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MTA Sends Scrambled Signals on Little-Used $2.5m Bus Wi-Fi

The MTA says bus Wi–Fi is here to stay — even if relatively few passengers use it.
The MTA says bus Wi–Fi is here to stay — even if relatively few passengers use it. Photo: Jose Martinez/THE CITY

The MTA spelled out plans in its latest budget to eliminate lightly used Wi-Fi service on thousands of buses — then backtracked after THE CITY inquired about the proposed cut.

A spokesperson first told THE CITY Wednesday that zapping the $2.5-million annual Wi-Fi cost mistakenly appeared on Page V-273 of the MTA’s 2020 Preliminary Budget, thanks to “a significant error in human input.” Then the agency said it was planning to scale back its data plan, noting it had overestimated how much riders would use Wi-Fi on buses.

But on Thursday, the MTA declared bus Wi-Fi “ a popular service” and said it’s not cutting or reducing anything — despite noting twice in the more than 500-page budget document that rider usage has been “minimal,” given that most riders have cellular service.

The MTA proposed cutting Wi-Fi service on city buses in their July budget report, but later said it was an error.
The MTA proposed cutting Wi-Fi service on city buses in their July budget report, but later said it was an error. Photo: New York City Transit

In January  — when more than 40 million people rode buses — there were 630,000 log-ons to bus Wi-Fi, according to an MTA statement given to THE CITY in March.

“The inclusion of a $2.5 million reduction in the July plan was an error in human input — it should not have been included at all,” said Shams Tarek, an MTA spokesperson. “We have no plan to alter or reduce bus Wi-Fi service.”

Bus Ridership Dips

Average weekday ridership on New York City Transit buses fell to 1.8 million last year — a 12% drop since 2016, the year when tech-friendly features, which include USB ports where passengers can charge their devices, began arriving on MTA buses.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo enthusiastically introduced bus Wi-Fi in March 2016, when he touted new-look MTA buses and cracked that they have a “European flair” and “Ferrari-like look.”

“These are not going to be your father’s buses,” Cuomo said at the time. “You know, it’s a new day.”

More than 3,300 buses in the nearly 6,000-strong MTA fleet are equipped with Wi-Fi, which the governor gushed about as a key customer amenity when the service was introduced.

“What the MTA is trying to reach is mobility plus productivity,” Cuomo said. “The days where you get on a bus and you read the newspaper are over.”

Wi-Fi Goes Over Passengers’ Heads

Several riders told THE CITY they weren’t aware of the service.

“I like the charging things that they put on the bus, but that’s about it,” said Dionisio Triunfel, 33, of Brooklyn, who was riding an M34 bus. “I didn’t even know there was Wi-Fi on the bus.”

“For the subway, I get it — you absolutely need Wi-Fi in the underground stations,” said Lou Rod Cueva, 31, who was waiting for a Wi-Fi-equipped M34 in Manhattan. “But on a bus it doesn’t make as much sense.”

Thomas Green, 41, of Manhattan said aboard an M34 Wednesday that he never used Wi-Fi on a bus, July 24, 2019.
Thomas Green, 41, of Manhattan said aboard an M34 Wednesday that he never used Wi-Fi on a bus, July 24, 2019. Photo: Jose Martinez/THE CITY

Others pointed out that they use their cellular service to stay connected — just as the MTA had noted.

“I never have a need to use the bus Wi-Fi,” said Thomas Green, 42, who was riding a crosstown M34 bus in Manhattan.

The advocacy group TransitCenter cited its 2016 “Who’s On Board” report as indicative of what bus riders want. High-tech features such as Wi-Fi and USB charging ports landed at the bottom of a survey that asked bus riders to a rank a dozen categories listed as “service improvements.”

Steven Higashide, director of research at TransitCenter, noted the organization predicted years ago that Wi-Fi on MTA buses would not be in great demand.

“What riders want is fast, frequent and reliable service,” Higashide said, calling Wi-Fi a “cosmetic improvement.”

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