Home Buses A plan for the East Side SBS, but the wrong one

A plan for the East Side SBS, but the wrong one

by Benjamin Kabak

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.”

Well said.

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EC January 15, 2010 - 7:14 pm

I’m shocked shocked by this.

Wait no I am not.

Anyone who has seen how BRT actually gets implemented in places like Los Angeles (where they dont pave over an operating rail line), this is what happens.

BRT gets cut back to where its not really BRT and does nothing near enough to solve the overall problems (see Wilshire Blvd express bus service in Los Angeles)

But transit advocates here somehow think they wont have the same problems as the rest of the country.

AlexB January 15, 2010 - 7:17 pm

I think two lane protected busways along 1st and 2nd avenues and a two way protected bikeway on 3rd Ave might be the best solution. This would be extremely fast and reliable, would have close to the same capacity as a subway, and would be removing the same number of lanes from each avenue as options A or B above.

I am curious to know what the other alternatives to options A and B are? If you physically separate the bus lane, what happens when a bus breaks down or the SBS needs to pass the local? A two lane busway with the bike lane would be great but it would restrict these avenues to maximum two lanes of traffic, which isn’t really feasible politically. Also, if you put the bus lane next to the curb and a parking lane next to that for deliveries, is it really safe for deliveries to be made across the bus lane or people to be opening their doors into it? (I know what wasn’t in options A or B, but it’s been mentioned.) Perhaps the bus lane and bike lane could be together and separated, and the SBS could use the bike lane to pass the locals, although that brings up additional safety issues. I think most everyone can agree that regardless of the configuration, the restricted bus lane and bike lanes should extend from the south ferry to 125th St (and across 125th to the Hudson.)

I have seen examples of exclusive busways, Curitiba, Bogota, LA, etc. but none that tried to include two parking lanes and a bike lane within a 5 or 6 lane overall street width. It just seems like there is too much going on. Does anyone have an example of this that’s worked well?

Ed January 15, 2010 - 10:09 pm

I will go further. I don’t just want physically separated bus and bike lanes, I want “bus avenues” and “bike streets” (not that many, and the Manhattan avenues are wide enough to put both, uptown and downtown, on the same avenue, one the eastside and one on the westside), where private passenger cars are banned from the street, which are reserved for bikes/ busses/ fire trucks/ ambulances.

That said, though obviously we have another Rube Goldberg plan that has been compromised to death, just having a bus no stop every three blocks on the uptown/ downtown run is a big improvement. The stopping every three blocks/ every crosstown block thing is really the main reason the busses are so slow in New York. Second is using a few really big busses instead of more small busses, third is waiting until everyone has swiped their metrocard then leaving, fourth is the wheelchair lifting machine (after a big gap from third, and its a federal mandate, but then what is access-a-ride doing?), and after that fifth would be vehicles and pedestrians in front of the busses.

But the fifth factor is becoming more common as people driving and walking in the city become less street smart over time. But transit advocates overfocus on bus lanes. There is stuff that will help more and they are not even being implemented properly.

pete January 16, 2010 - 1:35 am

No amount of parking tickets will EVER discourage delivery trucks from blocking the lanes. Its just a cost of doing business like gas tax or registration tax that is passed onto consumers.

see http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/14602712/

Misdemeanor or felony charges for delivery truck drivers, or exponential fine increases for repeat offenders is the only solution. This parking ticket scandal is just as bad as parking permit abuse.

rhywun January 16, 2010 - 1:58 am

Well… misdemeanor or felony charges goes a little overboard, I think. I would support much higher fines as a possible solution. It’s really the only way to go when traffic laws are so difficult to enforce, and in a culture that generally scoffs at traffic violations.

Alon Levy January 16, 2010 - 1:52 am

The problem with all of those solutions is that running transit in one-way pairs is a shitty idea. In the 1950s, every time an avenue in Manhattan was converted from two-way to one-way, the associated bus ridership dropped. As early as the 1960s, Jane Jacobs explained how this arrangement requires walking longer to the bus, which is why it reduces ridership.

If you want BRT, you should imitate the way light rail runs on the Embarcadero in San Francisco. It has two dedicated lanes in the middle, with high-level stations for quick boarding. The Embarcadero is very wide (it used to be a freeway) and has enough room for light rail, multiple auto traffic lanes in each direction, and sidewalks in between for light rail boarding, but a single Manhattan avenue could still have 2 lanes in each direction (including parking) plus 2 transit-only lanes.

The plan for two-way traffic should be to convert Second and First to two-way operation. First would get the BRT lane initially, in order to avoid construction mayhem on Second, and in order to serve the maximum possible area; the Upper East Side and East Village both have substantial population east of First, which would not be well served by transit on Second. Second would get BRT later, complementing SAS.

Andrew January 16, 2010 - 7:24 pm

Access time is a bit longer if buses run in one-way pairs. But running time is substantially shorter, especially for buses that make limited stops, since the traffic lights can be timed for continuous traffic flow.

I don’t like bus lanes in the middle. Everybody, regardless of which side of the street they’re coming from, has to cross the street to reach the bus.

Alon Levy January 17, 2010 - 3:25 am

The traffic lights can’t be reliably timed since dwell times are unpredictable. Modern BRT systems have signal priority anyway.

Andrew January 17, 2010 - 11:05 am

The traffic lights can be timed for the prevailing speed of traffic – the speed the bus will generally be traveling at when not at a bus stop. So the bus may hit a red light after pulling out from a bus stop, but the rest of the lights should be green until it reaches the next stop. (That’s what happens on the one-way avenues now, except where the bus runs into congestion, which the bus lanes will hopefully eliminate.)

Do you know of any BRT systems with absolute signal priority at 20 signalized intersections per mile? I doubt any exist. Even on Fordham Road, traffic signal priority is not absolute. (Even ignoring private cars, absolute traffic signal priority on a frequent bus route would wreak havoc on intersecting bus routes.)

Alon Levy January 18, 2010 - 6:46 pm

Monaco has absolute signal priority without BRT, on two-way traffic, with blocks that can be very short. Manhattan actually has one advantage over Monaco: its blocks are all the same length, which makes it easier to do signal timing.

But anyway, good signal priority is based on communication between the bus and the signal system, not on timed signals. A bus in Monaco automatically turns the light ahead of it green, even when it’s off-schedule (which happens a lot – Monaco isn’t Tokyo and buses aren’t trains).

Andrew January 18, 2010 - 10:24 pm

Monaco has 20 signalized intersections per mile?

Traffic signal priority is always based on communication between the bus and the signal system – the timed system in New York covers all vehicular traffic, and it happens to do a decent job on limited bus lines. But traffic signal priority usually doesn’t guarantee that the light will always be green for a bus (that would completely destroy cross traffic, including other buses, including pedestrians waiting to cross the street to reach the bus stop on the other side) – it merely gives the bus a bit of extra priority, perhaps extending a green light that was about to turn yellow, maybe turning a red light green a few seconds early.

Alon Levy January 19, 2010 - 2:14 am

A traffic signal priority system in cities that do it right, i.e. none in North America, does guarantee the light will (almost) always be green for the bus. It turns a red light green, breaking the usual stop cycle; this makes buses faster at the expense of green waves for cars. And yes, Monaco has signalized intersections at short intervals in many parts.

(If you want another example: Toronto more or less gets signal priority right on its streetcars, even at Manhattan block density. The problem with Toronto’s signal priority is that if there’s a station right before an intersection, the light will turn green as the train pulls into the station, which may make it red as the train pulls out.)

rhywun January 16, 2010 - 2:03 am

running transit in one-way pairs is a shitty idea

Hear hear! I was thinking the same thing. I’m a big fan of going back to two-way street. And I totally agree with the idea that the BRT should run down the center of avenues, too. Manhattan’s avenues are easily wide enough to accommodate it, as long as we agree that it doesn’t apply on every single avenue–the way that one-way buses require today.

regofer January 16, 2010 - 1:53 pm

This is Socialism: planners telling the people how they are going to live. But all planned societies lead to tyranny, like soviet Russia, Germany, Italy. It’s anti-democratic, and the beginning of abuses. Can it all.

Benjamin Kabak January 16, 2010 - 1:55 pm

Yeah, man. Adjusting plans in the face of Community Board feedback along with having open forums and various presentations is so socialist.

Wait. No it’s not at all.

Anon January 17, 2010 - 1:58 pm

Socialism has nothing to do with this issue: there is no inherent contradiction between socialism and democracy. You’re both referring to dictatorial communism, which is an entirely different matter.

rhywun January 17, 2010 - 10:54 pm

At the risk of either falling for parody or feeding a troll… the notion that planning of public areas like streets is “socialism” is fringe even for hard-core anti-government types. (The planning of private areas is much more contentious.) The poster seems to be advocating “private streets”, which works well at small scales and behind a gate, but not in the city at large. As for “democracy”, that can be carried to extremes just as tyrannical as true socialism. See “tyranny of the majority”.

petey January 17, 2010 - 11:36 pm

“This is Socialism: planners telling the people how they are going to live.”

as opposed to corporations telling the people how they are going to live. that’s “freedom.”

Ariel January 16, 2010 - 2:14 pm

I think the best layout, from left to right relative to the direction traffic is faceing, would be:

1. Parking Lane
2. Traffic Lane A
3. Traffic Lane B
4. Traffic Lane C
5. Bike Lane
6. Bus Lane A
7. Bus Lane B

This would include an island platform separating Traffic Lane C and the bike lane, and another separating the bike lane and Bus Lane A.

With this layout, delivery trucks can stop in the parking lane, Traffic Lane A or Traffic Lane C to make deliveries. There would always then be traffic lanes open for cars to go through. Bus Lane B would be used to pick up passengers and Bus Lane A would be used to go around any slower buses blocking Bus Lane B.

Andrew January 16, 2010 - 7:18 pm

I like your layout.

A single bus lane cannot be separated, or else, as AlexB says, buses can’t get past other buses.

Should we be pushing for dual bus lanes? Madison Avenue has them – why can’t 1st and 2nd?

Quinn Hue January 17, 2010 - 12:59 pm

I remember seeing a bus lane run on the left side of the one way street. In left hand driving city like the States. This is just a thought having the arrangement like the following:

1. Cycle Track protected by a buffer from the Bus Lane.
2. Bus Lane.
3. Bus Stops/Parking/Left Turn Lane in an alternating order.
4./5./6. Traffic operating in a one way directions.
7. Parking/Pedestrian Crosswalk bulbs.

Reply with any faults, but don’t be too harsh.

Quïnn Hue January 17, 2010 - 2:56 pm

Also, if the MTA doesn’t make note of the service on the Subway map, no one will use it or at least they won’t connote it with high speed service. It’s not a normal bus line, it’s supposed to be faster thus, it should be included on the Subway Map (I’m looking at the Bx12). Perception changes a lot of aspects of the service.

rhywun January 17, 2010 - 11:00 pm

I agree–true BRT should appear on a rapid transit map. I’m not sure NYC’s implementation qualifies, though. The stop spacing looks good, farther apart than a regular bus, but is the speed comparable to a train?

AlexB January 18, 2010 - 11:54 am

Looking at the schedule for the 1 train, it only averages 15 miles per hour for it’s whole route. The 4 train averages 18 miles per hour from 125th to Brooklyn Bridge. I think a bus could get 15 miles per hour if it had it own lane and stopped infrequently and had signal priority.

AlexB January 18, 2010 - 12:08 pm

Oops, bad math. The 4 is more like 23 miles per hour. Also, the 6 is 16 miles per hour, 125th to City Hall.

Andrew January 18, 2010 - 10:32 pm

If it stops too infrequently, nobody’s going to ride it, since it won’t go where anyone wants to go. There’s a balance that needs to be reached.

Signal priority is not absolute. The bus will still be stopping for red lights. I doubt it will average 15 mph.

And not many people ride a local like the 1 for long distances when an express is available. The 1 has easy transfers to the express and to plenty of intersecting lines. The M15, unfortunately, is too far east to intersect with any subway stations north of 14th Street – while I could see it included in the subway map, it’s really far better integrated with the bus system.

Also, bear in mind that scheduled running times on lots of subway lines (I don’t know about the 1 specifically) have been increased in the past few years. (Howard Roberts placed great emphasis on on-time performance.) Your 15 mph calculation may include a bunch of padding. You may want to recalculate based on a schedule from a few years ago.

Alon Levy January 19, 2010 - 2:18 am

I’ve ridden the 1 a lot, often timing it at different times of day to see if my initial impression that it averages 5 blocks per minute (i.e. 15 mph) is correct. My conclusions are,

1. North of 116th, as stops spread out, speeds can be quite high. Late in the evening, when the speed is the highest, it can go up to almost 7 blocks per minute. During the day in the off-peak, 6-6.5 is more common. I’m not sure about peak.

2. South of 116th, 5 blocks per minute is rare. At rush hour, speeds go down to about 4 blocks per minute. Off-peak, 4.5-5 is more common. The 1 is crowded and has high dwells well into the night – it’s often full at 11. Later, speeds go up to about 5.5 blocks per minute.

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