As cocky as New Yorkers are, this exceptionalism sometimes leaves us missing out on good ideas implemented elsewhere, especially in the transit planning space. There is this tendency to think that just because something works elsewhere doesn’t mean it will work in New York, and opponents or skeptics find ways to argue around importing good ideas proven to be efficient because New York City is somehow different than Paris, London or countless other places that aren’t New York. Exploiting buses is just one area where we lag.
Lately, in fits and starts, at the pace of, well, a local bus inching its way up 3rd Ave at rush hour, the city has tried to overhaul the bus routes. In January 2008, the MTA and NYC DOT introduced Select Bus Service, a glorified express bus with pre-board fare payment and half-hearted lane enforcement. At some point, signal prioritization will arrive as well. Over eight years later, we have a grand total of eight SBS routes, and a mayor who promised to bring 20 more online in five years. It has essentially taken as long to build 79 percent of the Second Ave. Subway has it has to offer marginal upgrades on a handful of bus routes, but I digress. So far, Bill de Blasio’s administration has introduced zero SBS routes, but that’s about to change.
Last week, DOT finally unveiled their preferred design for the long-awaited Woodhaven Boulevard Select Bus Service/Bus Rapid Transit line. Call you what you want, but at parts, it’s definitely a step in the right direction. As the designs show [pdf], the city is finally thinking about something closer to physically-separated, center-running lanes, and they believe the design plans could improve bus travel times by 25-30 percent. For a congested corridor that has some of the highest bus ridership in the city, an improvement of this magnitude could benefit tens of thousands of people per day.
If you’d like to read more about the design, head on over to Streetsblog where Stephen Miller summarized the proposals in two posts last week. I’d like to discuss the messaging from city leaders instead. Along with the plans, DOT released a lengthy press release with the requisite back-slapping and sufficient amounts of New York exceptionalism.
They key word was “ambitious.” This, said Mayor de Blasio, “is the kind of ambitious overhaul New York City’s bus riders deserve.” Polly Trottenberg called it “an innovative design for Bus Rapid Transit” and summarized the proposal as “the biggest, boldest, and most ambitious design concept the City has attempted for Select Bus Service.” Senator Schumer called the plan “innovative” and “exciting.” (Meanwhile, State Senator Joe Addabbo Jr. had a windshield freakout over it, but whatever.)
Perhaps the Woodhaven Boulevard design is all of these things. It’s something the riders deserve, and it’s a first-of-its-kind-in-New York City proposal, but let’s not kid ourselves that this is somehow ambitious for anywhere other than right here in our backyards. It’s involves tried and true technologies and features that are in place in real Bus Rapid Transit networks throughout the world, and to make matters worse, DOT is still planning on hosting “block by block design workshops” which will do wonders for a speedy rollout of this $200 million project.
Ultimately — and I say this lovingly because I care — New York City is going to have to get over itself if it wants to get anywhere with transit planning. Our rollout rate for SBS lines shouldn’t be barely pushing one per year, and we shouldn’t be head-over-heels impressed with ourselves when someone finally has the political guts and gumption to propose elements of real BRT through a wide street in Queens. We have a capacity crisis, and it’s going to take leadership to solve it. Praising a plan that’s barely ambitious as though it’s the most innovative idea to come out of DOT in a decade has me more than a little worried for the future.