Bus Lanes Coming to 125th Street in West Harlem This Summer

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West of Lenox Avenue, there are no bus lanes on 125th Street. DOT plans to change that this summer. Photo: josepha/Flickr

Bus riders may not be stuck in crosstown traffic on 125th Street much longer. DOT plans to extend bus lanes from Lenox Avenue to Morningside Avenue this summer [PDF].

The news came last night at a meeting of the Community Board 9 transportation committee. “As far as CB 9 is concerned,” said board chair Rev. Georgette Morgan-Thomas, “I didn’t hear anything that made me think that we should not support the plan.”

Bus lanes on 125th have been held in check by years of political wrangling. But Council Member Mark Levine campaigned on moving forward with them, and his election in 2013 was a breakthrough for the project.

“I think we have great local support and a great need,” Levine said last night, adding that buses “crawl” once the bus lane disappears in West Harlem. “It’s just a great win for people in the community.”

On the section of 125th Street that already has camera-enforced bus lanes and off-board fare collection, the changes have worked wonders for bus riders. The M60 is now 32 to 34 percent faster between Lenox and Second Avenue. Local buses have also sped up between 7 and 20 percent in the bus lanes.

Meanwhile, local buses in West Harlem, which doesn’t yet have bus lanes, have actually slowed slightly between Lenox and Amsterdam Avenues, said Robert Thompson, the MTA’s manager of long-range bus service planning.

While they’ve sped up buses, the new bus lanes haven’t affected car traffic. GPS data from taxis show that eastbound driving trips on 125th are generally faster, while westbound trips have either slowed slightly or not seen any change, according to DOT.

In addition to extending the bus lanes west, DOT is proposing left turn restrictions from 125th Street to Frederick Douglass and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevards. Left turns are particularly dangerous for pedestrians, DOT said. Both 125th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard are Vision Zero priority corridors, meaning they have high pedestrian injury rates.

When it first proposed West Harlem bus lanes in 2013, DOT also planned left turn restrictions at St. Nicholas Avenue, but those were dropped in response to opposition from community board members and elected officials. “We didn’t think that one was as important from a safety perspective,” said DOT project manager Aaron Sugiura.

One bus improvement that’s still in the study phase for 125th Street is transit signal priority, which adds transponders to buses and traffic lights to give transit more green signals. DOT is looking to add the technology between Amsterdam and Second Avenues.

“That’s generally a little more challenging on crosstown streets, because you have the avenues that we prioritize for moving traffic,” Sugiura said. “It would apply to the M60 bus, at least initially. The eventual goal is that it would apply to all of the routes that are on 125th.”

There’s also another step in the public process for extending the bus lanes: presenting to Community Board 10, which covers the area between Fifth and St. Nicholas Avenues. The board is notoriously hostile to bus lanes, bike lanes, plazas, and traffic calming.

Before going to CB 9 last night, DOT and MTA presented the plan to community board leadership and elected officials from central and West Harlem yesterday morning. “Board 10 is still concerned,” Morgan-Thomas said. “There’s still things they’re concerned about.”

In February, CB 10 chair Henrietta Lyle told Streetsblog that the bus lanes have slowed her cab rides to the subway and disputed Census statistics showing that three-quarters of Harlem households are car-free.

Council Member Inez Dickens and State Senator Bill Perkins, whose districts overlap with CB 10 in central Harlem, have also criticized Select Bus Service. Their opposition stifled the project two years ago before it was revived.

The agencies will present the plan to the CB 10 transportation committee on April 14.

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