Pratt Center Suggests Eight Routes for Robust BRT — Is de Blasio Listening?

The Pratt Center is recommending eight BRT routes, primarily for outer-borough trips beyond the subway’s reach.
The Pratt Center is recommending eight BRT routes, primarily for trips beyond the subway’s reach. Image: Pratt Center

In 2008, a coalition led by the Pratt Center for Community Development laid out a vision for 12 Bus Rapid Transit lines across the city. Nearly six years later, NYC DOT and the MTA have installed six Select Bus Service routes in four boroughs, with plans for more. At a panel discussion this morning, the Pratt Center unveiled a new report [PDF] showing eight routes that are ripe for Bus Rapid Transit, featuring upgrades like separated busways and stations with fare gates and platform-level boarding.

During the mayoral campaign, Bill de Blasio promised to build a BRT network of more than 20 lines citywide. The big question is whether he’ll follow through after January and turn recommendations like the Pratt report into real policy.

“Select Bus Service is a breakthrough for our city,” said Joan Byron of the Pratt Center. But SBS routes, criticized as “BRT-lite” for relying on striped bus lanes instead of dedicated busways, can only do so much for riders making longer trips in the outer boroughs, she added. “What the neighborhoods that are outside of the reach of the subway need is to put the ‘rapid’ into Bus Rapid Transit.”

The report, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, identifies eight routes along corridors where 2.3 million people currently live within a half-mile. The routes are split into two phases: The first four are along wide rights-of-way with the capacity to host dedicated busways and stations, Byron said, while the final four are along trickier routes that could be easier to implement after the public judges the success of the first four.

The eight routes in the Pratt Center report are:

  • LaGuardia Airport to the Rockaways via Woodhaven Boulevard and Cross Bay Boulevard
  • Jamaica to Flushing via Main Street, continuing to Hunts Point in the Bronx via the Whitestone Bridge and Bruckner Boulevard
  • Conversion of a rail corridor on Staten Island’s North Shore to a multi-leg BRT route, currently in planning at the MTA
  • Sunset Park to JFK Airport via Linden Boulevard, connecting with a cluster of medical centers in central Brooklyn
  • Far Rockaway to Jamaica via Nassau Expressway and Rockaway Boulevard
  • Sunset Park to JFK Airport via Kings Highway and Flatlands Avenue
  • East Harlem to Co-Op City via a cluster of medical centers along Eastchester Road in East Bronx
  • Richmond Avenue in Staten Island to Manhattan via Jersey City and the Holland Tunnel

Byron said the Pratt Center focused on these routes because many outer borough neighborhoods are seeing population changes as low-income households are priced out of areas closer to Manhattan with better transit access. “We’ve had population shifts that we’re just beginning to understand,” she said. “When I was growing up, this was the land of Archie Bunker.”

Residents of these neighborhoods are stuck with unreliable buses that are too slow for the increasingly long-distance trips commuters must make. Growing job centers at airports, hospitals, industrial zones and retail hubs are often beyond the reach of a convenient subway trip. “We’re talking about a potentially two-hour commute for some folks,” said Austin Shafran, the recently-named legislative director of the Working Families Party. “BRT can be the great equalizer.”

So far, implementing SBS routes has often involved years of planning. Delays have followed when a single community group or elected official (a state senator, perhaps) stood in the way of bus upgrades that could benefit thousands of riders each day. Mitchell Moss, director of NYU’s Rudin Center for Transportation, singled out the city’s Albany delegation for its inattention to the MTA, a state authority under its watch. “We have an undistinguished State Senate representation when it comes to transportation,” he said. “We have to have people in Albany who care. It is not a priority for our state senators today to understand how important the MTA is. That’s the failing.”

From left, Austin Shafran of the Working Families Party, Joan Byron of the Pratt Center, Mitchell Moss of NYU, Public Advocate-elect Letitia James, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, and City & State's Nick Powell. Photo: Stephen Miller
From left, Austin Shafran of the Working Families Party, Joan Byron of the Pratt Center, Mitchell Moss of NYU, Public Advocate-elect Letitia James, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, and City & State’s Nick Powell. Photo: Stephen Miller

Given the political and planning hurdles in the way, is it possible for the city to fast-track aggressive BRT plans, beyond the current one-a-year pace of more modest SBS improvements?

Byron thinks so. She said the SBS planning process has improved greatly in the past few years, with DOT staff working with local merchants on issues as fine-grained as block-by-block needs for loading space along a route. “They know how to do it,” she said. “You’ve got to put more teams in the field so they can work on more than one route at a time.”

The BRT routes proposed by the Pratt Center would redesign some of the city’s most dangerous multi-lane roads, creating an opportunity for significant safety improvements for pedestrians and cyclists.”If you can score a win-win by not only having a vastly stepped-up transit service, but use those same design interventions to create safe, complete streets,” Byron said, “why wouldn’t you do that?”

Public Advocate-elect Letitia James, who would like to see de Blasio appoint a deputy mayor tasked with prioritizing BRT and street safety issues, said she supports using tax-increment financing from new development along BRT routes to finance their construction. James noted that residents are often uneasy about infrastructure upgrades that could lead to further gentrification and displacement. She stressed that guaranteed benefits, such as upgrades to community facilities, signal that existing residents stand to benefit from new development. “When there are additional public benefits,” she said, “then the community can support greater density.”

“People think they’re against density,” Byron said. “What they’re against mostly is displacement.” Byron suggested that the city bring in other agencies, such as City Planning or Housing, Preservation and Development, to address a wide range of neighborhood concerns during planning for a BRT route.

Another key to speeding up the process is organizing bus riders themselves. “Bus Rapid Tranist becomes politically feasible when there’s a strong constituency demanding it, and so it can surmount the challenge of one suspicious elected official or one community that’s not convinced, if you’re able to organize,” said John Raskin of the Riders Alliance. “It’s really valuable that Pratt and Rockefeller have put together specific proposals… It’s a great opportunity to go out and organize riders.”

Byron, who suggested organizing bus riders at large employment centers that stand to benefit from improved buses, said successful BRT could set the stage for even more ambitious transportation projects and reforms. “One of the reasons that congestion pricing in London was politically possible is that people saw the transit benefits right away, and those benefits were delivered primarily through improved bus service,” she said. (New York’s unsuccessful 2008 congestion pricing proposal was also tied to significant new bus service paid for with a federal grant.) Byron then mentioned the Move NY plan to raise funds for transportation by adjusting the toll structure on bridges across the city. “To set the stage for that to be possible, we’ve got to score some wins,” she said, “and BRT is one of those wins.”

While a healthy crowd turned out for today’s event, the importance of the Pratt Center’s report ultimately hinges on one reader: Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio. “If Mayor de Blasio wants to roll out 20 BRT routes in four years, that leadership has to be there,” Byron said. “And what that leadership has to say to the community is: We will listen to you. We will take you seriously when you describe a problem. But that will not stop the process, because the benefit is to a much larger number of people. That’s got to be the tone from the leadership.”

  • Bolwerk

    Turning North Shore into BRT? How dumb can you get? Even if we pretend rail to BRT is a lateral move or even a reasonable tradeoff expense-wise, a move like that forever takes away a chance to tie North Shore into the subway or HBLR.

    These people are ideologues who don’t care an iota about improving transit. For whatever reason, they want to lock in fossil fuel, asphalt, and rubber tire dependency, and they’re willing to throw the future under the bus to do it.

  • JoshNY

    Seems a bit strange to throw in two SBS routes to JFK (which already has fairly adequate mass transit connections via subway or LIRR to AirTrain) and only one to LaGuardia (which, unless I’ve missed something recently, only has a couple of traffic-susceptible local bus routes).

  • Kristophoros

    I’m not sure why Pratt did not consider existing bus ridership in its corridor selection. Many of the people experiencing long commutes are likely on high ridership lines stuck in traffic. Speeding up their trips should be a priority. This will help ensure that the first corridors are well-ridden and successful. If the first project is not well-used it will threaten future projects.

  • Justin Nelson

    BRT with faregates is a dumb proposition. Faregates are used for creating a sterile transfer area (something NYC knows and LA hasn’t figured out yet). So either you have transfers in the paid area to subway stations from the BRT, in which case people are going to jump onto these platforms for a free subway ride, or you don’t, in which case faregates are useless.

  • Bobberooni

    There’s already an efficient subway from WTC to Jersey City, and a light rail (HBLR) that will take you quickly all the way to Bayonne. Rather than building a BRT route to parallel that corridor, I think it makes more sense to extend the HBLR onto Staten Island. The resulting two-seat ride will be far better than sitting in traffic through the Holland Tunnel, BRT or otherwise.

    Or if you can’t extend the existing light rail to Staten Island… build BRT on Staten Island to connect with the light rail in Bayonne.

  • Guest

    That would be very useful for analysis. Better would be the origins and destinations of the passengers on those routes. If there is better routing, improving the existing route might not be so great.

  • Guest

    Can you please make substantive comments on the merits of the proposal, rather than speculating and attributing evil motives to thoughtful people who reached a conclusion different than your own?

    Thanks,
    Civilized Discourse

  • Bolwerk

    I don’t think it’s a theoretically bad idea when there is a transfer to the subway involved. Well-implemented POP works a bit like an insurance policy. You target a certain percent of evaders and charge them enough fines to cover the lost fares from the other beaters plus enforcement costs. Allowing transfers to the subway just changes enforcement strategy to focus on points near faregates.

    In practice, it probably won’t happen. BRT probably doesn’t handle volumes where POP doesn’t work and we are unlikely to ever see the construction of another bus-subway transfer. (There is only one now, at Rockaway Parkway.)

  • Bolwerk

    Yes, your condescension very civilized and substantive, thanks. You supplied the “evil motives” part, not me. I did say they desire a certain outcome “for whatever reason,” and that they are aiming for that outcome cannot remotely be called speculation.

  • trollwatch

    troll.

  • mrtuffguy

    JFK has about 3 times the employment as LGA. And probably a greater
    proportion of those are working class jobs that this plan is attempting
    to target.
    http://www.panynj.gov/airports/lga-facts-info.html
    http://www.panynj.gov/airports/jfk-facts-info.html

  • Jonathan R

    Suggest looking at this plan as instead “Economic Development along NYC Stroads” to borrow the Chuck Marohn term from his Strong Towns blog. If implemented as directed in the white paper, wide streets like Woodhaven Blvd, Bruckner Blvd, and Main St would be developed in pedestrian-friendly ways near the BRT stations. This would raise land values and create more affordable housing along these strips because an automobile would not be necessary.

  • JoshNY

    That’s a good point, and one that I didn’t think of previously. It doesn’t, in my mind, change the fact that there is (and will still be, after the addition of one BRT route that doesn’t come close to the most densely populated areas of the city) a need for better transit options to get to LGA, but perhaps I underestimated the need for improved transit access to JFK as well.

  • kevd

    If you’ve ever on the B15 Bus from Terminal 4, you’ll see A LOT of employees going to and from work that way.
    I’m not sure why – cost perhaps? (is there a bulk discount or monthly ticket for the JFK airtrain? if not, the cost of AirTrain plus subway gets to be pretty darn high) Or simply because it goes close to where they live or involves fewer transfers.
    A BRT route from just south of the Park to JFK would be a heck of a lot more convenient than my current 5 train ride, too.
    Q/B to S to E to A to AirTrain. That is almost as agonizing as the B35 to the B15! (The B15 is actually relatively quick in my limited experience, but the B35…. ugh!)

    I imagine that something similar is true for those who live along Kings Highway. And, the ares of Brownsville Canarsie and Flatlands that the second route passes through don’t have the best transit options. A route with one terminus at JFK isn’t JUST about getting passengers to and from JFK. It is also about employees going to and from JFK and about those who live in the neighborhoods the rest of the route passes through having better commutes, no matter where they are going.

  • Jonathan R

    MTA Trip planner suggests either B to E to Airtrain (90 min) or B to R to A (transfer at Jay St/Lawrence St) to Airtrain.

    I don’t believe the Air Train has a bulk discount. It was funded with passenger dollars, so there is a bias toward getting air travelers to the airport, not airport workers.

  • kevd

    “ideologues who don’t care an iota about improving transit. ” & “they want to lock in fossil fuel, asphalt, and rubber tire dependency”

    Those sound like an attribution of motive to me.
    And some pretty nefarious ones at that!

  • kevd

    Thanks for the heads up on some options I’m already well aware of!
    B only runs on weekdays, and what you are advising is actually slower than the 5 train ride that I described.

    A decent option may now be the SBS up to the A at Nostrand. Whatever – no reason to get bogged down in the specifics of my trip the point is BRT / SBS can improve options and speeds for some travelers.
    When I hear from people about how convenient the AirTrain is, I think “depends where you’re coming from.”
    And what’s so bad about increased transit options, anyway?

    **And if you’re right about the lack of AirTrain discounts, it is evidence of its central problem. That it doesn’t help the thousands of people working at the airport.**

    Okay, see above! Good to Know! Thanks.

  • vbtwo31984

    AirTrain has discount cards. You can get a 10-ride card for $25 (50% discount) or get a 30-day unlimited ride card for $40.

  • kevd

    Interesting…..
    I’ve been trying to find info on it, but the PA site hasn’t been very forthcoming.

    Or rather, I’m bad at reading!

  • Jonathan R

    Or try the LIRR: 20 minutes by subway (from Ave H station) to Atlantic Terminal, then another 20 minutes via LIRR to Jamaica, then 10 minutes to JFK terminal 1.

  • vbtwo31984

    http://www.panynj.gov/airports/jfk-cost-tickets.html

    I assume the MVMs by the AirTrain stations can be used to buy/refill these special cards.

  • JoshNY

    Yeah, the ridiculous cost of the AirTrain-subway transfer (as compared to the free ride on the AirTrain for folks who drive to the airport) would have a disproportionate impact on JFK employees.

  • BornAgainBicyclist

    Seriously, people who drive to the airport and park then get a free freaking ride on AirTrain? WTF?!

  • kevd

    Wow, right there on the same page I was looking at.
    I better get more coffee.
    Thanks. Takes care of the cost argument well, somewhat – $10 a day to commute is better than $15, but it is still double what most people in this city pay, and airport jobs aren’t typically the most lucrative.

    Makes me want to get a 10 pass and hang onto it, though!

  • Jonathan R

    Long-term parking is $18 a day at JFK. Is that free?

  • BornAgainBicyclist

    I thought it was obvious that I was commenting on the skewed incentives. And chances are that like parking in too many places, that rate is subsidized. I’d be surprised if it’s not.

  • kevd

    No.
    But the AirTrain train ride is!

  • kevd

    Well, when I have access to a car I drop friends off, or pick them up at the “kiss and fly”
    For us its free, too.

  • kevd

    That actually is a decent option for people who feel like paying 3 fares! Only $15 – $17 dollars to get the airport on mass transit?
    You’re making a 30 min cab ride sound really appealing!

  • Jonathan R

    It’s a fair question. Flying is safer than driving, so perhaps it makes sense to charge people only a nominal fee to park at the airport.

  • Jonathan R

    Assume two travelers.

    Leave weekday afternoon (peak), return on the weekend (city ticket): LIRR fare is $13.50 r/t per person, or $27. It costs $19.05 for four one-way tickets on the Airtrain. Assume both travelers have unlimited-ride metrocards already, and it comes out to $46.05 for both. I guess you could take cabs the 12 miles from the Avenue H stop, but I would budget $60 for both legs of the trip. And with the cab, there are no stairs to hike down at the Ave H subway stop (Atlantic Ave has an elevator).

  • Bolwerk

    Uh, if their goals are achieved, that outcome is locked in no matter what their underlying motivation is. I don’t see how this can be disputed. Bustituting the North Shore effectively precludes two other extremely worthy (though also mutually exclusive) transportation alternatives, forever. There is even a perfectly good route for BRT running parallel to the North Shore (low traffic Richmond Terrace), but for some reason the preferred route is one that destroys an opportunity for better transit in the future…and costs more.

    OK, if they aren’t ideologues, they’re something worse, like NIH or plain ignorant. For some reason, they’re finding a solution without considering the problem. I don’t know why, but it’s a common trait of ideologues.

  • Jonathan R

    Nice to know the Port Authority appreciates a real discount, not like that skimpy 5% the MTA offers.

  • Andrew

    LaGuardia has the new Q70 Limited plus the planned-for-next-year M60 SBS.

  • Andrew

    I agree, that particular route is more akin to a classical express bus than to BRT. Express buses have a different objective from BRT. Express buses also have very high subsidies per passenger, despite the higher fare charged, due to their lack of turnover and their generally highly peaked ridership. I suggest that we steer clear of introducing more such money drains. BRT should not focus on directly serving rush hour commutes to and from the traditional Manhattan CBD.

  • kevd

    “They want to” = attribution of motive. We’re talking about a proposal and your response to the proposal is that the proposal is evidence of the authors desire to lock in fossil fuel and rubber tire dependency. You’re attributing a motive there.
    They made a proposal that you disagree with, and you are claiming that the reason that flawed proposal came to be is that the authors have a desire to lock in those dependencies.
    That is what those words mean. If you don’t want to attribute that motive you could say ‘their proposal will lock in… (yada yada yada).’
    See the difference?

    I’m not getting into the substance of the rest of your response, though.
    SI isn’t an area I know, and you could very well be right.

  • kevd

    No unlimited ride here. More of a bike rider.

    Point is…. many rational people would chose a door to door cab ride over 2 transfers when the price difference in only 33% (for one traveler it is more like double).

  • Bolwerk

    I don’t see how you can look at this proposal and seriously deny that they see replacing the almost shovel-ready North Shore rail corridor in favor of a less efficient, less green, and more expensive alternative is a motivation for these people. If you want me to acknowledge that I am not 100% sure, I’ll be happy to (disclaimer: that goes for pretty much everything I say), but I think it’s a safe enough bet that I’ll stand by my comment. Especially when you have to consider the alternative is worse, and if they aren’t at least aware of that it is more reason not to take this seriously.

    I think the core substance of what I originally said – yes, there was some, and the Voice of Civilized Discourse missed it in his frenzied rush to belittle the awful heretic – has been lost: namely, this part of a wider proposal is…well, superbly dumb. I even said why. There are places where BRT isn’t dumb, but the North Shore Line isn’t one of them.

  • kevd

    Wow. Your reading comprehension is horrible.
    Go back and read my comment again. Where did I deny any of those things?
    I only addressed your absurd claim that you hadn’t attributed a motivation to the authors (you had).
    There’s one sentence you should focus on….

    “SI isn’t an area I know, and you could very well be right.”

  • Bolwerk

    I apologize that my reading comprehension wasn’t nimble enough to keep up with the shifting goal posts. Let me try to clear up all misconceptions: did I make up some nefarious (your word) motive and attribute it back to them? No.* Did I accept what they said at face value and accept it as attributable to them? Yes, sure, whatever, and who cares? Important point: did I mis-attribute anything? Not that I can see, and glad you agree.

    So, do you have something substantive to add, or did you just escalate into hairsplitting irrelevancies because you find the Guest/(ironically named)Trollwatch tack of leaving personal attacks behind like a turd on the floor not satisfactorily infantile enough? Because it would waste less time if you just did it their way.

    * I see no
    reason to think these people don’t mean well, and I never said they don’t or do.

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