In an alternate universe where New York City politicians and planners aren’t afraid to take risks, yesterday was a big day for the M86. In this alternate universe, after a short planning process, Transit’s second busiest crosstown route, averaging 24,000 weekday riders, saw massive upgrades as the city opted to close Central Park’s 86th transverse to cars during peak hours, install a signal prioritization system from river to river, ensure bus bulbs and dedicated lanes were in place and generally treat the M86 as worth being a crosstown route over 30 blocks north of the nearest cross-Manhattan subway line.
That’s not what happened. Instead, as part of the Mayor’s promise to call 20 routes “Select Bus Service” by some indeterminate time that was originally supposed to be the end of 2017, a bunch of politicians gathered on the West Side to celebrate the launch of the M86 SBS. After eight years of talking about it, the M86 got a pre-board fare system, multi-door boarding, a few queue jump lanes that are already drawing NIMBY complaints, those weirdly unappealing new forward signs that replaced the hallmark SBS flashing blue lights, and the promise of some bus bulbs.
As part of the upgrades, every politician representing both the Upper East and Upper West Sides sent out a statement of support as though these upgrades are worth multiple rounds of back-slapping. In a moment of utter hilarity considering its taking nearly a decade to get here and the bus route was still late by a few weeks, State Senator Adriano Espaillat thanked NYC DOT for “quickly completing this project” while Jim Clynes, chair of Manhattan’s CB 8, noted that M86 SBS will have “a subway feel.” That everyone felt the need to gather in the first place is telling.
What DOT and the MTA did with the M86 will represent massive improvements in travel time for crosstown bus riders. Dwell times — especially at key locations where the M86 intersects busy subway lines at Central Park West and Lexington Ave. — represented the single biggest challenge to speedy crosstown operations, and if the city isn’t willing to give buses dedicated road space during commuting peak hours, pre-board fare payment and multi-entrance boarding are low-hanging fruit that pay key dividends for those 24,000 daily riders.
But these improvements are run-of-the-mill upgrades that are viewed as best practices for local buses the world over. The MTA didn’t eliminate any M86 stops; the bus still makes two stops on the same block of 86th St. between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues. DOT didn’t reallocate street space except for some limited queue jump lanes that allow buses to get a hard start at red lights. So why the press conference?
When I posed this question earlier in the day, a few of my Twitter followers suggested, perhaps cynically but also accurately, that these improvements wouldn’t happen at all if politicians don’t have the opportunity to grab camera space while trumpeting them. Sadly, this is true, but on the flip side, I wondered if these improvements wouldn’t be treated as revolutionary if 15 politicians didn’t insist on showing up to press conferences or sending out statements every time the MTA and DOT implement on one bus line what other countries consider to be system-wide best practices. Every crosstown bus should feature a proof of payment that allows for multi-door boarding, and such a system should be implemented as soon as the fare payment kiosks are installed, not eight years after the first Community Board presentations.
Until we as a city and our politicians as our city leaders get over the need to have a press conference about something as mundane as a new fare payment system on one bus line and a few queue-jump lanes, we are doomed to watch our transit system die from a lack of Great Ideas and the will to implement them. Politicians should be asking “what took so long?” and “how soon can we get these improvements rolled out on the M79, M96 and M106?” rather than falling over themselves to congratulate the M86 for catching up with most of London’s regular bus service. Don’t slap a fancy name on these ops upgrades. Aim higher. Be better.