Launch of 34th Street Select Bus Service Confounds Some Commuters
MIDTOWN — The flashing blue lights of Select Bus Service greeted commuters on West 34th Street Monday morning — but not everyone was pleased to see them.
While some passengers were already familiar with the new buses, which use pre-boarding fare collection machines to speed up the boarding process instead of allowing users to pay with MetroCards inside the bus, others were confused by the system, which officially rolled into service Sunday.
“I’m going to miss my bus,” complained a frustrated Barbara Zimaras, 46, from Queens, who was about to board the M34 Monday morning when she was informed by MTA staffers that she would need to pay before she stepped on board.
She said she'd been taking the 34th Street bus for more than 20 years and thought the old system worked just fine.
“I just think this is an extra step that’s unnecessary,” she said, after watching her bus roll away.
But other commuters quickly became fans of the new system, including Sherry Campbell, who said she frequently takes the select bus service along First Avenue, where she said travel times have improved.
“It’s good. I think it will be faster because sometimes you’re here waiting for a bus for 15 minutes,” said Campbell, 46, from Queens, on her way to work.
Officials say the new bus system, which is already rolling along First and Second avenues on the east side, will dramatically improve service on the stretch, where buses often move slower than pedestrians.
“We all know that problem where people fuss in their purse or their bags to get the money to pay for the bus, where(as) if you could pay before-hand, you can just zip on and off really quickly,” said Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, who greeted commuters at West 34th Street and Eighth Avenue Monday morning on the first week day of service.
She said the introduction of SBS along First and Second avenues and on Fordham Road in the Bronx improved bus speeds there by 20 percent, and hopes 34th Street will see the same kind of boost.
Today, she joked, buses barely “move faster than a tricycle. ... We can do better than that,” she said.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg was also on hand to mark the launch. While he rarely takes the bus himself, he said that he hopes the new system will encourage others to ride.
“When the service gets better, people use mass transit. That clears the streets and helps the economy,” he said.
As part of the transition, the M34 has been renamed the M34 SBS and the M16 has been renamed the M34A SBS.
To help ease confusion in the first weeks of service, the MTA is staffing the route with “customer ambassadors” dressed in bright orange vests to teach passengers how to use the off-board payment machines. The machines spit out receipts, which serve as proof of payment, allowing passengers to board any bus through either the front or back door.
Flora Stamatiades, 44, from Washington Heights, was open minded about the launch, but said she worried there might not be enough sidewalk machines to accommodate the rush hour crush.
“I think what will happen is people will be in line and the bus will come,” she said on her way to an appointment in Midtown.
Sandra Hardy, from New Jersey, who declined to give her age, said she would reserve judgment until after commuters become familiar with the new system.
“Anything new, it becomes a learning curve.... We’ll have to see,” she said.
In addition to the new fare system, there have also been some changes to stops.
The Lexington Avenue stop has been eliminated, as has the stop on Madison Avenue. The west-bound stop on Tenth Avenue has been relocated to Dyer Avenue, and an M16 stop on West 43rd Street near Ninth Avenue has been consolidated with a stop on Ninth Avenue near West 42nd Street.
A part-time stop on Ninth Avenue at West 38thStreet has also been relocated to West 39th Street, the MTA said.
The new buses on 34 Street are part of a larger plan to transform the gridlocked corridor, with future changes planned including limiting westbound traffic to just one lane from Madison Avenue to Ninth Avenue, moving buses away from curbs, and adding 20,000 square feet of new pedestrian space with sidewalk-extending "bus bulbs" that jut into the street.
The old M34 and M16 routes carried approximately 18,000 passengers on an average weekday, according to the MTA.