Here come the Select Bus Service route plans. Here comes the BRT controversy. As MTA CEO and Chairman Jay Walder pledges to speed up the city’s buses, the two transportation agencies have seemingly settled on a design that, while progressive for New York City, leaves much to be desired.
DOT unveiled the new plans last night at a meeting of the First Avenue/Second Avenue SBS Community Advisory Committee, and the agency’s presentation is available here as a PDF. The story I want to tell is best express through the liberal use of pictures and excerpts from the slides. Click any picture for a larger image. Let’s dive in.
The basic premise of the 1st Ave./2nd Ave. Select Bus Service is one of adaptation to changing neighborhoods. The route starts in the cramped and densely populated Lower Manhattan area, shoots up past residential neighborhoods in the East Village and Murray Hill, navigates its way through an overly congestion midtown and settles in for a ride up through the Upper East Side and Harlem. Along the way down Second Ave., it must also contend with some massive subway construction efforts, and DOT has included bike lanes in any street overhaul as well.
To combat these problems, the simple and best solution would involve physically separated bus and bike lanes from South Ferry to 125th St. Cars would lose a lane, and businesses would have to get creative with deliveries. But travel times would be markedly improved, and buses would no longer be subject to the whims of surface traffic and dense midtown congestion. Instead, DOT and the MTA have proposed three different alignments for the various neighborhoods, and each will require major enforcement efforts to keep bus lanes free and buses moving.
The first design runs into a parking problem. On one side of the street, bicyclists would enjoy a fully separated and protected lane while buses would get their own dedicated lane on the other side of the street. Cars would still be able to cut off buses to access parking, and those trying to parallel park would end up blocking the bus lanes as well. But bulbs would provide for easy access points, and the buses would, ideally, be able to travel in straight lines. BRT buses, though, would wind up stuck behind local buses.
Design B is probably the best of the bunch. Bikes would still enjoy protected lanes on the left-hand side of the street, and buses would would receive a dedicated lane next to the curb on the right. The problem again is that the bus lane is not a physically separated one. Without increased enforcement, delivery trucks would surely block the lane, and businesses will cry foul about their missing parking spots. Upper Green Side, an attendee at last night’s meeting, reveals that off-peak lane use might even allow for delivery trucks and metered parking.
Design C would leave the curb-side bus lane in place, but bikes would be thrust into a shared lane automobiles. This one runs into the same problem with buses as Design B and would also, in the words of Upper Green Side, “accommodate off-peak deliveries and metered parking.”
With these three designs, DOT and the MTA have also proposed where along the avenues each design would be employed. The results are the following map:
Basically, it appears as though Select Bus Service would not start until Houston St. and that the midtown area — right now, the worst for cyclists — would not see the luxury of physically separated lanes. For bikers, this is the least optimal design DOT and the MTA could have produced.
As one might imagine, reaction to this plan has not been favorable. Upper Green Side accuses the city of missing some golden opportunities for bikes and buses while Streetsblog’s commenters were more critical.
In the end, I’m left with the same questions I’ve always had for DOT and the MTA. What is the point of this project without physically separated bus lanes? If the goal is to markedly improve transit speeds up and down these avenues, that can be accomplished only through physically separated lanes. Buses cannot wait for delivery vans to move or for cars to finish parking. They shouldn’t have to wait for taxis to load and unload. The local bus problems remain as well.
For now, DOT and the MTA deserve our recognition for trying to bring faster bus service to New York, but this plan is a far cry from true Bus Rapid Transit. It’s questionable how, outside of pre-boarding fare payment plans, it’s even that much more efficient than the current Limited bus service that now runs up and down 1st and 2nd Aves.
But this is plan for now. The agencies will hold a public open house and some workshops in February before convening the CAC again in April. Maybe by then, physically separated lanes will be a part of the equation.
Addendum (4:26 p.m.): While I was writing this, Streetsblog’s Ben Fried tracked down the reactions from a bunch of the East Side’s elected officials. They praised the plans for DOT’s willingness to push the NYC-centric envelope but worry, as I do, that the proposal does not go far enough. Fried reported:
Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh…took issue with the contention of the MTA’s Ted Orosz, who postulated that illegally parked trucks would disrupt bus service in separated lanes. “Other cities, and certainly New York, can figure out how to prevent a Snapple truck from parking in a bus lane,” he said. “There are certainly ways to configure this that would reduce the chance that traffic’s going to block it.”
City Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito, who represents East Harlem and parts of the Bronx, called the plan “a great start” in an email to Streetsblog, while also calling on the MTA and NYCDOT to “move forward with an even better plan.”
“I am particularly encouraged by the proposed creation of protected bike lanes, which will go a long way to promote the use of bicycles,” she said. “However, I urge the MTA and NYCDOT to consider including separated bus lanes into their plan for the East Side. Many of my constituents depend on the First and Second Avenue buses to get around, and separated bus lanes will make their everyday trips both quicker and safer.”