Home Buses Thoughts on the love affair with buses

Thoughts on the love affair with buses

by Benjamin Kabak

Former MTA execs and NYC politicians gather in front of a souped-up express bus.

Over the past few years — both in New York and nationally — urban planning advocates and city politicians have taken a liking to buses. Bus rapid transit, deployed successfully in developing nations, has become the hot new item while pushes to increase rail capacity and reach have died at the hands of a number of factors. It all rubs me the wrong way.

The latest entry into this discussion came from the keyboard of Matthew Yglesias. In a piece at Slate with an intentionally inflammatory sub-head, Yglesias says that buses are the future. Building new trains, he says, isn’t the route to improving transit, but networks of bus rapid transit systems are. While there are some lessons to be learned from Yglesias’ argument, it’s almost defeatist in its framing. Here’s his take:

When it comes to moving large numbers of people efficiently through urban areas, it’s hard to beat good old-fashioned heavy rail subways and metro lines. But these projects come at a steep price, especially in the United States, and don’t make sense in many areas. Yet, politicians looking for cheaper options too often fall for the superficial idea that anything that runs on train tracks must be a good idea. The smarter strategy in many cases is to look instead at the numerically dominant form of mass transit—the humble bus—and ask what can be done to make it less humble…

Buses often fall down on the job—not because they’re buses, but because they’re slow. Buses are slow in part because city leaders don’t want to slight anyone and thus end up having them stop far too frequently, leaving almost everyone worse off. Buses also tend to feature an inefficient boarding process. Having each customer pay one at a time while boarding, rather than using a proof-of-payment where you pay in advance and then just step onto the bus, slows things down. That can generate a downward spiral of service quality where slow speeds lead to low ridership, low ridership leads to low revenue levels, and low revenue leads to service that’s infrequent as well as slow. Closing the loop, a slow and infrequent bus will be patronized almost exclusively by the poor, which leads to the route’s political marginalization…

Of course the problem is people who drive cars won’t like it—the exact same reason that shiny new streetcar lines are often built to drive in mixed traffic. But public officials contemplating mass transit issues need to ask themselves what it is they’re trying to accomplish. If promoting more transit use, denser urban areas, and less air pollution is on the agenda, then annoying car drivers is a feature not a bug. If the idea is to have a make-work job creation scheme or something cool-looking to show off to tourists, buses may not be the best idea. But while upgraded buses clearly isn’t the right solution for every transit corridor in America, it deserves much more widespread consideration as an affordable path to mass transit.

I’ve generously excerpted beginning, middle and end of Yglesias’ argument. The end and how he eventually gets there is right. To have a fully functional bus rapid transit network that moves buses quickly requires some pain on the other side. Unlike New York City’s half-hearted Select Bus Service network of slightly faster express buses, BRT requires truly dedicated lanes, level boarding areas and signal prioritization. It requires, in other words, prioritizing street space, curbside space and travel lanes for buses at the expense of cars. I have no problem with that argument, and in fact, I fully embrace it far more than anyone in New York City’s Department of Transportation has.

But how we get to this conclusion to me is problematic. Yes, rail projects are expensive, but rail projects are also better. A crowded bus can carry 60-100 people; a crowded train can travel much faster with over 1500 people on board. Operating ten or twelve trains per hour means transportation for 15,000-18,000 people while operating that many buses results in transit for 600-1200. It’s apples to oranges.

The better answer is to figure out how to get costs down. Other countries have managed to build reasonably priced rail lines, and so could we. The answer isn’t to punt to buses but rather to figure out a way to make a bus network work with a train network. Nearly every major American city would be better served with some version of a rapid transit network involved rail. It could be light rail, a surface subway or an underground subway, but such a network would combat sprawl, pollution and congestion far more effectively than a bus rapid transit network would.

Ultimately, the two modes of travel shouldn’t be an either/or proposition, but for some reason, we seem to make it into a battle. Buses make sense in certain areas and for certain travel, and rail makes sense for others. Discarding rail because it’s hard to see through due to costs just means we’re ready to give up.

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John-2 August 8, 2013 - 1:28 am

A lot of the problem is due to a lot of publicity for what are some high-priced, misguided rail projects in areas where they’re of limited benefit, at a time when everything in politics is portrayed in stark black & white terms.

That’s not the SAS — it’s overpriced, but as anyone who’se routinely ridden the Lex during rush hours knows, there are more than enough riders to justify construction of that line — it’s likely to justify its cost, even if it takes 20-25 years longer based on the high price of NYC construction. But when so many hopes for local rail mass transit funding depend on federal dollars, high-profile projects that balloon in costs like the two California high speed rail projects end up in the land of 10-second sound bites tarring all rail projects, even when it’s another apples-to-oranges comparison of long-distance rail vs. commuter projects.

Cities that have build up densely-populated areas outside of the central business district are good candidates for heavy rail. Cities that have developed in that past half century along the routes determined by interstate highways and loops, with lesser density and in some cases, secondary ‘downtown’ business areas built along those loops, are better candidates for bus rapid transit, because a lot of people never had the need to go downtown — they go from home to work across an outer area of the city that grew based on highway development, not on the expansion out from the original city core as 18th and 18th Century big cities in the U.S. did.

But convincing politicians or pundits that there may be multiple paths to the same answer of moving people from their homes to their offices or shopping areas, because it’s hard to get across the point that Solution A may work fine in City X, but it’s either wasteful or woefully inadequate if you use it in City Y or Z.

Bolwerk August 8, 2013 - 9:02 am

Let’s be clear what greenfield bus rapid transit is: bus labor costs with rail capital costs (maybe higher-than-rail capital costs), probably with some additional penalty. Niche uses aside, it’s mostly a bad idea.

The best solution is always situational, but BRT and heavy rail are never substitutes for each other. They can be complements, however. BRT can feed a rail network quite nicely.

Alex C August 8, 2013 - 7:54 am

Bus expansions require minimal effort to do, so politicians by and large (excepting of course the clown in upper Manhattan) support them and then gloat about the wonderful changes they brought to their constituents. It’s lazy, provides easy PR without actually doing anything to improve transit, so buses will be the go-to “Transformational Improvement” for NYC politicians going forward.

SEAN August 8, 2013 - 12:18 pm

Thoughts on the love affair with buses
It’s not love, rather there’s a better term & that’s “good enough.” Busses are good enough & the poor excuse the polititions make for it are just unsettling.

I still contend that SBS in it’s CURRENT state is nothing more than a vanity project. Now if there were “transformational” elements to the SBS service such as a dedicated ROW, tap & go payment &the like, then my opinion would be different.

Benjamin Kabak August 8, 2013 - 12:20 pm

Whose vanity exactly is it boosting? It can’t be a vanity project without someone clearly enjoying some benefits from it.

Bolwerk August 8, 2013 - 12:35 pm

I think Sean is mixing it up a bit. The current SBS services are pretty justifiable and great improvements, especially on a shoestring budget. But now the professional panderers running for office are trying to turn them into vanity projects.

SEAN August 8, 2013 - 1:16 pm


Perhaps I need to clarify… if you are talking about TRUE BRT as in Brazil, that is NOT a vanity project by any meens. However the CURRENT STATE of SBS without lane seperation, extended green lights to keep vehicles in motion, propper offboard fare collection & other enhancements makes this look like a vanity project.

Also I NEVER said that SBS wasn’t useful or nobody was riding the busses, infact I’ve taken the BX12 SBS from Co-Op City several times & it’s been nearly full each time. Interestingly the SBS always gets bogged down in Bay Plaza & takes what semes to be forever when on Pelham Parkway, even when there is no traffic.

SEAN August 8, 2013 - 3:57 pm

Oh as far as “mixing it up is concerned, you need to stir the pot now & then to keep things vibrent. A blog post doesn’t always translate as well as when the conversation is face to face. I really love this site & sometimes I will challenge to ensure that the best comes from all sides regardless of the topic at hand.

Bolwerk August 9, 2013 - 9:35 am

That’s what I mean though. “True BRT” is what would be silly in New York. We can’t justify those kinds of capital costs for vastly higher operating costs in the future.

SBS actually is a meaningful, fairly low-capital cost improvement. It makes sense sometimes. I agree pols are trying to pander with it, and it’s ridiculous to say it’s a replacement for subways or even LRT, but it is a good improvement in a lot of scenarios.

SEAN August 8, 2013 - 12:47 pm

Who’s vanity?

1. The politicos who excepted this poor excuse for BRT. They could have demanded that it be implimented correctly, but instead they neglected to do that part of the job.

2. The MTA could tell those NYMBY’s who apose such projects to go away. If it ends up in the courts, then that’s where you fight.

Benjamin Kabak August 8, 2013 - 1:03 pm

I don’t think you understand what a vanity project is. This one clearly adds value and hasn’t been conducted at the whim of someone controlling the purse strings. It may be an incremental improvement, but it’s very clearly an improvement.

SEAN August 8, 2013 - 1:32 pm

I won’t argue if SBS is an improvement over standard bus service, but Benjamin even you can recognize the bus bar in NYC is so low that something as incomplete as SBS looks so remarcable.

I for one think we can & must do much better than this halfharted atempt at so called BRT, period.

Larry Littlefield August 8, 2013 - 8:04 am

“BRT requires truly dedicated lanes, level boarding areas and signal prioritization. It requires, in other words, prioritizing street space, curbside space and travel lanes for buses at the expense of cars.”

And grade separation, at least at key intersections.

I’d sum up the attitude this way.

To the construction unions and contractors, the consultants and the process lobby: YOU WIN. You have made rail improvements massively expensive. So we can’t build any.

If people would start saying that explicitly, putting the ball in their court, perhaps they’d ease up on us. At least in the initial bid, and try to get it back in the change orders.

One more point in favor of buses — if private motor vehicles traveled continues to fall, so will the traffic that slows buses.

Jeff August 8, 2013 - 8:45 am

“If people would start saying that explicitly, putting the ball in their court, perhaps they’d ease up on us. At least in the initial bid, and try to get it back in the change orders.”

The issue with that is that already no one bids for these types of heavy civil projects in NYC. That’s why the bids come in so high. Even when there’s multiple contractors trying to win a job they prefer to just team up in a joint venture than to bid for the job competitively.

The system is simply broken… And there’s definitely no easy solution to fix it.

Erik August 8, 2013 - 8:51 am

“To the construction unions and contractors, the consultants and the process lobby: YOU WIN. You have made rail improvements massively expensive. So we can’t build any.”

While I agree with the sentiment, especially towards the consultants and process lobby (and general NIMBYism), I don’t agree as much with regards to those who actually build the damn things.

Are the unions of the sandhogs, electricians, and others relatively powerful and do their workers get paid a decent wage? Yes. Is that’s what’s “broken”? No.

George Pataki starved the transit beast in NYC and began loading the system up with debt. Guiliani and the suburban legislators eliminated the commuter tax. NYC transit now gets next to nothing out of any general funds, is buried in debt, and is somehow still expected to pay for its operations PLUS capital improvements via fares alone. It’s absurd.

As a city, a state, and a nation, we have the money to do these projects and to do them right. We’ve been convinced, however, that the people at One Madison Park pay too many taxes and will offshore jobs if they don’t continue to get more. Well, they are doing it anyway. NYC’s hyper-elite don’t care about the subway. They have plenty of work-arounds. THAT’S the problem. Every time you look up at a new 50M+ penthouse, there is your missing transit money.

Jeff August 8, 2013 - 9:04 am

What Pataki did was inexcusable, but the unions are not entirely off the hook either, especially since the cost of construction in NYC is so much more than the rest of the country and certainly more than the rest of the world.

And the thing is the unions and contractors are able to get away with this high cost because real estates are so profitable in NYC that private developers are willing to pay up. And that means taxpayers and public agencies trying to build things get screwed with similarly high construction bills.

Its all about what’s palatable to both the public and to politicans, and what’s not. Things are getting so prohibitively expensive that the economic benefits of investing in mass transit is getting skewed. I mean, do we want to spend billions and years to build a subway spur, or use that money to hire tens of thousands of teachers, police, etc.? Its really getting tough to justify the costs.

Larry Littlefield August 8, 2013 - 9:18 am

I think the union workers are in the same position as younger public employees. Older generations of workers grabbed retroactive pension increases, and the prior generation of executives increased profits by underfunding the pensions.

As a result the multi-employer pension funds the cover unionized public employees are in trouble, and everyone is looking for a patsy. Hence high bids, battles over cuts in compensation for younger and future workers, etc. The head of the contractors lobby had the nerve to say the problem is profit margins are too low. Well, why is that?

It is also fair to say a lot of efficiencies that workers have made in every other industry have not occured in construction. And when they have, like the TBMs, the money has somehow disappeared elsewhere.

“Do we want to spend billions and years to build a subway spur, or use that money to hire tens of thousands of teachers, police, etc.?”

We can’t afford those either. It’s what Generation Greed promised itself but didn’t pay for.

Jeff August 8, 2013 - 9:32 am

“It is also fair to say a lot of efficiencies that workers have made in every other industry have not occured in construction.”

That’s a very good point and that’s also a function of the power of the union lobby. The same automation that have been occurring in manufacturing and elsewhere are only slowly taking place in the construction industry and the unions tend to fight everything tooth and nail, with weak will from the developers’ side to champion change. And it doesn’t help that they are still using archaic work rules and processes from the early to mid-20th century that no one bothers to review and address.

“We can’t afford those either. It’s what Generation Greed promised itself but didn’t pay for.”

I agree with that. My point is the public’s perception of things – they see the $5 or $10 billion bill for 2 miles of subway and they ask themselves if they can get “better” things for that money.

Larry Littlefield August 8, 2013 - 11:07 am

“better” things for that money.”

Or more campaign contributions and endorsements.

Bolwerk August 8, 2013 - 10:15 am

do we want to spend billions and years to build a subway spur, or use that money to hire tens of thousands of teachers, police, etc.?

YES, we want! The subway spur is investment. Over time, economy-stimulating investment might actually do something to improve public safety, something additional police have about zero chance of doing.

Teachers are another story, but a similar one. In theory, more teachers is a good idea, but in reality the education system is so crappy that hiring more teachers probably has a very low marginal impact. Plus, I’m pretty sure there are plenty of teachers who aren’t even teaching, being rewarded with cushy administrative positions and the like. Before hiring more public employees, we should be evaluating making better use of the ones we have.

Nathanael August 11, 2013 - 4:24 am

Given recent behavior of the Ray Kelly “Drive Across Sidewalk, Stop, Frisk, Frame, Meet Quota For Arresting Innocent People, Lock Adrian Schoolcraft in a Mental Institution” NYPD, I think New York most definitely should not hire more police.

Hiring some prosecutors to get Ray Kelly and the upper tier of the criminal NYPD behind bars where they belong might be a good expenditure of funds, though.

AG August 11, 2013 - 8:05 pm

technically speaking – anyone arrested is innocent until proven guilty. i’ve heard of ppl complain about being stopped… but not arrested for no reason.

Bolwerk August 12, 2013 - 8:45 am

Being stopped means having a stranger putting their grubby hands on you in a fishing expedition. For the offense of being outside while poor and brown, you get to lean against a wall and have someone feel your torso, buttocks, and possibly genitalia.

It occasionally garners an arrest, but the main point is to humiliate people.

AG August 12, 2013 - 11:13 pm

well that’s not about color… when the poor were white Europeans they suffered the same things.

Bolwerk August 8, 2013 - 9:22 am

I’m pretty agnostic toward what precisely constitutes BRT, but I don’t get the complaints about SBS in re grade separation. SBS works pretty well, and is cheap. There are lots of realistic (on-board fare sales) and non-realistic (hovercraft technology!) things alike that could make SBS better, but grade separation is probably one more in the second category. And, why do we want grade separation so badly? People who complain bitterly about els, and mock the idea of expanding them, seem to feel they do way too much damage to the streetscape and are way too noisy. Well, BRT has about the same impact if you start grade separating. If anything, it’s noisier than a modern rail viaduct too.

SBS is probably about 90% as good as doctrinaire BRT when it comes to speed/reliability, and perhaps better when you consider it offers true street-level accessibility. If you want grade separation, build a subway or at least light rail. It’s just cheaper.

paulb August 8, 2013 - 8:21 am

Agree. For the future of NYC, buses are not much of an answer. Although the majority of people who use the buses we have now, except when things go wildly wrong, are pretty content with the service, in my experience.

shawn August 8, 2013 - 8:32 am

We need a second avenue line and better signal systems that allow more trains on existing lines to improve capacity. That is it. Not buses not ferries not bikes not rickshaws.

The reason trains are packed at 125% capacity is because they work. The reason buses sit unused at at 25% is because they don’t work.

This isn’t rocket science. Build more of what works.

Jeff August 8, 2013 - 8:55 am

I certainly haven’t seen many buses at 25% capacity in rush hour in NYC.

Buses don’t work because they are unreliable and slow and carry far too little people. But plenty of people still ride them because there are no alternatives for them.

So there’s definitely merit in improving buses, but its definitely not the most viable and sustainable solution.

Phantom August 8, 2013 - 10:18 am

There are many buses, specifically NYC Express Buses, that run at 25% or less capacity in non rush hours.

And the Express Buses in NYC tend to run entirely empty when running counter-commute direction ( out of Manhattan during morning, the other way in late afternoon )

A lot of these express buses seem entirely indefensible. They’re pollution machines on balance – half of them should be eliminated or entirely rethought.

Jeff August 8, 2013 - 11:47 am

That’s certainly the case, but express buses are an entirely different topic of discussion though. And in their defense, they run so infrequently during non-rush hours that they mostly function similar to late night subway trains and buses – they run because certain people rely on them

Bolwerk August 8, 2013 - 12:29 pm

I suspect late-night trains, which can even run pretty full, are defensible on contribution margin grounds. Maybe they aren’t profitable, but they might reduce losses.

Express buses are simply money pits, and the people who depend on them should be on the subway.

SEAN August 8, 2013 - 1:51 pm

I remember a time some years ago when the MTA wanted to cancil ALL express bus routes do to a budget crunch in the 1980’s. Also on the table at that time was a shutdown of ALL overnight subway service. Could you imagine such a move today?

Phantom August 8, 2013 - 3:02 pm

An awful lot of the express buses should be cancelled.

It is an absolute sin to see them run empty or near empty, especially on the weekend, late night or mid day runs.

They are a particular nuisance on the overcrowded Gowanus Expressway, where many empty buses from Brooklyn and Staten Island clog up the road, for reasons no one can ever understand.

Jeff August 8, 2013 - 3:56 pm

Most express buses run to places where the subways don’t go.

Also many express bus patrons take the buses because they cannot handle going up and down the stairs in the subways.

Mass transit is not meant to profit. Its meant to provide service for people who need it.

SEAN August 8, 2013 - 4:01 pm

The correct term is public good.

Phantom August 8, 2013 - 5:24 pm

Most people in cities don’t have subways to go point to point. Subways are not the only option.

And an awful lot of these NYC Express buses ( I speak of my own Bay Ridge / Bensonhurst areas ) are rather well served by subways generally.

The very big majority of express bus riders look pretty mobile to me.

SEAN August 8, 2013 - 7:16 pm

You shouldn’t assume that, even if it may seme to be true. There are several posters on this site who have a disability, but you wouldn’t know it unless they mentioned it or you meet them in person.

Bolwerk August 9, 2013 - 9:24 am

Imposing the costs of managing transportation for people with disabilities on transit systems is just the wrong way to do things, and was a big mistake of the ADA.

I really think we have it backward: just pay for taxis for the disabled, and “inflict” transit on the able-bodied. I would guess ADA compliant subway stations will still suck horrendously for a wheelchair user, they just happen to be useable.

Bolwerk August 9, 2013 - 9:37 am

BTW, things like especially street light rail but also SBS are pretty ideal investments if we want to help the disabled community. The accessibility is street level and the rides are modestly quick, and there is no need to navigate a grade-separated labyrinth station.

SEAN August 10, 2013 - 11:04 am

Understandable, but a disabled persons life shouldn’t be dictated by the lack of a accessable subway station or the East Ocean.

Nathanael August 11, 2013 - 4:21 am

The original rule of the ADA is, bluntly, that if you’re building something new you should damn well make it accessible.

This applies to everyone, not just to mass transit.

NYC Subway and LIRR have grossly and offensively violated this rule, completely reconstructing stations from the ground up without even bothering to try to make them accessible.

By way of contrast, almost every other system in the US has made a good-faith effort.

ADA compliant subway stations are perfectly lovely for a wheelchair user, by the way; ask any wheelchair user in LA.

Bolwerk August 11, 2013 - 11:41 am

Can’t speak to the LIRR, but I’m pretty sure NYCTA generally sought and attained necessary waivers. LIRR has less of an excuse for not being accessible. The problem with subways for wheelchairs users is that the descent into them can be pretty labyrinthine, especially with the deep stations we’re building now. That doesn’t mean they’re never practical.

Duke August 8, 2013 - 11:14 pm

Express buses run empty because of the skewed fare structure. The base fare is twice that of the subway and your unlimited Metrocard is no good on them. Given that, why would anyone in their right mind ever ride one? It was ca. 1995 the last time I was on an express bus. I don’t even think about them when planning how to get somewhere because they are more expensive and more hassle with little to no added benefit. If the fare were the same as regular buses and subways, I would open my mind up to them.

Bolwerk August 9, 2013 - 9:26 am

They would probably lose more money then. The lower fare on subways and local buses is at least partly mitigated by a higher seat turnover.

Shawn August 9, 2013 - 7:17 pm

Why they don’t work is immaterial. NYC has been testing mass transportation options for over 100 years now. Nothing new is going to come up, no minor tweak that hasn’t been tried in the past 100 years is going to change things.

We know what works, we know what doesn’t. Ferries – no. Busses – no. Bridges – worked until we ran out of room to build streets. Subways – yes, they work.

Subways work, trains work. Build more of what works.

Bolwerk August 8, 2013 - 8:55 am

I get Yglesias was put on Earth for the very purpose of making “centrist” blandness look like bracing polemics, so I can overlook the fact that he’s basically falling for the same KoolAid the dumber people on StreetsBlog fall for, but in what country does he live where rail is getting anything but the shortest of thrift? It’s not a default first option (it would be great if it were!); it’s mostly not even considered. NYC isn’t even considering light rail.

Slate just mostly hurts to read. He’s hit or miss on economics and business, but asking Yglesias about transportation is a little like asking Prudie about your 13-year-old’s rubber glove fetish. Whatever is digested and crapped out will be a mix of sanctimonious and stupid.

lawhawk August 8, 2013 - 9:02 am

While BRT may make sense in suburbs and smaller cities that don’t have a population density that supports heavy rail/subway, that’s not the issue in NYC. NYC needs subways to survive and thrive. It needs more subways to fill in gaps in service areas outside of Manhattan’s central business district.

How to do so is the billion dollar question – and that’s where competing with bus rapid transit comes into play. If we’re talking about federal matching funds (TIGER, TEA-21, or similar federal transportation capital plan funding), the subway plans have to compete with projects that on their face seem cheaper, but move significantly fewer people than the subways can achieve.

NYC and NYS need to do more to proffer capital funding without relying on the federal government for funds – meaning that they wouldn’t have to compete with projects that aren’t of a similar scope.

At the same time, NYC/NYS/MTA need to figure out how to get capital costs down. There’s got to be a way to bring the costs down in line with similar European projects (where they’ve got unions and government bureaucracy, and yet manage to do more with far less). Savaging the unions as the reason tunnel projects in the US are so costly ignores that costs are driven by the bidding companies – including those that are heavily involved in European tunneling like Dragados. Yet, their American projects are far more costly, in part to support their European projects where they generate less in profits.

SEAN August 8, 2013 - 12:28 pm

Hell we cant even get BRT on Central Park Avenue to serve Empire City at Yonkers Raceway!

BoerumHillScott August 8, 2013 - 9:14 am

I’m not sure I agree with the basic premises that BRT projects are successful, while rail projects have died. There is certainly lots of talk about bus (as there should be), but the real capital money has gone to rail.

Right now, we have recent, current, or approved Subway/Heavy Urban Rail projects in New York, Washington, Miami, and Los Angeles, with current or recent light rail projects in Los Angeles, Seattle, Dallas, Houston, Charlotte, Phoenix, and Portland.

Are there any recent real BRT (no SBS) project actually constructed anywhere by Los Angeles?

BoerumHillScott August 8, 2013 - 9:16 am

anywhere but Los Angeles?

Larry Littlefield August 8, 2013 - 9:20 am

No. Just fake BRT.

If we could get real BRT, or something like it, in areas outside Manhattan, ridership might rise and people and businesses might make decisions around it.

And if that happens, the next step is to lay tracks — if the cost can be made non-ridiculous.

Bolwerk August 8, 2013 - 9:37 am

You can probably achieve doctrinaire“real” BRT levels of speed/reliability with SBS through simple enforcement, something NYC’s lumbering bureaucracy is still not clear how to do (or about who should do it; clearly the NYPD shouldn’t have a useful purpose). That way you can keep SBS’ advantages, like being on street level for best accessibility to the elderly and disabled.

But if you want to finance a project that expensive, just lay the tracks. It’s cheaper than building a grade-separated busway, even if the tracks are grade-separated too.

Alon Levy August 8, 2013 - 10:35 pm

No, you actually can’t. The average speed of trams in dense cities is glacial by any rapid transit standards. Brazilian BRT is fast because the streets of Curitiba are massive.

Bolwerk August 9, 2013 - 9:09 am

What? Trams? I was talking about BRT. Trams are almost always slow-ish on streets with mixed traffic, and at least in American cities typically behave like conventional mixed-traffic buses.

SBS does have quasi-dedicated lanes, which is an advantage over conventional trams. And if you ask me, the street-level operation can be a feature, not a bug (as Larry and Sean seem to think).

SEAN August 10, 2013 - 11:14 am

That is if done correctly, and on that front the results are mixed.

David August 8, 2013 - 9:26 am

While I generally agree with the points being made, I believe that true BRT could be a wonderful option for select cross town bus routes. I know it will never happen–businesses on 34th Street and politicians on 125th have ensured that–but if it could ever truly be done, it would be a great option for moving folks cross town, something of which the subways, generally, don’t do a very good job currently.

Tsuyoshi August 8, 2013 - 9:36 am

I think that, in fairness to Yglesias, he’s mostly talking about places that are not New York. The density, even in the outer boroughs, is off the charts compared to everywhere else. Even Staten Island, thought of as suburban, is still the 12th densest county in the US. You have at least one potential rail route in every borough that would have have more utility than anything built outside New York City.

By contrast here in Philadelphia, we have two subway lines, but the ridership is pretty low, even with more seats per car and half the cars per train compared to New York. After being here a year, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve failed to find an open seat on the subway, and the buses do not get nearly as packed as they do in New York.

On the other hand, the buses are still annoying slow, stopping every block to pick people up, and getting stuck in traffic. It would be nice if there were more subway lines in Philadelphia, but you could get nearly equivalent mobility improvements by improving the bus service.

Bolwerk August 8, 2013 - 10:04 am

Density shouldn’t be the sole factor dictating mode. Trains can work pretty damn well in low-to-modest density environments. Philly seems to have plenty of examples of surface rail working well in medium-density environments.

My experience in Philly is that the buses actually ran more satisfactorily than they do in New York. At least in the part of West Philly I was frequenting, blocks were longer, so stopping every block was less dumb. They also don’t try pushing buses to the curb to pick people up, and let the traffic behind them wait – a policy probably adapted from their trolleys. The major problem with rail there is the network just seems shitty; things like the Media Line and Norristown Line just feed a distant “transportation center,” which in turn feeds the CBD.

Larry Littlefield August 8, 2013 - 11:09 am

“My experience in Philly is that the buses actually ran more satisfactorily than they do in New York.”

Same with Chicago. The reason — less traffic.

Bolwerk August 8, 2013 - 11:29 am

That’s part of it, but they also don’t do dumb things like pull over to let cars by.

Philly still has some of NYC’s galling traits, like single-file queuing to board. Not sure about Chicago.

Alon Levy August 8, 2013 - 4:47 pm

The example you’re quoting is a reactivated ROW, not a new one. It’s relevant to the North Shore Branch, the Rockaway Beach Branch, Triboro RX, and Lower Montauk, but not to on-street light rail. If you want light rail on 125th Street or Utica or a similarly busy street, then the expected cost is at least 1.5 orders of magnitude higher than the Haller Willem (I’m basing this on French costs, which are generally lower than German costs), and the expected average speed is quite low, 16-18 km/h in Paris, with higher speeds mainly in countries with much less urban density.

Bolwerk August 9, 2013 - 9:02 am

I know HJZ delves into capital costs a lot there, but I was just pointing out that you can operate rail economically in low-density environments. There will be passengers to pick up and the financials for the service are not necessarily worse than buses. In a sane world, we’d probably be able to use a low-traffic ROW for both freight and passengers economically, but that can be ruled out in the U.S. for now.

Also, there are examples of medium-low density populations having trolleys in the Philly area like routes 101 and 102.

llqbtt August 8, 2013 - 9:50 am

Buses maybe OK in small, or middle-sized American cities with less density than NYC, but in global cities like ours, they just don’t cut it as ‘the solution’. No, they are part of a solution. A global city like ours, or even just a large American city, like Chicago, that has any form of density needs heavy rail, and lots of it. Otherwise the city won’t function.

Rachel August 8, 2013 - 9:54 am

I recently visited Seattle and Vancouver, two cities that reminded me of just how large New York City is.

In Vancouver, one of the subway lines is two cars long, and I can’t imagine it holds many more people than an articulated bus on each train. They could have run busses through those tunnels with similar results.

In Seattle, that’s exactly what they do: Downtown, some of their busses run through underground tunnels. (They share the space with the light rail.) I thought that was a wonderful way to avoid city traffic.

But, again, Seattle is much smaller than NYC in terms of population. Visiting both of those cities just reminded me of how huge NYC is, where the 4/5 shows up every 3 minutes or so during rush hour and is still filled past capacity with 1500 people per train (or whatever the number is). At that point, busses just aren’t going to cut it.

BBnet3000 August 8, 2013 - 10:41 am

Buses go everywhere in the city. Subways dont, and wont for any foreseeable future. Improving the bus network is important, because its not going anywhere and can operate a hell of a lot better than it does today.

Or you can keep telling people in Eastern Queens, Glendale, Woodhaven, etc to just keep waiting for the subway to come to their neighborhood (while they keep driving).

Bolwerk August 8, 2013 - 11:25 am

We can improve bus service by investing in smarter rail. If we railstitute something like First Ave SBS or 34th Street, which would do well with light rail, those articulated buses are free to work somewhere that (1) needs articulated buses but doesn’t have them and (2) isn’t suitable for rail.

Ivan August 8, 2013 - 10:52 am

But of course, successful “Real BRT” systems don’t run 10 buses per hour–they run 100. The question becomes, what’s more expensive, 10 trains or 100 buses? Labor costs are a huge part of it of the question; it’s undoubtedly more viable to have very high frequency buses in countries where drivers get paid one or two dollars an hour.

Benjamin Kabak August 8, 2013 - 11:01 am

There are some spots in the TransMilenio system where buses pass that frequently, but no line runs buses every 36 seconds for an extended period of time.

Bolwerk August 8, 2013 - 11:18 am

The Lincoln Tunnel apparently sees something like 800 buses/hour, probably most of them using that one XBL lane. Of course, they aren’t stopping.

In NYC, comparing IND to buses, something like 17 articulated buses may load a single full-length train. That obviously says nothing about throughput, which only makes the case for buses worse, but it’s a huge disparity, especially considering train crews could probably be reduced to 1 in the short term and 0 in the long term.

Epson45 August 8, 2013 - 12:27 pm

articulated buses are 60 feet long. You need 10 for 1 train.

Bolwerk August 8, 2013 - 12:32 pm

Because they’re larger and have a greater proportion of their space dedicated to standing room, trains hold more people.

SEAN August 8, 2013 - 1:43 pm

FYI NOBI makes artix at 60, 62 & 65 foot lengths.

Steven H August 8, 2013 - 11:11 am

It’s my understanding that the Vancouver lines are fully-automated and driverless; as a result, they can run smaller trains at a very high frequency for much longer hours. It’s hard/expensive to do that with staffed buses (or many existing rail transit systems, for that matter). Further, from what I can gather, each 2-car train on the Canada Line can hold about 330 passangers comfortably; an articulated bus seats about half that.

At any rate, once you’ve built a tunnel any capital cost savings that BRT would normally bring you have pretty much evaporated; and you’d still be left with higher operating/maintainance costs, and poorer reliability vis a vis rail transit.

D in Bushwick August 8, 2013 - 12:25 pm

Vancouver has the advantage of installing an elevated line above an railroad right-of-way already in place. Elevated lines cost far less than tunneling and space for the route was already there.
SkyTrain is a great system and works well for a smaller city like Vancouver. But buses or elevated trains don’t work so well for densely populated cities like NY.
It will NEVER happen but, future subway construction needs to be competitively bid to all companies from around the world. I’d love to see what the Spaniards could do…

lawhawk August 8, 2013 - 2:42 pm

Dragados and other Spanish companies, like OHL, are already involved in the MTA subway and LIRR East Side Access projects.

And their experience hasn’t exactly resulted in cost savings.

Oh, and Dragados and Judlau were sued for fraud last year. That’s when they’re not at each other for claiming cost overruns are due to the others’ actions.

D in Bushwick August 8, 2013 - 4:10 pm

That’s the whole NYC Experience that drives the cost per mile far and above the cost in Madrid. The local cultural demands everyone gets a nice slice of the ever-growing pie as convenient delays drive up the price even further.

SEAN August 8, 2013 - 4:27 pm

Kind of reminds me of a sene in Goodfellas where Paully receives his tribute after the Air France break in. Every transaction requires some kind of payoff or tribute. This is what inflates costs in the end in one way or another.

AG August 8, 2013 - 4:49 pm

Funny you bring that up…. just a couple of months ago the feds were digging up a basement in Queens looking for a body related to the Lufthansa heist.

SEAN August 8, 2013 - 7:23 pm

That event was in 1977?

AG August 8, 2013 - 10:47 pm

I think it was earlier than that… but law enforcement will always try to solve a murder case… no matter how old.

Alon Levy August 8, 2013 - 4:49 pm

The Canada Line is also infinitely more comfortable than the articulated buses that Vancouver runs, which start and stop very suddenly and throw standing passengers all over the bus.

Steven H August 8, 2013 - 11:13 am

My comment was supposed to be a reply to Rachel’s comment re: Vancouver @9:54.

I put it in the wrong place, I think. Sorry!

Josh August 8, 2013 - 12:21 pm

Completely off topic, but thank you for reminding me how hilarious it was to see Jay Walder standing next to politicians of normal height.

alen August 8, 2013 - 12:37 pm

buses and rapid transit do not deserve to be in the same sentence
yesterday i walked from 6th ave to 11th ave as fast as the M23. in fact i got to the front of the elevator line just before the mass of people that got off that bus

q60 is just as bad

flatbush depot August 8, 2013 - 1:30 pm

streetcars (or something similar).

the B44 SBS (north of Flatbush Ave) will be the closest we get to a streetcar line in NYC until it gets converted to a streetcar line and/r streetcar lines get built elsewhere in NYC. I think the B44 SBS will pave the way for this due to the presence of bus bulbs and the way its corridor will be reconfigured north of Flatbush Ave.

if the 44 SBS did not run south of Ave “H” or so it would be a lot easier to make it a streetcar line, but it does, so we just have to deal unfortunately.

they would have to eliminate all parking on the bidirectional parts of Nostrand having only 1 lane in each direction. use the middle 2 lanes for streetcars, use the outer 2 (and middle 2 wherever bus bulbs or parked commercial trucks have to be circumvented) for local buses and motor vehicle traffic.

the 44 SBS is very easy to streetcar compared to other lines since it has like no turns. the worst ones would be the left turns at Flatbush/Nostrand and at Lee/Taylor. none of the right turns along the B44 SBS are a big deal at all for streetcars.

flatbush depot August 8, 2013 - 1:33 pm

they could remove the B49 from Bedford and Rogers (move it over to NY Ave or Brooklyn or both) and put the B44 local on Rogers, then turn all the parking spaces on Rogers into angled parking spaces to compensate for lost spaces on Nostrand/Rogers/Bedford where the 44 SBS will run.

flatbush depot August 8, 2013 - 1:44 pm

or just do the angled parking spaces on some one way roads in Crown Heights like Kingston Ave. anything to make up for whatever spaces would have to be eliminated on the unidirectional roads where the B44 SBS will run to make it possible to make the B44 SBS a streetcar line.

llqbtt August 8, 2013 - 2:40 pm

Thie biggest bus boosters are apparently those who ride the bus the least if at all.

flatbush depot August 10, 2013 - 11:47 am

I do not understand.

AG August 8, 2013 - 3:54 pm

Well just like building subways… healthcare is EXPONENTIALLY more expensive in the U.S. than overseas (for the same or better quality). It’s not just transit…

Jeff August 8, 2013 - 3:58 pm

But unlike the subways, the quality of healthcare is actually better here than overseas

SEAN August 8, 2013 - 4:13 pm

The quality maybe better here than elsewhere relating to healthcare, but no doubt so much money is waisted on it at the same time. There are so many hands out for a buck it’s become rediculous. And you think construction costs in NYC & other US localities are off the charts?

D in Bushwick August 8, 2013 - 4:15 pm

By ‘overseas’ do you mean Norway or Senegal?
US residents do pay more than double the next most expensive health care system in Switzerland.

AG August 8, 2013 - 4:47 pm

let’s be serious here… Senegal???? Does Senegal also build subways???? NO.
Put it this way – most nations that builds subways also – are less expensive AND have better or equal quality.

Alon Levy August 8, 2013 - 4:51 pm

Senegal doesn’t, but India does.

AG August 8, 2013 - 4:54 pm

the word “most” means a majority…. doesn’t mean “all”. I said most – I didn’t say all.

AG August 8, 2013 - 4:48 pm

Jeff – that is not true… most first world countries actually have better healthcare than the U.S.
Even in some categories – like infant mortality – a country like Cuba does better.

Alon Levy August 8, 2013 - 4:55 pm

Since Yglesias was linking to my article on US construction costs, here’s what I wrote shortly after writing the original post:

High Costs Should not be an Excuse to Downgrade Projects

For reference, subway operating costs per unit of service offered (car-km or car-hour) are three times as high in New York as in Vancouver. Other American cities are higher or lower than New York; the cheapest, surprisingly, is Cleveland, which is still about 20% more expensive than Vancouver.

SEAN August 8, 2013 - 8:05 pm

Therefore, the problem isn’t as NYC sentric as one might think.

AG August 8, 2013 - 10:51 pm

yes – just like healthcare

Nathanael August 11, 2013 - 4:17 am

Yglesias’s big mistake is imagining that it is possible to do a decent job with buses more cheaply than doing a decent job with trains.

Once you start trying to get exclusive lanes for buses — which is necessary to do a decent job with buses — it becomes pretty obvious that it’s cheaper to build a rail line. It is just nearly impossible, politically, to get exclusive lanes for buses without spending bazillions on bribes to car drivers.

Bolwerk August 11, 2013 - 11:34 am

I think, more to the point, buses can’t do what rail can do. The physical constraints of SBS and “real” BRT simply rule out even light rail levels of throughput, loading, and probably even speed.


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