City Council Tackles Our Last Existential Quandary: Countdown Clocks for Bus Stops

Brad Lander says, "Where's the bus?" (Kit Dillon)

Brad Lander says, “Where’s the bus?” (Kit Dillon)

On every straphanger's gift list this winter. (Kit Dillon)

On every straphanger’s gift list this winter. (Kit Dillon)

The bus stop is a lonely place, made lonelier without the reassurances of time. Like Estragon said, “Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful.” Much better to wait underground for the subway where your time is allotted to you by little digital clocks hanging from the ceiling.  No more leaning out and staring into the endlessness of a dark tunnel looking for light. Your train is 4 minutes away, at least on those lines fortunate enough to have the timers.

New York City is not a place for waiting. We’re terrible at it, and the City Council knows it. Today, joined by transit advocates and riders, a group of council members introduced a resolution calling on city agencies to install “bus clocks” in all of the 3,300 shelters across the city. Clocks that would display real-time bus arrival information, not simply those flimsy timetables many bus poles now unreliably, even flagrantly, post. It’s a move that will finally see the city catching up with such other metropolitan innovators as Albany, Syracuse, and Champaign, Ill. They’ve even got an online version in Boston—Boston!

“Bus Time and subway countdown clocks have been tremendously helpful technologies for straphangers,” Bronx Councilman James Vacca, chair of the Transportation Committee, said. “Knowing when the next bus or train will arrive gives straphangers time to pick up coffee or the morning paper rather than standing around with no information.”

That’s the point, of course. A moment with no information, in a city like ours, in a time like this, is a matter of life and death! Or at least a blown meeting or missed first date. Of course, we know, waiting now, that a bus will come. It always does. But we don’t know when and that lets the mind wander into strange and uncharted territory. What if the bus never comes? What are we waiting here for? Is it all worth it? Why are we here? Tough questions for the 2.5 million average weekday bus riders. Tough questions for anybody.

The MTA has a new system, known as Bus Time, currently accessible from a smart phone app, that was first installed as pilot program on the B63 line in Brooklyn. It has since expanded to a few more lines in Staten Island and the Bronx, and by the end of 2013, it will be available for all bus routes in the city. But as the concerned City Council members point out, smart phones are not as ubiquitous among the city’s elderly and low income residents, which creates a very real accessibility issue.

“There are few things as frustrating as waiting for a bus without knowing when it will show up, especially if you’re already running late for work or the weather isn’t cooperating,” Councilman Steve Levin said. “Installing countdown clocks in bus shelters is an easy step that the MTA can and should take to ensure that all riders know when to expect the next bus.”

Currently the city bus shelters are built and maintained by CEMUSA, a world wide leader in, what it calls, “iconic street furniture,” better known as bus-stop-meets-billboard.  According to the franchise agreement with the city, which includes a clause about installing and maintaining future systems as they are developed, CEMUSA is already in a position to install countdown clocks without serious contractual changes.  As for the costs of the initial installation, the council hopes that some of the financing can come from discretionary appropriations and toggling agreements with advertisers, in which time information is alternated regularly with advertisements.

“With Bus Time going citywide,” declared Brad Lander, “it’s time for the MTA, New York City, and CEMUSA to overcome bureaucratic and inter-agency hurdles and make bus clocks a reality in New York City.”