Another Unintended Consequence

We are dismayed but not necessarily surprised to learn on virtually a weekly basis, as new mysteries embedded in the enormously verbose ObamaCare legislation are revealed, that badly conceived government actions often have manifold unintended consequences (e.g., the lack of interest in special insurance by folks with preexisting conditions) -- sometimes very serious ones.

But such are not confined to the grand scale of federal programs with multi-billion-dollar price tags. We're experiencing some of the municipal variety right here in New York City at present. Somebody had the doozy of an idea widely touted as speeding riders along public transit bus routes at as much as a 10%-20% overall time savings. The gimmick was to reduce delays in boarding the buses.

To that end, a "vaporetto" (of Venetian fame) style of fare-paying was introduced, supposedly as "an experiment" on two major Manhattan avenues, First and Second. The buses that run on those arteries carry very heavy rider loads, especially during rush hours, and were already the beneficiaries of specially designated "bus lanes," known to some as scofflaw speedways. The new plan was to eliminate some of the former "express" or "limited" stops and introduce a new fare-paying/collecting system on those that remained.

First, a bunch of new, specially painted and designed articulated vehicles were put into service. These had a slightly distinctive paint job, flashing blue lights on their fronts, and two -- rather than the previous one -- rear exit doors. Each bus stop that would be serviced by these "select buses," as they were named, was extended in length to a full city block. These became what is really two bus stops in one, the hindmost for use by local buses (which make every stop along the route), and the forepart for the select vehicles.

Where the "select" buses were to stop were installed fare collection machines. Fares could -- indeed, must -- be prepaid at the machine using a MetroCard, credit card, or cash. In return, a small paper receipt is dispensed. The rider may then enter a select bus through any of its three doorways and, as with Venice's vaporetti, need never present the receipt unless requested to do so by randomly assigned inspectors.

This, riders were told, would eliminate the bottleneck of a single entrance, the fumbling for a MetroCard or coins for the (now eliminated) fare box, and the endless questioning of the driver by bewildered tourists (nobody believed that one), thus speeding up the whole process of getting from point A to point B.

Sounds good, perhaps, in theory. In practice, here's what happens. New Yorkers collected at select stops will tend to take the first bus that arrives (unless you have a destination that must be a local stop) regardless of whether it's a local or a select. No way of knowing, of course, which kind is going to be first -- so at which end of the block to wait?

As I observed yesterday at the 34th Street and First Avenue stop, most folks chose to stand in the middle of the block, prepared to dash one way or the other, depending on what bus was first to get there. As it happened, after a considerable wait, the first bus to arrive -- with no other in sight -- was a select. Naturally, nobody had prepaid the fare because had a local come first, they would have had to pay again to board the non-select vehicle. So while the bus was stopped to board passengers, most of them rushed to the machines to pay up and get their receipts. My wife was having a little trouble with the machine -- which involves a three-step process even when it's working at its best -- and many other passengers were still trying to pay and get a receipt when I made my way to the front door and tried to prevent the driver from closing it and driving off.

"There are still a lot of people trying to get their receipts," I told her. "It's against the law for you to hold up the bus," she told me. A man with a foreign accent shouted out from the machine stand, "Your machines aren't working properly!" Didn't faze the driver. She told me to get out of the doorway, and she'd pull out and leave the rest of the would-be passengers standing there at the curb. Fortunately, I am stubborn, and while I was arguing with her, I shouted back to my wife and the others to just get on the bus immediately whether they were able to pay or not. Everyone got aboard.

This is not an isolated incident. The problem is built into the new system and causes more inconveniences and delays than it was ever intended to prevent. Besides that, the extension of the select part of the bus stop way down the block means that passengers transferring from a crosstown bus (the select stops are all at crosstown transfer points) have to walk an extra block, e.g. the select bus stop at 42nd Street is really at 43rd -- a severe inconvenience for the many transferring passengers using walkers or crutches, carrying heavy packages, or suffering from arthritis or other disabling problems.

As it has already done with the new kamikaze bike lanes and the ugly, congestion-enhancing pedestrian plazas in high-traffic locations such as Times Square and Herald Square, the city powers that be will no doubt declare this experiment a "success" and seek to expand the system to other parts of the Metropolitan Transit's bus network.

When private businesses encounter unintended consequences of a negative nature, they take ameliorative steps as quickly as possible. But when it's government involved, politics and egos trump common sense and reality, and the public is stuck with them far too long, like old soldiers who neither die nor fade away.