Archive for Buses
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.
Amidst much anticipation, Manhattan now has real-time bus tracking as the MTA unveiled BusTime for the County of New York. At around midnight this morning, BusTime — the MTA’s in-house-built, distance-based system — went live on nearly all Manhattan bus routes. The system is available on the web right here, and already, bus bunching is on display for all to see.
In announcing the new technology, a variety of MTA officials made their perfunctory statements. “MTA Bus Time is a game changer and a service that greatly enhances our customers’ experience with bus travel,” MTA Chairman and CEO Thomas F. Prendergast said. “MTA Bus Time has turned your phone into a tool that tells you when to start walking to the bus stop so you can get there right when the bus does. Meet your bus, don’t wait for it.”
Those riders who can now meet their buses — or opt to walk — instead of waiting include those who use the following routes: M1, M2, M3, M4, M5, M7, M8, M9, M10, M11, M14A, M14D, M15, M15 SBS, M20, M21, M22, M23, M31, M35, M42, M50, M57, M60, M66, M72, M79, M86, M101, M102, M103, M104, M106, and M116. The M34 and M34A were already a part of BusTime, and Brooklyn- and Queens-based routes that enter Manhattan will be added as BusTime comes to those boroughs and depots within in the next six months. The MTA estimates that 93 percent of all Manhattan bus riders can now track their routes.
To bring this borough’s iteration of BusTime online, the agency’s small in-house staff had to code in 1800 bus stops while adding GPS hardware to the buses that operate in the city. Since 2012, the MTA has installed this technology on 2852 buses. Conveniently, the MTA also provided a list of apps already accessing the BusTime API. Those include, for iOS All Aboard NYC; All Schedules Free; Bing Mobile; Bus New York City; Google Maps for Mobile; In Time Staten Island; Ride On Time NYC; Roadify; and Transit Times. For Android, Bus Tracker Pro – MTA NY and Sched NYC feature real-time bus information.
As with the previous boroughs, Manhattan’s BusTime is based on distance rather than time. Since travel times are variable and far more costly to get right, the MTA has gone with a distance-based approach that allows riders to estimate potential wait times. It’s not perfect, but any regular rider should pick up on the idiosyncrasies within a handful of uses.
Meanwhile, through the web interface, you can see bus bunching in action. Earlier today, a variety of north-south lines had two, three or even four buses all within 10 blocks of each other with big gaps in service. Jason Rabinowitz at NYC Aviation noted the problem with the M60 and service across 125th St., a particular sore spot after a vocal minority temporarily squashed bus improvements for the congested corridor.
With a wealth of location data now available, hopefully, the MTA can begin to attack the problem of bunching head on. For everyone else, now you know where your bus is and that hopeless stare down an avenue can become a thing of the past.
While exiting the Times Square station near the Shuttle platform’s Track 4 exit today, I noticed the sign you see at the top of the post. For Manhattan bus riders, a big day is coming soon as the MTA has promised that BusTime, it’s real-time bus tracking system, will be available on all of the borough’s buses some time this month. I reached out to the MTA for more details and was told that the announcement will come next week.
BusTime is the MTA’s distance-based bus location system that was developed in-house. While the system does not include countdown clocks, it comes with a text message-based system and smartphone enabled apps as well. For Manhattan bus riders, the arrival of BusTime will take the guess work out of waiting for some of the city’s least reliable and slowest bus routes around. It’s a solid first step.
The inherent contradictions in New York City’s approach to and embrace of transit are at their peak on Staten Island. The borough’s residents and politicians clamor for better transit. They want subways to span the harbor or the narrows; they want easier access and more reliable service. What they don’t want though apparently are incremental and easy-to-implement changes to the bus network that prioritizes road space at the expense of drivers. Anything but that.
The trouble, as we well know, started with Select Bus Service. The MTA and DOT worked to bring their baby to Hylan Boulevard. Dedicated bus lanes and some pre-boarding payment options along with, eventually, signal prioritization have led to faster buses and satisfied customers. The system has its flaws, and it shouldn’t be confused with bus rapid transit. But it’s working. The city’s notoriously slow and unreliable buses are getting faster.
Certain elements of Staten Island though aren’t happy. With the debut of camera enforcement earlier this summer, complaints skyrocketed. Earlier, Staten Island politicians had been responsible for a successful drive to convince the MTA to turn off SBS’ hallmark blue lights, and during Tom Prendergast’s confirmation hearings, Sen. Andrew Lanza went on a six-minute rant on Select Bus Service and the lack of space for cars. A few days later, Nicole Malliotakis bashed camera enforcement as a violation of civil liberties. All of this over a bus lane that’s designed to speed up travel for the masses.
Now, though, it seems as though the complaints are working. As the Staten Island Advance reported this week, DOT may change some rules regarding the SBS system on Hylan Boulevard. Michael Sedon reported:
In response to claims people have been unfairly ticketed by some Select Bus Service lane cameras on Staten Island, the city Department of Transportation is considering changing the rule slightly to better reflect reality. Instead of making the next immediate right-hand turn after entering the dreaded red bus lane — the current rule — motorists may be allowed to make a right-hand turn within 200 feet of entering the bus lane. “A vehicle may not be operated in the bus lane during restricted hours for more than one block or two hundred feet, whichever is less,” is the proposed amendment that the DOT discussed at a 10 a.m. meeting Wednesday.
The DOT confirmed that they took public comments Wednesday morning and have received written comments and will consider both as it “proceeds with the proposed rule amendments,” a spokesman said.
The possible change of heart came after local officials cited a Signature Bank in Grant City, just past Hunter Avenue on Hylan Boulevard, where bank customers were receiving tickets for turning into the bank’s parking lot, and on Richmond Avenue in New Springville, where motorists were being ticketed for not turning into a private parking lot near the next available intersection, which doesn’t occur until Platinum Avenue.
The bank’s parking lot has been a flash point in the debate over the bus lane. Politicians claim there isn’t enough space in between the turn for the bank and the turn for the private lot, and a few people who have gotten tickets have raised a ruckus. If it’s a safety issue unique to this intersection, I’m not going to argue against a change, but I can’t help but think that the NIMBYs are at it again.
Time and time again, we see transit improvements rolled back because a loud minority makes a stand. Along 34th St., there is no transitway because a handful of people were concerned about door-to-door access to their apartment buildings. On 125th St., buses are backed up from river to river because a few parking spots would have been taken away. It’s noble that DOT and the MTA involve the community and seek guidance and support from Community Boards, homes to some of the city’s most crotchety and progress-shy people, but at a certain point, the experts should be allowed to do their jobs. Progress is slow, and progress can be painful.
It involves recognizes priorities and learning that the thing you want isn’t the thing that’s best for everyone else who lives around you. When it comes to transit planning, New York City has a long way to go even though the city was built with a transit backbone that in no small way powers the entire city.
The MTA has developed something of a Millennial fetish over the past few months. These are the young adults of my generation or even younger, the city’s 20-somethings who don’t own apartments or cars. They rent and rely on the subway to get them anywhere at any time, and the MTA, in its twenty-year needs assessment, recognized this cohort as a key driver of transit needs and demands for the next two decades. This focus on one large and important demographic may be overblown, but here we are.
As much as Millennials embrace the subway system (and CitiBike and, yes, taxis), they do not like buses. Can you blame them? New York City buses are hardly a paragon of reliable transit. They’re slow and off-schedule. They run infrequently along routes that are often incomprehensible, and it can sometimes be quicker to walk. Millennials — and New Yorkers of any age group — are in a hurry, and the bus isn’t the thing to take if you’re in a hurry.
Yet, for some reason, buses have emerged as the center piece of the mayoral campaign and a significant component of the MTA’s attempts to expand the transit system. For those vying for Gracie Mansion, buses are an easy improvement to trump. NYC DOT has control over city streets which gives the mayor an opportunity to implement bus plans, and the MTA is willing to go along with just about anything DOT wants when it comes to reallocating street space to buses. They’re cheap and relatively quick to put in place, and they don’t involve digging up entire streets and disrupting life and commerce for nearly a decade as subway construction along Second Ave. does.
This love of buses isn’t a phenomenon unique to the mayoral campaign. The MTA too is pushing buses, and in a talk at NYU’s Rudin Center yesterday, William Wheeler, the MTA’s Director of Planning, spoke at length about getting more Millennials to ride the bus. On the one hand, I’m concerned that the MTA’s focus on buses isn’t completely genuine. Perhaps because subway construction costs are so high in New York, the MTA has decided to punt. Instead of tackling the root causes of high construction costs — a lengthy review process, the potential for protracted litigation, onerous union work rules — the agency can just turn to buses for a low-cost, but also low-capacity, fix. Put some flashing lights on it; require preboard fare payment; and voila, Select Bus Service.
On the other hand, it’s important to build out a bus network where subways right now cannot or will not go, and there’s nothing underhanded or even partly malicious about it. The city should, in fact, demand a better bus route with ridership climbing instead of declining, especially if public transit has lost much of the stigma it used to have. It’s not just for the lower and middle class workers; it’s safe at night; it’s the way to get around.
During his talk, Wheeler spoke at length about the need for the next mayor to fight for bus lanes. The debacles on 34th St. and 125th St. shouldn’t be allowed to happen, according to the planners. But Wheeler also spoke about making buses more attractive to a younger generation of potential riders. He discussed adding wifi to the city buses as though free Internet would somehow be a carrot for a bunch of young people who already all have smartphones that hook up to the next-gen LTE networks. It’s an unnecessary idea.
I think this is a problem with a rather simple solution: If you’d like to attract riders to buses, make it more convenient and quicker. Buses don’t have to stop every two blocks or be beholden to traffic. Fight for dedicated lands, signal prioritization and pre-board fare payment options. Increase service and let people know where buses are and where they’re going. If buses can be faster and just as reliable as subway service — which, for all of our complaints, is pretty reliable — people will ride them. But if buses show up once an hour, not on schedule, and inch their way down an avenue, people who value their time will not ride. Making buses sexier doesn’t require anything more than that.
Over the past few years — both in New York and nationally — urban planning advocates and city politicians have taken a liking to buses. Bus rapid transit, deployed successfully in developing nations, has become the hot new item while pushes to increase rail capacity and reach have died at the hands of a number of factors. It all rubs me the wrong way.
The latest entry into this discussion came from the keyboard of Matthew Yglesias. In a piece at Slate with an intentionally inflammatory sub-head, Yglesias says that buses are the future. Building new trains, he says, isn’t the route to improving transit, but networks of bus rapid transit systems are. While there are some lessons to be learned from Yglesias’ argument, it’s almost defeatist in its framing. Here’s his take:
When it comes to moving large numbers of people efficiently through urban areas, it’s hard to beat good old-fashioned heavy rail subways and metro lines. But these projects come at a steep price, especially in the United States, and don’t make sense in many areas. Yet, politicians looking for cheaper options too often fall for the superficial idea that anything that runs on train tracks must be a good idea. The smarter strategy in many cases is to look instead at the numerically dominant form of mass transit—the humble bus—and ask what can be done to make it less humble…
Buses often fall down on the job—not because they’re buses, but because they’re slow. Buses are slow in part because city leaders don’t want to slight anyone and thus end up having them stop far too frequently, leaving almost everyone worse off. Buses also tend to feature an inefficient boarding process. Having each customer pay one at a time while boarding, rather than using a proof-of-payment where you pay in advance and then just step onto the bus, slows things down. That can generate a downward spiral of service quality where slow speeds lead to low ridership, low ridership leads to low revenue levels, and low revenue leads to service that’s infrequent as well as slow. Closing the loop, a slow and infrequent bus will be patronized almost exclusively by the poor, which leads to the route’s political marginalization…
Of course the problem is people who drive cars won’t like it—the exact same reason that shiny new streetcar lines are often built to drive in mixed traffic. But public officials contemplating mass transit issues need to ask themselves what it is they’re trying to accomplish. If promoting more transit use, denser urban areas, and less air pollution is on the agenda, then annoying car drivers is a feature not a bug. If the idea is to have a make-work job creation scheme or something cool-looking to show off to tourists, buses may not be the best idea. But while upgraded buses clearly isn’t the right solution for every transit corridor in America, it deserves much more widespread consideration as an affordable path to mass transit.
I’ve generously excerpted beginning, middle and end of Yglesias’ argument. The end and how he eventually gets there is right. To have a fully functional bus rapid transit network that moves buses quickly requires some pain on the other side. Unlike New York City’s half-hearted Select Bus Service network of slightly faster express buses, BRT requires truly dedicated lanes, level boarding areas and signal prioritization. It requires, in other words, prioritizing street space, curbside space and travel lanes for buses at the expense of cars. I have no problem with that argument, and in fact, I fully embrace it far more than anyone in New York City’s Department of Transportation has.
But how we get to this conclusion to me is problematic. Yes, rail projects are expensive, but rail projects are also better. A crowded bus can carry 60-100 people; a crowded train can travel much faster with over 1500 people on board. Operating ten or twelve trains per hour means transportation for 15,000-18,000 people while operating that many buses results in transit for 600-1200. It’s apples to oranges.
The better answer is to figure out how to get costs down. Other countries have managed to build reasonably priced rail lines, and so could we. The answer isn’t to punt to buses but rather to figure out a way to make a bus network work with a train network. Nearly every major American city would be better served with some version of a rapid transit network involved rail. It could be light rail, a surface subway or an underground subway, but such a network would combat sprawl, pollution and congestion far more effectively than a bus rapid transit network would.
Ultimately, the two modes of travel shouldn’t be an either/or proposition, but for some reason, we seem to make it into a battle. Buses make sense in certain areas and for certain travel, and rail makes sense for others. Discarding rail because it’s hard to see through due to costs just means we’re ready to give up.
For a few days now, I’ve been mulling over the debacle that has become 125th Street. Once planned to be Manhattan’s next crosstown Select Bus Service corridor with the M60 tabbed for off-board fare payment, express service and a dedicated travel lane, 125th St. fell the way of the 34th St. Transitway. Community opposition from an entrenched and vocal minority killed a project that would have benefited 32,000 travelers per day. I’d like to know how, why and what we can learn from the latest transit setback.
When DOT and the MTA announced on Tuesday their decision to shelve the Select Bus Service upgrades for the M60, they laid the blame on the area’s political bodies. “There are still a number of concerns about the project from the local Community Boards and elected officials that we have not been able to resolve to date,” the agencies said in a statement. “We do hope to have a continued dialogue with community stakeholders about ways that we can continue to improve bus speed and service, traffic flow, parking, and pedestrian safety along 125th Street. In the short term, we plan to work with the Community Boards to explore whether any parking or traffic improvements discussed during the SBS outreach process can improve 125th Street for all users.”
Theirs is a pretty damning position to take for two agencies that needs the support of Community Boards and elected officials, but it’s not an incorrect one. Senator Bill Perkins threw up nothing but obstacles, and Community Boards were more concerned with losing a few parking spaces and left-turn lanes than they were with the thousands who would benefit from smoother, faster bus rides. Minority obstructionism had trumped the needs of the majority yet again.
In the intervening days, various news outlets have tried to pinpoint the way this deal went sour. Responding to Perkins’ claim that the process was moving too fast, Streetsblog established a project timeline. WE ACT for Environmental Justice started calling for bus improvements in late 2011, and DOT and the MTA launched the project last September. For six months, the Community Advisory Committee held meetings and worked to develop plans for the bus corridor, but in March, Perkins threw his first fit. He claimed DOT had ignored public input but couldn’t cite specifics. In May, he held an emergency public meeting where the MTA and DOT produced plans designed to assuage his concerns, and in July, the bus lane dies.
Over the past 36 hours, Perkins has tried to spint the DOT/MTA decision every which way he can. In an interview with amNew York, he grew belligerent. “Not only is it premature,” he said of the move, “it’s a smack in the face of the community. We didn’t get the kind of process for input that was genuine and folks were feeling a little anxious about the project moving quickly without taking into consideration some of the concerns they had.”
The process. It’s all about the process. It was the process that the Community Boards objected to as well.
If Perkins carries some of the blame, so too do the Community Boards. They refused to vote for the project and seemed more concerned with parking — empty space for idle vehicles — than for bus improvements. Opponents have claimed that the M60 is a treasure for Laguardia riders that doesn’t take into account community needs, but 90 percent of bus riders aren’t going to the airport. (Many others are Harlem residents who use the bus to commute to work at Laguardia.)
Yesterday, Ted Mann delved into the Community Board opposition with a piece that focused on tangential complaints. CB 11 refused to support the M60 SBS route because the MTA refused to heed their complaints about another bus line. Mann gets to the meat of the issue:
One issue with the M35 stop is that it led to crowding at the already-busy intersection, the board said. But there’s another problem: the people who ride that bus, according to records of community meetings compiled by the DOT.
Neighbors have complained about psychiatric patients and homeless people traveling to the neighborhood via the M35 from facilities on Ward’s Island, records from a September 2012 public workshop led by DOT to plan bus improvements show.
“Patrons of the Manhattan Psychiatric Center, and the Charles Gay and Clarke Thomas homeless facilities on Wards Island disembark the M35 bus at 125th Street and Lexington Avenue,” a summary of the workshop says. “They hang around the immediate vicinity all day, creating excessive congestion. They panhandle and disturb the public at this busy intersection.”
CB 11 members tried to claim their concerns were about crowding at the intersection, but Mann’s reporting betrays their cover-up. The MTA too dismissed the complaints about the M35 as unrelated to the 125th St. SBS corridor. “In deference to concerns from Community Board 11, NYC Transit has weighed the pros and cons of both moving the bus stop and rerouting the bus route,” an agency spokesperson said to The Journal. “All the options studied present operational issues and are inferior to the current M35 route and stop configuration.”
So CB 11, it seems, also did not like the process. All of this talk about process leads me to think that the process isn’t actually the problem. Rather, stakeholders can blame “the process” when things don’t go their way. In fact, “the process” is actually just a code word for “we didn’t get what we want so we’re going through an obstructionist fit instead.” We’ve seen it on 34th St.; we’ve seen it with Citi Bikes; we’ve seen it with a subway to Laguardia; and we’re seeing it with a bus route on 125th St.
Eventually, the needs of the many have to trump over the needs of a select powerful few. It’s democratic to give community members outlets through public meetings, elected officials and Community Boards, but it’s also democratic to realize on both sides of the table what a collective sacrifice may be and what measures will improve a neighborhood. Now, 32,000 riders will continue to take a bus that’s slower than walking because Community Board members held the bus route hostage over an unrelated issue and politicians cannot come to grips with the idea of losing a few parking spaces along a busy two-way travel corridor. It’s not actually the process that’s the problem.
Entrenched NIMBY interests have won again. Despite the fact that it can be faster to walk along 125th St. than it is to take the bus, despite the fact that 32,000 neighborhood residents, commuters trying to reach their jobs in Queens and even some airport-bound travelers would benefit, intense opposition from Senator Bill Perkins and a few drivers worried about a handful of lost parking spots has led the MTA and DOT to shelve plans for Select Bus Service on the M60 and a dedicated bus lane along 125th St.
In a statement provided to me a few minutes ago, the MTA had the following to say:
There are still a number of concerns about the project from the local Community Boards and elected officials that we have not been able to resolve to date. As a result, NYCDOT and MTA New York City Transit have decided not to proceed with the M60 Select Bus Service project at this time. We do hope to have a continued dialogue with community stakeholders about ways that we can continue to improve bus speed and service, traffic flow, parking, and pedestrian safety along 125th Street. In the short term, we plan to work with the Community Boards to explore whether any parking or traffic improvements discussed during the SBS outreach process can improve 125th Street for all users.
This decision stems from months of protest from the Community Board and Senator Bill Perkins’ office over these Select Bus Route plans. This powerful stakeholders who are not representative of the community’s voices or needs claim that dedicated a lane to buses on 125th St. isn’t possible because too many parking spots would be removed and too many others would become metered. These voices have argued that implementing metered parking along a small section of 125th St. would make parking unaffordable to public housing residents (who can otherwise afford to own a car in Manhattan anyway). And they’re annoyed at the inconveniences turn limits would place on drivers.
Even after DOT scaled back plans for the bus lane to just a few of the more congested avenues and did away with the metered parking and turn restrictions, Perkins and the Community Board were not satisfied. And so 32,000 New Yorkers who need the M60 but find that it runs slower than 3 — three! — miles per hour are left holding nothing. The people who can’t afford faster transportation get shafted.
If this were an isolated incident, I wouldn’t be so upset, but it isn’t. Across the city, politicians and Community Boards are barriers to progress on transit expansion. They object to bus lanes that benefit tens or hundreds of thousands because a few people may lose direct curbside access to their buildings or may have to work harder to find a free parking spot in congested neighborhoods. The message is clear: If you need the bus, the city and its politicians and community representatives do not care about you. Keep pressuring DOT for upgrades; vote out Senator Perkins. Something has to change.
There must be something in the water on Staten Island that causes politicians such consternation over transit improvements. SI politicians desperately want these improvements, but when they actually arrive — as in the case of, say, dedicated bus lanes for Select Bus Service — the very same politicians complain. No one proved this point better than Sen. Andrew Lanza when, earlier this week, he followed a plea for better Staten Island transit service with a six-minute rant against Select Bus Service. He’s not the only one though.
Beginning this week, after nearly a year of Select Bus Service on Staten Island, camera enforcement of dedicated bus lanes will begin. At well-marked locations along Hylan Boulevard, cameras will be in place to catch lane violators, and the drivers will receive a summons in the mail. Cars can use the red lanes to make the next immediate right-hand turn or for quick pick-ups and drop-offs, but those driving in the line will get socked with a $115 fine. I’d prefer physically separated dedicated bus lanes, and even allowing limited car access to bus lanes will slow down travel. But this arrangement is better than nothing.
It’s also been a long time coming as DOT and the MTA have long made clear their desire for automated lane enforcement. But that didn’t stop Assembly Rep Nicole Malliotakis from calling camera enforcement atrocious and invasive. In explaining her position, she later claimed that senior citizens could grow confused and panicked over bus lanes and get ticketed for driving in the wrong lane. It’s a trap.
In reality, it’s not a trap but a way to improve travel for all. We cannot seem to reallocate street space to prioritize transit riders, and bus lane cameras are one measure that would help travel for all. Staten Island keeps asking for more transit, but then, its representatives don’t like the answers. Pick a side.
Last Thursday, as the legislative session in Albany stumbled to a close, the august State Senate finally got around to considering Tom Prendergast as the next MTA CEO and Chair. Eventually, he sailed through the confirmation hearing, but not before a bunch of state senators had the chance to grab the microphone. None were as jaw-droppingly amazing as Senator Andrew Lanza, the Staten Island representative who has made Select Bus Service and its flashing blue lights his Moby Dick.
For ten minutes on Thursday, Lanza railed about transit options on Staten Island, and an eagle-eyed reader found the uncut video on YouTube. You can fast forward to the 1:26 mark if you’d like to watch the Senator in all his glory. The sound quality, with someone coughing in the background, isn’t all that great, and the first five minutes are all about Verrazano Bridge tolls. He really gets rolling at the 1:31:30 mark when buses take center stage. When he’s done — five minutes later after defending car lanes, worrying about desensitizing Staten Islanders to flashing blue lights, and showing little sympathy or understanding for the SBS fare payment process — he allows Prendergast a whopping 30 seconds to respond before interrupting him. The hearing isn’t about the qualifications of the person nominated to the MTA Chair spot; it’s about giving Senators a chance to complain.
As an exercise in something — pain, perhaps — I transcribed Lanza’s five-minute bus rant and offer it to you here with my own commentary. It’s a thing to read as, on the one hand, he complains that Staten Island has few transit options while, on the other, he spends the entire time slamming bus improvements. It’s hard to see how he can have it both ways, but that’s the beauty of Albany. We keep voting for these guys, and they keep failing to understand the way transit should. Let’s dive in. The indented text are Lanza’s words as I could catch them from the video.
The select bus service on SI. So we don’t have many routes to begin with. The vast majority of the population of Staten Island doesn’t really have access to public transit on Staten Island to begin with. So this is a corridor where we did have local service, and there’s also express service into Manhattan. So one day the people of Staten Island woke up…and we found that 50 of the 70 stops were going to eliminated to have … express service. I’m all for augmenting local service with express service where it makes sense…but this was for a savings of seven minutes…
The city came in and painted. We had so few lanes for traffic…so few roads for the number of cars. So in order to facilitate this new service, we took one lane out of service, we painted it red (by the way a year later, the quality of the painted started chipping and fading). So we told people who need to be in cars because they don’t have service that a third of the road space on the major roads is not available. By the way, the buses are often in the second lane. It’s not the driver’s fault; people are making turns in front of them. So cars cannot travel in those lanes and yet buses are still traveling in those other lanes anyway.
We spent millions of dollars painting the roads to save some people seven minutes. We don’t talk about the thousands of people in their cars who know how 10, 20, 30 minutes added to their shuffle because now they’re at choke points because where there was once a lane for them it is no longer there….It’s just a parking lot now and it’s because there’s a red lane. There’s hardly ever a bus there. Hardly ever. I’d like to revisit it that with you…
You can’t just talk to the people on the bus. You can find that one person who now has an express stop in front of their house who now saves seven minutes, they’re going to like it. Old people who have lost access because they’re too far from any stop, they’re not going to like it…For the people stuck in cars, it’s really creating a horrific situation.
In this section, Lanza creates a new reality for the people of Staten Island. It’s true that the MTA took a series of S79 bus stops along Hylan Boulevard and eliminated them. The new S79 SBS routes stop every half mile and connect Staten Islanders to the R train in Brooklyn. Bus the S78 still runs local. Bus servie has been augmented. Some riders can take the faster buses to improve their commutes, and many of those can give up their cars. Others — the aged and infirm — still have local service. Lanza simply overlooks that because the cars have lost some space.
Meanwhile, Lanza smirks at the improvement. He finds seven minutes of average travel time barely worth it because in his worldview, without the studies to back it up, everyone else is sitting in mind-numbing traffic. Furthermore, the buses can’t move faster because cars are turning into the bus lane. Yet, Lanza says they can’t use a third of the road. That’s some logic.
After this rant, he shifts to the issue of, as he puts it, “blue flashing strobe lights,” and his voice grows higher and higher:
It’s the law that blue lights…we hand out thousands of summonses to young people who soup up their cars with blue flashing lights. Those are reserved, as you know, by law to emergency vehicles. I happen to think it’s a great law. People are conditioned when they even sense a flashing blue light that you got to get out of the way, and that’s how we save lives…So it’s not only a law but it’s a good law, and I believe that by having flashing blue lights on buses, we are desensitizing people to the notion that this is an emergency vehicle.
I’ve heard from so many people who have said initially they got out of the way, and I don’t want a generation of drivers and pedestrians to now believe that they’re going to see a blue flashing light and not get out of the way. So finally we walk away from that policy, and I must say that I was a little disappointed that you claimed the people of Manhattan liked them.
[Recently,] I was approached by the people in the MTA to support purple lights. You know, I think it’s ridiculous. I asked where or not they’re going to be darker or light purple. It’s kind of ridiculous…it’s public safety policy that’s worked for so long in this state. If you see flashing blue lights…lights that are close to blue, you get out of the way. Do we really need flashing purple lights on buses now?
At this point, Lanza rested and allowed Prendergast a few sentences. “In other boroughs where we used them customers were able to differentiate an SBS bus vs a regular bus. I am looking to some other means of doing it but a flashing light is one they can see from a long distance away.”
After this explanation, Lanza continued, citing his own experiences riding an express bus to NYU years and years ago. “On that part, people are smarter than you give them credit for,” he said. “If I saw a bus that had an X on it, they can figure it out. People can figure it out. Done. Listen. I knew a bus that came with an X on it, that [it cost more]. People can figure it out. Period.”
What he failed to understand here, as Prendergast pointed out, is that the SBS buses require, in other boroughs, a different type of payment. In Staten Island, this is less of an issue, but elsewhere, SBS riders need to pre-pay. Without the flashing blue lights, many scramble to receive their proof of payment receipts as they cannot identify the bus until it is a block away. This is a key element of a successful bus rapid transit network, and if New York can’t even get that right, what will SBS bring?
In the end, this is a mess. Staten Island has developed such a car-dependent mentality that it cannot live with improved bus service for many people who need it the most, and such a development comes after the MTA seemingly failed to read the state’s motor vehicles law before adding flashing blue lights to their buses. Right now, the bill to allow for purple lights instead is stuck in committee where it will languish all summer, but it clearly has no ally in Senator Lanza. He represents the people of New York but not the transit network that allows for better travel. He wants more transit for Staten Island until it actually arrives, and then he doesn’t want it at all. That’s Albany for you.