Where’s the Bus? The Mayor is Failing Transit Targets and New York Riders

Issue 281

After a year and a half in office, Eric Adams’ vow to be 'Bus Mayor' for NYC’s 1.3 million daily riders remains unfulfilled.

Owen Schacht Jul 18

Standing on Fordham Road waiting for the Bx12-Select bus, I saw some faint red paint in the street. I wondered if it had been a mural erased by millions of rubber tires. Or, perhaps, the splash came from a paint truck, missing one crimson can. But as I stood there, contemplating if walking would be faster than taking the bus, I noticed what looked like letters. I was gazing upon the remnants of a bus lane –– one crowded by parked SUVs and cruising sedans.

Fordham Road Busway

The Bx12, which runs from Inwood in upper Manhattan to Co-op City, is the city’s second-busiest bus route. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority estimates that on a typical day, Fordham Road, the central Bronx’s main commercial corridor, hosts 85,000 bus riders. In 2008, Fordham Road became the city’s first street to have select bus services, with reserved lanes and riders paying their fare before they get on. The Bx12’s average speed improved to just over nine miles per hour, 20% faster than it had been the previous year. 

Today, according to the MTA, it inches along at less than four miles per hour when traveling westbound between roughly Webster Ave. and Grand Concourse, at the heart of a bustling commercial district. 

A battle in the Bronx between working-class bus riders and a minority of affluent car owners has become a defining moment for the mayor’s mass-transit commitments.

“[Buses are] crawling at a pace that is absolutely unacceptable for a city and a community that is so deeply dependent on transit like our own,” said Derrick Holmes, digital strategist at the Riders Alliance, during a rally on July 11 to urge constructing a busway on Fordham Road — limiting the half-mile section between Morris and Webster avenues to buses and trucks, with cars allowed for only for one block at a time. 

“The great news is that we have a solution to the problems on Fordham Road,” Holmes said. “We know exactly how to fix Fordham Road, to make buses faster, make trips more reliable for these people, and that is to implement a new busway.”

The city’s Department of Transportation (DOT) was set to implement a busway on Fordham Road this past spring, estimating that it would boost bus speeds by 30%. But on May 26, leaders of seven major institutions in the area — Fordham University, the New York Botanical Garden, The Bronx Zoo, Monroe College, SBH Health System, and the Fordham Road and Belmont Business Improvement Districts — sent the Adams administration a letter urging the mayor to intervene. They argued that millions of people drive cars to the Fordham Road area, and that the proposed busway would actually increase traffic.

They said that despite “countless conversations” with elected officials and deputy mayors, there was “no indication that our concerns are influencing DOT’s plans.”

Five days after the letter was dropped in the post, the DOT presented a revised proposal consisting of three potential plans. The department is opting for Alternative A, which would have one lane in each direction reserved for buses. Busway supporters are urging Alternative C, a two-way busway from Jerome Ave. in the west to Webster Ave. in the east.
Three proposed solutions to Fordham Road traffic congestion.

“We need a dedicated busway on Fordham Road,” Kara Gurl, planning and advocacy manager of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA, told the July 11 rally. “Busways have been proven to speed up buses for the many riders that depend on them every day.”

According to a DOT street survey from July 2019, 86% of visitors to businesses on Fordham Road arrive by bus, train or walking. 

“It is up to the Mayor to implement a bus network that truly works for our community and our people. A busway on Fordham Road would truly transform the lives of riders like me,” Fordham University junior Abby Dziura said.

Eric Adams, the Bus Mayor?

“Buses are the transportation backbone of our city,” Mayor Eric Adams said in August 2022 at a Better Buses for Brooklyn rally. “They reach every corner of our city, every borough, and then a lifeline for so many New Yorkers on how we utilize our service.” Improving the city’s creaking bus system was a key part of Adams’ agenda during his 2021 mayoral campaign.

Adams promised to build 150 miles of new bus lanes and busways during his first term, but just 6.8 miles have been completed. His administration is off-track on reaching the goals set by the Streets Plan, which was signed into law by then-Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2019. It mandated the construction of 20 miles of camera-protected bus lanes in 2022 and 30 more miles in each of the next four years, for a total of 140 miles by 2026.

Buses provide crucial access to areas of the city that subways cannot reach. Outside of Manhattan, “getting to work or school is more of a fantasy than fact,” Queens Borough President Donovan Richards Jr., said at a transit improvement summit in June 2022. “[If we can build] new bus lanes, we can begin to flip that script.”

The bus is invaluable for New Yorkers, particularly working-class New Yorkers. According to a survey conducted by the office of former Comptroller Scott Stringer in 2019, the median income of bus riders across the city was $30,000, with 62% female and 77% people of color. 

“When we’re talking about the communities that need access to good transit, to be able to get to places like work, get to places like school, just participate in their communities. These are the people we’re talking about, and these are the people we’re trying to improve bus service for,” Holmes told The Indypendent.

Members of the Riders Alliance and Local 1010 stand in solidarity at a rally on Fordham Road on July 11.

As billions of dollars get funneled into Manhattan subway expansions, like the $6 billion for a project that adds three new stops to the Q train or the $2.42 billion spent on extending the 7 train one stop to Hudson Yards, the city’s buses and their riders continue to be neglected. But buses are in the Mayor’s scope of possibilities. While they are controlled by the MTA, a state-operated authority, Gotham Gazette reporter Nicholas Liu noted in June that “New York City government has control of city streets and thus where to install bus lanes and what kind.”

Busways are effective

A study published in Transportation Research Record in 2012 found that the inauguration of the Bx12-SBS resulted in “a 20% reduction in travel time along the corridor and an 11.5% increase in ridership.” The project cost $10 million and gave rise to 98% satisfaction with the new bus service, the study said. A study of bus rapid-transit upgrades in North America published by the journal in 2015 found that “dedicated lanes and signal priority were positively correlated with increased ridership,” even in models where decreased travel time was controlled for. While improved speeds often make the headlines, it said that the perceived reliability of the bus service, coupled with increased frequency, “are the common foundation for successful projects.”

We talk to Derrick Holmes of Rider’s Alliance, an organization that advocates for improved mass transit in New York, about the fight to make a busway on Fordham Road.

Busways have proven effective in other parts of the city. In June 2022, the 14th St. busway was made permanent. The DOT website explains that “the project, which serves approximately 28,000 daily M14 riders, combines blocks of exclusive access and standard bus lanes to provide bus priority from 9th Avenue to 1st Avenue.” Bus speeds increased by 24% and ridership by 30% on what had been one of Manhattan’s most congested streets. In Queens, the Main Street busway in Flushing, a car-free 0.3-mile stretch of road between Northern Boulevard and Sanford Avenue that serves 155,000 daily riders, was implemented in 2021. 

Increased bus ridership also lowers the number of cars on the road, which reduces the amount of exhaust-spewed pollutants such as ozone and fine particulate matter — particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter, which are particularly harmful to children, the elderly and people with cardiovascular conditions. 

When Mexico City introduced busways in 2005, residents saw rates of asthma-inducing air pollution decline. Researchers at the University of Barcelona concluded in a study published in 2018 that the busways were “an effective environmental policy, reducing emissions.” Another study, published in 2008, found that Mexico City residents’ exposure to carbon monoxide, benzene and fine particulate matter was reduced by between 20% and 70%.

Where’s the bus?

But in New York, improvements to the bus system have been slow and overshadowed by flashy subway extensions. The bus is often the go-to option for the nearly seven million people residing outside of Manhattan, as it is the only direct way to make east-west trips along Fordham Road, to get to Brooklyn College from Brownsville or Borough Park, or travel from Flushing to Jamaica in Queens — as well as to go crosstown in much of Manhattan. But bus riders have long complained of slow speeds, long waits and blocked bus lanes.

Eric Adams campaigned on being “the Bus Mayor,” Derrick Holmes told The Indy. “The Mayor is failing to stand up to his own words and is failing to do right by the riders that he promised he would speed up buses for.”

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