The case for, and the problems with, Bus Rapid TransitBy
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.