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Subway on the Street

And yet Select Bus Service is no Bogotá. As the new service is currently designed, a painted bus lane will run on both avenues north of Houston. This will, theoretically, provide a deterrent for stray taxis or delivery trucks, but there will be no physical barrier separating the bus lane. In fact, the avenues will be a patchwork of different configurations, with the bus lane shifting from curbside (adjacent to the sidewalk) to “offset” (between car traffic and a lane of parked cars), then disappearing entirely for many blocks at a time.

If you can’t physically separate bus lanes from car traffic, the second-best way to enforce car-free bus lanes is to install cameras on buses that would photograph traffic violations—cookie-jar cameras, let’s call them. In London, similar cameras worked to reduce lane incursions by 60 percent, and in a time when the number of police is dwindling, camera enforcement would seem to be a no-brainer. But this too has moved slowly: Last month, after two years of negotiations, Assemblyman Jonathan Bing secured passage of a bill that would allow enforcement cameras—a significant accomplishment, though it only applies to Select Bus Service lanes.

Talk of New York City streets in the corridors of Albany can spark flashbacks to the last major New York street fight: the threat to automobile dominance that was congestion pricing. That plan also was meant to benefit bus service, by charging cars a fee for entering Manhattan below 60th Street and directing much of the revenue back to the MTA. But despite (or because of) the high-profile campaign by Mayor Bloomberg and Sadik-Khan to nudge Albany toward more-enlightened urbanism, congestion pricing quickly became painted by its opponents as elitist: a tax that would disproportionately affect the outer-borough, automobile-dependent middle class.

“A lot of us think that they are not seizing the full opportunity here,” says Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh. “They are not thinking broadly enough about how to restructure the streets.”

In this case, however, many lawmakers are more ambitious about buses than the bureaucrats. When the MTA and the DOT were putting together their plans for First and Second Avenues, nineteen legislators—including City Council members, State senators and assemblymen, and U.S. representatives Carolyn Maloney, Jerry Nadler, and Nydia Velázquez—wrote a letter pressing them to “take the project further” and build physically separated lanes. The DOT subsequently made changes, but it argued that external circumstances (i.e., Second Avenue subway construction) makes separated lanes impossible. “A lot of us think that they are not seizing the full opportunity here,” says Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh, who helped organize the campaign. “They are not thinking broadly enough about how to restructure the service and restructure the streets.” Kavanagh is not anti-car; he believes, in fact, that more buses on First and Second Avenues might make Lexington Avenue better for cars. “We have to get the balance right,” he says. But the shift in balance should not be to increase bus speed slightly; the shift needs to turn buses into a substitute for rail, with rail-like speeds and rail-like reliability. Kavanagh says that his fellow legislators are prepared to take flak for risks. “We are willing and ready to help facilitate the conversations that need to happen and to sell the ideas to businesses.”

It’s an odd moment: The DOT and the MTA are both captained by mass-transit evangelists fluent in urban best practices. They are committed to working together rather than at the usual cross-purposes. They are moving toward a radical revamping of mass transit and the city street. And they are being chided—by Albany legislators!—for their limited scope.

Perhaps it’s post-traumatic-stress disorder. Although Westchester assemblyman Richard Brodsky, a noted congestion-pricing killer and MTA watcher, speaks excitedly about improved bus service, he’s circumspect about overzealous technocrats: “Someone’s got to be like your aunt, saying, ‘No, no, dear, that won’t work.’ ” But politicians who are hesitant about the bus future end up groping for an argument against it, and the reflexive populist case for the automobile is difficult to make in comparison with buses.

The most likely explanation for MTA and DOT caution is that there has been no leadership from the top. The governor supports bus cameras, but given this particular governor’s political capital, that might do more harm than good. And the mayor, who can be credited for embracing the idea that streets are about more than cars (and who talked about Bus Rapid Transit during his 2001 campaign), has gone missing.

“We’re at the intersection of social change and politics,” says Brodsky, speaking by cell phone from a car in Westchester. “A new paradigm for urban travel is under discussion, and it’s mostly discussed by bloggers. Even though it was with imperiousness that only he could bring to it, the mayor’s PlaNYC 2030 actually started to ask questions about this.” Bloomberg’s third term is unlikely to produce the kind of far-reaching initiatives like PlaNYC—these times, he likes to say, call for sensible solutions to making the city more efficient. The thing about the bus future, though, is that it’s bold and efficient. It is not a heavy lift. If Mayor Bloomberg—and, presumably, Governor Andrew Cuomo—can’t figure out the political appeal of better bus service, it’s hard to imagine them solving any of the city’s more intractable problems.