BRT and New York City, Part 3: Ingredients of a Great BRT Corridor

itdp_34th_street_brt_proposal.jpgAn ITDP proposal for BRT on 34th Street. Rendering by Luc Nadal and Mark De Decker.

This is the third of four installments in our interview with ITDP director Walter Hook about Bus Rapid Transit in New York City. Be sure to catch the first and second parts if you haven’t yet. In this installment Hook discusses how BRT can succeed in New York, and the series will wrap up tomorrow with a look at potential configurations specifically for First and Second Avenue.

Streetsblog: What would you say are the defining characteristics of a real BRT-level system?

Walter Hook: To be called BRT, a line must be a package of physical and operational components (stations, vehicles, running ways, passenger information, services, fare collection, traffic signal priority and other Intelligent Transportation System applications) that form a permanently integrated, customer-friendly, high performance system with a unique identity. BRT operations are generally tightly controlled by a technologically advanced system to keep service regular and reliable. How the system achieves high quality service and high speeds will vary according to the physical and operational environment, which, of course, is highly variable in New York City.

A BRT system’s identity really comes down to all its elements being customer-friendly, attractive and planned as a system — vehicles, stations, dedicated lanes, branding and passenger information, all fitting together as an integrated whole reflecting the surrounding traffic and urban environment.

The most important thing is the stations. I think NYCDOT is open to designing some truly iconic stations, something that everyone would identify with NYC BRT, the way New York’s subway stations are identified the world over with their mosaics.

An ideal BRT station is physically enclosed, and the platforms are elevated, about 28-40 inches off the ground. A one meter platform on a sidewalk is a real intrusion, but in the middle of a big road it is nice to be up above the traffic protected by a meter-thick slab of concrete. A guarded, enclosed station with a turnstile would stop fare evasion and  also provide security and protection from weather. While manning stations does add operating costs, something the MTA is not going to be happy about in this fiscal climate, the reduction in fare evasion and increase in operating efficiency might justify the cost.

rea_vaya.jpgA yet-to-open BRT station in Johannesburg, part of the new Rea Vaya system slated to launch later this year. Photo: Aimee Gauthier/ITDP.

Secondly, they need a killer BRT vehicle, not just a bus. There are now manufacturers who make some very modern looking buses that look almost like futuristic light rail cars and are bright, spacious and comfortable inside.  A lot of this is just window dressing, but it makes a big psychological difference. If everything else works great but the bus looks like a normal bus, New Yorkers are going to say, “So what?”

Third, physical separation of the busway is also probably necessary in a city where the cops are as likely as anyone to double park in a standard bus lane.

Fourth, it’s not just about the buses. Great BRT systems generally also put in lots of great bike lanes, sidewalks, street furniture, landscaping, and other amenities implemented as part of the overall system. A BRT corridor should feel like a classic European boulevard, not like a highway.

pereira.jpgA crosswalk meets the BRT right-of-way in Pereira, Colombia. Photo: Duan Xiaomei.

SB: How would you attain that in New York, on a corridor like Fordham Road or First Avenue?

WH: A BRT system cannot be planned in the abstract. It has to be designed for the needs of a specific corridor, beginning with a specific service plan reflecting the likely market and operational environment. What works in Bogotá doesn’t work in Quito, and what works in both may not work in New York. New York does not have a lot of roads with high bus passenger volumes that easily lend themselves to the standard BRT configuration.  Narrow roads, lots of commercial activity with need for truck access and deliveries, lots of residential parking to worry about, all make things more difficult. Lots of intersections quite close together also make things harder. Some of Bogotá’s TransMilenio stations would be three blocks long in New York City.

One-way streets also present special design issues. New York has a mostly one-way street grid, and most of the best BRT systems have been designed mostly on two-way arterials. One-way streets simplify the intersections but make it awkward to put the BRT system in the central median. There are not a lot of wide two-way roads in New York with medians, which are generally the easiest to convert. Dealing with multiple services also adds complexity, but also creates opportunities. Most major roads in New York have both limited stop and local bus services, and sometimes interborough express services as well. A standard, single segregated lane BRT system cannot accommodate express buses because they get stuck behind the local service. So you need to deal with this. Area traffic control systems running the traffic lights may also add complexity (I don’t know because they are not so typical in developing countries).

With this configuration and a good service plan with a mixture of express and local services you could move as many passengers as the Second Avenue Subway at a fraction of the cost.

First and Second Avenue and Fordham Road have almost all of these issues to deal with, and so do many of the other roads in New York that could use BRT. The good news is that any of these problems can be solved with sufficient money and political will.

First and Second Avenue shouldn’t be thought of just in terms of how they would work as a BRT corridor, but rather in terms of what their role might be in a longer term BRT network. It is always better to go with a design that does not foreclose future options with regard to service changes. Maybe the MTA will be reluctant to consider changing services in the next few years, but the infrastructure might last for 30 years, when the situation may change.

Until recently, the MTA has been quite resistant to exploring significant route changes, and certainly they are not going to do anything that loses them more money in this financial environment. Historically the MTA has believed (and observed) that interborough express bus routes are money losers. Maybe in the future BRT buses might operate along the planned new Brooklyn waterfront, cross the Williamsburg Bridge, and then run up First Avenue to the Upper East Side. Another route might run from Williamsburg down to Wall Street via Allen Street. If in the future First and Second Avenue are going to need to service routes such as these, the stations and the bus lanes will need to be designed differently than if they are just servicing limited stop services going up and down the East Side. We shouldn’t build something that will foreclose these options in the future.

The best BRT systems tend to accommodate both limited stop, express and local bus services inside exclusive lanes. Curitiba, because it only had one lane in either direction, operated express buses in the mixed traffic lanes, and its BRT system was just for local stop services. For some trips it was often faster to take the express service in the mixed traffic lanes. Bogota’s main innovation was putting some very sophisticated combinations of new express and local services inside the exclusive BRT infrastructure. This requires sub-stops with passing lanes, and that requires two lanes per direction plus a third lane for the bus stop itself. With this configuration and a good service plan with a mixture of express and local services you could move as many passengers as the Second Avenue Subway at a fraction of the cost — if you could find the space and received the signal priority to do it.

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