When the pandemic engulfed New York, it highlighted the vital role public transit plays in a city where essential workers — many of whom are poor and people of color — count on the subway and buses to get around.
Although the subway is the city’s lifeblood, the mayor of New York has little say over the subway because it is operated by an agency controlled by the governor. But as the city slowly recovers, public transit is central to its efforts to bring back daily life and has become a key focus in the race to become the next mayor.
And New York’s next leader does have far more influence over buses by virtue of controlling the streets they run on.
Buses are a key cog of the vast public transit system, even if they are often overshadowed by the subway. Carrying well over two million riders daily before the outbreak, the city’s bus network by itself is bigger than many of the country’s largest urban transit systems.
The sprawling bus network links many neighborhoods, especially outside Manhattan, that are not well served by the subway and transports a ridership that is more diverse and makes less money than commuters who use the trains.
Bus riders tend to be service workers, from hourly employees at fast food restaurants and clothing stores to a vast army of home health aides, many of whom travel across different boroughs and do not need to be taken to Manhattan, which is the subway’s main purpose.
“By far the mayor’s most significant power over transit is the control of the streets,” said Ben Fried, a spokesman for TransitCenter, a nonprofit research and advocacy group. “There’s a huge opportunity awaiting the next mayor to improve the bus system.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio, who did little to significantly enhance bus service until late in his eight-year tenure, has accelerated projects during the pandemic. The city built 16 miles of new bus lanes last year, and expanded a successful busway that cleared cars off a major crosstown street in Manhattan to three other streets around the city. Another three busways are planned by year’s end for a total of seven.
But before the pandemic, clogged streets had reduced bus speeds to a crawl and New York lagged far behind other cities in building dedicated bus lanes.
Now, the eight leading Democratic candidates for mayor have pledged to make buses a centerpiece of their transportation agendas.
Their plans, shared in response to written questions from The New York Times, range from more bus lanes to a rapid transit network that would operate more like a subway.
The proposals could make New York a national model — but would also require reclaiming vast chunks of the city’s limited street space and exacerbating an already pitched battle with drivers and some community leaders.
“For a truly equitable New York City, we must improve our bus system, with a focus on improving speed, reliability and safety,” said Maya Wiley, a former counsel to Mr. de Blasio, who wants to expand a city program that provides half-price fares to low-income riders by reallocating funds from policing for fare evasion.
Scott Stringer, the city comptroller, said he would be the city’s “bus mayor.”
“I’m going to harness the power of our streets to revolutionize our transportation system for all New Yorkers and be the streets and bus mayor we need,” he said.
Kathryn Garcia, a former city sanitation commissioner, added, “Public transportation is a driver of economic growth that will, in turn, generate new housing and new jobs.”
The biggest hurdle for any mayor, of course, is that day-to-day bus and subway service is operated by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Andrew Yang, the former presidential candidate, wants to take control of the buses and subways from the M.T.A. But experts say a municipal takeover is unlikely because of the bureaucratic and financial hurdles of restructuring a mammoth state agency.
“The politics of wrestling something of enormous value from Governor Cuomo don’t look very good,” said Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. “There’s almost no practical chance of it happening.”
Even before the pandemic, the bus system had steadily lost riders as buses trapped in traffic became unreliable. Average weekday bus ridership fell to under 2.2 million riders in 2019 from nearly 2.5 million in 2015.
Though ridership on buses plunged less than on the subway during the pandemic, it remains about half of what it was before, with 1.1 million bus riders on a recent weekday.
Bus speeds, which rose at the height of the pandemic as traffic disappeared, dropped to 8.2 miles per hour in April as cars returned.
Though New York has significantly expanded bus lanes in recent years to 138 miles, that is still lower than in other major cities, including London, which has about 180 miles of bus lanes.
Here is what the candidates said they would do to improve bus service:
Lanes just for buses is a key step.
All the candidates said they would build more bus lanes.
Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, said he would add 150 miles of new bus lanes and busways in four years, while Mr. Stringer said he would build 35 miles of new bus lanes and busways every year and Ms. Wiley 30 miles every year.
Dianne Morales said she supported a call by a coalition of community, environmental and business groups to create 500 miles of new protected bus lanes by 2025 to ensure every New Yorker lives within a quarter-mile of a bus lane.
Ms. Morales, a former nonprofit executive, said she would start with more bus lanes in underserved neighborhoods outside Manhattan.
“When you look at transportation investments and where transit deserts are in New York City, the patterns are all designed to benefit wealthy neighborhoods,” Ms. Morales said. “The reality is that Black and brown communities have less access to transit.”
Use cameras and tech to speed up service.
To help keep bus lanes clear, the city has installed 372 enforcement cameras to catch drivers who travel in the lanes, with fines starting at $50. The M.T.A. also has 123 buses with cameras that help ticket drivers for blocking bus lanes.
Ms. Wiley, Mr. Stringer and Shaun Donovan, a former federal housing secretary, said they would install more bus lane cameras, with Mr. Stringer also calling for heavier fines.
“But in a way that is fair and does not unjustly target any one particular community,” Mr. Donovan added.
Five candidates — Mr. Donovan, Mr. Stringer, Ms. Wiley, Mr. Yang and Ms. Garcia — said they would also expand signal technology that gives buses priority at traffic lights.
Understand the N.Y.C. Mayoral Race
- Who’s Running for Mayor? There are more than a dozen people still in the race to become New York City’s next mayor, and the primary will be held on June 22. Here’s a rundown of the candidates.
- Get to Know the Candidates: We asked leading candidates for mayor questions about everything from police reform and climate change to their favorite bagel order and workout routine.
- What is Ranked-Choice Voting? New York City began using ranked-choice voting for primary elections this year, and voters will be able to list up to five candidates in order of preference. Confused? We can help.
Currently, there are 1,569 intersections with signal priority for buses, or about 19 percent of such intersections where buses cross.
Make the fleet more green.
The M.T.A. has more than 5,700 buses, including 25 all-electric buses, with plans to buy another 500 and build charging stations. The agency has committed to a zero-emission fleet by 2040.
Four candidates — Mr. Yang, Mr. Adams, Ms. Garcia and Raymond McGuire, a former Wall Street executive — said they would push the agency to get more electric buses on the roads faster to reduce pollution. Mr. Yang wants to see an all-electric bus fleet by 2030.
Ms. Garcia has also proposed converting 10,000 city school buses to electric “to protect our youngest lungs.”
Mr. Adams, who would prioritize communities facing environmental health risks, added that electric buses were also “an investment that will save the city money on fuel and maintenance.”
Increase service to improve commutes.
Though M.T.A. officials oversee bus routes and service, four candidates — Ms. Garcia, Mr. Adams, Ms. Morales and Mr. McGuire — said they would push to expand express and select bus service.
Express bus service carries commuters from the city’s edges to Manhattan with limited stops and higher fares. Select bus service speeds up buses in congested areas with bus lanes, curbside ticket machines and boarding through all doors.
Mr. McGuire said he would work with the M.T.A. to add 20 more select bus service routes and dedicated bus lanes to accelerate travel times, as well as to eliminate transit deserts and reduce reliance on cars.
Ms. Wiley and Mr. Stringer have called for increasing off-peak and weekend bus service, particularly outside Manhattan.
Mr. Yang would count on gaining control of the bus system from the M.T.A. to increase bus service in transit deserts as part of his plan to build more affordable housing. “I will be expanding bus routes to these neighborhoods so we can support denser housing without further exacerbating car traffic,” he said.
Build a rapid system for buses.
Four candidates — Mr. Adams, Mr. Donovan, Ms. Wiley and Ms. Morales — envision creating a full-fledged Bus Rapid Transit network, in which buses go faster because they travel in full-time, protected bus lanes often set off by barriers. In New York, some bus lanes only operate during certain hours.
Ms. Morales and Mr. Donovan said they would prioritize rapid transit in key corridors, and Ms. Wiley said it would especially benefit underserved areas with poor subway connections such as Fordham Road in the Bronx.
Mr. Adams said rapid transit would “help revolutionize how New York City residents move around” on arteries like Linden Boulevard and Third Avenue in Brooklyn and support economic development around transit hubs.
“B.R.T. is cost-effective, high quality, and will do the most in the shortest amount of time to build out our transit network without depending solely on New York State,” he said.
Some advocates said they welcomed the candidates’ ambitions to improve service since it is easier, quicker and cheaper to expand and speed up buses than it is to lay down subway tracks and build new stations.
“We like to see the acknowledgment that there are certain routes in the city that could take advantage of wider streets and bring in much faster transit service for communities that lack good subway access,” said Danny Pearlstein, a spokesman for Riders Alliance, an advocacy group.
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