The case for, and the problems with, Bus Rapid Transit

By · Published in 2013

The Pratt Center has proposed eight new BRT routes for New York City.

Every time a think tank or urban policy center starts in on a bus rapid transit kick, I sigh dejectedly. It’s not that bus rapid transit isn’t something we should have, but it’s just a tiring debate. The discussion in favor of BRT focuses on the wrong things, and the solutions have been so half-hearted. Real bus rapid transit — center-running dedicated lanes with platform-level boarding and signal prioritization — should be a gateway to higher capacity transit systems, but so far all we have is Select Bus Service.

The latest round of BRT dreams come to us from a familiar source. The Pratt Center for Community Development has released yet another policy book on bus rapid transit in New York City. They’ve identified eight likely corridors for BRT and a litany of reasons why these routes are ripe for real BRT — not just Select Bus Service — and how BRT is really not that bad for people who drive. In theory, the argument is there, but in a vacuum, BRT can’t stand on its own.

In the policy book [pdf], the Pratt Center argues for the eight routes you see in the map atop this post, and with a new mayor coming in who claims to want 20 more Select Bus Service routes, the BRT approach should take center stage. Here are a smattering of ways in which Pratt makes the case for BRT. If you’re underwhelmed, join the club.

  • “There is no realistic prospect of expanding the subway system to serve outlying neighborhoods…Cost aside, subway construction below New York City’s streets and buried infrastructure is difficult and disruptive, subject to unpredictable delays and cost escalation.
  • “By locating bus lanes offset from the curb, BRT preserves space for parking.”
  • “On most of the densely-built initial corridors, physical constraints were daunting, and pre-existing urban and economic activity were relatively high, reducing the increment of value that a more ambitious BRT model might have delivered. The political barriers have proven to be substantial, as evidenced in the resistance to what would have been a full-featured BRT corridor on 34th Street.”

I realize I’m cherry-picking key quotes and taking them somewhat out of context, but this has been a long-running theme of BRT advocates. We have to preserve free or below-market-rate curbside parking at any costs, and it may be tough to overcome political obstacles. We can’t build subways because of cost and temporary disruptions to the streetscape. Even though these eight corridors — SI’s North Shore rail right-of-way, some airport and interborough routes — are the right focus, this is a fight that doesn’t excite me.

In a distilled version of the report prepared for the Daily News Opinions pages, Judith Roden and Joan Byron make similar arguments. BRT can be transformative, they say, while subway construction is just too complicated. That’s true, and New York needs some intense focus on overcoming Community Board opposition to anything that restructures street space. Yet, BRT is a fractional substitute for subway service, and any successful BRT planning will require frequent service, a network of routes and a plan to move the transit system from wheels to rails.

There’s a map in the Pratt policy book that I think sums up the debate. This map on page 4 shows population growth in various census tracts over the last two decades. While many of those areas without ready access to transit have shown growth, the biggest spikes come in tracts that have direct subway service. The conclusion is right there for anyone to see: Real Bus Rapid Transit would be a great first step, but ultimately, we’ll need rail construction to grow neighborhoods and meet the demands of New York City in the 21st Century. Until we recognize that need and engage in serious conversations about construction techniques and controlling costs, buses will just a passing fad and an incremental improvement at best.

Categories : Buses

71 Responses to “The case for, and the problems with, Bus Rapid Transit”

  1. Henry says:

    I’m very confused by the Pratt Institute’s assertion that Main Street is suitable for full-fat BRT. The part of Main St that is the busiest in Flushing is only four lanes wide, and hosts a large amount of bus traffic already. The road cannot be widened due to its role as the main artery of a pedestrian-oriented business district, and is constrained by the existence of a railway overpass.

    The inclusion of a route via Jersey City is laughable, since the MTA has no jurisdiction in that area, there is no cross-Hudson capacity to spare, and the overwhelming majority of SI-Manhattan bus travel occurs over the Gowanus and Battery tunnels.

    Finally, does the Rockaways need two SBS routes and a train line? The peninsula barely supports the services it currently has, and the route via Guy R Brewer should terminate at Green Acres Mall or JFK, not the Rockaways.

    The reality is that for the majority of the city, full-fat BRT is not possible because of the lack of street space at existing transfer hubs. It is these slow segments that pick up the most riders and impact travel time the most; the Merrick SBS in Phase I was shelved because it would’ve saved more time to do general bus improvements in Jamaica than giving buses TSP and lanes on Merrick.

    • David Alexander says:

      and the route via Guy R Brewer should terminate at Green Acres Mall or JFK, not the Rockaways.

      FWIW, I’d amend your idea and have some type of bus route, even a regular route with no stops to placate NIMBY types, to connect the Rockaways with Green Acres Mall. It’s one of those things that bothered me when I realized that there was no easy way for my nephew to get from his home in Far Rockaway two buses with less than ideal service…

      • Eric says:

        Why? There’s already LIRR service between the Rockaways and near Green Acres Mall. Rationalize the schedule, fares, and fare collection system, and it will be not much inferior to a subway.

        • Henry says:

          Rationalizing fares is easier said than done; if you lower fares on the Far Rock branch, you have to lower fares on all of them, and the LIRR does not have enough capacity at least until ESA opens (and even that will only affect people on the PW and the southern branches, since the LIRR Third Track isn’t happening anymore)

    • Lady Feliz says:

      There’s already a NYC Transit bus from Staten Island to Bayonne (the S89); so much for the MTA not having “jurisdiction” in the area. With a new deck being installed on the Bayonne Bridge, it wouldn’t take much to make a BRT route possible. And saying that the “majority” of SI-Manhattan bus travel occurs via the Gowanus doesn’t exclude new routes via New Jersey. Many SI-Manhattan express buses ALREADY travel via the Goethals Bridge and NJ Turnpike/Holland Tunnel (again, so much for lack of jurisdiction).

      • Boris says:

        The better solution, then, is SBS to Bayonne or to the Journal Square Transit Center. No sense to force half-empty Staten Island buses into the congested Holland Tunnel.

        The BEST solution, of course, is to extend the HBLR over the Bayonne Bridge to Eltingville or Staten Island Mall.

      • Henry says:

        However, the S89 doesn’t involve either dedicated lanes, special infrastructure, or any of the other goodies we’ve come to associate with BRT. Throwing another DOT into the equation, especially when their area is going to suffer most of the drawbacks, is not a recipe for success.

        • Lady Feliz says:

          The area won’t suffer any drawbacks if residents of Bayonne and Jersey City have another option to get to Manhattan. BRT buses can actually pull over and pick up passengers anywhere along the line.

          • Bolwerk says:

            If there are any remotely coherent criterion for BRT, it’s this one: if they can just stop anywhere, it’s not BRT anymore. The whole point of BRT is having a fixed, predictable route.

            • Lady Feliz says:

              Yes, except that’s not what I said. The buses CAN STOP anywhere along the route, say every mile or so, just like BRT does now. Then residents of Bayonne and Jersey City will have yet another option to Manhattan. Get it?

              • Bolwerk says:

                But they can’t. They can stop where there is a designated stop, if that’s what you’re trying to say. In fact, they need to stop at every designated stop that has waiting passengers.

                • Henry says:

                  She’s saying that they can build stops in Jersey City and Bayonne. With the vehicles and comfort levels that MTA aims to provide in Staten Island (using coach buses with little standing room) I don’t think this is actually feasible.

              • Mike says:

                They can…in theory. Doesn’t mean they will and if they do, it defeats the purpose of having a faster bus service.

                Also, keep in mind that local transit agencies treat their service areas like their own personal fiefdoms. Any NYC transit SBS route coming from Staten Island that makes stops in Bayonne or Jersey City will more than likely stop only to discharge passengers in Bayonne or JC. Likewise if the bus is headed to SI, it will stop only to receive passengers in JC or Bayonne and only at major destinations. In other words, it will most likely not be yet another option to Manhattan for Bayonne or JC residents – at least not without consent from NJT.

          • Henry says:

            They suffer disproportionately, since the routes would be running in their already congested highways and tunnel (and not providing lanes in the tunnel would make the busway virtually ineffective given the state of the Hudson tunnels on a day-to-day basis)

    • Rob says:

      I had the same thought re the Rockaways. Except to ask whether the Rockaways needs two SBS routes and TWO train lines [in the case of Far Rkwy].

  2. Quirk says:

    This “BRT” is painfully (still) slow. Traffic is always a problem.

    What about individuals that dislike buses and use subways instead. Do they keep those people in mind. (Buses are for older folks btw)

    • Roxie says:

      I wouldn’t say they’re for old people so much as for when you have a) all the time in the world on your hands or b) no other choice (see also: eastern queens)

  3. David Alexander says:

    center-running dedicated lanes with platform-level boarding

    If you’re already dedicating segregated space for the buses, you might as well just build a streetcar line. Of course, if the MTA can continue to dump street maintenance costs to the DOT (versus track and catenary maintenance), then of course, there’s little incentive for the MTA to push for it.

    • Mike says:

      BRT is a Third World solution that has little place in the US. Even a fully separated RoW has severe capacity limitations, as proven in Los Angeles, that cripple its long term viability. Decades of evidence in Pittsburgh show that at best, BRT matches LRT without saving nearly as much money as promised. Worse, the penny wise, pound foolish approach to funding BRT often destroys former rail RoW. Hartford’s busway is perhaps the worst offender, using a portion of rail RoW that Amtrak intends to expand into.

      BRT in the US is very frequently a bait and switch, used to distract from the very serious need for rail investment. They’ll promise a subway-like experience on city streets, but as built it will be a colorful bendy bus using part time painted lanes.

      • Henry says:

        BRT is not necessarily a third world solution; in Australia, it is used to funnel suburban routes into the core via higher-speed trunk routes, and this would suit many American cities’ low density suburbs well, or at least better than highway-median rapid transit would.

        This is in fact the preferred purpose of rich-world BRT; use it to funnel lots of suburban routes onto a viable trunk route so that passengers don’t have to transfer in uncomfortable highway-like environments. Ottawa in North America intended to do this, but then half-assed their downtown segment and put it in mixed traffic (which is why they’re building LRT now). It certainly shouldn’t be used for regular bustitution of potential rail routes.

        The problem is that New York doesn’t actually have situations like this within the five boroughs, except maybe Staten Island. This, in my opinion, makes the Staten Island busways more acceptable than the rest; the fact that the North Shore busway would cost more to operate might be mitigated by the fact that Staten Island Railway doesn’t charge unless you’re heading to/from St. George.

    • Larry Littlefield says:

      A streetcar line would have much higher fixed costs, but lower variable costs. If BRT caused a land use change that increased ridership, it might be cost efficient to shift to light rail — if we don’t get hosed at $500 million a mile, or something.

      “BRT is a Third World solution that has little place in the US.”

      The third world is getting somewhat richer over the decades. The U.S. has had a current account deficit for 30-odd years. In terms of income, not spending, we are third world. Each generation since the first half of the baby boom has been worse off than the last, a few sectors where there have been investment (like IT) aside. Like the Municipal Art Society with regard to Penn Station, some folks are having trouble getting their heads around that.

      • Eric says:

        “we are third world.”

        Not in the labor cost for bus operators, which is the main thing that matters here.

      • Bolwerk says:

        This assumption that we will get hosed with rail and not with BRT is dubious at best. BRT is subject to most of the same political and economic forces surface rail would be. So far, SBS has been mainly about lane repainting, and even that has taken years at times.

        And I think you have the cost tradeoff kinda wrong. With LRT, we pay more upfront for higher capital costs now and less for labor costs in the long run. With BRT, we maybe save some out front capital costs (though this gets squishy when BRT starts demanding major improvements a la the North Shore), but build in higher labor costs forever because each BRT vehicle can carry only a fraction of the load even a short LRV train can.

        • Larry Littlefield says:

          “Build in higher labor costs forever because each BRT vehicle can carry only a fraction of the load even a short LRV train can.”

          You miss the point. If a corridor has enough traffic for one bus every 10 minutes but LRV can carry more people, what do you do to save money? Run one LRV every 30 minutes? Run one mostly empty LRV every 10 minutes, with the same labor costs as a bus plus the higher upfront and infrastructure costs?

          So you put in real BRT. And if it works, perhaps in a decade there is so much traffic you need one bus ever two minutes. Then you shift to LRV and save money.

          • Bolwerk says:

            No, that’s not the point. BRT isn’t being presented as the solution to low-frequency, empty bus routes (nor should it be). It’s being offered in lieu of subways and light rail.

            Of course, you’re right that the advocates for BRT refuse to make an incredibly important critical distinction: that BRT might make sense when ridership is low enough and when there is infrastructure to take over for buses relatively inexpensively. But proposing that LRT- or subway-ready routes just get BRT isn’t saving money. It just means making one set of improvements, and then having to do it all over again.

            Also, taking drivers off fare collection duty would help local bus routes a lot. That doesn’t mean many of those local routes are inadequate if they stay local buses.

            Run one LRV every 30 minutes?

            You know, this might be appropriate in some cases, depending on riders’ needs and travel patterns. It’s basically what off-peak commuter trains do.

            • Larry Littlefield says:

              Well BRT (or LRT) is no substitute for the Second Avenue Subway.

              But for Crosstown routes, such as those proposed above, it probably makes sense.

              Subways took the place of Els, which took the place of electric trolleys and steam railroads, which took the place of omnibuses and horsecars.

              • Bolwerk says:

                I don’t think they’re substitutes, and I don’t think this is a good idea, but maybe LRT could carry similar numbers of people to the SAS. The price would be slower, more expensive operations. Except for some overbuilt stations, SAS seems to be built at an appropriate scale. BRT can’t do that.

                I think it’s fair to say no mode neatly substitutes for another. Subways don’t replace surface transit, and surface transit doesn’t replace subways. BRT is predominantly surface transit, and its applicability is generally within the range of low-medium volumes and low-medium distance trips. BRT and LRT are the only ones sorta capable of segueing between the two, though LRT can do it better.

                There is a place for all modes, but for some reason a religion has sprung up around BRT.

                • Henry says:

                  In the great tradition of the New York City subway, the Second Avenue subway has overengineered provisions for future connections to the Bronx and Brooklyn.

                  I would argue against LRT for SAS, mostly because it probably wouldn’t provide adequate capacity relief (the full-length SAS will carry 560K riders a day), and it wouldn’t be extendable in the outer boroughs.

                  People who advocate for BRT at the expense of subway extensions neglect the fact that BRT will primarily still feed the subway, which is currently creaking from the lack of capacity in certain areas (Manhattan between 60th and Chambers and pretty much all the river crossings)

                  • Bolwerk says:

                    Making accommodations for future expansion isn’t overengineering. However, the deep boring followed by expensive station excavation is. SAS costs several times what it should.

          • Mike says:

            “If a corridor has enough traffic for one bus every 10 minutes but LRV can carry more people, what do you do to save money?”

            If traffic on the corridor isn’t going to justify a LRV with 15 minute headways, a dedicated busway probably isn’t going to be worth it either. But “brt features” like offboard payment, level boarding, and signal priority will make a big difference. The problem is, those are things that should just be part and parcel of modern bus transit, not some bait and switch alternative to serious rail transit.

            • Bolwerk says:

              Agreed. All buses should, at a minimum, have POP collection and signal preemption. Level boarding may not always be an option depending on geography.

      • Alon Levy says:

        And in some of those richer third world cities, including Curitiba, they’re considering replacing BRT with LRT.

        • Alon Levy says:

          Sorry, I misspoke: they’re considering building a subway, not light rail (link).

        • Bolwerk says:

          I misspoke too: I should have said, BRT in a way represents how we’re getting hosed. Inadequate, more expensive service is being used as a substitute for the right tool for the job.

          BRT acolytes really shouldn’t be given the benefit of the doubt with costs. The risk of abusing BRT capital improvements is roughly the same as the risk of abusing rail capital improvements.

        • Brandon says:

          Are they replacing BRT with rail, or are they replacing the highest ridership BRT lines with rail?

          • Alon Levy says:

            Right now they’re only planning one subway line. But bear in mind, this is a city that used to explicitly eschew any subway construction on the grounds that buses are cheaper.

  4. Uptowner says:

    Wait, so you’re for BRT, but also think it’s a “passing fad” providing only “incremental improvement”? Somehow I don’t believe that you are taking BRT seriously, or have seen its impacts.

    While I agree that construction costs are very high in NYC, no matter how much union-busting you do, digging a tunnel is always going to be hundreds of times more expensive than building an at-grade busway. The question then is, do you get hundreds of time better service as a result?

    • I get what BRT does. You need a robust network and the political will to create real infrastructure. It works great when everyone is willing to buy in, but even in areas where it works great, it faces real limitations and is being replaced by rail.

      The question then is, do you get hundreds of time better service as a result?

      Yes. You literally do. Compare the capacity of a full bus to a full train.

      • Jonathan says:

        Don’t just limit yourself to capacity. Consider also that trains offer a smoother ride, sheltered platforms for waiting passengers, and transfers without fare gates or cards. Plus unfolded strollers.

        • Henry says:

          The problem is that a lot of people conflate the advantages of rail with the advantages of grade separation and spending enough money. Modern systems, including the highest-capacity in the world Guangzhou open-BRT (as opposed to closed-BRT, which operates like a standard rail line) have sheltered platforms and level boarding, and sometimes even have cross-platform transfer and turnstiles.

          Rail offers better energy costs, faster acceleration, and better ride quality. Bus offers somewhat better capital cost (although this varies) and has a lot more flexibility. These are pretty much the only set-in-stone advantages.

          • Bolwerk says:

            Buses lose the capital expense advantage once it’s time to start making big capital investments (again, North Shore). Even if buses conceptually work as well under the circumstances, there is rarely any reason to prefer them when capital expenses are the same or greater than for rail.

            BTW, the flexibility meme needs to die too. Being able to manage an unpredictably heavy load, or travel at speed into tight spaces a bus wouldn’t fit into (e.g., a tunnel or alley) are forms of “flexibility” too.

            • Henry says:

              Buses can run just as tightly, if not more tightly than rail transit since they don’t have braking issues that are as severe. You just need the equipment available. Guided busways, although they’ve fallen out of vogue, are also able to manage tighter ROWs.

              The notion of flexibility I’m referring to is the one that actually matters the most to the customer, because customers hate nothing more than a transfer (and this is factored into nearly every transit study, since it is known that people will spend more time in a single vehicle than using a transfer.)

              • Bolwerk says:

                Buses can’t travel at speed with mere inches of clearance around the vehicle. And what braking issues does rail have and what does that have to do with clearance? If you mean buses can run “bumper to bumper,” I guess, but the price of that is a massive loss in speed no matter what the mode is. It’s undesirable, but not that hard for smaller rail vehicle either.

                Transfers are route limitations. Buses can’t leave their route to bring someone just a little further anymore than rail can.

                • Henry says:

                  Rail must operate at headways of 90 seconds so that the following train can brake in time and not hit a stalled “leader” train. Buses have significantly better braking performance and really only need to follow the “one-car length” rule. This was in reference to your assertion that it would be difficult to just “add another bus” at times of unpredictable loading, which ordinary bus lines manage to do just fine.

                  Buses can actually leave the busway to reduce transfers by using local streets; this is the model that the MTA proposes for North Shore service, and only requires onramps and offramps at appropriate locations, or even just an intersection. Rail can do this too; the TGV in France runs on “classic” lines at reduced speed to provide high-speed connections to locations unserved by high-speed rail. This particular rail model doesn’t scale down too well at the local level, however: unlike a bus, which can just use regular streets, you have to install rail on the branch corridors as well. This doesn’t mean that buses are serving whatever route they like willy-nilly; they can just be routed off the main trunk with less constraints than rail.

                  • Bolwerk says:

                    I didn’t assert that it’s difficult to add another bus.* I asserted it was difficult for buses to manage an unusually high load. Only heavy rail needs those types of headways, however, and this is more than made up for in added capacity. Regardless, a trolley or LRV could weigh similarly to a bus, and I even showed you a picture of them doing exactly what you describe.

                    I realize buses can be off-routed more easily, but that is one measure of flexibility. There are others that can’t be ignored. It’s preferable to not go off route.

                    * I will now though: an extra bus and extra driver need to be available under such circumstances. So it likely is difficult, and expensive.

                  • Alon Levy says:

                    Those onramps and offramps add significantly to cost. So does paving over intact rail ROWs, which is why the North Shore and Hartford rail ROW repaving for BRT costs within the normal range for light rail.

                    The braking distance for trains is on the order of 20 seconds. The reason trains are never this close together is the stations. (On intercity lines without stations the braking distance is longer and also traffic doesn’t justify moving-block signaling, so the fixed blocks add extra headway time.) For buses, if you want Transmilenio capacity levels, you need four lanes, so that buses can stop away from the mainline. So now you’re increasing the land needs.

      • Bolwerk says:

        I actually don’t see the need for a network of BRT for BRT to be useful. There are already bus and subway networks that it can feed, and be fed by.

        • Henry says:

          You don’t really need a network for BRT to be useful, since much of the support infrastructure already exists (depots, road lanes for access to routes, etc.)

          You do need a network for LRT (or at least it would be nice to have one), if only because it makes dealing with equipment shortages and route obstructions easier.

          • Bolwerk says:

            Yes, probably true. I don’t think having a network is a bad thing either, BTW, I was just saying it’s not strictly needed to address transit needs.

      • Uptowner says:

        I get the need for political will, but it seems that we’re pretty damn close to getting fairly wide-spread political buy-in for high-quality BRT AND the money to build it. Even with tons of political support for new subway lines, we are NOT close to getting the money to build any of them, and we can barely finish the new subway lines we’ve started.

        In addition, political will for subways is definitely not a given. SAS dragged on for many years due to various lawsuits by local residents who hated the idea of subway construction in their hood. The full-funded extension of the N Train to Laguardia was killed due to local opposition. The 7 train lost its 10th Ave station.

        Yes, building BRT is difficult to do well. I get that. But it CAN be done well, AND implemented quickly and cheaply. Subway will never be built quickly or cheaply. With federal spending on the decline, I don’t see a large-scale subway expansion being funded anytime soon. So if the goal is to move more people, more places, more efficiently, without waiting 50 years to do so, a large-scale network of high-quality BRT, complementing the subway, needs to be given serious consideration, and not downplayed as a “passing fad”.

        • Henry says:

          Saying that subway is expensive and will always be like that based on current conditions is like buying a penthouse on Park and 42nd and exclaiming that all property is expensive like that.

          Of course it’s expensive. It’s in the least well-documented borough when it comes to utility locations, has the most complex infrastructure, and required weaving around and buying the most expensive property market in the city. That doesn’t mean outer borough extensions will be just as expensive.

          • Uptowner says:

            I think that digging a tunnel or building an elevated structure in Staten Island or outer Queens will still be many many times more expensive than reconstructing a roadway. Do you disagree?

            • Henry says:

              As it turns out, many of these proposed routes would require some form of grade separation anyways. Take proposals to extend BRT through Flushing, Jamaica, and Rego Park. In all of these areas, there is severe congestion, the roads are narrow (even Woodhaven narrows in this area), and roads are not easily widened due to either physical obstructions such as railway bridges (Rego Park and Flushing) or the presence of a vibrant business district that would probably die if some of it was condemned for road widening.

              Ignoring these areas and just implementing BRT in the “easy” areas is pointless, since these short segments are where the majority of passengers will be embarking and disembarking from, and they weigh down average speed disporportionately. In fact, this is the exact reason why Merrick Blvd SBS was abandoned during the Phase I SBS implementation; it was discovered that simple traffic reconfiguration in Jamaica (shifting bus lanes and stops) would’ve had much more benefit than full-fat SBS treatment on all of the corridor outside of Jamaica.

              Considering the state of affairs at these transit hubs (which are some of the busiest in North America), some sort of grade separation has to occur for any meaningful benefits in travel time. Saying BRT would save any sort of money because it wouldn’t require grade separation is misleading; it wouldn’t really, but then it just wouldn’t be useful.

            • Alon Levy says:

              You said “hundreds of times more expensive” in your first comment. The cost of the North Shore bus repaving is maybe one fifth the cost of subway projects in denser areas than Staten Island in two North American cities (LA and Vancouver); in New York I don’t know because they haven’t bothered designing subways even on very well-ridden bus routes like Utica and Nostrand, but it should be less than SAS even with all the featherbedding.

              In the future, try to limit your exaggeration to at most one order of magnitude, not two.

        • Bolwerk says:

          In many cases, LRT can be implemented about as quickly and cheaply as BRT, and it does a better job moving lots of people under most circumstances. It’s not always the solution, but it’s pretty fucked up that it doesn’t at least get considered.

          And, not for nothing, but NYC builds BRT at about the rate some other places build subways.

          • Uptowner says:

            Comparing BRT construction prices in NYC to metro construction prices elsewhere isn’t that useful, since we’re talking about transit in NYC. Both BRT and light rail will both be much much cheaper and faster to build in NYC than subway. Any cost savings you can reach from better construction practices would surely benefit all transit projects in the area.

            LRT and BRT are similar in many ways, but BRT tends to have more route flexibility. I disagree that LRT does a better job of moving people, except if you’re looking at it in term of capacity per driver/operator, which I agree can be a very important factor in an expensive labor market, such as NYC. However, to get significant savings via LRT, you need to run longer trains, and short NYC blocks are often ill-suited to such a setup.

            Here’s a pretty nuanced discussion of BRT vs LRT:

            • Bolwerk says:

              Comparisons useful in that it tells you New York’s planning/construction process is unacceptably screwed up. Before planning mass construction of anything, that needs to be fixed.

              I get there are some areas where BRT and LRT overlap, but it should be pretty straightforward that larger, higher-volume routes call for it and that buses are fairly inadequate for that. Even that link you posted admits that. It’s not a problem that NYC is considering BRT, though these Pratt people seem to be doing it half-assedly, but it is a problem that it’s not considering LRT.

              Rail actually might start saving over buses at a pretty low frequency/capacity level. It’s not a reason to automatically railstitute everything, but it’s also fair to say that “route flexibility” better be very important before you start considering buses as an alternative.

  5. Jonathan says:

    It looks to me as if the proposal is intended more to spruce up autocentric districts along arterial roads than to get people from place to place.

    If the city wants to expand transportation access, let’s connect people to the subways so they have access all over the city.

  6. Bolwerk says:

    The phrase “real BRT” needs to go away. Years of memes and propaganda has convinced a lot of people that BRT is capable of doing things it’s not capable of doing (e.g., substituting for a subway line) and that rail is just too expensive (it’s not, if we control costs). Fifteen years ago in transit advocate circles, monorails filled the same role that BRT is filling now: a pie-in-the-sky cheap, reliable transit option.

    The gulf between SBS and “real BRT” is probably not very wide, and even then the center-running is only necessary if there is actual interference from other traffic. I can buy that on First Avenue. Things like light preemption would be much more useful to bettering bus service.

    And what the hell are they going after rail corridors for? North Shore could be built into light rail for about what it would cost to turn it into a BRT, maybe less, and we’d be better off it. If they want to do something courageous with buses, take lanes away from the BQE. Don’t steal transit assets from the future.

  7. Boris says:

    Pratt, like other BRT evangelists, set up a strawman argument where the only alternative to BRT is overpriced, deep-underground subway construction. Nothing could be further from the truth. Just by looking at the Pratt map, it’s clear that three of the proposed corridors can reuse either existing or new above-ground rail infrastructure: Staten Island North Shore, Staten Island to Bayonne (extend HBLR), and LGA-Woodhaven-Rockaway (Queensway or a new AirTrain). The other five corridors are wide enough to handle surface or above-ground rail as well.

    Also there’s the lie that BRT is cheaper. Up front, yes, but over the life of the service, definitely not.

  8. Mike says:

    Bus rapid transit is an improvement over regular local bus service. It is NOT a substitute for light rail and it is DEFINITELY not a substitute for subways. Pratt, of all places, should know that.

    And they should absolutely NOT be turning unused rail corridors into busways. Subway or (at least) light rail should go in those unused rail corridors.

    • Uptowner says:

      Who says they are a substitute for Subways? There are no active plans for subways on any of these routes, so these are simply proposed improvements to the transit network. Why the hostility to Pratt and BRT?

      • Henry says:

        At the local level, there has been grassroots advocacy for both North Shore and Woodhaven rail for years. Both have disused rail corridors (and Pratt would be paving over one of them), and Woodhaven has a pair of unused tunnel bellmouths rising aboveground to connect to its rail corridor, for Christ’s sake.

        My main problem is that BRT is being waved around like it’s the miracle cure when it doesn’t solve the underlying problems with our transit network, namely a sheer shortage of capacity. Despite all the fuss about how these connect job centers, these will still primarily function as subway feeders, and the subways are effectively full at the river crossings. But no one wants to talk about how the Queens Blvd Line is the second most congested trunk in the city and there’s a pair of East River tubes with 15 TPH of spare capacity just lying around; it’s not like a proposal for a bypass that’s been sitting around since 1968 would take advantage of this capacity in a transit-starved boroughs.

      • Bolwerk says:

        Pratt, presumably a legitimate source of thoughts about planning, says they are a substitute for subways, which is sort of what this blog post is about. And many StreetsBlog (article about the same Pratt topic) commenters have elevated BRT into a religion. Like many religious people, they probably don’t have to deal with the consequences of institutionalizing their beliefs. :-\

  9. Michael says:

    With practically every inch of NYC street space fought over, contested, congested, and with many competing interests, without a huge amount of funding to build mega-projects, and long time-tables for planning – it is truly a wonder at times that anything gets done, and that is also not criticized minutes after completion.

    Remember the push to create High Occupancy Lanes – on highways to speed the traffic, there were only supposed to be used by vehicles with several passengers – and how such requirements get reduced in practice to 1-2 riders. Even the push to create bike lanes, or the painted SBS bus lanes – every inch contested every step of the way, and still contested after completion. There’s even groups of folks trying to get all of these kinds of improvements taken away.

    Unless somebody somewhere has the multiple billions or trillions of dollars to create a connected network of exclusive two lane only-bus-used highways/by-ways/sky-ways throughout the NYC, that:

    a) does not unfairly impact neighborhoods like urban renewal,
    b) does not negatively affect the environment with pollution,
    c) does not get blocked by all the folks and their NIMBY concerns, d) does not get whittle-down by the various political folks trying to appease every interest group,
    e) does not skirt the places where the riders actually want to go,
    f) does not cost a huge premium for the riders to pay,
    g) does not increase to wild proportions the amount of debt that the public agency will have to pay for its construction,
    h) does create un-sightly or ugly structures that negatively impact the last remaining beautiful vistas that can be seen
    i) does not isolate minority communities from employment centers
    j) does not destroy or negatively impact historical or sensitive areas
    k) does not destroy one single parking space anywhere within the city limits
    l) does not in any way, shape or form to allow additional cars to use its passageways, because the last thing it seems that anybody wants to do is increase traffic
    m) does not stop in any way shape or form – bike riders from using the regular city streets in an effort to kill themselves by mixing in with regular car-truck-bus traffic
    n) does not stop in any way shape or form – bike riders, car drivers or truck drivers their God-given right to mow down pedestrians attempting to simply cross the street with the light
    o) does not provide a less time-consuming method to get around the city that some will wonder why this has not been done before
    p) does not increase traffic anywhere within the city limits, because increased traffic is bad
    q) does not impact the delivery of goods and services within the city, or the loading or unloading of those goods and services
    r) does not neglect the role of locally based community planning
    s) does not dis-respect the role of borough and city-wide planning
    t) does not increase our dependence upon locally derived fuels or or further promote the use fuels of from foreign sources
    u) does not impose limitations upon the elderly, handicapped or able-bodied individuals through the use of distantly spaced bus stations
    v) does not neglect the ability of riders to use electronic fare card or similar systems, while at the same time allowing in-frequent riders the ability to buy a ticket on the spot
    w) does not over-burden riders with complicated street maps or visual graphic pollution – information that is not clear, straight-forward, and common-sense, but also in multiple langauges
    x) does not require the use of a smart-phone, computer tablet or laptop computer to obtain schedules or travel direction information to navigate the system
    y) does not darken the city-streets over which the highways/bus-ways/skywayes exist – allowing sun-light, wind, cold, rain, snow and hot temperatures to reach city streets and residents
    z) does not cost the taxpayer one single dime in more taxes, because increased taxes is bad

    Unless of all the above conditions are met, then there is really not much to talk about – except for incremental, piece-meal solutions that will never approach the ideal wanted but un-obtain-able solution.


    • TOM says:

      Mike: That’s easy for you to say.

      Actually, I think Pratt should be channeling Robert Moses. When he needed clear access for trucks to and from his new Battery Tunnel in Brooklyn he took $10 million from the Bronx and widen 3rd Avenue to ten lanes. Nobody said boo.

      • JohnDMuller says:

        Well Robert Moses did seem to be able to get things done, or at least seem to be the person able to get things done. There are a whole lot of factors – political, economic, cultural, (mass) psychological, technical, etc. – needed to get things fired up enough to get big projects going all at once all over the place. Moses was certainly in the middle of one of those times when those factors were ripe. Quite likely someone else could have done comparable stuff, perhaps somewhat differently, but I think that the automobile was a big part of the underlying groundswell and that the roadbuilding part of Moses’ agenda, rather than requiring him to expend political capital, instead added to his political bank. Probably the roadbuilding exuberance spiraled out of control and that coupled with excessive urban renewal clearcutting, lead to the backlash that we are even now still suffering.

        As to when the stars will once again align for transit (which has had ifs own boom and bust cycles as well), who knows. Perhaps it’s like the stock market where it’s always darkest before the dawn. Like now, when it seems like there is way too much debt in the transit world, some new funding mechanism (take LA for example) could come along and light up a path to clear the debt and also underwrite some serious new capital expansions.

  10. LLQBTT says:

    Ya just gotta love the defeatist attitude settling in around here about building a new train line of any kind. No RBB..too disruptive to the poor homeowners who bought a home abutting a rail line thinking that they bought into a ‘forever wild’ space, or the ‘wrong kind’ would be attracted to a certain neighborhood. Forget subway construction because the MTA has shown us all how it’s not to be done.

  11. alain smithee says:

    At the risk of being an interloper, I think that dual mode vehicles like the ones that Japan Rail has developed are worth considering.

    These vehicles can use either road or rail, and they can be coupled together like existing subway or rail cars to increase passenger capacity.

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