The buses, said Streetsblog editor Aaron Naparstek at a bus rapid transit event on Wednesday, are New York’s “least sexy mode of transportation.”
It’s hard to debate Aaron on that point. He is a man who will battle passionately for the role of buses in urban life. In New York in 2009, though, that is a losing battle. While 70 percent of the city commutes via mass transit, just 10 percent of those riders use the buses. New York, says Naparstek, has the largest bus system in the country but also the slowest. The inefficient operation of the bus systems and the vehicle’s slow speeds serve to discourage use.
Enter Bus Rapid Transit.
The idea is simple. Give buses their own dedicated lanes with priority traffic signals. Make customers pre-board as they do on subways and institute some rather simple measures — ground-level boarding, multiple doors, frequent buses — and voila, for $2.1 billion, the cost of the 7 line extension, a city could implement 200 miles of bus rapid transit routes.
On Wednesday, Naparstek gathered three transit experts — Joan Byron of the Pratt Center for Community Development and co-founder of COMMUTE; Gene Russianoff, staff attorney for the NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign; and Bruce Schaller, Deputy Commissioner for Planning and Sustainability at the New York City Department of Transportation — to talk about bus rapid transit. The meat of the event belonged to Naparstek and Schaller as the former talked up BRT and the latter unveiled New York’s ambitious plans for the program.
Following a film on Colombia’s Transmilenario bus system and Los Angeles’ bus rapid transit pilot, Schaller took the stage to discuss the city’s plans. The Select Bus Service in the Bronx has been a hit despite Albany’s denial of traffic camera enforcement measures, and the city will soon implement BRT service along 1st and 2nd Aves. Pilot programs are in the works for Nostrand Ave. (2011) and 5th and Madison Aves. as well.
The true gem though are the plans for 34th St. The city will turn 34th St. into a modified one-way street — east-bound on the East Side and west-bound on the West Side — with two-way dedicated bus lanes running the length of the island.
Eventually, says Schaller, the city will expand into all boroughs among many arteries, and cost is no problem. “It pretty much pays for itself,” Schaller said.
While Wednesday’s event made me pine for a bus-covered city, shades of the real debate kept creeping into the presentation. Should the city — and the MTA — be paying billions of dollars for new subway lines or should they take that money and invest it into a BRT network that can truly reach areas underserved by mass transit while uniting the boroughs? Naparstek, Pratt and Schaller seemed to think so, but experts disagree. I waffle on the issue whenever I think about it.
Proponents point to the cost and traffic-reducing consequences. Add BRT lanes, and the cars have nowhere to go but off the roads. Suddenly, buses can go fast — up to 55 mphs in Los Angeles, for example — and routes can cover the traditional north-south avenues in Manhattan but also interborough routes that could quickly connect disparate parts of Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx.
But opponents will say that buses can’t move nearly as many people as subways. They are subject to the whims of traffic and traffic lights. Opponents also point the benefits of light rail over buses as far as surface transit goes.
No matter the outcome though, the debate is alive and well. The Department of Transportation is moving forward with bus rapid transit just as the MTA will build the Second Ave. Subway and 7 line extension until the projects are out of money. The city will be better off for both of them, but questions will always remain about the costs.
As a coda to the evening, I had to hightail it from the Museum of the City of New York on 103rd and 5th Ave. to another event on 53rd and 6th Ave. I caught the M4 right on 5th Ave., and fifteen minutes later, I found myself deposited at 50 blocks south. It was a trip fast enough to make me believe the gods of the buses, those unsexy buses, were smiling me on.