New York Plans to Bet Big on BRT

City’s Department of Transportation releases report on next phase of fast bus corridors

This week, the New York City Department of Transportation took the next step in the revitalization of bus lines in the city’s five boroughs, publicizing a new report on implementing bus rapid transit (via Tri-State Transpo Campaign). It articulates basic corridors f0r bus speed-ups and is the first step in a years-long process to expand the Select Bus Service project first implemented on Fordham Road in the Bronx last year. But the DOT’s recognition that the Fordham Road line — known as BX12 — isn’t an ideal example of BRT is perhaps the most important conclusion of the study, because it indicates that New York City will have to do more than just paint the road red to improve bus speeds.

The study’s results (PDF) are an impressive read. As shown in the images from the report below (Staten Island not pictured), the city envisions new bus-only lanes criss-crossing the boroughs, with the primary purpose of providing access to areas that currently lack subway service and improving cross-borough commutes that currently are not offered. These objectives are appropriate for this type of transit improvement; the potential corridors for Brooklyn mirror those I pinpointed in my post last week on building streetcar lines in the borough.

Lines proposed for the other boroughs follow similar rules. Queens would get new fast buses in its subway-less eastern half, as well as in Elmhurst and Middle Village; Manhattan would get several crosstown routes and a Westside line; and the Bronx would benefit from service for the central borough and Soundview. These are necessary improvements that would be focused in the correct transit-needy zones.

BrooklynBrooklyn BRT Routes QueensQueens BRT Routes
ManhattanManhattan BRT Routes The BronxBronx BRT Routes

The images below show how the corridors were picked. In general, the DOT looked at difficult transit trips and underserved areas — where densely populated neighborhoods were more than a 1/4 or 1/2-mile walk from the nearest subway station. Another criterion considered was serving rapidly growing areas, and the report specifies Greenpoint/Williamsburg in Brooklyn, Long Island City in Queens, the South Bronx, and the West Shore of Staten Island as notable examples. If we’re looking to improve transit, these are the relevant criteria.

Difficult TripsDifficult Transit Trips New York City Underserved AreasUnderserved Areas by Transit New York City

The report documents the success and the failures of the BX12 Fordham Road line and indicates that future BRT corridors in the city will be more fully featured. While the Bronx line does include red painted lanes (as does the 34th Street “transitway”), because they aren’t separated physically from the adjacent car lanes, they’re subject to frequent vehicle incursions and resulting delays in travel time. Because they’re curbside, illegally parked cars force buses to drive around and into normal traffic. In addition, while the bus line includes more information than typical service — with maps and distinctive signage — customers still aren’t provided exact information about when the vehicles will arrive.

On the other hand, the report suggests a number of improvements that would bolster future BRT service:

  • Offset bus lanes: these allow bulb-out bus stations and car parking in the lane’s interior;
  • Enhanced signal priority: existing systems activate or extend green lights when buses approach; new ones would give buses lead intervals and dedicated turning phases;
  • Bus lane barriers: “soft” or “hard” separations would ensure that car traffic doesn’t enter the bus lane;
  • Level boarding: higher platforms would make it possible for wheelchairs to roll directly onto buses without requiring them to “kneel;”
  • Real-time information: GPS-linked LED panels at every station would give customers up-t0-date information on the arrival time before the next bus;
  • 3-Door buses: for some reason, New York has been left for years with two-door articulated buses, when three doors are common abroad; more entryways allow easier boarding into the vehicle.

The report says that the city will choose eight to ten corridors upon which to focus interventions over the next few months, and then start implementation next year. The 1st/2nd Avenue line in Manhattan and Nostrand Avenue project in Brooklyn (the latter received a “High” rating in the recent New Starts report) have already been planned, and they’re the first up.

These are exciting innovations for a city that desperately needs more transit. Should we be frustrated that the report specifically argues that “New subways are not a feasible solution to most of the city’s transit needs,” even though we know perfectly well that in cities elsewhere in the world with New York densities, new subways are the solution? Probably. And where is the mention of streetcars, a probably even more effective tool for improving transit service? Nowhere. But the study’s BRT solution is an honest assessment of city’s political and financial limitations, and the proposed improvements would be a godsend.

It’s unsurprising that it is the city’s DOT, not the MTA, leading this process, even though the MTA will operate the affected BRT lines. Commissioner Janette Sadik-Kahn has proven herself an adept proponent of transit-friendly neighborhoods and pedestrian and bike-friendly streets, and she’s not faced with the huge budget deficits that constantly encumber the MTA. And, after all, the city runs the streets that are ultimately affected by BRT projects.

To argue that BRT is the be-all-end-all solution to transit in America’s biggest city would be unrealistic — the metropolis still needs streetcars and new subways. But it’s one element of a whole spectrum of public transportation improvements, and this report provides a strong framework for better bus development.

Images above: from New York City DOT

12 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • anonymous

    Woo-hoo!

  • So it looks like if you combined your bullets with the ones I proposed last week, we could develop a pretty robust BRT solution for New York City. Someone should put us in charge.

    On another note: One thing missing from this latest round of proposals – and it’s something I feel pretty strongly about – are interborough connections. These proposed routes all end at or near borough boundaries when they should be continuing on to offer multi-borough transit options.

  • Some of the underserved corridors on the map in Manhattan are in fact amply served. I’m thinking mainly of 14th Street, and even 10th Avenue: on the Upper West Side, Amsterdam is served by the West Side Line, and in Hell’s Kitchen, the parallel Eighth Avenue Line is severely underused. Other corridors are meant just for buses, which makes them adhere to expressways more than they should; meanwhile, the underutilized 63rd Street Tunnel and Williamsburg Bridge rail connections won’t see better connections that would allow them to relieve congestion on parallel lines.

  • Woody

    Alon,

    I’m thinking that the corridors in Manhattan that you think are “amply served” ain’t necessarily so. I live one block from the B/C line under Central Park West. And with four flights of stairs to reach street level vs my arthritis at age 64, I’ve about stopped using that subway.

    I’d love to see a streetcar running down Columbus/9th Ave, then up Amsterdam/10th Ave. But I’ll take Bus Repackaged Transit with a stop at the main cross street.

    With the Baby Boomers nearing 65, we have a large and growing population in this city preferring surface transportation to taking the stairs.

    Also, in the same way that some people will ride rail but never, ever ride a bus, some will ride surface transportation but never go underground.

    A surface line, be it tram or busway, can serve market segments that the subways never will.

  • Woody

    I guess I’m repeating myself, but I gotta say this. I hope it’s not too late to consider streetcars for most of these NYC routes.

    Under the Bushies, Bus Repackaged Transit projects were the only ones in favor. But just last month, the new Secretary of Transportation gave the O.K to streetcars.

    The European experience has been that trams always attract more ridership than the bus routes they replace — with about a third of the new riders former drivers. And of course, streetcars are more energy efficient and cost less over time, because the steel wheel on smooth rail vehicles outlast the rubber tire on pot-holed road buses.

    Because there is a large segment of the population that will not ever get on a bus, we should look at tram lines on First and Second Aves, and on the West Side, too, maybe up down Columbus and up Central Park West where they would appeal to tourists as well as residents.

    I can understand BRT on Fordham Road, it’s very hilly and the steep grades would have challenged streetcar construction. But most of NYC is perfect terrain for trams.

  • BRT is an OK investment, if it can be significantly better than a bus. Often times, as mentioned in the article, it is not.

    What’s “significantly better?” Level boarding platforms, better signage, bigger nicer buses and electronic wait times are all good, but I think more can be done.

    For example, I haven’t looked at the reports, but in this article/summary there is no mention of proof of payment systems. That should be a must.

    Additionally, there should be a greater investment in the line. Yes – more money. This is important for three reason: 1.) It would make the BRT lines work better and be better for passengers 2.) It would make the system feel permanent, like that particular bus line is there to stay – this is important so people will develop their lives and businesses around it. 3.) it would allow the BRT system to act as a true bridge to LRTs, rather than just preserving the ROW.

    Specifically, there should be stations. Not just stops. These would be platform level, covered from the rain, aesthetically pleasing, offer seating, and require a proof of payment to enter. Preferably there would be an attendant, but an automated system could be used and ‘transit officers’ could enforce the ticketing policy and the use of the stations for only paying passenger (no bums).

    The stations that link with the subways should also provide elevators and escalators to the subway within the proof of payment system. This eliminates much of the hassle of transferring and would help encourage bus riders to use the subway and subway riders to use the bus. To further encourage the use of using more than one mode (and thus transit in general) times for subways should be posted at the bus stops and in the buses and vice versa (where possible).

    There also needs to be some sort of enforcement. You’ve got million dollar buses, million dollar stations, your paying drivers, your taking up a whole lane of very valuable space in NYC and a car that takes a green light and blocks the intersection, or can jam the whole system. How about a ‘double fine’ for obstructing a bus? Or at least some enforcement.

    And to further appease people, and encourage them to build around the bus line, a set of standards should be developed for platform length, height, the vehicles, potential manufactures etc, and these standards should be completely compatible with LRTs. This allows a LRT to built down the road, but it also makes it more likely it will happen, not just because it would now be easier to convert the BRT to an LRT, but because people would have hope. Hope can do a lot. With possibility of a future LRT looking more likely, people would build around the BRT in the hope that itis one day an LRT. When people do this, it will create an environment that is more political favorable for LRT and make the LRT more effective if and when it comes – the LRT can hit the ground running.

    Really, BRT is a nice acronym – it sounds a lot better than’ the bus’, but it’s just a bus most the time. Most people hate ‘the bus.’

  • Woody: in the late 19th century, it was commonplace among subway skeptics that nobody would ride underground trains. Nonetheless, once the subway was built it got far more ridership than the els, even after the els were electrified. A lot of the els that were taken down in New York had very little ridership by the time of their demise, with all commuters having moved to the subway.

    On another hand, if there is light rail running down the West Side, it should run on 9th and 10th, not 9th and 8th. Amsterdam is the second busiest street of the Upper West Side, after Broadway, and Columbus is the third; Central Park West is residential and not very high-density by Uptown standards, which is partly why the 8th Avenue Line is underused.

  • Woody

    Alon,

    The same people who have trouble with four flights of stairs from the lower level of the B/C line would also have a lot of trouble with stairs up to an elevated line. For the likes of us, it’s surface or no go. Surely one reason the buses that run atop subway lines in this city are full is that many people choose surface transit, or have impediments that force the choice.

    A route on Central Park West is appealing because of the physical geography. A line flush with the Park in the right hand uptown lane would remove a lot of parking spaces, but would hardly affect traffic flow. And it’s a two-way avenue, so contraflow would work well if the avenue were made one-way downtown, mirroring Fifth Avenue across the Park.

    Perhaps best of all, a line in that right hand lane would have very few cross streets. Only the four transverses and a handful of road entrances to the Park would need to be accounted for. So a very swift trip would result.

    I don’t think of CPW as “not very high-density”. Maybe the Dakotas apartment building is, but most are tall, with an average height, what to guess, 12 stories or so. I do have a hunch that those buildings, and the brownstones midblock, are filled with good people who disdain buses, but might be tempted onto a tram. (I’d say they disdain the subway as well, which is partly why the 8th Avenue line is underused.) Of course, Columbus Ave is dense, and just a walkable block away.

    The strip is gaining population, with four or five big apartment towers underway between 97th and 100th St. God willing and the banks don’t fail, they will be completed next year. Continue into Harlem and there’s a flood of new housing recently opened or underway or the sites cleared. Again, if the banks don’t fail, many will be occupied next year.

    In fact, continuing into Harlem may be the compelling argument. If you try to run uptown service on Amsterdam, north of 110th St then the downtown service would run down Morningside Drive. It would cling to the top of a high bluff that for decades has served as ramparts protecting Columbia’s environs from the Harlem horde below. That would not be nice, nor contribute to transit equity. Even if you put uptown and downtown rails both on Amsterdam north of 110th St, it would not contribute to transit equity.

    Better to run up 8th/CPW/Frederick Douglass into Harlem, say to 125 St to find a place for the car barn. Then come down St Nicholas to Manhattan Ave. and jog over a half block to get onto Columbus around 110th. (I usually make the cross over at 106th when riding my bike.)

    If you can make a Columbus/Amsterdam corridor work on the Upper West Side, I’m O.K. with it. That probably is better on 9th and 10th Aves in Hell’s Kitchen and Chelsea anyway. But I just don’t think that a Central Park West alignment is out of the question.

  • AlexB

    I don’t think BRT is the only solution for NYC’s transportation problems. However, the various gov’t agencies have their plate full with ARC/THE, the SAS, 7 extension, ESA, etc. and those things will take about 10 years to complete. Streetcars and/or light rail would be a great way to expand transit, but they take years to design and build.

    Within two years, the city can have a select bus network (not BRT) that provides substantial time savings for a lot of people. Perhaps the varying rates of success of these new routes will lead the city to pick some of those routes in 5 years for light rail/streetcars and eventually replace those routes with a subway 20+ years down the road. As much as subways seem like a dime a dozen in New York, we have to remember that they are the at the absolute peak of the transportation pyramid: they are the most expensive, move the most people, require the greatest density, etc.

  • Woody,

    Didn’t the 9th/10th Ave Els turn east at 110th to continue on Manhattan Ave or 8th Avenue or some other flat street? I like your proposal to extend the line into Harlem, and I agree that the four flights of stairs are a barrier to full use of the CPW subway stations.

  • The purpose of light rail isn’t to pass through scenic areas, but to serve corridors people want to go to. CPW is not a good corridor for that. The majority of New Yorkers who don’t have a problem getting to the subway will keep taking the Eighth Avenue Line at the current low rate. The minority who do will not have convenient access to and from the parts west of Amsterdam, which is where the majority of the Upper West Side’s population lives, and where the majority of interesting destinations are located.

    Although the buildings on CPW are tall, the apartments are so big that the overall density isn’t very high. It’s the same issue near Fifth Avenue. The densest parts of the UWS are those away from the park, and the densest parts of the UES are those near Second Avenue. If you don’t believe me, there are census tracts maps available online at http://www.nyc.gov/html/dcp/pdf/lucds/mn7profile.pdf and http://www.nyc.gov/html/dcp/pdf/lucds/mn8profile.pdf which you can use to eyeball density. The maps also list land use for each block, showing how Broadway and Amsterdam are commercial while Columbus is less commercial and CPW is almost exclusively residential.

    As for continuing into Harlem, Harlem doesn’t need more north-south rail. It already has multiple north-south mainlines, most of which, due to high demand further south, run at very short headways and have empty seats heading downtown. What Harlem needs is good crosstown connections, i.e. rail along 125th Street. Ideally this should be an extension of Second Avenue Subway, or else it’ll get stuck in traffic and be as slow as walking.

  • Buses run along existing rail corridors because they can serve multiple destinations with a one-seat ride. Even then, the busiest buses are those that run on corridors that have bad subway service: in order, these are the M15 on First and Second, the B46 on Utica, the Bx12 on Fordham, and the B6 roughly along the Triboro RX right-of-way. Other lines, serving as feeders to the subway, are cut back every time the subway is extended, as bus service was in Eastern Queens when the Archer Avenue Line opened.

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