Alex Goldmark is a senior producer in the newsroom for New Tech City and Transportation Nation.
New York City's newest express buses were designed to be easy to spot from a distance with two flashing blue lights in the marquis. But, Friday afternoon, the MTA said it was turning off the blinking deep blue indicator lights to avoid any chance that drivers might confuse the Select Bus Service buses for oncoming an emergency vehicle when viewed in a rear view mirror.
City Council Member Vincent Ignizio of Staten Island lobbied the MTA for the change. "We have trained the public that when they see blue flashing lights to get out of the way and all emergency vehicles to get to said emergency," he said. "Buses are not emergency vehicles." Drivers in his district told him they felt like they were being pulled over by police only to find it was a bus approaching.
Removing confusion for drivers however, might shift confusion to bus passengers. It could also deal a set back to NYC's plan to spread a new and improved brand of express bus service known elsewhere as bus rapid transit. To move buses faster under this scheme, buses are given dedicated lanes and passengers pay before they board using vending machines at bus stops.
The MTA Announcement:
Reacting to specific concerns, MTA New York City Transit has agreed to turn off the flashing blue lights that have served to alert riders to the arrival of Select Bus Service buses (SBS) since the speedier service was introduced. This measure is being taken to eliminate the possibility of confusing the vehicles with volunteer emergency vehicles, which are entitled by law to use the blue lights. We are currently in the process of developing an alternate means of identifying SBS buses.
"Those lights distinguish the Select Bus from the local bus," a spokesperson at Institute for Transportation and Development Policy explained in defense of the lights. ITDP advises cities -- including New York City -- on building and designing bus rapid transit systems. “We expect that if those lights go off, passengers will be confused about which kind of bus is approaching, which is important, because there are two different fare systems,” the spokesperson said. Passengers need to know if they should pay at the vending machine before the bus arrives, or they risk missing it. NYC passengers pay for local buses on board.
Rather than a deciding between two types of confusion, the MTA's choice to darken the blinking blue bus lights seems to have been more of a legal one, as Ignizio describes it. NY state traffic law states that colored flashing blue lights are reserved for emergency vehicles, specifically volunteer firefighters.
Ignizio made the legal case to the MTA after personally finding the lights confusing and putting the question to his Staten Island constituents. More than 100 people on Facebook agreed with him, he said.
Ignizio met with then-MTA head Joe Lhota, now a mayoral candidate, and made the case for turning off the lights. Ignizio says, Lhota said he would do something about the lights. And now the MTA has.
The bus rapid transit experts at ITDP say other cities use different ways to distinguish an express bus from a local. Some cities paint buses different colors, for instance. The MTA is considering what indicator will replace the flashing blue lights.
When asked how many complaints the MTA received from confused motorists about the lights, a spokesman said, "one." In 2008 (the year the service was launched). In the Bronx.