Will the MTA Waste Its Opportunity to Save NYC Bus Riders a Ton of Time?

B44 SBS upgrades existing limited-stop service with bus lanes and other improvements. Photo: Stephen Miller
Only a few bus routes in NYC, like the B44 Select Bus Service, allow riders to enter at any door. The MTA’s next-generation fare payment system could expand all-door boarding to every route in the city. Photo: Stephen Miller

The MTA’s next-generation fare payment system can greatly speed up buses all over the city by allowing passengers to board much faster, but so far the agency hasn’t required bidders for the fare system contract to include such technology. With proposals due July 13, a coalition led by the Riders Alliance is calling on the MTA to make the most of this opportunity to improve travel times on NYC’s notoriously slow buses.

The system that advocates urge the MTA to adopt, known as “electronic proof of payment,” would allow riders to board without worrying about dipping a farecard or even carrying a paper receipt. Instead, riders could use mobile devices, credit cards, or electronic farecards to pay either before boarding, or by quickly scanning the fare media at any door as they board. The system would be enforced by on-board ticket agents who check whether riders paid their fares.

On crowded bus routes, this would mean a boarding process that currently takes minutes at each stop would only take seconds.

The problem is that electronic proof of payment is not mentioned in the MTA’s request for proposals. Without such a system, the MTA might waste a once-in-a-generation opportunity to improve bus service for millions of passengers each day.

New York’s buses are the slowest in the nation, and they’re getting slower, according to DOT’s recent “Mobility Report.” So it’s no surprise that bus ridership is also dropping.

DOT and the MTA have sped up a handful of bus routes via the Select Bus Service program, which combines off-board fare collection with dedicated bus lanes, bus priority at traffic signals, and bus stop consolidation to save riders time. The MTA says off-board fare collection alone is responsible for a 10 to 15 percent improvement in travel time, reports the Riders Alliance.

Imagine bringing that kind of improvement to every bus route in the city in one fell swoop. That’s what electronic proof of payment could do.

The new fare payment system could also improve on some of the inefficiencies in the current off-board fare collection system, which make it implausible to deploy everywhere. Fare machines for SBS routes on Fordham Road, the East Side and 34th Street cost $12 million total, according to DOT, and the Regional Plan Association recently estimated that installing those machines at all 16,000 bus stops in the city would cost as much as $1 billion.

Electronic proof of payment technology could retain some off-board fare collection while adding the option of quickly tapping a card or smartphone at any door while boarding. The added expense for the MTA would be hiring more ticket agents with hand-held scanners.

London and San Francisco have run similar systems with all-door boarding for fours years already, but the MTA hasn’t committed to electronic proof of payment. Speaking to the Daily News, MTA spokesperson Kevin Ortiz didn’t rule it out but was cool to the idea, saying “we must balance convenience against the very real threat of fare evasion if ‘electronic proof of payment’ technology is ever to be viable.”

If the MTA omits electronic proof of payment from its RFP, that may doom bus riders to “a whole new generation of boarding slowly, one-by-one, at the front of the bus,” the Riders Alliance writes in its report.

In a letter to MTA Chairman Tom Prendergast [PDF], Riders Alliance Executive Director John Raskin and the leaders of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, TransitCenter, and the Straphangers Campaign called on the MTA to put an addendum on the existing RFP requiring bidders to “include technology that would allow for fare sensors at every bus door and mobile on-board validation of payment.”

“The window of opportunity to move to such a system may close, if the RFP process moves forward without any requirement that the new fare payment system facilitate this option,” the letter warned.