» New York City unveils plan for faster buses on First and Second Avenues, but Manhattan’s East Side deserves better.
For revenue-poor cities desperate to offer alternatives to congestion both on the roadways and in existing public transportation, bus rapid transit presents an appealing opportunity. BRT can improve travel times and customer experience significantly, even as it can be installed at a relatively low cost.
Like any sort of transit, though, getting the specifics right is essential to ensuring the success of a project. Because BRT can operate in the street using traditional buses, it’s easy to get those details wrong. When that happens, the product provides significantly less value for the transit user.
New York City is planning a series of BRT corridors called Select Bus Service that will eventually extend across the city and connect areas that lack subway access. A line is currently in operation on Fordham Road in the Bronx, and upgrades have been made to 34th Street in Manhattan, but the real test of the program’s strength will come later this year when operations begin on 6.25 miles of dedicated lanes on First and Second Avenues between 125th and Houston Streets in Manhattan. With only 13 stations, the line is intended to relieve the overcrowded Lexington Avenue 4, 5, and 6 subway lines and offer better access to residents of the far east side of the island, whose north-south bus service is slow.
The city’s DOT estimates that the painting of red bus lanes on the pavement and the elimination of several stops along the way will result in a 20 to 25 percent reduction of travel times. The existing M15 Limited Bus requires about 48 minutes (as scheduled) to make the trip between Houston and 125th, stopping 18 times.
Despite the effort to complete the project as quickly as possible, the city’s department of transportation (building the project) and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (to operate the line) have yet to settle on the final design for the streets on which the service will run. At a recent community meeting, the DOT revealed three service alternatives, all of which would incorporate improved amenities for bicyclists as well. Each follows a basic template: one-way bus service running north on First Avenue and south on Second in marked but not isolated lanes and improved stations. Buses would get traffic signal priority at intersections. Designs A and B include an isolated bike lane, though Design C does not; I’ll only consider the first two here, since the last would not include a vital element of any complete street.
Design A, the most full-featured of the proposed designs submitted by the DOT, would offset the bus lane and include a fully separated bike lane, shown above. As discussed by Noah Kazis and Ben Fried on Streetsblog, the proposal has several fundamental flaws: One, the bike lanes would not be continuous, as they would be interrupted by turning traffic at intersections; two, so would the bus lanes, which would not be separated from the surrounding traffic other than by red markings and which will simply open up to general traffic at major intersections; three, the bus lanes would be open to serious interference because cars will have to travel through them to reach the parking located street-side.
One major advantage of this proposal is that it would include bulb-out bus stations, improving the customer experience and ensuring that a stopped bus isn’t blocked by cars entering and leaving parking areas.
Design B would offer one-way bus service on the far right lane, unencumbered by cars entering or leaving parking spaces as in Design A. As already experienced along New York’s 34th Street and Fordham Road BRT lines, however, this type of operation will be significantly affected by illegally parked cars and delivery trucks, whose drivers have a tendency to ignore the red paint. This problem cannot be avoided unless the city chooses to fully separate bus lanes, a decision it seems intent not to make. In addition, Design B’s lack of bus station bulb-outs will mean less space on the sidewalk for everyone and a lessened ability to make stops full-featured.
As a result, each proposal currently being advanced by the DOT will be insufficient in meeting the demands of the city’s expectations. As emphasized by Ben Kabak on Second Ave Sagas, the product will be little different from the existing Limited services along the street. He writes “What is the point of this project without physically separated bus lanes? If the goal is to markedly improve transit speeds up and down these avenues, that can be accomplished only through physically separated lanes. Buses cannot wait for delivery vans to move or for cars to finish parking. They shouldn’t have to wait for taxis to load and unload.”
Indeed, New York’s approach to BRT is halfhearted. If the city wants to build a truly successful project that will attract tens of thousands of daily users and demonstratively reduce the pressure on the subway, it will have to find better ways to increase bus speeds and ensure reliable service. But what are the alternatives? How could New York build a fast-moving, high-quality BRT line within the existing constraints of First and Second Avenues, while also respecting the needs of bicyclists, drivers, and the surrounding neighborhood?
These are similar problems faced by designers of streetcar lines, who have been producing projects that will have significantly reduced appeal based on current designs, which fail to adequately address interactions with surrounding traffic.
The most obvious solution is simply to separate the busway from surrounding traffic, something that must be done if the buses are ever to provide fast operations. One way to do that would be to alter the city’s Design B and simply cut off the right-side bus corridor from traffic, thereby ensuring fast flow of buses. But that wouldn’t solve the problem of limited space for the station, and it eats up potential parking space.
If an additional vehicular lane were added to the far right side of the street, demonstrated above, parking could be accessed from there, rather than through the bus lane as in Design A. This would create a sort of Parisian boulevard, with separated roadways for local and express traffic and presumably result in a better experience for pedestrians, who would be walking next to slow-moving and parking cars, rather than speeding buses or automobiles. Buses would have their own reserved corridor and never be interrupted by deliveries or stopped cars.
As shown above, another way to address that issue is to move the busway to the far left side of the street, adjacent to the bike lane. Doing so would allow for the creation of a median station in line with parking; it would also obviate the need for a pavement barrier between the bike lane and the rest of the road, an approach used by the city elsewhere to prevent opening car doors from hitting cyclists. The isolation of the bus lane behind parking would further ensure that it isn’t encumbered by other vehicles.
There are other advantages of promoting parking on both sides of the street, despite the fact that there is generally too much parking in New York and that its presence may encourage car usage. Sidewalk-abutting parking gives pedestrians an improved sense of security and reduces noise as it acts a bit as a buffer from the rest of the roadway. As a result, planners may want to consider how to encourage its expanded use.
A final approach to this problem would be to place the bus lane in the median. This would be possible with continued one-way operation on the two avenues considered here, but that would be less than desirable, since it would result in confused traffic flow. Rather, a median busway would preferably come with two-way vehicular operation, as shown above — though this would basically eliminate any option of parking on the street because of the constraints posed by overall street width, a situation that would likely infuriate surrounding business owners and residents, making it politically infeasible.
If two-way automobile traffic is unlikely to be implemented, another possibility is making the busway bi-directional. This strategy is appealing since it would likely increase ridership, because users wouldn’t be forced to walk between avenues to switch direction. Most high-capacity transit lines offer stations with operations in both directions because of the increased legibility offered by such a system. A First Avenue BRT makes so much more intuitive sense than a First and Second Avenue BRT.
With construction underway on Second Avenue for a new subway line, running both lines on First would be particularly useful, since the current plan is simply to delay the implementation of dedicated busways on the affected portions of Second Avenue. Running buses in two directions on First could be implemented now and improve service for customers traveling in both directions immediately.
The approach above, which demonstrates two potential methods to run adjacent busways, could be a solution. On the left, busways are lodged between through traffic and a shared local lane designed for parkers and bikers. On the right, busways operate between parking and a bike path. These designs would likely limit through traffic to only two lanes, however, which may be too little for the street’s needs. They also limit bike traffic to one direction.
A final alternative, as shown above, is to put the protected-lane busways on opposite sides of the street, a choice that would allow for two-directional bike paths. This layout may be ideal. It would allow parking to switch sides on alternating blocks and provide considerable shelter for bikers. In addition, it would allow local buses operating in the right lane of regular traffic to share stations with buses running the other direction; this could open up interesting possibilities for transfers, though it would make moving between two buses heading in the same direction difficult.*
This option would also have to contend with the nuisance produced by delivery vehicles. By placing the busway between parking and the sidewalk, any deliveries will have to be made either via the sidewalk or over the bus and bike lanes. This is a less-than-optimal approach. Alternatively, the city could enforce side-street only deliveries and simply reserve the avenues to through traffic.
None of these approaches are perfect, but they all would produce faster, more reliable bus corridors than would the three options being considered by New York. Before settling on a project that will feature significant intrusions into the busway and heavy resulting delays, the city should reconsider how the project could be implemented, with an eye towards ensuring maximum speeds and safety for bus users and bicyclists.
* Note: this post assumes buses only have doors on the right side, since those are the vehicles to be used by New York City. Some new bus models offer doors on both sides. If those buses were bought for this line, the design of the street could be considerably different, especially if, for instance, express buses had doors on the left and local buses on the left. This would allow the final alternative to offer direct local-express transfers. Image at top: Projection for New York City’s 1st and 2nd Avenue BRT (Design B), from New York City Department of Transportation