Cutting Fares – the Solution to Slow Bus Service?

New York City has experimented with the Select Bus Service in the Bronx, which offers payment at the bus stop while you wait for the bus, and boarding at all bus doors. Sounds great, but it wouldn’t work in Manhattan with its crowded sidewalks that often leave pedestrians walking in the street or competing with bicyclists for bike lanes.

Another solution to the oft-times depressing slowness of a cross-town bus (M23, oh how we love thee!) would be to eliminate fares altogether along the cross-town bus routes. I figure that:

  1. Most people who ride the bus across Manhattan are trying to get to a subway line, whether it is from another subway line or from their starting destination; and
  2. Many people choose to walk because it is faster to walk across Manhattan than to take a bus. Even in the winter. Especially when there’s more than 10 cars on the road and it is winter!

In my unscientific observations, it takes longer for a bus to load passengers who all must pay on-board than it does for the bus to go from one stop to another. This is especially true on busy cross-town routes like the M23.

Obviously, the Regional Plan Association was reading my mind, because they proposed cutting fares on cross-town bus routes to the MTA recently. The main problem at this point is that the MTA is cash strapped, and may see this as giving up valuable fare dollars.

The cash-strapped MTA could speed bus trips and cut expenses – by not charging fares on some Manhattan routes, a respected think tank suggested Thursday.

As all bus commuters know, trips can be agonizingly slow, partly because of the time it takes for riders to dip a MetroCard in the reader or plunk coins in the farebox.

Eliminate that process on routes like the M34 and the M42, on 34th and 42nd Sts., and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority still might not absorb a big loss, according to the Regional Plan Association. Here’s the logic.

For most crosstown bus riders, the trip is just one leg of a larger one that includes the subway. Transfers between the buses and subway trains are free. So, bus riders can simply get on without paying, according to an association report on possible mass transit upgrades.

“Most of the people riding those buses are taking the train, so you capture the revenue anyway,” said Jeffrey Zupan, senior transportation fellow at the association.

Any revenue losses probably would be offset by improved efficiency, Zupan said. Bus trips would become quicker, meaning fewer buses would be needed.

At the least, the MTA – which faces a $1 billion budget gap next year – should study the idea, Zupan said. An MTA spokesman declined to comment.

A concern about cutting the fares on cross-town routes only is, “What happens if demand goes up?”

Some people will walk no matter what, and some people will transfer to the bus. Since the MTA wants advertising on its subway cars, why not put advertising on its buses, too?

How about raising the fare? While raising the fare is not a popular option, the average rider uses a MetroCard, which gives them discounted, unlimited rides for a 30 day period. Why not charge more for MetroCards? As long as the rider is not paying the base fare for each ride, they probably will not fuss too much about higher fares.

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