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THE COMMUTE: Last week, I mentioned how the benefits of Select Bus Service (SBS) have been exaggerated and the disadvantages minimized, and how the MTA continues to push forward with additional proposed routes without performing proper evaluations of existing routes. I have also written several times about why the Nostrand Avenue corridor is the wrong choice for SBS. The issue goes much deeper than just the removal of a few parking spaces. That is not the reason I oppose it. SBS, or Bus Rapid Transit as it is called elsewhere, has its place as part of a coordinated transportation policy. However, in New York, we have no such policy. SBS is mostly being used as a substitute for not constructing new subway lines or reactivating existing rights of way. In this first part of a three-part series, I discuss SBS in greater detail.

The Beginnings Of SBS

SBS made sense along the first corridor where it was implemented, Fordham Road and Pelham Parkway in The Bronx. It was defeated along Merrick Boulevard in Queens. Then DOT and the MTA turned to a new strategy, that of using SBS as an excuse to not plan for the future with the construction of new rapid transit lines, ruling them out forever, because construction costs are so high in New York City — $2.3 billion per mile for Second Avenue.

We have existing rights of way that are unused or underused, which can be converted to light rail, heavy rail, people movers, or even monorail at a fraction of what a new subway would cost. The Long Island Railroad’s (LIRR) Bay Ridge Line, just south of Avenue H, is a prime example. The Triboro RX Plan has been discussed in transit circles for decades but has gone nowhere.

In Manhattan

Why do you suppose the MTA chose First Avenue and Second Avenue as the second SBS corridor? Did it make any sense to build SBS along a street where a subway is being proposed and constructed? Of course not. Not to mention the fact that its operation would be disturbed by the subway construction, which will continue for years. This corridor was chosen for one reason only — as an excuse to not build the lower portion of the Second Avenue subway, which, technically, still is planned but unfunded, with no funding likely to be forthcoming. By exaggerating the benefits of SBS, the city can claim that the completed portion north of 63rd Street is all that is necessary and the long promised subway need not be completed or extended to Brooklyn, as once envisioned.

SBS’s success has been exaggerated by using primarily only one barometer, the amount of time buses save making their runs. Reduced bus travel times mean fewer buses are needed. That translates into lower operating costs. That is the real reason for implementation, and that most of the costs are not being paid by the MTA. Lower operating costs are good, but does it help you, the passenger? That would be the true measure of success, not just if it saves the MTA money.

The MTA would like to convince you that you are saving time because buses travel faster, but is that really the case? The answer is yes, if you are making a long trip. However, if your trip is short, the answer is maybe, or perhaps your trip is now even longer.

The SBS makes fewer stops than the Limited it replaces. (SBS, when first announced in 2003, was to supplement Limited service, not replace it.) That means longer walks to and from the bus stops. The MTA quotes timesavings in terms of minutes saved along the entire line. How many actually realize those savings by riding an entire SBS line? For shorter trips, the MTA refers to percentages by stating that your time on the bus will be reduced by 15 or 20 percent. Using percentages gives the impression you will be saving more than only the three to six minutes actually saved, unless you are travelling a long distance by bus, like half the length of Manhattan (6.7 miles), in which case you would save considerable time.

Some Limited passengers have switched to slower locals since their bus stops were eliminated, resulting in longer trip times for them. Many believe that local service has been negatively impacted, since SBS was instituted. On First Avenue and Second Avenue, there have been complaints of 20-minute waits or longer for a local while three to five SBS buses pass. For those who have to walk an extra five minutes to board at an SBS stop and another extra five minutes when they get off, where is their timesavings? Also, increased travel times for local passengers is not a concern of the MTA when measuring SBS’s success. Only SBS passengers are surveyed for their opinions.

The MTA supposedly uses a model that factors in walking distance in projecting trip times. As I mentioned last week, the model’s assumptions and how it works have not been made public. You know the old saying: “Garbage in, garbage out?” If the MTA is proud of its model why have they not shared any information about it? In none of the corridors where SBS is operating have there been any actual data shared showing savings of passenger trip times. As of six years ago, the model was not even sophisticated enough to do planning on the local level, but only useful in assessing regional trends. Is it more accurate today? Who knows? Does it use outdated 2000 census data as input? Again — who knows? Only the MTA knows, and they are not talking.

It is insufficient merely for the MTA to state that they have a model and we should just trust that it works fine. Has the MTA is been upfront with us in the past revealing all the facts? No, they have not. So why should we believe them now? In their B44 SBS presentations, such as the one presented before CB15, the fact that a lane of moving traffic was being removed in parts of the corridor was never even mentioned. One had to study the diagrams and know the current number of lanes to determine that. They also were not up front in responding to the concerns of the board, which is why they oppose it.

SBS on 34th Street, the third corridor where it was established, and one that I initially supported, has thus far been a miserable failure, due to lack of enforcement of the bus lane. Bus stops at major transfer points such as Lexington Avenue have been eliminated, necessitating extra walks for some, negating the one, two, or three minutes that may be saved. (Also, it replaced the local service so you cannot avoid the SBS and not walk further, perhaps.) That’s it. Even if you ride from First Avenue to Sixth Avenue, you only save a couple of minutes. That is, if prepaying your fare does not cause you to miss the bus, in which case your trip could actually take longer.

In Staten Island

In Staten Island, along Hylan Boulevard, the other corridor where SBS was recently implemented, I wonder if more could have been accomplished simply by improving local bus access to Staten Island Rapid Transit stations, rather than by constructing an SBS line. It is really just a Limited bus with specially-marked SBS stops and buses painted in the SBS paint scheme. The exclusive lane is only in effect only for three hours a day and not a unique feature of SBS. There is no fare prepayment because usage is not heavy enough to warrant it. Also, there are no bus bulbs at stops to ease boarding. Its only distinguishing feature as SBS is the priority traffic signals for buses, which are not yet in effect.

Travel timesavings, thus far, is half what was predicted. Motorists have complained about reduced roadway capacity caused by the exclusive lanes. DOT’s response is: If you don’t like it, take the bus. Fine, if the bus takes you where you want to go. However, even with the addition of free transfers, most Staten Island / Brooklyn trips by bus will still require three or four buses and two fares. While two buses in Staten Island are allowed for one fare, a second bus in Brooklyn will cost a double fare and the ride will still take longer than by auto. SBS is just not a suitable alternative for many trips, so DOT’s response to drivers is simply inappropriate.

Next Week: “Our Mass Transit Future – Part 2: What Happened to Democracy?” will discuss where SBS is needed, where else it is a poor replacement for rail, and what needs to be done to safeguard our future.

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).

Disclaimer: The above is an opinion column and may not represent the thoughts or position of Sheepshead Bites. Based upon their expertise in their respective fields, our columnists are responsible for fact-checking their own work, and their submissions are edited only for length, grammar and clarity. If you would like to submit an opinion piece or become a regularly featured contributor, please e-mail nberke [at] sheepsheadbites [dot] com.

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  • MyBrooklyn

    People its all BS…they want to cause major inconvenience for motorist and also to generate a profit by ticketing people on bus lanes….listen these crooks will make up any new law just to make extra buck from us…..

    • Allan Rosen

      There’s a lot more to it than that, and that is not the primary reason for SBS anyway.

      • MyBrooklyn

        ye i know for faster commute……you know what that will
        never happen and you know what motorist should not be punish for their stupid desire to make their damn buses to move faster…listen they promised us to make trains more efficient and faster for years guess what they are slow and with many disruptions

        • Allan Rosen

          Trains still much better than they were in the 1980s.

          • http://www.brucebrodinsky.com Bruce B

            Tell us more about those train tracks that run south of avenue h. Is it possible to use that line? That would be incredible, an east-west line.

          • Allan Rosen

            Glad you asked. It is discussed more in Part 3. Be patient.

          • http://www.brucebrodinsky.com Bruce B

            Every time I walk over them (ci avenue, or bedford avenue), I wonder, gee, a train would be good.

            if someone could email me at bbrodinsky@gmail.com when this part 3 comes out, there’s some personal stuff going on that prevents me from reading everyday, and I don’t want to miss that article.

            I assume such a train could take an large load off east west buses.

          • sonicboy678

            Hey, I look out of my window and envision a route there. It could even have express service, being that it’s wide enough for that. At the very least I would consider Second Avenue (Brooklyn) to Broadway Junction.

  • winson

    i guess the planned Nostrand Avenue SBS is a substitute for the never-built IRT Nostrand Avenue Line extension to where KCC is today. Defunct lines that should be reactivated include the LIRR Bay Ridge and Rockaway Beach branches. Convert them to subway. The Whitestone Branch should also have been kept

  • Andrew

    SBS made sense along the first corridor where it was implemented, Fordham Road and Pelham Parkway in The Bronx. It was defeated along Merrick Boulevard in Queens. Then DOT and the MTA turned to a new strategy, that of using SBS as an excuse to not plan for the future with the construction of new rapid transit lines, ruling them out forever, because construction costs are so high in New York City — $2.3 billion per mile for Second Avenue.

    If you’re suggesting that first the Bx12 was implemented and only then were the remaining corridors worked out, that’s factually incorrect. In 2004, one corridor in each borough was nominated for BRT, including First/Second in Manhattan and Nostrand in Brooklyn. By 2007 this plan had evolved to drop the Queens corridor and to include two additional Manhattan corridors. SBS on the Bx12 started running the following year.

    Why do you suppose the MTA chose First Avenue and Second Avenue as the second SBS corridor?

    Because the M15 is the second-busiest bus line in North America, with an annual ridership of over 17 million. Even if the funding for the three remaining SAS phases falls into place tomorrow, it will be many years before they will open. At the time SBS started up on the line, scheduled opening of even the first phase was over six years off.

    Not to mention the fact that its operation would be disturbed by the subway construction, which will continue for years.

    The construction is disrupting bus service for a mile and a half on 2nd Avenue and not at all on 1st Avenue. Not ideal but hardly the end of the world.

    By exaggerating the benefits of SBS, the city can claim that the completed portion north of 63rd Street is all that is necessary and the long promised subway need not be completed or extended to Brooklyn, as once envisioned.

    BRT as an alternative to a Second Avenue Subway was studied and rejected in the late 90′s – it simply wouldn’t have the capacity or attractiveness to reduce 4/5/6 ridership to acceptable levels, which is one of the project’s primary goals. SBS on the M15 has been in place for over two years and, as far as I know, it has not been responsible for a measurable drop in IRT crowding.

    SBS’s success has been exaggerated by using primarily only one barometer, the amount of time buses save making their runs.

    Not correct. The one-year M15 SBS progress report evaluated service based on eight factors: ridership (up 12% on the M15 as a whole, with 62% of riders opting for SBS, up from about 50%), bus travel speeds and reliability (about 15% faster than on the old Limited, or 18% faster during rush hours; wait assessment improved over 10 percentage points), fare machine availability (not a point of comparison with the old Limited, which didn’t have fare machines), customer satisfaction (99% of interviewed SBS riders and 90% of interviewed local riders were “satisfied” or “very satisfied”), bus lanes (55% decrease in vehicles driving illegally in the bus lanes, 35% decrease in vehicles standing illegally in the bus lanes), traffic impacts (similar traffic speeds and volumes before and after), road safety (7% decline in crashes, 10% decline in crashes with injuries, 14% decline in total injuries), and bicycle ridership (increased between 18% and 177%, depending on location surveyed).

    Hardly “only one barometer.”

    Reduced bus travel times mean fewer buses are needed. That translates into lower operating costs.

    Ridership increases mean more buses are needed. That translates into higher operating costs. (And ridership was up 12% in the first year.)

    The MTA would like to convince you that you are saving time because buses travel faster, but is that really the case? The answer is yes, if you are making a long trip. However, if your trip is short, the answer is maybe, or perhaps your trip is now even longer.

    Perhaps, but unlikely. Keep reading.

    The SBS makes fewer stops than the Limited it replaces.

    Barely. North of Houston, three of the least-used Limited stops were eliminated. The vast majority of former Limited riders north of Houston have access to SBS at the exact same stop they used to use. South of Houston, the Limited used to make every single stop, which made the M15 highly unattractive for trips between the South Ferry/Water Street corridor and East Midtown or beyond.

    (SBS, when first announced in 2003, was to supplement Limited service, not replace it.)

    I find that extremely hard to believe. Do you have a citation to a planning document or news article?

    That means longer walks to and from the bus stops.

    Only for people who aren’t already using the SBS stops anyway.

    You seem to be ignoring a fundamental point with SBS and Limited services: if a small number of stops on the line serve a disproportionately large segment of the ridership, it often makes sense to have some buses serve only those stops, as long as total ridership is heavy enough to support reasonable headways on both forms of the service. The SBS stops weren’t selected by throwing darts at a map – they were selected because they are especially busy.

    The MTA quotes timesavings in terms of minutes saved along the entire line. How many actually realize those savings by riding an entire SBS line? For shorter trips, the MTA refers to percentages by stating that your time on the bus will be reduced by 15 or 20 percent. Using percentages gives the impression you will be saving more than only the three to six minutes actually saved, unless you are travelling a long distance by bus, like half the length of Manhattan (6.7 miles), in which case you would save considerable time.

    Let me get this straight. You don’t think they should cite the time savings in absolute terms, nor do you think they should cite the time savings in relative terms. So in what terms do you think they should cite the time savings?

    Some Limited passengers have switched to slower locals since their bus stops were eliminated, resulting in longer trip times for them.

    Yes, I’m sure that some have. However, the vast majority of Limited passengers now ride SBS, and many former local passengers do so as well. Local ridership has declined slightly while Limited/SBS ridership has risen significantly.

    Many believe that local service has been negatively impacted, since SBS was instituted.

    Many, in absolute terms? Sure. July 2011 ridership on the local was 20,672. If 90% were “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with SBS, that leaves 10%, or 2,067, dissatisfied. And 2,067 is, in absolute terms, a large number. But it’s a lot smaller than the 18,605 local riders who are satisfied, let alone the 34,210 (that’s 99% of 34,556) of SBS riders who are satisfied.

    On First Avenue and Second Avenue, there have been complaints of 20-minute waits or longer for a local while three to five SBS buses pass.

    This is planning by anecdote. (I guarantee that there have been complaints of 20-minute waits or longer on every single bus line in the city.)

    For those who have to walk an extra five minutes to board at an SBS stop and another extra five minutes when they get off, where is their timesavings?

    Those riders are probably on the local, unless they’re traveling a very long distance. Fortunately, many riders both start and end their trip at SBS stops; many of those who don’t have one end at an SBS stop, so they only encounter one longer walk, not two.

    Also, increased travel times for local passengers is not a concern of the MTA when measuring SBS’s success. Only SBS passengers are surveyed for their opinions.

    Then how on earth does the one-year M15 progress report come up with an satisfaction rating among local riders?

    The MTA supposedly uses a model that factors in walking distance in projecting trip times. As I mentioned last week, the model’s assumptions and how it works have not been made public. You know the old saying: “Garbage in, garbage out?” If the MTA is proud of its model why have they not shared any information about it? In none of the corridors where SBS is operating have there been any actual data shared showing savings of passenger trip times. As of six years ago, the model was not even sophisticated enough to do planning on the local level, but only useful in assessing regional trends. Is it more accurate today? Who knows? Does it use outdated 2000 census data as input? Again — who knows? Only the MTA knows, and they are not talking.

    Fortunately, M15 ridership grew 12% from July 2010 to July 2011, against a backdrop of a 5% decline in overall Manhattan bus ridership. Whatever model was used to develop the M15 SBS, it seems to have worked pretty well in practice.

    SBS on 34th Street, the third corridor where it was established, and one that I initially supported, has thus far been a miserable failure, due to lack of enforcement of the bus lane.

    Do you realize that the street hasn’t been reconfigured for SBS yet? I don’t think construction has even begun! What you see now is only the interim configuration. And I don’t think camera enforcement or TSP have started up yet, either.

    http://www.nyc.gov/html/brt/downloads/pdf/201110_brt_34th_illustrative_plans.pdf

    Bus stops at major transfer points such as Lexington Avenue have been eliminated,

    In what way is Lexington Avenue a major transfer point? It’s a transfer point, sure, but the major ones are at 8th, 7th, 6th, and Park. Lex is midway between 3rd and Park, a short walk from either. Not only would adding bus stops in both directions at Lex delay the bus, it would also reduce curbside loading space, an issue of importance to the local community.

    That is, if prepaying your fare does not cause you to miss the bus, in which case your trip could actually take longer.

    I missed the subway this afternoon because there was a bit of congestion at the turnstile and I didn’t get through in time, and I had to wait 12 minutes for the next train – but I’m still not going to advocate on-board fare collection on the subway, since I recognize that the time savings in collecting fares at stations far outweighs the occasional missed train that results. The same applies to SBS.

    In Staten Island, along Hylan Boulevard, the other corridor where SBS was recently implemented, I wonder if more could have been accomplished simply by improving local bus access to Staten Island Rapid Transit stations, rather than by constructing an SBS line.

    The Staten Island Railway functions primarily as a feeder to the ferry, generally running at the same headway as the ferry – 30 minutes most of the day. The S79 is far more frequent. Furthermore, most SIR stations are not served by buses, and most buses that do serve SIR stations also run to St. George and, like SIR itself, are timed to meet the ferry. Chances are, a bus that’s timed to meet the ferry cannot also be timed to meet the train somewhere down the line, especially not in both directions.

    The Staten Island Railway also doesn’t serve the Staten Island Mall, the Eltingville Transit Center, or Bay Ridge – three of the busiest stops on the S79.

    If you’ve never ridden the S79, you might be surprised by how many people ride it from end to end. That used to be a painfully slow trip; now it’s reasonably brisk.

    It is really just a Limited bus with specially-marked SBS stops and buses painted in the SBS paint scheme. The exclusive lane is only in effect only for three hours a day and not a unique feature of SBS. There is no fare prepayment because usage is not heavy enough to warrant it. Also, there are no bus bulbs at stops to ease boarding. Its only distinguishing feature as SBS is the priority traffic signals for buses, which are not yet in effect.

    The Hylan Blvd. bus lanes are in effect for three hours in one direction and four hours in the other (kind of like the 2nd Avenue and Fordham Road bus lanes, which are also part-time), but the Richmond Ave. bus lanes are in effect 24/7. The SBS project also included pedestrian refuge islands and new sidewalks at some bus stops. Different corridors have different needs.

    Travel timesavings, thus far, is half what was predicted.

    More planning by anecdote. The reader would be forgiven for assuming that this is a link to a comprehensive study of the service. It’s actually a link to an article published at 9:12 AM on the very first weekday of service, and the figure cited is based on one single ride taken that morning.

    And not only is this planning by anecdote, it’s a pretty bad anecdote, since any new service tends to be erratic the first week or two. (The first week of M15 SBS service was terrible, because a highly optimistic schedule was applied prematurely, while the passengers and drivers were still getting used to the new service, and there simply weren’t enough buses to go around.)

    Motorists have complained about reduced roadway capacity caused by the exclusive lanes.

    Motorists complain when they’re asked to give up anything. Staten Island motorists have an even greater sense of entitlement than motorists in the other boroughs. If bus lanes were only installed where motorists were happy to give up a lane, then not a single bus lane would be installed anywhere in New York City.

    DOT’s response is: If you don’t like it, take the bus.

    Oh? Where did you see this? I find it pretty hard to believe.

    • Allan Rosen

      As I stated last time in my comment in the article “This is no way to plan”, I will no longer converse with you. I do not make up my facts. I do not need a planning document or a source when I attended the initial SBS meetings and heard it stated at the presentation, I believe at Atlantic Center in 2003 or 4 that SBS will be in addition to Limited and will not replace it.

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