Sadik-Khan: NYC Will Try Out Bolder Bus Improvements, But Not Now

With the redesign of First and Second Avenues moving through the public review process, hundreds of regional transportation experts gathered at an NYU conference today to discuss the future of bus rapid transit in the New York region. Representatives from NYCDOT, the MTA, and the federal government all envisioned BRT as part of New York’s transit future and gave a few hints as to what might come next.

BRT_NYU2.jpgDOT commish Janette Sadik-Khan showed this slide while saying that her agency hopes to "play around with the right-of-way more" in future bus projects.

Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan admitted that New York has only taken incremental steps toward implementing a high-quality bus rapid transit system so far. "There are some people who think we should become Curitiba-on-the-Hudson overnight," she said, "but that takes more time, more money, and more right-of-way than we have right now."

At the same time, Sadik-Khan promised that the current Select Bus Service configurations aren’t the final word in BRT design for New York City. "In the future, we’re hoping to play around with the right-of-way more," she said, switching to a slide of a physically separated bus lane.

Regarding Select Bus Service along First and Second Avenues, Sadik-Khan argued that the site wasn’t appropriate for a move as bold as separated bus lanes. "Moving forward, we’re going to experiment," she said, "but we’re not going to experiment on 250 block faces on Manhattan’s East Side." Apparently, New York will have to wait for world-class BRT.

One of the conference panelists revealed a possible route for a future BRT project. William Wheeler, the director of special project development and planning for the MTA, announced that "at some point in the future, I really hope we can look at Queens Boulevard" for a BRT route.

Any future BRT routes in New York City will likely have backing from the feds. Therese McMillan, the deputy administrator at the Federal Transit Administration, closed her remarks by saying that she was there "to offer [the FTA’s] support in helping you with your next steps." FTA funding for Select Bus Service on Nostrand Avenue was announced earlier this month.

While New York has yet to commit to physically separated bus lanes, its rapid bus routes are more full-featured than those of other American transit systems, several of which had representatives speak at the conference. On the Metro Rapid service in Los Angeles, buses operate in mixed traffic and the stations don’t have pre-boarding fare payment. The Washington DC region is only giving buses dedicated space at the approach to intersections, not along entire routes.

On quantity, however, these cities have NYC beat. Even without dedicated lanes or pre-boarding fares, Los Angeles’s 27 rapid routes are moving 23 percent faster and drawing between 12 and 49 percent more riders than the routes they replaced. Washington has received funding for more than a dozen
so-called priority bus routes. New York, in contrast, is planning to roll out five rapid bus routes by 2012.

  • Queens Blvd seems like a bad candidate for BRT — it already has a subway under it. Is there any reason given for why they’d experiment there? Is it just that it’s already a wide right-of-way with multiple roadways in each direction?

  • Andrew


    I realize my opinion isn’t in the majority here, but she’s right. I understand the powerful symbolism of a divided bus lane – but if it’s only one lane, and the bus service is frequent, that symbolism comes with a pragmatic nightmare. Without any way to change lanes, a delay on one bus (a mechanical problem, a wheelchair boarding, an inquisitive tourist, or simply a random delay of a few minutes) traps the buses behind it. And they’re not just trapped there for a few minutes; they’re trapped there until the end of the line!

    Yes, the subway also has that disadvantage – but it has compensating advantages, most notably, complete grade separation. SBS with a single separated bus lane keeps most of the disadvantages of buses but throws out one of the major advantages: that one bus can freely pass another.

    Separation is appropriate on an alignment that can accommodate two bus lanes, not just one. If Sadik-Khan isn’t willing to give up two lanes for cars here, then this isn’t the place for separation. And while I certainly think 1st and 2nd Avenues could afford to give up two car lanes, and Sadik-Khan probably does as well, going that far might generate enough political opposition among motorists to kill the whole thing. Perhaps that’ll come under the Sadik-Khan administration in 2014.

  • Glenn

    The CB8 meeting for tomorrow was abruptly cancelled just a couple of hours ago. Maybe they are thinking of re-tooling the plan? Or maybe it’s just the snow.

  • J:Lai

    Andrew, you are incorrect.
    The separation is not a six foot high wall of concrete. If you take a look at the photo above, you will see a fairly standard example of the physical lane separation. In the event that there is an obstruction in the lane, it is not difficult for a bus to drive over the physical barrier to cross into another lane.
    The largest physical separations I have seen are equivalent to the height a of a typical sidewalk curb. You probably wouldn’t want to drive directly over it at high speed, but it certainly wouldn’t prevent a vehicle from crossing over the lane.

  • “Moving forward, we’re going to experiment,” she said, “but we’re not going to experiment on 250 block faces on Manhattan’s East Side.”

    Ironically, the photo they chose appears to be of Metrobus, in Mexico City. They took the most important boulevard in the city, Insurgentes, and plopped in BRT. The avenue crosses the entire city from north to south an is actually part of the transamerica highway, that goes from Alaska to the tip of Argentina.

    When mexico chose to experiment, they went in big. Separated lanes on the most important street, enclosed raised stations for level boarding and prepayment. It’s a shame north american cities aren’t willing to do the same.

  • Also Andrew, besides the buses being able to hop the curbs, you’ll note that there is an open space at every single intersection for cross traffic. Any blockage would be only a block long, unlike with any rail based system where the entire line is shut down. The bus simply merges to the general lanes at one intersection, and can return one block down, if they are unwilling to hop the separation bumps.

  • BicyclesOnly

    I think that material gains in speed under SBS would create the necessary political base for full BRT. But the potential gains on the East Side SBS corridor are eroded by the two mile gap on Second Avenue north of the bridge. I took the M15 down Second yesterday, and even allowing for the rain, it was painfully slow. Most of the time pedestrians passed it. Without a better plan for the Second Avenue construction zone, the round-trip time savings may not be significant enough to establish SBS as a success that caan be built on.

  • Singapore has full off-board payment on its bus system. It already had something like proof of payment on buses: people would pay at the front but present tickets to fare inspectors, and drivers wouldn’t enforce the fare. After it installed a smartcard system on its buses and subways, it installed readers at the stations, permitting off-board fare collection.

    The main draws of BRT on QB are that it acts as a reliever to the subway, and that it serves a slightly different and more direct route.

  • Shemp

    Comparing NYC Select Bus to LA rapid lines regarding quantity may be misdirection, since it sounds like the LA lines are basically what we call “limiteds” in NYC, and there are plenty of those.

  • Moser

    On Insurgentes, the buses generally don’t pull out of the lane. As you can see from the photo, there’s little to be gained and the barriers are more formidable than they appear in this shot. The design does require left-door buses (and a big boulevard with a median) that are not usable on regular curbside routes. That feature alone would take several years with of procurement and design work here and a much more solvent MTA.

  • ragger

    who says that on a one-way street you can’t have the busline on the right side and thus use normal busses….we have big boulevards all over the place, they are called avenues and are mostly one way 5-6 lanes

  • Andrew

    J:Lai and Jass:

    I’m not incorrect; we’re just talking about different things. You are presumably referring to unusual events – a few times a year – that might trap a bus for a long period of time. I’m referring to the small perturbations that happen literally all the time across the city on frequent bus routes. There is simply no chance that NYCT will allow its drivers to routinely (every single day, often multiple times per trip) take an articulated bus full of passengers over the curb while simultaneously merging into or out of the general traffic flow. And I doubt a bus could even make the sharp turns necessary to “slalom” between the bus lane and the general lanes over the short space of an intersection (if it could, it would probably occupy three or four lanes while making the turn – hardly a safe maneuver when merging into moving traffic).

    I’ll elaborate, since I don’t know if I’m being clear. The M15 Limited currently runs every 3-4 minutes during the morning rush (according to the schedule); that means that, if one bus somehow manages to fall a mere 1-2 minutes behind schedule, it will become overcrowded and will continue to fall further and further behind schedule. Meanwhile, the bus behind if will be lightly loaded and will tend to naturally creep ahead of schedule, since it isn’t spending much time at stops (and might even be skipping some stops). Pretty soon the second bus has the opportunity to pass the first, and giving the first one a bit of a break from the crowded bus stops.

    Without the opportunity to routinely pass, it becomes difficult to recover from small delays. Small delays will keep growing and growing, and following buses will be forced to sit back and wait. All the way down the line, the overcrowded bus is the first bus that waiting passengers (who will be waiting a long time!) will encounter; it’s the bus that everybody’s going to try to squeeze onto, delaying it (and everything behind it) even further.

    Think about what happens on the subway when there’s been a delay of a few minutes during rush hours. The first train is very, very, very overcrowded, and it continues to fall further and further behind schedule as more and more people try to cram on. Why copy that on a bus line?

    And I haven’t even mentioned yet (here) that M15 locals will be using the same bus lane! That’s right, this project does not entail banishing the locals to the general traffic lanes, reducing their speed and reliability and forcing people to wait for the bus on a little island in the middle of the street where they get splashed by every passing vehicle.


    I’m not sure what the benefit is of left-side boarding. The south end of the route will still have to have right-side boarding (Water Street is two-way), so the buses would need doors on both sides. That cuts down on seating capacity, increases costs to purchase and maintain the bus (two wheelchair lifts or ramps!), and introduces some new safety hazards.


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