Why New York City has a second-tier bus system

If the city and state have privileged drivers in this particular debate—a posture that would be at odds with Bloomberg’s own thoughts on the matter—they also haven’t been all that ambitious in charting out new routes for select bus routes, or creating connections between them, so as to create an actual network, rather than a series of individual, standalone lines.

This, despite the fact that New Yorkers are increasingly commuting between and within boroughs, rather than merely into Manhattan.

All four select bus service routes thus far run along already existing bus routes. Select Bus Service just makes those buses run along those routes faster.

There’s also not much connectivity between routes, which is essential for an effective surface transportation system.

“Basically what they’re doing is taking existing routes like the M15 or the Nostrand Avenue Corridor or Fordham Corridor and just ramping up service,” said Giles.

The number of SBS could double with in the next year, as the city and state plot out three routes to LaGuardia Airport, a route along Webster Avenue in the Bronx, and Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn, and possibly also one along Utica Avenue.

"SBS improvements are already speeding up trips for 213,000 daily passengers, saving some 609 years of cumulative travel time each year," said Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, in a statement.

It's working, on some modest level: Ridership is growing more quickly on SBS routes than on the rest of the bus system. 

"It can't be called a failure," said Barone. "The jury's out whether it's a complete success."

But with 1 million more residents expected to live in New York City by 2030, and some of New York City's subway lines already nearing capacity, Hook says New York City will have no choice but to do yet more and built a truly robust bus rapid transit system.

"I think if New York City continues to add density at its current rate, it really doesn’t have any other choice, because the subways, certain links of the subway are really saturated right now," he said.

ON A RECENT MONDAY MORNING, I BOARDED THE 34TH STREET Select Bus Service at 35th Street and the East River.

It was 9:15 am.

The bus headed south one block, veered west, and began its not terribly slow (but also not terribly fast) progress to the West Side.

The bus had only two doors, not the three doors considered preferable for rapid bus service, but they did open simultaneously at every stop, allowing passengers to flow in and out both entrances, their fares already paid.

We stopped at First Avenue, and then again half a block later, at the red light near the entrance to the Queens Midtown Tunnel.

We stopped to pick up passengers at Second Avenue, then for a red light at Third Avenue, then again between Third and Lexington to pick up passengers, then for a red light at Lexington Avenue, across from the Murray Hill Market.

The bus pushed onward, only to stop at Park Avenue, then again between Park and Madison.

A would-be passenger got confused by the new, off-board payment system.

“Put the card in the machine and get a receipt,” the driver instructed her. She obeyed, and before she could return, he drove off.

We stopped for a red light at Fifth Avenue, at Broadway, again in front of Macy's, then between Seventh and Eighth avenues, and again at Madison Square Garden, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues, and then again at Ninth.

I disembarked.

It was 9:35. The whole trip had taken approximately 20 minutes. Distance covered: 1.5 miles. Which means the bus had traveled at an average speed of roughly 4.5 miles miles per hour.

According to Google Maps, it would have taken a half hour to walk.