State DOT Pulls Transit Bait-and-Switch on Staten Island

sie_bus.jpgPhoto: SI Advance via MTR.

One of the more common excuses we’ve been hearing from local pols during the current MTA crisis is that "service never improves," so why bother to fund transit? Set aside, for the moment, the fact that subways and buses are moving way more New Yorkers than they did just a few years ago. Courtesy of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, here’s an interesting case study of service actually getting worse and why it happened.

Last month, the state DOT opened the dedicated bus lane on the Staten Island Expressway to cars with two or more passengers. Tri-State’s Michelle Ernst has more:

The conversion aims to appease some politicians and drivers who’ve pressured NYSDOT to open the bus lanes to cars since the lanes were opened. But even the commenters in the Staten Island Advance
recognize that it will do little to alleviate congestion in the general
purpose lanes, and will completely obliterate any time savings
currently enjoyed by Staten Island’s bus riders.

The Expressway was widened to add the bus lane in 2005. Now, opening the busway to private cars turns that transit enhancement into a de facto highway expansion. Before the change, average bus speeds in the dedicated lane averaged 50 mph despite lax enforcement of the bus-only policy. With any multi-passenger car allowed in the lane, and even more license for solo drivers to break the rules, buses may soon move at the same speed as the regular traffic lanes — 25 mph.

"There’s already plenty of people carpooling on the Expressway," Ernst said. "This is just going to pull cars from the regular lanes and induce more traffic." The state DOT, for its part, says bus-exclusivity will be restored if riders end up saddled with slower rides.

So where did the political pressure come from? The Advance reports:

Many people welcome the change. Sen. Charles Schumer, Rep. Michael
McMahon and Councilman James Oddo are three elected officials who have
been outspoken in their support of the switch to HOV lanes.

Mr. Oddo said upon hearing of the DOT’s plan, "Maybe they’ve woken up," adding, "You have to maximize the infrastructure."

Someone should inform the efficiency-minded Oddo that buses carry a lot more people than cars, and that potentially cutting their speeds in half is no way to "maximize infrastructure." Meanwhile, at least one of those Advance commenters is pinning responsibility on — you guessed it — the MTA.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Adding insult to injury, cars are only allowed in the lanes at rush hour in the rush hour direction — when the space is most valuable to and heavily used by the buses. Not off peak. That makes sense how?

    The only time I’m ever on that road is when traveling to visit relatives in Monmouth County NJ, off peak, with four people in the car.

    So much for BRT, because this means that bus lanes aren’t ever going to be bus lanes. If they want to convert it back to a bus lane, opponents will claim that doing so would cause more traffic congestion, and demand an EIS.

  • Boris

    I agree that it makes no sense to have it open only at rush hour. Some of the worst traffic in the area is on the weekends. But I don’t see the problem of opening the lane to carpools. The bus lane is not a BRT lane; it is an extension of the Gowanus HOV lane, which has allowed carpools on it for years, with good results. Now again, I think that there should be two permanent HOV lanes (one in each direction) on the Gowanus, open 24/7, and they should take up existing lanes, not extra lanes. But I don’t see the problem on Staten Island.

    Furthermore, the Staten Island bus lane is too short to make a big difference. Most of the eastbound traffic, including the buses, is slowed down by the incline that is Todd Hill. The bus lane only starts on the east side of the hill. The buses huff and puff up the hill with general traffic and only then switch to the bus lane, saving just a few minutes of travel time.

  • Glenn

    Hmmm…”maximizing infrastructure”…makes me remember a great post by Aaron Donovan before he went to work for that much criticized mass transit authority that moves most of the US public transportation riders around the most productive economic region in North America…

    Oh here it is: http://www.startsandfits.com/2005/09/retrofitting-bridges-for-inefficiency.html

    Despite a wondrous century of technological marvels, the Brooklyn Bridge has declined substantially in efficiency. In 1907, 426,000 trips were made each day across the bridge via two tracks of streetcar lines, two tracks of elevated subway trains, on foot, and on two lanes for vehicular traffic — in those days horses, carriages and horseless carriages. By 1989, only 178,000 trips were made across the bridge, a 42 percent decline in usefulness since 1907, even though there were now six modern lanes carrying speedy, powerful cars.

    Using the same piece of infrastructure to move 42% less people (but a lot more metal & rubber) sounds like pretty inefficient infrastructure policy to me.

  • Using the same piece of infrastructure to move 42% less people (but a lot more metal & rubber) sounds like pretty inefficient infrastructure policy to me.

    There you go again, with your “facts” and “figures”…. Sarcasm aside, that is a brilliant point.

  • Glenn, in 1907 the subway didn’t go to Brooklyn. I presume that the advent of through subway service to Brooklyn neighborhoods from Manhattan’s business districts sharply reduced demand for trans-Brooklyn Bridge streetcar service, making it possible to convert the bridge span to automobile traffic (at a lower density, yes).

  • James

    I’m concerned about the precedent that this sets for Bus-only lanes. If the Select Bus program is going to expand, it needs to happen with the understanding that Bus lanes are for buses only, not private cars (no matter how many passengers are on board).

  • Moser

    Gowanus is HOV-3 (three or more passengers per vehicle) which is basically a bus lane. This SIE move is HOV-2.

  • Danny

    Just lay some rail tracks down on that HOV lane and do it for real.

  • Glenn

    Anyone taking a subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan knows that extra capacity would greatly alleviate overcrowding and wait times. The bridge could be a lot more useful if streetcars and trains were added to it.

  • Mick

    Per Moser (#7)there is a huge difference between HOV 2 and HOV 3 restrictions. According to terrific Trans Alt/Schaller 2007 study “Free Parking,Congested Streets” the vehicle occupancy in the Manhattan CBD is
    65% SOV,29% HOV 2, 6% HOV 3+, 1% HOV 4+. It’s probably close to this on the SIE N/B.

    So when HOV restrictions on the SIE are changed from HOV 3 to HOV 2, it means the number of potential vehicles using the HOV lane goes from 6% of all vehicles to 29% — an almost five fold increase in the number of potential users. The exact percentages maybe a little different on the SIE, but the five fold increase is probably right. The Tri-State Transportation Campaign should file suit in federal court against SDOT for failure to perform an EIS for this change.

  • spike

    The self righteous will complain about 2 person versus 3 person HOV lanes, but HOV lanes in CA for example have always been 2 person lanes. While it would be better to have more than two, is a lot easier setting up a two person car pool than a three person car pool, so a lot more people will do it. The big reduction in car use (50%) comes from going from one person in a car to two. Right now virtually every car in NY has one person in it. The high tolls don’t seem to be enough for people to car pool, if it takes getting two other people into the car. If the bus lane slows down too much because of the change, then this can be reevaluated.

  • Moser

    The Gowanus was changed from HOV 2 to HOV 3 in 2001 because the vast majority (85%+) of the people using the special lane there were bus riders, and the HOV2s were bogging it down. This is not Orange County CA or outer Oakland, this is much denser and transit-oriented.

  • Glenn, in 1907 the subway didn’t go to Brooklyn.

    What about the els?

  • vnm

    Rhywun, correct. The Brooklyn Bridge carried both elevated trains (basically equivalent of the subway) and streetcars.

  • Yeah, and imagine if they hadn’t torn so many of them down: 2nd Av, 3rd Av, 9th Av… Els all over Brooklyn… Was it worth it?

  • Certainly the East Side of Manhattan is suffering.

    Isaac Asimov used to joke that Third Avenue used to remind him of Christmas…

    …No-El, No-El

  • Ian Turner

    Actually, a lot of HOV lanes in California are HOV3+. Most freeways east of the SF bay are configured this way, for example.

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