Link: The Atlantic Cities on the worst in urban trends


As part of their year-end wrap up, the good folks over at The Atlantic Cities published a piece I enjoyed called “Urban Trends We Hope Die in 2013.” On one level, these included topics near and dear to my heart: They urge cities to retain hybrid taxis, speak out against transit naming rights deals and call upon bikers, pedestrians and drivers to get along better. Other topics — including useless Olympics venues and and lax attitudes toward sexual harassment on public transit — I haven’t covered but deserve more attention.

The list is a thought-provoking look at the way urbanists, city planners and transit advocates spend their resources, and it speaks to the fetishization of certain aspects of city growth and livability. I would add two more to their list. I think rails-to-trails initiatives at the cost of rail lines that can and should be reactivated should die out, and I think the love affair with bus rapid transit (or, in New York’s case, the subpar Select Bus Service) could be back-burnered as well. I’ve spoken out against Queensway and feel that SBS accomplishes very little at an absurdly slow pace of adoption. Anyway, even without these trends, it’s a good read. [The Atlantic Cities]

36 Responses to “Link: The Atlantic Cities on the worst in urban trends”

  1. BBnet3000 says:

    I think the BRT obsession is counterproductive partly because a huge number of the BRT measures should be adopted by all bus service. SBS is pretty much an example of what all bus service in New York should be. Actual BRT can be quite useful as long as it is actually achieving what it sets out to do (ie, actually saving money in construction costs over a rail line, and being used where the extra capacity of rail isnt called for).

    • SEAN says:

      BRT has it’s place in the transit landscape, but it must be done correctly & IS NOT A SUBSTITUTE for rail.

      • Nathanael says:

        The acronym “BRT” universally means “system which cost more than a rail system and provided worse results”.

        I’m all for bus lanes and bus priority at traffic lights and so on — they have a lot of this in London, but *they don’t call it BRT*.

        • Bolwerk says:

          I seem to recall BRT in the USA was originally a Bush administration initiative to replace rail projects, perhaps based on the idea that when they fail they could just be highways. It’s certainly in line with the Bushies’ tactic of delibate failure (e.g., messing something up deliberately to prove a concept they don’t like was wrong to begin with).

          I’ve seen a few cases where BRT perhaps made sense, but they were usually extremes. Bogota might be hilly enough for rubber traction to be useful. Places like Ottawa contend with a lot of snow, though low-floor buses aren’t going to do much better than low-floor trams in this case

          • Alon Levy says:

            It’s much older than the Bush administration. Frank Turner, the FHWA head in the late 1960s and one of the people who built the Interstate system, promoted freeway bus lanes as a way to get more capacity out of roads. At the same time he also badmouthed rail and opposed the construction of the Washington Metro, which he viewed as inflexible, more expensive than buses, and, worst of all, a theft of what he saw as his gas tax money.

            • Bolwerk says:

              Yeah, of course it’s conceptually older. The Bushies definitely at least talked about shifting federal moneys to BRT, even if they didn’t put their money where their mouth is. It certainly came into vogue quickly afterward, in any case.

              (Didn’t I-66 – where the orange line runs – steal some of the ROW of the W&OD railroad?)

              • Alon Levy says:

                Not sure about I-66 specifically, but lots of expressways appropriated railroad ROWs with declining traffic. The Mass Pike went in the Boston and Albany ROW, reducing it from 4 to 2 tracks. And I-80 in Jersey cut the Boonton Branch.

                • Bolwerk says:

                  I only know a little about it because there is a really nice bike path along much of the old W&OD route. At least going by what the wikipedos say (bottom of this section), I-66 appropriated only a small segment. I actually use the orange line on work trips, so I’m familiar with some of the parts. I’ve also been to what was the terminus of the W&OD – richer people in Washington would take streetcars out here to escape heat and blacks – but the bike path doesn’t extend out that far.

                  Eh, well, only mentioned it because it makes Turner’s position seem hypocritical. If we want to be honest about transport, we’re all using stolen land anyway. :-O

    • Bolwerk says:

      Mostly agreed with this. BRT is mostly a masturbation fantasy for people who want to inflict subpar transit they wouldn’t use on everyone else.

      I think SBS makes a lot of sense, in a kinda backass way. Insofar as SBS has good features, they should be everywhere they can be. At least for the price of ticket machines of some sort on buses, they can be. Level boarding and articulated buses aren’t always possible, but often.

      • pea-jay says:

        If every bus line had the SBS features, more people might just use them. SBS might not be any great shakes compared to how BRT is implemented elsewhere but it’s still better than the ordinary bus service

        • Bolwerk says:

          The idea of spending hundreds of millions or billions to grade separate and then just using it for buses just seems so…wasteful.

          • pea-jay says:

            True, but giving as many bus lines as possible the following items:

            – Low floor buses
            – pre-payment and all door boarding
            – traffic light preemption
            – consolidating bus stops
            – bus arrival time
            – semi-dedicated lanes as possible

            and you’ll vastly improve bus service from where it is now.
            That shouldn’t cost billions to do.

            • Alon Levy says:

              I should add that in Rhode Island, they’re about to give six bus lines signal preemption at once, starting from Route 99, the state’s second busiest. This is a significant fraction of Providence’s bus ridership.

              The problem is political opposition. The state legislature passed signal preemption six times, and it got vetoed six times. It took a new governor for the state to finally pass the law.

              • Bolwerk says:

                That kind of political opposition is way less offensive than the kind that makes legislatures avoid acting at all. They obviously won’t be most of the time, but at least in theory someone can be held accountable for a veto at the polls.

            • Bolwerk says:

              Absolutely. All those things should be done, and most don’t need to take decades to do. The natural life of a bus is about 10-15 years anyway. It’s not like rail rolling stock that comfortably lasts decades, though the bus fapping crowd might regard that limitation as a feature.

  2. Someone says:

    I think they should get rid of BRT, since the MTA is obviously bad at it, and build some LRT.

  3. Andrew Smith says:

    I’m shocked that you’ve failed to address some of these issues more!

    What is the SAS position on yarn bombing?

  4. Vinny says:

    I’m down with OPP

  5. Yarn bombing.

    There are many things more terrible.

    • Nathanael says:

      I’m allergic to acrylic yarn, so I think dumping it out in public to degrade and go into the air is a bad idea. But probably nobody else cares about that. 🙂

  6. Ian W. says:

    I find the argument that BRT is a stepping-stone to LRT or rapid transit to be fairly tempting. It worked for Seattle’s urban core, didn’t it?

    It’s true that New York’s SBS is a pale facsimile of true BRT, and on the other side of the spectrum, Boston’s Silver Line is an overbuilt joke. But for New York, where it’s easy to recognize that corridors like Nostrand Ave need improving, if our pathetic excuse for a political system can’t see the merit in investing in LRT, then hopefully BRT can serve as a proof of concept to help convince them?

    Granted, as this blog has pointed out, it shouldn’t take 4 years just to prove the concept.

    • Bolwerk says:

      No. If we’re going to build grade-separated ROWs, they may as well be subways.

      I guess SBS could be a stepping stone to street LRT, though in practice it probably isn’t. The thing is, the SBS corridors should be LRT and the regular bus corridors should be SBS. 😐

    • Nathanael says:

      Seattle is the only known case of conversion of a busway to a railway. There will be one more example in Ottawa soon.

      In both cases it would have been cheaper to build the railway immediately. Busways need larger tunnels, wider overpasses, and more ventilation. And they cost more to operate.

      Busways are almost always a mistake. Painting bus *lanes* — repainting part of an existing road, rather than adding additional lanes — that’s worthwhile.

      But if you’re going to build huge heavy infrastructure, tunnels, bridges, etc., then it’s usually a waste to use it for buses rather than rail.

    • Alon Levy says:

      In Los Angeles, the opposite is the case: the Orange Line hit line capacity at a ridiculously low ridership level because of subpar signal priority, but railstituting it is not on the agenda. When I propose railstitution to the LA transit activists they tell me it’s too disruptive and it’s better to just keep extending the Orange Line deeper into the Valley suburbs.

      Nostrand should be a subway, honestly. So should Utica. There’s a lot of demand, on both corridors and parallel corridors like Flatbush, and in Brooklyn the IRT is not at capacity, so extra ridership from the south helps balance demand on both sides of the Manhattan core. Each of those three corridors has about the same bus ridership as 1st and 2nd, and there’s also good potential for mode shift from cars around Kings Plaza and Sheepshead Bay.

  7. marv says:

    Many bus corridors would work much better with the addition of but one or two grade separations in key places. An example is union turnpike in queens where both local and express buses get delayed for several minutes as they approach queens Blvd. These “pinch” locations not only make mass transit less desirable but also add labor costs as each run takes longer. Overpasses can also add to pedestrian safety. Let’s compile a list of locations where grade seperation should be considered. In some places it could be open to general traffic with or without extra lanes.

    • SEAN says:

      Lets see… Boston Road, Queens Boulevard, Metropolitan Avenue, Fordam Road/ Pelham Parkway, Main Street, should I continue?

    • Bolwerk says:

      What we should be considering is traffic calming for most of those places, not unsightly overpasses.

    • Alon Levy says:

      Bolwerk is right. Overpasses and grade separations are pedestrian-hostile. Much better to give buses signal priority and dedicated lanes.

      • marv says:

        Like all else, there are diffrent benefits and cost of over/under passes vs traffic claming/signal priority. In some locations signal priority is a good answer. In other locations the greater through put (in 1 or more directions) of grade seperation may be preferable.

        There is no one size fits all solution to local bus vs brt vs sbs vs lrt vs subway vs roads vs highways. Each location must be evaluated and the needs of diffrent stakeholders considered.

        We also must get past fixed ideas like elevated is bad and ugly – beautiful Disneyland prides itself on its sleek monorail. The elevated roadway arround Grand Central Terminal is a wonderful functional fit. The Tudor City overpass across 42nd street works well. There are for sure even more overpasses that can only qualify as urban blight.

        The goal is find optimal solutions.

    • Jonathan R. says:

      Or we can follow the example of the Bronx’s Grand Concourse. The north-south Concourse is provisioned with several grade-separated viaducts for busy east-west roads that cross it, like Tremont Ave, Burnside Ave, and 167th St. But crosstown buses (like the Bx 40/42, Bx36 and Bx35) avoid using the viaducts underneath the road and instead go along the surface in order to make stops at the corners. The Bx35 actually has stops on both sides of the Concourse in both directions.


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