» 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