In 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.