BRT Moving Ahead but City Pushes Back the Timeline a Bit

Dept. of Transportation Comissioner Janette Sadik-Khan tells NY1 Transit reporter Bobby Cuza that New York City and the MTA still plan to implement a Bus Rapid Transit program, with or without Albany’s approval of congestion pricing.

In an e-mail to Streetsblog, Cuza also adds:

They’re clearly going back and giving the program some more thought. She said they’re now aiming to have "one or two" routes up and running by next spring, instead of by this fall, which had been the timeline former DOT Commissioner Iris Weinshall announced last year, but she was very short on details. Sadik-Khan said the first one or two routes will definitely incorporate signal prioritization and off-board fare collection, but she couldn’t tell me exactly how off-board fare collection might work in a MetroCard world which, of course, is what we’ve got for the foreseeable future. I also asked her about physically separated bus lanes and she said that would not likely be part of the initial phase.

  • Red

    Sounds good, since some of those BRT routes clearly needed more thought. It seems like this is becoming similar to Los Angeles’ Metro Rapid BRT-lite, which is fine. I’ve always thought of that program as proof that modest improvements can pay off majorly in terms of ridership.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    I hate to say “I told you so,” but … okay I’ll be honest, I love to say “I told you so.” Bwah-hah-hah! Too bad it’s about something that actually matters.

    “BRT” is bullshit. It’s a bait-and-switch tactic aimed at people who’d otherwise support light rail (aka trolleys). Transit activists get sold on the idea that “it’s just like a train, but on rubber wheels, like in the Paris Metro!” So everyone thinks grade-separated, dedicated-right-of-way, multiple-units, etc. What actually gets delivered, several years later, is a bus with a fancy paint job and some glossy brochures.

    I’m all for bus improvements, but I really don’t think that calling them “BRT” is going to create any meaningful improvements long-term. The PlaNYC documents recommended signal priority for a number of routes throughout the city, not just the Chosen Five. Why roll it out on only five routes, when we could do it on twenty?

    Nobody sells traffic calming by saying, “It’s just like a greenway, but it’s got cars driving down the middle of it!” Just as we have a traffic calming toolbox, let’s have a bus improvement toolbox. Off-board fare collection, signal prioritization, dedicated lanes, separated lanes, enforcement cameras, next bus information. Those things can be sold separately. NYC has a large bus-riding population, many of whom are quite wealthy and view the bus as a clean alternative to the subway. This isn’t Los Angeles where bus improvements need to be packaged as a brand to overcome negative associations and get people to ride.

    I’m sure Sadik-Khan and Sander are doing all they can to support bus improvements, and will continue to. Let’s give them encouragement and support, but when we think big, let’s think more subways, commuter rail improvements, and light rail. BRT is a mirage. I don’t want to see NYC activists get suckered by it.

    The folks at Light Rail Now have a report on the L.A. Orange Line, as well as a number of other useful documents on the BRT bait-and-switch.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    I want to clarify and expand what I said about the branding. In L.A. and other car-dominated cities, the majority of people see buses as being transportation for poor and mentally disabled people, and will avoid them because of the associated stigma. As a result, sometimes bus improvements go unused, resulting in more perceived failures. In those places, it’s appropriate to put a lot of effort into distinguishing the “quality buses” from the trains, in order to lure drivers from their cars.

    New York is not that kind of place. People of all races, incomes and ability levels take buses, and most buses are overcrowded. Because of this, if you make any improvements in bus capacity or performance, people will flock to the buses. All you need to do to sell it is to get the word out, and any branding is a waste of time and money. It’s a non-New York solution to a problem that doesn’t exist in New York.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Correction: in the first paragraph of my post #3, I meant to say “distinguishing the ‘quality buses’ from the stigmatized buses,” not distinguishing them from the train.

  • Red

    BRT is… a bait-and-switch tactic… In [car-dominated] places, it’s appropriate to put a lot of effort into distinguishing the “quality buses” from the trains, in order to lure drivers from their cars.

    Angus, BRT is more than a bait-and-switch tactic, though I have seen a lot of United States BRT presentations that begin with international examples of BRT and conclude with “well, we’re not going to be so ambitious here.”

    The typical claim that BRT is “LRT but cheaper” is problematic. Except perhaps on guided busway, a bus ride isn’t ever going to feel like a train. Where real BRT systems (with dedicated busways) have an advantage over LRT is not the ride but the ability to obviate many transfers and thus connect multiple origin-destination trip pairs more effectively. Thus in many lower-density places BRT is preferable to LRT and would be even if there were no cost savings.

    I do think it’s important to keep clear distinctions between “quality bus” and “BRT,” but at the high end BRT is such a different animal from the traditional city and suburban bus that it should be recognized as such for purposes of clarity (in addition to the need for branding which you cite).

    The reason that we distinguish “commuter rail,” “metro,” and “light rail” from each other is not solely because they use different technology and right-of-way and because they often have cost differences to implement. It’s because they represent different philosophies in terms of their intended use or their prioritization over traffic. I suppose one could scrap these distinctions and talk about a “rail toolbox” instead, but I wouldn’t. Similarly, I wouldn’t get rid of the “BRT” concept.

  • Red

    I meant to conclude:

    Though that’s not what we’re getting in New York.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Red, I agree with you that BRT isn’t always a bait-and-switch tactic, and I certainly don’t think that Aaron, or the folks at Transportation Alternatives, or Commissioner Sadik-Khan, are using it that way.

    I think what makes high-end BRT different from “quality buses” is the separated busway (ideally, grade-separated). I’ve ridden the Pittsburgh West Busway, on a former rail right-of-way, and its grade separation makes it feel more like a train. Why not just call that “a busway”?


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