New York Plans Transitway on 34th Street, but It's Not BRT, for Better or Worse

» The project represents a marked advance for a city that’s been reluctant to invest in fully separated lanes for its buses.

When American transit planners begin working on a new transit capital project, they’re often required to undertake what’s called an alternative analysis, a study whose purpose is to identify the appropriate route and technology for a specific corridor. It’s an open secret among people in the industry that while these reports often provide useful information about where exactly to place a new line, the choice of vehicle mode is almost always predetermined.

This leads to a sometimes bizarre situation in which, for instance, a city planning a one-mile extension of its rapid transit lines “considers” whether high-speed rail or local buses might work in the same corridor — even though everyone knows that if the money ever shows up, the rapid transit line will be the only thing built. The process, in other words, is often a charade.

Such was the case recently for New York City, whose Department of Transportation is intent on improving the public transportation offerings in Midtown Manhattan, the nation’s largest business district. Despite the fact that the DOT has been on an all-out crusade to improve bus service, has no money for more subways, and has demonstrated little interest in light rail or streetcars, it evaluated all four in its recent study for the 34th Street corridor. It threw in an elevated automated people mover for consideration as well in case anyone cared.

Unsurprisingly, the report advocated the construction of a bus transitway along the route.

None of this is to suggest that improving bus operations in Midtown is a bad idea. Rather, it’s sometimes worth considering the hoops through which transit agencies must jump in order to bring their visions to fruition.

But the alternatives analysis did allow New York City’s DOT to demonstrate why it considers a dedicated transitway for bus service to be the ideal technology candidate for the two-mile 34th street corridor, running river to river. The mode allows the use of existing vehicles and the through-routing of express buses from elsewhere in the city — something not possible had streetcars or light rail been chosen. It would also be relatively cheap to implement, at between $30 and 125 million, versus $250 million and up for light rail or several billion for a full-scale subway line.

The transitway would allow commuters to get across the city 35% faster than possible today, cutting transit times to 20 minutes, just slightly longer than would be feasible with a light rail line.

For this heavily foot-trafficked street, New York City is proposing something nice: wider sidewalks, a pedestrian plaza between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, and increased public facilities with new station canopies.

It’s a significantly improved plan over the previously revealed project for First and Second Avenues, which will separate each direction of bus service onto two separate streets and do little to curb the intrusion of other vehicles into the busway. With a clear separation between cars and buses this time, the city is likely to actually improve service levels.

One thing the transitway is not, however, is bus rapid transit, despite the DOT’s continued use of the word to describe what it wants to build on 34th Street. With 13 stations end to end — roughly every 800 feet — buses will average a miserable six miles per hour, hardly faster than a person can walk the route.

Some may argue that a light rail line would be more appropriate — perhaps as part of a tramway loop including 42nd Street — but similar proposals for that technology would feature equally abysmal transit times because of the high number of stops deemed necessary. Rail would face the additional stumbling block caused by the fact that overhead catenary has been illegal in Manhattan since the devastating 1888 blizzard, which shut down the city’s elevated transportation system.

There are also plenty of congested corridors around the city that arguably need better transit far sooner than Midtown Manhattan, which is replete with subway lines.

But the DOT’s efforts are about more than moving buses through the city more quickly: it’s apparent that the 34th Street plan is as much aimed to improve the streetscape for pedestrians, who until recently have been put in last place by New York City decision-making. With the possible exception of 125th Street, there are few corridors in Manhattan that are more used by walkers, since 34th is a shopper’s paradise.

If that’s what it is, though, New York should be clear in its intentions: this isn’t really bus rapid transit, it’s a way to improve the function of the street for everyone.

Image above: Map of proposed 34th Street bus transit services, from New York City DOT

14 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Cullen

    You’re very right that this isn’t BRT. It’s what Paris calls regular bus service. Separated lanes are the norm in Paris on highly used corridors. There’s no good reason why NYC bus service on highly used corridors shouldn’t be similar, except for money and political will.

  • Tom West

    Did the study look at different stop spaceings? Clearly the choice was to minimise stop spaceing, but it would be good if that was a result of consideration of different options, rather than just a default mindset.

  • AlexB

    I understand the point of this post, but I am confused as to why the transitway isn’t full BRT. From what I understand, BRT includes dedicated rights of way, pre-emptive signal changing, and pre-paid boarding, all of which this project includes. What else could they do to make this real BRT?

    • Matt S

      I think the point is that it’s not “Rapid.” Not sure if there’s such a thing as “Rapid” at-grade transportation in Manhattan…

    • What Matt said. With pre-paid boarding, preemptive signal changing and dedicated rights of way increasing seat throughput capacity, then if there are enough buses to push toward that capacity during peak demand, it might in fact be Bus Mass Transit (an even rarer thing than BRT) …

      … in BRT those are all means to a combination of relatively high throughput capacity and relatively high effective trip speed.

  • Brett

    A more accurate way to describe this would be “enhanced bus.” This is basically BRT without the R. Most studies I’ve seen in other cities about service improvements refer to this option, what NYC is doing, as “enhanced bus.”

  • Woody

    As a New Yorker, I believe in my right to jaywalk as needed. So I don’t want buses moving too rapidly on 34th, or any other street. And yes, that applies to bicycles, trucks, taxies, limos, and private cars as well. I will accept fast-moving fire trucks and police cars with lights flashing and sirens wailing. Otherwise, slow down, I’m trying to walk here.

  • poncho

    Its seems more like BRT than most BRT proposals. Afterall it has a dedicated set of lanes the whole length. I’d say its BRT in infrastructure, though I’ll agree, not in operation.

    I dont know how you could speed it up more since you have to stop at every N-S avenue. Even an express or limited bus would pretty much have to stop at all avenues given their importance.

    My thoughts regarding an alternative to congestion charging was to create a network of dedicated, separated bus/emergency vehicle lanes on every avenue and major cross street, and whatever street space left over would be available for cars, trucks, taxis, etc for which they can all fight over the remaining street space. Then I could honestly care less whether that street space is constantly clogged and not moving.

    Woody, I’m with you on walking. Streets are for people, so please move your piece of scrap metal out of my way.

  • Cameron Slick

    There are designated stops but it doesn’t like they’ll have stations, as in Curtiba. One must remember that many of these buses will be coming from Queens & New Jersey, continuing through Midtown instead of just terminating at the Port Authority Terminal.

  • Woody

    I’m with Poncho:
    “an alternative to congestion charging . . . a network of dedicated, separated bus/emergency vehicle lanes on every avenue and major cross street . . . cars, trucks, taxis, etc . . . can all fight over the remaining street space.”

    If we get good bus service on the main routes for people who live and work here, and meanwhile all the other streets get so congested that commuters from Scarsdale decide to leave their BMWs parked and take the train to Grand Central, to me that’s the goal. Then if the rich want to drive faster in Manhattan, let them pay tolls for the privilege. We can use that revenue to further improve public transport.

  • Patrick M

    In the USA, we have come to term “anything other than openly hostile thinking about bus service” BRT. Compromises in terms of service quality and speed are always made in the name of saving money, and yet politicians continue to compare the BR(sic)T to light rail, which is of course hokum.

    If you see someone promoting a BRT project in the US and they’re not talking about grade-separated bus lanes, assume they have no clue what they are talking about.

  • Tim H

    E 34th St is a neighborhood street, not a “Transitway” or a “Corridor”. Thousands of people including the elderly and children live on the blocks from Madison Avenue to the river and approximately 100 neighborhood shops (Most owned by small business men and women). The restriction of the two northern lanes of 34th St east of 5th Avenue to only dual directional bus traffic and the isolation of those lanes with a concrete barrier will block day to day access and emergency service access to apartment lobbies, medical offices and stores.
    The BRT will throw off increased pollution and noise into adjacent apartments increasing the risks to the health and well being of the residents of 34th St. Additionally the excess traffic will have to migrate to neighboring streets from 30th to 40th that will create log jams from re-routed trucks and cars on streets where schools, day care centers, houses of worship and many thousands of more apartments exits.
    This is the modern-day equivalent of the South Bronx’s “One Mile” where Robert Moses, according to the “progressive” traffic planning of the time sliced a close neighborhood in two with an expressway creating the demise of the neighborhood.

  • […] project, which will connect the Navy Pier and Union Station with dedicated bus lanes. New York’s transformation of 34th Street into a mix between bus transitway and pedestrian mall, received more than $15 million, as did […]

  • You’re very right that this isn’t BRT. It’s what Paris calls regular limo bus service.

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