Will de Blasio Make Good on His Pledge to Build Great Bus Rapid Transit?

During his campaign for mayor, Bill de Blasio called for the creation of a citywide, “world-class” Bus Rapid Transit network consisting of at least 20 routes. These new routes would provide a crucial link for communities beyond the reach of subways and speed trips that are poorly served by the city’s Manhattan-centric rail system.

Photo: ##https://www.flickr.com/photos/61135621@N03/10930906743/in/photolist-hDVKKn-hDVKQ2-hDVKJR-hDV4r7-hDVL2K-hDV4d1-hDUmsp-hDV4HE-hDVL3r-hDVKwX-f1oBUU-f1oBKY-byEi8c-bDQkXm-bDQm73-deteve-detdRd-7C9G1Q-dwvtyZ-dwvtG2-aZLEg6-8BGt6h-fsrcaf-bzRdWF-br2R68-ga79rs-ga72Uv-ga76tL-im8tYQ-9cWWhF-842X7k-dbhDNz-iAhMCg-dR7Fb5-f19hpM-f1oBSA-f1oBQf-f19hkg-f19haD-f19hkz-8EYxLP-detcU5-bSK3sg-bDQmdW-fC42nb-fBNERP-9KE38J-daxWUc-9UJNum-br2KDF-br2PpP##MTA/Flickr##
Photo: MTA/Flickr

Now that he is mayor, de Blasio will have to build out new routes much more rapidly than his predecessor if he is to keep his campaign promise.

While de Blasio has not offered a timetable for completing the rapid bus network, it took the Bloomberg administration approximately six years to build the city’s first six Select Bus Service routes.

“It’s possible to pick up the pace,” said Joan Byron of the Pratt Center for Community Development. “The constraint is staffing.”

The Department of Transportation will likely need more planners and community liaisons in order to work on multiple projects at the same time.

“If you have one team working on planning for SBS, you can get one route done per year. If you have two teams you can get two routes done, and so on,” says Byron.

One key challenge for de Blasio and Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg will be to accelerate the public engagement process while following through on his campaign language about “extending [outreach] beyond the community board.” As public advocate, de Blasio criticized Bloomberg and transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan for moving too fast on major street redesigns. Now that he’s mayor, he will likely have to contend with the opposition that has met previous SBS projects.

It’s not impossible to imagine that future Select Bus Service routes will encounter less friction than before. SBS is now up and running successfully in several neighborhoods, and the concept is no longer new and alien to residents and community boards. There is a clear record of success.

Byron points out that the planning team at the DOT has, by now, “developed a pretty robust community outreach model.” Complaints will still surely arise, but now that DOT has gone through the process several times, experience may leave the agency better equipped to work with local community boards and elected officials.

But past experience tells us that opposition and delays are part of the game, especially if de Blasio is to incorporate more ambitious design features to speed buses by turning traffic lanes into bus-only lanes.

Bloomberg ran up against this type of opposition, as in the case of plans for bus lanes across the width of 125th Street or the ambitious plans for a 34th Street bus transitway. In both instances the Bloomberg administration scaled back its plans.

Even if the de Blasio administration can speed the pace of its planning process, it will have to find the money for construction. Select Bus Service is relatively inexpensive, but implementation still needs to be budgeted for. So far costs have ranged from $6 million for the Hylan Boulevard line in Staten Island to about $30 million for the Nostrand Avenue SBS route in Brooklyn.

De Blasio will need to put up more city funds and push the MTA to devote money from its capital plan for SBS construction. On previous SBS routes the MTA covered the cost of new buses and the fare collection kiosks. In the future, de Blasio may want to push the MTA to cover more of the construction costs through its capital program. The mayor controls a vote on the MTA’s Capital Plan Review Board and could veto any funding plan that does not include funds for rapid bus transit.

Up to now federal dollars have funded the bulk of SBS construction, but there may not be enough federal dollars for a complete build out of the system. Federal transit funds are awarded on a competitive basis, and Congress only sets aside a certain amount for projects like bus rapid transit every year. If the city’s annual request goes up, there is no guarantee that the federal government will meet it.

To build out a complete “world-class” bus rapid transit network by the end of a hypothetical second term, de Blasio will have to devote considerable time and resources to the task. The question remains whether he’ll be more willing than Bloomberg to push for designs that will speed buses even in the face of opposition.

  • Andres Dee

    We don’t need a “world-class” BRT network, just a “good-enough” one. Wanna get some momentum? Make all Manhattan crosstown lines SBS. Pre-board fare collection and that’s it. No dedicated lanes, or bulb-outs, etc. Minimal planning and input. Explain to owners of buildings facing the bus stops that they will no longer need to bear buses idling in front for 10 minutes as 100 people board buses single-file.

  • com63

    couldn’t agree more. They should try to shift busses to off board fare collection as much as possible.

  • John Petro

    Costs of off-board fare payment is covered by the MTA.

  • Reader

    There’s another way the de Blasio administration can make the case for BRT and that’s by folding it ever so slightly into the overall goal of Vision Zero. A street with a dedicated bus lane is probably much safer and more predictable for pedestrians, drivers, and cyclists than one where cars weave in and out of a painted lane.

  • Joe R.

    There needs to be dedicated bus lanes because of the traffic levels in Manhattan. There also needs to be traffic light preemption. Once a bus is done boarding there should be no impediments. The driver should be able to immediately floor it and keep it floored until he/she has to start slowing for the next stop. Or put another way, a bus driver on a BRT route should be operating the same way as a train operator on a rapid transit route does. In both cases, vehicle acceleration/deceleration characteristics and dwell times dictate the schedule, not congestion.

  • J

    Why not raise the bar for basic bus service AND create SBS routes with more improvements on higher demand routes, AND implement full BRT on the highest-demand routes? We can do it, it just require political willpower and leadership.

    -Off-board fare collection and all-door boarding on all bus routes
    -SBS on all routes with enough demand to justify limited service
    -Full BRT (not just SBS) on critical, high-demand routes, where subways have been proposed. This includes transit stations, median aligned bus lanes, and subway-like stop spacing.

  • Andres Dee

    With those requirements, you’ll have your BRT at the end of DeBlasio’s second term. That’s Dante DeBlasio.

  • Joe R.

    Why? Traffic light preemption is relatively easy technologically. That would give the biggest bang for the buck in terms of reducing travel time. As for dedicated bus lanes, those admittedly are a harder sell if it means lost parking spaces but remember the majority don’t use cars. Car users are the most vocal group every time the subject of eliminating parking spaces is broached but in the end votes are what matters. Pushing dedicated bus lanes will gain someone in public office more votes than they’ll lose.

    Or perhaps NYC should do the most sensible thing and just build more subway routes. There are more than enough riders to support massive systemwide expansion. As for funding, just let NYC keep the tax money it sends up to Albany and down to Washington. Or put in layman’s terms, NYC really should be a city-state like Singapore or Hong Kong, not part of the US. We’re getting royally screwed in terms of the money we send out versus what we get back in spending.

  • John Petro

    It will also require several hundred million dollars

  • J

    Well, we are spending $3.8 BILLION for the WTC transit hub, $1.145 BILLION for the 1 mile 7 train extension, $1.4 BILLION on the Fulton transit center, $4.4 BILLION on the 3 mile 2nd Ave subway.

    That’s $11.0 BILLION, and for that cost, we’ll get substantially improved transit in a very small section of the city (some specific parts of Manhattan). For around $0.3 BILLION we could get dramatically improved transit ACROSS THE ENTIRE CITY. Surely, cost is not the main obstacle to better bus service in NYC.

  • Joe R.

    That $11 billion could get you about 55 route miles of subways going by the world average cost of $200 million per mile. The problem isn’t that we don’t have the money, but rather than it’s not spent efficiently. The #7 extension and 2nd Avenue stubway combined should have come in well under $1 billion. And the $5.2 billion spent on glorified train stations was a complete waste. A station should be clean and functional, period, not a monument. In the final analysis money spent on fancy train stations means less money for new routes.

  • Larry Littlefield

    To the majority of Generation Greed, nothing says “serf” like a bus. Except for those who take highly subsidized express buses, for whom nothing says “serf” like the subway.

    I’m not surprised, in fact, by the high level of resistance in Afro-American communities dominated by old time political types who fought the battles of the 1960s and 1970s. “They want to put us back on buses! My car says I’ve made it too.”

    The MTA is not a font of money, and the bus system is not a center of attention. If you want better buses the city should take over the bus system, even though that would cost money, as I argued here.

    http://larrylittlefield.wordpress.com/2014/02/26/the-city-of-new-york-should-take-over-its-bus-and-paratransit-system/

    As part of a painful plan to shift capital funding, aside from entirely new infrastructure, to a pay-as-you-go basis even as we also have to pay Generation Greed’s debts.

  • Andres Dee

    Dedicated bus lanes require planning and negotiation. When implemented, they are only needed when the streets are crowded and only effective if actually kept clear. I ride the and the M34 and M15SBS and find that the buses are typically out of the bus lane anyway. Look how much effort was wasted on trying to create a transitway.

    Signal pre-emption is cool, but I can see it adding value when traffic is light, bus traffic is infrequent and there are few people crossing streets on foot. With so many buses in Manhattan and so many pedestrians, I can see bus drivers just pre-empting each other and wreaking havoc.

    Yes, building subways would be great, but the city has a poor record doing that in the past 60 years. That’s unlikely to change. I’m proposing that the city build on what it seems to do OK; place ticket machines on the 24-30 or so stops on each crosstown route.

  • Kevin Love

    Nothing says “lethal cancer poison attack” like a car.

  • Kevin Love

    There are many reasons why building subways in New York is relatively expensive. Those reasons range from accommodating rather tall buildings with deep basements to building below sea level right next to an ocean.

    The upgrades to SBS that are proposed here are quite sensible and cheap. Proper BRT that can eventually be upgraded to LRT has the potential to greatly improve life for the people of New York.

  • Bolwerk

    Sheesh, I thought you said nobody is hostile to rail! But I still don’t see what difference changing the operator makes. It has got to be the #1 cop-out with transit armchair wonkery (which, I admit to being guilty of myself). Oh, if the MNRR just ran LIRR! Or, if the PA just divested itself of PATH! In reality, it just moves the same people with the same expectations, same culture, and probably the same contract to a new agency, probably without any change in remuneration at the old one.

    It’s not about money either. It’s about hostility toward change. The key step toward a better bus system is probably marginally free, maybe even has negative costs. We have the equipment, we have the lanes, and we have the drivers. The political problem is it takes admitting (1) that cars can’t have all the space they hog, (2) there are bus routes that probably have seen their day such that they need to be altered or abolished, and (3) people might have to actually do different work than they’re doing now.

  • Bolwerk

    Signal prioritization need not be that dumb. The system can prioritize, sort of like how a modern railroad signaling system can prioritize. The M15 buses being forced from their lanes is entirely a lazy policing problem, not a conceptual problem with SBS. And the lanes are not trivial even when traffic is light; they mean transit always has dedicated space.

    But there is no getting around the need for subway construction. I don’t understand why BRT advocates set themselves against subways – actually, I don’t understand why they are “BRT advocates” and not “transit advocates” – but BRT is every bit as affected by the same cost problems. Some cities build subways in the time it took New York to get the B44 going. The only concrete cost “advantage” BRT has over rail is spending less now in exchange for more later. There may be design reasons to prefer BRT, but the cost arguments are usually flimsy.

  • Bolwerk

    I think the major reasons for high subway costs probably range from inability to negotiate with contractors, to a limited pool of (corrupt or at least incestuous) contractors, to a refusal to displease anyone who drives. Cut and cover is not even that expensive in other world cities, but is ruled out here. Of course, boring is way more expensive here to.

    But for surface transit, it’s probably cheaper to skip straight to the LRT any time boardings beat a few thousand per route-km, especially if rider turnover is high.

  • Bolwerk

    This is probably a small nitpick as costs go – though big for punctuality, considering drivers often wait for people buying their fares – but doctrinaire adherence to off-board fares is needlessly expensive, pointless, and kinda authoritarian (for the TA, I mean!). Put TVMs on the vehicles, at least for single-ride trips, and the costs of TVM maintenance can drop drastically. On-board is fine. It’s just that the driver who shouldn’t be doing collections; he should be focusing on driving.

    As for where subways have been proposed, you don’t seriously think the M15 SBS should go away when SAS is a full length subway line, do you? This can’t be reiterated enough: BRT doesn’t replace subways.

  • lop

    What construction goes into BRT that wouldn’t have to be done for LRT as well? Isn’t using existing asphalt much cheaper that laying down rails?

  • Bolwerk

    Capital-wise BRT is pretty cheap upfront as long as below-the-tires capital investments can be almost entirely avoided. The only apital disadvantage it has is probably long term. A fleet of buses needs to turn over entirely in about 15 years, whereas a fleet of rail vehicles can last 30 or 40.

    But labor expenses are much higher for buses when they pull a lot of people.

  • Andrew

    I completely agree that the current farebox-based payment approach is too slow.

    But don’t forget that the MetroCard is on its way out. A new fare payment system will render any investment in off-board equipment obsolete and will open up new options, such as card readers at all doors of every bus.

    In that light, I don’t think it’s worthwhile to make sweeping systemwide changes just now. Focus on the lines that would best benefit from the various SBS treatments, and at the same time make sure that the new fare system is flexible enough to permit the sort of payment approach that makes sense for the future.

    (And, please, don’t make people stand on a narrow traffic island in the middle of the street to wait for the bus.)

  • Bolwerk

    This is not so much an SBS/BRT treatment, but would it kill them to start changing the attitude about collections? That they actually stop buses, lock the doors, and check everyone is pretty crazy and probably makes the 95% of people who follow the rules resentful.

    You may be right about MC readers being a poor investment, but they’re needed for SBS. I’d still rather see them on every bus than at every minor stop. The cost to replace them when the next fare media comes out is probably the same.

  • Andrew

    Have you actually seen them lock the doors? I’ve never seen that.

    I’ve encountered two modes of inspection. I’ve seen them hold the bus at the stop with the doors open, with one inspector at each door (to check tickets of people getting off and on) while two (or three?) inspectors make the rounds on the bus itself, and I’ve seen them carry out the inspection while the bus is moving from one stop to the next. Obviously, I prefer the second approach, but even the first is pretty quick.

    It takes too long to dip a MetroCard and get a receipt to move the existing SBS-style machines onto the bus, and, for that matter, they’re way too big to fit on a bus. Moving fare collection back onto the buses while still achieving the SBS time savings really can’t happen until the MetroCard system is history.

  • Bolwerk

    Well, what I saw was they stopped the bus in between stops and checked people without opening doors. I assumed the long stop with the doors not opening was related. But to be fair, that was the only check I ever encountered despite somewhat frequent M15 use, so maybe that was either early procedure or I’m jumping to conclusions….

    In some European cities, people do full cash payment on trams at a TVM, which takes longer than a dip for a receipt. I haven’t seen it on buses, but buses aren’t *that* much smaller.

  • Andrew

    They stopped the bus between stops? That’s wacky – I’ve never seen it done that way.

    Most systems have small fare validation machines. All we have here are repurposed MetroCard Vending Machines, which are enormous and slow, and I can’t blame the MTA for not being willing to pay Cubic for a custom validation device that will be retired in a few years.

  • TomD

    While I like (and want to keep) off-board fare collection, I think there should also be a way to pay the fare on-board SBS buses. There are too many times I’ve missed a bus because I had time to board the bus, but not enough time to buy a ticket, too. Several times I’ve run past 3 open doors to reach the TVM only to find the bus pulling away after I have my receipt in hand.

    On the other hand, I’ve been on many SBS buses where somebody boards with a MetroCard or coins and has to be directed to the TVM while everybody on the bus waits. (Why is it that I’ve never encountered drivers willing to wait when I need to buy a ticket?)

    The solution is putting a TVM onboard SBS buses. These on-board TVMs should charge a small penalty–perhaps 25¢ or $1; I would gladly pay $1 to avoid waiting 10 minutes for the next bus. Onboard TVMs would also be used (without penalty) whenever the bus detours (like for street fairs) and curbside TVMs aren’t available.

    Another suggestion would be to no longer require weekly or monthly pass holders to use the TVMs at all. Fare inspectors would carry MetroCard readers to validate MetroCard passes. This would speed service for passholders and reduce the amount of paper used.

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