THE COMMUTE: On Friday, Mayor Bloomberg and the press took a ride on the 7 extension to 34th Street, although the line is still six months away from completion. He was hoping to have it finished before he left office. He failed, but received the press coverage he desired.
The M42 bus branch to 34th Street was discontinued in 2010 due to a lack of ridership. So what do we do when there is inadequate demand for bus service? We build a new subway instead, of course. Makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?
The subway was not extended to meet existing demand but to stimulate real estate development for the Hudson Yards project. The mayor pointed out that was how it was done in the old days. First you built the rapid transit line, and that encouraged development. Not the other way around, building subways as a response to development. The subway was not extended for the benefit of subway riders, like the Second Avenue Line, which will relieve overcrowding on the Lexington Avenue line. It was extended to help Bloomberg’s millionaire developer friends get even richer.
Why doesn’t this stimulation-of-development philosophy apply elsewhere in the city?
The Pratt Center released a report this week touting the benefits of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). It is a perfect example of drawing your conclusions first, then gathering your facts to support those conclusions without telling the complete story, a tactic we have seen all too often from the MTA.
In making their case for BRT, Pratt first dismisses extending any subway line because it is too expensive. They cite the $2 billion cost to extend the 7 line one mile in midtown Manhattan. They further cite the Second Avenue subway cost of $4.5 billion for the mile and a half of subway and three subway stations it provides, probably the most expensive subway per mile in the world. They ignore the fact that these subways are being built using the more expensive technique of deep tunneling, as opposed to traditional method of cut and cover which is how both the IRT and BMT Lines were constructed. Extending the Utica or Nostrand Avenue lines using cut and cover would cost a fraction of what it is costing to build the Manhattan subways. Also, there is no discussion of what could be done to bring costs down to make subway construction feasible once again.
Why should there be? The agenda is clear. Build BRT instead of subways. So why do an objective analysis?
The biases in this study are obvious when the authors claim that BRT riders could achieve a similar riding experience as a subway, while ignoring the issue of greater capacity and lower operating costs per passenger that a subway affords. The development that is spurred by subway construction and the consequential economic effects are also ignored. This is similar to the MTA promoting Select Bus Service (SBS), a less sophisticated version of BRT, as a “subway on the surface,” which it is not.
Bloomberg uses the familiar “if you will build it they will come” quote, which he applies to the development of the Hudson Yards. So why wouldn’t the same philosophy hold true to stimulate economic development in Queens? There we have an abandoned rapid transit line since 1962, known as the Rockaway Beach Line (RBL), that is an eyesore and has been gathering weeds and debris for more than 50 years running through an area that is economically depressed.
Reactivation efforts during that time have failed; neither the city nor the MTA has pushed for it.
Critics state that reactivation would cost too much. However, the most valuable resource, a continuous right of way, is not being taken advantage of. That makes it vastly cheaper to reconstruct than building a new underground subway. There have been attempts recently to convert that right of way to a park dubbed “Queensway,“ much like the High Line. I will not get into that debate here. Suffice it to say that three Queens Community Boards, Nos. 5, 10, and 14, as well as the NY Daily News now support RBL reactivation.
The Pratt Center study
The study by the Pratt Center recommends four new BRT corridors and four new SBS corridors. (The difference is explained on Page 19.) They call BRT a “Cost effective high performance solution.” That is quite a claim without any proof. Ambitious time saving projections are also provided without any sources how those time savings were derived. Zero negative impacts on traffic are projected because travel using these projected routes will be so quick that riders will leave their cars at home in favor of these new BRT and SBS routes. That claim is also unsubstantiated.
How can they make such outrageous claims? They do that by using a few statistics gathered by the MTA such as: the Bx12 SBS corridor saw a 7 percent increase in ridership and a 20 percent travel time savings while the M15 saw a reduction in traffic congestion and similar ridership increases. They further state that wherever SBS has been installed, bus speeds have increased without an increase in traffic congestion. Then they apply those statistics across the entire city.
Now here is the other side of the story: The 34th Street SBS, as implemented, not as envisioned, resulted in increasing bus speeds a negligible one minute or two. Staten Island riders did not leave their cars at home in favor of the S79, nor did M15 riders. Some M15 riders in fact were former subway riders. Traffic congestion along Hylan Boulevard has greatly worsened, much to the ire of motorists. Also, although First and Second Avenue traffic may not have worsened, no data was collected along adjacent avenues such as York, Third or Lexington Avenues to determine traffic effects there.
We do need more SBS and some BRT routes, but we need to consider all the options, not only the one we are promoting. This study promotes BRT along Woodhaven Boulevard for the simple reason that it is at least six lanes wide, and makes believe that the parallel abandoned RBL one half mile to the east does not exist. We cannot just assume no negative traffic impacts along Woodhaven if general traffic lanes are removed, as this study does just because First and Second Avenue traffic was not negatively impacted. I would not want doctors using that type of logic to perform surgery on me.
Similarly, in proposing a BRT Line to JFK Airport (a worthwhile goal), they choose an infeasible route along the narrow portion of Linden Boulevard, ignoring the underutilized Bay Ridge Division of the LIRR, 1.5 miles to the south. Parking would have to be banned along the entire narrow portion of Linden Boulevard, which is a residential street, for a BRT line to possibly work without negatively affecting emergency vehicles. Otherwise, left turns would significantly delay all traffic, especially truck traffic, as Linden Boulevard is the only truck route across central Brooklyn.
In making this proposal, not only did no one even bother to check a Google map to learn that 39th Street between Third and Ninth avenues, where this line is proposed, is so narrow (only three lanes wide including only one lane of parking, not two) that not only could it not support a physically separated BRT lane, an exclusive SBS lane is also out of the question on that street. Similar problems exist along Junction Boulevard where the Woodhaven BRT is proposed.
We need impartial studies like the one underway by Queens College investigating RBL reactivation, not bias ones like the one by the Pratt Center where only one side of the story is presented. We must not rule out real rapid transit expansion that developed the city and could revitalize parts of it today.
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).
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