Why Won’t Brooklynites Ride the Buses?

NYC bus

In The Atlantic yesterday, Richard Greenwald looked at why, without a car (or a bike, though he doesn’t mention that), it’s so difficult to get between Brooklyn and Queens. The answer, of course, is that our subway system was designed as a commuter system, to funnel outerborough workers to their Manhattan jobs and back home again without foreseeing our current moment when, you know, people might want to travel from Ditmas Park to Williamsburg without stopping in the Village. But Greenwald writes that people not so long ago used to travel freely between boroughs—because they rode trolleys! But after a gasoline-corporate conspiracy to dismantle the trolley system (which may or not be entirely true), no one really makes those trips anymore. Queens residents don’t shop in Downtown Brooklyn.

But wait—what replaced the trolleys? Buses, of course, but Greenwald writes them off. “Buses… were tertiary, connecting commuters first-and-foremost to subway lines.” But I don’t think that’s true; many buses do stop near subway stations, yes, but that’s not the only thing they do: they also connect disparate communities, allowing for direct, low-cost travel between neighborhoods that most subway lines don’t. Want to get from Bay Ridge to Brownsville? There’s a B8 for that. Or you could take the R all the way to Atlantic Avenue and transfer to the 3 all the way back into Brooklyn. (Granted, the bus system is underfunded: the MTA recently cut and consolidated entire routes in reaction to budgetary shortfalls—it seems there’s always a rally in some neighborhood demanding more bus service—and other lines can have long waits between buses. Still, particularly in warm weather, it’s usually not so bad.)

One commenter on the Atlantic piece scoffs at how difficult interborough travel can be. “We live in Crown Heights,” the commenter writes, “and if we want to go to Williamsburg, it’s easier to take the train into Manhattan and take the L from Union Sq. back into Brooklyn!” But in fact there’s a simple way to get from Crown Heights to Williamsburg: the B43, which goes up Kingston to Throop (through Bed-Stuy) to Graham, stopping by the north end of McCarren and continuing up to around the Pulaski Bridge. So why don’t more people take it?

Of course, people do ride the buses. In 2012, more than 200 millions rides were taken on Brooklyn buses alone, according to MTA statistics—more than in any other borough. (Another 1.5 million express-bus trips were taken.) But there’s a divide between bus and subway riders that Adelle Waldman identifies in her forthcoming novel The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.: “He only superficially lived among the poor. They walked the same streets and rode the same subways (the buses, however, were largely ceded to the underclass).”

As a kid growing up in Bay Ridge, my mother didn’t drive, so we often took the bus while dad was at work: to the doctor, to a museum or the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. And it’s a habit I carried with me into adulthood: when I went to Brooklyn College, I took the B4 to the B6. When I dated a girl who lived in Prospect Lefferts Garden, I took the B16. To get back from Coney Island, I’ll take the B64. When I head home from Bar 718, I hop on the B63. One of my earliest published pieces of writing was an op-ed for the Brooklyn Eagle about the potentially disastrous effect of canceling B37 service in Sunset Park.

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