Why New York City's MTA Buses never run on time

Posted by David The Expert on: Thursday, July 31, 2014
Topic: NYC     Read 16,281 Times

The MTA likes to throw as much money as they can at the problem by investing in new buses and hiring new drivers, but the real problem is purely logistical.

Bus drivers in New York City are, understandably, under a huge amount of pressure from their passengers. Passengers are frustrated and always in a rush to get to their destination. It doesn't help that the buses always seem to come late, and so the passengers take out their frustration on the drivers. And as a result, the bus drivers try to drive as fast as possible, to get their passengers to their destinations without making them any later than they already are. This satisfies the passengers temporarily, but it creates a slew of other problems.

When you wait around for a bus for 20 minutes past its scheduled arrival time, when it finally arrives it almost always seems to be followed by two or three more buses. You think to yourself, where were all those buses 20 minutes ago?? Well, here's the problem:

Imagine a bus route with only 3 buses, with one very busy stop. At that busy stop, it will take a long time for all those people to pile onto the bus. While those people are all queuing up and swiping their metro cards, the bus is becoming increasingly later to its next stop. Meanwhile, the bus behind it is getting closer and closer since it hasn't reached the busy stop yet. So by the time the first bus has finished letting all the people onboard, the second bus could already be right behind it. So the first bus drives away, and the second bus pulls into the busy stop which is now completely empty. This is where the problem comes in. The second bus sees that this ordinarily busy stop is empty. It might pick up one or two passengers, and then drives right off, immediately after the first bus. This effect may be compounded if there is a third bus, which can breeze right past all of the stops because two buses have just picked up all the passengers. So now we have 1 bus full to the rafters, and 2 half-empty buses following directly behind it. At this point, all three of the buses start leapfrogging each other. The first bus pulls up to the next stop, and unless a passenger requests the stop the second bus will go right past it, becoming the first bus in the line. This leapfrogging effect is exactly why it always seems like 2 or 3 buses come at once, when all you really want is ONE bus to come on time.

Then this creates another problem. All three of those buses reach the end of the route at the same time. They turn around and run the route in the opposite direction, still leapfrogging each other. That leaves fewer buses running in the original direction. The people at the busy stop are starting to pile up, becoming later and later. They have to wait for the buses to finish their route going the opposite direction before they once again reach the end and turn back around. By this time, the people waiting at the busy stop are spilling out into the street, or waiting in a line around the block, until eventually some 20 minutes later, all three of those buses show up at once. The first bus in line stops at the stop, while the other two drive right on past. Now you have to wait for all the people to pile onto that bus before it goes on, never to catch up with the two buses in front of it which are still leapfrogging each other.

So, what the MTA needs to do is not to add more buses to this route with one busy stop, but to teach its drivers pacing. If buses ran more evenly, you would never see this building up of passengers at busy stops. If you knew that a bus would arrive exactly every 10 minutes at a busy stop, then the people waiting there would be able to evenly board different buses, rather than waiting 20 minutes to fit twice as many people onto a bus. So how can we achieve this? NYC's MTA buses now have GPS trackers attached to all of them. That tracking data is already readily available through the MTA's own bustime web app. Bus drivers should be able to know where all of the other buses are along their route. Their supervisors can instruct them to maintain a minimum distance between themselves and the bus in front of them, depending on the route. For example, if they see that a bus is two stops ahead of them, they should stay at their current stop until that bus moves on to the next stop. This will create an even flow of buses at every stop, never allowing the amount of passengers to build up for too long at any one stop. This may cause passengers to spend more time on the bus waiting to get to their destination, but it will significantly less than the time they spend waiting for the bus at the bus stop when it runs late due to this leapfrogging effect.

Now, you may be asking, what if a bus runs into some traffic? Will all the buses behind it be slowed down? The answer is that yes, they probably will be. But this is okay. It is more logical to slow down the entire bus route than to allow buses to accumulate at the point of traffic. It is still better to have a more even flow of buses than for all of the buses to rush and hurry just to get to the point of slow traffic, where they will all be stuck together. When the traffic lets up, if all the buses were stuck in the same place waiting for the traffic to clear, then you have the same problem with bunched-up buses running unevenly through the route, causing huge wait times at all the stops. But if a bus waits at its current stop for the bus ahead of it to get through traffic, it can enter the heavy traffic a few minutes later so that the bus ahead of it gets to run through its next stops, while this bus that was waiting will follow behind as soon as it gets through as well.

So come on MTA, let's try to add a little logic to the bus system. It is certainly cheaper to buy a few iPads to display the location of the buses along the routes to the drivers than it is to keep adding new buses to all the busiest routes. And if anyone has any other ideas, or if you see any holes in my own logic, feel free to point it out in the comments.

David The Expert

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