With Debut of B44 SBS, Major Brooklyn Bus Route Poised to Draw More Riders

B44 SBS upgrades existing limited-stop service with bus lanes and other improvements. Photo: Stephen Miller
B44 SBS upgrades existing limited-stop service with bus lanes, off-board fare collection, and other improvements. Photo: Stephen Miller

After years of planning, B44 Select Bus Service launched yesterday on the Nostrand Avenue corridor.  Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, and MTA Chairman and CEO Tom Prendergast marked the occasion this afternoon at a newly-expanded bus stop at Church and Nostrand.

The B44, which serves nearly 40,000 riders each weekday along a 9.3-mile route between the Williamsburg Bridge and Sheepshead Bay, is the sixth SBS line in the city. The upgrade to B44 limited-stop service adds off-board fare collection, curb extensions at bus stops, priority for buses at stop lights (starting next year), and camera-enforced bus lanes. Funded largely by a $28 million federal grant [PDF], B44 SBS is projected to improve travel times by as much as 20 percent.

MTA Chairman and CEO Tom Prendergast, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. Photo: Stephen Miller
MTA Chairman and CEO Tom Prendergast, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. Photo: Stephen Miller

At today’s presser, Bloomberg stressed the need for data-driven transportation policy. “Everybody has a view whether the traffic is better or worse,” he said. “That’s not a way to measure whether traffic is faster or slower.”

Referring to the other five SBS routes, he said, “These things, it turns out, actually do save time. Buses work better and traffic is better. We’re not just trying to guess.”

DOT released a report [PDF] today compiling data from SBS projects on Fordham Road, Webster Avenue, Hylan Boulevard34th Street, and First and Second Avenues. Since 2008, the city has installed 38 miles of SBS lanes. Bus speeds have increased as much as 23 percent while all SBS routes combined have gained 20,000 daily riders after launching.

SBS stops along Nostrand and Rogers Avenues include WalkNYC wayfinding signs featuring area maps and real-time bus arrival information. (Since Bus Time is not scheduled to launch in Brooklyn and Queens until the first half of next year, the signs do not currently show real-time data.) MTA staff assigned to SBS stops during the launch phase were out today showing riders how to pay their fare before boarding the bus.

Local merchants are hoping the speedier buses will draw more customers from the 300,000 people who live within a quarter-mile of the route. Lindiwe Kamau owns a ceramics shop and serves as president of the Nostrand Avenue Merchants Association, which represents retailers between Linden Boulevard and Eastern Parkway. “We have a lot of merchants who come from out of the area, and they drive, so [parking’s] been their main concern,” she told Streetsblog. “We’re trying to support them and turn the situation into a plus.” The association is launching a discount program for riders who show their SBS receipts. So far, 21 businesses have signed up, and Kamau is aiming to involve more retailers before Small Business Saturday on November 30.

“We spent a lot of hours dealing with the transportation issue and speaking with the Department of Transportation and the MTA,” said Kamau, who had been skeptical of the project when it was in the early planning stages. “We hope that it’s going to bring us some more customers, since it’s going to bring more accessibility.”

The B44 will maintain local northbound service on New York Avenue, while the northbound SBS buses have shifted two blocks west to Rogers Avenue, which has a new dedicated bus lane. “The travel lanes and the parking lanes are pretty narrow [on New York Avenue],” said Eric Beaton, who directs Bus Rapid Transit programs at NYC DOT. “It would’ve been a pretty tough place to do anything, and it would’ve had massive community impacts with taking out a lot of parking.”

To speed up service, a number of limited-service stops were eliminated along the route. Some SBS stations in Midwood and Sheepshead Bay, where there are no dedicated bus lanes, are more than a mile apart, which Council Member Jumaane Williams took issue with. Local service, however, was extended to the southern end of the route at Emmons Avenue in Sheepshead Bay. An MTA spokesperson said that stops chosen for SBS had the highest ridership on the route.

Although SBS is operational, the changes are still rolling out along the route: Markings are still being striped along sections of Rogers and Bedford Avenues, and some bus stops still have orange barrels around unfinished construction. Many car drivers have yet to get in the habit of respecting the camera-enforced bus lanes. A separate capital reconstruction of Nostrand Avenue from Flushing to Atlantic Avenues means bus riders have to put up with a bumpy road surface through Bedford Stuyvesant.

A project planned by the Department of Design and Construction will bring improved pedestrian crossings, curb extensions, medians, and plaza space to Williamsburg Bridge Plaza, the northern terminus of the B44. Construction is expected to begin later next year.

Since 2008, the MTA and NYC DOT have implemented six SBS routes. (A seventh, along 125th Street, is planned for next year after an on-again, off-again drama with local community boards and elected officials that resulted in a watered-down plan.)  Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio has promised to “accelerate implementation” of bus improvements, saying he would fast-track a system of “more than 20” bus rapid transit lines.

  • J

    To clarify, de Balsio promised to create “World-Class Bus Rapid Transit”. SBS, while a great improvement, is not BRT at all, and it is certainly not “world-class BRT”. Let’s push de Blasio do better in this area. Improving transit service is a no brainer in terms of improving the ability of New Yorkers of all income levels to get to the job and services needed to help them improve their lives.

    http://www.billdeblasio.com/issues/transportation

  • Voter

    “Everybody has a view whether the traffic is better or worse,” he said. “That’s not a way to measure whether traffic is faster or slower.”

    People give Bloomberg crap for his directness, but this specific kind of directness is very necessary. I will miss it. I simply can’t imagine Bill de Blasio saying something so obvious.

  • Bolwerk

    I don’t see why everyone complains about SBS. It is, if anything, a better deal than BRT. it’s cheap to construct (probably a net savings over conventional buses!), more accessible, and with care just as fast. Sometimes SBS is still inadequate, but building a Robert Moses-style elevated highway doesn’t change that.

    If a route demands so much investment that it needs to be grade-separated, it should be part of the subway so operating costs can be reduced drastically.

  • Andrew

    Walter Hook’s pontifications notwithstanding, SBS is NYC’s brand name for BRT. BRT refers to any targeted approach to improve bus speeds. Not every tool in the toolkit is appropriate to every scenario.

  • You can make a real BRT route without grade separation. You just have to align the busway in the center of the street or provide some real physical separation from traffic. To make it work, you don’t need to spend much more than what’s being spent on SBS, but you do need to claim more space from cars.

    NYC was going to do this on 34th Street until Macy’s and the real estate barons raised a stink behind the scenes.

  • Joe R.

    You also need traffic signal preemption to get the full advantages of grade separation without actually doing grade separation. Some buses spend half their time stopped at traffic signals. Although I’m generally against traffic signals, this is a case where they can be used to our advantage, to give vehicles with more passengers priority over cars with a single occupant.

  • Andres Dee

    Running SBS this far from a major destination like KC Hospital is unfortunate. Perhaps it reflects lack of confidence that you could get buses effectively past the cars that would clog the nearby streets. Compare that with the M15 SBS’ stop serving Bellevue’s front door, despite the proximity of 23rd and 34th Streets.

  • Bolwerk

    Phrases like “world class BRT” just seem bizarre to me. SBS basically works, probably 90% as well as it can reasonably be expected to work. What do people who use that phrase want? Valet service and a guaranteed seat in a mobile cocktail lounge?

    I actually am inclined to agree with Andrew that SBS is technically a BRT implementation. Center-running might help, though the signal preemption Joe mentions is much more useful. Regardless, most of the limitations of the mode are the same whether it’s side-running, center-running, or grade-separated.

  • qrt145

    Having experienced the “world-class” BRT in Mexico City (with separated, center-running lanes, elevated platforms, etc.) but where people are squeezed like sardines (despite the buses running with a frequency of close to one per minute!), I would have very much liked it better if it had had a guaranteed seat in a mobile cocktail lounge! 🙂

  • J

    No, BRT is more than just a set of bus tools, just like a metro system is more than just a set of train tools. A train line with at grade crossings is not a metro, just like bus line running along the curb or in mixed traffic (instead of in exclusive median busways) is not BRT.

  • J

    No, they want a bus that is as reliable and nearly as fast as a high-quality metro (better than the NYC subway, that is). Such a system has the power to not only significantly improve mobility, but also to drive development in the city by providing high-quality transit access to new areas.

    While people do talk about living or working near an SBS line, it doesn’t carry nearly the weight as being near a subway stop. BRT is much more on par with subway, when done right, and at a tiny fraction of the cost of subway.

  • J

    I can’t say that being squeezed into a slow-moving bus in NYC is a walk in the park either. At least the BRT in Mexico City gets you to where you’re going quickly and reliably.

    If anything, Mexico City needs many more BRT lines.

  • Bolwerk

    I don’t know what your problem with the NYC Subway of all things is, but BRT isn’t cheaper. The vaunted “savings” of BRT is to trade high upfront capital costs for permanently high labor costs, higher vehicle turnover, fossil fuel dependency, and slower, less comfortable service. It’s no surprise the major BRT implementations are in developing countries. Those are the only places where labor costs are low enough to make large-scale implementations feasible.

    BRT has a niche place in first world cities, but cities with control of their construction costs (not NYC) mostly eschew it in favor of rail precisely because rail starts saving money after a certain level of usage is reached.

  • Bolwerk

    Pretty sure Tokyo still has third rail running metros with grade crossings, and German S-Bahns certainly do what metros do with tolerance for the occasional crossing. It’s not a particularly big deal.

    In any case, doctrinaire adherence to your definition of BRT seems silly. Conditions might sometimes mean it’s preferable to run along a curb for accessibility reasons or to make an intermodal connection (say, to an existing flight of stairs leading to a subway). Or it might just be something that doesn’t make a difference one way or another given traffic levels.

    Of course, in the case of Manhattan, I think center-running is preferable. But then, at least First Avenue probably should have LRT.

  • Easy

    Here are some standards for different quality BRTs:

    http://www.itdp.org/microsites/the-brt-standard-2013/

  • Jonathan R

    Exactly, I remember reading an in-depth post on Quora that intended to settle the question of “which is more expensive, bus or light-rail or subway” once and for all, but which ignored labor costs.

  • R

    Perhaps they want a BRT system that can’t be stopped in its tracks by a single parked car.

  • J

    Just saying that the subway sometimes has reliability issues (am I wrong?).

    Also, I don’t mean to say that BRT is always the right solution, just that in many cases it can shave many years or even decades off of construction time (Second Avenue Subway), and billions of dollars off of construction costs. Your points about higher operating costs are good, and those should be taken into consideration. However, you seem to have already made up your mind against BRT, and I’m not sure why.

  • Bolwerk

    Perhaps, but that’s more a policing problem than an SBS/BRT problem. It doesn’t help that New York drivers are generally inept slopebrows with aggression problems.

  • Bolwerk

    It has nothing to do with making up my mind against one or another. I don’t even see what BRT and subways have to do with each other, except to say they can complement each other. They address entirely different mobility problems. Yes, the NYC Subway has reliability problems, and it faces challenges a BRT system isn’t designed to address.

    The transportation needs addressed by streetcars or LRT are more analogous to the ones addressed by BRT: lower volumes, lower density, shorter distances, street-level accessibility. We need this level of transit, but it doesn’t change the fact that we need the rapid transit level too.

  • Kriston Lewis

    The CTA Brown Line has grade crossings. What do you call that?

    The Canarsie Line had a grade crossing during it’s early years. The L train isn’t a metro?

  • Guest

    Can’t say I’m all for a bus rider incentive program (the discounts NAMA are offering) when there are 4 subway stops within the territory already on Nostrand.

  • kevd

    Yes, yes he has.
    And we read the same comments about it after ever single SBS piece that appears on this blog.

  • Bolwerk

    No I haven’t, and kindly don’t try to tell people what I have or have not made up my mind against. You couldn’t possibly know anyway.

  • Andrew

    Center-running would increase access time by requiring riders to cross the street to reach the bus stop, regardless of which side they started on.
    In the case of Nostrand Avenue, it would also leave bus riders with a very narrow, inhospitable strip of sidewalk to wait on – the street isn’t nearly as wide as the streets typically used by center-running bus systems.

  • Andrew

    That’s what Walter Hook is trying to promote, but he has no authority over transit agencies, and as far as I am aware, the industry has not adopted his nomenclature. NYCDOT and NYCT explicitly refer to SBS as the local brand name for BRT, even if it doesn’t meet Hook’s specifications.

    In the context of the B44, a median busway would do more harm than good.

  • Andrew

    Or by a single stopped local bus – as would happen quite often if the SBS shared a single physically divided bus lane with the local.

    If there were a pair of bus lanes in each direction, then physical separation would be wonderful. But back here in the real world, we aren’t going to get a pair of bus lanes in each direction. I’d rather see an achievable modest improvement than an unachievable revolutionary improvement.

  • kevd

    Well, there is certainly a repetitive quality to the many comments you make every time SBS is mentioned, here.
    That would normally indicate a consistency of opinion.

    But, I’m glad to hear you are open minded!

  • Bolwerk

    Agreed in general and about Nostrand, but I’m not so sure about, say, First Avenue, where less interference with other traffic and maybe even the possibility for bi-directional service on the same avenue might be possible/desirable with well-designed center-running service. The M15 really does suffer from dealing with turning vehicles, and maybe the “cross the street” penalty of center-running is worth it in that case.

  • Bolwerk

    And? Name a regular poster here who doesn’t repeat points about at least something. Posts here deal with repetitive subject matter, and to some extent the commenters’ misconceptions are repetitive too.

    I’m not even clear what I was supposed to make my mind about anyway. I think his proposition that BRT is a substitute for a subway is like saying a chisel is a substitute for a table saw. They both have their respective purposes, and those are very complementary purposes under the right circumstances, but they are rarely if ever substitutes for each other.

  • Andrew

    My comments about center-running are generic. Unless the operational benefits are extreme, the disadvantages (increased access time, unpleasant waiting environment, increased signal complexity resulting in less time for each movement, increased footprint to provide for waiting areas) outweigh the advantages.

    There are actually relatively few right turns off of First Avenue, and making either avenue two-way would eliminate the progressive signal timing that allows buses to move quickly from stop to stop.

    If right turns were a real problem, I’d suggest using the additional real estate for a second bus lane, which would then realistically allow for physical separation. Right turns across the two bus lanes would only be allowed on a separate turning phase. That reintroduces the signal complexity disadvantage, but none of the others, and it gives the buses two lanes to work with rather than just one, so buses don’t have to merge into the general traffic lanes to pass each other.

  • kevd

    “The Canarsie Line had a grade crossing during it’s early years.”

    Past tense.

    “The L train isn’t a metro?”
    No, it is (present tense) see above.

  • Bolwerk

    Seems to me there are major turning interference issues on at least 14th, 19th or 20th (FDR entrance?), 23rd, 34th, and 42nd. The other big problem in that segment is loading, though I guess this could again be solved by just policing properly.

    Still, as far as these things go, it’s 90% as good as it can be without major investment.

  • Bolwerk

    The last grade crossing was removed in 1973, probably when some people who post here were already alive. I really can’t see how anyone can seriously say the L Train wasn’t a Metro until 1973.

  • Joe R.

    We used to take the L train (which was actually the LL back then if I recall) to my grandmother’s place ( Melrose Street near Knickerbocker Avenue ) in the mid 1960s to early 1970s. It certainly appeared to be a Metro back then. We didn’t ride the part with the grade crossing, so I don’t really remember it.

  • Jonathan R

    My dad went to sleep on the Canarsie line once (around 1960) and woke up to see cows outside the window.

    Dairy cows, I hasten to specify, before Joe R. brings up the idea of using the subway to transport livestock to the Meatpacking District during night hours.

  • kevd

    The more you know!
    According the wikipedes there was 1 grade crossing from a bit after WWI until 1973.
    One – as the rest of the line (rockaway to canarsie pier) was converted (downgraded) to trolley (and later bus) when third rail power came through.

    But, I wouldn’t argue that one grade crossing made the LL something other than a “Metro” Jjust like I wouldn’t argue that lack of center running makes a BRT system not “BRT.”

    That is just one within a set of attributes, and NYC’s SBS only meets a few of the commonly accepted attributes.

    Is it an improvement over Limited buses? Yes.
    Is it anything like world class BRT in terms of capacity or speed? Definitely not.
    Could it be a stepping stone towards a system that serves riders better? Hopefully.

  • Bolwerk

    I don’t see much of a capacity problem on, say, First Ave.. It probably moves about as many people as a transit bus service can physically move. If you want much more, you need rail. I guess I can see the speed/reliability problem, but that can be fixed with policing and/or traffic light preemption. Both are cheap or even free with resources we already have, and should be done.

    Beyond that, I still don’t get what “world class” is supposed to mean here, unless it means “developing world class.” The only way I can see developing countries that do BRT outperforming something like SBS is if they grade separate, which is something that is relatively cheap for them and too expensive for us to spend to just get bus levels of capacity.

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