Archive for Buses
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.
Since the MTA and New York City’s DOT debuted Select Bus Service in 2008, I haven’t been particularly impressed by the program or the rollout. Heralded as the next best thing in buses for New York City, it’s barely BRT-lite, and it’s taken nearly a decade for the city and MTA to identify and plan only a handful of best-practices improvements to local bus routes. If anything, adding bus lanes that aren’t physically separated with only the bare minimum of lane enforcement along with pre-boarding fare payment (and fare checks that, at the start, slowed down service) should be standard on nearly all local bus routes. That we’re still waiting on something as basic as signal prioritization is telling.
Meanwhile, while most countries with real bus infrastructure would view these upgrades as laughably modest, in New York City, they become somehow controversial. Take a lane away for parked cars or moving personal automobiles? You may be better off invading a small country. Suggest camera lane enforcement? Add flashing lights to a bus to distinguish service? Beware the wrath of know-nothing State Senators. (The MTA has finally introduced new destination signs that flash the words “+SELECT BUS” in amber on a blue background as subpar replacements for the blue lights. More on those soon.)
And yet, despite my skepticism, these SBS upgrades are real, if incremental, improvements, and if implemented properly, they ideally will help bolster ridership on city buses while cutting down on travel times. Thus, we as a city should embrace bus infrastructure and treat it as we would something positive. You try telling that to whoever’s responsible for this mess:
Select Bus Service stop in the greatest city on Earth. pic.twitter.com/l3bcJ9YEq8
— Brooklyn Spoke (@BrooklynSpoke) July 7, 2015
As you can see, Doug Gordon spotted this during his bike ride home on Tuesday. The SBS M15 stop near the Bowery Whole Foods is completed inundated with someone’s garbage bags and one of the fare payment machines is inaccessible as well. After some questioning, Whole Foods said to me that those bags weren’t theirs and instead belonged to the residential building above the store. I haven’t been able to reach the building yet, but Gordon tells me this is far from an isolated incident. It’s no way to treat a bus stop, let alone one that’s supposed to be a key stop on a flagship Select Bus Service line.
But that’s not the only way Select Bus Service is under attack. In a Gotham Gazette piece that follows months of anti-Select Bus Service writings, Allan Rosen, a former MTA planner and long-time reader and commenter on this site, claimed that the Woodhaven BRT plan could jeopardize the Second Ave. Subway. His rationale is that since the second phase of the Second Ave. Subway, estimated at around $4.5-$5 billion will compete with the $230 million BRT for New Starts funding, federally funded BRT could foreclose federal funds for the Second Ave. Subway.
This, of course, isn’t how the New Starts program works. The feds end up contributing money to nearly all projects deemed worthy, and they have, over the years, held up the Second Ave. Subway as the gold standard for worthiness based upon projected ridership. Meanwhile, the scale is off as Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway is far, far more likely to be delayed by inaction from Albany than by an alleged fight over a few hundred million dollars.
If we dig into the history of Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway, we see diverse funding sources. Of the approximately $4.86 billion the feds say Phase 1 will cost, $1.3 billion comes New Starts and around $50 million originates out of other federal programs. The remainder breaks down as follows: $450 million from the 2005 State Transportation Bond Act and over $3 billion from MTA dedicated sources and PAYGO operating funds. The New Starts money that could go to either SAS Phase 2 or Woodhaven BRT is a drop in the bucket, and it certainly isn’t the bus upgrade’s fault that a northward extension of the Second Ave. Subway may be delayed.
It’s ultimately an indictment of New York City’s willingness to mimic that buses and bus upgrades can come under attack from all corners. We live in a very dense city that relies on its transit network, and yet simple improvements take years to introduce and engender unnecessarily emotional debates over priorities and street space. If New Yorkers are serious about transit upgrades, it’s time to take the buses — BRT, Select Bus Service, whatever you want to call it — seriously. That starts with taking care of bus stops and continues with honest discussions over proper funding mechanisms. Right now, we’ve seen none of that.
In a bill some (OK, so far, just me) have called “underwhelming” and the “bare minimum of support for public transit,” the City Council passed a measure this week requiring NYC DOT to . . . write a report about Bus Rapid Transit and submit it to them in two years. DOT will have to update this report every few years and maybe implement some of the bus routes they identify in the report. But whether these are bus rapid transit routes, Select Bus Service or some watered down version of everything remains to be seen.
OK, OK. Perhaps I’m being a bit too cynical. Perhaps I’m predisposed to think anything short of monetary and policy support in the face of loud protests from drivers and inanities from vocal Community Board members have led me to view City Council through a biased lens, but perhaps I’m not so far off. At a time when transit advocates are struggling to drum up support for anything related to the MTA’s capital plan or an expansion of our transit network and a time when the subways are sagging under the demands of record ridership, the City Council’s measure, two years in the making, strikes me as something that should have been implemented a decade ago.
Here’s what the legislation does:
- DOT has to consult with the MTA. (n.b. DOT already consults with the MTA.)
- DOT has to issue a report by September 1, 2017 identifying areas of New York that need BRT (all of them), strategies for serving growth areas, potential additional inter- or intra-borough BRT corridors that may be established by 2027 (ambitious!), strategies for integration with the current bus network, and costs.
- Every two years thereafter, DOT has to provide status updates on implementation and explain why DOT deviated if it did. No word if “whiny Community Board members who can’t sacrifice 30 seconds of their drive to Vermont” is a valid excuse.
When you consider that Brad Lander first introduced this bill back in 2013, it’s amazing that anything gets done with regards to transit in a city that sees a combined 8 million bus and subway rides per day. That this is some crowning achievement is telling. And therein lies in the rub and the source of my skepticism. This move essentially codifies DOT’s current practice, but it does nothing to speed up implementation of BRT or SBS routes. It certainly doesn’t encourage best practices — proof of payment throughout the system or pre-board fare payment on every popular route. It also doesn’t bolster DOT’s efforts at overcoming minority resistance to a better bus network.
Over at Streetsblog, Stephen Miller picked up on that latter point as while City Council passed this toothless bill, DOT trimmed back plans for a BRT/SBS corridor through Kew Gardens to Flushing over concerns from a very loud minority. He summarized the problem in a few sentences:
Meanwhile, Miller’s neighboring council member, Rory Lancman, can claim victory in his fight against Flushing-Jamaica Select Bus Service. At a meeting of the Kew Gardens Hills Civic Association last night, DOT said it would not be adding bus lanes to Main Street in that neighborhood.
“We had a very productive community meeting last night,” said Lancman spokesperson Nadia Chait. “The council member found that in that situation the DOT and the MTA had really listened to the community.”
The city encountered vocal opposition to bus lanes from Lancman and Assembly Member Michael Simanowitz. Actual bus riders, however, seem to be missing from the discussion: At a public meeting about Flushing-Jamaica SBS earlier this year heavily attended by civic association members, most people said they rarely ride the bus.
This is a story repeated throughout the city. In Harlem, politicians afraid of losing a driving lane and those entrenched Community Board members claim a bus lane would affect traffic based on the fact that they drive through the area rather than based on traffic engineers’ studies. So tens of thousands of bus riders have longer rides while a few hundred drivers stand to benefit instead. That’s not how a city of transit riders excels or expands its network. But hey, at least we’ll read a bureaucrat’s report on this whole mess every two years. After all, that’s what the City Council demands.
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.
For years, as our subway system has seen record ridership increases, the bus system has seen something of the opposite. Ridership has steadily declined over the years, and the MTA’s own actions in the form of service cuts have done little to stem the tide away from buses. On the one hand, I don’t blame people for not using local buses. As I’ve written before, they’re slow and unreliable and run entirely at the whims of surface traffic.
But on the other hand, the local bus network is a vital part of the city. Even if buses stop too frequently, they serve neighborhoods not easily connected by subway routes and offer increased mobility options for millions. In a sense, the MTA’s bus woes are entirely due to a lack of trying, and a few new studies underscore how simple changes can have a positive effect on ridership.
Our first glimpse at trends in bus ridership comes from within New York City itself. As BusTime has spread throughout the city, its system-wide deployment has coincided with a modest but steady increase in ridership. As CityLab notes, highlighting a study out of City College, bus ridership has jumped by around 2 percent following the availability of BusTime. It’s not easy to say if this is a situation where correlation and causation are related, and the MTA hasn’t publicly divulged user statistics on BusTime. But real-time information empowers potential riders to make informed and should drive up ridership as more people adapt the technology.
Eric Jaffe sums up the study:
A new study of a real-time bus arrival program in New York City offers an encouraging (if qualified) answer: it does generate new trips, though mostly for high-traffic routes. Candace Brakewood of the City College of New York and collaborators analyzed ridership patterns following the city’s roll-out of its Bus Time website. In a new paper they report a measurable jump in ridership (around 2 percent) that works out to upwards of $6.3 million in new revenue over the three-year study period…
Brakewood and company tracked bus ridership from January 2011 through December 2013. During that time New York launched real-time bus tracking in all of Staten Island, the Bronx, and Manhattan. (The program has since launched in every borough.) The researchers compared pre- and post-launch ridership to get a sense of just how influential Bus Time was in rider decisions. They accounted for key variables such as fare and service changes, seasonal patterns, the opening of the Citi Bike system, and Hurricane Sandy.
On average, across all the bus lines included in the Bus Time scope, real-time information contributed to about 118 new weekday trips—a 1.7 percent bump. The more significant increases only occurred on the most-traveled routes, where real-time info led to 340 new daily trips, or a 2.3 percent spike.
For bus routes that often lose substantial money on a per-rider basis, even these modest gains can go a long way toward staving off potential service cuts. As Jaffe notes, these findings are in line with similar studies conducted in other cities, and a potential barrier to a higher increase is the rate of adaptation. I rarely see people waiting at bus stops checking for real-time information. Perhaps a public awareness campaign on the existence of BusTime may be in order.
Meanwhile, another study highlights a simple way to speed up buses that the MTA uses only on Select Bus Service routes. Examining San Francisco’s bus boarding policies, Muni officials noted that multi-door boarding significantly lowers dwell times. In New York, we’ve seen the practical affects of this finding as the time savings for Select Bus Service routes is due nearly entirely to pre-boarding fare payment and multi-door boarding options.
The key to the San Francisco study lies in the economics of it. Muni notes in the report [pdf] that “transit operations have improved without adverse financial impacts.” The SF agency added a rear-door card reader and increased fare evasion patrols to fight potential jumpers. With a modicum of effort, the MTA could implement something similar, especially along high-volume routes, and could improve bus service in New York without the multi-year rollout and brouhaha that accompanies every single Select Bus Service routes. It’s certainly worth a thought or two.
As MTA jobs go, a bus driver may have it the worst. Until recently, drivers had no protection from unruly passengers and were tasked with keeping passengers in line while attempting to collect fares. They have to compete with the city’s streets and other drivers who are seemingly always in it for themselves. It’s a stressful job made slightly easier and safer by partitions in newer buses, but the threat and reality of violence from passengers has always loomed large in the minds of drivers.
Bus drivers though have a responsibility to everyone else around them as well. They drive very big, very heavy, often plodding vehicles up and down the city’s busiest streets. The city’s buses tower over the streets and loom large as a threat to pedestrians, bikers and other drivers. They help get cars off the streets, but they present a separate set of dangers in and of themselves.
Last week, not for the first time, this situation came to a head when a 15-year-old crossing the street with the right of way in Williamsburg was struck by a bus whose driver claimed he did not see the girl. She remains at Bellevue and may lose her left leg. Francisco de Jesus, the bus driver, was booked on a misdemeanor for violating the city’s relatively new Right of Way law. He faces a $250 summons and up to 30 days in jail — though no first-time offenders have been given a jail sentence. The law is part of the Vision Zero plan that is supposed to protect pedestrians from the dangers of vehicles in a dense urban area.
The injury is horrific; the aftermath to the incident has been ugly. A few days before the incident, three City Council members, under intense lobbying from union officials, had introduced a bill to exempt bus drivers from the Right of Way law, and nearly immediate, TWU officials denounced the arrest. “We drive for a living on the busiest streets in America,” J.P. Patafio, a TWU spokesman, said. “The law of averages has it we’re going to get into an accident.”
Over the weekend, TWU President John Samuelsen threatened — if one can call vowing to drive safer a threat — to slow down buses in the name of the safety:
The incidents this past Friday and several weeks ago in which two Bus Operators were arrested for “failure to yield” and “failure to exercise due care” are both heartbreaking tragedies. But they were accidents, not the result of “criminal” reckless driving. Yet, our Operators were treated as if they were criminals by the Highway Police, and they face TA discipline as a result of the arrest. To add insult to blatant injustice, there are some misguided people out there applauding the criminal treatment of our Bus Operators.
Now we must respond appropriately, recognizing that we are being disgracefully and unfairly scapegoated and targeted. It is imperative that we immediately move to defend our livelihoods and protect ourselves against these attacks. Therefore, we MUST Yield/Stop “when a pedestrian or bicyclist has the right of way.” If there is a pedestrian in the crosswalk, Yield/Stop your bus until they are on the sidewalk. We must exercise extreme caution at intersections and on roadways.
Do not move your bus until all is clear. It you do not make your schedule, so be it. If traffic backs up as you await the ability to make an unquestionably “safe” left turn, so be it. If the bosses are displeased, so be it. Do not jeopardize your future for the sake of NYC Transit’s on time bus performance. And if you are pressured or threatened by supervision for taking these necessary steps, notify your union representative immediately.
Samuelsen’s comments intimate that MTA bus drivers are encouraged by supervisors to put speed over safety. An MTA spokesman vehemently denied that characterization. Meanwhile, along the fringes, the sniping has continued. Pete Donohue wrote an incendiary column accusing advocates fighting for sensible street designs and laws aimed at protecting pedestrian safety of having “zero common sense” while the person operating the TWU’s Twitter feed on Saturday and Sunday tried to turn the debate into class warfare. (Gothamist captured some of the comments, but it was a stunning display of how not to run a P.R. campaign.)
The issue is not about class or about online fighting. It’s not about which advocate — those who must protect union members or those who are trying to protect pedestrians — can be the most zealous. This is about an all-encompassing push for safety. It shouldn’t take an arrest for the TWU to promise to allow pedestrians the Right of Way, and driving in New York shouldn’t inherently involve some number of pedestrian casualties or fatalities. The law should apply to everyone driving a vehicle, and it should recognize the power a huge vehicle has over a person. The person will always lose.
In a reasonable world, the union would have looked at Friday’s tragedy as an opportunity to gain the upper hand in this debate. Samuelsen could have ordered the same slowdown but under the guise of promising to work together with city leaders who have prioritized Vision Zero initiatives and want to stress safety. The TWU could have demanded that de Jesus receive a fair trial but stressed that the union will not tolerate members who do not stress safety or follow the laws. Instead, we have a mess and one that highlights the real physical risks that people walking face everyday. A teenager losing a leg shouldn’t be dismissed as the cost of doing business in New York City.
As part of their annual ritual highlighting just how slow and unreliable our city’s local bus system can be, the Straphangers have announced that the M79, with averages speeds of 3.2 miles per hour, is the city’s slowest bus route. The local M15 — subject of many complaints in the post-Select Bus Service era — was named the least reliable with 33% of buses arriving in pairs or worse. Outside of Manhattan’s congested streets, Flatbush Avenue’s B41, the Bronx’s Bx19, Queen’s Q58, and Staten Island’s S48/98 were named the slowest in their respective boroughs, though the latter two attained speeds of at or over 8 mph. The Straphangers have released a full table of their 34 surveyed routes, and the top ten are all in Manhattan.
“New Yorkers know from bitter daily experience that bus service is slow and unreliable,” said Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives. “But there is real hope for dramatic improvement in Mayor de Blasio’s plan to build a rapid network of 20 ‘Select Bus Service/Bus Rapid Transit’ routes.”
So what happens next? As the Straphangers note, Select Bus Service has improved travel times along those routes that have undergone these upgrades, but as I’ve pointed out again and again, incremental changes such as pre-board fare payment shouldn’t be lauded as much as they are. New York still doesn’t have any true bus rapid transit corridors, and bus lane enforcement is continually under attack by City Council members who prioritize drivers over transit riders. Meanwhile, there is the issue of de Blasio’s 20 bus routes: We’re one year into his administration, and while initial planning is underway, implementation is not exactly around the corner. I’m not holding my breath for 10, let alone 20, and to achieve that goal, de Blasio would have to get seven SBS/BRT routes per year on the streets. For now, local buses remain a blight on the city’s mobility.
For some reason — could be stubborn NIMYBism, could be “it wasn’t invented here” syndrome, could be something else entirely — real bus rapid transit hasn’t made its way to New York City. We’ve been given instead Select Bus Service, a glorified Limited service with some obvious upgrades but no truly dedicated lanes or street prioritization. It’s been a battle too with a small number of residents along 34th St., for instance, throwing up significant roadblocks to progress. Now, though, DOT is narrowing in on a BRT corridor, and Queens’ bus riders may be the ones to benefit.
As Pete Donohue details in the Daily News today, the NYC Department of Transportation is examining Woodhaven and Cross Bay Boulevards in Queens for true Bus Rapid Transit that extends beyond the trappings of Select Bus Service. The route could have physically separated lanes and signal prioritization, and while the study is in its very early stages with a painfully slow four-year rollout plan, it is part of DOT’s “curb to curb” rethink of Woodhaven Boulevard.
“It’s a great candidate for BRT because of its width and also it’s a street where we have some big goals that all work together — making it safer for pedestrians, making the traffic flow better, as well as providing better bus service,” Tom Maguire, a DOT higher-up, said.
Donohue had more:
A Pratt Institute study said using the current transit system, it would take a rider 65 minutes to get from Howard Beach to LaGuardia Airport. But a BRT route would cut it to 45 minutes, a 30% decrease.
The department would like to have a conceptual plan for the corridor, which at points is eight lanes wide, by the end of the year, said Eric Beaton, director of transit development. It would like to see the buses hit the road within four years, said Beaton…
Select buses too often are slowed by cars and trucks that encroach into their unprotected lanes. The answer is BRT and the city can look to Albany for help. Gov. Cuomo’s 2100 Commission, which is looking for ways to improve New York’s infrastructure, recommended the state support an “aggressive expansion” of the transit system with a BRT network, describing it as the next logical step after SBS. “SBS is good,” Gene Russianoff, staff attorney with the Straphangers Campaign, said. “Full-fledged BRT is great, giving bus riders service New York could be proud of.”
This is certainly optimistic news for anyone who’s been hoping for better bus service. Woodhaven is a key artery with very high bus ridership figures, and reallocating street space would benefit the many in this instance. New Yorkers could finally see that real BRT can happen here, and such a move could set the stage for future bus lanes.
That said, I have reason to be skeptical as well. A BRT route from the Rockaways via Cross Bay and Woodhaven winds through numerous Community Boards and will face heavy questioning from some of the areas of Queens with the highest rates of car ownership in the city. Taking away a lane or two of traffic is a direct assault on a way of life that many have grown very accustomed to over the decades. We saw what happened with plans to convert 34th St. to a transitway, and DOT will have to work closely with community leaders to ensure a more successful implementation here.
Still, we’re a few years away from these battles. Right now, NYC DOT is examining this possibility, and that’s a move that should be applauded. It shouldn’t take four years, but progress comes slow in New York City, if it comes at all. Here’s to hoping.
Let’s play catch-up with a few shorter stories:
Upper East Side votes for bus countdown clocks
It’s no secret that the MTA doesn’t plan to spend money bringing countdown clocks to bus stops. Although BusTime is now available on smartphones and via text message on all bus routes throughout the city, the MTA hasn’t shown a willingness to spend money for countdown clocks or identify which stations deserve such clocks. They have, instead, left these clocks up to everyone else. Businesses could supply them in their windows or politicians could pay for them through discretionary funding.
On the Upper East Side, residents want these clocks, and in a recent round of participatory budgeting sponsored by Council member Ben Kallos, his constituents voted for them. While westbound countdown clocks came in second in the voting, they’ve earned $300,000 for installation, and fifteen signs along the M96, M86, M79 and M66 routes will be installed on the East Side. Additionally, Kallos will spend another $340,000 in discretionary funding to install countdown clocks at downtown M31 stops.
This is how countdown clocks will arrive at bus stations and shelters throughout the city, but it’s a very piecemeal approach. These timers will be available at downtown- or west-bound stops only, and anyone headin east or north won’t enjoy easy access to the information. Maybe, eventually, as participatory budgeting and discretionary funds are doled out throughout the years, we’ll see this technology emerge everywhere, but for now, as other entities take over this project, it will be imperfect at best.
MTA Board votes to explore mobile ticketing
Kicking and screaming, the MTA will soon begin to adopt 21st Century ticketing technology. The MTA Board this week voted to approve the LIRR’s and Metro-North’s first foray into mobile ticketing. The contract is with Masabi, LLC, and it will allow the rail road customers to purchase train tickets on their phones, tablets or mobile devices. Conductors can visually verify digital tickets or use handheld devices to scan and validate tickets much as Amtrak conductors do today. (For background on Masabi, check out this Wall Street Journal article. They already provide mobile ticketing for transit services in London, Boston and San Diego.)
“More convenient ticketing options means a better experience using the train,” said Metro-North President Joseph Giulietti. “We want to make riding the train as easy and convenient as we can. We now offer real-time train status via app, and this next step – tickets via app – promises to be another big step toward increased convenience.”
There is, of course, a catch: It’s likely to be a year before mobile ticketing is available for widespread use. Even though this isn’t a new technology, the MTA seems to be suffering from a case of not-invented-here-itis and must test this thing thoroughly. That year, though, is sooner than the Metrocard’s replacement will be ready. At least it has that going for it.
Bustitution, LIRR strike looms
A few weeks ago, the LIRR’s largest union voted to authorize a strike if it cannot reach an agreement on a new contract with MTA management by the end of July. As rank-and-file TWU members are already speaking out against their 8 percent raises, it’s likely that the LIRR union will push hard for a more generous deal. Thus, the likelihood of a strike — with Nowakowski in charge — looms large, and the MTA must plan for it.
After a contentious discussion in which it seemed as though the MTA Board wouldn’t authorize the move, the Board finally approved issuing an RFP for bus service in the event there is no LIRR service come late July. For a few minutes this week, it appeared as though the MTA Board was content to bury its head in the sand and pretend a strike wasn’t a distinct possibility. Ultimately, though, saner minds prevailed, and the RFP is out there. A strike would be very disruptive to Long Island, but at least the MTA has recognized that substitute bus service can’t materialize overnight. I’ll follow this story as the spring unfolds.
One of the lowest moments in recent transit history arrived last June when Tom Prendergast faced his confirmation hearing at the hands of the New York State Senate. Instead of offering up anything substantial, Senator Andrew Lanza too up a full ten minutes of Prendergast’s time, barely asking a question. Instead, he ranted and raved against bus lanes, Select Bus Service, and flashing blue lights. Supposedly, even after years of successful service in Manhattan and the Bronx, Staten Island drivers thought that SBS buses, with their flashing blue lights, were emergency vehicles.
After a review of the relevant New York State laws, Lanza — who has fought every transit improvement for Staten Island with a vengeance — determined that the MTA’s blue lights violated the law. He lectured Prendergast about the issue even though the MTA had turned off the lights in early 2013, over four years after using them initially and after countless law enforcement officials expressed ignorance at the blue light law. Bus users throughout the city have since complained about the difficulties in discerning Select Bus Service vehicles from the distance as the visual signifiers are no longer obvious.
Over the past year, various groups — including Manhattan’s CB 6 — have tried to find a solution. After an extensive review of the law, it appeared as though purple lights would be the only ones that didn’t require some sort of exemption, and for a while it looked like a bill to secure Albany’s stamp would pass. But Lanza started his whining about last summer, and as Streetsblog noted last week, the effort is stalled in committee. CB 6 passed another resolution [pdf] urging Albany to allow for purple lights or the MTA to do something else entirely.
Meanwhile, in another update, Stephen Miller at Streetsblog noted that even some supporters in Albany have lost the enthusiasm for the fight. Here’s the update:
[Sen. Jeff] Klein’s office indicated that the SBS bill isn’t on his agenda at this time. “Senator Klein wants to see Mayor de Blasio’s Vision Zero plan come to fruition this year and that will be his transportation focus this session,” said spokesperson Anna Durrett….Meanwhile, [Assemblyman Micha] Kellner said he would push hard this session to pass the bill in the Assembly and put pressure on the Senate. “I’m going to sit down and talk to Senator Klein, I’m going to talk to Senator Lanza, and see if we can come to an agreement,” Kellner said. “The nice thing about both Senator Klein and Senator Lanza is that they are very reasonable people…If not, we’ll seek another Senate sponsor.”
Kellner added that he has filed a “Form 99? to push the Assembly’s transportation committee chair to act on the bill during this legislative session, which ends this year. An NYU review of Albany procedure called this tactic “ineffective” because it does not force the bill to be reported out of committee. The push to pass the bill is also complicated by Kellner himself, who has been sanctioned by the Assembly ethics committee for sexual harassment violations and is not seeking reelection this year….
Kellner’s constituents rely heavily on SBS along First and Second Avenues, and Manhattan Community Board 6 passed a resolution this week asking Albany to bring the lights back. “My constituents call on a daily basis wondering why the lights are turned off,” Kellner said, adding that he has never received a complaint from a motorist who thought “two simultaneously flashing lights that flash very slowly” on a bus looked anything like an emergency vehicle. Kellner expressed frustration that the issue has languished. “Our bill specifically exempts Staten Island,” he said. ”This should not be a controversial thing.”
Kellner’s statement speaks volumes about this whole fight. It should not be controversial. Everyone is willing to accommodate a bunch of obstructionist politicians from Staten Island who both complain about a lack of transit options and throw up as many roadblocks as possible over improvements as incremental as Select Bus Service. Meanwhile, the rest of the city’s bus riders are held hostage to the whims of the few on something that is not, again, controversial. How utterly frustrating.