Electeds React: East Side Plan Should Do More for Buses

kavanagh_viverito_krueger.jpgAssembly Member Brian Kavanagh, Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito, and State Senator Liz Krueger want to see the MTA and DOT take their plan for First and Second Avenues further.

Elected officials gave plans for redesigning First and Second Avenues positive reviews today, tempered by the desire to improve the initial outline presented by the MTA and NYCDOT. They were faced with a complex project that defies easy categorizations. The proposal unveiled last night would constitute a historic re-purposing of New York City’s streets — but stop short of creating an urban corridor where pedestrians, cyclists, and transit take precedence over the automobile.

After two years of breaking new ground and raising expectations for sustainable street design — with the city’s first Select Bus Service route on Fordham Road, its first protected bikeways, and the complete transformation of Times Square — DOT now faces pressure from elected officials who want to see an even better outcome for the majority of their constituents who walk, bike, and ride the bus.

Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh, who called the presentation "a good beginning," was skeptical of the agencies’ claim that the package of bus improvements in the plan — which did not include physically separated lanes — would deliver 20 to 25 percent reductions in travel time.

"We want to see a rigorous analysis of the tradeoffs they’re making between transit improvements and maintaining traffic flow," he said. "I think that 20 percent is optimistic… Even if we were to achieve 20 percent, I think that there may be opportunities to improve bus service even further."

The Assembly member took issue with the contention of the MTA’s Ted Orosz, who postulated that illegally parked trucks would disrupt bus service in separated lanes. "Other cities, and certainly New York, can figure out how to prevent a Snapple truck from parking in a bus lane," he said. "There are certainly ways to configure this that would reduce the chance that traffic’s going to block it."

City Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito, who represents East Harlem and parts of the Bronx, called the plan "a great start" in an email to Streetsblog, while also calling on the MTA and NYCDOT to "move forward with an even better plan."

"I am particularly encouraged by the proposed creation of protected bike lanes, which will go a long way to promote the use of bicycles," she said. "However, I urge the MTA and NYCDOT to consider including separated bus lanes into their plan for the East Side. Many of my constituents depend on the First and Second Avenue buses to get around, and separated bus lanes will make their everyday trips both quicker and safer."

Both Mark-Viverito and Council Member Dan Garodnick noted that East Side residents can help determine the final shape of the project. "The East Side stands to benefit from dynamic changes to bus service on a route that desperately needs it," said Garodnick.  "The way to get the best possible result is by getting all the details right — making buses easy to board, clearly identifying shared travel lanes for bicyclists, placing bus stops in the most appropriate locations. It is not often that we have a chance to remake the way we travel and commute, so East Siders should take this opportunity to offer their input."

State Senator Liz Krueger — like Kavanagh, Mark-Viverito, and Garodnick, an East Side representative and supporter of separated
bus and bike lanes in the project — succinctly outlined the political space that now exists for something bolder than the MTA and DOT’s first draft. "While she was pleased with some aspects of the
plan," said a Krueger spokesperson, "she is still very concerned that
the plan does not go far enough."

  • Ben, great job on this post!

  • There is a simple calculation that everyone should understand if they don’t already. Local residents are the majority users of the buses, sidewalks and bike lanes. People who live outside the neighborhood are the majority in the cars.

    Keeping Four or Five lanes for moving traffic and another one or two for parked cars, doesn’t only prioritize noisy, polluting and dangerous automobile traffic over safer and more sustainable transportation, it prioritizes people from other places over local residents.

    If you go with Design A (or one with real separation for buses) for the whole route, you make the East Side a much less desirable place to drive and as a result, you will get less cars. Period.

  • Shemp

    There is also the simple calculation that an ambitious DOT commissioner who causes huge traffic tie-ups will get her wings clipped or worse by City Hall. People here including the writers of this piece might want to do a little more thinking-before-typing when they contend or imply that taking multiple lanes out of city avenues is no big deal and all to the good.

  • Geck

    With enough local grassroots and political support, maybe DOT gets the political cover it need to do this right.

  • Shemp: Fewer lanes = fewer cars. When there are fewer options, people leave the cars at home and take public transit or search for bypasses that don’t clog surface streets. None of DOT’s permanent road closures or lane eliminations have lead to more traffic or more congestion on other roads.

  • The risk Shemp describes is real, but if ever there was a project that was worth taking that risk, it is taking lanes of traffic away on First and Second Avenues and giving them to bus passengers and cyclists. IMHO, these two 7-lane roadways handling traffic from the Q’bo, Tri’Bo, and Midtown Tunnel, with overflow from the FDR, function as a unit that carries the heaviest, most untamed flow of traffic in Manhattan. At the same time, the densely populated UES/Midtown East hves the crappiest mass transit in Manhattan, with the possible exception of the less densley populated far west Midtown/Chelsea. The traffic may slow at first with lane reductions, but as Benjamin says, people will learn to use alternative routes between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. Traffic flow will return to normal, with trucks and taxis accounting for a higher proportion of an overall idecreased traffic flow, within a year. It is a risk that is so worth taking.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    If any of you are looking for a serious political leader who deserves a future of increasing authority write a check to Melissa.

  • Fewer cars on the East Side = less asthma in East Harlem. Forget global issues like greenhouse gases for a second; East Harlem has the highest asthma rate in the city.

  • Andrew

    A single separated bus lane would be a huge mistake. Trains have many advantages over buses, but one disadvantage is that they have limited maneuverability around obstacles – in particular, other trains.

    Have you ever been stuck on the train directly behind one that’s having mechanical problems, or even one that’s merely suffering from long dwells? Why bring that shortcoming to a bus line? Buses have enough shortcomings of their own.

    Especially if the same bus lane is going to be carrying both locals and limiteds. With a single, separated bus lane, how does the limited get past the local?

    Ideally, I’d love to see dual bus lanes, separated from the rest of the street. But if we can’t get dual bus lanes (and I’m not sure that’a s given – doesn’t Madison have dual bus lanes?), then separation is a bad idea.

    Incidentally – how do cars make right turns? Are right turns simply forbidden, as I believe is the case on Madison? Do cars turn across the bus lane? That would probably require more complex signal phasing, to make sure that a turning car doesn’t collide with a bus. Or, as is the case for most bus lanes in the city, are cars permitted to enter the bus lane to turn right? That would obviously preclude full separation.

  • The East Side might be a great place to start this city’s first small vehicle transit system in the form of a public bicyle system.

    Enhancements could include hybrid-human electric recumbent tricycles suitable for the broadest spectrum of the population — disabled, mothers with children, the elderly — with extensive development towards goals of maximum practicality, convenience, and comfort at low cost; to potentially create a transit environment capturing some of the best of the Summer Streets events.

  • I’m really struggling with understanding the DOT’s conservatism here in the face of a fairly blunt letter from local elected officials asking for specific improvements that were not included in the final design. From the Letter to DOT from 19 Elected Officials on the East Side:

    DOT should institute changes to the First and Second Avenue route that include not only prepaid off-board fare collection, signal priority, and a dedicated rush-hour bus lane (all present in the Fordham Road SBS), but also a physically separated busway, a physically separated bikeway, level boarding, safer crossings for pedestrians, and real-time arrival information.

    There was nothing in the letter to DOT asking for special exceptions to real BRT near the Queensboro Bridge. There were no concerns about trucks and taxis loading/unloading in the special bus lane.

    DOT needs to explain itself in the situation or I’m going to think that there has to be something else going on – like political pressure from elsewhere.

  • I’m really struggling with understanding the DOT’s conservatism here in the face of a fairly blunt letter from local elected officials asking for specific improvements that were not included in the final design.

    I’m not the DOT, and I’m only an amateur Worth-Streetologist, but here’s my guess:

    As I’m sure you know, there will be opposition to this. The political pressure from elsewhere that you mention is part of it; I’m sure that there will be some Westchester drivers who complain. But there will also be Manhattan drivers who balk at any reallocation of space away from cars, and the usual businesses convinced that their business comes from drivers despite all evidence to the contrary.

    The local opposition will believe that they are “the people,” so they will claim that this is imposed from outside by “Mayor Doomberg” or something. In the absence of clear signals to the contrary, that claim will be repeated at face value by the tabloids. This fiction is much harder to maintain in the face of visible local support.

    You’ve already done a great job of drumming up local support from elected officials and civic organizations. I think that the DOT’s conservatism gives you a chance to organize an overwhelming display of local support, so that if anyone in the neighborhood claims that this is being imposed from City Hall, they will be laughed at.

  • This seems to be the first time that pretty much everyone (residents, community boards, electeds, etc) want the same thing here, but for some reason the design has not serviced the goals.

    I know MTA and DOT had concerns, so I’ve read through their notes and spent some time this weekend thinking about how to service the goals, while addressing their concerns.

    I drew up a design here: http://www.seankenney.com/downloads/streetsblog/east-side-sbs.jpg More renderings at http://www.flickr.com/photos/seankenney/tags/sbs/

    I’m curious to everyone’s thoughts?

  • CH

    I don’t get the complete lack of understanding of the physical design that is possible with separated bus lanes. A rounded curb, like those used to separate the combined bus/bike/taxi lanes in Paris, keeps general traffic out but does not preclude a vehicle going over the curb to get around the infamous Snapple truck. No single vehicle obstruction needs to cause a breakdown in the entire corridor’s bus service.

    Of course, many people recognize the enforcement is the biggest challenge since NYPD is not a helpful entity.

    It’s really not that difficult from a design standpoint. The difficulty is the political sell, and hopefully these UES elected officials will actually carry some weight with DOT/NYCT. Thus far, the proposals definitely don’t go far enough.

  • J:Lai

    Claims that physically separated lanes will cause service to be delayed or stopped if one vehicle blocks the lane are red herrings. Unfortunately, I believe these are exactly the kinds of arguments that will be mobilized against this project.

    The physical separation is not a five foot high wall of steel-reinforced concrete. It is similar to a sidewalk curb. In addition, the physical separation ends at each intersection, providing a chance for vehicles to enter or exit the bus lane without even driving over the curb.

    It is easy to criticize the engineering side, even though those are the easiest issues to deal with and have essentially all been solved. This allows opponents to mask the real issue, which is that a minority of car users are fighting to keep their allocation of street space at the expense of everyone else.

  • Sean – I like it. I think three moving lanes is plenty. Any more and you invite the traffic the road can carry.

  • Andrew

    Did nobody see my comment? Or was I not clear?

    The issue is not that, once every few weeks, a bus will get stuck behind an illegally parked truck.

    The issue is that buses on frequent routes very often pass each other – especially on routes with both local and limited service, like this one. A bus NEEDS a way to quickly and safely (i.e., without jumping a curb and without veering into a bidirectional bike lane, as some have suggested) pass another bus.

    The best way to accomplish that is with a pair of bus lanes, separated from other traffic. That’s what should be pushing for.

    But if all we can get is one lane, then it CANNOT be physically separated without SEVERELY degrading bus service.

  • BicyclesOnly

    Andrew,

    I don’t think anyone has proposed bidirectional or other counter-flow bicycling on First or Second Avenues, regardless of any curbs or other protective barriers. Moreover, I think putting a cycle track between a bus lane and a line of parked cars may reduce the counter-flow riding typical of curbside cycle tracks.

    And I believe all of the proposed SBS designs have the local, slower buses running on the opposite side of the street.

    So the only danger of the SBS getting “trapped” under the proposed protected bus lane designs is from vehicles that don’t belong. Based on experience with the Chelsea and Broadway cycle tracks, that will occur occasionally but not so often that the benefits of lane separation are eliminated. My impression also is that cycle track intrusion has been decreasing gradually in Chelsea (I’d like to hear the experience of other, more frequent users on this point), and that intrusion on the Broadway cycle track is unusual.

  • Andrew

    BicyclesOnly:

    Sean proposed a design with a two-way bike lane to the left of the bus lane.

    In the designs with the bus lane on the right (e.g., the three NYCDOT designs), the locals can’t be on the other side – or do you expect people to wait for locals in an active traffic lane? (I think this is a misunderstanding of a comment made by an elected official that he didn’t think people should have to cross the street between local and SBS stops. Both the local and the SBS will be stopping on the right side, where all bus stops should be, but they will have different stops, one on the near side of the intersection and one on the far side. If you’ve ever ridden the Bx12 SBS, you know what I’m referring to. And if you haven’t, I suggest you do so before getting too involved in a discussion of SBS! The elected official wasn’t complaining that people would have to cross 1st Avenue to switch between SBS and local – he was complaining that people would have to cross, e.g., 79th Street.) And don’t you think local bus riders might have a slight objection if their bus were ejected from the bus lane? Local bus riders deserve reliable service too!

    For the third time: buses pass buses all the time. Not just limiteds passing locals, but limiteds passing limiteds and locals passing locals. Two buses approach a stop at the same time but nobody’s getting off on the second one? The second one passes the first. A bus is taking a long time to load up? The bus behind it pulls out and passes. A bus breaks down? Other buses pass. Wheelchair ramp? The next bus doesn’t have to wait. Have you ever ridden a frequent bus service in New York? (Given your handle, possibly not – but dare I suggest that people who ride buses might have some more insight here than people who don’t? I don’t own a bike, but I ride the bus nearly every day.)

  • Andrew: You’re right, and that’s a major oversight in my design idea! Buses can’t pass each other. I was operating under the assumption that SBS would replace (not augment) local bus service on these corridors, but I suppose that is naïve since they stop too infrequently to service the folks that need bus stations every few blocks. (Such as the elderly.)

    Perhaps it would be appropriate to include a second bus lane along the right curb (in addition to the separated bus/bike transitway. As it stands my design actually *added* parking to areas that often only have parking on one side of the street. Maybe I’ll throw together some alternate designs and see what everyone here thinks.

    It’s a little sad that we’re doing this via this forum and not the DOT doing this the proper way (or maybe they have, and have already ruled out things we’re just now coming up with?) but I don’t mind if we’re at least offering some ideas to them that they might not have thought of yet. It might become the spark of an idea that leads to something else.

  • NattyB

    Can I get Urban Planning Credit for reading this blog and comment threads?

  • Andrew,

    Mea culpa, I did not have a chance to view the proposals on a screen with sufficient resolution to see that local and express service were to operate in the same lane. I agree completely that local service has to be preserved, and that SBS has to be able to pass local buses (or will simply be local bus service by another name). I think the new lane should be dedicated for SBS buses, contiguous to a protected cycle track that the SBS bus can use to pass the occasional motorist-interloper, with local service on the opposite side of the street. I don’t think it is too great a burden to put local and express service on opposite sides of the street, people have to cross the street to catch a bus all the time.

    Having reviewed this proposal more closely, I am dumbfounded that so much real estate would be devoted to cyclists (though still not enough, given the critical gaps in the “midtown meat grinder”), and so little to SBS service. The protected bike paths are a huge bull’s-eye in these proposals and, severable as they are in design from the bus lanes, will come under intense pressure in the Community Board meetings. Advocates for protected bus lanes will have their own arguments turned back on them as follows–“sure, we need protected bus lanes; put the SBS service in the protected lane proposed by DoT for bikes, leave the local bus service where it is, with or without a terra cotta lane.”

    As for bi-directional lanes, they would create too many conflicts with pedestrians on First and Second. Those pedestrians generally disregard the pedestrian signals and instead cross based on the observed behavior of the one-way motor vehicle traffic, and feel deeply entitled to do so. Pedestrians would constantly be walking into the right-of-way of cyclists on a bi-directional path.

  • Andrew

    Apologies for not responding sooner – I’ve been out of town with limited network access.

    Sean:

    I agree 100% with your suggestion of having two bus lanes on the right. As long as there are two bus lanes (which I think is the optimal configuration), I drop my objection to physical separation from general traffic. I would be interested to see your alternate designs.

    BicyclesOnly:

    The point I’ve been trying to make is that not only will SBS buses have to pass local buses, but SBS buses will have to pass other SBS buses, and local buses will have to pass other local buses. This sort of thing happens ALL THE TIME (every day) on frequent bus routes. Not allowing it to happen will slow down service and will overload the first bus in a pack. You’ve never seen “leapfrogging” buses? I’m not terribly worried about the “occasional motorist-interloper” – I’m worried about unnecessarily giving a bus system one of the negative characteristics of rail – a train can’t pass another train if only one track is available – when buses have enough negative characteristics of their own.

    Putting local service across the street from SBS service is a bad idea, for several reasons. Whichever is on the left will be forced to have a little boarding island, since bus doors are on the right. That’s not a very customer-friendly place to wait. It means that people have to cross part of the street to get to and from the bus, regardless of which direction they’re coming from. It means that people who are going a fairly short distance and just want to board whichever bus comes first will have to be prepared to dash across a busy avenue. It means that the local won’t be able to benefit from the bus lane.

    A single divided bus lane makes about as much sense as a bike lane just barely wide enough for a single bike, with a 6-foot-high wall on either side (just to make sure that nobody can pass).

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