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Subway on the Street

The MTA has a simple, not very expensive ticket for improving how the city gets around: Revolutionize the bus. But can even the most sensible ideas get implemented these days?


Illustration by Bob Scott  

You would never guess it from the dispiriting news coming out of the MTA, but if you want to see the future of New York, then head up to the Bronx and take a bus. This is not the future of New York in which everyone has a solar-powered jet pack that takes them high over the city’s organic farmyards. Nor is this the apocalyptic future in which the final few New Yorkers with health care live just beyond the moat that surrounds what was once called Yankee Stadium. This is the future as seen in a new bus line: the Bx12 Select Bus Service, or SBS, for short.

The future highlighted by the Bx12 SBS takes as a very depressing starting point the fact that the New York City subway system, once the envy of the world, is stalled. Not literally—as when we sat on dark, un-air-conditioned cars between stations on the way to Simon and Garfunkel reunion concerts—but still, our subways are strained under a ridership that has grown 60 percent since 1990 and a permanent budgetary crisis that has, over the past two years, only gotten worse. Last month, faced with an $800 million budget gap, the MTA canceled two subway lines and 37 bus lines and dramatically reduced late-night and weekend service. No one is expecting Albany’s fiscal situation to improve anytime soon.

If this were, say, Shanghai, one could imagine the federal government sweeping in and not just restoring transit funding but modernizing and expanding our underground tracks. Shanghai didn’t even have a subway system until 1995, and it is now in the midst of dramatically expanding it to 22 lines. But this is not Shanghai; this is New York, where the first subway line was built in 1904 and many lines still use the antiquated (and sometimes dangerous) signal system that was installed about 25 years after Edison patented his lightbulb. The New York subway system’s grandest plan at the moment involves completing one new line on Second Avenue. It was proposed in 1929. It is currently scheduled to open its first branch in 2016. It will stretch 33 blocks, or just under two miles.

So the future of movement in New York—how we get from home to work, how we navigate the city—is not going to be about subways. But what about the bus? True, buses are what most people think of when they think of not getting anywhere: senior citizens waiting in lines, guys counting out change, double-parked cars. They are less sexy than subways and tend to be ignored until the MTA announces another round of service cuts. The last time buses were new was in the forties, when they were installed around the city as a cheaper, more flexible alternative to streetcars.

To a large extent, flexibility remains the bus’s chief advantage—unrailed, they can go wherever we want them to go—and they’re a relative bargain. But over the last decade, in a few transit-enlightened cities around the world, the bus has received a dramatic makeover. It has been reengineered to load passengers more quickly. It has become much more energy-efficient. And, most important, the bus system—the network of bus lines and its relationship to the city street—has been rethought. Buses that used to share the street with cars and trucks are now driving in lanes reserved exclusively for buses and are speeding through cities like trains in the street. They are becoming more like subways.

One city that has transformed its bus system is London, which in 2001 hired a New Yorker named Jay Walder to help overhaul its transit system. At the time, Londontown was gridlocked. Walder looked at the Tube, then carrying about 3 million daily passengers, and then looked at the bus system, which was carrying almost 6 million. “The recognition was that it was virtually impossible to get anything done on the rail system quickly,” Walder recalls. “So we set out to work on the buses. And what you found was that buses were already the backbone, and you had the opportunity in a relatively short time to make them a lot better.”

Last summer, Walder was tapped by Governor Paterson to become head of the MTA. This is not a good time to be in charge of a sprawling bureaucracy dependent on Albany money, and it’s a strange time to be doing so as an optimist. But Walder is a hopeful bureaucrat, and he believes that if there’s any way to grow New York transit, it’s through buses. The MTA and the city’s Department of Transportation recently unveiled plans to install dedicated bus lanes on First and Second Avenues this fall and on 34th Street in 2012. These, along with the Bx12 line in the Bronx, are being promoted as trial programs for what Walder hopes will be, by the end of his tenure, a reconfiguration of the city’s streets. “When the city adopts a world-class ‘Bus Rapid Transit’ system, people are going to have a tough time, efficiency-wise, telling a bus apart from a subway—it’s going to be like a subway with a view,” predicts Kyle Wiswall, general counsel for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.


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