When the MTA Board’s Transit committee meets later today, one of their agenda items includes a formal blessing of the unnecessarily controversial M60 Select Bus Servicer route. After months of planning, rollbacks and NIMBY opposition that highlighted the flaws with the process, the committee will vote on the reduced plan, and thousands of bus riders who need better service to Laguardia Airport and down 125th St. will get it. We can celebrate the moment, but it’s also yet another example of missed opportunities for relatively cheap and easy transit upgrade.
In announcing the new route this past fall, MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast spoke generally of the improvements. “The 125th Street corridor is a vital thoroughfare for Harlem residents and businesses alike,” he said in a statement. “I’m glad we will be able to improve service for our customers while still maintaining commercial loading zones for businesses in the area. Select Bus Service will speed up bus service by as much as 20 percent on the M60 where half of the route’s boardings and alightings happen right on 125th Street.”
The Board materials fill in the details. The new SBS M60 will be a 24-hour bus line that fully supplants the route’s current local service. (The remaining 125th St. crosstown local buses will continue to serve all stops.) Service frequency will increase by 10 percent on the weekdays and around 14 percent on the weekends, and with a dedicated bus lane, for all 125th St. buses, that will run for a little less than one mile between Lenox and 2nd Avenues.
The Board committee book describes the bus lane: “Most of the bus lanes will be offset, or one lane away from the curb, which will accommodate deliveries, community parking needs, and right turns; the bus lane between 3rd Avenue and 2nd Avenue will be curbside and only in the eastbound direction.” It’s better than nothing, but even as the MTA stresses that it and NYC DOT “attended over 50 community meetings,” I can’t help but feel this whole thing is another missed opportunity.
As this new service gears up to launch in the spring, it is definitely an improvement so long as bus lane enforcement comes with it. Outside of the need to improve access to Laguardia, a bus ride down 125th Street is often an exercise in patience and futility. This wide cross-street is chock full of traffic stretching from Fairway on the West Side to the Triborough Bridge on the East. Parking and double parking are constant problems, and as with 96th St., it can be faster to walk at rush hour than to sit on a bus.
With 125th St., the city could have taken the opportunity to rebuild the street space. The street is wide enough to support true BRT with center-running lanes and dedicated boarding areas. It has the ridership to warrant such improvements as well. Instead, Community Boards concerned with the loss of a few parking spots and one quarter of the local bus service threw up road blocks after road blocks to the point that the MTA and DOT never shelved the idea for good. Even after local politicians intervened, the plans are a watered-down version of the initial proposal, and parking will still obstruct the bus lane at certain points. Certain Community Boar members too are still unhappy with any plan that removes parking spaces and improves transit.
So again, the needs of the few and loud outweigh the needs of the many, and we applaud the SBS M60 plans because they will exist in a few weeks. It will be easier for commuters, students and New Yorkers to journey down 125th St. and for travelers to reach Laguardia. For the airport, ultimately, though, what New York City truly needs is a direct subway connection, and for a cross-street, we need bus rapid transit. For now, we’ll just have to keep dreaming.