Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


Faster Buses?

While most industries in New York place a premium on using time efficiently, bus service in New York City has only become a slower and less efficient way to get around. What will be required to make buses move faster, reduce the waits at bus stops and make the entire experience more comfortable and reliable?

That’s the question now being considered for 15 bus routes scattered throughout the city that are being looked at for “bus rapid transit” (BRT) service by the city’s Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). This month, the two agencies released concept plans for the 15 routes and held public workshops in each borough to gather feedback. They plan to choose five of the 15 by the end of the summer for development and implementation of the services by 2008, which would replace the current “limited stop service” on the selected routes. Local service would be continued.

How Slow Are They?

There is no question about buses being too slow. Buses spend only 54 percent of their time actually moving; the other half of their time is split between waiting at traffic signals and boarding passengers at bus stops. According to my 2002 report, buses travel on average only 7.5 miles per hour. Just as frustrating is the fact that buses often bunch up, making for long waits at bus stops and increased crowding on the buses that lead the pack.

BRT aims to solve these problems. There is not a standard solution for all 15 routes, however; each would employ measures tailored to its particular situation.

Creating A Bus New Lane, Away From The Curb

On some of the corridors, such as First and Second Avenue in Manhattan, Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, Union Turnpike in Queens, and Webster Avenue and the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, bus lanes would be set up in the second lane from the curb instead of the curb lane, as is currently the case. That would allow space for truck loading, vehicles making turns and parking – uses that currently slow down buses trying to use curbside bus lanes. At stops, the sidewalk would be extended to meet the bus lane. That provides more space for riders, and means that buses would merely stop at each stop rather than having to merge back into traffic at the end of each stop.

BRT lanes would be painted a bright color to discourage drivers from clogging up the lane.

Paying In Advance

Traffic is not the only reason that buses are slow, however. Other measures are designed to improve how quickly passengers board and alight, such as having riders pay their fares before boarding the bus at selected highly used bus stops. That would also allow passenger to board in the rear door, further reducing time spent at bus stops.

Greater Central Control

Another step being discussed is installing automated vehicle locator (AVL) systems on buses, which allow a central bus control center to chart where all buses are at a given time and better manage bus movements. In Los Angeles, bus managers have successfully used an AVL system to even out the spacing between buses, and thus reduce bus bunching, excessive waits at bus stops and crowding on buses. Currently, the MTA has a much-delayed program to install AVL along First and Second Avenue in Manhattan that, if proven successful, could be expanded.

Keeping The Traffic Light Green

Buses might also be coordinated with traffic signals. If a bus is running late, the green light would be held for a few extra seconds to allow the bus to proceed through the intersection before the light turns red. “Signal priority” is suggested for intersections on Tenth and Eleventh Avenue in Manhattan, Flatbush Avenue and Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn, Horace Harding Expressway, Merrick Blvd. and Hillside Avenue in Queens, Hyland Blvd. on Staten Island and Webster Avenue, the Grand Concourse and Pelham Parkway in the Bronx.

New York BRT planners also envision buses coming every five to eight minutes, stops every one-half to 1 mile, larger shelters at major stops and specially marked buses and bus stops to help riders identify BRT services. The fare would remain at $2.

How The Plans Stack Up

BRT measures successfully used in Los Angeles, Boston and other cities, such as well-marked bus lanes, frequent service, pre-boarding fare payment and vehicle location technology, are all at least mentioned in the concept plans for New York. New York planners have foregone only one major BRT element: exclusive lanes from which other vehicles are physically barred from entering. Whether that is a good choice depends on how well the New York plans keep bus lanes clear of other vehicles.

The New York plans are thus a good start, but to borrow from Churchill, they are merely the end of the beginning. Whether the plans will come to a good end depends on how aggressively the measures are implemented. How many locations will get pre-boarding fare payment?

Key questions also surround the bus lanes. How much of the corridors will get the one-lane-out treatment that gives trucks a place to park for deliveries? How many parking spaces is the community willing to give up for bus lanes and truck delivery spaces? How much police enforcement will there be to keep other vehicles out? Will the MTA and City Hall get the state Legislature to authorize putting cameras on the front of buses, with pictures of license plates used to issue tickets to vehicles that block the bus lane? Will painted bus lanes help keep out other vehicles?

The current concept plans do not contain enough details to answer these questions. The staff at the two agencies say they are looking for community feedback before deciding how far to go with the measures. It will be up to each community to advise the agencies on how to balance the goals of bus rapid transit with car speeds, truck deliveries and other needs for street space.

How Will Drivers React?

Another unknown is how drivers and others will react to well-marked bus lanes. The experience with the numerous bus lanes that are currently around the city is not encouraging, as a bus driver at the Manhattan workshop on June 8 pointed out. This driver said that the police enforce bus lane restrictions on First and Second Avenue for only an hour and a half in the morning rush hour. The driver said that without constant enforcement, BRT will not work. Whether bus planners can find some combination of physical markings and sustainable enforcement levels remains to be seen.

Given all the uncertainties, it might be wise for bus planners to ease away from trying to make a comprehensive plan that foresees the future. It has been a time-consuming way to approach the problem – the study is already two years old and implementation is not expected for at least two more years.

Sooner Rather Than Later

Staff from the two transportation agencies have mentioned the possibility of experimenting with bus rapid transit measures in a few locations sooner rather than later. This idea has two important benefits. First, planners can see how some of these ideas work in practice. They can apply to more routes those ideas that prove to work well and make changes in ideas that do not prove out.

Second, the public can start to see the benefits of bus rapid transit. Los Angeles’ experience suggests how important that can be. In L.A., BRT was put on two routes. Buses sped up by about 30 percent, ridership ballooned, and people throughout the city clamored for BRT in their neighborhoods. L.A. is now implementing the most ambitious network of BRT routes in the country, involving 28 corridors and 450 miles of service, to be completed in 2008.

If it could happen in L.A., could it happen here too?

Bruce Schaller, who has been in charge of the transportation topic page since its inception in 1999, is head of Schaller Consulting, which provides research and analysis about transportation. He is also a Visiting Scholar at the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University. 

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