For some reason, New York City transit advocates are fighting, mildly, a battle over modes of transportation in the city that shouldn’t be fought. At a time when we should be teaming up to advocate for an expansion of all modes of car-independent transit in New York City, divisive ideas still permeate the field.
Most Wednesday, Jim Dwyer penned a column for The Times questioning the need for more subway lines in Manhattan. With the economy in trouble and boom times for New York City behind us, he wonders if the Second Ave. Subway is really the best use of funds right now. He wrote:
Right now, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is digging a subway tunnel down a short piece of Second Avenue. The current estimate is that the construction will cost about $3,000 every minute of every day next year. Then the real money begins.
Which raises the question: Is it really such a great idea to be digging subway tunnels in Manhattan?
His argument here relies on the spurious idea that the original subway planners were digging through nothing. In fact, those workers had to negotiate utilities lines and aqueducts just as today’s workers along Second Ave. have to.
But the interesting part, as Streetsblog noted yesterday, comes later on in the column:
Only now are city and authority officials beginning serious exploration of using the surface of the city, rather than its underside, for mass transit.
One idea is to dedicate portions of big streets and avenues to protected bus lanes, physically separated from other traffic. Riders would pay their fares before they boarded. An experiment to do that in the Bronx has made a big cut in travel time, said Joan Byron, director of the Sustainability and Environmental Justice Initiative at the Pratt Center for Community Development.
Such systems are called bus rapid transit, and the cost to build them is $1 million to $2 million per mile, Ms. Byron says, compared with $1 billion per mile for the Second Avenue subway.
Now, on the surface, it’s easy to see why Dwyer would pursue this line of thinking. Bus Rapid Transit lines would be far cheaper than a new subway line, and implementing them would involve many fewer disruptions to the local businesses along Second Ave. But this is a false dichotomy. Why should we have one without the other?
As I noted yesterday on Streetsblog, if we were to cut a subway expansion project, the Second Ave. Subway — soon to be one of the city’s most useful lines — would not be the one to go. Rather, the city and the MTA should axe the multi-billion-dollar, one-stop extension on the 7 line. There’s a real need, in terms of ridership, for the Second Ave. Subway; the 7 line extension goes to a property that won’t be developed for at least another decade.
Meanwhile, there are obvious issues of scalability here. An eight- or ten-car subway running under Second Ave. can ferry hundreds of people every few minutes quickly down the avenue to other parts of the city. A bus can ferry tens of people and isn’t nearly as efficient as the subway. With the cost differences, you truly get what you pay for, and until New York City can enforce bus rapid transit lanes either through the use of cameras or physically divided lanes, BRT in the City will suffer from the whims of the congestion it is designed to combat. It is unlikely that BRT will ever be able to supplant the efficiency and capacity of a subway line.
Finally, in reality, this is an exercise in wasted words. Why do we have to chose a subway line over bus rapid transit? Shouldn’t the two be allowed to co-exist on the streets of New York? The city and MTA should develop a way to enjoy the benefits of bus rapid transit lines and lanes and a new subway as well. Sure, beggars can’t be choosers, but until the city is willing to think outside the box a bit for transit, advocates will have to make an unnecessary choice. Transit it should always be, no matter the mode.