Archive for Brooklyn

The Riders Alliance wants more bus countdown clocks installed throughout the city, but they carry a hefty price tag.

For bus riders in Brooklyn and Queens, “soon” now has a set date. BusTime — the MTA’s real-time bus tracking service — will go live for the city’s most populous boroughs on Sunday, March 9. Bus riders in those two boroughs will now know, via text message, smart phone apps or the the web where their buses are and how far away that next bus is. It will be a huge boost for riders long accustomed to spotty service and maddeningly inconsistent waits.

“MTA Bus Time is yet another way we are trying to improve service for our customers,” Carmen Bianco, President of MTA New York City Transit, said in a press release. “As we have seen with train arrival information in the subway, customers appreciate when they know when that train or bus will show up at the station or stop.”

With the addition of Brooklyn and Queens bus routes, including express bus service, the entire city will have access to bus tracking information, and the MTA has met its self-imposed deadline for bringing the service online. This last installation adds 9000 bus stops to the system as well. What it doesn’t include yet are countdown clocks — or, more accurately, station countdowns — at each station, and transit advocates hope to change that.

At a rally hosted by the Riders Alliance (of which I am a board member), bus riders and other transit advocates called upon politicians to help fund a NYCDOT initiative that would see digital countdown timers installed at key bus stations throughout the city. The timers — similar to the one atop this post — would be a big help to those who aren’t aware of BusTime or are not otherwise comfortable with the technology that makes the bus location information readily available.

“Countdown clocks have been a huge hit on subway platforms,” John Raskin, Executive Director of the Riders Alliance, said. “Now it’s time to bring them to bus stops. We have the technology and we have the interest from riders.”

What is missing from Raskin’s equation is, of course, money. A 2012 study by Brad Lander noted that countdown clocks at bus stops would cost around $4000-$6000 to install, but the solar-powered free-standing signs in place as part of the Staten Island pilot would cost up to $20,000 each. That’s a prohibitive cost and an insane one. Ridership doesn’t warrant installing one at every bus stop, but for key bus stations, these simple timers that countdown stops shouldn’t cost that much.

“The best way to get where I’m going is the bus. I try to time it using printed schedules but most of the time the bus doesn’t follow the schedule,” Thomasin Bentley, a Riders Alliance member, said. “I want to use the bus. It’s clean and affordable. Bus countdown clocks would allow me to make the most of an otherwise great system. The text messaging service is a good start but I find it difficult to understand, and I’m a real tech person. I can imagine that it’s hard for other people to figure out as well.”

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Earlier this week, State Assemblyman Paul Goldfeder’s office sent out what I thought was an oddly-phrased press release along with a letter the Queens representative sent to MTA head Tom Prendergast. In the letter, Goldfeder called upon the MTA to include Queens in its plans for BusTime.

“Waiting for a bus in Queens should not be a guessing game,” he said. “I applaud the MTA for using technology to better their services for customers and I strongly urge them to include all New Yorkers in their latest advances and implement the real-time bus locator app for Queens residents as soon as possible.”

What struck me as odd was the fact that the MTA had always said BusTime would be a city-wide effort and that the rest of the city would receive real-time bus tracking info by the middle of this year. Everything I had heard from MTA sources indicated that the rollout was on time, and I asked Goldfeder’s office if they had heard otherwise. His press rep clarified that Goldfeder “sent a letter to the Chairman to make sure the app does come to Queens and there’s no second thoughts.” An app without one borough would be no app indeed.

In response to Goldfeder’s inquiry, the MTA has stressed its commitment to Brooklyn and Queens. If you look closely enough at the MTA’s bus fleet — and know what to look for — you’ll see that the equipment for BusTime is already in place, and the MTA has said that it should be live soon. “We have completed boroughwide installations in Queens and Brooklyn and are currently fine-tuning software,” MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz said in response to various inquiries. “We are on schedule to go online in the next several weeks.”

So there you have it: Ask for an update, and ye shall receive. A citywide implementation of BusTime should do wonders for bus ridership and the overall convenience of New York’s otherwise unreliable local buses. If only now we could do something about the clunky fare payment system.

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Here’s a FASTRACK that’s, uh, near and dear to my heart. My own station will be closed each night this week as FASTRACK knocks out all local service between Atlantic Ave. and Franklin Ave. along the IRT in Brooklyn. From 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. for the next four nights, 2 and 4 trains will run express, skipping Bergen St., Grand Army Plaza and Eastern Parkway. The 3 train service into Brooklyn will end early each night while 4 trains will head to New Lots a little earlier than usual.

As FASTRACKs go, this one is a pretty easy one. The Q makes a stop at 7th Ave. that can serve much of the area, and the stops aren’t that far apart to make walking out of the question. Still, the MTA will run shuttle buses up and down Flatbush Ave. and Eastern Parkway to provide access to the shuttered local stops. Free shuttle buses operate between Atlantic Av-Barclays Ctr and Franklin Av making station stops at Bergen St, Grand Army Plaza, and Eastern Pkwy.

Meanwhile, Monday was a pretty busy day at MTA HQ as Metro-North and the LIRR reporting very high ridership figures for 2013, Transit announced an extension of the trash can-free station program, and Capital Construction ate humble pie over the East Side Access project. I’ll have more on each of those stories over the next few days.

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The B44 SBS makes one of its early runs along Nostrand Ave. (Photo: MTA / Patrick Cashin)

Monday was a momentous day for one corridor in Brooklyn. After years and years of planning, the B44 finally has some upgrades to make a Select Bus Service. This isn’t bus rapid transit for a variety of reasons, but it’s faster service than a local bus. For that, the politicians were out en masse for some back-slapping and ribbon-cutting.

It makes sense, of course, for Mayor Bloomberg to show up for another streetscape initiative. He only has a few more weeks of ceremonies to attend, and the 7 line, his signature transit initiative, won’t be in revenue service before he departs for Bermuda from City Hall. The city says travel will improve by 20 percent along the 9.3-mile route, and everyone else is thrilled.

Thomas Prendergast, MTA head, called it “a game-changer” for riders of one of Brooklyn’s more popular bus lines, and the Mayor spoke effusively as well. “Improved bus service in all five boroughs has been one of our principal goals under PlaNYC and thanks to our partnership with the MTA, we have increased ridership and improved travel times along our Select Bus Service routes,” Bloomberg said said. “We’ve had great success with Select Bus Service in other boroughs and Brooklyn’s first route will bring a new and necessary mass transit option to more New Yorkers.”

Janette Sadik-Khan had an even more myopic take. “With six routes launched in just six years, SBS has delivered low-cost transit options to underserved parts of the city faster than any transit project in generations,” the DOT Commissioner said. The emphasis was mine. Imagine that! Six whole bus routes in six years.

I’m not going to pass judgment on the B44 SBS route yet. I’m a supporter of better bus service, and I believe that bus service in New York is criminally overlooked. Buses stop every two blocks and inch through traffic at the speed of a snail. They don’t run frequently or on schedule, and they carry with them the burden of low expectations that they cannot even fulfill. I’ve heard some very early criticisms of the B44 route focusing around station spacing and subpar local service, but it’s been a day or two. We’ll revisit that when the time comes.

Instead, I’d like to look at what it is our politicians are so proud of. Why is there a ribbon-cutting for a nine-mile strip of colored pavement? The mayor’s own press release couldn’t name much more beyond bus bulbs, pre-board fare payment and improved customer information boards along the route. The MTA’s release mentioned signal prioritization, a long-planned benefit, but the lanes are physically separated. We’re patting ourselves on the back for just the sixth iteration of a glorified express bus service since 2007, and that’s what counts for transit innovation these days.

Nearly all of these improvements should, for the most part, be implemented in the course of normal MTA operation procedures throughout the city on any major bus route. Pre-board fare payment is the number one driver behind speeding up the buses. Just imagine how much faster the M86 would be if the Lexington Ave. crowds had to pay before boarding the bus. But here we are at the end of the Bloomberg administration, and a bunch of on-street MetroCards are the most exciting initiative DOT could find. Never mind the fact that it takes four years and countless consultations with community members who want nothing to do with street redesigns to get just one route off the ground.

I understand why the ribbon-cutting may be symbolically necessary in that it shows the community these changes are worthy and worth celebrating. It also allows politicians to get out there to discuss changes. But our sights are aimed too low. The city gave up on 34th St.; they gave up, temporarily, on 125th St. Now, leaders want kudos from incremental improvements. Pardon me for not being too impressed.

Categories : Brooklyn, Buses
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All of this took only five years of planning.

The MTA and New York City Department of Transportation are just thrilled with their latest initiative. For the first time, Brooklyn is getting a Select Bus Service route. The dedicated lane will provide faster service along the B44 corridor, and it will debut on November 17 after five years of planning. That’s right; it’s taken five years to paint some lanes, add some bus bulbs and eliminate some parking spaces. At this rate, city residents can expect to enjoy ones of new Select Bus Service routes before the decade is out.

In a release today, the MTA announced the start of this service along with the details. It was billed as a passing of the torch as agency contractors had to remove trolley tracks that had been buried for decades to pave them over with special SBS bus lanes. Before that, though, as the release proudly (?) proclaims, “New York City Transit and the New York City Department of Transportation have been working with bus customers, neighborhood residents, local merchants and elected officials for five years to bring SBS service to Brooklyn.”

We’ll come back to that five-year time frame in a few paragraphs. First, the operational details:

The B44 SBS will operate southbound from the Williamsburg Bridge on Lee Avenue and Nostrand Avenue all the way to Sheepshead Bay. Northbound SBS will operate on Nostrand Avenue and then via Flatbush, Rogers and Bedford Avenues to Williamsburg. The B44 local bus will continue to operate northbound on New York Avenue between Farragut Road and Fulton Street.

The B44 SBS will connect to nine different subway lines along its route: the J, M and Z at Marcy Avenue; the G at Bedford-Nostrand; the 3 at Nostrand Avenue; the A and C at Nostrand Avenue; and the 2 and 5 at Brooklyn College. The B44 SBS will introduce new three-door, articulated buses to Brooklyn. These high-capacity buses are all-low floor for easier and faster boarding. For customers who are mobility impaired, the buses feature quick-deploying ramps, rather than lifts.

The B44 SBS will feature bus lanes—in both directions—between Flushing Avenue and Flatbush Avenue, a total of nine miles. Generally, the bus lanes are one lane away from the curb, which allow deliveries and neighborhood parking to be retained at the curb. In this segment, every bus station will feature a bus bulb, which extends the sidewalk creating more space for pedestrians and bus customers…While bus bulbs are in use along SBS routes in Manhattan and the Bronx, this will be their first deployment in Brooklyn. As is the case with other SBS routes in the Bronx and Manhattan, B44 SBS will also feature off-board fare collection, which means that customers will pay at the bus station prior to boarding the bus. Every station will include machines to accept MetroCards and a machine to accept coin payment.

People who pay closer attention to the ins and outs of bus planning aren’t too excited by this route. The complaints range from the NIMBY (lost parking spaces) to the operational as there may be less frequent local service along a busy bus corridor. You can read Allan Rosen’s three-part series on the B44 SBS (1, 2, 3) and assess the technical details for yourself. I’m more concerned with this five-year timeframe.

It’s mind-boggling that it took five years for a low-rent version of bus rapid transit to move from concept to reality, and it’s crazy that the MTA is highlighting this timeframe in their press materials. Five years is longer than a presidential term; the amount of time that’s passed since the start of the Great Recession; half a decade. The results are a dedicated bus lane with pre-board fare payment options and some multi-hued pavement. Imagine if the end result were actually transformative.

This process has taken so long because DOT and the MTA have been forced to hold meetings with virtually every single person who lives along the B44. Time and time again, business owners, residents and Community Boards have to offer input every time the plans change. This is no way to build a transit network, and it’s something that needs to be addressed. The mayoral candidates all believe buses are our future, but buses aren’t anyone’s future if it takes five years to get one line’s worth of improvements rolled out.

Categories : Brooklyn, Buses
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A glimpse at the Red Hook streetcar alignment DOT rejected in 2011.

I took a long walk from Park Slope to Red Hook and back a few weekends ago. It’s a great stroll through a diverse group of Brooklyn neighborhoods and includes a some sights and some food. Along with the obligatory stops at El Olomega for papusas, Steve’s for key lime pie and Fairway for groceries, a number of restaurants, craft distilleries and unique shops line some of the route. It is not particularly transit accessible.

Red Hook residents know full well that the nearest subways aren’t particularly near. The F/G stop at Smith/9th Sts. is back open, but it’s a trek from all but the closest parts of the neighborhood. The B61 runs through the area, but residents have a love-hate relationship with the bus. It also, I noticed, stops more frequently than every other block along certain stretches of Van Brunt Street.

For decades, Red Hook residents have argued for, well, something. A streetcar has been the goal of certain advocates, but the fight for better options has been an uphill battle. The area isn’t zoned for much more residential development, and it now clearly suffers from the fear of a future storm. It’s next to impossible to get flood insurance, and many believe it’s just a matter of when and not if the next flood will arrive. There are pockets of gentrification, but the neighborhood may be reaching something of a peak.

Still, the fight goes on. At a recent City Planning forum, Red Hook residents gathered to discuss resiliency, and, as DNA Info’s Nikhita Venugopal reported, light rail was on the agenda. She writes:

A dedicated light-rail system through Red Hook would ease the neighborhood’s transportation hassles, locals said at a community meeting Tuesday night. About 30 residents, business owners and people who work in Red Hook discussed ways to improve the neighborhood’s network and bolster its resiliency to future storms, at a community meeting organized by the Department of City Planning.

Split into groups of five, people studied large-scale maps of the neighborhood, marking suggested bus routes, potential Citi Bike terminals and spots vulnerable to flooding. A streetcar system, which advocates have been fighting for since 1989, would give locals an easier way to travel through Red Hook and avoid the B61 bus, they said.

Streetcars are “efficient,” “cleaner” and “would increase business in Red Hook,” said Bill Appel, director of the Gowanus Canal Community Development Corporation. The light-rail line, which would run down Van Brunt Street, should accommodate the corridor’s two-lane car traffic and have a travel time of about eight minutes, locals said.

This isn’t the first time in post-Sandy New York that a potential light rail system for Red Hook has come up. Former deputy mayor Dan Doctoroff discussed the idea a few months ago at a city forum as a potential economic driver for the area, but such a move would have to come with a corresponding change in zoning to spur development. Various commercial entities in the area are keen to see better transportation options, and Bob Diamond, of course, hasn’t given up the fight. If anywhere is primed for an experiment in surface transit, it would be Red Hook.

Or would it? In a contested move two years ago, DOT already torpedoed a streetcar over costs. At the time, the agency estimated that building out the route, along with the infrastructure needed to support and maintain a new-to-New York transit option, would cost $176 million in capital funding and approximately $7 million a year in annual operating costs. Ridership projections anticipated under 2000 new riders per day. Outside of a few new bars and restaurants and one devastating hurricane, nothing has changed that would have a material impact on that analysis.

To realize a dream of light rail will require substantial buy-in from private developers and some changes to the condition on the ground. It’s not impossible, but in today’s transit investment climate, it isn’t — and probably shouldn’t be — a priority. That said, Red Hook needs better transit, and why not dream of a space for New York’s first experiment in light rail?

Categories : Brooklyn
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While browsing LTV Squad’s latest offering on a former subway station entrance, I came across another piece from the mysterious author known as Control. It is, at once, both the most obnoxious and the most compelling takedown of the Triboro RX line I’ve seen so far. While many transit advocates — myself included — are salivating over the idea of such a circumferential routing, Control throws a bunch of hot water over it.

So what are the challenges? The main issue surrounds the way some of the right of way is currently used. A considerable amount of products bound for New York rely on the heavy rail lines used for freight that the Triboro RX would commandeer for passenger rail. Control believes the prices of food and goods would skyrocket, and trash collection could become problematic as well. These are arguments that have been put forward by supporters of a trans-harbor freight rail tunnel who also wish to keep the ROW for freight rail.

The physical challenges too are tremendous. If the MTA can’t get an FRA waiver, the ROW isn’t wide enough to accommodate separate tracks for passenger rail and freight. I’m far less sympathetic to the fact that there has been some encroachment onto the right of way or that eminent domain would be necessary to complete the route, but we can’t ignore those challenges.

Ultimately, I think Control’s take is worth a read. His conclusion — “MOVE CLOSER TO WHERE YOU WORK” — is myopic and undermines his point, but ultimately, Triboro RX isn’t as easy as drawing some lines on a map and calling it a done deal. He writes that “the Triboro RX subway will never, ever happen,” and it’s probably better to pick easier battles.

Categories : Asides, Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens
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Four months after the Smith/9th Sts. station has reopened, the MTA is still fielding complaints about accessibility issues. (Photo: MTA New York City Transit / Marc A. Hermann)

As the MTA rehabilitated and renovated Smith/9th Sts. along the Culver Line in Brooklyn, the plans did not include accessibility. For the MTA to eschew adding elevators to a station undergoing full renovations is rare indeed. But Smith/9th wasn’t one of the 100 Key Stations, and the agency has secured some exemptions from full compliance in extenuating circumstances. While the MTA fielded complaints about this part of the project when the station reopened in April, the story hasn’t yet gone away, and it highlights an accessibility problem and the shortcomings of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

When the station reopened in April, the MTA addressed questions surrounding accessibility. In a statement, the agency said: “The design for ADA elevators at this station was structurally unwieldy and financially prohibitive due to the station’s layout.” An MTA spokesman explained to me that, as the station sits partially over the Gowanus Canal, is nearly 90 feet above street level and sees ridership of under 5000 per day, the MTA determined that elevators were cost-prohibitive, economically inefficient and nearly impossible at places.

It was — and still is — unclear how the MTA avoided legal requirements, but in the five years of planning and construction, the agency faced no lawsuits over the decision. That’s not definitive legal proof that the MTA complied with law, but it’s strong circumstantial evidence as disabilities advocates have not been shy in forcing the MTA to court to amend or revise projects that don’t comply with ADA requirements.

This weekend, State Senator Eric Adams took the MTA to task for the issues surrounding Smith/9th Sts. With an elderly rider standing near him, Adams expressed his displeasure with the project. “The Smith and 9th Street station is the highest station in our city, yet we don’t have an elevator after doing a state-of-the-art renovation,” he said.

Here’s the full story on Adams’ press conference:

Adams complained [that] the station has been left inaccessible to thousands of straphangers, and even fit riders are worn out after climbing all the stairs. The woman who joined Adams has been visiting from Israel, and has been unable to use the Smith-9th Street station because of the stairs, Adams said in a statement. He called on the MTA to implement a shuttle to the Church Avenue station, which is fully accessible and serves both the F and G lines.

“The free shuttle can be similar to what we have now, which is called the Access-a-Ride, but they have to pay for that,” Adams said. “And we don’t believe a handicapped or disabled person should have to pay an additional fare to gain access to the public transportation system that their tax dollars help build and maintain.”

Adams said with no options at the Smith-9th Street station and no easy transportation to another stop, the MTA is failing to serve the entire public. “Our public transportation system is supposed to be accessible to the entire public, and those who are part of the disabled population are included in having accessibility,” he said.

Adams’ idea to run a bus to Church Ave. seems unnecessary. There’s already a bus that runs from the Smith/9th area to Jay St./Metrotech, a fully accessible station, and unless ridership shows a clear need to get from the Carroll Gardens area out to Coney Island, the bus would just be an empty one. But the fact that Smith/9th Sts. isn’t an accessible station remains deeply problematic.

The MTA’s system on a whole represents a significant barrier to those with impaired mobility. Routes through accessible stations are circuitous and timely, and other issues — platform gaps, uneven boarding areas, unhelpful employees — abound. Meanwhile, the MTA sinks millions of dollars that could go toward accessibility improvements into Access-A-Ride because the ADA mandates such service without funding it. It’s one giant mess that no one is any closer to solving.

Categories : Brooklyn
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The Great R Train Montague Tube Shutdown of 2013-2014 kicks off later this weekend, but adventurous Bay Ridge and Sunset Park residents who don’t mind an exceedingly long walk will have an opportunity to take a boat instead. After agitating for solutions for those few R train riders who travel great distances, don’t switch to an express train and are bound for Lower Manhattan, politicians and the Riders Alliance celebrated a small victory yesterday when the city announced a new ferry stop, at least for a month.

As the Daily News reported, the Rockaway-Manhattan Ferry will make an extra stop near the Army Terminal at 58th St. near Brooklyn from August 5 through Labor Day. After that, if ridership warrants it and funds can be found, the service may be continued for a few more months of the 14-month R train shutdown.

While politicians celebrated the victory, the feelings were muted by the short timeframe. “We don’t feel that a month is enough time to gauge whether this is a viable alternative,” Justin Brannan, a spokesman for Councilman Vincent Gentile, said, trying really hard. “You have to give people time to know that it’s there before falling in love with the ferry,” Brannan said.

I have to wonder, as I often do, though, if this ferry is viable, necessary or both. Even though the ride is billed as a 15-minute one to Wall St., the ferry terminal is nearly a mile away from the nearest R train step, and the walk is hardly a scenic that snakes under the Gowanus Expressway. The vast majority of riders would be better served transferring to a 4th Ave. express and then to an IRT train at Atlantic Ave. The boat is a fine alternative for the few people who live close enough, but otherwise, those boats will serve as another reminder why ferries aren’t the answer.

Categories : Asides, Brooklyn
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Apparently, the L train today was as keen to get going on a Monday morning as the rest of New York often is, and BMT Canarsie riders were left stranded for a while as signal problems halted service underneath the East River. WNYC’s Jim O’Grady asked the MTA about the problems, and although the agency says it’s still investigation, O’Grady notes that signal problems are a hallmark of post-Sandy damage. Floodwaters sat in the L train’s tunnel for 11 days after the storm, and it’s expected that the MTA will have to do some major repair work on that tube in the future.

While an outage of that magnitude is significant and annoying, through high-volume area,s the L is never too far away from the J and Z trains, but from some accounts, many regular L train riders have no idea what to do when their train stops running. My friend Caryn Rose penned a humorous and on-point piece on living in New York, and her takeaway is an obvious one: Know your alternate routes.

Rose, a Greenpoint resident, heard many of her fellow travelers stranded this morning decrying the bus. They didn’t know where the bus went or which one to take. It’s both shocking and not, but anyone who wants to be mobile should know the bus system at least in a home neighborhood. As Rose wrote, “You live here. Not knowing how to ride the buses isn’t a badge of honor, it’s a badge of STUPIDITY. Not knowing your part of town is foolish. Not being able to navigate public transit in your immediate area is short sighted.”

Categories : Asides, Brooklyn
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