Why New York City has a second-tier bus system

why-new-york-city-has-second-tier-bus-system
Lhota, Sadik-Khan and Bloomberg launch SBS in S.I. (Spencer T Tucker)
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By the evening after Hurricane Sandy made landfall, some New York City buses had starting running again.

The governor and mayor set aside special lanes on streets and bridges just for them. A bus caravan ferried commuters from downtown Brooklyn to Manhattan.

When the Queens Midtown, Brooklyn-Battery, and Holland tunnels reopened after the storm, they did so for buses first.

Granted, those buses were crowded, the lines to board them were long. But they moved. Buses—not subways or cars or bikes—were New York’s most resilient and reliable form of transportation after the storm. 

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Now imagine what the post-Hurricane Sandy commute would have looked like—and as a matter of fact what the city's transportation scheme would look like on a daily basis going forward—if New York had not just buses, but a robust bus rapid transit system: a network of big, swift vehicles moving in rapid succession along an interconnected network of separated bus lanes, with elevated platforms allowing wheelchair-users and stroller-pushers to roll on and roll off and off-board fare collection to speed their entry.

Such a bus system would create redundancy in times of crisis, like the storm surges that hit during Hurricane Sandy and which are apparently going to be swamping this area for years to come. But it would also fill some gaping holes in the city's existing and ever-more-burdened web of mass transit.

“They could have had buses running with one-minute headways, and had the separate busways, the bridge routes already in place,” said David Giles, research director at the Center for an Urban Future. “It would have been a real system they could have fallen back on.”

New York City does in fact have a version of bus rapid transit. It’s called “Select Bus Service.”

But select bus service is so lacking in the accoutrements typically associated with bus rapid transit that some transit experts argue it doesn’t even merit the label.

It has no truly separated bus lanes, or elevated boarding platforms. It has off-board fare collection in places, but not universally. Its "dedicated" bus lanes are only dedicated in theory, demarcated by a frequently ignored terra-cotta-colored paint. Other vehicles routinely infringe upon them, and when those vehicles are making right turns, they actually have to.

SBS buses move through the city’s grid more quickly than ordinary buses, but not that much more quickly.

In 2011, the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy issued a report called “Recapturing Global Leadership in Bus Rapid Transit,” in which the authors came up with a way to grade the robustness of a bus rapid transit system based on its inclusion of elements like off-board payment, connectivity, right-of-way enforcement, separated lanes, elevated boarding platforms, and so on.

The top score was 100. The Institute gave New York City’s system a failing grade of 35 and called it, stingingly, “not BRT.”

The city and M.T.A., says Giles, can do “much, much more.”

“If they can do East River Access and dig a new Second Avenue Subway and build a grossly overfunded, inefficient subway station in lower Manhattan on Fulton Street, then they can do better buses,” he said.

IT WAS EARTH DAY, 2007 WHEN THE MAYOR unveiled an ambitious 156-page plan to help New York City prepare for a projected influx of a million more residents by 2030. 

PlaNYC devoted a whole section to transportation, and a whole subsection to bus rapid transit and the shortcomings of the city's existing bus system, which the report noted had both the highest ridership in the United States and the slowest buses.

“Within two years, New York City and the M.T.A. will launch five BRT routes, one in each borough,” read the report, in a section with the bold heading, “We will initiate and expand Bus Rapid Transit.”

In the ensuing two years, the state and city rolled out one SBS route, on Fordham Road in the Bronx. Five years later, which brings us to today, they have rolled out four: two in Manhattan, one on 34th Street and along First and Second avenues; one in the Bronx, and one running from Hylan Boulevard in Staten Island across the Verrazano Bridge into Brooklyn.

Certainly, the interagency coordination that’s required—between the M.T.A., D.O.T., community boards and the NYPD—has proven a challenge, as have the traffic studies, engineering, discussions with community groups and ensuing back-and-forth. 

The patchy relations between former M.T.A. chief executive Jay Walder and the city's transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, didn't help much either.

But perhaps more important than any of that has been opposition from drivers and local businesses: Merchants complained that the routes would eliminate parking spaces for their customers and make truck deliveries impossible, and drivers complained that buses would take away street space and create gridlock.

The MTA and DOT reacted by scaling things back.

In 2008, for example, they rolled out a proposed “transitway” along 34th Street, which would have included special bus lanes separated from the rest of traffic by concrete barriers.

In the Post, Steve Cuozzo wrote that the transitway would “ruin 34th Street from end to end.” 

The city and state demurred, eliminating the separated transitway and creating those partially dedicated, red-painted bus lanes instead. 

The city and state’s plans for select bus service connecting Staten Island to Brooklyn, once so ambitious they even included special elevated SBS stations along Hylan Boulevard’s central median, also raised hackles, with the Staten Island Advance warning that the “radical” plan would just make traffic worse for drivers. 

The M.T.A. and D.O.T. again acquiesced, making the SBS plan substantially more modest. 

Walter Hook, the C.E.O. of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, the one that ranked New York City's select bus service "not BRT," thinks that the transportation department, which was already embroiled in fights over bike lanes and pedestrian plazas, simply didn't want to take on another confict at the time.

"I think that they when the 34th Street bus rapid transit corridor came up, it was not a good moment for the department, because they were facing so much opposition, that I think at a certain point, they had to cut their losses," he said.

Those circumstances would have to change, whether under this administration or a future administration, as would the political calculation about how much criticism is worth bearing in the pursuit of rapid-bus infrastructure.

“You do want community buy-in,” said Giles. “But the question is, ‘Who is the community?’ Because the people who are loudest aren’t the only people you should be paying attention to.”

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.

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