“Quick Win” for Buses = Loss for Commuters

New York City rail transit lines have fallen on hard times, with frequent delays, accidents, and even trains not running at all. While Governor Cuomo has declared a state of emergency, some transit advocates want to make sure buses aren’t forgotten in any multi-billion-dollar fix.

Some of their ideas, such as having people pay before they board to hasten loading, are good ones. But they also want more dedicated bus lanes and to have traffic signals be programmed to give buses priority at intersections.

In any city but New York, giving transit priority over other traffic is foolish because cars typically move 50 to 100 times as many people and trucks move far more freight than transit. In New York City, however, transit carries well over half of commuters to work, so deserves more consideration. But how many of those transit commuters take the bus?

To answer that question, we can turn to the 2015 American Community Survey, and specifically table B08301. I looked up this table for counties, because New York City is actually five different counties: Bronx, Kings (Brooklyn), New York (Manhattan), Queens, and Richmond (Staten Island).

 AutoBusSubwayWalk
Bronx154,20792,614252,55244,185
Brooklyn267,431103,498626,257107,666
Manhattan66,76360,282448,802182,443
Queens429,372123,559434,13664,124
Staten Island130,40245,6726,1584,793
Total1,048,175425,6251,767,905403,211

It turns out the vast majority of New York City transit commuters take the subway: nearly 1.7 million, compared with only 426,000 who ride the bus. Well over one million commuters get to work by car, outnumbering bus riders by more than two to one.

We’d expect auto drivers to outnumber transit riders on Staten Island, and to outnumber bus riders in Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. But they even outnumber bus riders in Manhattan: nearly 67,000 by car vs. 60,000 by bus. Thus, giving buses priority access to lanes and traffic signals over cars harms more people than it benefits (and that’s not even counting the costs to truckers).

If New York is going to give priority to anyone, it might be Manhattan pedestrians, as nearly three times as many Manhattanites walk to work as drive. But hardly anyone bicycles: 46,000 city-wide and 19,000 in Manhattan. Dedicated bike lanes, if they can be added without taking away from auto and truck space, might help, but making traffic signals more responsive to both pedestrians and cyclists could help even more.

Transit advocates see the world as divided between people and cars. While people walk, bicycle, and ride transit, cars are somehow inferior because (they pretend) they don’t carry people. In fact, unlike some transit vehicles, every car on the road has someone in it going somewhere that is important to them, so–even in Manhattan–policies that hurt auto users in favor of other users can harm the economy as a whole.

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