Bus Rapid Transit or Second Avenue Subway?
September 25th, 2008

In a time of trillion dollar bailouts and billion dollar deficits, does an expensive new subway line make sense when there are possibly cheaper alternatives? Jim Dwyer posed the question in his New York Times column, and although the Times doesn’t allow comments, Streetsblog does, and a number of transit buffs are in a tizzy.

The expensive project? The long awaited, oft derailed, Second Avenue Subway. The alternative? Bus Rapid Transit.

“If you just took the cost overruns for one year on any of the megarail projects, that would pay for a handsome bus rapid transit network, says Joan Byron, from the Pratt Center for Community Development in the column.

Bus Rapid Transit makes better use of the roads for speedier commutes by dedicating lanes, using pay-before-boarding systems, and taking advantage of technologies such as wireless systems that communicate with traffic lights.

A number of questions that come up in the Streetsblog comments concern capacity: It may be cheaper and quicker to build Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, but can it carry nearly as much?

“BRT, particularly in its Americanized, watered-down form, will not match the efficiency and capacity of a subway,” one commenter contends.

Sure, advocates may be talking about creating a citywide rapid transit network – as the Pratt Center certainly has – but it might be informative to look at estimates for ridership of the Second Avenue Subway next to the planned Second Ave. Select Bus Service.

The MTA projects that 560,000 riders would use the new subway line daily, while the Transportation Department estimates the new bus service will cater to about 60,000.

Another big topic on Streetsblog is the divisive aspect of the discussion. All people involved want more transit options, the argument goes, so why does it have to be one or the other?

Gary Reilly, a candidate for City Council, says the federal government needs to be fully funding transit projects such as this. “$700 billion for Wall Street?” he asks. “Hell no!” he answers. “$700 billion for infrastructure spending?” he asks again. “Now you’ve got my attention.” That may be out of the city’s jurisdiction, but Reilly did advocate putting the 7 line extension on hold and implementing a light rail instead.

House Transportation Committee Chair, Rep. Jim Oberstar, has similar views to Reilly: “We need to have a grander vision, a greater sense of investment in urban America,” Oberstar declared this week, according to The Real Estate. “We need to start with our infrastructure investments in New York City – we need to spread that lesson across America, and next year we’re going to do it.”

Oh, and The Overhead Wire coins the term, “BRTistas.”

By on September 25, 2008, 6:10 pm
In category: Public Finance,Transportation | 3 Comments »

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3 Responses to “Bus Rapid Transit or Second Avenue Subway?”

  1. JerryD Says:
    September 27th, 2008 at 10:56 am

    OMG – this has GOT to be one of the DUMBEST IDEAS anyone has come up with for the City in YEARS!

    Are you serious? Do you REALLY THINK a BUS LANE will work? We’ve had them for years – no DECADES, and they just DO NOT AND CAN NOT WORK!

    The people who ran the city over 100 years ago understood the need for RAPID TRANSIT. The Second Avenue Subway is NOT a Luxury, it is ESSENTIAL – just like the rest of the system is!

    The east side has been neglected long enough! Either do it or get off the pot. Either have the brass to say it’s not going to be built – period, or do it! This nonsense of it being on again, off again is ridiculous and makes New Yorkers – and their choices for POLITICAL REPRESENTATION – look like a JOKE!

  2. Aaron Says:
    October 2nd, 2008 at 10:37 pm

    While Bus Rapid Transit does serve as a reasonable compromise in places where rail transit is not viable economically, and, in some cases, it may offer a cheap alternative to light rail, it can NEVER be a replacement to subway, especially in New York City. The viability of various transit alternatives on Second Avenue (including the possibility light rail, as well as rapid bus) had been studied, and the need of building a subway has prevailed. Yes, there are economical challenges. Yes, this project had been frozen and restarted several times already. Yes, we can only hope that this time is different. But the bottomline is that we do need a subway line on Second Avenue.
    Bus lanes are useful. The Select Bus Service has started on Bx12 earlier this year and has been successful so far. But it runs on a route where subway (or any type of rail transit) was never proposed: on Fordham Road and Pelham Parkway. But it offer connection with virtually all subway lines serving the borough, offering a faster service to people who live far away from subway.
    But for Second Avenue, subway is the only realistic option.

  3. Niccolo Machiavelli Says:
    October 8th, 2008 at 12:32 pm

    Joan Byron’s assumption is correct only in what you mean by “pay for”. BRT, while a very important addition to the transit mix in NYC, is not necessarily cheaper than a subway. It is all a question of capital versus operating costs. The BRT is obviously much cheaper to initiate. However, it has higher operating costs going forward forever, to eat away at that competitive advantage. Also, the subway delivers something that BRT can never provide, space, surface space in Manhattan. Space to accommodate all other uses from parklands, to sidewalks, roads. Essentially more NYC. That is very valuable. Also, her assumption has to assume that cost over-runs that are a function of increasing material costs (steel, concrete, etc.) will not be worse in the future.

    BRT is a much more important addition to outer borough, former two fare zone, applications. The efficiencies of all of these systems are a function of the population densities in the neighborhoods they serve. Mr. Reilly’s position is particularly interesting in this regard as he is an advocate of down-zoning in the same neighborhoods where he advocates all these transportation capital improvements. That dovetails neatly with his position that the Feds (other people) should pay for it all 100%. And, your observation is correct, that is out of the City Council jurisdiction. Which makes his position not only internally contradictory but irrelevant as well.

    I guess that means your observation concerning how similar this is to Congressman Oberstar’s consistent and relevant positions could actually still be correct in that they are both “grand”. But one’s position is grandly wrong, inconsistent and irrelevant and the other’s is correct, responsible and important.

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