What’s most surprising about Walder’s vision is its politics: Unlike most proposals to fundamentally change how the city operates, there’s an unusual amount of consensus—among bureaucrats and transit geeks, Upper East Side assemblymen and outer-borough activists—that it’s time to embrace the bus. The debate, then, is about execution. Are small experiments the best way to usher in a bus future? Or is the proposed redesign of First and Second Avenues, a comparatively anodyne plan that will only marginally improve service, too cautious by half? “The political read is that the public stomach for the most radical innovation is not there yet,” explains Walter Hook, the executive director of the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy. But others think the MTA is missing an opportunity. “We should definitely be moving faster,” says Miquela Craytor, the executive director of Sustainable South Bronx, which has joined with the Pratt Center for Community Development to envision Bus Rapid Transit as a citywide “third mode” of public transportation. “This idea deserves some energy.” When the final East Side plans were unveiled last month, they were greeted with polite applause by transit activists and mostly ignored by everyone else. The announcement was quickly drowned out by the impending transit cuts, and the man who arrived at the MTA intent on revolutionizing the bus is now spending most of his time dealing with the fallout from canceling them.
Jay Walder likes to tell a story about his experience in London. Keep in mind, this is a country where Margaret Thatcher is reputed to have said, “A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure.” But about a year into his tenure at Transport for London, Walder achieved the satisfaction of watching his neighbor, a London business executive, decide to make his primary mode of daily transportation the bus. It was simply the easiest, fastest way to get to work. “He would say to me, ‘Hey, the bus goes where I want to go, and it gets me there, and I’m taking the bus!’ ”
Of course, knowing that a British executive was satisfied in Britain may not calm your bus trepidation if it is raining and rush hour, and you are in the Bronx waiting on the corner of Fordham Road and Grand Concourse on a Friday afternoon. Knowing that buses work anywhere other than New York may not be terribly comforting. Even if you have read the reports, you might wonder what kind of a lunatic thinks you can cross the Bronx in anything less than a couple of hours. Or you might already be resigned to lunacy—half of all New Yorkers already ride the bus, and at the moment, the average bus speed is 7.5 miles an hour, the slowest average of any city in the U.S. (It fell 11 percent between 1996 and 2006.)
All of the sudden, though, here it comes: the Bx12. Right away, you see it’s different. A different paint job—new branding, as the transit people like to say—and bright-blue lights flashing on the header. Buying a ticket is different, too: You pay before you board, from a little box like a MetroCard vending machine that offers you a receipt. In the world of transit planning, boarding time is everything, and the receipt streamlines the process. “You just hold on to it,” a woman offers, shouting from under her earbuds. She smiles. “It’s much faster.”
Waiting on the curb, you notice that the bus has its own lane, painted terra-cotta, with signs to deflect non-bus traffic. It is not a physically separated lane, the holy grail of Bus Rapid Transit. But it is a lane, and your fellow riders speak of police who patrol it regularly during rush hours. You see the big, roomy bus shelter holding enough people to fill a subway car, and you wonder if everyone will be able to get on. But when the Bx12 SBS pulls up, this monster of mundaneness opens up not one but two doors. If there is a heaven for bus drivers, it has buses with rear-door entrances.
The transit-interested rider, upon seeing a bus this size pull up at a station with two-dozen prepaid fares, breaks out his stopwatch. Traffic geeks know that about a third of bus delays comes from passenger-boarding issues, and now the doors of the Bx12 SBS open. The stopwatch is running … Twenty-two people board; about four get off. The doors close; the bus sets off. Total wait time: 23 seconds.
Riding on, you see that traffic is heavy. The Bronx River Parkway and the Hutch are jammed. The Bruckner looks like a diseased artery. But the bus cruises down the bus lane, with only one car (a Lexus with Connecticut plates) even thinking of getting in its way. It is six stops to Pelham Bay Park Station. You arrive in twelve minutes. On a Friday. During rush hour.