Mark Power / Magnum Photos

Improving New York Public Transit for Less

Jake Berman

December 06, 2023

We don’t need to wait for multi-billion-dollar investments to get people more efficiently from point A to B

We don’t need to wait for multi-billion-dollar investments to get people more efficiently from point A to B

Let’s talk about cheap ways to improve transit service in NYC.

Bottom line, up front, no countdown clock required: There are many, many small-scale improvements the MTA could undertake to improve transit service now, without massive construction projects promising to add or extend new lines, potentially upending the MTA's already fragile finances. After all, technological upgrades and new physical infrastructure are very expensive; reforming procedures is relatively cheap. 

The City and State can keep dreaming of and planning the Second Avenue Subway extension or the Brooklyn-Queens-Bronx Interborough Express, but not all transit improvements require billions of dollars and decades to complete. 

Procedural reforms are not silver bullets. Rather, they constitute the kinds of small-bore reforms that can dramatically improve transit in the aggregate. More subways are still necessary, but it doesn’t need to be a choice between big construction projects and cheap procedural improvements. It should instead be all of the above for New York to bring its transit up to the standards of peer global cities. 

There are four major areas where the MTA could improve transit quickly without breaking the bank. 

One: Reform bus fare collection

Fare evasion is a major problem for the MTA. Roughly one in eight subway riders and one in three bus riders fails to pay the fare. The recommendations of an MTA blue-ribbon panel include better turnstiles in the subways and better enforcement. 

But the single largest source of lost revenue, per the MTA’s own report, is the buses. Of a total $690 million in fare and toll evasion, 46% of lost revenue comes from bus riders. This is a golden opportunity for the MTA to reform its fare collection procedures in ways that both reduce fare evasion and improve bus service.

The current MTA way of collecting bus fares is antiquated and slow. All passengers board one at a time through the front door as in decades past, paying the fare as they enter. Even though bus drivers theoretically monitor fare evaders, enforcement is lax. Bus drivers don’t feel comfortable insisting that passengers pay. 

A better model exists: Remove responsibility for fare collection from drivers’ hands, and put it into the hands of dedicated inspectors, similar to the Select Bus ticketing system. This system has already been implemented systemwide in San Francisco. There, passengers board through all bus doors, tagging off their fare cards as they enter. When this system was introduced in 2012, the San Francisco MTA also hired more fare inspectors to check tickets. San Francisco’s results were encouraging: Buses boarded 38% faster per passenger, service reliability improved and fare evasion actually went down. The MTA has already adopted a variant of this system, so there’s no reason why local buses couldn’t do it as well. After all, OMNY readers are already installed at bus back doors.

The MTA could even improve things further by eliminating cash fares on buses. Cash payment is slow, and cash is expensive for the MTA to handle. Instead, riders would be required to use OMNY. London already does this with its Oyster card. Eliminating cash fares on buses saved London’s transport authority £24 million ($30 million) per year, and reduced bus boarding delays. For those riders wishing to pay with cash, the MTA already has existing arrangements with major retailers like Walgreens, CVS, CFSC and 7-Eleven, as well the OMNY machines at subway stations. The MTA could also set up infrastructure to reload OMNY cards at bodegas, as is done in Madrid.

Two: Make the buses faster and more efficient

The MTA’s bus network is slow and unreliable, and it represents an enormous missed opportunity to supplement the subway. For example, in Brooklyn, the buses average seven miles an hour. Over 30% of buses arrive late. One reason for this slow, unreliable service is that the MTA’s local buses stop seven to eight times per mile, which is just too many stops to provide efficient service. Each additional stop reduces a bus’s reliability, and slows the bus by 20 seconds or so. To cite one egregious example, the B25 bus, running on Fulton Street, stops at the Clinton-Washington C train station twice — one stop at each end of the platform. 

To its credit, the MTA has been redesigning the bus network, but its redesign just isn’t aggressive enough. In some cases, the MTA retains bus stops that are only 500 feet apart. The stops are still too close together. European and Australian bus systems, in contrast, typically have three to four bus stops per mile. Using the European bus model, passengers have to walk slightly further to reach bus stops, but in exchange, they get faster, more reliable service.

Another cheap way to improve bus reliability is simply to paint more bus lanes and enforce them. To return to the example of the B25: Between Borough Hall and Flatbush Avenue, the B25 uses a dedicated busway, and delays are rare. Beyond Flatbush, the B25 theoretically has another mile of bus lanes, but in practice these lanes are useless, due to lack of bus lane enforcement. Delivery trucks and illegally parked cars routinely block bus lanes even during rush hour.

This is a straightforward enforcement problem, one that the MTA already has the infrastructure to rectify. On the Select Bus lines, the MTA has equipped its buses with cameras to ticket drivers who block bus lanes. It would be relatively inexpensive and straightforward to expand the camera-ticket program to cover the whole bus system. 

Three: Make fares uniform within the five boroughs

The MTA currently charges separate fares for subway/bus, express bus, Metro-North and the LIRR. As a result, the 4/5/6 trains under Lexington Avenue are packed to the gills, while Metro-North, one avenue over, has plenty of capacity to run extra trains outside rush hour. Similar situations exist with the LIRR Port Washington Branch and the 7 train, and the E train and the LIRR Main Line to Jamaica. 

This is a poor use of existing infrastructure, and a rebalancing of passenger loads is necessary. The simplest way to do so is to equalize the cost to travel within the five boroughs, regardless of whether the rider is on the subway, bus or the commuter trains, with free transfers. The MTA has taken a half-step in this direction with the CityTicket program, but it’s still far more expensive than the subway, and there are no free transfers.

This type of mode-agnostic fare structure is common in Europe. In Madrid, the entire metropolis is divided into fare zones, with Madrid proper in the innermost zone. This system gives passengers more flexibility than the more rigid fare structure used by the MTA. First, it reduces the load on overcrowded subways and buses by redistributing passengers to the commuter rail lines by providing seamless transfers and equitable fares. Second, this fare structure adds redundancy to the MTA’s system. If, say, the E train is shut down in Queens, this structure would permit riders to instead use the LIRR to reach Manhattan on the same fare, rather than having to deal with slow shuttle buses to bridge the gap. 

Four: Reform commuter rail staffing so the commuter railroads can run more trains

The Tri-State Area’s commuter railroads have enormous amounts of track capacity that goes underused outside of rush hour. Off-peak train frequency is lackluster, with trains every hour or less in some cases. This is doubly bad because much of Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road run through subway deserts. Metro-North’s Harlem Line stops in sections of the Bronx that haven’t had rapid transit service since the Third Avenue Elevated was demolished in 1973. Likewise, the LIRR Port Washington, Atlantic and Montauk Branches run through sections of eastern Queens that have never had subway service. A mid-20th-century plan to run subway trains on some of these routes fell through due to the fiscal crisis of the 1970s.

It would be impractically expensive to convert these routes to carry subway trains, given the MTA’s capital cost containment issues, and it’s too expensive for the MTA to run more trains using its current labor practices, which require large two-to-four person crews. Labor is the single largest cost for the MTA, as with any transit agency. But there’s a simpler option: have fewer personnel checking tickets, and more people driving trains.

Rather than running 12-car trains with two-to-four-person crews every hour, the commuter railroads could run shorter trains with one-person crews every 15-20 minutes, all day. A system on this model was proposed for Philadelphia in 1984, and revived in 2021. With OMNY readers at every station and periodic ticket checks, this could add multiple subway lines worth of capacity with little or no major construction. This would also provide frequent, fast transit service to subway deserts in eastern Queens and the central Bronx.

None of the reforms suggested here are new to public transport. They’re common elsewhere, but it is telling that the MTA hasn’t learned from places like London, Madrid, Philadelphia and San Francisco. The ineffective operations used by the MTA aren’t set in stone, and can absolutely be improved. But it requires the will to do so, and the humility necessary to imitate rather than innovate. The question is whether the MTA will choose to do it.