Home Buses Building a better bus rapid transit network

Building a better bus rapid transit network

by Benjamin Kabak

For the East Side, this Sunday marks a seemingly momentous occasion for that is the day that Select Bus Service along 1st and 2nd Avenues debuts. Unfortunately, this iteration of a bus rapid transit service leaves me wanting more, and a city looking to improve its interconnectedness needs more.

The details for the new service make it sound better than it is. With longer buses, dedicated lanes and pre-boarding fare payment, more riders can fit comfortably onto buses that should move faster, and passengers won’t have to wait for the painfully slow process of the MetroCard dip that current local buses employ. Cameras will be deployed to enforce the bus lanes, but these are changes that could have been introduced to buses long ago.

The real problem with the new Select Bus Service though is the routing. As the MTA’s SBS M15 website explains: “The new M15 Select Bus Service replaces the M15 Limited. Most bus stops for the new M15 Select Bus Service are the same as the former M15 Limited, but some stops have changed.” In other words, the M15 Select Bus Service is nothing more than a limited bus on steroids.

For Select Bus Service to work, it must transcend previously existing bus routes. It has to take people from areas that are underserved by current transit modalities and improve commute times and connectedness. I can take an express bus up and down the East Side, and I can walk to Lexington Ave. and take an express subway as well. While truly dedicated bus lanes are an initiative that should be applauded, Select Bus Service that simply covers preexisting ground is a half-victory. The service in the Bronx that connects passengers with subway lines via Fordham Road is better, but it too is lacking in interconnectedness.

Enter the Pratt Center. To coincide with the debut of Select Bus Service in Manhattan, the Pratt Center for Community Development released its Transportation Equity Atlas. This new study highlights mobility and transit access across neighborhoods and key work centers throughout the city. “We found,” the Center said, “great disparities in transportation access between higher-income, professional workers and low-wage manual and service workers. High housing costs mean that most low-wage workers live in areas outside the city’s subway-rich core. Those workers also must travel to work sites dispersed widely around the city and region. This leaves the lowest-paid workers with the longest commutes to work, and limits the geographic range of job opportunities for residents of high-unemployment communities.”

By highlighting commuter patterns from 13 low-to-moderate income neighborhoods and 10 job clusters outside of Manhattan, the Atlas shows how hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers are slowed by the lack of interconnectedness. Take, for example, those who live in Bay Ridge but work at JFK Airport. Since the Triborough RX subway route remains but a dream, to travel that route via transit involves some combination of bus and subway trips that can take up to an hour. Many people live close enough to the airport to take local buses, and these commuting patterns suggest, says the study, “the potential for improved bus service to open up access to employment opportunities in northeast Brooklyn and Southeast Queens.”

The Pratt Center’s work on this atlas is a part of its larger work on the COMMUTE project. Communities United for Transportation Equity is a coalition of community groups fighting for better bus service. As part of that effort, they have put forward their own version for Select Bus Service in the region. I’ve included the map below, but for more detail, check out this PDF file.

What makes the COMMUTE proposal better is the way it improves interconnectedness. The NYCDOT/MTA Select Bus Service plan, COMMUTE’s crosses borough borders and delivers workers from their homes to employment centers outside of Manhattan. While it makes sense historically for the New York City subway system to be so Manhattan-centric, the Select Bus Service routing shouldn’t suffer from the same problem. COMMUTE’s proposal combines various express and local bus routes and some parts of the Triborough RX routing to take people where they need to go. In that important sense, it is a better solution to the city’s bus problems.

For now, though, the city has to start somewhere, and the East Side will be that starting point. For many New Yorkers, Fordham Road is too remote a location to conceptualize true bus rapid transit, but routing along the East Side will bring it home. SBS can be a model for a true express service in New York City while COMMUTE’s bus proposal should become the city’s model for a real bus rapid transit network. Under that proposal, the people who need the service the most would benefit from improved access to transit routes that actually matter.

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smartone October 8, 2010 - 8:07 am

If you really want to have an express bus service on first avenue , you need to move the bus lane into the middle lane of the avenue that is separated by the other lanes with pylons or concert – the current “express bus lane” shares the lane with delivery trucks and worse cars that are making right turns.

Dan Lewis October 8, 2010 - 8:22 am

I was very bullish on M15 SBS service, but now I’m a bear.

I take the M15 most mornings from the UES to 42nd Street and have been for about a month. Previously, I had been taking the Lexington Avenue lines.

Service on the M15 is terrible. There are too few buses and they constantly run late. This leads to a lot of local bus riders (ostensibly me, as I’d typically go to 46th) walking to Limited bus stops and just taking the first bus that comes. There’s also a lot of bus bunching, where two (or more!) buses arrive at the same stop at the same time. In fact, this is so common, that I’ve seen three buses at a stop more often than one at the stop.

Limited stops are now going to have two different payment systems, one for SBS and one for local buses. That’s going to lead to all sorts of confusion, especially when a lot of riders are agnostic as to which bus they get on.

SBS and locals also share the same lane. So that SBS lane is going to get clogged.

And when you have a huge line of people getting onto two buses, having some back doors which are entrances and others which aren’t is going to be a mess.

At least, that’s my guess.

Benjamin Kabak October 8, 2010 - 11:04 am

The bus bulbs, which won’t come until later next year, should help with the lane-clogging issues, but you do hit upon points I didn’t make in this post. That there’s only one bus lane per avenue isn’t going to help speed up traffic, and I still maintain that this implementation is just a better limited bus service instead of true bus rapid transit.

John October 8, 2010 - 11:05 am

Bunching of buses on Second Avenue especially has been a problem at least since the east side els came down (my personal all-time record count of bunched buses was 17 within a roughly 8-10 block area around 23rd Street one time, after no buses at all for at least the previous 10-15 minutes).

Under those situations, what you end up with is bus ‘leap frog’ with the back buses that run virtually empty catching up to and then passing the jammed buses at the front — good if you’re going, say, from 14th Street to South Ferry and one of those empty buses is now in the lead after the long trip down Second Avenue. Not-so-hot if you’re actually on one of those jammed buses going downtown after waiting a long time on a cold or rainy day and then watch 2-3 other buses shoot ahead of you.

That’s the problem the SBS is going to have to deal with if it’s going to be successful — if people are paying in advance for SBS, they’re going to expect it to be like the subway express trains; first to depart, first to arrive. If you start seeing ‘SBS Leap Frog’ on First and Second Avenues, or worse, if the empty regular bus at the back of a bunch starts moving up and then staying with the SBS buses because it’s picked up almost no passengers on the first half of its run, you’re not going to make the riders on the express buses very happy.

Ed October 8, 2010 - 11:13 am

I intend to take SBS to work for awhile, but I have to admit that I view it as “M15 Limited -and this time we mean it!” At least that is how I explained it to my coworkers.

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Alon Levy October 8, 2010 - 1:51 pm

I think the Pratt map has some overly long bus routes, and conflates BRT infrastructure with which routes buses could take. But as a map of infrastructure it’s almost perfect (main problem: too few routes in Queens), and I hope to see it replace the city’s laconic, business class-centric SBS map as the future guide to dedicated bus lanes.

BrooklynBus October 8, 2010 - 6:52 pm

The problem is that the MTA shows no interest in improving connectivity between neighborhoods. The Pratt Center Study requires additional service. The MTA is only interested in providing less service. (Service can be greatly improved just by rerouting local routes without SBS.) It’s that simple and that is what needs to change.

The purpose of SBS is to reduce operating costs. It is not to improve service. Limited stops will now be further apart which means people will have to walk further to bus stops. For many the time saved in travel will be lost in additional walking. I also question the wisdom of SBS stops located on different blocks from local buses. That means someone who is not particular about which bus to take and only wants to take the first bus that comes does not have the benefit of combined headways or must run from one stop to the other if he sees a bus coming, increasing the likelihood of him having an accident if he is not paying attention.

The three-doors however should help a lot in speeding the buses.

Harold October 9, 2010 - 12:33 pm

There is still no way to get from Brooklyn to Queens. This sucks.

JK October 19, 2010 - 4:54 pm

Watch the bunches of SBS busses pass you by, sometimes between 3 – 8 buses, before your local bus arrives

Eric October 24, 2010 - 11:39 pm

SBS sucks. Stuck in Chinatown and no bus.25 minutes past schedule and give up to move to the regular M15 stop. Of course SBS comes along but won’t open for me at red light. Driver directs me stop half block away, I run, he slows down and then pulls away just as I reach stop. Sweet SBS.


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