Archive for Buses

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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The Pratt Center has proposed eight new BRT routes for New York City.

Every time a think tank or urban policy center starts in on a bus rapid transit kick, I sigh dejectedly. It’s not that bus rapid transit isn’t something we should have, but it’s just a tiring debate. The discussion in favor of BRT focuses on the wrong things, and the solutions have been so half-hearted. Real bus rapid transit — center-running dedicated lanes with platform-level boarding and signal prioritization — should be a gateway to higher capacity transit systems, but so far all we have is Select Bus Service.

The latest round of BRT dreams come to us from a familiar source. The Pratt Center for Community Development has released yet another policy book on bus rapid transit in New York City. They’ve identified eight likely corridors for BRT and a litany of reasons why these routes are ripe for real BRT — not just Select Bus Service — and how BRT is really not that bad for people who drive. In theory, the argument is there, but in a vacuum, BRT can’t stand on its own.

In the policy book [pdf], the Pratt Center argues for the eight routes you see in the map atop this post, and with a new mayor coming in who claims to want 20 more Select Bus Service routes, the BRT approach should take center stage. Here are a smattering of ways in which Pratt makes the case for BRT. If you’re underwhelmed, join the club.

  • “There is no realistic prospect of expanding the subway system to serve outlying neighborhoods…Cost aside, subway construction below New York City’s streets and buried infrastructure is difficult and disruptive, subject to unpredictable delays and cost escalation.
  • “By locating bus lanes offset from the curb, BRT preserves space for parking.”
  • “On most of the densely-built initial corridors, physical constraints were daunting, and pre-existing urban and economic activity were relatively high, reducing the increment of value that a more ambitious BRT model might have delivered. The political barriers have proven to be substantial, as evidenced in the resistance to what would have been a full-featured BRT corridor on 34th Street.”

I realize I’m cherry-picking key quotes and taking them somewhat out of context, but this has been a long-running theme of BRT advocates. We have to preserve free or below-market-rate curbside parking at any costs, and it may be tough to overcome political obstacles. We can’t build subways because of cost and temporary disruptions to the streetscape. Even though these eight corridors — SI’s North Shore rail right-of-way, some airport and interborough routes — are the right focus, this is a fight that doesn’t excite me.

In a distilled version of the report prepared for the Daily News Opinions pages, Judith Roden and Joan Byron make similar arguments. BRT can be transformative, they say, while subway construction is just too complicated. That’s true, and New York needs some intense focus on overcoming Community Board opposition to anything that restructures street space. Yet, BRT is a fractional substitute for subway service, and any successful BRT planning will require frequent service, a network of routes and a plan to move the transit system from wheels to rails.

There’s a map in the Pratt policy book that I think sums up the debate. This map on page 4 shows population growth in various census tracts over the last two decades. While many of those areas without ready access to transit have shown growth, the biggest spikes come in tracts that have direct subway service. The conclusion is right there for anyone to see: Real Bus Rapid Transit would be a great first step, but ultimately, we’ll need rail construction to grow neighborhoods and meet the demands of New York City in the 21st Century. Until we recognize that need and engage in serious conversations about construction techniques and controlling costs, buses will just a passing fad and an incremental improvement at best.

Categories : Buses
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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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The dedicated bus lane will run Lenox Avenue to Second Avenue.

The dedicated bus lane will run Lenox Avenue to Second Avenue.

When we last saw the plans to turn the M60 into a Select Bus Service route, it had died an ignominious death. NIMBY opposition and hollow appeals to the process led DOT and the MTA to shelve the plan. Locals and La Guardia-bound travelers would simply be left with the status quo in which buses sit idle on 125th St. more than 60 percent of the time.

But! Unlikely so many tales of incremental and inoffensive transit improvements, this story has a happier ending than most. After an election that saw a slight but significant power shift in Harlem, community outcry and political pressure, DOT has revived the M60 Select Bus Service plan, and the route — still in its abbreviated form — will debut in May along with some streetscape improvements.

“The 125th Street corridor is a vital thoroughfare for Harlem residents and businesses alike,” MTA Chairman and CEO Thomas F. Prendergast said in a statement announcing the reversal. “I’m glad we will be able to improve service for our customers while still maintaining commercial loading zones for businesses in the area. Select Bus Service will speed up bus service by as much as 20 percent on the M60 where half of the route’s boardings and alightings happen right on 125th Street.”

Per details from DOT, new plan will transition the M60 local to the M60 SBS, reducing the number of stops from 11 to six along 125th St. while maintaining connections to Metro-North and the various subway lines across the thoroughfare. Dedicated bus lanes will be in place in both directions between Lenox and Second Avenues, but unfortunately, cars will be able to enter the bus lane to make right turns at various intersections. DOT claims such a move “balanc[es] the needs of other motorists on the corridor.” To cut down on double parking and speed up the road for all, commercial loading zones will be put in place, and meters will be installed east of Fifth Ave. Left-turn restrictions will be implemented at Fifth and Lexington as well.

In addition to the bus lanes and speedier crosstown service, 125th St. itself will see a variety of improvements. The street will be lined with 62 energy-efficient LED street lights that will soon be popping up throughout New York, and the new pedestrian wayfinding signs will be a part of the 12 SBS stations. These signs are supposed to have real-time bus arrival information as well.

In announcing the revival of this key route and corresponding improvements, DOT stressed the 50 meetings they hosted over the last year with “extensive outreach” but Community Board leaders still bemoaned the route, solidifying my belief that Community Boards are generally barriers to, and not instruments of, progress in the city. Meanwhile, while various state officials including Bill Perkins, Adriano Espaillat and Melissa Mark-Viverito joined the announcement, Inez Dickens was notably absent from the parade of political quotes. Read into that what you will. The good news is that this project is happening, and it’ll be live in eight months.

“With new businesses and historic destinations drawing record numbers of visitors to the heart of Harlem, 125th Street has never been more dynamic, yet congestion has kept buses at a standstill,” DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan said. “By bringing dedicated bus lanes and speeding up boarding times, SBS will provide a lifeline to thousands of residents and visitors and bring world-class streetscapes to one of the world’s most famous streets.”

Categories : Buses, Manhattan
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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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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.

Categories : Buses, MTA Technology
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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.

Categories : Buses, Manhattan
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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.

Categories : Buses, Staten Island
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If buses are our future, improvements in service must be as well.

If buses are our future, improvements in service must be as well.

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.

Categories : Buses
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Former MTA execs and NYC politicians gather in front of a souped-up express bus.

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.

Categories : Buses
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