Bus Etiquette in New York? Ha!

Tuesday, April 03, 2012 - 09:05 PM

For New Yorkers, all rules are just suggestions.

Exit at the rear of the bus?  Fuggedaboutit!

“Please exit through the rear door,” quips the sonorous lady in the recorded messages that drone on over the din of noisy passengers.  There's  a reason for that -- it makes bus riding much faster for everyone.  In some cities, you get a ticket for exiting at the front.

In New York?

Iris Holland was oblivious to the message as she exited from the front of the M15 bus onto Second Avenue the other day.

“I’m going for physical therapy, so instead of getting out at the end and having to walk, I sit near the front and get out at the front,” said Holland.

Pretty much no one listens to the admonitions.  Which are there, of course, to make the buses move faster.

It's a bit better, but not much, on the city's select buses, where you don't have to wait for people to exit before you can get on and pay.  But you have to buy a ticket, or get a receipt before you board, which causes no end of confusion, even -- or especially -- among seasoned New York bus riders.

The other day along New York City’s M34 bus route, a gaggle of would-be passengers queued up for an approaching cross-town ride.  It was orderly enough; no pushing, shoving or angry glances to speak of.

But there was some confusion around the payment kiosk.

“How do you get a bus ticket?” asked Alice Sramkova, visiting from Prague, Czech Republic, with her two pre-teen daughters trailing behind her.  And she wasn't the only one - several New Yorkers kept within ear shot hoping to hear an answer.

Searching for Answers on the M34 - Image by: Janet Babin, WNYC

Other passengers leaned in to offer advice.  “This is your ticket,” said one, pointing to her Metro Card.  “No, your receipt is your ticket,” clarified another.  By now a circle of uninitiated passengers surrounded Sramkova.  Many did not realize they had to pay before the bus stopped.  “I guess we got on the bus twice without having a valid ticket,” smiled Sramkova.

So it is with the NYC MTA’s so called “Select” bus service – that is, buses designed to speed up designated routes. To get them to move faster, the MTA has initiated several changes, that include limited stops, paying before boarding the bus with a Metro card only, boarding via the front or the back doors, and dedicated bus lanes.

According to the MTA, the changes trim up to 20-% off of travel times.

And on the M34, that’s saying something.  It may feel like whatever bus you’re on is the slowest, but in fact, the MTA found that the M34 was among the slowest in the city.  The route also carries more than 33,000 riders a day.

Careening down 34th Street - Image by: Janet Babin, WNYC

Before Select buses, the average speed of any city bus was 4.5 miles per hour – that’s only a hair faster than walking.  The MTA began speedier service along 34th Street in November 2011, but passengers are still getting used to it.  The service was first offered on Fordham Road in the Bronx in 2008.  Select buses also run up First and down Second Avenues, on the M15 line.

Even though they’ve been around longer than the 34th Street Select Buses, there were still some blank stares and misunderstandings as passengers tried to board a Select Bus at 14th Street and Second Avenue last week.

Paying off board the M34 - Image by: Janet Babin, WNYC

Paying off board does not seem to come naturally to many passengers.  “I don’t see what the big deal is to use your Metro Card and get on the bus; it’s a waste,” said rider Joan Marks.

The MTA said the purpose of paying off board is to save time of course.  Think how long it takes to swipe all those Metro Cards as people enter the front of the bus, and then there are those who pay the $2.25 fare with coins, taking even longer.  All that time people are paying, your bus is going nowhere.

Since bus drivers don’t check receipts, it is tempting to hop on board and ride for free.  But that could turn out to be one expensive ride.  Anyone caught without one of those receipts could face a $100 fine.  And the MTA refused to say how many, but emphasized that bus inspectors are still riding the Select buses, searching for scofflaws.

Still, the MTA said fare evasion is receding.  Fines have dropped by more than a third from their peak in June 2011, when the MTA issued 1067 summonses for fare evasion.

Bus drivers who notice riders flashing Metro Cards their way will often tell riders to get off the bus.  That’s what happened to Mona and Osama Salih when they boarded an M15 bus last week without the required proof of payment receipt.  Both showed the driver their Metro cards, thinking that’s all they had to do.

“The bus driver said you have to pay off the bus and then he left,” said Mona. She could not believe he didn’t wait.  “Why has a Metro card if you have to have a receipt,” added Osama.

When riders don’t know the drill, some bus drivers will leave them behind.  But not always.

“There’s a lot of tourists,” said bus driver Al Thomas.  He said he will almost always explain how they are supposed to pay, but will only wait for them to pay if he is not holding up all the other passengers.  “Depending on the light, because if you wait for everybody, it defeats the purpose.”

Metro Card Ready? check! - Image by: Janet Babin, WNYC

The Salih’s boarded a second Select Bus minutes after the first one had left.  And this time, they carried their crumpled receipts in their hands, just in case.


Comments [7]

teresa from 34 street

I think the SBS is a not too smart system, today I saw a gentleman that had just had surgery and was not aware of the system ask the driver to please wait for him to get the receipt and when he was coming back the nasty bus driver started the bus and left the gentleman waiting for the next bus.
Since it is very difficult to change something that has already started, at least they should put big signs to let people know what they have to do before boarding the bus.
Many people miss the bus that takes a long time to show up and a lot of tourists very frustrated that do not know why the bus did not wait for them.
Thanks for thinking of something more practical that this system.

Oct. 07 2013 06:42 PM

They should move the payment machines inside the busses. That way people are not delayed while paying and missing the bus.

Jan. 29 2013 08:15 PM
Carol Dilley

Things that have worked in other places. In Sydney Australia there are three metro card readers staggered along the entrance to the bus so people get on the bus and dip their card and move on in. It flows smoothly. This would allow us to continue to use the same integrated bus card in the bus that we finally finally achieved relatively recently. Now we are already moving away form that proven excellent idea to a bus that does NOT accept the metro card directly.

Or machines that sell us the tickets outside the bus also be machines that will sell us a metro card. Many New Yorkers would relish being able to fill up their metro cards while waiting for a bus. Many tourists would rather struggle through negotiating their first metro card standing on the street instead of committing to walking into the NY subway system to figure it out down there. They need to accept bills and credit cards or they are useless.

I live on 34th st and I get to see all levels of the dysfunction of our current system to the people cursing and struggling at the machines to he drives who very nicely wait for the struggling people which takes even more time than if they had been in the bus working that out as it rolled. There are many functioning transit systems and express bus systems in the world that work – we clearly chose one that does not.

Apr. 06 2012 08:58 AM
John Casey

The off-board payment only system is TERRIBLE!! I have missed the bus often fumbling to get an ticket before boarding. And I constantly see confused and angry passengers.

Plus the machines must be more expensive to maintain, ...and what about the extra litter!!!

Instead they should put more Metro Card machines ON the buses so there is not a line. Inspector could carry card readers to check if they have been swiped.

Or combine off-board and on-board.

And while I am on the topic of Metro Card machines, ... why don't they put some INSIDE subway stations so you can re-fill while waiting for the train

Apr. 06 2012 08:48 AM

New York never researched
the payment system for subway
and bus in the beginning. I suspect
it was who was in the room rather
than proper research. (See Boston
payment system.) Also, note now
you are held up at the back doors
on Select Buses by folks who just hopped on wanting your ticket. And have you noticed
how many MTA folks it takes to check tickets
on the Select Buses? What is the pay grade
for those guys?

Apr. 06 2012 08:08 AM
Chris Bradshaw

The effort to keep buses moving a little faster than walking is to be lauded, but they used to have a more logical method -- called conductors: a second staff person walking the aisles, picking up payment after patrons boarded.

Saving that second salary now means, on these "select" services, a) buying off-bus payment stations and b)hiring fare-payment enforcement staff. Although the latter do not ride on all buses, or catch all scofflaws, they do cost money.

And their salaries are justified by the revenue they generate from issuing citations. This leads to a 1984-type scenario where the agency makes sure enough patrons are tempted to violate the law so that enforcement people do produce a reasonable revenue.

Why go to all that cost to make a game of fare paying, when conductors could be used to overcome boarding slowdowns and also offer information and assistance, which the article pointed out is also lacking.

Ottawa has had a POP (proof-of-payment) system in place on our BRT (bus rapid transit) and on regular routes using the articulate (extra-long) buses for 30 years. At least they don't require pass holders to get a POP receipt before boarding.

We are going to a smart-card system later this year. Who knows how that will work. Supposedly transfers will not be necessary.

Apr. 04 2012 11:00 AM
Mike Hicks

This makes me glad for Metro Transit's Go-To Card smartcard system in the Twin Cities which electronically records the fare on the card itself and doesn't require people to carry extra receipts. There are some issues, but they seem to revolve more around people forgetting to tap cards when transferring than forgetting to pay initially (though I think they're starting to levy fines against people who forget). Pre-payment is only used on light-rail an the moment, so it will be interesting to see what issues appear as pre-payment expands to bus routes (several routes may change to "rapid bus" service within the next few years).

Apr. 03 2012 10:14 PM

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