The Tricky Challenges and Politics of Improving NYC Bus Service

Photo: Clarence Eckerson (

The New York City bus system is in crisis.

Over the past two decades, New York City buses have grown increasingly unreliable and slow, with ridership suffering a 16% drop since 2002 (National Transit Database and American Community Survey). In high-traffic areas like Midtown Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn, buses often average speeds of less than 4 mph (National Transit Database). From personal experience, I can attest to the fact that if you exit a bus and try to beat it to your destination by walking, you stand a very good chance of winning.

In an era of tech optimization, it would appear clear that the city should explore and embrace ICT solutions to improve bus service. After all, other cities have pursued tech-driven solutions to improve bus performance to great success. However, a division of authority over buses dashes the probability of a quick tech-driven turnaround. The buses are owned, controlled and operated by the MTA, which is largely dominated by the Governor. But, in contrast to subway service, where the MTA controls all subway tracks and tunnels, New York City streets are under the authority of a city agency, the New York City Department of Transportation.

Challenges with this setup are evident in the implementation of Select Bus Service, in which NYC buses are outfitted with sensors that turn lights green as they approach. For such a system to work, the MTA has to equip its vehicles with devices that communicate with the Transportation Department’s signal system. Though 12,900 signals already have the necessary instruments, it will be another year before the city’s engineering analysis is complete for those lights to cooperate with the buses sensors.

It is clear that the prospects for improving bus service depend on agreement and collaboration at various levels of government, between multiple stakeholders, if the city wants to save the system from increasing unreliability and irrelevance. Simple tech solutions aren’t enough if the agencies responsible don’t work together to implement them effectively.