Examining M15 Bus Line Changes

Amid news that the MTA is working to improve efficiency on the M15 bus line, The Local East Village offers a special report on recent changes to the route. In the video above, NYU Journalism’s Alexandra DiPalma asks riders who use the service for their assessment of the changes. Bill Millard, a community contributor who frequently writes about transportation issues, offers an analysis below of whether the new system is achieving its goals.

Select Bus Service isn’t quite bus service as New Yorkers know it; it’s more a cross between buses and light rail. Like every transit innovation, it takes some getting used to. Adjusting to it boils down to three ideas: treat it like a train, stay out of the lane, and don’t expect miracles overnight.

When the Department of Transportation and the Metropolitan Transit Authority launched the East Side SBS on Oct. 10, riders immediately noticed problems. Familiar stops were gone. The honor-system ticketing was confusing and too vulnerable to freeloaders (now everybody, on a count of three: “This is New York”). Receipt machines wouldn’t refill a low MetroCard or accept bills. Waits were still too long (no bus rider in recorded history has ever commented that enough buses were in service). And if you gave up and hopped an earlier-arriving local, the receipts weren’t transferable at first. The MTA quickly changed that policy, notes spokesperson Kevin Ortiz, citing customer feedback.

All system features were chosen “to speed up service along the corridor,” Mr. Ortiz notes, though future tweaks are possible: “We did look at other types of payment systems, i.e., Brazil, but decided this was the most feasible.”

Why Brazil? The worldwide model for bus rapid transit is the Speedybus system in Curitiba, Brazil, a magnet for transportation experts thanks to reformist architect-mayor Jaime Lerner. An exhibition by the Center for Architecture and the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, “Our Cities, Ourselves,” highlights rapid transit as a way for cities worldwide to keep people moving while minimizing costs and car dependence.

The MTA calls Select service New York’s rapid transit system; this is almost accurate. True rapid transit networks have several features that Select service does not currently implement. Signal priority (i.e., green lights for approaching buses) and separation by barriers or grade differences keep lanes clear. Curitiba’s buses run more frequently – some every 90 seconds – and stations have enclosures and turnstiles to prevent fare-beating. Riders pay on entering a station, as on the subway. The arrangement will be familiar to anyone who has flown to Boston lately and taken the Silver Line from Logan Airport.

M15 Select BusLaura Kuhn MTA officials say that the Select service offered along the M15 route is New York’s version of the bus rapid transit systems used in Curitiba, Brazil and elsewhere.

The chief rapid transit feature in Select service is off-board payment. It’s like the difference between serial and parallel electrical circuits. A bus with only one entry makes boarding a serial process, one rider at a time; if anybody takes a long time fumbling for a MetroCard or change, or stops to ask the driver a question, everybody waits. Rapid transit systems speed things up by letting riders board in parallel through multiple doors. Select service lacks turnstiles but uses three-door boarding; on the Fordham Road Bx12 line, where the first Select service pilot project launched two years ago, bus speeds are up 20 percent and ridership is up 30 percent.

Select service is still surface transportation, subject to red lights, maintenance operations, volume delays, and lane obstruction — all the familiar nuisances in the public right-of-way. It’s also a work in progress. Later this month, Mr. Ortiz says, the MTA will address the most avoidable cause of delays by installing cameras that capture the license-plate numbers of vehicles blocking bus lanes.

Further plans include signal priority and, if another pilot project pans out, a GPS system that tracks the location of every bus. Using the BusTime service on the M16 and M34 lines along the 34th Street corridor, riders can text-message MTABUS plus a bus-stop ID code (available on shelters or online) to 41411 and get arrival times — real ones, not the estimates printed in schedules.

Riders in other cities already use similar systems to avoid wasting time at bus stops. Extending BusTime to the whole network might help conserve a resource that they don’t have in Curitiba, and that we could all use more of: the New York minute.

Bill Millard is an East Villager who writes about architecture and the urban environment for Oculus, eOculus, the Architect’s Newspaper, Icon, the LEAF Review, and other publications.