DOT Announces Five Bus Rapid Transit Corridors

BRT1.jpg
Sketches from an internal BRT Study depicting the three general types of stations: A) Major Station: Includes extended canopy with windscreens and seating. Icon and full platform pavement treatment. B) Standard Station: Shelter with Icon and full platform pavement treatment. C) Minimum Station: For locations with narrow sidewalks: Icon and platform edge strip only. Bigger image here.

In the urban transportation pecking order, New York City’s 2.4 million daily bus riders may very well occupy the lowest rung. At rush hour, you can walk faster than a crosstown bus. Shelters, benches and maps are optional. Schedules are a joke. Buses rarely get their own lane, and when they do, there is usually someone parked in it. It is, perhaps, the most perverse example of New York City transportation dysfunction that a single guy in an SUV with Jersey plates can keep fifty people from getting to work on time.

New York City’s buses are run by the Metropolitan Transit Authority. For years, the city has essentially ignored buses, treating them as "a state thing." Yet, the MTA’s buses run on streets that are managed and controlled by New York City’s Department of Transportation. There is much that the city can do to make buses run faster and better.

During his 2001 campaign mayoral candidate Michael Bloomberg promised to establish an express bus system on the East side of Manhattan. Five years later, and after two and a half years of study, the Department of Transportation today announced the five bus routes that would be piloted as a part of the city’s first Bus Rapid Transit program. One corridor was selected in each borough. DOT Commissioner Iris Weinshall told the New York Times that "two of the routes would be in use by next fall, and plans call for the rest to be in use in 2008." The smart money says the Bronx will gets one of the first two routes and either Queens or Staten Island gets the other one.

So, what will Bus Rapid Transit look like in New York City? How will it work? Today’s Times reports:

Stops would be spaced from one-half mile to a full mile apart. The bus lanes would be painted a special color, and the buses would get a distinctive paint job, to differentiate them from their pokier cousins. Cameras would be mounted on buses and bus stops to photograph trucks and cars blocking the bus lanes, so tickets could be sent to the vehicles’ owners.

To help speed buses along, on some of the routes they will have devices that transmit their location to a computer system that controls traffic lights: a green light could be kept on a few seconds longer, or a red light could turn green a few seconds earlier, to let the buses pass. At some bus stops, passengers would pay their fare at sidewalk turnstiles rather than on the bus, to make boarding faster.

In other cities around the world, BRT has produced dramatic increases in bus speeds, reliability and ridership. Bogotá, Columbia is one of the biggest successes. BRT has been a key part of this city of seven million’s rapid transformation from traffic-choked dysfunction to model of sustainable urban development. This is what Bogota’s TransMilenio system looks like:

BRT_Bogota.jpg

And here is a photo of the new Mobilien BRT system in Paris, France:

paris_separate_from_traffic.jpg

You will note one very significant difference between these two successful BRT system and the system being proposed for New York City. In Bogota and Paris, the buses are given their own, physically-separated right of way. While New York City’s BRT system will be a significant advance over what we have now, the lack of physical separation has the potential to be a system-breaker. Without physical separation, that single guy in the double-parked SUV may still have the ability to delay the morning commute of 80 New Yorkers. Sure, Mr. SUV gets a $350 ticket (if he’s not a government employee). You’re still late for work.  

DOT believes that it can maintain BRT’s right of way through enforcement and technology rather than street design. The internal study document that I got a hold of says that bus lanes will be prominent and distinct but that "enforcement will be critical to the success of dedicated bus lanes, as their will not be any physical barriers." The study goes on to say:

DOT has commenced coordination with NYPD to enforce dedicated lanes. In addition, other technologies and treatments such as bus lane cameras, on-board bus cameras, effective pavement and sign markings are being explored. A joint traffmic management center is under construction, which will be coordinated effort among State DOT, City DOT and NYPD.

  • P

    Also, the important aspect of bus rapid transit is the quick loading time that results from pre-paid riders entering at multiple doors on the side of the bus. The unsecured stations in the MTA diagram suggest that the BRT in NYC won’t have that feature. If not, you can add a minute or so to each stop on the line.

  • Dan

    New York is averse to planning, especially top down, enforced planning. What is behind this? If I had to guess I’d say it was something that I picked up growing up here, and that my parents did as well. There’s a sense among long time residents that the city is a kind of organic unrestrained monster and you can’t control it. Who would’ve predicted such a drop in the crime rate or that the city would ever acheive fiscal solvency on any level? Many people I’ve spoken with just didn’t think the city could be tamed at all. Especially since the planners and masters of the city came in the form of Robert Moses whose plans often reduced the quality of life rather than improved it.

    The resistance to centralized planning here is huge. Ask some people like my parents who’ve lived here their whole lives what can be done about traffic or subway crowding and they’ll just shrug the question off.

    Also, you’ve got to understand that people think the city works well. While people grumble about the length of their commute or their walk to the train, or their increasing rent, they tend for various reasons not to see these as expressly political problems that the city can solve.

  • P

    Also, in Paris the bus lanes make for de facto bike lanes (though this is not the case in Bogota because the lanes are in the middle of the streets)

    They will miss this opportunity here.

  • JK

    The city’s first shot at BRT may well fail. But that failure may clear the way for more ambitious measures like prepaid entry and physically seperated lanes. I applaud any measures to make things better.

    Sounds like much depends on the on-board and stationary enforcement cameras which are intended to help keep lanes and stops clear. Authorization to use these cameras has been sitting in the state legislature for at least three years — since it was drafted and introduced by transit advocates. Hopefully the new governor can help the MTA pass it through the assembly.

  • The lack of physical separation and camera may have a perverse incentive for the city: More Parking violation revenue. Those $350 tickets add up quick.

    Without physical separation, it’s hard to see how this will succeed. I do wish them the best in implementing this, but it seems the DOT has once again dropped the ball.

  • brent

    “The city’s first shot at BRT may well fail. But that failure may clear the way for more ambitious measures”
    I believe the DOT would love it if this experiment failed. Then they can say, “oh well, we tried.” Regardless, non-motorists have neither the time nor patience for more failures from the DOT. How can they possibly allow this design to depend on enforcement when the enforcement we currently have is non- existent? Has anyone seen a red light that hasn’t been blown by a herd of motorists or a street clear of double parked cars? This is just a case of the DOT passing the buck to someone else. What this all boils down to is that no matter what initiatives are undertaken by the DOT, the rule is that no motorist may be inconvenienced under any circumstance. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again- Iris Weinshall and her staff are doing a substandard job and the lot of them should be dismissed. We need a DOT that can actually solve problems.

  • Clarence

    I will say both JK and Brent bring up excellent points and this discussion could go back and forth – maybe longer than it might take to implement our BRT.

    But here is the thing: I actually do believe that we need to get something started and in the ground as soon as possible. We should fight to make it better, maybe there is a way to experiement and do just a few sections physically separated and see how much better they perform than non-separated. Has that been suggested?

    Also, behavior can be changed. I have been to San Francisco nearly a dozen times – people just don’t park in the way of their mass transit lines. It might take a little bit of growing pains, but obviously there it does not happen…

    In the end, I think there is too much hope, political pressure, and $$$ being spent on this new initiative. Failure is not an option and I think NYC will have to make it work in the end. Too much is riding on it.

  • So, no physical separation and no way to pay pre-boarding. So what exactly makes this “rapid”, or any different from “limited” bus service on 1st and 2nd Avenue? You can slap a “bus lane” overhead sign or paint it on the street, with or without a fancy BRT label and icons.

    This isn’t Bus Rapid Transit. It’s a sad attempt to appease those who have been waiting decades for the Second Avenue Subway.

  • J:Lai

    Hey, it could always be better (like having physically separated lanes), but at least this is a significant step in the right direction.

    The car culture is very entrenched here, and it’s not going to go away overnight. It will take a long time and a lot of small steps.

    My hope is that the proposed BRT lines can show some modest improvements, just enough to get bus riders hungry for more. Then we may see prepaid, restricted entry phased in, and maybe even the holy grail of separated lanes.

    By the way, a $350 ticket, if it can be enforced by on-bus camera, will be significant deterrent to most drivers.

  • P

    “New York is averse to planning, especially top down, enforced planning.”
    Dan, it takes huge amounts of planning to move millions of cars through New York City. I agree that there is a lot of defeatism in solving the city’s transportation problems but the planning necessary to enact a good plan is not much greater than what’s necessary to enact a bad plan.

    I agree, Chris, the only difference to me in this ‘BRT’ and a normal bus route is the widely spaced stops and timed lighting.

  • mike

    Drivers can be fined $350 tickets for honking unecessarily.

    Like that ever happens.

  • AD

    I’m with Chris. How is it “rapid” without a separate right-of-way and fare pre-payment?

  • I actually don’t think that BRT as described above is necessarily a great thing for NYC. In Bogotá, Curitiba, LA etc, BRT is only really on very high-capacity, anti-urban roads. Perhaps the speed and design of BRT is not really compatible with an in integrated urban environment. The active sidewalks, social realm and pedestrian destinations which make NYC great, are decidedly lacking in these other cities. So BRT in its traditional form with preloading, high speeds and infrequent stops may only be relevant to the far outer reaches of the city.

    On the other hand, Paris (http://www.streetsblog.org/2006/08/11/traffic-continues-to-disappear-in-paris/) is a great example of recent bus system improvements that are very relevant to NYC. They have essentially taken what would be the equivalent of most of our major avenues and cross streets and added buffered bus and bike only lanes with great success. Their extensive bus amenities, information and scheduling are also key ingredients to the system’s success.

    So let’s be wary that BRT is not just a further way to design our streets for speed and maximum capacity with minimum friction. This would not really be a very significant shift and is in opposition to the community and economic outcomes that make NYC streets great.

  • P

    Ethan- I agree with your discription of the various cities but which components of, say, Bogota’s BRT are anti-urban? Certainly the 40 mph or so that they travel but I don’t know how pre-paying or limited stops would be considered so. (Though you might feel a little silly at first if you’re waiting in a glass box on 2nd avenue until your bus arrives)

    Incidentally, in Bogota the stops are spaced at about 500 meters but individual buses don’t stop at each station- there are different lines on each route that leap frog each other with transfers available at major hubs. That way there are not express stops and local stops or express buses and local buses instead, each bus is kind of express.

  • mfs

    I think that Ethan’s implication that this could be anti-urban might be true on 1st/2nd aves. but the places that it’s being proposed in Bronx/Queens/Staten Island are semi-suburban 4/6-lane highways. If done right, this is where BRT will do the best. The Brooklyn bus route is certainly in need of speeding up, but it’s debatable if 40 mph buses are desirable in that neighborhood.

  • ddartley

    Warning: the following will sound very self-righteous and grandiose, but I mean it with utter sincerity:

    Stoking people’s imagination to make them more prejudiced is the deepest root of many of the world’s problems. This may seem silly, but putting “Jersey plates” on the imaginary SUV blocking the imaginary bus is an example of that. It doesn’t help us, and has little value at all except the potential to make people more angrily and uselessly prejudiced.

  • david

    This is a great initial start.

    Note, the enforcement will be via camera which probably is a lot more effective than foot/car patrol. Also, the article does note that “At some bus stops, passengers would pay their fare at sidewalk turnstiles rather than on the bus, to make boarding faster.”

    So, while no TransMilenio, it might be a good proof of concecpt that leads to something better.

  • P

    ddartley:

    As someone who checks the license plate of the cars I see making a right turn on a red light I can assure you that many of the violators of New York City-specific traffic laws are from out of state. It’s likely to be the case with the BRT as well.

    In any case, I’m not sure what the harm is in stoking a little hometown chauvinism for the cause of a better transportation system for the people who live and pay taxes here.

    We still love you guys- just don’t drive here and we’ll never know you’re from Jersey.

  • Boogiedown

    Yeah, I am cynical, but this is what I predict you will hear in 2011:

    “We tried (a type of) Bus Rapid Transit (without pre-payment, dedicated lanes, etc). Didn’t work. See? New York really is different! Back to the old way of doing things.”

  • P – Prepaying unfortunately isolates pedestrians from the street and from contributing to its vitality, so is therefore anti-urban. I also did not really feel comfortable in the confined glass structures in Curitiba, and would wait until the last minute to enter them. Open bus stops with visible bus waiters, window shopping, and all the related social activity they support offer a great deal to the comfort and amenity of our streets.

    The infrequent stop issue has to do with speed, but also with the pedestrian scale-design of the neighborhood. Some successful BRT and light rails systems adapt to urban setting by behaving more like normal buses or trolleys. In other words, the just like street design, transit design should change according to context and be focused on supporting the destinations it is meant to bring people to. A street that is all about transit, while very positive in many regards, can actually lack some of the life, destintaitons and chaos that make good streets. I witnessed this issue last week on bus malls in Madison, WI and Denver, CO and will try to post something about these and some other transit dedicated streets in urban areas at some point.

    There is nothing wrong with moving more capacity on our streets, but in New York more than anywhere else, we have to ask a lot more from our streets than just moving people.

  • P

    “Prepaying unfortunately isolates pedestrians from the street”

    Ethan-
    You could say that subways do the same thing.

    I agree that I would be inclined to enter a BRT station at the last moment preferring to window shop or pace around or whatever.

    I also agree that transit for the suburbs will look different that on the Upper East Side. But we have buses that move 5 miles an hour- providing a dedicated lane and a prepaid boarding capability seems like a small price to pay (as well as a huge incentive to getting people out of their cars)

  • Hilary Kitasei

    I think much of the time wasted is spent by passengers climbing the steps of the bus – and of course even more for those with wheelchairs and scooters. A design that allowed at-grade entry (a raised platform at the stations) would really speed things up. This appears to be the case with example in the picture — making the BRT almost like light rail. BTW, how do passengers get to that station in the median — by some underground passage?

  • P

    Usually by pedestrian bridges.

  • Clarence

    Remember how Enrique said that they named it TransMilenio to make it sound sexy?

    I think we should name the new system TransPenalosa.

  • garth

    Buck — are you swooning?

  • john

    didn’t the times say the fastest route would be the m15?? why is that? and, DOT cant install bus mounted cameras without the approval of the state legislature.

  • Boogiedown

    “I also did not really feel comfortable in the confined glass structures in Curitiba, and would wait until the last minute to enter them.”

    Ethan, have you tried the TransMilenio? I have tried both and let me tell you, Bogata is a dream. I can’t say I particularly liked Curitiba’s system, which proves the rule: it pays to NOT be first, so you can learn from the mistakes of the pioneers.

    But the TransMilenio really is fantastic, and while it may be better for the outer boroughs, NYC should take direction from Bogata when we build our BRT lines.

  • J:Lai

    Most subways lines are running at or beyond capacity, while most bus lines are not. BRT is a way to allow buses to absorb some of the demand for transit and give the subways some breathing room. In order to do this, bus trips must be competitive with subway trips in terms of time, at least for certain routes.

    The east side of manhattan is an excellent place to do this, because it has only the Lexington Ave subway line.

    Calling BRT anti-urban or pedestrian unfriendly misses the point – BRT is an alternative to subway travel.

    In my observation, a lot of time is wasted at stops because people are allowed to exit by the front door and therefore passengers waiting to board must wait for everyone to get off the bus first. Simply putting a one-way turnstile at the front of the bus, and forcing people to exit through the rear door, would probably save as much as a few minutes at some stops.

  • J:Lai – A few weeks ago I would have agreed with you, but after the last 5 weeks on crutches, it is essential to let some handicapped/disabled customers off the front.

    In many European countries everything is sort of on the honor system and they just randomly check people’s tickets to see if they are punched. Most people use monthly passes that they have and just flash the inspectors. I’m not sure if this system would work for the NYC system. Certainly it would not work with metrocards.

  • Carolyn Konheim

    By focusing on exclusive bus lanes, commentors overlook one of the most effective features of BRT that is not dependent on dedicated lanes. That is GPS tracking and radio management systems and bus arrival advisories at bus stops. This can be installed rapidly and address the bus bunching and uncertainty issues that are the biggest complaint of riders. Of course, predictions of travel time are more accurate with exclusive lanes, but there are many routes even in the peak hours and virtually all routes in the off-peak when congestion is not the controlling factor. The Paris system could be installed Brooklyn wide in a year for $40 million and build ridership that would make full BRT justifiable on a wider scale.

  • rob b

    Wow-BRT in 2 yrs, no cars in Central Park! Here in San Francisco the ‘liberal’ mayor vetoed a saturdy car-free trial in golden gate park (we already have sunday closed to autos) and our BRT plans will probably not be done in my lifetime. Maybe I’ll start voting republican!!
    Rob

  • Giorgio

    What is all the fuss about, if there is no exclusive right-of-way and no pre-board payment? NYCT could achieve substantial productivity gains just with pre-board payment systems that would allow boarding at all doors, especially on cross-twon routes in Manhattan. Will GPS resolve the bunching problem?? I would be surprised. Don’t get fooled by technology, if simple human observations could resolve the problem.

  • Steven

    http://www.tc.umn.edu/~hause011/article/Bus_rapid_transit.html

    The reason BRT is so slow to develop in NY is that the highway dept has not figured out how to use it to rebuild all the highways. Learn from Minnesota, you use BRT to build roads, then forget to run the bus service! BRT is a joke.

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