most unpleasant thing about this roll out is when you reach a stop and the enforcement unit boards the bus. It feels like something out of a dystopian movie when the five military-style guards, all in dark blue gear and heavy black boots, fan out to board the bus using all entrances to check each and every passenger's paper ticket. If you are waiting at the stop where the check is occurring, you have to wait outside the bus till you see one or two fare-beaters pulled off the bus to receive a lecture and a summons. I'm sure someone is already working on the app that will alert dishonest riders where the next enforcement unit is lurking.
Fare beating might be an issue with the current system. While I had not seen enforcement units on any of the other SBS lines, they are much needed on, for example, the M60 to LaGuardia Airport, where it seems only the tourists bother getting a paper ticket. Most of the locals seem to enjoy a free ride both on 125th Street and on Astoria Boulevard. So, that begs the question, what will happen once these enforcement units are dissolved? My guess is that most people are honest and will pay their fare and a few will take advantage. But, I think there is also a tipping point effect, when it seems most riders stop paying the fare either from the lack of enforcement, broken machines, or buses so packed that you can't check. For another example of the latter, see the LIRR during packed commuting times.
The MTA should be expected to provide statistics on whether the program has improved service given the expensive roll out. Anecdotally, the trip across town does seem to be faster. There haven't been those interminable stops waiting for scores to get on the bus, or for riders that put their Metrocard in the machine three wrong ways before getting it right. On the other hand, bus bunching is still a problem. (See bus bunching explained visually.) You wait a long a time and then two and or three buses show up. Another factor adding time savings may be the new traffic patterns that coincided with the SBS roll out. These new lanes give buses priority and easier access to the bus stops, especially at Central Park West (Eastbound) and at Fifth Avenue (Eastbound).
I support the MTA's effort to improve bus service. These transit experiments are worth the effort because with a projected population growth in NYC of close to a million people by 2030, we need mass transit improvements. Real estate development in areas served by the M86 is strong leading to more crowded transit. City leaders have to confront how to move more and more people speedily, safely, and without a large impact on our environment. With that in mind, here are a few thoughts that could make it even better: