Is It Time to Swap the 2nd Ave Subway for Bus Rapid Transit?

bus_multi_door.jpgIn today’s New York Times, Jim Dwyer poses a question that some city transit advocates have to this point discussed only in hushed tones: "Is it really such a great idea to be digging subway tunnels in Manhattan?"

Given the logistical difficulties and escalated costs of boring underground, Dwyer points to an alternative (link added).

Only now are city and authority officials beginning serious exploration of using the surface of the city, rather than its underside, for mass transit.

One idea is to dedicate portions of big streets and avenues to protected bus lanes, physically separated from other traffic. Riders would pay their fares before they boarded. An experiment to do that in the Bronx has made a big cut in travel time, said Joan Byron, director of the Sustainability and Environmental Justice Initiative at the Pratt Center for Community Development.

Such systems are called bus rapid transit, and the cost to build them is $1 million to $2 million per mile, Ms. Byron says, compared with $1 billion per mile for the Second Avenue subway.

“If you just took the cost overruns for one year on any of the megarail projects, that would pay for a handsome bus rapid transit network,” she said.

As Streetsblog readers know, the Pratt Center, headed by current Brooklyn City Council candidate Brad Lander, has advocated a BRT build-out for some time. After the jump, an excerpt from the Center’s testimony [PDF] before the Ravitch Commission.

We should consider putting the Second Avenue Subway on hold to implement and evaluate the success of the First/Second Avenue BRT route, which will be running the length of Manhattan by the end of next year, and could be simply connected to a Brooklyn route of the Williamsburg Bridge a year or two later. Let’s make this work — with a genuinely separated lane, off-board fare payment, bulbs and stations that make for rapid boarding, signal-light timing, and inter-borough connections — and see how much of the need we can satisfy at a fraction of the cost.

While it is, as the Pratt folks acknowledge, "anathema" to suggest abandoning projects like the Second Avenue subway, from a livable streets perspective a citywide BRT system as they envision it would be a true game-changer. BRT (or light rail for that matter) re-allocates street space away from private motor vehicles in favor of public transit and, with proper design, pedestrians and cyclists. While there’s no denying its merits as a people-mover, a Second Avenue subway essentially maintains the street-level status quo, and at a much higher cost.

With the city already on board with Select Bus
Service, and with the MTA cutting capital projects, struggling to maintain existing infrastructure, and pondering cuts in service, is it time to consider shifting capital resources toward a true BRT network?

Image: Las Vegas MAX system via Tri-State Transportation Campaign

  • Larry Littlefield

    Don’t let them get away with eliminating the SAS (while keeping the suburban megaprojects) and claiming that new paint on the street for buses means we’ll be better off. The propaganda war has begun.

  • momos

    …Or is it time to swap the 7 line extension for a light rail loop across pedestrianized 42 & 34th sts as proposed at

    The 2nd ave subway is an obviously critical system expansion project. It would handle greater capacity with more permanence than BRT.

    But the 7 line extension has been flawed from the start. It’s over budget, already down one station, will serve an unexpanded Javits Ctr and terminate at the West Side Railyards where the future is anything but certain.

    A $400 million light rail loop on the other hand would connect the key transit hubs of Penn Station, Port Auhtority, Times Sq and Grand Central, while boosting real estate values on 42nd by $1 billion according to studies done by Vision 42.

    I just don’t understand why this option isn’t seriously discussed. Why the obsessive fixation with only subway or BRT?

  • “Such systems are called bus rapid transit, and the cost to build them is $1 million to $2 million per mile, Ms. Byron says, compared with $1 billion per mile for the Second Avenue subway.”

    We have a BRT system proposed in Berkeley and nearby cities that would be 17 miles and cost $250 million. The cost quoted in this article would be nothing more than paint, as Larry says, and would not be effective. You need raised platforms, a curb separating the bus lanes from other lanes, and other infrastructure for BRT to be effective.

    There is a large group of local NIMBYs who oppose BRT on the grounds that it parallels BART (our equivalent of the subway). Transit planners always answer them by saying that BRT and BART appeal to two totally different markets, BRT to shorter trips and BART to longer trips.

    The same is true in New York. You need the 2nd Ave subway for longer trips, and you need BRT for shorter trips.

    The New York subway hasn’t been expanded since the 1930s. It is time to start expanding it again. As expensive as they are, new subway lines cost less then accommodating the same number of people with suburban freeways and suburban sprawl.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “You need raised platforms, a curb separating the bus lanes from other lanes, and other infrastructure for BRT to be effective.”

    You need grade separation, at least at major intersections. The TransMileno (or whatever it’s called) does not get stuck at lights and then impeded by box blockers and private vehicles making turns from the bus lane.

    Forget Second Avenue. Real BRT would mean closing the FDR to other traffic, and rebuilding it so buses would fit.

    Light rail also gets stuck at intersections, and faces conflict with turning vehicles. That’s why street railroads were put in tunnels in the CBD (see Boston, Philly, San Francisco).

  • JP

    What is the capacity of rail compared with the capacity of BRT in terms of riders per hour?

  • Max Rockatansky

    So well placed light rail would relieve subway congestion? Sounds good to me!

  • Jeffrey W. Baker

    The capacity of rail is way higher, of course. Even a huge articulated bus will have only 80 people per vehicle, in very uncomfortable circumstances. The average speed of buses on surface streets with parking and right turns would be ridiculously slow. A BRT system on 5-minute headways could maybe, in a pinch, serve 1000 boardings per hour. A good subway could easily serve ten times that. BRT can compete with light rail, but it can’t compete with a 10-car subway.

    I’m not against BRT, but it can’t really serve a superdense, superbusy corridor the way rail can.

  • Any NIMBY opposition would be quelled pretty quickly when people consider the decade of noise, dust and traffic problems caused by digging up 2nd Avenue. Agreed that it’s no true replacement for a rail tunnel, but it could be put in place in a matter of months — platforms and all — and at a cost low enough for the MTA to handle even in the current budget situation.

    As an aside, unfortunately the 2nd Avenue line has long been a kind of economic indicator: when the economy has been good enough for work to (re)commence, that’s about when the economic pendulum swings the other way and it gets put on hold again.

  • I really need to double check on this but I believe that Bogota’s TransMilenio system carries something like 35,000 people per hour per direction. That’s with raised platforms in the middle of two-way avenues, two lanes in each direction, pre-paid boarding, big wide doors, and buses that can carry around 150 passengers.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “That’s with raised platforms in the middle of two-way avenues”

    The picture provided looked like a highway to me. Did the system have to stop for cross traffic?

    BRT could be a good solution for metros without rail systems, where property is cheap enough to build a two-lane grade-separated highway just for buses, with pull-off lanes at “stations” to allow express service to continue unimpeded. That’s what it would take.

    The best opportunity for NYC to add N-S capacity without tunnels is watercraft on the rivers, but only with a fast way for transfers going east to west.

  • JP

    The article contends that “a century ago, only dirt and rocks were under the sidewalks.” I’m not sure if that is true. The transit museum talks about how workers had to move pipes and cables and whatnot during the subway construction boom 1910-1930.

    Yes, it is more expensive, but cities all over the world are finding ways to finance subways. What is the matter with the US? Why can’t we get it together?

  • Larry: The buses will be able to preempt traffic lights, which would reduce the problem of cross traffic.

    I don’t know about grade-separation. Grade separated intersections would make it harder for pedestrians to cross. Putting the whole thing underground would be very expensive – justified with light rail in some places.

    But we also need surface buses, and those buses should be in exclusive lanes. Bus riders don’t cause the congestion, and so they shouldn’t be stuck in the congestion.

  • CH

    BRT, particularly in its Americanized, watered-down form, will not match the efficiency and capacity of a subway. And to implement BRT correctly is far more expensive than some advocates realize or care to admit.

    Thankfully the Select Bus Service is off to a decent start and is being well-received. That means off-board fare collection is possible in NYC and should be explored further, along with some other amenities.

    But let’s not kid ourselves with what is really possible in NYC with surface buses. Much improvement, yes. Capacity to rival the subway? No.

  • I’m going to tackle this one on SAS tonight, but in a nutshell, I think they should ax the 7 line extension until the Hudson Yards plans are firmed up and keep the Second Ave. Subway. Yes, it’s expensive; yes, it’s inconvenient. But it will never be cheaper than it is today just like it was never going to be cheaper than it would have been in the 1930s.

    It’s undeniably true that the city needs more subway lines to shuttle service off of the overcrowded lines. While some of that added service would probably be put to better use in non-transit accessible areas in the outer boroughs, the SAS serves a valuable purpose.

    As for the argument about BRT, I think the issue here is enforcement. Until the city is willing to build physically separated BRT lanes and has the power – thanks, David Gantt – to enforce the bus-only lanes, BRT will never achieve its potential. Unlike in Bogota, where they were able to build BRT lanes in wide boulevards, New York’s avenues are relatively narrow, and enforcement will remain an issue until the city is willing to do something about it in what would come across as a heavy-handed way. Of course it would be better than a new subway, but it has to be just as fast and able to meet the passenger demands of a ten-car train that runs every 5-8 minutes.

  • This goes deeper than I think anyone has acknowledged. For the BRTistas, if they win in New York City and say that you don’t need subways or light rail, then they can tell everyone around the country that rail is not needed and we can do all of this with bus. Bus without trolley poles mind you. I’m really skeptical of all these BRT claims for this particular reason. There’s a comfort and operations cost issue that isn’t being addressed. “Just give em buses” I think that happened about 50 years ago and look what happened.

  • Adding BRT to NYC’s assortment of transit options is a worthwhile idea. However, abandoning the Second Avenue Subway for a BRT line represents a failure of imagination.

    I agree with Ben, if any project were to be put on hold for another option, it should be the 7 line, especially in light of Bloomberg’s disastrous plan to scrap the second cavern station in the plan.

    With the Bush administration openly advocating a $700 billion bailout for Wall Street (which is a horrible plan), I have a different idea. How about a modern WPA program for rebuilding our local mass transit, inter-city rail, clean energy and communications infrastructure?

    Tough times are the time when fiscal stimulus can carry the biggest wallop. Look around our city and you can see the lasting, tangible legacy of FDR’s job creation programs. $700 billion for Wall Street? Hell no! $700 billion for infrastructure spending? Now you’ve got my attention.

    Now is not the time to be cutting back or cutting corners on infrastructure spending. Unlike other forms of spending, infrastructure pays dividends in enhanced growth and higher standards of living for decades.

  • Forgot to add, the line about putting the 7 line on hold assumes that we would instead implement the Vision 42 proposal.

  • JK

    The restart of the Second Ave Subway was an act of faith in state and city government and the economy. We are faced with the dire dilemma, forecast some years back by Gene Russianoff, of the system expansion posed against the “core” capital program. That core program — new buses and subways, rebuilt and modernized tracks, signals and stations — is what keeps transit from breaking down from wear and tear. In the face of the Wall St tsunami and collapsing real estate market, it’s going to be near impossible to find huge amounts of new money for transit. At the moment it doesnt matter what the benefit/cost of a new Second Ave subway is over the next 50 years or century. That’s hypothetical. What’s real is that there is no money and the capital plan is “more hole than plan.” As to 42nd Street light rail, cool as it is, it’s not going to happen unless the real estate industry pays for it.

  • Nice to see Ben, Pan and Gary here putting in their $2; very good points.

    On the subject of buses without trolley poles, I was thinking about the other big bus story today, about the humungous fuel costs. When I first heard that I thought, “at least the subway runs on electric power.” Until you can find a cost-effective replacement for low-sulfur diesel, replacing a subway project with a BRT project means much higher operating costs.

  • We are faced with the dire dilemma, forecast some years back by Gene Russianoff, of the system expansion posed against the “core” capital program. That core program — new buses and subways, rebuilt and modernized tracks, signals and stations — is what keeps transit from breaking down from wear and tear.

    So really, it should be considered part of operating costs, right?

  • Transit users have a self-defeating way of reducing our expectations before someone else does it for us. We make ourselves choose between subways vs. BRT, or between MTA’s capital program vs. its operating expenses.

    Do drivers have to choose whether to do without either streets or highways? No, they feel both are integral parts of their transportation system.

    Maybe we should raise our expectations and think that way ourselves.

  • With the city already on board with Select Bus Service, and with the MTA cutting capital projects, struggling to maintain existing infrastructure, and pondering cuts in service, is it time to consider shifting capital resources toward a true BRT network?

    Yes, shift capital resources toward a true BRT network from boondoggles like “Moynihan West” as currently conceived, the #7 extension to the Javits Center, the Stewart Airport rail link and the Lower Manhattan JFK rail project. No, please do not shift resources away from the Second Avenue Subway.

  • JK: “it’s going to be near impossible to find huge amounts of new money for transit.”

    Are we not talking about a $700 billion – $1.2 TRILLION bailout of Wall Street? Will we not we not have spent as much on a pointless war in Iraq?

    It is not a lack of money, it is an abject failure of leadership and a failure of vision.

    We’re going to have a new President and a new congress in a couple of months. Let’s put our energies into thinking big and demanding that our leadership prioritize transit spending. It is all about priorities. I simply do not accept that we can’t afford to make these improvements.

    We can’t afford not to!

    Call your reps in Congress and tell them that $700 billion would be better spent on infrastructure than on Wall Street bailouts.

  • momos

    Scrap the 7 line extension and put in the Vision 42 proposal. Not only is it vastly cheaper, it’s a better proposal in its own right:

  • Larry Littlefield

    “We are faced with the dire dilemma, forecast some years back by Gene Russianoff.”

    If Russianoff knew that cutting the fare steeply relative to inflation (as he advocated for successfully) would mean cancelling expansion projects and allowing the system to deteriorate, why didn’t he say so at the time?

    I said so at the time.

  • The money os there for all of these programs including a much needed restoration of the Westway Project which was stolen as part of a propaganda bid to divert attention from the transit agancy’s questionable bookkeeping.

    Transfer the funds from the bloated Pentagon-Pentagram military budgets- that’s what transportation groups would call for if they were truly progressive!

  • Larry Littlefield

    I anyone aware of how the MTA might handle the added crush of riders on the Lex if (when?) East Side Access is completed and the Second Avenue Subway is not?

    One proposal that had a lot of support from the suburbs, during the consideration of alternatives, was eliminating #4 and $5 service in the Bronx and upper Manhattan, and having the express trains just shuttle suburbanites from Grand Central and Atlantic Terminal to Lower Manhattan, pushing city residents to other “under-utilized” lines.

    I’m not kidding.

  • Aaron

    I believe that today people see reality pretty clear, and no propaganda can deceive them. Bus Rapid Transit is useful in areas where rail transit is not economically justified. But Second Avenue is not such an area. Subway is the only realistic solution there.

  • i’d be interested in seeing BRT – Bicycle Rapid Transit. One idea is to dedicate portions of big streets and avenues to protected bike lanes, physically separated from other traffic. It’ll cost about $50,000 per mile, compared to $1,500,000 for Bus Rapid Transit.

  • gecko

    #29 Peter is right. Bicycle Rapid Transit is the way to go. Foldable recumbent tricycles such as those made by Trice should also be made available along with a few with electric assist provided by third party vendors like BionX; which will work for the entire population.

    Bus rapid transit is legacy technology which works under the old concept of moving a lot of people by packing them sardine-like into large vehicles.

    Most people can move themselves much better on bikes, trikes, (including ebikes and etrikes), Segways etc. Preventing cars, trucks, and buses from killing them is the first big step.

  • gecko

    #29 gecko (continued) Summer Streets showed that the densities can be achieved with minimal expense and something sorely lacking in subways and buses: lots of smiles!

    Just count the number of subway trains (which carry about 1000 people at capacity at rush hour) on the Lex line between Bowling Green and 125th Street and get the equivalent in bicycles and other personal vehicles and set aside safe places to use them; especially, on cycle tracks straight down the center of some of the broad avenues.

    Central Park is available immediately!

    Bloomberg and Sadik-Khan have already proven that doesn’t make sense to be inhibited about doing the right thing.

  • Peter Smith

    yes — it’s too hard. give up. that’s what i always say.

    in any case, it’s obvious that the 2nd Ave Subway is New York City’s Big Dig. question is — do u want to make the project work, and is it possible to turn around?

    the Big Dig was always a horrific idea — its value was never clear. the 2nd Ave Subway, on the other hand, has clear value — even among critics.

    so — is it possible to turn the project around? well, no. but can it eventually reach completion? maybe. it’s worth a shot.

    as others have pointed out, we should not be looking to give up at the first or even the twentieth sign of trouble. if we want a decent future for our kids and grandkids, then we have to stop being so selfish and start taking the long term view of things — 50 years out, 100 years out, etc.

    we can wait ten years. no big deal. we shouldn’t have to, and we should work to remedy the situation as much as possible, but 10 years is nothing, if it’s the right thing to do, and it is.

    is it possible to get accountability for such a large project? at this point, it’s obvious that answer is ‘probably not’. but we can still march on.

    so, what can be done to get some accountability for the project? a special watchdog group? got me.

    if u want to bail on the underground transit, then at least give new yorkers a decent way to travel — start promoting surface rail – light rail, trams, etc. streets are getting ripped up anyways, so why not? new york needs some trams.


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