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If all goes according to plan, Bronx residents will begin enjoying the fruits of the long-awaited overhaul of their transit bus network on June 26.
Project planning started in 2018. It met with strong opposition when releasing the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s draft plan in 2019, was put on hold for 18 months during the pandemic and restarted last August.
This is no small task. The MTA planning to change routes, bus stops and connections. Some routes will see more frequent service, particularly along the 10 priority bus lanes identified by the New York City Department of Transportation.
“New York has the most bus ridership of any city in the country, but the slowest bus service,” according to Danny Pearlsteindirector of policy and communications for Riders Alliance, a transit advocacy group.
Even before the pandemic disrupted modes of public transportation, New York’s transit bus ridership fell 16.5% from 2014 to 2019. National transit bus ridership decreases 11.8% over the same period, with buses seeing the lowest levels of ridership since 1990. This has prompted many US cities to undertake or plan major overhauls of their bus systems.
Many agencies haven’t looked at their system comprehensively for a long time.
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Lora BialaCEO of Foursquare Integrated Transportation Planning, explained an overhaul as “looking at every route in the system and restructuring things in a way that works better.” A 2021 Transit Cooperative Research Program report called the redesign of the bus network “one of the ‘hottest trends’ in public transit”.
Austin, Texas, Baltimore, dallas, Houston and Los Angeles are among the cities that have implemented makeovers of the bus network. Boston, Indianapolis, Miami and Washington, D.C. are currently reworking their systems. The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, which serves the Philadelphia area, is conducting a Three years review and revision of its bus network.
“A lot of agencies haven’t looked at their system holistically for a long time,” Byala said. “So it’s often the first time they’ve systematically looked at what makes sense to meet current travel demand and new travel patterns and congestion in their area.”
From planning to inception, bus network projects can take an average of about three years for large transit agencies and as little as a year for smaller systems, Byala said. Success is rooted in raising awareness and engaging with the public and other parties, she said: “We have to take into account people’s individual stories, because the people who need it most are the ones to who [whom] the smallest change will turn their lives upside down.”
Equity considerations have gained prominence in the overhaul of bus systems over the past two years, Byala said. System revisions include improving access for communities that rely on the transit system.
Although this has been required since 1964 under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act for any program or activity receiving federal funds, the Biden administration Justice40 Initiative adds another obligation. It requires that 40% of the benefits of federally funded programs go to disadvantaged communities.
Justice40 plays a role in a transit agency’s ability to successfully submit a grant application to the Federal Transit Administration, said Crissy Ditmore, public policy manager, North America, for Optibus, an intelligence platform machine that helps create timetables and plan routes. Easy access to rich data can help both plan and measure the results of any new project, Ditmore added.
But implementing a successful network redesign is a complex undertaking with many goals and participants. “There are a lot of things you need to consider,” said Optibus CEO Amos Haggiag. In addition to developing bus routes that best serve a city’s residents, Haggiag explained that a transportation agency must consider the location of bus maintenance facilities, driver schedules, labor agreements, vehicle costs and availability, among other factors.
Many organizations also provide a transition to battery electric buses, which adds new parameters to the equation. Can they complete a day’s schedule on an overnight charge? If not, when and where can these buses be recharged? How do steep hills or winter conditions affect battery life? All of this needs to be factored into new route structures, Haggiag said.
As cities and transit agencies plan how best to serve their bus riders, different priorities and goals will emerge, Byala said. “Each overhaul needs to be approached differently,” she advised.