Steady Progress in an Undersung Transit Mode

Event: Bus Rapid Transit in New York City
Location: Center for Architecture, 09.09.11
Speakers: Eric Beaton — Director of Transit Development, NYC Department of Transportation; Ted Orosz — Director of Long Range Bus Planning, NYC Transit
Moderator: Robert Eisenstat, AIA — Assistant Chief Architect, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Engineering Department, & co-chair, AIANY Transportation and Infrastructure Committee
Organizers: AIANY Transportation and Infrastructure Committee

Red, curb-aligned bus lane: East Fordham Road, The Bronx.

Courtesy of the NYC Department of Transportation’s Street Design Manual

New York buses sometimes get Rodney Dangerfieldish levels of respect, but performance data on the new Select Bus Service (SBS) indicate they are improving sharply. Though SBS has been called, among other things, a quick-fix stopgap, it’s grounded in transit-engineering studies dating to 2004 (three years before Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan’s appointment). By the time the Second Avenue Subway is complete, according to a tag team of officials, the costs of this system redesign will be fully amortized, offering riders sufficient benefits to earn SBS a permanent role in all five boroughs.

Improving NYC’s bus service involves a rare interagency collaboration. The Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) and the Department of Transportation (DOT), noting the gains achieved elsewhere with bus rapid transit (BRT) as an affordable, rapidly deployable alternative to light rail or subsurface systems, have collaborated to develop the local version of BRT: the SBS lines operating along Fordham Road in the Bronx and First and Second Avenues in Manhattan.

DOT’s Eric Beaton and MTA’s Ted Orosz gave detailed assessments of both the core problem and the results from interventions to date. Buses move only 54% of the time, spending the remainder of their routes stationary at pickup/discharge points or stoplights. Average bus speeds have long been getting slower — only 9.1 miles per hour in 1996, dropping to 8.1 mph in 2006 — and ridership plateaued in the 2000s, even as subway ridership increased. SBS addresses this situation by using fewer stops, spaced more like subway stations than conventional local bus stops, and through redesign of infrastructure and procedures.

Performance-enhancing features include fare prepayment via curbside machines; honor-system ticketing with spot inspections; multi-door, grade-level entry to reduce queueing and bottlenecks; dedicated painted lanes, with lane-blocking laws enforced by automatic cameras and $115-$150 fines; special station-design features and visual branding; and, in new upgrades, information systems providing real-time arrival data (to be piloted on 34th Street, after several false starts with proprietary systems) and Transit Signal Priority (TSP), coordinating stoplights to speed approaching buses through key locations (already in effect on the Fordham Road Bx12, after piloting on Staten Island’s Victory Boulevard). Running time for the Bx12 has dropped 20%, reports Orosz, with a 7% rise in ridership and an eye-opening 98% “satisfied” or “very satisfied” rating in rider surveys. Contrary to expectations about freeloaders exploiting the honor system, fare-evasion rates have actually dropped.

SBS meshes with the city’s Complete Streets efforts, along with bicycling facilities, street trees, water-retention infrastructure, sidewalk bus bulbs to ease pedestrian access, and other components of DoT’s Street Design Manual. Running times have dropped by 12 minutes since M15 SBS service appeared in October 2010 and should shorten further with the implementation of TSP. In the coming years, the complete SBS Phase I will reach 34th St. over 2011-12, Brooklyn’s Nostrand and Rogers Avenues in 2012, and Hylan Boulevard in Staten Island by 2013, with 18 more corridors planned for Phase II (chiefly in the outer boroughs) and service to LaGuardia Airport under study. Look for the special 60-foot articulated buses with blinking blue lights to join yellow taxis, food vendors, and phalanxes of tourists among familiar icons of NYC’s streetscape.