Home Buses On NYC exceptionalism and a so-called ‘ambitious’ plan for buses

On NYC exceptionalism and a so-called ‘ambitious’ plan for buses

by Benjamin Kabak
NYC DOT and city officials have called the Woodhaven/Cross Bay Boulevard SBS plans ambitious, but there's much to learn from the hype. (Source: <a href='http://www.nyc.gov/html/brt/downloads/pdf/2015-03-woodhaven-sbs.pdf'><p id=NYC DOT/MTA)” width=”575″ height=”362″ class=”size-full wp-image-15421″ /> NYC DOT and city officials have called the Woodhaven/Cross Bay Boulevard SBS plans ambitious, but there’s much to learn from the hype. (Source: NYC DOT/MTA)

As cocky as New Yorkers are, this exceptionalism sometimes leaves us missing out on good ideas implemented elsewhere, especially in the transit planning space. There is this tendency to think that just because something works elsewhere doesn’t mean it will work in New York, and opponents or skeptics find ways to argue around importing good ideas proven to be efficient because New York City is somehow different than Paris, London or countless other places that aren’t New York. Exploiting buses is just one area where we lag.

Lately, in fits and starts, at the pace of, well, a local bus inching its way up 3rd Ave at rush hour, the city has tried to overhaul the bus routes. In January 2008, the MTA and NYC DOT introduced Select Bus Service, a glorified express bus with pre-board fare payment and half-hearted lane enforcement. At some point, signal prioritization will arrive as well. Over eight years later, we have a grand total of eight SBS routes, and a mayor who promised to bring 20 more online in five years. It has essentially taken as long to build 79 percent of the Second Ave. Subway has it has to offer marginal upgrades on a handful of bus routes, but I digress. So far, Bill de Blasio’s administration has introduced zero SBS routes, but that’s about to change.

Last week, DOT finally unveiled their preferred design for the long-awaited Woodhaven Boulevard Select Bus Service/Bus Rapid Transit line. Call you what you want, but at parts, it’s definitely a step in the right direction. As the designs show [pdf], the city is finally thinking about something closer to physically-separated, center-running lanes, and they believe the design plans could improve bus travel times by 25-30 percent. For a congested corridor that has some of the highest bus ridership in the city, an improvement of this magnitude could benefit tens of thousands of people per day.

If you’d like to read more about the design, head on over to Streetsblog where Stephen Miller summarized the proposals in two posts last week. I’d like to discuss the messaging from city leaders instead. Along with the plans, DOT released a lengthy press release with the requisite back-slapping and sufficient amounts of New York exceptionalism.

They key word was “ambitious.” This, said Mayor de Blasio, “is the kind of ambitious overhaul New York City’s bus riders deserve.” Polly Trottenberg called it “an innovative design for Bus Rapid Transit” and summarized the proposal as “the biggest, boldest, and most ambitious design concept the City has attempted for Select Bus Service.” Senator Schumer called the plan “innovative” and “exciting.” (Meanwhile, State Senator Joe Addabbo Jr. had a windshield freakout over it, but whatever.)

Perhaps the Woodhaven Boulevard design is all of these things. It’s something the riders deserve, and it’s a first-of-its-kind-in-New York City proposal, but let’s not kid ourselves that this is somehow ambitious for anywhere other than right here in our backyards. It’s involves tried and true technologies and features that are in place in real Bus Rapid Transit networks throughout the world, and to make matters worse, DOT is still planning on hosting “block by block design workshops” which will do wonders for a speedy rollout of this $200 million project.

Ultimately — and I say this lovingly because I care — New York City is going to have to get over itself if it wants to get anywhere with transit planning. Our rollout rate for SBS lines shouldn’t be barely pushing one per year, and we shouldn’t be head-over-heels impressed with ourselves when someone finally has the political guts and gumption to propose elements of real BRT through a wide street in Queens. We have a capacity crisis, and it’s going to take leadership to solve it. Praising a plan that’s barely ambitious as though it’s the most innovative idea to come out of DOT in a decade has me more than a little worried for the future.

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Nyland8 March 30, 2015 - 5:12 am

In other words, they’re going to lay out the street to look like the Grand Concourse in the Bronx – except the busses won’t be running along the service road.

Alain March 30, 2015 - 5:52 am

“Praising a plan that’s barely ambitious as though it’s the most innovative idea…”

Let us not mention the Elephant in the Room…

SEAN March 30, 2015 - 7:55 am

Dam – talk about excessive celabration! It’s one freaking bus route. Now if there was a new subway route under Woodhaven, that would be real news.

BrooklynBus March 30, 2015 - 10:21 am

We don’t need a subway under Woodhaven when we have the unused Rockaway Beach Line a half mike to the east that would cost like a tenth as much as a subway user Woodhaven

Larry Littlefield March 30, 2015 - 10:33 am

New York is still exceptional.

That $200 million is more than 2 million work hours at $100 per hour in wages and benefits.

Anywhere else they’d have gotten a tram for that.

Eric F March 30, 2015 - 11:22 am

I guess this is more than just painting lines on the street, but $200 million??!! They are (supposedly) extending the HOV lane on the Staten Island Expressway for less than that.

Larry Littlefield March 30, 2015 - 1:44 pm

At that cost, how much more would it cost to lay down rails, and create a simple signal system based on cell phones or commercial GPS and operators’ line of sight?

And put up some poles and string some wires and run electric vehicles?

It’s really absurd what they take us for here.

BrooklynBus March 30, 2015 - 1:58 pm

The Rockaway Beach Line could be rebuilt for the cost of building Queensway and the BRT on Woodhaven.

Larry Littlefield March 30, 2015 - 3:00 pm

With one exception: the cost of hooking it into the QB line.

BrooklynBus March 30, 2015 - 3:36 pm

That is only one option. It could also work as part of the LIRR if the fare was reasonable and there was a place to leave your car near the train.

adirondacker12800 March 30, 2015 - 5:32 pm

If they are going to drive to the station it’s much cheaper to just build a garage at an existing station.

BBnet3000 March 30, 2015 - 10:39 pm

Why does running onto the LIRR tracks make the same line suddenly require parking?

Bolwerk March 30, 2015 - 5:58 pm

There is the whole matter of revenue too. QueensWay presumably generates none (unless it somehow beats the odds and becomes popular, in which case it could generate concession revenue).

The incremental costs of reactivation might actually be covered by revenue.

Bolwerk March 30, 2015 - 2:29 pm

I doubt many first world countries could get six miles of bidirectional tram for that price. France seems to pull off ~$40M/mile sometimes.

The stakes are probably being raised. Earlier NYC BRT implementations worked pretty well. People were happy with them. They may or may not have been cheaper than properly constructed trams (in the long run), but they at least probably cut the costs of operating busier bus services. On top of that, higher operating costs probably mean buses keep more people employed.

The only losers, riders, don’t have a place at the table.

Alon Levy March 30, 2015 - 11:14 pm

If by “sometimes” you mean “that’s around its average cost,” then sure.

Bolwerk March 31, 2015 - 10:01 am

Is it? I could only find examples like that in small cities doing small scale trams, and that was a few years ago.

Either way, doesn’t change the point. $200M/6 miles is ~$33M/mile. Way too high for a bus, but probably won’t get you a full tram implementation.

Alon Levy March 31, 2015 - 11:30 pm

The French average is about $25 million per kilometer. I’ve heard the German average is lower, but haven’t looked it up myself.

sonicboy678 April 3, 2015 - 5:15 pm

One kilometer is barely more than 1/2 mile and one mile is slightly shorter than two kilometers. Saying the French may see about $40 million/mile of construction isn’t a stretch if the average is about $25 million/kilometer.

Christopher March 30, 2015 - 11:11 am

One of the more troubling parts about calling it ambitious and revolutionary, is that you open it up to criticism by the anti-transit crowd who will harp on the “untested methods” of this “revolutionary” route. If we just said made it seem more humdrum and normal upgrade, we’d be better positioned to fend off those that will attack it for being too innovative.

Joe Steindam March 30, 2015 - 11:44 am

Maybe I’m not doing enough consideration for drivers, but if they’re planning on moving the pedestrian medians to widen the main road, wouldn’t it make more sense to reserve the service road as exclusive bus lanes and bus stops (which would speed up all the buses that use Woodhaven) and locate parking on the main road with traffic? It would give buses better travel priority and eliminate potential encroachments in the planned redesign where cars need to enter the bus lane to access the service road (since cars won’t be allowed in the service road). It would also create an emergency access road for any emergency vehicles to travel on Woodhaven, and could have limited impact on buses, and no impact on cars.

Moving the parking lanes into the express section of the road may seem objectionable, but there are arterial roads in NYC that have parking alongside faster traffic (4th Avenue and the eastern end of Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn comes to mind). But this might be a better design that would actually create good bus service, and would be open to all buses that utilize Woodhaven Boulevard.

Duke March 30, 2015 - 11:51 pm

That could be made to work if the service roads were continuous, but they are not. They become underpass U-turns on either side of the LIRR lower Montauk, and end in various ways on either side of Forest Park.

BrooklynBus March 31, 2015 - 5:13 pm

Two years ago I suggested to them to add grade level railroad crossings for the service roads. They told me they thought of that also but thought the communities would think they were crazy if they suggested it.

Since there is no longer any passenger service on that line, only a few freight trains a day, I do not see why this would not work. The gates would block the tracks instead of the road. The trains would come to a compete stop at the gates. The traffic signal would change to red for the road. When the cars stop, the train would proceed.

BrooklynBus March 30, 2015 - 12:18 pm


I am really surprised that you have been fooled by DOT’s lies and propaganda. I thought you were a supporter of restoring the Rockaway Beach Line. Don’t you see how this is a plot to kill the Rockaway Beach Line? It is no coincidence that all the same groups who support bus rapid transit on Woodhaven, also support the Queensway Plan.

DOT has lied consistently. They came to the community asking them for solutions to improve Woodhaven Boulevard stating that SBS was only a possibility. The truth was they had already received $28 million in funding for SBS and had already been planning it for three years.

They assured the community that three lanes for general traffic would remain throughout when traffic concerns were raised. Their plan only calls for two general traffic lanes in three places which will cause massive bottlenecks and delays for autos which apparently does not concern mass transit enthusiasts.

They presented a $28 million plan to the communities, and instead they approved a plan costing at least $228 million.

DOT has continually only told the community half the story throughout the process like stating there are 30,000 bus riders who would benefit, making outrageous claims like travel times will improve up to 35 percent. They are saying in effect that bus would be quicker than rail. They are not telling you there are 60,000 daily auto drivers and passengers who will lose more time than the amount of time saved by bus riders. But I guess that doesn’t matter.

Finally DOT presented a plan budgeted at $28 million and never even explained why the costs rose ten fold. They are regarding federal money as free money. We don’t have money to haphazardly throw away.

Apparently, you never read my five part SBS series, especially part 4 on Woodhaven. If you did read it and have questions I would be happy to discuss it with you or anyone else who has questions.

VLM March 30, 2015 - 12:26 pm

You and Bob Diamond should get together to form a “DOT Lies and Propaganda” support network. I’d be happy to design the tin foil hats. Your five-part series was abysmal and riddled with inconsistent logic and factual errors. I’m surprised the rubes at Sheepshead Bites even let you publish it. Surely they must have some standards.

Low Headways April 29, 2015 - 9:11 am

Massive bottlenecks and delays for autos which apparently does not concern mass transit enthusiasts.”

Nope, you’re right, those don’t concern me one bit.

BrooklynBus April 29, 2015 - 11:14 am

That’s because you are just purely selfish and narrow minded. I woudn’t brag about that.

BrooklynBus March 30, 2015 - 12:42 pm

As usual with you, it’s nothing more than innuendos and no facts. I would gladly entertain an intelligent discussion with you on this subject if that is at all possible which I highly doubt.

VLM March 30, 2015 - 3:07 pm

I assume this was directed to me, but in reality, there’s no need to respond with facts. As you’ve shown in the comments to Sheephead Bites articles, you’re not interested in facts. You form an opinion and make up numbers to fit that narrative. The fact that your estimated numbers of Woodhaven travelers added up to over 100% was enough should’ve been a giveaway for anyone reading. Do you even have a concept of what the volume of traffic you claim goes down Woodhaven would look like? You’ve basically doubled the volume that goes through all three Lincoln Tunnel tubes on a daily basis. How can we take that seriously? Why should we?

BrooklynBus March 30, 2015 - 3:33 pm

Now you are just making up stuff. You say there is no need to respond with facts. Why would an MTA employee think any differently? But I really shouldn’t malign all MTA employees just because of you.

VLM March 30, 2015 - 3:47 pm

As always, Al, when someone comes at you with fundamental issues with your perspective, you disengage. I’m not an MTA employee, though I have perfectly good reasons for remaining anonymous. I don’t have much of a desire to go into a debate that’s already unfolded under your post, but here’s a direct quote from the post you linked above:

Although the time-savings bus riders would achieve would be higher than on SBS routes already implemented because 30 percent of Woodhaven riders travel from nearly one end of the route to the other, according to the MTA, it still might not be worthwhile since bus riders account for only 33 percent of the users of Woodhaven and Cross Bay Boulevards. The predominant traffic is auto and truck during non-rush hours, perhaps 80 percent.

That’s nonsense in that it doesn’t make any sense. Do you have a source of these numbers? Where did they come from? Your approach is more flawed than those you are trying to critique. QED.

BrooklynBus March 30, 2015 - 4:20 pm

I believe your once stated you were an MTA employee.

There is nothing wrong with that quote. If it seems like nonsense to you, why don’t you just ask for an explanation instead of jumping to conclusions that it is nonsense and then resorting to insults?

According to the MTA, there are 30,000 bus riders each day. According to DOT using a formula like 1.3 passengers per automobile it is estimated that on a daily basis, only one third of the daily users are bus passengers. That means that over the course of a day 67% of the roads users are not bus passengers. If you subtract the peak hours when the buses are the most crowded, and service is the heaviest, why would it be unreasonable to assume that the figure for non-bus passengers rises to 80% during non rush hours? During the non peak (except when people are going to the beach) most buses on Woodhaven have much less than a seated load, while auto occupancy remains at about 1.3 passengers per car.

VLM March 30, 2015 - 4:26 pm

If you subtract the peak hours when the buses are the most crowded, and service is the heaviest, why would it be unreasonable to assume that the figure for non-bus passengers rises to 80% during non rush hours?

Is there any empirical evidence for this at all or are you just throwing a number out there? I’m truly curious.

BrooklynBus March 30, 2015 - 5:19 pm

Evidence why I am increasing the daily estimate from 67% to 80% for non rush hours when buses are less crowded, there are much fewer of them, and car occupancy remains the same? I am curious why you feel that is not a logical assumption to make?

lop March 30, 2015 - 4:14 pm

Why do you hate the MTA and their employees so much?

BrooklynBus March 30, 2015 - 4:25 pm

I do not hate MTA employees. I often defend them when they are called a bunch of lazy stiffs.

lop March 30, 2015 - 4:12 pm

60k auto passengers+drivers on woodhaven is not double the ~108k vehicles through the Lincoln tunnel, not double the ~160k drivers+passengers that corresponds to either.

Were you referring to something else?

VLM March 30, 2015 - 4:22 pm

I was attempting to parse Allan’s numbers and percentages, but they’re so jumbled that it may be useless. I may have done the math wrong, but the point remains: Woodhaven Boulevard doesn’t have as much auto traffic as he thinks. If you look for it, numbers appear to be 35,000 vehicles per day.

Anyway, we’ve strayed so far from any topic and we’re rehashing points that have been argued for weeks on Sheepshead Bites that it’s a disservice to continue this here.

BrooklynBus March 30, 2015 - 4:27 pm

I never compared Lincoln Tunnel volumes to Woodhaven volumes so I have no idea where this is coming from.

Kevin Walsh March 30, 2015 - 1:20 pm

Express buses with dedicated lanes should be the primary focus of mass transit going forward. Subways are too costly to build, and the city hasn’t taken light rail seriously since the trolleys were eliminated in the 40s and 50s.

Bolwerk March 30, 2015 - 2:04 pm

Applying blanket statements like that is one of the best ways to guarantee spending the most. Woodhaven is probably in that gray area where either SBS or surface LRT would be pretty appropriate.

Buses are probably more appropriate even, considering the subway that could inexpensively be built on that corridor would eat most of the long distance traffic and, therefore, probably the bulk of the ridership.

BrooklynBus March 30, 2015 - 2:08 pm

But we don’t have to build a subway here when we already have the Rockaway Beach Line. Ruling out ever building another subway is just short sighted. Initial building expenses may be high, but express buses are no long term solution because of the high operating costs associated with them.

Many studies also conclude that riders prefer rail over buses. The origins of and destinations of express buses are limited and do not meet the needs of most who choose to drive. You cannot consider only bus riders and disregard the needs of everyone else if those express lanes would cause a major inconvenience to others as is the case on Woodhaven and Cross Bay Boulevards.

FedUp March 30, 2015 - 10:19 pm

Allan, as a former director of planning for the Transit Authority you should know the difference between express buses and buses that are not express buses but move faster than locals. Express buses are coach-style buses with large non-stop portions in the middle on the way to the CBD. Are you sure you worked for the TA? And why didn’t you stay longer and fix more than just a couple of spots in Brooklyn?

BrooklynBus April 1, 2015 - 4:57 pm

What makes you think I do not know the difference between locals and express buses?

The “spots I fixed in Brooklyn” occurred before I got my job with the NYCTA occurred while I was at the Department of City Planning and was hired to head Bus Planning because of that. I was able to fix very little while at the TA. I had the run on and run off changed at certain times of day for the B49, got a bus stop moved so it was in place the same day as an escalator opened on the B1, added possible short turns to the electrinis bus signs, found 91 out of 96 errors in the Brooklyn bus map just before it would have gone to publication, and a few more minor things like that. If I didn’t move that bus stop in 1981, passengers probably would still be walking an extra block today for no good reason. I was hired because of those Brooklyn changes I made.

I didn’t stay because of the air pollution at East New York Depot which I complained about and they refused to fix after OSHA rated it as unhealthy. My boss said, “It is easier to transfer you than to fix the problem.” That was after I received thirty signatures from other employees who also were bothered by the fumes.

My new boss was worse. He insisted all memos to him be written in pencil, so he could rewrite what you told him. I was finally transferred out of Planning because we just couldn’t work together anymore, although he greatly respected me and asked me to read his Phd thesis on the B3 bus route so he could get my opinion on it. He had a lot of confidence in his abilities and once tried to write an efficient bus schedule. It was very efficient alright. He just forgot to give anyone a lunch break.

I only was in planning at the TA for 2 and a half years (7 years at City Planning working on Brooklyn buses). Then I was in a number of other departments until I retired including several years in the Executive Vice President’s office, so I saw how the MTA works from many different levels.

Beebo March 30, 2015 - 2:47 pm

This is exceptionalism. The above is yet another lame bus idea.

JJJJJJJ March 30, 2015 - 5:10 pm

Whats exceptional is that with a 160′ right of way they couldnt find space for a bike lane.

BrooklynBus March 30, 2015 - 5:23 pm

Another DOT lie.

The ROW only reaches 160 or 175 feet in about three short locations. Cross Bay is 110 feet wide and Woodhaven is mostly between 125 and 130 feet wide and also narrows own to 70 feet over the LIRR and 75 feet under the LIRR, which they conveniently omit from their documents. So if you wants a three block bike route, be my guest.

JJJJJJJJJ March 30, 2015 - 10:37 pm

If there can be a median the entire length, there could be a bike trail

BrooklynBus March 30, 2015 - 10:42 pm

The median only exists where there are no service roads. Bike lanes instead of the median would not only be too dangerous, it would interfere with left turns. Where there are service roads, the median is only three feet wide.

Nyland8 March 30, 2015 - 11:01 pm

The last thing I would ever want to do on a bike is share my air with a 160′ wide road filled with moving traffic. I’d rather ride in a bike lane on a less hectic, less dangerous, and less polluted side street.

BrooklynBus April 29, 2015 - 11:17 am

I fully agree. However, when I proposed bike lanes be installed on wide side streets in East Flatbush (E53 St and E 56 St), bike riders criticized me saying they wanted the bike lanes on the main street (Utica Av) because they didn’t want to ride three small blocks out of their way.

adirondacker12800 April 29, 2015 - 3:36 pm

They are probably using their bike for the retail on Utica….

Bronx March 30, 2015 - 5:44 pm

You can’t be “revolutionary” in Queens. Bring real B.R.T. to the Bronx, we’re begging for mass transportation improvements.


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