Bus Etiquette in New York? Ha!

Email a Friend

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.