Andre Cuevas slumped over his phone in the back of the bus. His construction boots, coated in a thin layer of dust, straddled his helmet resting on the floor. Cuevas had opted that day to take the Bx19 bus along 145th Street to get to the 2 train after work, but only because he was particularly tired. Most of the time, he will walk instead. He says walking is faster.
Cuevas wasn’t exaggerating. In a city of painfully slow buses, the Bx19, which runs across 145th Street in Manhattan and up through the Bronx via 149th Street and Southern Boulevard, is one of the slowest in the city, according to the Bus Turnaround Coalition. When the Coalition measured bus speeds from May through October 2017, it found the Bx19 plodded along at an average speed of 4.7 miles per hour, far below the citywide average of eight miles per hour. Tellingly, it’s barely faster than the average human walking speed of 3.1 miles per hour.
Tens of thousands of New Yorkers use the Bx19 every day to get to their jobs, pick up their kids from school, or get to doctor’s appointments. Yet the city has done relatively little to speed bus service until now, especially compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies it has poured into ferry service, which in its entirety moves fewer people per day than the Bx19.
Yvonne Wadley and her grandson Dwayne are regular commuters on the MTA's BX19 bus route.(David "Dee" Delgado / Gothamist)
Many of the city’s bus riders, who are more likely to be non-white, lower income, elderly, or wage-based earners than subway riders or New Yorkers as a whole, have no viable alternative. Joyce B., who works in security downtown, lamented of the Bx19, “I don’t have no choice but to wait and to rely on it.”
The Bx19’s average speed, pitiful as it is, still overstates the bus’s efficiency for most of its riders. On a recent weekday, I rode the route both ways end-to-end during the late afternoon and early evening rush, talking to dozens of riders along the way. The overwhelming majority of the riders I spoke to shared Cuevas’s sentiments. Many used the bus to connect to the subway—the Bx19 serves as the main connection for many Bronx residents to the 2, 5, and 6 trains—but said they occasionally must resort to expensive taxis or, more often, simply walking to get places on time because the bus either doesn’t come for more than 20 minutes or moves too slowly.
Because of the Bx19’s unpredictability, many of the people I spoke to budgeted two hours or more for relatively short distance commutes from the Bronx to Manhattan, just to ensure they wouldn’t be late.
They have good reason to distrust the bus. On my Bx19 rides, I used Strava, the popular workout app, to track the bus’s average speed. During the most crowded part of the ride, from 145th and St. Nicholas in Manhattan to the Hunts Point Avenue 6 train stop in the Bronx, the 3.4-mile journey took just over 51 minutes, for an average speed of four miles per hour, despite the fact that traffic was surprisingly light. Not only would it likely have been faster to walk when accounting for time spent waiting for the bus, but according to Google Maps, the same journey at the same time of day would have taken 17 minutes less by the circuitous subway trip of taking the B uptown to Yankee Stadium, the 4 back downtown to 125th Street, and the 6 back uptown to Hunts Point Avenue.
The Bx19 covers so little ground thanks to three main issues: lack of a dedicated bus lane, the bus making stops on every block, and loading procedures that require every rider to board local buses through the front door, which can take several minutes per stop during busy times of day.
Several buses "Not is Service" at the intersection of 145th street and Amsterdam Avenue.(David "Dee" Delgado / Gothamist)
But there is a potentially a faster bus future around the corner. Both the MTA and the city—which control the buses and the roads they use, respectively—are working to speed buses up. In January, Mayor de Blasio committed to the ambitious target of speeding up the city’s buses by 25 percent by 2020. Last year, New York City Transit president Andy Byford revealed a plan to revitalize the city’s bus system, including entire network redesigns, all-door boarding, and more transit signal priority, which would give buses as many green lights as possible. The transportation authority is currently working on the Bronx network redesign, although no clear timetable for a redesign has been announced.
That relief can feel very far away for the Bx19’s tens of thousands of daily riders. Even though ridership on the route has fallen a whopping 16 percent since 2012—bus ridership citywide and in the Bronx are down 11.5 percent and 8.6 percent, respectively, over that same time—the Bx19 still has the 13th-highest ridership of any bus route in the city, or 26,454 riders per weekday in 2017, the most recent year for which data is publicly available. While it’s impossible to say for sure what contributed to this massive decline, being about the speed of a power walk may be a contributing factor.
Until de Blasio’s recent pledge to speed up buses, the plight of the city’s 1.9 million daily bus riders was virtually ignored by City Hall, especially when compared to the mayor’s banner transportation project, the ferries, which serve many high-income neighborhoods. The city has committed $600 million to ferry operations and expansion over the next decade. There is currently no cost estimate to the city’s bus initiative.
Bx19 riders would be excused for feeling neglected up until now. Neither the city nor the MTA have made any investment to speed up service on this particular route. There are still no bus lanes or any implementation of technology to give the bus as many green lights as possible, known as transit signal priority, although those are key components of de Blasio’s pledge to speed up buses. To be fair, the route does feature some of the MTA’s newest buses, which have WiFi and USB ports.
Many of the riders I spoke to noticed bus service getting worse over recent years. A. Joyce Thompson was taking the bus to work at 60th and Broadway, which requires a transfer, in the early afternoon. She’s been taking the Bx19 for about three years and has to allow for an hour to get the approximately five miles from East Tremont Avenue in the Bronx to Frederick Douglass Boulevard in Manhattan. The bus stops 31 times over those five miles. Still, she prefers a bus-only trip to transferring to the subway. “I like the bus,” she said, noting that her bus-only commute usually takes somewhere around three hours each way. “I like to be above ground.”
A. Joyce Thompson is a regular commuter on the MTA's BX19 bus route. (David 'Dee' Delgado / Gothamist)
A few rows behind Thompson, Ibn Mitchell was on his way to pick his daughter up from school. On rare occasions he will resort to a cab or Uber to be on time, but usually if he’s running late he will walk instead. “Sometimes I walk faster than the bus,” he declared, although he also described himself as “a big walker.” Whether or not he will take the bus or walk about three miles depends mostly on the weather.
Although nearly every rider I spoke to expressed frustration with the bus speeds, most said they rarely resort to cabs or Ubers because it’s too expensive. Indeed, slow bus speeds disproportionately affect lower-income New Yorkers. According to a 2017 report by City Comptroller Scott Stringer, the median annual income of employed bus commuters is $28,455, far below the median for employed subway commuters ($40,000) or New Yorkers as a whole ($38,840). The New York City Economic Development Corporation, which operates the NYC Ferry service, does not release demographic information on its riders and has yet to respond to a Freedom of Information Law request filed eight months ago requesting the results of a rider demographic survey conducted in August 2017.
Regular bus riders are also more likely to be non-white. Seventy-five percent of bus commuters are persons of color, according to the City Comptroller report, compared to 66 percent of subway commuters (and the same proportion of New Yorkers as a whole). Anecdotally, I couldn’t help but notice that for most of my ride I was the only white person on the bus.
Inside of a crowded BX19 MTA bus in route to the Bronx's Botanical Gardens.(David "Dee" Delgado / Gothamist)
Regular bus commuters are also more likely to be working in lower-wage jobs such as healthcare, hospitality, retail, or food services. Tanya Schwartz, a home health care worker, relies on public transportation to get to her patients all around the city. I found her at a bus stop on the corner of 145th and Broadway, studying her phone to figure out how quickly she could get to her next appointment. In an Eastern European accent, she lamented not just the Bx19, but the bus system as a whole. “A lot of buses very bad,” she said. “It takes 40 minutes and you think it better to walk.” Before we had more time to talk, a Bx19 pulled up and she got on line to board.
About an hour later on a capacity-filled bus making its way across the Harlem River, Ulises Seijo, a maintenance worker, told me he takes the bus every day around 7 a.m. from East Tremont to 149th Street to catch the subway — but, of course, walking is almost always faster. When I asked if he finds the bus reliable, he shrugged. “Just like all the others.”