Bus Lanes Worked Wonders on East 125th. Now What About the West Side?

On the section of 125th Street with new bus lanes, bus trips are now a third faster than before. Image: DOT/MTA [PDF]
On the section of 125th Street with new bus lanes, transit speeds increased by a third. Image: DOT/MTA [PDF]
Since debuting last year, Select Bus Service on 125th Street has dramatically improved transit speeds, especially on the section with dedicated bus lanes east of Lenox Avenue, according to NYC DOT and the MTA. The results strengthen the case for adding bus lanes west of Lenox, which DOT had scuttled in 2013 in response to resistance from local electeds. With more favorable politics prevailing today, the agency could revive bus lanes for West Harlem and greatly extend the impact of 125th Street SBS.

The improvement in bus service thanks to camera-enforced transit lanes, off-board fare collection, and other SBS features is impressive [PDF]. From end to end, the M60 bus from 110th Street to LaGuardia Airport now travels 11 to 14 percent faster than it did before. On 125th Street between Second and Lenox Avenues, the only part of 125th to receive dedicated bus lanes, the M60 is now 32 to 34 percent faster, an improvement that MTA bus planner Evan Bialostozky called “shocking, to even me.”

The M60 isn’t the only route to benefit from the new bus lanes: Local bus trips on the M100 and Bx15 are 7 to 20 percent faster between Second and Lenox.

“That’s helping a lot of people,” Bialostozky told the Community Board 9 transportation committee last Thursday. Crosstown buses on 125th Street serve more than more than 32,000 riders every day. Before the dedicated transit lanes debuted last year, these routes had been among the city’s slowest buses, crawling through traffic and around double-parked cars.

Even as the bus lanes have sped up trips for transit riders, they haven’t had much impact on general traffic speeds. According to DOT, eastbound taxi trips on 125th between Second and Lenox Avenues are generally faster, while westbound trips have either slowed slightly or not seen any change.

In addition to the trip time data, DOT will soon perform a survey of retailers along 125th Street and other Select Bus Service routes. Previous surveys have shown that streets with SBS improvements see an increase in retail sales above and beyond borough-wide averages.

Council Member Mark Levine, who represents West Harlem, has made completing the bus lanes a priority since winning office in 2013. “Now we have data, so at this point the benefits are just beyond dispute,” he said.

Levine added that 125th Street bus lanes have the backing of the Working Families Party and the Transport Workers Union Local 100. “We have more interest than ever in the political world,” he said. “We have a really good shot of winning this debate and achieving fairness on 125th Street.”

DOT has yet to come out with a plan to extend the bus lanes to West Harlem after the idea was torpedoed by elected officials and community boards in 2013. Tomorrow evening, the agency is scheduled to present data on the improvements to the Manhattan Community Board 10 transportation committee. Will board members support completing the bus lanes after seeing the stats?

Community Board 9 members want the bus lanes extended to West Harlem, but see resistance from their neighbors in central Harlem. “CB 10 is still not on board,” said CB 9 chair Rev. Georgiette Morgan-Thomas.

“I don’t think CB 10 should dictate what we need in CB 9,” said CB 9 member Walter South. “And we need dedicated lanes in CB 9.”

Maria Garcia, who chairs the CB 10 transportation committee, attended Thursday’s CB 9 meeting in preparation for her own committee meeting tomorrow. “I would like everyone here to attend that meeting,” she told the audience. It is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. at the fourth floor of 215 West 125th Street.

  • Bobberooni

    Wow, the bus gets us 1km between Lennox and 2nd Ave in only 12 minutes! Uhh, I can walk that fast.

  • Joe R.

    I’m wondering about that myself. I don’t much see the point or value of wasting resources on motorized transportation which averages walking speed or worse. Any bus route which can’t be sped up at least to the average speed of a slow cyclist (say 8 to 10 mph) via improvements should be ditched.

  • Think about this for a second and then tell me you really believe it’s a good idea.

  • Joe R.

    I have, and I’m not just thinking in terms of buses. I could say the same thing more so about private autos which also have atrocious average speeds in much of the city for much of day. Get rid of them as there’s not much point to driving when you can walk as fast. Do that more in order to speed buses up than anything else.

    I have a local bus which takes something like 20 minutes to go 3 miles to downtown Flushing. Add in the typical 15 to 20 minute wait times, and I can walk there as fast, which is what I always do. Too bad there’s no safe bike parking there or I’d be taking my bike instead of walking.

    I’m more making an argument to get dead serious about speeding up buses in NYC than to get rid of certain lines. SBS is good, but we need to do more, like bus lanes and full traffic signal priority so buses only stop when picking up or discharging passengers. Now if it turns out a bus is still slow even with those things, that’s OK because the delay is due to heavy passenger volumes, not artificial delays like motor traffic or red lights.

  • Bolwerk

    Sane distances between stops and dedicated lanes are probably all it takes to achieve that in most cases. Given how empty most routes are, even POP probably isn’t critical.

    At least based on off-peak daytime average speeds, it seems perfectly sensible.

  • Bobberooni

    Oh no, PLEASE, let’s not ditch this. Two reasons:

    1. The increased speed from snail’s pace to slow is a welcome relief for those of us taking the M60 to LGA.

    2. The bus lanes are great for biking in, as long as NYPD doesn’t decide to start ticketing bikers in it. OK, not as good as protected bike lanes. But it’s not that hard to avoid the buses.

    Instead of ditching the idea, let’s continue to improve it. Maybe some traffic light priority would be the next step.

  • D’BlahZero

    According to googlemaps it’s a 6 minute bus ride (leaving every 7 minutes) or a 17 minute walk. I’m suspicious of the 6 minute estimate even at 3:00. I’m sure I could walk it in about 10. My experience with the M34 SBS, is that the bus is now about the same as walking across town. It used to be faster to walk unless the bus got really lucky. Biking is still, by far, the fastest way to get across town. I can do a 20-25 minute bus ride in 7 minutes on a Citi Bike. All this being said, the bus isn’t just for the fast walker or would-be cyclist. If you actually take the bus, you quickly realize that there are a lot of people, for whom that distance from Lenox to 2nd Ave would be a long, uncomfortable distance. Add a few bags of groceries and/or some freezing rain and the population that benefits from an 18 minute ride reduced to 12 is even bigger.

  • It’s not really that okay when buses are slowed due to passenger loading. At that point, it’s time for PoP and buses with more doors.

  • Joe R.

    I AM really making more of an argument to improve it than to ditch it. NYC needs to examine each and every bus route, look at the primary sources of delay, then fix them. In some cases a dedicated bus lane with camera enforcement might get you the most improvement, in many others traffic signal priority.

    Bikes in bus lanes is sort of a legal gray area from what I understand. There’s a good argument for allowing bikes to use bus lanes, with the proviso that they get out of the way when a bus comes through.

  • cc

    According to Google Maps, it takes 15 minutes to walk that distance. IOW, from 4-7 PM, the bus is still only marginally faster than walking (12 min. vs 15 min.). So the bus is averaging around 4 MPH.

    That’s nothing to celebrate.

  • Ian Turner

    Bikes are allowed in bus lanes; there is an exception for vehicles powered by “muscular power”, i.e., bicycles and horses.

  • Henry

    The thing is, 125th is a very slow section of bus route for a variety of frequent, busy bus routes that traverse it (the M100, B15, and M60), all of which do see passengers from the other portions of the line traveling along 125th St. Improving the slowest section of a route is not only easier, it’s also generally much more effective, both in terms of cost and trip times.

    Making speed a criteria for whether or not we should have a bus route, and comparing it to cycling, implies that all bus passengers are able-bodied and can bike in all weather conditions, which isn’t really fair for those with lots of bags, those using it as part of a longer trip, the elderly, and the disabled.

  • Joe R.

    To be fair I am using overall average speed for the entire bus route as a criteria, not just speed over one section. Sections which are markedly faster than 8 to 10 mph could easily make up for slower sections like this.

    Improving the slowest section of a route is not only easier, it’s also generally much more effective, both in terms of cost and trip times.

    That’s really true across the board. I study railroads a lot. It turns out you get the most bang for the buck bringing sections of the Northeast Corrider which are now at 45 or 60 mph up to 80 or 90 or 100 mph than you do improving 125 mph sections to 135 mph or 150 mph. You only save 4.8 seconds per mile going from 125 mph to 150 mph, but you save 35 seconds per mile going from 45 mph to 80 mph. Moreover, 80 mph track is a lot cheaper then 150 mph track.

  • Bolwerk

    That effect is definitely more amplified with buses. Doubling average speeds from 7 to 14 mph roughly halves the number of buses you need to meet the same demand, all other things being equal. That much is probably sometimes feasible with so much as a bus lane and some saner distances between stops.

    Plus it attracts riders and cuts manpower.

  • ahwr

    Have any SBS implementations qualified as ‘saner distances between stops’ and a bus lane? None of them have doubled bus speeds.

  • Bolwerk

    I didn’t say it has to double speeds. I was just illustrating the effect. Though it probably caught a lot of traffic variance out of the trip, which means on some days speeds really might be improved even that much for some riders.

    I know SBS has shortcomings, but it seems to work pretty well.

  • Bolwerk

    s/caught/cut

  • wishy

    The long-term solution would be to extend the Second Avenue Line westward on 125th Street.

    Wait a minute, the Second Avenue Line hasn’t even reached 125th Street yet.

    Oh, what wishful thinking.

    I’m not a daily M-60 commuter but take it enough times from Queens to see that there are a lot of people who use it to get across town at 125th. Giving them crosstown subway service would absorb a lot of this demand.

    Oh, let’s be real.

    At the rate construction is going on for that line, it may be another thirty years before any crosstown subway service could become available.

  • Anon resident

    Lets not forget that Barbra Adler from the 125th BID answers to the real estate interests, and not the constituents.

  • Henry

    SBS stop spacing on the longer routes tends towards rapid-transit stop spacing; stops on the M15 and Bx12 are about a half mile apart, which is about as far apart as IND stations tend to be.

    Heck, the southern segment of the B44 probably has stop spacing that is much longer than that, and is probably *too* long.

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