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.