THE COMMUTE: Hurting drivers will not help transit. But the Department of Transportation and the MTA believes it will.
Last week I gave 10 changes the MTA needs to implement to get back on track so that our mass transit system can better serve its users. However, the MTA and DOT have their own misguided ideas.
Years ago, the MTA realized there will never be enough capital money to build all the necessary subway expansions. So, in 2004, the MTA decided that, rather than building any more subway lines, they will turn to buses instead by making them faster. But as the agency continues to roll out BRT/SBS service, they mistakenly throttle automobile traffic, thinking this might bolster mass transit usage. Let me explain.
Select Bus Service Background
Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) works all over the world, so why not in New York? Well, all over the world is a little different than New York, where street space is at a premium. With challenges mounting, the MTA/DOT abandoned Bus Rapid Transit because they cannot get it to be “rapid” like the subways, and instead come up with their own scaled-down version of BRT that they call Select Bus Service (SBS). (DOT still prefers to call it BRT, while the MTA prefers SBS.)
The proposal is to do this quickly – quicker than the 20 years it takes to build a subway line. They come up with five corridors, one per borough, which they expect to complete in five years. Then comes Phase 2, 10 more corridors to be completed in another five years, figuring they can now build faster, having completed the learning curve of building the first five. Then perhaps, another 10 or 20 corridors in the following five to 10 years, provided the funds are available. So after a generation, instead of completing a single subway line for which there is no money anyway, there could be as many as 35 SBS corridors completed at a much lower cost.
However, in New York, nothing goes as planned. Seven years have passed and all we have are two completed SBS lines with plans for three more, one along Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn and others on 34th Street in Manhattan and along Hylan Boulevard in Staten Island. (I wrote several articles discussing problems with the proposed B44 Nostrand Avenue SBS.)
The preliminary results are in. The buses are travelling faster, so therefore the program is a huge success according to DOT and the MTA, and now it is on to Phase 2.
SBS Phase 2
What caught my attention was the artist’s rendering of Woodhaven Boulevard on Page 41, with two of the six car lanes converted to bus use only. Having driven it for nine years on a daily basis, I immediately recognized it, although the street is never identified. Here is the problem and why it affects you.
There are many opinions of Robert Moses and his building of parkways and expressways all over the city, except for perhaps Brooklyn. We only got two, the Belt Parkway and the BQE, if you don’t count the Prospect Expressway. Think where we would be without them. Any Brooklyn driver knows how difficult it is to get across Brooklyn because of the lack of highways. East-west travel is nearly impossible because the Cross-Brooklyn Expressway was never built so most use the Belt even if it is out of the way. That is why it is so congested much of the time. The same holds true for the BQE. You must use this circumferential route because there is no direct north-south route. (Try using any of the avenues to get to Greenpoint from Sheepshead Bay and tell me next year when you return, how long it took.) If you use Ocean Parkway you only end up on the dreaded BQE which crawls for many hours of the day. So if you are going to the Bronx or Long Island City, for example, you look eastward. The Van Wyck is also usually a mess most of the time, so you try to avoid that one also.
Your only rational choice in many cases is Cross Bay – Woodhaven Boulevard, which has some congestion during the peak hours, but is doable other times. So here the DOT comes along with their plan to cut capacity for cars and trucks by 25 percent so that it becomes just as congested as the BQE and the Van Wyck, the two alternatives you just rejected. Why? So they can replace those lanes with exclusive Select Bus Service Lanes. (Nowhere in any of their documents do they mention they will cut roadway capacity for vehicles other than buses.)
Here is the BRT theory: Make bus service more attractive and people will leave their cars at home and take the bus. Sounds nice but it will not work here because the buses will only use Woodhaven Boulevard and Cross Bay primarily, but the cars presently using those streets are not beginning and ending their trips in the corridor so you can’t simply switch from your car to the bus, no matter how fast and attractive it is. I would guess that 50 percent of the cars on Woodhaven have one end of their trip in Brooklyn. You would need to build lots or garages to park your car (not in the plan) where you could leave it to get on the bus, and then you could only use it for a Woodhaven Boulevard or Cross Bay destination anyway.
I am not anti-SBS. It will definitely help some people by making their trip faster. But the SBS plans should not require taking away a lane of moving traffic. Initially, when the plan was pitched, the proposal was to use a parking lane for the bus lane. On Woodhaven, that may have worked, but is not what is proposed. Woodhaven Boulevard may be a good candidate for SBS, but the buses need to share the same lanes as the cars. The only way I can see the justification for removal of a traffic lane is if half a dozen SBS routes operated on Woodhaven which began at major traffic hubs in Brooklyn, (e.g. Brooklyn College area) and end in hubs like Long Island City or Flushing so that it actually would be possible to leave your car at a parking lot and take the bus for some trips. Then, perhaps, there would be enough buses to justify an exclusive lane. A bus every five or 10 minutes does not justify an entire lane just for buses when its removal adds twenty minutes to every car trip using Woodhaven or Cross Bay Boulevard.
Of course, more than two routes along Woodhaven are out of the question because no one is willing to pay the increased operating costs and it may not be cost effective anyway. The Feds and the city are paying for the initial costs of SBS, and the MTA saves operating costs because the buses are making fewer stops. This is not a program to help mass transit. It is a way to save the MTA money.
The Second Avenue Corridor was chosen in Manhattan so the MTA can justify scrapping the lower half of the Second Avenue Subway since there is no money for it. That’s why they are trying to dub it “Subway on the Surface” to brainwash us into thinking that it is just as good as building a subway. It is not.
Why It Will Not Work
For starters, the bus stops are further apart, and no one is measuring the increased time it will take to walk to and from the bus. In some cases, that will even outweigh the benefits of saving a few minutes on the bus. In fact, your total trip on the B44 may even take you longer since you will not be able to take the first bus that comes, but will have to commit to either the local or the SBS beforehand. Also, you will not be able to easily change between SBS and the local since the bus stops will not be adjacent to each other and it may cost you an extra fare if a third bus is involved. All that matters according to DOT and the MTA is that the buses will be faster. Zero attention is given to the negative effects such as eliminating a third of the road capacity for cars and trucks where there will be an exclusive lane.
But what can you expect from an agency that can’t even tell you when it started studying BRT. In their Intro to BRT Phase 2, DOT correctly states: “In 2004, the NYC Department of Transportation, MTA New York City Transit, and the New York State Department of Transportation began studying how Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) could improve transit service in New York City.”
But in Bus Rapid Transit Phase II Future Corridors pdf, they state “In the fall of 2008, the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) and MTA New York City Transit (NYCT) initiated a planning study of a citywide Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) network.” (2008 was when the first route started in the Bronx.) So how could you expect honesty and a correct and complete objective analysis?
It is irresponsible to declare success by only reporting on an increase in bus speeds and increases in bus ridership (not even counting the number of passengers switching from subways) and ignoring the huge negative impacts on all other traffic.
The Commute is a weekly feature highlighting news and information about the city’s mass transit system and transportation infrastructure. It is written by Allan Rosen, a Manhattan Beach resident and former Director of MTA/NYC Transit Bus Planning (1981).