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Subway on the Street

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But just when you thought the bus future was lost in the traffic of compromise and political calculation, you get on a bus on 34th Street at rush hour.

This spring, the DOT announced details of what it is calling the “34th Street Transitway,” a bus-biased street that includes, yes, a physically separated bus line. The street will be reduced to one-way from river to river, and cars will be banned completely between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.

The new 34th Street isn’t scheduled to open until 2012. But then again, the present-day M34 is already feeling pretty futuristic. The bus shelters tell you when the next bus is coming. When it arrives, you pull out into traffic—only you don’t pull out, you stay in the lane that hugs the curb. The lane isn’t physically separated yet, but it’s painted terra-cotta, and all that’s in front of you are the taillights of other buses. And then—wait: one Con Ed truck. But your bus driver pulls around the truck, and pretty soon you are across Ninth Avenue, Eighth Avenue, Seventh Avenue, and zipping from Sixth to the Empire State Building with no offending cabs or UPS trucks or Town Cars. A long block goes by in less than a minute.

The glaring intelligence of the idea—put a bunch of people on a big vehicle and keep a path clear—suddenly starts to look like something impossible not to replicate on each of the other thick Manhattan cross streets, like 42nd, 57th, and 23rd. And, while you’re at it, the East River bridges. Pretty quickly, you start thinking of the city as more multimodal all around. What if Flatbush Avenue had Bus Rapid Transit from river to ocean? What if BRT lines finally provided access to chronically underserved neighborhoods like East Elmhurst?

Yes, the mayor is no longer blowing the bus horn, but cities work in mysterious ways. One interpretation of the congestion-pricing battle is that the best way to improve a city is under the radar, when not so many polemicists are watching. And sometimes ideas from elsewhere—like bike commuting or espresso—do creep in and quickly become second nature. Every time Jay Walder mentions his experience in London, he girds himself for at least one wiseass New Yorker rolling his eyes. “There’s a phrase, ‘Only in New York,’ and the phrase means we’re the best, right? But the funny thing is, for some reason we’ve come up with the idea that it means ‘Only, we can’t do it in New York,’ ” says Walder. The question is whether, attitude aside, this city can still recognize a good idea when it’s staring us in the face.


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