Home Buses Another attempt at improving travel to LaGuardia

Another attempt at improving travel to LaGuardia

by Benjamin Kabak

Dedicated bus routes could drastically improve public transportation ride times to LaGuardia Airport. [pdf]

A few weeks ago, right before Thanksgiving and amidst a bunch of stories on the Sandy recovery efforts, Dana Rubinstein wrote a must-read piece for Capital New York on the New York City bus system. Her article is a succinct overview of why the city’s bus system is slow and painful and why the Select Bus System, forever under construction and barely making a dent in travel patterns, is so sub-par. It deserves a full read.

Long-time SAS readers will be familiar with Rubinstein’s argument. Buses are slowed by inefficient boarding procedures, surface congestion and red lights. Select Bus Service, ostensibly a version of bus rapid transit but not one well regarded by transit experts and urban planning academics, doesn’t allow for dedicated lanes or signal prioritization, and the city has been far too willing to give into the demands of NIMBYs who cry foul over curb access. The 34th Street we never had is the one the city so desperate needs.

Yet, buses are the mode of transportation that keep trying to pull everyone in. It’s cheap to install a “bus lane” whereas it’s prohibitively expensive to build a subway line. Buses don’t have to adhere to fixed travel patterns because they’re on wheels and not tracks. Buses won’t flood as the subways did during Hurricane Sandy. Without a major rethinking of bus routes, interconnectedness and a willingness to take away street space from cars and trucks, though, buses will remain a second- or third-class mode of travel in New York City.

Still, various bus efforts are moving forward. In mid-October, DOT and the MTA unveiled a LaGuardia-focused SBS treatment aimed at improving travel times to and from the Queens airport for both workers and airline passengers. Now, MTA head Joe Lhota wants more. In a talk with Rubinstein, he opined on a fleet of express buses bound for LaGuardia.

The post-Sandy bus bridge showed the MTA what a fleet of buses could do with the right resources, and now, they want more. “Why not have an express bus from downtown Brooklyn to LaGuardia Airport?” Lhota said. “We should do that. We’re talking about it internally.”

Rubinstein has more:

Lhota says the bus bridge demonstrated the viability of Barclays Center as a bus hub. “I haven’t talked to the folks at Barclays, but what a great place to tell people to go to,” said Lhota. “Eleven different subway lines come into place there, you can bring your luggage on the subway from south Brooklyn, come to Barclays Center, and then say, every hour on the hour, we’ve got a bus leaving to go to LaGuardia Airport.

The M.T.A. is considering other locations, too. “You can do it from Midtown,” he said. “You can do it from upper Manhattan. You can do it from from lower Manhattan. And how about one from Jamaica, as well, an express bus or [Select Bus Service] bus that goes from Jamaica to LaGuardia Airport.”

“If you’re on the west side in New York, the fastest way to get to LaGuardia would be get on the Long Island Railroad,” Lhota continued. “In nine minutes you’ll be in Jamaica and you’ll take an express bus and you’ll be there very fast. We do need more of that.”

For anyone trying to get to LaGuardia, such an option would be a welcome one. It’s not a rail-accessible airport, and the local buses are both painfully slow and painfully crowded. It’s currently unclear how the MTA’s current discussions differ from the Select Bus Service plans, but on one front — timing — the MTA has the flexibility to act quickly and unilaterally. One of my biggest gripes with SBS is how it takes literally half a decade for routes to go from the planning stages to implementation whereas MTA officials could run these express buses from midtown to LaGuardia beginning tomorrow morning if they say choose.

Yet, I’m not that excited about this type of initiative unless the MTA can bring about true street space reform — and it can’t without DOT’s help. They can’t implement dedicated lanes, signal prioritization or any other real BRT measures. They can remove stops, add some pre-boarding fare payment machines and call it an express bus, but that won’t solve too many problems.

We don’t have a subway to LaGuardia due to Queens NIMBYs; we don’t have a real bus rapid transit network due to a lack of imagination and also Manhattan NIMBYs. Maybe one day, we’ll have a fast and reliable transit option to LaGuardia, but until these problems are solved and obstacles overcome, it’s tough to get too excited about anything bus-related in New York City.

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Adirondacker12800 December 4, 2012 - 1:33 am

There already is express bus service from Manhattan to the airports.


Harlan December 4, 2012 - 8:06 am

Once an hour?! Um, no, that’s not saving anyone any time. They need to run express buses every 5 or 10 minutes. It’ll be an excellent demonstration of induced demand. If I can transfer to a fast bus to the airport, with very high reliability, I’ll do it. If I can’t, I’ll take a cab.

MDC December 7, 2012 - 2:00 am

Agreed — once an hour is ludicrous. If you miss the bus by 30 seconds, you’re screwed. To make this work, the wait (during peak times) should be 10 minutes at the very most.

Fake Name December 4, 2012 - 8:22 am

I still think that extending Phase II of the SAS eastward from upper 2nd avenue makes more sense than turning westward. While the beauty and attractiveness of 125th and Lex are indisputable, LaGuardia is a better destination, and it’s pretty much a straight shot across Randall’s Island and the Astoria waterfront with fewer NIMBY’s in place than any other route.

John-2 December 4, 2012 - 8:53 am

You could probably get away with it if the full-length Second Avenue line was built — squeezing the Q and the T into a terminal at 125th and Lex or even further west would be logistically dicey on a two-track line — but not initially. The politics of the situation would be brutal for the MTA and whoever was in office, since if you look at a Google map of the area, and LGA route would have to split off Second Ave. around 106th Street to have a straight shot (with an N train connection at Ditmars Blvd.) to LGA. That means only the tiniest sliver of southeast Spanish Harlem might get a station, and you’d still leave part of the section built in the 1970s north of 106th Street abandoned (on the other hand, while sending the T or the Q to Queens would really tick of Bronx residents and pols, who would be hoping the line would eventually add a branch across the Harlem River, for the mid Manhattan-centric MTA and political types, they’d get more points for a route to the airport than, say, a route to Fordham University or Co-Op City).

Mika December 4, 2012 - 10:12 am

They could always send the Q alone to La Guardia, and send the T up to 125th and hopefully eventually into the Bronx. Not that I buy that anything will ever come of the SAS, let alone of a connection to LGA.

John-2 December 4, 2012 - 11:08 am

If they get funding to go past 96th Street in my lifetime, I’d be shocked. But given the NIMBY history in Astoria, if the MTA ever did get the funds to build a spur across the East River to LGA, they’d probably end up with a protest over Ditmars Blvd. being torn up to put in a subway (you couldn’t deep tunnel through a former swamp/wetland in the Bowery Bay area), and the line would be stalled for years at 21st St.-Astoria Park.

pea-jay December 4, 2012 - 9:24 pm

Surely it would be cheaper for the MTA to buy out every property owner on both sides of 31st for those last few blocks to extend the N. Then re-rent/sell them to willing owners that agree to the noise/shadows issue.

Jonathan December 4, 2012 - 8:35 am

Is this Lhota fellow who makes the statements you quote actually responsible for metropolitan-area transit?

Just looking at a map, it’s transparently obvious that of the various LIRR services, the Port Washington branch makes the closest approach to LGA. It takes about 10 minutes to bike from the LIRR station at Citi Field to LGA, so I presume a bus could do it in the same time. Why schlep to Jamaica? If you want the main branch railroad connection, Woodside Station is much closer.

Kevin December 4, 2012 - 10:22 am

Judging by his claim of a nine minute travel time from Penn Station, it’s likely Lhota meant to say Woodside instead of Jamaica.

Henry December 4, 2012 - 11:16 pm

Jamaica access would make it easier for residents in Queens and Long Island.

JFK and LaGuardia aren’t just for people in the five boroughs…

Henry December 4, 2012 - 11:17 pm

Also as a side benefit, there would be a rather direct public transport route between LGA and JFK (bus and AirTrain)

mg December 5, 2012 - 7:27 am

Real inovation would be at Jamaica Station to build a bus stop with a platform at track level just to the north of the north most LIRR track. this would allow the bus to feel like but another track of the Jamaica Station. A short raised structure would follow (and feel like and look like part of) the LIRR to the Van Wyck where there should be direct ramps to the north.

The issue would be how to have the buses reverse, this could be solved by:
*Buses capable of being driven from either end,
*a ramp down to street level east of Suphtin Blvd which buses after discharging passengers would use to then go arround a block before going back up to pick up passengers
*an elevated stucture to allow a slow U turn or K (3pt) turn.

Henry December 5, 2012 - 11:35 pm

As someone who uses Jamaica Station daily, I can say for a fact, that that would be an incredibly bad idea.

1. There’s no room for another platform. On one side, you have the AirTrain terminal. On the other side is the LIRR’s corporate offices.

2. There’s no room for ramps to another platform. You’d have to condemn a couple of buildings to build ramps that go that high, and residents wouldn’t stand for it.

3. Access to existing LIRR platforms suck. From street level, you can either take a rather long flight of stairs to the platforms, or you have to take elevators to the mezzanine and then go down to the platforms. Putting buses on street level would be convenient and cheaper.

Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines December 4, 2012 - 8:59 am

[…] MTA Considering LaGuardia Express Buses From Downtown Brooklyn and Other Sites (CapNY, SAS) […]

John-2 December 4, 2012 - 9:29 am

We used to go to JFK and LGA via the East Side Airline Terminal, which Robert Moses built at First Ave. and 37th Street in the early 1950s. It couldn’t be done now, of course, due to security concerns, but you could weigh and check in your baggage for the flight at the terminal, and they would simply be transferred from the bus to the proper plane at the airport.

But what it had in trip convenience once you got to the terminal — since the busses leaving it immediately zipped into the QMT without going on any other Manhattan streets — it lost because there was no mass transit except for the M15 and M16 (now M34) buses to get you there, after the Second Ave. subway was never built in the 1950s. The land proved to be more valuable as residential property by the 1970s, eve if it was right next to the tunnel entrance, while for most passengers, stopping/boarding at Grand Central was better than getting on or being left off at First and 37th, with only two buses or a cab as options for the remainder of the ride.

That’s the part the MTA’s going to have to remember if they attempt to start their own high-speed bus plan after getting out of the airport bus terminal business 35 years ago — if the stops aren’t convenient to other mass transit connections, they’ll run into the same problems as Moses’ bus terminal did.

pete December 4, 2012 - 9:32 am

Oh why not bring up extended AirTrain from Jamaica along the Van Wyck to LaGuardia? Not invented here was invented in NYC.

stan December 4, 2012 - 9:34 am

when i think about constructing rail service to LGA, i can only think about the endless construction on the grand central parkway to build what… a couple of new ramps and overpasses? i’ve been going to LGA weekly for over 5 years and that mess is STILL not finished. this city is pathetic at building infrastructure, so i can say i have no hope of ever seeing any sort of train anywhere near LGA.

better bus service? i guess that helps, but something will have to be done to make the logistics of schlepping luggage on and off of those buses not totally suck for everybody.

Larry Littlefield December 4, 2012 - 9:37 am

The plan that made sense was using the BQE for an express bus direct from 74th Street to LGA. That’s a winner. The BQE is not congested there, because it splits.

Between there and Downtown Brooklyn, forget it.

But just remember, wtih free bus to subway transfers, the MTA gets no revenue from providing the additional service, unless additional pay per rid customers decide to take the subway/bus to the plane. But I would.

Benjamin Kabak December 4, 2012 - 9:38 am

If the MTA offers this service as an express bus with the higher fare, the subway-to-bus free transfer wouldn’t apply. Revenue problem (semi-)solved.

Jeff December 4, 2012 - 10:11 am

There would be a reduced transfer fee of $3.25 (difference between express bus and subway fare). But express buses tend to be money-losing at full price, so its definitely not something that the MTA’s going to make money on.

Bolwerk December 4, 2012 - 12:02 pm

wtih free bus to subway transfers, the MTA gets no revenue from providing the additional service

That’s not true at all. If more people board somewhere (anywhere on the system) so they can get to a point on the new service, the MTA gets more revenue. It’s true that the new revenue may not be attributable 100% to the bus. But what’s the problem with that?

Henry December 4, 2012 - 11:19 pm

I have major reservations with the Woodside express bus, if only because there’s a major bottleneck in that area – the onramp to the BQE from the GCP in that direction is one lane only, and it’s usually clogged with taxis and commuter traffic. It might actually be slower than the local route at times…

mg December 4, 2012 - 11:09 am

Bronx to LGA bus line(s) should continue on to Jamaica (with some some buses going to Flushing). JFK, Jamaica (including the LIRR), LGA and the Bronx would all be linked creating solutions for wider user groups which is what mass transit does well as opposed to cars and cabs. A stop at Citifield/the Tennis center (which is part of flushing meadow park) could provide further utility without greatly increasing travel times.) The constuction of bus only highway ramps could make this a truly effective transit tool.

Bolwerk December 4, 2012 - 11:58 am

BRT purists do, but I don’t see a major problem with SelectBus. Every bus in the city should be a SelectBus, perhaps with the exceptions that sometimes a dedicated lane is overkill and sometimes a shorter bus has to be used when conditions call for it. I’d add to the SelectBus mix: universal signal preemption and on-board POP fare collection. Nobody should have to wait in line outdoors while their bus leaves.

This idea that “buses are the mode of transportation that keep trying to pull everyone in” is the problem. It’s more that local officials want to inflict buses on everybody. On too many routes, buses as a mode are insufficient, but for some reason local planners have a major, major woody for them at the exclusion of LRT and more subways alike.

And if we go for the BRT purist notion of dedicated, grade separated busways, we literally may as well opt to build lower-impact, quieter, and probably significantly cheaper els that can run full-fledged subway equipment.

Miles Bader December 4, 2012 - 7:39 pm

Yup. There’s no magic bullet. If you want service levels that approach grade-separated rail, then you’re going to end up building something that costs pretty much the same, and has similar limitations. At that point, you may as go with rail, because it comes with additional benefits.

Given the strength of the roads lobby, though, BRT probably has a lot of money pushing it, and politicians who don’t know any better are easy prey…

Bolwerk December 5, 2012 - 2:15 pm

I remember the Bush Administration pushing BRT about a decade ago over rail. Of course, they claimed it saved money or something. At the risk of segueing into a fallacy of logic, we all know what happened when the Bush Administration claimed to be saving money. 😀

You can try pointing this out to BRT thumpers, but I have a feeling a good number of them are Bush fans anyway!

Henry December 4, 2012 - 11:35 pm

There aren’t that many places big enough for a full-fledged busway in New York City anyways, and the places that do have room for them have other things that would make it bad for implementation (SI North Shore already has a defunct rail line, Queens Blvd has a subway already, etc.) 34th Street-type proposals are probably the closest thing we’re going to get to full-fledged BRT in this city.

I would be a lot happier if the city started building an LRT network in the five boroughs (but more so in the outer boroughs which lack subway access), but given the costs of SAS, I don’t think we have the money for it. Unless the city/state issue more debt and they toll the parkways and implement congestion pricing, I wouldn’t see how they’d be able to fund it.

Bolwerk December 5, 2012 - 11:53 am

SelectBus is fine, but places like 34th or Queens Blvd are exactly the types of places begging for LRT. If you ask me, the right place for SelectBus is in, say, outer Queens, where the roads are constructed properly, the extra carrying capacity of LRT will never be needed, and only a few people will board per stop.

LRT could actually save over the long run. I sort of half-suspect the reason behind the bus obsession is more jobs. 😐

ks1111 December 4, 2012 - 1:59 pm

The MTA should start thinking about full rail access to both LGA and JFK. If the PA extends PATH to EWR I’m never flying into LGA again….ever.

Larry Littlefield December 4, 2012 - 3:57 pm

The MTA and Port Authority should be thinking about Chapter 11.

The politicians will stroke you by giving you a five year study, as the money goes to debts and pensions. I’ve seen those studies for 30 years. I’ll take a bus direct from 74th/Roosevelt to LGA on that portion of the BQE.

Henry December 4, 2012 - 11:26 pm

I would hope that they’re only talking about introducing SBS services to the airports, and not premium-fare express buses. SBS actually improves mobility for regular customers, but premium-fare express buses are a giant money suck (in terms of per-rider cost) and most riders won’t use them. At that price range, livery cabs are more convenient if you have lots of bags, and don’t cost that much more if you’re not going alone.

Larry Littlefield December 5, 2012 - 7:49 pm


Henry December 4, 2012 - 11:29 pm

Full rail access to LGA is complicated, mostly because you’d probably need to go underground less than a mile away from the water (You can’t approach LGA above ground from the west due to space restrictions & runway paths).

I’m pretty sure that a while back there was a proposal to have LIRR service from Downtown to JFK, but it would’ve been expensive and would’ve required vehicles that didn’t, and still don’t exist.

Bolwerk December 5, 2012 - 2:22 pm

The AirTrain to Midtown or Downtown (both were discussed at various times) would require a hybrid vehicle for AirTrain/LIRR service, which is probably an obscene waste of effort.

IMHO, it would make sense to simply extend the NYC Subway and/or Amtrak and/or the LIRR to at least the major international terminal at JFK. The airlines suffer from the same putrid irrationality as the NIMBYs, but such an arrangement can’t possibly hurt the airlines.

Boris December 5, 2012 - 5:37 pm

For the price of post-Sandy repairs to the trestle to the Rockaways the MTA could’ve rebuilt a different section of that line – the Cross-Forest Hills Connector or a section of old LIRR track now used by the A – to bring LIRR service or greatly enhanced subway service to the current Howard Beach/JFK airport station. It’s not that hard, and it would use existing vehicles.

Henry December 5, 2012 - 11:41 pm

Why would you need a spur to serve an AirTrain station when the Main Line serves an AirTrain station already?

The Rockaways doesn’t generate enough ridership to justify building a new rail connection – you can connect to Jackson Heights and Queens Blvd already using the Q53 Limited.

Henry December 5, 2012 - 11:50 pm

At the very least, the Atlantic Branch should be extended to Fulton, and maybe even to Penn (to create a giant loop).

If only dreams could become real.

Someone December 5, 2012 - 7:26 pm

So, only 45-foot buses? Are there any 60-foot buses planned for the SBS?

John V December 12, 2012 - 6:16 pm

Curious to know whether an MTA midtown-to-LGA bus service competes with / complements the current every-20-minute express buses now run under contract by private operators. Not sure, but I think the Port Authority lets that contract. So what’s the politics of the MTA competing with a PA contract?

Separately, it has always galled me that the gazillions of foreign tourists who take buses from LGA and JFK to “Grand Central” actually get dumped on a narrow sidewalk that doesn’t even have rain or snow protection. That block of 41st to 42nd Street is just pathetic every time I walk through it–especially to those of us who remember (barely) the East Side Airline Terminal. I know indoor space is expensive, but a SIDEWALK … RLY ?!?!?

Jerry Vinter March 21, 2013 - 8:12 pm

We are all talking around the edges. LGA and JFK are PA enterprises. Why don’t they extend the JSQ yellow line to LGA via Queens and the NWK Red line to JFK after WTC (while extending it at the other end to EWR)?

What is wrong? Makes too much sense?

Can’t see this as a revenue loser. You will connect all three major airports in the area with the reliability and speed of PATH. The synergy created alone will bring in massive revenue.

For LaGuardia, a new limited bus service looms :: Second Ave. Sagas May 1, 2013 - 3:21 pm

[…] on the roads approaching the airport, it’s not an ideal solution. Still, as the city examines various Select Bus Service routes to the airport, the MTA is working to boost existing service for a hub that’s near and yet so […]

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