BRT and New York City, Part 4: Getting It Right

brt_photosim.jpgWhat BRT might look like on First or Second Avenue. Photosim by Carly Clark/Livable Streets Initiative.

We conclude our discussion with ITDP director Walter Hook with a look at potential BRT configurations. In yesterday’s installment, Hook noted that the best BRT systems incorporate both local and express services within exclusive busways, which requires three lanes at station stops. Here he discusses how to make this work along First and Second Avenue in Manhattan.

Streetsblog: What are the options for configuring BRT on First and Second Avenue? If a three-lane configuration is not politically feasible, what else might we end up with?

Walter Hook: It would take a lot of political courage to take three lanes out of First
and Second Avenue exclusively for buses, but the current plan, de facto,
also takes three lanes at the station stops (see diagram after the jump). I don’t think anything has been finalized, so perhaps we will get a great design even on First and Second Avenue. It would take some political heavy lifting to turn them into New York’s first ‘real’ BRT corridor. The folks at NYCDOT and the MTA know what they are doing, they are pretty familiar with the Latin American BRT systems, and there is no exact precedent for First and Second Avenue, so it would take some real creativity to pull it off.

The initial thinking, I believe, has been to allow only limited stop services inside a bus lane designated primarily with paint. The busway road configuration would probably look something like Broadway south of Houston Street, with a new nice bus shelter built on what used to be several parking spaces (a bus bulb), but with pre-paid ticketing like on Fordham Road:


I don’t see any major obstacle to making this shelter an elevated, fully enclosed pre-paid boarding station with security personnel and a high standard of architectural design, and maybe they are considering this. This would add speed and style. They could then go with a quality, high floor, multi-door articulated BRT bus, the standard BRT vehicle built by Skania, Volvo, and Mercedes.

Parking would probably be retained where there is no bus stop, so vehicles wishing to park will still need to cross the bus lane. Since there can be no physical segregation if the parking remains, the lane will inevitably still face problems with double-parked taxis and police cars. Ideally they can also have enforcement cameras mounted on the bus, like in London, which would take care of taxi violators but appears to be illegal for enforcement of normal traffic, and won’t do anything about double-parked cops. Local bus services, which constitute nearly half of the bus passengers along First and Second Avenue, will probably continue to operate as before, in mixed traffic lanes, stopping at traditional shelters on the other side of the street, getting no benefit from the bus lane. This has two potentially adverse impacts. First, it means that the impact on mixed traffic will be worse. If you take out one lane for bus-only, and you leave the local buses in another lane, you effectively lose two lanes to buses anyway, and you lose the parking at the stations, so it also effectively consumes three lanes but it is not as visible. 

A slightly preferable option would be the following:


In this case, the express and the local buses would both benefit from the exclusivity of the busway, and from the time savings of pre-paid boarding stations. It would also remove the adverse impact of the local buses stopping in mixed traffic. The down side is that it requires two exclusive bus lanes, and the parking lane, and it requires the construction of a lot more pre-paid boarding stations, more personnel to man them, and more costs as a result.

There is a final possibility, which I think I prefer: 


In this case, the parking serves to protect the exclusivity of the busway, just like the new parking protected bike lanes on Grand Street and on Ninth Avenue. Left turns would be prohibited across the busway, (or right turns if the busway were run down the other side of the street) but vehicles wishing to turn left will just have to make three right turns, something not so difficult in a thick grid like in Manhattan. Alternatively, left turns could be allowed, but this would necessitate a separate signal phase.

The configuration above allows both express buses and local buses to use the exclusive busway. It would be able to handle very high volumes, probably enough to handle Second Avenue Subway-level volumes. It is quite similar to something we proposed in the Johannesburg Rea Vaya BRT program in the CBD. They ultimately put the two-lane busway and the four meter-wide station in the middle of a five-lane road, something more radical than what we proposed.

SB: Are there certain crossings that lend themselves to interborough BRT connections — the Manhattan Bridge or the Queens Midtown Tunnel, for instance? Could BRT be a way to bring transit services to underserved areas in the Bronx, eastern Queens, and southern Brooklyn that currently have poor transit access? 

WH: The Fordham Road corridor in the Bronx crosses into Northern Manhattan and connects to the subway, and there are interborough express buses using the Gowanus HOV lane and the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, obviously without intermediate stops. BRT could be used for interborough crossings when there is demand for a high speed interborough service and there is no subway service with available capacity. There is a lot of subway service over the Manhattan Bridge. There is a big problem getting in from Williamsburg. I think there are some good corridors in the outer boroughs. But we need to be careful at first that people don’t associate BRT with low demand, secondary corridors in poor neighborhoods in the outer boroughs. In the early phases, we need to get a BRT that proves what BRT can be, so before the general concept is accepted, we need something pretty high-profile that everyone will see, something the New York Times reporters and WNYC reporters will ride on their way to work. Something radical along the Brooklyn waterfront might be interesting.

SB: What are the risks in planning and implementing the system here? What could go wrong and what are some common pitfalls?

WH: BRT is easiest to put in where you already have a lot of bus traffic. If you put buses in a dedicated bus lane, and the bus frequency is high, like more than one per minute, it is a lot easier than putting a bus lane on a road where there is only one bus every 10 or 20 minutes. People get pretty upset looking at that empty bus lane, and they should. If you have low bus frequency, you might as well open the lane to high occupancy vehicles, or motorists willing to pay a toll, or taxis, or even bicyclists or motorcycles in some conditions. New York has a few pretty high bus frequency corridors where BRT would work, but it’s not going to work everywhere.

SB: Four years from now, how will we know whether New York got BRT right?

WH: You’ll know because it will be on the tourist map, and everybody will know about it and complain about it, because it will be as much a part of everyday life as the subway.

SB: What would New York have to do in 2009 to win the Sustainable Transport Award again?

WH: A world-class interborough BRT, full pedestrianization of Broadway at least between Times Square and Union Square (we did this Q&A before yesterday’s announcement — eds.), some model shared streets, new model parking rules, and a world-class bike sharing program. Hey, the bar is getting raised every year. Besides, there is no way we would give it to the same city two years in a row no matter what miracles they accomplished, so they should think big, and aim for 2011 or 2012. Bloomberg will probably have plenty of time, but there is a lot of competition out there. The world is changing fast.

  • Jason

    It occurred to me yesterday that the Pulaksi Skyway and the Holland Tunnel may make good bus facilities, like the Lincoln Tunnel lane, but I’m not too familiar with them.

    What are the issues with this idea?

    Related to BRT, I’m coming to the conclusion that true BRT is a bad idea. Whatever is saved in capital costs is lost to the greater operating costs of maintaining diesels and transmission and having more driver.

    On the other hand many “features” of BRT should become the standard for transit buses, not the exception.

  • anonymous

    Can we just build an elevated trolley system already?

  • anonymous

    Heck, just grab an amusement park ride out of Disneyworld and stick it on first avenue. Anyone who knows how to build a rollercoaster should know how to build a short-distance transit system.

  • Rhywun

    On the other hand many “features” of BRT should become the standard for transit buses, not the exception.

    Totally agree – really simple things like bus bulbs & pre-paid fares would do wonders on every line. And it’s shovel-ready, I would presume (Do you need an EIS to dump 20 feet of concrete in front of a bus stop…?)

  • J-Uptown

    “Do you need an EIS to dump 20 feet of concrete in front of a bus stop…?”

    In order to lay new concrete curbs, I think you often need to check/relocate utilities underneath. That way, if the utilities need to be replaced, the city doesn’t have to reconstruct the curb, which is quite expensive compared to simply replacing a portion of sidewalk or a portion of roadway. This can be fairly time consuming/expensive.

  • Xue

    Plus, don’t forget the D-word, “drainage”.

  • John

    I thought there was a new subway being built under 2nd Avenue? Why is BRT needed on this street?

  • zgori

    I take the m15 limited 60 blocks up first avenue every morning at rush hour. BRT would be great and all, but frankly there are a couple of simple, free or almost free things one could do to dramatically speed service up right now.

    One, train/encourage drivers to drive at the maximum safe speed. I estimate that about half of my rides are made longer by drivers purposely going slow in what I can only assume is an effort to “stay on schedule” or increase their distance from the bus in front of them. This is a losing battle anyway. At rush hour the buses are nearly continuous, they should all just be getting people moving as quickly as possible.

    Two, eliminate limited stops fewer than 10 blocks apart. Limited buses should be for people going at least 30 blocks. Everyone else belongs on a local. Fully two dozen people every morning get on at 14th and off at 23rd. Limited stops should be at Houston, 14, 42, 57, 72, 86, etc.

    Three, just give up on fare collection during rush hour. Everybody either has unlimited cards or a subway transfer anyway. Maybe people with unlimited or transfers could be permitted to skip the farebox, with enforcement provided via the same type of agents being used on the Bronx service. Agents would have a little handheld computer and you would need to provide your card if asked, which the agent could confirm had a valid transfer or unlimited fare on it.

    I don’t think it’s good to put limited and local service on opposite sides of the street. People like to be able to take the first available bus.

    One other free improvement, while we’re at it. Could we program the signs on the limited buses to say M15L so you don’t have to wait for it to scroll through all its messages in order to see if it’s a limited?

  • zgori

    One more thing: ban road/utility work between 7 and 10 am and 4 and 7 pm.

    (BTW, I don’t take the M15 down Second Ave in the evening — I walk to Lex and take the train. Second Ave is hopeless at rush hour.)

  • BRT is great, but I still don’t understand what NYC has against Light rail? While a big investment up front, it is much harder to take away once it is built. 1st and 2nd seem to be a great place for this type of line. It is much cheaper than digging more tunnels.

  • Has anyone noticed the first diagram requires doors on the left hand side of the bus?

    This is the sentence that bothers me most:

    “Since there can be no physical segregation if the parking remains, the lane will inevitably still face problems with double-parked taxis and police cars.”

    That would make it a total disaster and waste of money. And why is he calling it BRT, when the MTA has abandoned that term and replaced it with SBS?

  • John:

    “I thought there was a new subway being built under 2nd Avenue? Why is BRT needed on this street?”

    Perhaps they should build both directions of BRT along 1st Avenue with the island in the center of the street serving both directions. That would maintain one extra lane of traffic on Second Avenue. If you do that, you probably would need one lane of northbound traffic on Second Avenue maybe for taxis only.

    I also don’t like the idea of banning left turns entirely. Walter Hook states you could just as easily make three right turns instead. In Midtown that could take you 15 or more extra minutes and would greatly increase congestion. Left turns should be retained at least every half mile with clear signage where the next left turn is allowed.

  • It occurred to me yesterday that the Pulaksi Skyway and the Holland Tunnel may make good bus facilities, like the Lincoln Tunnel lane, but I’m not too familiar with them.

    What are the issues with this idea?

    Interesting idea! Turns out that Route 139 and the parallel Bergen Arches have been discussed as candidates for busways.

    But west of the Bergen Arches I don’t know what you could do. The Lincoln Tunnel XBL works fairly well because 495 is a six-lane highway. By contrast the only Holland Tunnel feeder routes that are six lanes are the two directions of Kennedy Boulevard; the Pulaski Skyway, the Newark Bay Extension, the Newark Turnpike and the Lincoln Highway are all four lanes.

    Installing two-way BRT on an existing four-lane car road takes a ton of political strength and guts. Does anyone know if it’s been done anywhere?

  • Donny

    “Heck, just grab an amusement park ride out of Disneyworld and stick it on first avenue. Anyone who knows how to build a rollercoaster should know how to build a short-distance transit system.”

    I suppose you are referencing the monorail and the PeopleMover; unfortunately they are still seen as rides when they both are ingenious transportation devices. The monorail even enters a hotel to discharge guests, while the PeopleMover (called “Tomorrowland Transit Authority) is simply a ride that runs on magnetic levitation and enters and exits buildings quite ingeniously.

    By the way, Tomorrowland is themed as “The future that never was” as envisioned by science fiction of the 20s and 30s. The fact that it contains a fantastic mass transit prototype is an irony that is very unfortunate.

  • caroline

    A BRT lane that is not physically separated is a Grade B design option for BRT service in NYC. In fact, quality BRT by definition hinges on the physical separation, consistent curbside travel and a street configuration that mandates a change in driver behavior rather than encourages it.

    One glaringly obvious omission from these designs is bicycle lanes! When we decide to do the amazing work of redesigning some of our widest and most unsustainable avenues, we can not miss the opportunity to build complete streets that accommodate all users, the ones traveling there now as well as the types of travel we hope for in the future. Bicycles and buses working together to get people moving faster, safer and with health and air quality in mind, will do enormous things for transport on what are now are busiest and most dangerous corridors.

  • scott

    I love the how we are starting to prioritize modes of transportation in cities. I think it is important to find ways of making the divisions temporary/ flexible so that way 10 years from now you can easily slide the bus lane dividers over to adjust for different vehicle sizes, types and volumes.

    Another related post at AMNP,

    interesting to see a past view of how to prioritize traffic and infrastructure.

  • Red


    I’ve heard from some people I know at Eng-Wong Taub, which is consulting on Select Bus, that the city projects transit demand on the 1st/2nd Ave. to be high enough that both the Second Avenue Subway and 1st/2nd BRT would be viable. Then, of course, there’s the real chance that most of the SAS won’t ever be built…

  • scott

    I think these diagrams are really great for those of us that are in related fields. As an architecture student I am very interested in public transportation and how it can enhance cities and communities as well has have a smaller negative environmental impact.

    What would make these diagrams dynamite is some dimensioning and any other useful data related to systems and other requirements to actually implement these things. Also data on when certain things are appropriate and their impact would be great. I know that there are transportation standards and recommendation books available but it would be great if streetsblog compiled its own database although it would be quite a lot of work!


  • anonymous

    Someone needs to talk to the people who run Disney World. People movers on tracks or guideways would take up a lot less space than gargantuan busses, move people more efficiently, and probably save money in the long run. In fact, a PRT solution might be very appropriate here. This BRT proposal already includes off-line stops; all that would be necessary to add is a computer system to route individual people movers to the next stop they’re needed at. A PRT system would have lower wait time and faster transit time for passengers, likely take up less space (perhaps only two lanes instead of three), and potentially be cost-competitive with BRT.

  • anonymous

    For a personal rapid transit (PRT) example see ULTra PRT. For group rapid transit (GRT), somewhere between a bus and a car in capacity, see CyberTran. Think streetcar but smarter.

  • Mattyoung

    Knowing nothing about NYC and being a radical technologist, my opinion is a grain of salt, so here it is.

    Start with the last version of the plan above. Make the BRT driverless, automated. Add two more cars to the normal articulated configuration. Make the BRT rubber wheeled trains run forward and backward to eliminate turn around. Add all the signal assist technology you need, including lowering crossing guards as needed.

    The vision technology exists today to detect safe unloading and loading of passengers.

    Then add automated freight to utilize the installed technology. Freight bulb outs can deliver a box of groceries across town for a buck making on-line shopping the least oil intensive activity in town.

    This is happening in the US Army today where 1/3 of army vehicles will be robotic. Private warehouses are adopting the technology.

    Second Avenue becomes a fully automated packet delivery system for goods and people. The cost of moving something across town becomes so low that a hundred thousand new jobs are created utilizing the low cost of transportation. Your economy will boom. You can add increasingly smart technology in stages to minimize disruptions. Silicon intelligence, rubber wheels, and asphalt.

  • Mattyoung’s post is fascinating and full of great ideas. However, I must note that anything that depends on “rubber wheels and asphalt” will doomed to obsolescence in the peak oil crisis. This is why we need to build out electrified rail — perhaps with some of the modifications Matt suggests.

  • Mattyoung

    Marc Walker is talking about less rolling resistance and narrower lanes for rail vs rubber. Steel wheels on steel rails meet with very little rolling resistance. They do not compress and absorb energy from the surface the way a tire does, and the rail itself is much smoother than any road, so trains have only about one-tenth the rolling resistance of trucks.

    But rolling resistance in total is only 5% of the losses. However lane width is a problem. In Castillon Spain they are trying automated steering on stretches of the BRT lanes so that the actual lane can be as much as a meter less in width, getting three lanes out of two.

    Here is the link:

    The Castillon trials expect to include freight in their semi-automated system. They also use automated docking to narrow the separation between bus and passenger, something which greatly aids automated freight.

    I also ran across a university study on the use of a single lane for two way BRT. The idea is to use left turn portions of the road to pull over and let an opposing bus pass. This method works but also requires semi-automation and signal assist.

    Basically, the formula is to use silicon intelligence all the way through to regain the advantages of rail. Rubber and wheel technology will likely advance to reduce rolling resistance, but ultimately better pavement, which is expensive, ca solve rolling resistance.

  • Mattyoung

    Well, silence never stopped me talking.

    On my blog the subject of PRT, which I say great, the BRT lanes allow cyber cabs and the like. But all vehicles will have to pass the New York driving test. So, New York allows all mixes of digitally communication semi and automated vehicles up the designated route. They follow communicative commands and follow the street marking.

    They all share camera systems, hence the object world they live in is constructed of all observesations, fellow vehicles and stationary management cameras. They talk WiFi, or something like it.

    When humans are riding we can give them a red button for emergency stop. There will be various automatic local stops, from central management to the vehicle itself.

    The vehicle will have to identify and protect pedestrians to pass the driving test. But the test will involve all aspects of communications and emergency and physical object avoidance.

    The system would remake the retail district along Second Ave. The low cost and synchronous traffic allows value added at more frequent places. The food business will be remade by the ability to order diner from anywhere along Second Ave. UPS, FedEx, wand competitors will manage highly efficient freight bulb-outs, possibly within large warehouses.

    Hundreds of thousand of jobs appear along and around Second Ave as even the smallest shop can take inventory and manage it with value. Bakeries, small tailor and clothing shops tailored to specific clients.

    Of course Second Ave would the the center of transportation science for the next 40 years, not a bad pay off. Much of what the world calls transportation will be defined by scientists and engineers along Second Ave.

  • Adriana

    On the subject of BRT, Johannesburg, which has gone with the Latin-American style of BRT (superb-station-BRT), is now on visible in Google Street View.

    Check out one of the Downtown Stations –,28.04194&panoid=luKWn-_DiQl47OI75aO_Sw&cbp=12,252.03,,0,1.84&ll=-26.204678,28.041935&spn=0,0.000582&z=21


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