Don’t Miss the Bus

Don’t Miss the Bus:
How the Next-Generation MetroCard Could Miss an Opportunity to Speed Up Buses

Riders Alliance – June 2016

The MTA plans to replace the MetroCard with a next-generation fare payment technology, but its Request for Proposals fails to require an important feature that would speed up bus trips for New York’s 2.5 million daily bus riders. Riders Alliance is calling on the MTA to amend its Request for Proposals to include a requirement for electronic proof of payment technology, which would make all-door boarding on all New York City buses much easier to achieve.


In April, the MTA released a Request for Proposals (RFP) to replace the MetroCard with a new fare payment technology that would allow riders to tap a contactless credit or debit card, mobile phone, or MTA-issued card to pay their fare.[1] The new card will bring great benefits for riders, including greater convenience and flexibility. However, in its current incarnation, the MTA’s new RFP could miss an important opportunity to improve bus service for riders citywide.

Right now the MTA’s RPF, with bids due July 13th, does not require “electronic proof of payment” technology, whereby users would have their payment validated electronically, rather that with a paper receipt. That is, a bus rider could pay for the ride with her credit card or phone, but an inspector would not be able to check to see if she paid. This detail has important ramifications for bus performance, which has been in steep decline.

Why does it matter? Because one way to make buses faster and more reliable is to replace the current system, where everyone boards one by one at the front, with all-door boarding, where people could get on the bus through any available door. An all-door boarding system usually relies on inspectors who can board the bus and make sure riders have purchased tickets—today on Select Bus Service, by checking to see if the rider purchased a paper receipt at the bus stop. In the future, if the MTA is to consider rolling out all-door boarding to all bus lines citywide, a paper ticket system would likely be too onerous and expensive, making a digital system necessary. And if the MTA doesn’t require that the new fare payment system accommodate a digital inspection, bus riders could be stuck with a whole new generation of boarding slowly, one-by-one, at the front of the bus.

Bus ridership and performance have declined in New York, but in other global cities, the opposite is true. All-door boarding is one technique among many that successful cities have used to make buses faster and more appealing. Electronic proof-of-payment would help New York improve bus service, but the MTA’s current plan for a new fare payment system would not require the technology that would allow it. Before bids are due on July 13th, the MTA should amend its RFP to require electronic proof-of-payment technology, keeping the option open to switch to an all-electronic all-door boarding bus system in the future.


Bus Ridership’s Rapid Decline

In the latest New York City Department of Transportation “New York City Mobility Report,” city officials have seen two alarming trends: at a time of rapid growth in the workforce and the overall population, both bus ridership and bus speeds are in steep decline.

Since 2010, New York City has added 370,000 residents and 520,000 jobs. Those increases are mirrored by skyrocketing growth in subway ridership, with 159 million more trips annually in 2015 than in 2010. This explosion in population and public transit use is not reflected in bus ridership—in fact, 46 million fewer bus rides were taken in 2015 compared to 2010[2]. In the last decade, ridership has fallen by 10 percent.[3] Between 2014 and 2015 alone, citywide bus ridership fell by two percent—and in Manhattan, the decline was even steeper: weekday ridership declined by six percent in 2014 and another five percent in 2015.[4]

The abandonment of the bus shouldn’t be a shock: as the city grows, the bus is becoming steadily slower. Systemwide, average bus speeds dropped from 9.1 mph in 1996 to 8.1 mph a decade later,[5] and since 2010, bus speeds have declined by an average of two percent[6]. In the busiest locations in the system, like Downtown Brooklyn and Midtown Manhattan, travel speeds are often slower than a walking pace[7]. One cause of delay is the length of time it takes to board passengers: MTA buses spend 22 percent of their time stuck at a bus stop.[8] The result? For many riders, the bus simply is not an efficient, reliable option for travel.


All-Door Boarding Reduces Travel Times & Saves Money

There are many causes to slow and unreliable bus service, and many tools must be part of the solution. One option in the toolkit should be a switch to all-door boarding.

All-door boarding, facilitated by an electronic proof of payment system that allows for easy verification of payment, can significantly reduce bus travel times and save money—without increasing rates of fare evasion. A primary driver of delays at bus stops is the length of time required for all passengers to board. Currently, riders queue at the front of the bus, where passengers must first disembark before those boarding can enter and pay their fares one at a time.

New fare payment technologies could improve both bus boarding procedures and travel times by allowing passengers to enter through any available door and quickly pay their fare through either off-board fare collection, where riders pay using a machine at the bus stop, or by having riders pay their fare as they get on the bus, generally by tapping a scannable card or smartphone. In order to make this system as efficient as possible, the NYPD will likely need to scale up the number of inspectors deployed on buses, and fare payment systems should include electronic proof of payment so that enforcement agents can use hand-held readers to quickly scan cards and smartphones to reduce fare evasion.

In the limited cases where the city currently permits all-door boarding, those time savings have already been realized. Currently, the only buses in New York that allow all-door boarding are Select Bus Service routes, which require riders to pay at a machine before boarding the bus.[9] SBS routes have seen speed increases from 16 to 22 percent and ridership gains between 10 and 20 percent in the first year after implementation.[10] At the same time, enforcement from the NYPD’s Eagle Team have led to significant drops in fare evasion: in 2012, fare evasion on the Bx41 in the Bronx dropped by 74 percent and on the Bx12 by 80 percent after the deployment of SBS on those routes.[11] SBS features a range of vital improvements like bus lanes and traffic signal upgrades, but all-door boarding is a one notable factor behind speed improvements on SBS routes: the MTA estimates that off-board fare collection, combined with all-door boarding, is responsible for a 10 to 15 percent total improvement in travel time.[12]

However, the MTA has noted that off-board fare collection devices used in Select Bus Service routes are relatively expensive (fare payment machines for the first three SBS routes on Fordham Road, the East Side and 34th Street cost a total of $12 million[13]) and require constant maintenance of a citywide network of off-board machines. New on-board fare payment technology and electronic proof of payment could dramatically reduce the MTA’s installation and maintenance costs by eliminating the need for infrastructure on city streets. In May, the Regional Plan Association (RPA) issued a detailed report outlining how the region’s transit network could benefit from new fare payment technology;[14] the RPA estimates that installing MetroCard machines at all of the city’s 16,000 bus stops would cost upwards of $1 billion. In contrast, Seattle spent $1 million to install 131 card readers at stops along five RapidRide lines—at approximately $8,000 per reader, a much less expensive option enabled by newer fare technology.[15]

Rather than require these on-board machines to print paper receipts for each passenger, which would be logistically challenging and undermine many of the benefits of speedy boarding with tap-and-go technology, the fare payment system should be able to mark each passenger’s payment digitally, so that inspectors just have to scan the passenger’s credit card or phone to see if they have paid.


Other Cities Are Ahead of the Curve

Far from being a futuristic technology, electronic proof of payment is already in use in other jurisdictions. In London, Transport for London implemented contactless payments using credit and debit cards on its network of city buses in 2012[16]. Currently, riders can board at multiple doors, tapping their Oyster Card or bank cards on card readers at any entry point[17]. In order to verify payment, inspectors use a handheld device that can scan a rider’s method of payment, which is then checked at the end of the day to determine if the customer paid[18]. In instances where some banks may not process payment immediately, an end-of-day verification process reduces fare evasion while ensuring that customers whose financial institutions have longer processing periods are not unfairly charged[19].

Similar systems have been employed in the United States as well. In July 2012, the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency (SFMTA) became the first major American transit operator to enable all-door boarding system-wide by installing Clipper Card readers at the back doors of all buses. After implementation, it took San Francisco riders 38 percent less time to board the bus at busy stops. Bus reliability also improved, as “dwell time”—the amount of time each bus is stuck at a bus stop—became less variable and more predictable. And despite San Francisco’s growing population, employment, car registration and bus ridership numbers, all-door boarding helped improve citywide bus speeds by 2 percent.[20]

London and San Francisco are not the only examples of systems that employ new fare payment technologies to permit all-door boarding; other cities with either all-door boarding or electronic fare payment have seen gains in bus speed, ridership and customer satisfaction:

  • Vancouver: In 2007, Translink began all-door boarding on its busy 99 B-Line. With all-door boarding, riders took 17 percent less time to board the bus at busy stops, and the average trip from one end of the route to the other was 3 percent faster. A before-and-after survey found that bus passengers also noticed the improved boarding speed and ease of exiting the bus.[21]
  • Seattle: On RapidRide, King County Metro’s network of limited-stop bus service, all-door boarding began during daytime hours in 2010 and expanded full-time in May 2016 after a survey of bus operators found that they strongly favored it.[22] Card readers installed at bus stops allow riders to tap their ORCA Card before boarding. Ridership on RapidRide lines, which also received transit signal priority and other improvements, increased 43 percent after the upgrades were installed.[23]
  • Los Angeles: In 2015, a two-month pilot of all-door boarding allowed users to use their TAP Cards at two stops on the Metro Rapid 720 line before boarding the bus. It sped boarding time by 32 percent. Passengers noticed the difference, too: 89 percent said it took less time to get on the bus with all-door boarding, and 75 percent said it was easier to board the bus. This summer, Los Angeles will expand all-door boarding to its Silver Line bus rapid transit route.[24]
  • Montreal: In 2014, researchers using data from transit operator STM estimated that the system’s busiest bus lines could see speed increases between 5 and 16 percent with all-door boarding.[25] In March 2016, STM began a daytime all-door boarding pilot on the 121, its busiest bus line.[26] Passengers with unlimited-use passes can board at the rear door without having to tap their cards.[27] In June, the pilot was extended indefinitely after a survey showed that 84 percent of passengers and 75 percent of bus operators approved of all-door boarding.[28]


The Fare Payment RFP: Don’t Miss the Bus!

As currently drafted, the MTA’s request for proposals for its new fare payment system misses an important opportunity to significantly improve bus travel times and the boarding experience for over two million daily bus riders. By not requiring respondents to ensure that electronic proof of payment will be an integral part of a new fare payment system, the MTA could preclude a transition to all-door boarding, and risks missing this timely opportunity to make buses faster, more reliable and more appealing to riders.

While all-door boarding is far from the entire answer to the current challenge of declining bus speeds and ridership, it is an important part of the solution. Other jurisdictions and the MTA’s own Select Bus Service program show the promise of all-door boarding to improve bus service, and in the future, a likely cost-effective way to implement all-door boarding will be through allowing inspectors to check digitally to see if passengers have paid their fare. In order to keep open the option to switch to an all-door boarding system soon, the MTA should amend its RFP to require bidders to include the option in their fare system proposals.



[2] This number does not include ridership on MTA Bus Company buses.


[4] All data taken from the NYC DOT’s May 2016 “New York City Mobility Report,”