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When the Only Way to Get to Work Is This Slow Bus

Just beyond the reach of New York City’s frenetic, round-the-clock subway, people in a slice of western Queens wait — and wait — to board one of the borough’s slowest buses.

Many of the 2.3 million New Yorkers who live and work in Queens aren’t served directly by the vast network of trains that keeps the nation’s biggest metropolis moving. The borough, the city’s second most populous, has less subway service relative to its size and population than the other four.

So hundreds of thousands of people here plan their lives around the only mass transit choice they have: the buses that lumber along traffic-choked streets.

One of those buses, the Q23, is among the slowest in the city. For the past four years, it has consistently traveled more slowly than the citywide average of about 8 miles per hour — about the speed some people can run — bogged down by an awkward path and riders who swarm two stops that connect to the subway.

It was slower than nearly all of the 76 other buses in Queens in April, and it ranked dead last in the borough in January, when it traveled at 6.5 miles per hour.

The Q23’s route curls around the Tudor-style houses and lush yards of Forest Hills, then cuts through the bustling heart of multicultural Corona before turning west toward the edge of Queens to head to its last stop, near La Guardia Airport.

“Each section has its own little demon,” John Breeden, who has driven city buses for 11 years and counts the Q23 among his routes, said as he sat behind the wheel on a spring afternoon. “You need patience.”

More New Yorkers ride buses in this borough than in any other. On a given weekday before the pandemic, 680,000 people took a bus in Queens, making up about 32 percent of the city’s overall weekday ridership of 2.2 million.

Many blue-collar workers rely on the Q23 to reach their jobs, and its frequent delays can derail their commutes and make them late to work. Some riders set out hours early to compensate.

When buses are slow, people put off basic needs such as medical care, according to a May 2020 study published in the American Journal of Public Health. They spend longer in harsh weather, and their quality of life suffers because of lost time.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates the city’s public buses, wants to speed them up in Queens, in part by getting rid of stops and adapting to modern traffic patterns, making routes straighter and more direct.

“Most of the subway system was built when Queens still had farmlands,” said Janno Lieber, the M.T.A.’s chairman and chief executive.

“Now we have to make the bus system do a lot of the work in Queens that the subway system does for so many other parts of the city that got more heavy rail, because of when they were developed,” he said.

The authority released a draft plan to redesign the borough’s bus network in March, and it is soliciting community input through June.

But when it sought to try an overhaul in 2019, just before the onset of the pandemic, Queens riders and elected officials protested. The agency received more than 11,000 public comments, many saying that the plan was too drastic and would eliminate or alter crucial bus lines.

Ultimately, the proposal was shelved. The authority says it considered the complaints when drafting the new version.

The pains that Q23 riders take to accommodate its delays illustrate the consequences of a broken bus system that is used primarily by low-income people who do not have cars and live far from the subway.

Their journeys begin hours before sunrise and run late into the night, at all times snarled by obstructions.

A little before 5 a.m. on a recent weekday, Amada Sandoval, who lives in East Elmhurst, was ready to board the bus to reach her cleaning job at La Guardia Airport.

Her shift doesn’t start until 7 a.m., and the airport’s front doors are only about a mile away, but she doesn’t take any chances.

“The 23 is the tortoise,” Ms. Sandoval said in Spanish. “It stops too many times. It makes too many turns. My god!”

The Q23 serves a mix of Queens residents, including many Latino and Asian immigrants in Elmhurst and Corona. Riders from Rego Park and Forest Hills tend to be whiter and wealthier.

In Elmhurst and Corona, 64 percent of residents depend on public transit to get to work — 16 percentage points higher than the overall rate in Queens, where people who can afford a car tend to drive, and 11 percentage points higher than the citywide rate.

That morning, Ms. Sandoval, 72, made the trek from the home she shares with her son to La Guardia’s outskirts on foot.

She cursed the bus under her breath as she walked past her neighbor’s lawn, onto the pedestrian bridge suspended above a roaring highway and through the tangle of a construction site.

By 5:30 a.m., she finally passed through the shadows of airplanes parked at Delta’s terminal.

Ms. Sandoval is in poor health — she has a bad leg, and after her grandson died abruptly in Peru in March, her blood pressure has spiked.

But like many blue collar workers, she cannot afford not to work. And the Q23 can take as long as 25 minutes to arrive, doubling the length of her trip.

So when the bus is late and the weather is good, she walks. When there is heavy rain or snow or wind, she must wait and hope for the best.

The Q23 begins its weekday schedule at about 4 a.m. with buses spaced about a half-hour apart. The path along Forest Hills and Rego Park is mostly empty compared to the route’s northern section, where working-class Corona springs to life.

People form polite lines as they wait to board, making small talk about the weather and life in their native countries.

Delivery vans and cars start squeezing onto narrow roads, building choke points along key intersections where the bus links riders to the subway at Queens Boulevard and Roosevelt Avenue.

The Q23 has typically already fallen behind schedule by the time it approaches Ms. Sandoval at the northern end of the line. The further along its route it travels, the less reliable it gets, according to an analysis of rider data by the mobility app Moovit.

As the day progresses, Q23 delays get worse, especially near the two stops where it meets subway lines.

It slows down along Forest Hill’s Austin Street — a shopping district lined with synagogues, schools, chain stores and dining sheds — and along Corona Plaza’s stretch of eloteros, fruterías, panaderías and taquerías.

Sometimes buses are so stuffed they leave passengers behind.

Efrain Bonet spends 4 hours per day commuting to his minimum-wage job as a security guard in Forest Hills. He begins at 1 p.m. in Union City, N.J., where he takes a New Jersey Transit bus into the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Midtown Manhattan.

There, he connects to a subway line — usually the E or the F — before getting off at the Forest Hills stop to board the Q23.

“It’s always late,” Mr. Bonet said. “Sometimes you wait 12, 15, 20 minutes.”

New York City’s buses are slow and unreliable because a crush of cars, delivery trucks, pedestrians and traffic lights impede their path and dedicated bus lanes remain scarce.

It is a common trend in heavily populated places. A November 2017 analysis by the city’s comptroller found that the four U.S. cities where average bus speeds are lower than 10 miles per hour — San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York — are among the densest in the country.

Other global cities like London and Beijing have sped up their fleets by giving more street space to buses and making more room for cyclists and pedestrians.

“The bus is used worldwide and it needs to get respect,” said Andrew Bata, who oversees North America for the Brussels-based International Association of Public Transport. “It needs better enforcement of the people who are blocking it.”

Mr. Bonet deals with the tough commute because he likes his job. He guards a construction site nestled between apartment towers at Colonial Avenue and the Long Island Expressway.

“It’s comfortable,” Mr. Bonet, 61, said in Spanish. Before taking the gig two years ago, he pumped gas and did other manual labor, but an injury on his right hand has made that kind of work too difficult.

He has learned how to shave precious minutes from his commute by buying New Jersey Transit passes in bulk and figuring out which staircases tend to be less crowded to avoid bottlenecks.

By now, he knows the whims of all three transit modes. For instance, he avoids the No. 7 subway because it stops too frequently and it is often down when he needs it. And he ignores the unreliable countdown clock meant to tell him when the Q23 will arrive at Queens Boulevard and 71st Avenue.

Beyond being hampered by traffic, other factors can trip up a route’s flow, like bad weather and passengers who quibble with drivers over everything from the M.T.A.’s mask policy to paying the fare.

“This rule is not law. It’s your rule,” a man said after Mr. Breeden told him to mask up before boarding.

But the rule is law. Mr. Breeden didn’t budge, and the man eventually pulled his mask on.

Some riders, Mr. Breeden said, are “just like little kids. They look for excuses not to do something. But it’s a daily adventure. I like it.”

As the day nears its end, the traffic may wane, but other obstacles can prevent the Q23 from being on time.

Angélica Mora, 42, works the overnight shift as a server at a 24-hour restaurant and bakery off Junction Boulevard. She nearly missed the bus during a recent commute because road work blocked its usual path.

“Are you waiting for the bus?” a woman standing outside a nearby bodega asked. “It didn’t stop here.”

Ms. Mora moved to New York about a year ago after fleeing gang violence in Colombia, where she was an economist.

Her commute is only about a mile long, but she doesn’t feel safe walking. People on the street are often drunk and unruly, she said, especially as nearby bars and underground strip clubs empty out.

“Sometimes it’s faster to walk, but at night, I get scared,” Ms. Mora said in Spanish.

But she can feel unsafe waiting for the bus too, she said, especially since it can be delayed up to 40 minutes: “It’s too much time standing.”

She lives alone, and relatives back home worry about her working a late shift in a foreign city.

To put them at ease, Ms. Mora calls every time she leaves home and sends trip updates along the way.

Buses have gotten slower and less reliable citywide, prompting changes in other boroughs. The M.T.A. overhauled Staten Island’s Express Bus network in 2018, and approved a redesign of the bus network in the Bronx last year.

Queens’s explosive population growth has transformed the borough’s demographics and travel patterns, but the transportation network has not adapted.

The M.T.A.’s proposal to redesign the Q23’s route would eliminate twisted sections at either end of its path, replacing them with other bus routes.

Critics of the plan say it would not solve problems like drivers who don’t follow the rules, dining sheds that make narrow streets even tighter, and construction jobs like the one that blocked Ms. Mora’s route.

“Realistically, there’s not much you can do,” Mr. Breeden said. “It’s very populated over there. And then you add in the churches, then you add in the deliveries, and the people’s entrepreneurship out there — it’s always going to be crowded.”

Ms. Mora struggles to understand the M.T.A.’s English-language announcements. So when the woman near the bodega flagged the problem with the bus, she pulled out her phone and toggled between navigation and translation applications to figure out where to catch it.

“I’m glad she told me,” Ms. Mora said in Spanish. “If not, it would have left me behind.”

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