Home Buses Recommended Reading: What future NYC BRT?

Recommended Reading: What future NYC BRT?

by Benjamin Kabak

This great idea remains alive only on paper. (Image via NYC DOT)

In the wake of the death of the 34th St. Transitway, transit advocates have been down on the state of citywide bus improvements. Everyone in New York admits that buses are too slow, but an ambitious plan to bring physically separated bus lanes with dedicated rights-of-way to Midtown has been replaced by another half-hearted proposal to paint some stripes on the street and call it a bus lane.

With the demise of the Transitway, none of the Mayor’s plans to slowly bring bus improvements to the five boroughs will include a “best practices” approach to BRT. While pre-boarding fare payment plans will speed up bus dwell times, the vehicles won’t enjoy the benefits of a dedicate ROW. To improve bus service then will require stringent bus lane enforcement efforts and true signal prioritization efforts.

Over at Streetsblog, Noah Kazis took a few minutes to wonder about the future of BRT. He writes, in part:

It seems likely that without physical separation on 34th Street, there won’t be physical separation on any bus lanes implemented before the end of the Bloomberg Administration. The remaining routes in the city’s first phase of BRT rollout — on the Nostrand Avenue corridor in Brooklyn and Hylan Boulevard in Staten Island — are scheduled to debut in the next two years and do not include physically separated lanes…

“A number of the environmental and transportation groups are starting to recognize that the next administration after Bloomberg is going to have to answer to us on where they stand on these issues that have been wildly popular for New Yorkers,” said Kate Slevin of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

Though a new physically separated busway is unlikely to be constructed in the next three years, said Joan Byron of the Pratt Center for Community Development, “Planning can happen and dialogue with stakeholders can happen that make it a lot more likely that the next phase is gets built and has those features.” Byron said she hopes that the BRT team at DOT can assemble a coalition along its next routes that can politically lock in full-featured bus improvements. “There are workers and residents and employers in the outer boroughs who would love to have this problem of a Select Bus route running by their door,” she said.

To get dedicated busways, the city will have to change its outreach approach. It’s going to have engage folks like Joan Byron of the Pratt Center and work with Community Boards to explain why dedicated lanes are necessary. It’s not enough to propose these improvements by fiat, but rather, DOT must educate New Yorkers who aren’t familiar with the rationale behind transitway improvements.

For now, the 34th St. changes are a set-back, but their ramifications echo into the future. It’s not too late to bring dedicated bus lanes to the city, but it will require stronger and more inclusive leadership than what we have seen so far. To improve the buses, we’ll need it.

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15 comments

Scott E April 5, 2011 - 12:40 pm

Just wondering, how is the red paint holding up on the older bus lanes? I haven’t seen them, but I’d suspect that a bus lane would be indiscernible from a regular traffic lane in no time at all.

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Chris April 5, 2011 - 2:12 pm

That’s about right, at least in many of the part of the UES I’ve seen. I’m not sure it’s as much an issue of the paint itself, as the road surface onto which it’s applied not really surviving the winter very well.

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al April 6, 2011 - 11:59 pm

Time for plastic lane separators.

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Al D April 5, 2011 - 1:31 pm

The approach which I believe that Ms. Byron touched on, could be quite compelling. And that is, as was done with the Bx12, bring SBS to the outer boroughs first. Just as a terrible generalization, these communtiy based groups are better connected, funded and outspoken in Manhattan. So, they don’t want true BRT. Fine. Go to an area of the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and/or Staten Island where buses are heavily utlizied, there is no subway, there are few ‘We’ll never change’ people (yes you Ms. Schiavo), and bring it there first.

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David April 5, 2011 - 2:36 pm

Planners try to jam all things onto the few major streets that exist – cars, trucks, buses, and bike lanes. This isn’t taking advantage of the street grid.
Separate one-way bus lanes onto alternating parallel streets next to major thoroughfares. One parking lane will have to be removed, but the buses will move since there is far less traffic on, say, 33rd & 34th streets.
Stop cramming all types of traffic onto one busy street and things will start moving again.

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Brian April 5, 2011 - 4:37 pm

The reason they picked 34th street is because pretty much everything is on 34th Street. Not on 33rd, but on 34th (except maybe for the IRT Lex. Ave Stop). The ferry, the Herald Square subway stop, Penn Station, the subway stops at Penn Station, the Farley Post Office and the Javits center are all pretty much located at 34th Street. Add that to the fact they there are lot of pedestrians around the Herald Square-Penn Station area because of the transit hubs and Macy’s, it was a prime area to test out the transitway and truly separated bus lanes. But due to extreme NIMBYism, and a lack of outreach by the DOT, it sunk.

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Andrew April 5, 2011 - 9:54 pm

Actually, all the examples you mentioned, except the two by the rivers, are closer to 33rd (Penn and the post office) or just as easily accessed from 33rd as from 34th (the subway stations).

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Alon Levy April 5, 2011 - 4:39 pm

No, it’s actually completely normal to put the buses on the major street, and not in a one-way pair. From the points of view of service identity and general reliability, the optimal alignment is to put the buses in the median of a wide street.

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David April 5, 2011 - 5:57 pm

Oh Alon and Brian, don’t be a couple of Negative Nancies. Try to think alternative options to a complex situation.
Yes 34th is a busy street but you make sound like nobody walks more than one block from any station or bus stop. 35th Street is only 200 feet from 34th.
Of course the optimal alignment is down “the median of a wide street” but there will only be 5 lanes in order to widen the sidewalks. Add median bus stops and you lose 3-4 more lanes which eliminates drop-off and loading lanes which businesses need to function.
A one-way eastbound bus lane on 35th Street would offer stops at every intersection. A one-way westbound bus lane on 34th Street would still provide travel and loading/parking lanes most of the length.
People will gladly deal with a split bus line if it means the bus will actually move. The M50 bus already does this.

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Alon Levy April 5, 2011 - 7:21 pm

I’m not a negative Nancy; I’m just someone who reads BRT planning guidelines. The ITDP’s guideline not only says BRT should be in the median, but also opposes one-way pairs in constrained corridors, which 34th is not, preferring a transit mall. The M50 is actually a good example of how one-way pairs can fail: its ridership is among the lowest in Manhattan.

In contrast, with normal sidewalk width, a major Manhattan street or avenue can fit 6 lanes of traffic, including parking. The stops take space, but they’re placed only at the intersections, and it’s not a big deal if a few parking spots and loading areas are removed there.

Now, what to do with the non-bus lanes is a separate question, which should be decided with community input and can be answered separately on each block. The standard motorized transportation-centric answer would be a travel lane and a parking/loading lane on each side of the bus median, but it could also be replaced with extra-wide sidewalks and bike lanes. Either way, it doesn’t need to interfere with bus planning.

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Alon Levy April 5, 2011 - 4:41 pm

I want to be enthusiastic about the Pratt Center’s counterproposal, but it’s not very good. That said, the principle of using intermediate-level transit – BRT, LRT, streetcars, whatever – to fill in gaps in the subway network, along the major bus corridors, is robust, and makes a lot more sense than the 34th Street plan.

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AlexB April 5, 2011 - 8:50 pm

I just got back to NY from a trip to Ireland, and noticed that there were pedestrian only streets in almost every city I visited, including: Dublin, Galway and Belfast. They were all far and away the nicest streets with the best shopping. With the 34th St pedestrian mall that was proposed, I wondered a lot about how businesses would get deliveries, but no one in those Irish cities seemed to have a problem at all. I guess they’ve worked out off hours delivery times. Closing off more critical commercial streets to car traffic really would be a great thing to do in midtown, with or without buses running through the middle of them.

The way I understand it, the busway was killed by people in Murray Hill and the pedestrian mall was killed by Macy’s. That doesn’t necessarily mean DOT had to drop the exclusive lanes for the whole route, though, does it?

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Bolwerk April 6, 2011 - 3:28 pm

Welcome back to New York: where having car keys entitles you to take a smouldering dump on everyone else!

Yeah, I dunno, I suspect JSK and Co. are probably feeling like they have too many fights on their hands, and the illiterate tabloid rags were howling bloody murder about this one while a few entitled upper middle class types and politically connected hacks screamed about PPW – and we’re still arguing about whether Times Square’s plaza was a good idea (despite the emerging consensus that it was). It’s really hard to say for sure why they backed off. Some of it may have been related to the fact that they only even bothered to get input from people who wanted curbside access – the very people with disposable $ who don’t work for a living and have time to howl to community boards and 311. Personally, I like to think if I were in her shoes, at least with Bloomberg as mayor, I would enjoy not listening to to the press rags, but I really don’t know how much power they have to move public opinion either.

My impression is people tend to like the “progressive” transportation changes when they’re implemented, so the only way the authoritarians in the press and elected officialdom can keep them down is to stop them before they happen – hence the howling. Afterall, once implemented, not a single one of these initiatives has been a failure. A few maybe fell a tad short of their promises, but all seemed to have proved wildly popular.

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Car-Free New Yorker April 7, 2011 - 5:44 pm

I work for a living and I joined my neighbors in opposing the busway.

I also live along 34th Street and walk everywhere — including the area around Macy’s and Penn Station — because I don’t own a car.

Sure, the streets are sometimes crowded (sometimes, not all the time), but it’s possible for pedestrians to take “alternative” routes, just like cars. Thirty-third, 32nd, 35th are options for people, too. As is walking through Macy’s from 7th Avenue to Broadway, which can be diversionary and fun.

People who live and work here know how to get around.

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Frank B. April 5, 2011 - 11:50 pm

I’m starting to think that they don’t want physically seperated lanes so they can collect the hefty sums from the people who wander into them.

Yep. Makes sense. And money.

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