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From City Council, a toothless bill on Bus Rapid Transit

by Benjamin Kabak

In a bill some (OK, so far, just me) have called “underwhelming” and the “bare minimum of support for public transit,” the City Council passed a measure this week requiring NYC DOT to . . . write a report about Bus Rapid Transit and submit it to them in two years. DOT will have to update this report every few years and maybe implement some of the bus routes they identify in the report. But whether these are bus rapid transit routes, Select Bus Service or some watered down version of everything remains to be seen.

OK, OK. Perhaps I’m being a bit too cynical. Perhaps I’m predisposed to think anything short of monetary and policy support in the face of loud protests from drivers and inanities from vocal Community Board members have led me to view City Council through a biased lens, but perhaps I’m not so far off. At a time when transit advocates are struggling to drum up support for anything related to the MTA’s capital plan or an expansion of our transit network and a time when the subways are sagging under the demands of record ridership, the City Council’s measure, two years in the making, strikes me as something that should have been implemented a decade ago.

Here’s what the legislation does:

  • DOT has to consult with the MTA. (n.b. DOT already consults with the MTA.)
  • DOT has to issue a report by September 1, 2017 identifying areas of New York that need BRT (all of them), strategies for serving growth areas, potential additional inter- or intra-borough BRT corridors that may be established by 2027 (ambitious!), strategies for integration with the current bus network, and costs.
  • Every two years thereafter, DOT has to provide status updates on implementation and explain why DOT deviated if it did. No word if “whiny Community Board members who can’t sacrifice 30 seconds of their drive to Vermont” is a valid excuse.

When you consider that Brad Lander first introduced this bill back in 2013, it’s amazing that anything gets done with regards to transit in a city that sees a combined 8 million bus and subway rides per day. That this is some crowning achievement is telling. And therein lies in the rub and the source of my skepticism. This move essentially codifies DOT’s current practice, but it does nothing to speed up implementation of BRT or SBS routes. It certainly doesn’t encourage best practices — proof of payment throughout the system or pre-board fare payment on every popular route. It also doesn’t bolster DOT’s efforts at overcoming minority resistance to a better bus network.

Over at Streetsblog, Stephen Miller picked up on that latter point as while City Council passed this toothless bill, DOT trimmed back plans for a BRT/SBS corridor through Kew Gardens to Flushing over concerns from a very loud minority. He summarized the problem in a few sentences:

Meanwhile, Miller’s neighboring council member, Rory Lancman, can claim victory in his fight against Flushing-Jamaica Select Bus Service. At a meeting of the Kew Gardens Hills Civic Association last night, DOT said it would not be adding bus lanes to Main Street in that neighborhood.

“We had a very productive community meeting last night,” said Lancman spokesperson Nadia Chait. “The council member found that in that situation the DOT and the MTA had really listened to the community.”

The city encountered vocal opposition to bus lanes from Lancman and Assembly Member Michael Simanowitz. Actual bus riders, however, seem to be missing from the discussion: At a public meeting about Flushing-Jamaica SBS earlier this year heavily attended by civic association members, most people said they rarely ride the bus.

This is a story repeated throughout the city. In Harlem, politicians afraid of losing a driving lane and those entrenched Community Board members claim a bus lane would affect traffic based on the fact that they drive through the area rather than based on traffic engineers’ studies. So tens of thousands of bus riders have longer rides while a few hundred drivers stand to benefit instead. That’s not how a city of transit riders excels or expands its network. But hey, at least we’ll read a bureaucrat’s report on this whole mess every two years. After all, that’s what the City Council demands.

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BrooklynBus April 17, 2015 - 7:58 am

I really do not understand why you are so hung go to support ill-conceived SBS plans. What the City Council should have required are annual reports for existing SBS routes to determine how they are performing before we rush into a dozen more.

At the Woodhaven Workshop, the MTA and DOT could not answer some of the most basic questions. It was stated I their March report, cars would maintain a reasonable speed. When I asked a consultant from DOT what is meant by a reasonable speed would be, he said he would have to find out. When an MTA official stated it was MTA policy for local bus drivers to accept SBS receipts as proof of payment, I asked where that was written down, he said he didn’t know. When I asked if Q11 riders would be able to get a second transfer after transferring to the SBS, he said “No”. Then I asked why that was allowed from the S78 to S79 to the B1and he told me that was a special deal that was worked out. So is that what our fare system has come down to a series of special deals?

When I asked why there was no way to transfer from the B15 to the SBS, I was referred to them “expert ” who never heard of the B15. Then I was told that no one from Operations Planning was in attendance.

The purpose is this meeting was to answer questions so how do you not have people present with answers? All my workshop leader did was read the presentation to us. This is why we need to pay consultants? I didn’t have to waste my time for that.

I also had to tell them their diagram on Page 13 of their Match 26th report was wrong. They didn’t bother to show two breaks in the bus lane. Their response was that it only was a diagram. And an inaccurate one at that.

So we are supposed to believe that an agency who can’t draw a proper diagram or correctly measure the width of a street correctly, is competent to properly perform and analyze traffic counts.

The MTA also couldn’t tell me when or if they would ever release the results of their transit forecasting model supposedly used to plan SBS. We are just supposed to believe these agencies know what they are doing while they keep all their data and analyses secret except for revealing a few statistics which we have no idea how they are derived.

When I asked why they used a six year period to disclose fatalities, they didn’t know that either.

At least the Queens Chronicle is able to see through the BS.

Unnamed Transit Planner April 17, 2015 - 9:17 am

Just so you know, no one takes you seriously in the transit planning community. Your rant on SBS was so filled with errors, and other posts in which you plagiarize this site and others do you no favors.

As to the substance of your comment, what are ill-conceived SBS plans? The SBS plans we have are so pathetic.

BrooklynBus April 17, 2015 - 10:20 am

The Woodhaven Blvd plan is ill-conceived.

And if “my rant on SBS is so filled with errors” name one. And who made you president of “the transit planning community”.

And if you believe the present SBS plans are “so pathetic”, doesn’t that also include Woodhaven?

Desk Jockey April 17, 2015 - 11:46 am

I may very well be misremembering from the last time I took the M60, but doesn’t one get a transfer as a matter of course from dipping a metrocard into the curbside SBS fare machines?

Andres April 17, 2015 - 12:34 pm

In most circumstances, you get one transfer for your $2.75: 1 bus to bus or 1 bus to subway or 1 subway to bus. A dip in the SBS machine works same way as a dip or swipe in any other machine. I do not recall instances where a bus rider was able to transfer from local to limited and back to local on a single fare. While this would certainly be nice, I don’t expect it to be any different for SBS…which with _few_ exceptions, aligns closely with the limited service it replaced.

lop April 17, 2015 - 2:47 pm

Does the B15 stop at cross bay?

BrooklynBus April 17, 2015 - 6:31 pm

No, but it should.

lop April 18, 2015 - 5:27 pm

Why? And how? Eastbound where would the stop be? On the off ramp? Then wait for the long cross bay light cycle to change, turn from the right lane bus stop to the left lane south bound to get in the turning lane – the middle lane on the ramp turns south too, so you’d have a mess for the bus to get over. Then the bus has to turn left back onto the highway after N/S traffic on cross bay gets another red light. That stop might add 3-5 minutes to run times typically. And how many would actually find it useful?

The Q55, Q24, A, JZ offer an alternative route to the Woodhaven corridor from a decent amount of the B15s walkshed. Coming from JFK Q10 to all the E/W lines does to.

If you think there should be a better connection between Queens south of Liberty and south Brooklyn…how much demand is there for that trip? Maybe there should be another bus. But the B15 looks like a bad fit for it.

JAzumah April 17, 2015 - 9:49 am

Notwithstanding the ad hominem attack, it should not cost $200M to implement BRT on Woodhaven Boulevard. 20-25% of that is going into the street. Is NYCDOT using BRT money to rebuild city streets? That is an interesting question. Most of these projects can be started with a repave and some paint.

NYCDOT rarely invested in their own bus system. Does anyone expect them to invest in the MTA’s bus system? I don’t think NYCDOT has the expertise to do this report and I don’t think they view it as their responsibility outside of the study parameters.

What we have here is transit stagnation which is turning into decline. We are not investing in ANYTHING without federal help in NYC. I see that as the beginning of the end for public transit.

eo April 17, 2015 - 10:03 am

In my opinion, in order for us to have a good transportation infrastructure we need to get rid of the “home rule”. This project and many others (think of the third track on LIRR) just do not have enough to offer to the inner neighbourhoods through which they travel in order to gain their support. If you are already close to the CBD(s), so that your commute time by whatever means is reasonable, there is nothing for you in any project that allows buses, trains or whatever else to just pass thorough your neighbourhood. The most benefit you can get is to make them stop in your neighbourhood, but then once you aggregate the resulting delays over the multiple neighbourhoods through which that bus or train needs to stop you end up providing no improvement in the travel time for the people living far from the CBD(s) that you were initially targeting.

I am more familiar with rail, so I can give another example with rail: the replacement of the Colonial Road bridge in the Village of Thomaston on the Port Washington line of the LIRR. There just was not enough of a benefit to the village from the increased frequency of trains west of the village, so they complained and dragged the project for the new pocket track for many many years until the MTA bought them out with a “tunnel” type bridge which I suspect is more expensive and probably higher maintenance than the regular bridges.

The problem with transportation infrastructure is that the locality in which the infrastructure is usually does not benefit enough to justify the infrastructure on its own for that locality. The infrastructure should be evaluated only as a whole for the benefits provided to all communities served and any local opposition to projects that support much larger areas be overriden. Unfortunately, practically every locality has a few rich enough individuals with enough time on their hands to lobby their representative and/or hire lawyers and delay or kill projects because at least with public infrastructure what they have on the other side is career transportation administrators who are neither ready nor paid enough to oppose vigorously any inappropriate political meddling because nobody will remember them for doing something good for the whole project, but they stand to lose their jobs at the whims of the same politicians.

Larry Littlefield April 17, 2015 - 10:17 am

The NYC Council has asserted that it can invent $450 million out of thin air by increasing revenue estimates from the peak of a stock market bubble. So that it can, among other things, increase the size of the police force, already 2.8 times the U.S. average relative to population, even further.

I’ve got a better idea. At a cost of $800 million per year, savings the MTA can use to pay for capital expenditures on rail transit, take over the city’s bus and paratransit system.


Of course grandstanding City Council speakers have proposed taking over the bus system AND subway system before, but everyone knew that was a joke. I’m serious.


Andres April 17, 2015 - 10:24 am

I’d read that bill very carefully to be sure it does not have any traps that can be used to block BRT expansion, i.e., mandating that BRT can only be instituted using a particular process, which, of course, could be gamed so it does not work.

Bolwerk April 17, 2015 - 10:27 am

The bus rapid transit obsession needs to die already. If they gave a fuck about transit, they’d have a transit report, not a bus report. Transit includes things besides buses, like subways and light rail and even ferries when appropriate. All have a place in a city like ours.

Oh, wait, no, scratch that. They wouldn’t have a report. In two years. They’d have funding. Today.

Brandon April 17, 2015 - 1:00 pm

Picking the technology in advance of the corridors in general is problematic. That said, BRT probably is appropriate in many outer borough locations if MTA/DOT can fight their way past the car-obsessives. Its not as if Light Rail or even a subway would be unopposed either. Unlike in Toronto where car people wanted a subway instead of a streetcar, here people are too keenly aware of the disruption of the 2nd Ave Subway construction (or else there’s a handful of people who have extended their backyards onto the subway line).

The biggest reason I can imagine that the MTA would push BRT over light rail even on corridors that would clearly justify light rail is that they bear relatively little of the cost for BRT, as the heavy lifting is done by DOT. There is also a probably significant fixed cost to starting a light rail network in New York to not only buy trains for the first time but also set up maintenance facilities for them, etc. I am curious whether they could share existing subway yards and facilities, though that would probably require expansion as well (and you have to get the trains from the route to the yard). Extra buses for BRT presumably fit into their existing depots for the time being, and in any event can deadhead on surface streets to get to these facilities.

Bolwerk April 17, 2015 - 3:15 pm

Hell, opposition is great. I’m all for opposition. For there to be opposition there must be proposals to oppose. On the whole, subways won’t be considered unless they cost billions$ and serve developers or really rich neighborhoods. Light rail won’t be considered at all, even when it would almost certainly be cheaper in the long run.


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