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Subway on the Street

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One unexpected effect of all the recent transit cuts has been that bus-riding interests that have usually gone unnoticed are getting some spotlight. In Brooklyn, handmade signs announcing rallies have sprung up along closed bus routes, and even Borough President Marty Markowitz, a prominent champion of the car, held a borough-hall rally to protest service loss.

In a way, the bad economy has helped the bus argument. Talk to any transit advocate, and he’ll tell you that buses offer the best return on transit investment—especially in New York, where the Pratt Center estimates that building a forward-looking bus line could cost 200 times less than a subway line.

“If you think about how it costs $4.3 billion to build three stops on the Second Avenue subway line and $2 billion for a one-stop extension of the 7 train, buses are the only direction Walder can go in,” says Gene Russianoff, spokesman for the Straphangers Campaign, an organization mostly seen advocating for subway improvements. In fact, the city’s urban-planning activists are almost all singing buses. “They’re the smartest possible transit investment there is right now,” says Noah Budnick, the deputy director of Transportation Alternatives.

Other cities, not just London, figured this out a while ago. By 2000, Bogotá had scrapped a planned elevated highway system and replaced it (for a fraction of the cost) with buses that have their own designated lanes—the redesigned center lanes of old highways—and off-bus ticketing systems. The San Fernando Valley runs a Bus Rapid Transit line that has been so popular with riders it’s been forced to add longer buses. Cleveland’s BRT line has successfully converted the city’s professional class, and earlier this year, the Obama administration awarded federal stimulus money to BRT plans for Hartford. Another stimulus recipient: a 9.3-mile bus-centric transit corridor on Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn. It will follow the current B44 line (the fourth-busiest bus route in the city) and is scheduled to open in the summer of 2012.

“The bottom line is buses are back, and people are waking up to the fact that they’ve never really been out of the picture here in New York,” says DOT commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, who has been talking buses since her days in the private sector. We already have the largest fleet in North America—6,250 buses covering 900 square miles of territory, much of it in neighborhoods underserved by the subway system. Sadik-Khan points out that weekly ridership on the Bx12 has increased 30 percent, and in a study conducted last year, 98 percent of riders said they were satisfied with the service. “That happens about as often as Halley’s Comet,” she says.

Walder is betting that even in “the new fiscal reality,” he can make simple changes and that New Yorkers will start to notice the difference. This summer, he is testing a program that lets you pay by tapping your wallet in front of a sensor (and charging your fare to MasterCard). He has also begun to install GPS systems on buses so shelters can announce when the next bus is coming. This won’t speed buses up, but it might calm people down. “I firmly believe that if you give people the information so that they know what’s going on, then they relax,” Walder says.

He pulls up a chair at his Madison Avenue office, relieved to be talking about something other than fiscal pressure from Albany, and asks the essential question: “How do we make buses sexy?”

The big ticket to a bus future has to do with in-street right of way. “Bus lanes have to be for buses,” says Walder. “If we put railroad tracks down on space where a bus lane is and asked anyone would you ever stop your car on the railroad tracks, the answer would be no. The idea that 30 tons of steel is going to come down the street is enough of a deterrent.” Walder wants to instill the same ethos when it comes to entering the bus lane, even just for a quick delivery drop-off or taxi pickup. “We all have an explanation about why entering a bus lane is a little thing and it’s okay. And the fact is that it’s not okay—the fact is that 75 to 100 people on a bus are held up over that.”

Walder has targeted six hot spots for immediate bus-lane enforcement. He says the police are on the same page, and, according to a police spokesman, they are ticketing in bus lanes aggressively. But there are simply not enough cops to stop people from entering bus lanes unless something dramatic changes on the city streets.

The longest dedicated bus lanes in Manhattan will soon be on First and Second Avenues, where a Select Bus Service similar to the Bx12 will run from South Ferry to 125th Street. When it launches this fall, passengers will swipe their MetroCards while waiting in the bus shelter. In the months following, each bus will be installed with signal priority, so that as it approaches an intersection, it will persuade the upcoming streetlight to stay green until it passes.


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