BRT and New York City, Part 2: What We’ve Got So Far

bx12.jpgSelect Bus Service has sped trips along the Bx12 route, but falls short of full BRT. Photo: Brad Aaron.

In the second installment of our interview with ITDP director Walter Hook, we look at the package of bus improvements implemented last year along the Bx12 line, and how it stacks up against full-featured Bus Rapid Transit. Read the first part of the interview here. Parts three and four will examine how full BRT could operate in New York.

Streetsblog: What’s your evaluation of the SBS pilot route on Fordham Road? Does it qualify as BRT?

Walter Hook: The Fordham Road "Select Bus Service" pilot route was a very successful bus service enhancement — including a number of BRT elements. The city is not calling it "BRT," though, and I think that is reasonable. A rule of thumb should be whether or not a map company would include the BRT system in a map of New York City. If it doesn’t appear on any map other than as a standard bus route, then it has failed to enter the public consciousness as something above and beyond normal bus services.

Fordham Road has a dedicated lane for most of its length, but it is not physically segregated and not enforced as well as it could be.

I knew TransJakarta had succeeded when I bought a 2007 tourist map and it included a map of TransJakarta and its stations. The Orange Line in LA is on the ‘Mass Transit Map’ which includes the subway and light rail lines, and it’s packed, so I think it’s a success. When I went to Taipei and asked about the BRT system, nobody knew what I was talking about. It wasn’t on any map. That is a sign that it has failed. In reality, Taipei only has dedicated lanes for buses, and continues to inefficiently operate the same tired old buses on them. It really cannot be called BRT.

Fordham Road has a dedicated lane for most of its length, but it is not physically segregated and not enforced as well as it could be. A BRT system does not necessarily need to have a physically-segregated lane. If the road is not congested, or bus frequency is very high, or enforcement is very tight, physical separation is not necessary. They removed a lot of parking, which took political courage, and this helps keep the lane free of vehicles. And the dedicated lane and signal priority are helping to increase speeds during the peak periods. But I suppose they have occasional problems with vehicles in the bus lanes because of too meek enforcement. If the New York state legislature would allow the city to have bus lane cameras that would help enforcement efforts.

SB: What do you think of the payment system they’ve set up?

WH: NYCT has instituted a pre-paid boarding system where people pay at the bus stop rather than when entering the bus. Off-board fare collection is a critical element of any BRT system. Once passengers get on, a ticket inspector checks periodically to make sure people have their receipts. This is the biggest innovation on Fordham Road and it brings the biggest benefit. User surveys and data collected so far indicate that the amount of time spent waiting for passengers to board and alight has dropped significantly while overall speeds — due to the lanes, signal priority and off-board fare collection — have gone up as much as 20 percent during peak period, when it counts.

The system is a technical success but I think full BRT can really hit the public consciousness to a greater degree.

This specific approach to fare collection is typical of European tram and U.S. LRT systems, as well as the Cleveland, Los Angeles, Eugene, Oregon and York (Toronto), Ontario BRT systems. It has the same benefits in terms of reducing boarding and alighting times. This means less time lost while people board the bus single-file past the driver, after waiting for people to get off the bus via the front door, which they are not supposed to do.

The main downside with this approach is fare evasion. Given the fiscal climate at the MTA, this is a worry. However, NYCT believes that because roving inspectors can fine evaders, evasion on Fordham Road is the same or lower than it was before, which bodes well for off-board fare collection in New York City.

Most full Latin American BRT systems have physically-enclosed stations with a manned ticket booth and turnstiles, like in a metro, to reduce fare evasion. These enclosed stations give the passenger a sense of security and make them feel like they are inside a system. They do have their downside, however. They take up a lot of space physically and visually, and sometimes create problems for pedestrians. They also increase operating costs significantly. Personnel are always very expensive in the U.S.

SB: And the Select Buses themselves?

WH: The buses they’re using on Fordham Road are not really BRT buses. They only have two relatively narrow doors — one in the front and one in the back — and high floors that make passengers step up and down. This slows down boarding and alighting. An articulated bus with three or four wide doors, with a floor level with the station platform, would further reduce stopping delays considerably. I was told that when the MTA first tendered for a low-floor articulated bus with three or four wide doors, no bus manufacturer was willing to bid. That seemed like it ought to be a solvable problem, and in fact I understand that now NYCT is planning to purchase three-door articulated buses next year.

The identity of the system remains an issue on Fordham Road. Though they have a distinct paint scheme, buses look like normal articulated buses, and the stations don’t have much of a separate identity from the new ones used in the rest of the bus system.

So, I think the system is a technical success but I think full BRT can really hit the public consciousness to a greater degree.

  • Rhywun

    Pre-paying the fare is typical of European *bus* systems too, not just trams. They were doing this over 20 years ago in the German city I was living in at the time. Every stop had a little ticket machine. Of course it helps when there are far fewer stops (in NYC terms bus stops are approximately 5 blocks apart rather than 2), when your bus and tram network is not scoffed at as something only poor people use, and when your teenage and young adult population is less likely to destroy them on a regular basis. Still, it’s yet another example of American “leaders” continuing to ignore the rest of the world when so many of these sorts of problems were solved elsewhere decades ago.

  • There are two solutions to the door problem. One is having a standard 40 foot bus with 3 doors, front, middle and at the rear. All three doors can be low floor, yes, even the one in the back. I’ve ridden on such buses in england.

    The other solution is 60 foot buses with 3 or 4 doors. Why didnt the MTA find a company to make them? The MBTA in Boston has a fleet of 50 or so.

  • JK

    Great interview Sblog! As Walter well knows, the main obstacle to BRT in New York City is the political cost of reallocating space on key arterial streets. It is essentially free for politicians to support hugely expensive new subway lines, but they perceive a large, and immediate, political cost for taking travel lanes and parking away from their constituents. Thus, on Second Avenue, NYC/MTA is spending $2B a mile for a subway instead of a tenth or twentieth of that for LRT or BRT. This is why incremental transit improvements, which impose a modest political cost, like Select Bus on Fordham Road are so important to current transit riders. Walter is right to label that project a big success, and perhaps more attainable model for other NYC bus lines than full blown BRT.

  • Rhywun

    they perceive a large, and immediate, political cost for taking travel lanes and parking away from their constituents

    Another reason to support term limits.

  • Why no mention of what is probably the most successful BRT facility in the US, the Lincoln Tunnel Exclusive Bus Lane?

    What, exactly, would an “identity” bring to the Fordham Road bus line, in a city where lots of people of all ethnic backgrounds take the bus?

  • Peter

    Looking forward to the multi-part series from a light rail advocate.

  • What, exactly, would an “identity” bring to the Fordham Road bus line, in a city where lots of people of all ethnic backgrounds take the bus?

    I’m not sure what that means. What does ethnicity have anything to do with it? I think by “identity” he means things that would give the impression of permanency but can’t happen because it’s a bus instead of a train.

  • Sorry, I meant “people of all economic backgrounds take the bus.”

  • zach

    Good point, Cap’n. Perhaps we need more discussion of the Lincoln Tunnel bus lane as our model for BRT. Why does it only run during am weekday rush? Don’t we want to encourage people to take buses other times? They run often and mostly full most hours. Wouldn’t the system be simpler to understand and enforce if it were always?

    I once took a NJ Transit bus into Manhattan on a Saturday evening. The bus had to wait nearly an hour to get into the tunnel for traffic. My fellow passengers said this was typical. It’s always rush hour at the Lincoln Tunnel.

    BRT over all the bridges and through all the tunnels? Why has the MTA only tested routes within one borough?

  • Good point about the hours, Zach. I actually asked Port Authority Executive Director Christopher Ward about that the other day. Another commenter, Ann, beat me to it with a simpler question, “Do you have plans to improve bus service through the Lincoln Tunnel, and across the Hudson River in general? If so, what are they and when will they be implemented?”

    Today, Ward answered Ann’s question as though he were expecting Lincoln Tunnel drivers to jump down his throat, and said that they’re “looking into options for a second express bus lane” – presumably also in the mornings only. Hopefully he’ll get to my question in the next round.

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