Home Buses When bus lanes aren’t a subway

When bus lanes aren’t a subway

by Benjamin Kabak

A painted bus lane can’t come close to matching the benefits of a subway.

When the MTA and New York City’s Department of Transportation unveiled the East Side Select Bus Service plans earlier this week, the back-slapping had started even before the politicians had enough time to pose in front of a new bus. Half a decade before Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway is set to debut, the new bus service — New York’s own half-hearted attempt at Bus Rapid Transit — will revitalize transit along the East Side. It will be, they said, a surface subway.

That final phrase is a loaded one, and it’s a huge exaggeration that’s being bandied about as though it’s nothing. It first popped up in a Daily News article on Monday morning because DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan used it. “We are basically building a surface subway for the 54,000 riders who use this route every day,” she said.

Sadik-Khan, generally a sound advocate for street developments, is just wrong. She, her DOT and the MTA aren’t basically building a surface subway for the city streets. They’re adding incremental improvements to the bus system, slapping a fancy name on it and proclaiming it the age of Bus Rapid Transit. What they’re offering is a far cry from true BRT, and it’s insulting to call it a surface subway.

Vitriol and outrage aside, it’s important to understand why Select Bus Service isn’t true Bus Rapid Transit and why Bus Rapid Transit, let alone New York’s SBS offerings, aren’t comparable to subway service. The biggest aspect of the SBS plans that prevent it from being rapid transit anything is the right-of-way. While 1st and 2nd Ave. will soon be marked with painted bus lanes similar to those that run across Fordham Road, these lanes are not bus-only lanes in the truest sense of the word. As long as the lanes are not physically separated from the rest of traffic and as long as these lanes don’t get signal prioritization, the Select Bus Service lanes are just fancy lanes for a glorified Limited bus service.

Intertwined with the right-of-way issues are concerns about speed. A local subway can go from Houston St. at Broadway to 125th St. at Lexington, a distance of approximately 6.4 miles covered by the 6 train, in 22 minutes. That’s an average speed of approximately 17.5 miles per hour. It currently takes the M15 nearly 90 minutes to make a similar trip up 2nd Ave. The MTA claims the SBS route along Fordham Road is 10-15 percent faster, and even if the same gains can be realized without dedicated lanes along the East Side, that entire trip will now take 80 minutes instead. It’s progress, but until buses can enjoy signal prioritization and blocking-the-box enforcement, they will forever be slowed by crosstown traffic and the ebb and flows of the avenues. A subway doesn’t have to wait for a car to clear the intersection before moving forward; a bus does.

Finally, we arrive at the issue of capacity. Simply put, a bus — even the new articulated Select Bus Service buses — cannot keep pace with a 10-car subway set. A typical R142A car is at capacity with 176 passengers, and so a ten-car set can hold 1760. A Nova Bus LFS can fit under 100 passengers. With 6 trains running every four minutes, the M15 would have to run at a near-continuous rate to provide bus service equivalent with subway service. No matter what the Transportation Commissioner might say, Select Bus Service isn’t a subway system.

For New York, it’s easy to feel cheated by these words. Our elected officials are engaged in some serious make-up artistry. They’ve offered up a halfway solution for bus rapid transit and are trying to put lipstick on a transit-deficient pig. If the city wants to offer subway service along 2nd Ave., it should work to expedite progress along the Second Ave. Subway. If it wants to offer true bus rapid transit, it should fight for physically separated lanes and signal prioritization. Otherwise, they may call it a subway, but if it walks like a bus and talks like a bus…

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Vanshnookenraggen June 9, 2010 - 1:24 am

This happened in Boston 10 years ago. It hasn’t turned out very well. All the fancy BRT things that were supposed to make the bus faster didn’t actually work, or weren’t even installed.

At least we are getting some bike lanes…. right?

Aaron June 9, 2010 - 2:01 am

Along the Silver Line Washingto? They really should’ve built that as a green line “F” branch coming out of the subway south of Boylston along Tremont. The Silver Line waterfront lines? The problem there is capacity. There is none. I worked at the Federal Courthouse and all the employees there walked across the bridge to South Station because your odds of getting on a silver line bus at Courthouse were similar to your odds of winning the Mass Lotto.

Or the ultimate in bustitution – the loss of the E between Heath and Arborway? I’m still angry that they paved over those tracks. Even local JP residents complain “There’s no rooms for cars!” Yeah, like the 39 is doing any better.

AK June 9, 2010 - 9:30 am

Actually, the Silver Line Waterfront buses have been pretty effective, largely because car traffic on the Waterfront is minimal and much of the route (south Station-Courthouse-World Trade Center-Airport) has a dedicated, bus-only pathway. If you work at Courthouse, there is very little reason to NOT walk to South Station, which has Red Line/Commuter Rail/Amtrak/Bus connections, and is about a 5 minute jaunt.

Also, the odds of getting a Silver Line bus at Courthouse are the same as at South Station, because EVERY Silver Line bus stops at Courthouse:


Aaron June 9, 2010 - 2:42 pm

AK: The morning commute is distributed over about a 90 minute period (people arriving between 7:30-9:00) but, because so many employers along the waterfront route are government, the evening commute comes as a single rush of people all going home right at 5:00 – your odds of getting on a bus at Courthouse are low because they all fill up at WTC. So, no, not the same as South Station. Have you commuted along that route before?

AK June 9, 2010 - 3:58 pm

Indeed I have, though I trust your judgment better than my own. I still don’t understand your point though. You mention that they fill up at WTC…which means the buses are going TOWARD South Station…So why would people go to South Station to catch a Silver Line bus back the other direction? Do you see what I’m saying? I can understand your point if you wanted a lift from Courthouse to SS during the evening rush (though again, it is a very short walk), but if you want to go the other direction (to the Airport/connections to East Boston), then Courthouse is the first station stop after South Station, and thus you could easily get on…

Aaron June 9, 2010 - 6:40 pm

Have they rebuilt the footbridge yet? When I was working there, that walk was a hazard of construction (despite the fact that the Silver Line station is actually a couple blocks from the Courthouse) and it was two bad choices – stumble around construction or hike across the parking lots to the Silver Line. I could be wrong, and I’m not familiar about Southie commuting patterns but my personal experience was that the Silver Line rush hour directions were outbound to the Federal Courthouse and WTC in the morning, and inbound in the evening (people transferring to the MBCR and the red line).

What I and a lot of people did was take the silver line outbound to Courthouse in the morning but walked back in the afternoon – I hated that walk so much because there were so many obstructions b/t the Courthouse and South Station, but… better than watching 3, 4 busses go by.

Has MBTA finally turned that around and turned the Silver Line into something useful for Southie? My experience is that Southie residents were still taking the various busses to Andrew/Broadway/South Station rather than the Silver Line. (in looking at the MBTA map it looks like the SL3 was actually killed. Owch.) So I would guess that commuting patterns are almost 100% this way now, asides from the people going to Logan. (the silver line is great as an airport connection, but doesn’t have the capacity for the Waterfront that will be needed as it develops).

AK June 10, 2010 - 8:41 am

Your last paragraph is spot-on, in my experience. The construction that obstructed the walk from the Courthouse to South Station has receded, though, making that walk far more palatable for most.

Al D June 14, 2010 - 12:00 pm

I recently had the pleasure of enjoying the Silver Line for non-rush hour service. I rode from WTC to South Station for true BRT. It gets lots of Logan traffic, the SL1 that is, but the SL2 weekday service is empty. A bus in its own tunnel with its own right of way? We should only be so lucky…

JPN June 9, 2010 - 2:04 am

Marketing strategy. Whether Ms. Sadik-Khan borrowed the term from Streetsblog founder Aaron Naparstek or the Philadelphia Subway-Surface lines, which is rightly a semi-subway, I’d safely bet that native New Yorkers will see through the term as applied here. (Cap’n Transit’s post comes from the second search result for “surface subway” on Google as an example of that term’s definition on Double-Tongued Dictionary.)

Anybody want to continue the debate about putting SBS on the subway map?

Alon Levy June 9, 2010 - 2:40 am

There are really two “yes” positions on this debate. One is to put SBS on the map, on the model of Boston and LA. This is likely to be pointless – most of the lines don’t complement the subway well (part of which also indicates poor route choice… but that’s a separate argument). Another is to also put out a frequent bus route map, which includes routes based on service metrics rather than infrastructure.

JPN June 10, 2010 - 4:53 am

I am warming up to your latter idea. It is a good idea to have a new citywide map of the most frequent routes, especially now that we have many limited-stop services. Now if we can purchase more buses and hire more drivers to keep up with the demand…

JPN June 9, 2010 - 2:15 am

How does the thought of underground bike lanes sound? Is it a crazy idea that would work?

Karl Tingwald June 9, 2010 - 2:23 am

At the end of the day you need to pay two employees to operate a subway train with 1000 passengers and you’d need more than ten articulated buses (and ten drivers) to carry as many people, dedicated lanes or not.

Marty Barfowitz June 9, 2010 - 2:59 am

this “true BRT” argument never ceases to be ridiculous and irrelevant. “surface subway” is a metaphor. it’s a sound bite. it’s a fast, easy way to explain and sell a new transit concept to a public, a political establishment and a local press that barely pays attention to this stuff. it’s a great, catchy phrase. i’m glad JSK is pushing it.

and it’s not all b.s. either. Off-board fare collection is a feature has always been part of the subway system and never part of the bus system til SBS. NY’ers outside the transpo geek community will recognize off-board fare payment as a radical change in bus service. “subway” also implies right-of-way. it suggests: stay the f*ck out of the red bus lane just as you’d stay off the subway tracks. this implication will certainly not stop motorheads and NYPD from driving and parking in the bus lane. but it certainly sets a high sense of expectation, and i think that’s great.

OBVIOUSLY, the new bus is not as fast as a subway. it doesn’t move as many people as a subway. it doesn’t cost anywhere near the price tag of a new subway to build. it’s, frankly, a bit ridiculous to suggest that the use of this term is “cheating” new yorkers. as if anyone is going to step aboard the SBS and think: hey, this is supposed to do everything a subway does! rip-off!

new yorkers are not going to compare the new bus to the subway (or the lack of subway, in this case). they are going to compare it to the old bus system on the east side and they will most likely be very pleased with the improvements. as the constituency builds for these new types of buses, the system will improve more and add the types of feature that ben complains are currently lacking. if NYC isn’t nuked by al qaeda or drowned by melting ice caps, i fully expect that 20 years from now, most of the major BRT lines will be full-featured light rail. at that point, i doubt we’ll need to describe it anymore as “surface subway.”

finally, some of bogota’s BRT lines do, in fact, move numbers of travelers that approach subway levels. ben: you should call walter hook at ITDP and ask him about that.

Christopher June 9, 2010 - 8:10 am

Americans will never approach Bogota’s level of service in BRT because in addition to not separating these lines properly, our buses aren’t as long as they are in South America and our personal sense of space means we pack into our buses as tightly. Only LA has done well with BRT because of dedicated right of way — but they still aren’t seeing the kind of throughput that Bogota does.

Boris June 9, 2010 - 11:19 am

You mean to say, in 20 years the light rail feasibility studies will be done? In 20 years, we’ll be lucky to be where Bogota is now.

Barring some catastrophe ($10/gal gas and insurmountable failures in the electric car market) I don’t see a major change in government policy that will make it possible for us to have light rail thought of, studied, designed, and built at multiple locations in the city within 20 years.

Alon Levy June 9, 2010 - 12:51 pm

The keyword in what you’re saying is “New Yorkers.” New Yorkers are in general provincial and ignorant of what happens in the rest of the world, and think that learning from other cities is beneath their dignity. This gets worse the further you go up the food chain; nothing in JSK and Bloomberg’s planning suggests they know something about peer cities’ practice beyond the soundbites.

If instead of comparing everything to the embarrassing state of New York’s transit system you looked at industry best practices, you’d see that,

– Off-board fare collection can be done citywide at very low cost, without the bus stopping while fares are being inspected;
– Generous unlimited monthly or easy top-up incentives can reduce fare evasion rates to 2%;
– Trains can run without conductors;
– BRT runs on two-way streets in the median, in physically separated lanes – anything else is just an ordinary bus;
– Buses can run in mixed traffic, as BRT part of the way and as local buses for another part.

The wheel-reinventors who run the MTA and DOT today fortunately can’t do too much damage. Competent transit agencies – i.e. nearly all non-US, non-UK ones – will almost certainly not hire them. Germans have no reason to hire Americans. The only parts of the world other than the US where those people cause serious damage are, potentially, low-lying coastal floodplains.

JP June 9, 2010 - 6:49 am

last post, someone named Ed suggested running both north-and-southbound traffic on first ave. This is an idea worth exploring or at least debating as long as we’re

regarding Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan’s comment about making a surface subway, let’s just check her math. 100 people per bus, 54,000 customers to provide service for. Let’s see, hmm.. divided by two for going both directions… carry the one…

I for one fully look forward to seeing 275 SBS buses running in each direction. In the roughly 8.5 mile stretch of the route between 125th and south ferry that’s a bus every 160 feet. Those A/C units on the new R160s aren’t the only things letting off hot air.

Andrew June 9, 2010 - 8:46 am

The guideline capacity of an R142A is 110, not 176. Crush loads (176) happen on occasion, but they happen rarely, certainly not on every car of every train over the peak hour!

As Marty points out, it’s a metaphor, and a very common one for describing BRT. It doesn’t mean that BRT is identical to a subway. It means that BRT brings some of the advantages of the subway to the bus world.

Alon Levy June 9, 2010 - 12:37 pm

The actual capacity given by the manufacturer is 176; 110 is what the MTA deems safe. For what it’s worth, trains one third longer have a crush load of about 330 in Tokyo.

Andrew June 10, 2010 - 12:10 am

Safe? There’s nothing unsafe about 176, but subway cars are never crush loaded on average.

True crush loads are pretty uncommon. They virtually never happen when service is running normally. (They can’t, because they’d lead to excessive dwell times which would interfere with service, and then service would no longer be running normally!)

Nobody plans or schedules for crush loads. Crush loads reflect a breakdown of the system.

Alon Levy June 10, 2010 - 2:10 am

It would take you exactly 2 minutes to pull up Hyperdia and check the schedules on any of the most overcrowded train lines in Tokyo, in which case you’d see that the differences in travel time between peak and off-peak are small to nonexistent. You’d also see that one of those overcrowded lines, the Chuo Line, empties 28 tph peak into two-track city-center terminals. Apparently, JR East hasn’t heard of the idea that crush loads increase dwell times to interfere with service. Clearly, they need New Yorkers to educate them about how to run trains properly.

Andrew June 10, 2010 - 9:18 pm

Perhaps dwell times are high off-peak as well. And perhaps the signal system was designed from the start to be accepting of long dwells.

Who claimed that two-track terminals can’t necessarily achieve 28 tph? It depends on the design of the terminal and of its signal system. Won’t the new 7 terminal achieve something along the lines of 28 tph?

Alon Levy June 11, 2010 - 6:38 pm

The Chuo Line has tail tracks of 30-50 meters – look it up on Google Earth. It also empties into Tokyo Station, rather than into a secondary station as the 7 will. I brought it up mostly as a counter to the oft-made point that NJT and LIRR trains have to dwell at Penn forever because it’s such a busy station.

Andrew June 13, 2010 - 10:51 pm

If you’re arguing with something I’ve said, you’ll have to be clearer about what it is.

SEAN June 9, 2010 - 10:15 am

I was able to meet walter Hook at two events sponcered by TSTC. His talk on BRT was interesting & informative. However I did take issue with the idea that over time BRT costs are lower than subway or light rail.

Over the past decade what has happened to the cost of fuel? What is going to happen to those costs in the future? Oh yeah, & there is a little thing called deep water horizon in the gulf of Mexico

oscar June 9, 2010 - 10:20 am

JSK is full of hot air quite often.

Even though i personally agree with most of her ideas, her marketing skills (aka a holier than thou attitude) are horrible, and leave a political vulnerability for rollbacks of these same projects…

Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines June 9, 2010 - 10:31 am

[…] 2nd Ave Sagas Takes Issue With SBS Marketing Strategy […]

Joe June 9, 2010 - 10:45 am

If they are going to have a dedicated lane, why dont they just build a light rail instead of having buses. The light rail is faster and could hold more poeple.

SEAN June 9, 2010 - 12:27 pm

You don’t want the rath of the big oil lobby breathing down your neck. That is why quite often BRT is chosen over light rail, & former president G W Bush indirectly admited it.

Duke87 June 9, 2010 - 1:11 pm

Light rail would be considerably more expensive to build. And while buses can run anywhere beyond the BRT corridor, light rail can go no further than where tracks are laid.

Alon Levy June 9, 2010 - 6:26 pm

You’re right, in principle. In practice, the way New York configures BRT makes it impossible for buses to run a mixed BRT-regular bus pattern.

Andrew June 10, 2010 - 12:15 am

I guess the Bx12 doesn’t exist, then.

Alon Levy June 10, 2010 - 2:03 am

The Bx12 is one route, running on the BRT line. This is exactly what LRT service on the same route would look like. For examples of mixed operation, look to Brisbane, where you have buses running local in one of the suburbs, then expressing on the Quickway to downtown. The New York equivalent would be routing multiple bus lines on the 1st/2nd BRT line, some of which run for a significant stretch on other streets.

Andrew June 10, 2010 - 9:39 pm

The Bx12 is two routes, one local (non-SBS) and one limited (SBS). The local only runs between Sedgwick and Pelham Bay (except when it runs to Orchard Beach), so the SBS buses make all stops west and east of those points.

The Fordham Road portion of the route has bus lanes. The Pelham Pkwy portion doesn’t.

The local and limited share the bus lanes. So do several other routes around the Grand Concourse and Fordham Plaza.

Am I misunderstanding something? The only thing that’s all-or-nothing is the fare payment mechanism.

Alon Levy June 11, 2010 - 6:39 pm

No, the fare payment is what I’m talking about. You’re not misunderstanding.

Andrew June 13, 2010 - 10:53 pm

Well, then, pardon me for not reading your mind. This is the first you’ve mentioned fare payment here. Your example had to do with stopping patterns; I took that to mean that you were referring to stopping patterns, not to fare payment.

Al D June 14, 2010 - 12:05 pm


I enjoyed reading this post, one of your best pieces. Agree 100% that the city is just looking to ‘brand’ another type of ‘limited plus’ if you will bus service. Heck, some of the changes won’t be in place until 2011. A true, no traffic, physically separated bus corridor, or BRT, is the best solution by far for the East Side.

Dave June 29, 2010 - 5:30 pm

As anyone even considered what this is going to do to traffic with ALL of the trucks double parked making deliveries? Have anyone taken Hudson st. or 9th ave. lately? I have. I’m a NYC yellow taxi driver and both of those avenues’ are avoid always in my book. Sheltered bike lanes, which cater to a small portion of the population btw, are a joke and cause more problems than solve. First off, no one uses them and I cannot count all the accidents I have seen when driver do not know what to do when they see the islands.

You want to solve NYC traffic. Very easy.

1. Ban all single occupancy vehicles from entering the city from 6 am to 12 pm.

2. Change the commercial parking laws. How many times have a I seen a truck doubled parked in a lane, with no cars parked at the curb.

3. Re-design bus stops which will give more quick(10-15 min max) parking area.

4. Instead of traffic agents giving out Blocking the box tickets, have them direct traffic.

5. Implement congestion pricing.

6. Construct parking lots on the outside boroughs which will be closely located near rapid transit depots (bus, subway).

7. Raise the double parking fine 5 fold. This is the number one cause of traffic in NYC.

Thank you for the vent. My livelihood depends on the flow of traffic and I have A LOT of time to think about this issue.

Making buses slightly sexier :: Second Ave. Sagas July 8, 2010 - 1:39 am

[…] bus riders. He pays lip service to the “BRT-as-surface subway” line of thinking that I have shot down in the […]


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