Last Monday, the Queens Borough Board convened at Borough Hall to hear a presentation from New York City Transit (NYCT) officials that offered a taste of the plan, which the agency says will be a total overhaul of the existing network.
“Many of the new routes will be unfamiliar and will require a fresh look,” said Mark Holmes, chief officer of MTA Bus and a Laurelton native, emphasizing the “blank slate” approach being utilized for the project. “This is a result of totally wiping the existing map clean and redrawing the network.”
In Queens alone, the MTA transports 714,000 commuters daily through a tangled web of 107 local, limited, SBS and express routes. Many of those routes are redundant and reflect a decades-old grid that has been minimally altered despite drastic changes in the borough’s demographics.
Over the last eight months, NYCT gathered intel through open houses, on-street engagement, and community board presentations, as well as meetings with civic groups and elected officials. It also distributed thousands of brochures and collected responses to more than 3,000 surveys.
Results of the MTA’s Existing Conditions Report, released in September, highlights the main issues presented by bus transit to be overcrowded buses, bunching of vehicles en-route, tightly spaced stops (the closest together in the nation), and slow speeds with an average of eight miles-per-hour, which led to a decline in ridership.
In particular, express bus usage is down to less than 10 boardings per service hour on the weekends, resulting in subsidies, sometimes of more than $50 per passenger.
It’s no surprise that Queens customers reported wanting faster, more reliable service, better connections and ease of use when it comes to their bus system.
Acting senior vice president of NYCT Department of Buses Craig Cipriano explained the agency plans to simplify the bus network with more direct routes that use less turns and by decreasing route variance.
The MTA hopes to speed up travel times by removing stops, saving 20 seconds each, and bumping the average spacing between local stops to 1,400 feet from 850 feet.
At last week’s board meeting, transit officials assured they would be keeping the elderly and disabled customers in mind throughout this part of the process.
“Nobody wants to lose their bus stops, however, everyone wants their bus to move a little bit faster,” said Holmes. “It’s a delicate balance that we are keenly aware of.”
Another crucial objective for the redesign plan is enhanced connectivity both between boroughs and within Queens itself, a resolution to what Holmes described as a historic “hub-and-spoke” model that has converged in Jamaica, Flushing and Long Island City since the 30s and 40s.
Some examples pointed out in the presentation were a direct route from Astoria to Williamsburg, a bus to cross from Ridgewood to Flushing, and extended connections from Queens to lower Manhattan.
Also mentioned were routes to streamline access to subway stops, as well as colleges and hospitals.
Elected officials and community board leaders were not shy to address the needs and concerns of the specific communities they represent.
Among them were exuberant prices for those relying on express buses to get into Manhattan and traffic congestion caused by buses deviating from their lanes or laying over in boarding areas.
Deputy Queens borough president Sharon Lee cautioned transit officials to take factors such as the fluctuation in peak hours relative to geographic location throughout the borough, as well as the ongoing LGA AirTrain project, into account.
Some of the most vocal in the conference room were City Council members I. Daneek Miller and Barry Grodenchik, who represent two of the eastern-most districts on the south and north sides of Jamaica Avenue.
The two punctuated the importance of intra-borough bus connection, especially in the neighborhoods they represent that are cut off from subway transportation.
Grodenchik advocated for routes that bring students to institutions like Cardozo High School and CUNY Queensborough.
The councilman also suggested connections to LIRR train stations as a move to draw people out of their cars.
Miller pointed to the lack of convenient public transportation access to some of Queen’s most popular attractions like Terrace on the Park, NY Hall of Science and the Queens Museum.
He explained that every neighborhood is like its own city, and so connections within the borough would help communities grow their economies.
“We are an extreme transportation desert,” said Miller. “The vast majority of places that you visit in Queens don’t have access to subways, and so we are bus dependent. This absolutely has to work.”
Changes to bus service come as part of the agency’s Fast Forward initiative, a collaboration between NYCT and the Department of Transportation with the goal of reimagining an outdated bus network with rider input.
The MTA has already initiated the redesign process in the Bronx, and projects new routes to be implemented in Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan over the next three years.
A redesign of Staten Island express bus service was completed in 2018, and the borough has seen a 10 percent improvement in bus speeds in addition to increased ridership since then, according to Cipriano.
Other components of the improvement plan include installing audio-capable next bus signs, enforcing dedicated bus lanes, a new command center, and employing environmentally sustainable electric buses in order to create a faster, cohesive system.
The MTA will release an official draft of the Queens redesign plan to the public on December 30. The draft’s publication is set to be followed by several months of public outreach in the form of public workshops, visits to community meetings, and on-the-ground publicity in neighborhoods seeing high numbers in bus ridership.
The agency is providing resources that introduce the draft plan to residents, while at the same time garnering feedback for proposed changes.
In the new year, MTA’s website will feature a “look ahead” trip planning tool, in addition to a comparison chart, so riders can begin to visualize what their new commute might be like. Individual route profiles will be included in the published draft plan.
Customers are encouraged to respond to MetroQuest surveys and leave comments or concerns about specific routes and stops on a new MTA app called Remix.
A proposed final plan of the revitalized Queens bus network is expected by May 2020, but transit officials stress the redesign is an iterative process that will be in a continuous dialogue with user input along the way.