dissent of the week: praise for new york city’s bus rapid transit

SBS_articulated_busIn my recent post on incomplete Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) I made a one-sentence reference to New York City's BRT services, called Select Bus Service:  " New York's supposed BRT is so compromised that many refused to call it BRT anymore."  The comment was based not just on the linked article but also on what I hear endlessly from transit advocates and professionals there, plus one experience riding the First/Second Avenue line, which has a lane on the Avenues but is in mixed traffic all the way across Lower Manhattan.

A transit professional fired back: 

Look at the numbers before you criticize NYCT!  I'd call a 15% increase in speeds on Fordham Road and First/Second Avenue pretty significant.  As I recall from talking to their schedulers, it was somewhat greater than expected on Fordham Road and somewhat less in Manhattan.  But how can you ignore these numbers in an article talking about a one-minute difference?  And to pull off the first implementation of off-board fare collection in the Bronx (I grew up about a mile away from Fordham Road) is not something to be taken for granted!  NYCT and NYCDOT did the footwork to address concerns of businesses in the Bronx. Yes, there are enforcement problems – this is New York City, after all.  And of course it's not ideal BRT in terms of separated lanes and high-level platforms (how well do these blend into an urban environment?  Don't join the cheap-shot artists!!

Fifteen percent is a good start, no question.  Advocates often hate percentage increases because they are used to validate progress from dreadful to just very bad, but for the professionals who fought this fight in the context of massive forces demanding the status quo, the percentage increase is the only way to give any validity to what they've achieved, and they deserve praise for that achievement.

Still, there is another equally valid frame, which is to ask "How fast does BRT need to be to be achieving something sufficiently transformative — something on the scale of the actual mode share and sustainability targets of a city like New York?"  And there's often a huge disconnect between the two.

This is why, in my own work, I routinely cite those targets and encourage people to think about what it would mean to actually aim that high.  I do this not to criticize those who fought the fight with inadequate support and ended up with something that's much less though still a real improvement.  All praise on those people!  Rather, the targets are important because they can form the basis for a more widely-endorsed argument for why the status quo has to be defeated — an argument that should be made at higher levels, in a form that transit planners can cite, so that transit planners don't feel like they're fighting alone in the cold.

For example, in the original Seattle Transit Plan that I worked on in 2005, we asked not "what interventions can we make to speed up those buses a bit?" but rather "how fast (and frequent) do the buses have to be to deliver the scale of mode shift that is essential to what Seattle wants to be as a city?"  San Francisco's Transit Effectiveness Project is a similar model.   Get influential policy people thinking about the second question, and the battlefield changes, because now each struggle to remove a parking space is part of a citywide or regionwide sustainability mission.  

So when planners fight the good fight with insufficient support, and end up with only 15% improvement over a possibly-dreadful pre-existing travel time, they have to be (a) thanked, and (b) reinforced by even more talk about the urgency of the citywide goals that they are fighting for, block by block, foot by foot, parking space by parking space.

15 Responses to dissent of the week: praise for new york city’s bus rapid transit

  1. Alexis November 29, 2012 at 12:11 pm #

    “Get influential policy people thinking about the second question, and the battlefield changes, because now each struggle to remove a parking space is part of a citywide or regionwide sustainability mission.”
    I think the most critical part of this is the part that I boldfaced. Making a plan is one thing — Portland seems to have zillions, all with laudable aspirations, and I’m sure they have improved many conversations. But unless you have people at a high level willing to devote attention, time, belief, and advocacy to those plans, or have done something similar to get everyone at every level on board, the plans will mostly sit there looking pretty while nothing much happens on the ground that would get the city to the level it’s supposedly aiming for.
    Frankly, I’d be kind of surprised if Portland wasn’t the gold medalist in the category “Most admirable plans that sit mostly neglected on the shelf.”

  2. Mike O November 29, 2012 at 4:36 pm #

    “How fast does BRT need to be to be achieving something sufficiently transformative — something on the scale of the actual mode share and sustainability targets of a city like New York?”
    New York needs a transformational mode shift for sustainability?
    The rest of us Americans are doomed.

  3. Stephen Smith November 29, 2012 at 5:03 pm #

    And to pull off the first implementation of off-board fare collection in the Bronx (I grew up about a mile away from Fordham Road) is not something to be taken for granted!
    The underlying sentiment here is a bit disturbing, in my opinion.

  4. Andrew November 29, 2012 at 7:21 pm #

    But transit in New York already has very high mode share. The goal of the SBS project is to improve service on bus lines that are already very busy, primarily benefiting existing riders and attracting riders from other transit lines.
    SBS uses some but not all elements typical of BRT. An all-or-nothing approach would have yielded nothing – the space constraints and political constraints in New York are very real. SBS is far from perfect, but it’s so vastly superior to what preceded it that I’ll gladly take it.
    Also, bear in mind that the project on 1st and 2nd Avenues isn’t finished yet: construction of the permanent bus lane configuration only started recently, and I don’t think signal priority is in effect yet. Off-board fare payment, which by itself helps a lot, began in 2010, and along with it came the SBS name so that riders would know how to pay the fare. But it’s not a finished product yet.

  5. BBnet3000 November 29, 2012 at 8:24 pm #

    Elevated platforms can fit into an urban environment for center-lane BRT. Even with the high level streetcars in San Francisco the center platforms work.
    Not sure about side platforms. They are very odd looking in San Francisco where they have them for wheelchairs (in the Sunset, etc), but with low-floor buses it might not be as odd.

  6. Jonathan November 30, 2012 at 5:20 am #

    I took the Fordham Road SBS last night. For my 3.5 mile trip from White Plains Rd & Pelham Parkway to 10th Ave & West 207th St, it took about a half hour. On that scale, 15% is four minutes.
    Collecting the fare before boarding saves some time, surely, but in the end it’s still an electric bus, with relatively narrow aisles and an ungenerous seating alignment. And in the half mile between University Ave and the Harlem River there are FOUR (4) SBS stops.

  7. John November 30, 2012 at 9:02 am #

    You could measure the level of BRT with “The BRT Standard”
    http://www.itdp.org/index.php?/microsites/brt-standard/

  8. david vartanoff November 30, 2012 at 9:06 am #

    While I applaud NYMTA’s efforts to improve bus service, we need to remember that the First/Second Avenue SBS route is what should have been the Second Avenue Subway–promised since 1929. The funds from the 1940s bond issue were slid sideways for deferred maintenance and “saving the xcent fare.” The 1968 bond issue funds disappeared into the general city crisis of the 70s, and now at grossly inflated cost, a poorly designed and inadequately tiny SAS is under construction. (Why do I say that?)
    The short section being built (likely all I will see before I die) is way too deep, only two tracks, and only going to connect to the West Side of Midtown instead of the full length of Manhattan with connections to both Brooklyn and the Bronx. The depth issue, aside from extra costs associated with construction, incurs a user time penalty because unlike the early subways (one flight from sidewalk to platform) it will be five minutes from street to trainside going and coming. That alone trashes the “rapid” in transit for short distance trips.

  9. Zoltán December 2, 2012 at 5:03 pm #

    Mike O,
    “New York needs a transformational mode shift for sustainability?”
    Absolutely. As long as there are significant numbers of single occupancy vehicle trips in the five boroughs, New York is still contributing significantly to oil depletion and carbon emissions. Though New York has a relatively strong foundation, no US city is there not further to go with changing that.

  10. Jim Bunch December 4, 2012 at 10:11 pm #

    I am surprised that the focus is continually on just travel time improvement (15% is notable) and not on reliability improvements. BRT often has significant reliability improvements as well, reducing the percentage of very bad trips. This can have a huge impact on attracting and keeping riders to the system.

  11. Alon Levy December 6, 2012 at 11:13 pm #

    No wonder they sometimes make the bus sit still during fare inspections – they think POP in the Bronx is an amazing innovation. The problem is that this raises the cost of implementing SBS; New York doesn’t think in terms of validators, large monthly pass discounts, and on-board payment for people without season passes (like 99-B in Vancouver), and as a result it puts a large, expensive set of ticket machines at each SBS stop, making everyone think off-board fare collection is an expensive special feature rather than a basic aspect of bus service.
    Also, since the average distance of a New York bus trip is 2 miles, 15% improvement really is something to sneeze at – it’s ~3 minutes per rider. Useful at zero cost, not very impressive when it requires putting so many ticket machines and such in the field.

  12. david vartanoff December 7, 2012 at 6:36 pm #

    NY MTA has fiddled with passes/fares multiple times, increasing the cost of singles, decreasing the benefits of all you can eats, so I no longer have a handle on the calculus. That said having to one by one tag or dip/swipe is only efficient when you can see the taillights of the bus you missed but not the headlights of the follower. Having just returned from the Cal Berkeley campus via a 1Rapid (BRT lite) in an obsolete enter front/pay/swipe/dip operation,I would hope MTA has speeded boarding. As to Nextbus or clones tonight and many recent trips it has been laughable at best .

  13. Ben Smith December 9, 2012 at 3:19 pm #

    Playing with Google Maps on a Sunday night, from 1st Ave and 2nd St it takes 33 minutes on the M15-rapid, while 51 minutes on the M15-local. Meanwhile to take the 6 train from Bleecker St to 125th St takes 24 minutes.
    While not a substitute for the subway, it is still a pretty impressive performance jump, especially if you take into consideration the time it takes to get to and from the train on a separate grade, which I did not. If I had an origin and/or destination along 1st or 2nd Aves, I could easily see taking an SBS route over making my way over to the 456 line.
    That said, while I haven’t compared it, the crosstown Manhattan SBS looks like an utter waste, especially considering how close it is to the 7 line.

  14. bus new york December 17, 2012 at 5:37 am #

    Well as we know that Making a plan is one thing — Portland seems to have zillions, all with laudable aspirations, and I’m sure they have improved many conversations…., it is still a pretty impressive performance jump, especially if you take into consideration the time it takes to get to and from the train on a separate grade..

  15. bus from kl to penang December 26, 2012 at 5:05 am #

    BRT services are great. Good frequency, in time and great sitting arrangement inside. Loved it!

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