Get on the Bus: A Radical Plan for Brooklyn’s Bus Network

A view of Brooklyn. Photo: KR Blokhin/Getty Images

While New York City’s subway crisis receives the bulk of public outcry and attention from elected officials, the decade-long bus crisis goes almost unrecognized — and yet fixing it could help take pressure off the subways. For multiple reasons, including unreliable schedules, service cuts, competition from cheaper dollar vans, and gentrification, Brooklyn’s bus network has seen ridership fall more than 20 percent since 2007 — that’s 50 million fewer trips per year. This is a disaster for working-class New Yorkers: If they work inside the borough (and outside downtown Brooklyn) they must ride the bus, and among people working in Brooklyn, transit commuters have a median earning of $32,300 compared with $50,900 for drivers.

The good news is that much better service is feasible without blowing the budget. The existing resources of the MTA can be redeployed more productively. But that would require the mayor to have the courage to support a plan that calls for new street designs prioritizing buses over cars along Brooklyn’s busiest, most congested corridors. We have been studying other cities’ strategies to improve their bus networks and have designed a plan at NYU’s Marron Institute of Urban Management that draws on best practices from around the world to save Brooklyn’s bus network from collapse. But this is not just about a stopgap solution to prevent a catastrophe: We expect our redesign to induce enough additional ridership to surpass the 2000s peak. The research on how to build bus ridership is clear: Passengers want reliable, fast, frequent service. If the city and MTA work on providing this service, passengers will flock to it.

The first and most critical step is to redesign the streets to give the bus a fighting chance on congested roadways like Flatbush, Church, and Nostrand Avenues. This means installing bus lanes that run in the center of the street rather than along the curb, with a few inches of raised curb physically separating them from general traffic. Instead of jockeying with taxis, delivery vehicles, and double-parked cars for access to the curb, center-running bus lanes avoid all of those hindrances. Furthermore, by running in the center of the street, the bus will avoid right-turning vehicles every other block. There’s an added bonus, too: When we surveyed and interviewed bus operators in Brooklyn, they told us that managing the different users in the roadway made their jobs more stressful.

The second step is designing a bus network that allows passengers to access as much of the borough as possible without adding a route on every street and a stop on every corner. The existing bus network has accumulated kludges: every time a new development has happened, such as Kings Plaza, Starrett City, and Gateway Center, the MTA has extended the buses there in a haphazard fashion. The result has failed everyone and helps explain the staggering decline in bus ridership. Part of our redesign, especially in the newer-developed parts of Brooklyn, rationalizes these routes by prioritizing key streets and enabling transfers along intersecting routes. A good example can be seen along Flatlands Avenue, where the B103 used to dip down to Avenue M before terminating on Flatlands Avenue. Now, we have drawn a route along Flatlands Avenue that hits the subway and extends down Flatlands Avenue to connect with the Gateway Center, a major shopping destination. For those wishing to head to Canarsie, they could now transfer to an intersecting bus along either Remsen Avenue or Rockaway Parkway.

What’s more, when we examined the spacing of more than 1,500 bus stops in Brooklyn, we found that the average distance between stops was 720 feet. Most cities in Western Europe and East Asia have standardized on a stop every quarter to third mile — that is, every 1,300 to 1,800 feet, more than twice as far as is common in the United States. In Barcelona, the ongoing network redesign has widened the stop spacing from about one every 600 feet in the center of the city to one every 1,200, and alongside the route redesign this has led to sharp increases in ridership.

Mouse over the new Brooklyn bus network proposed by Levy and Goldwyn to see more.

Consolidating routes and stops and asking passengers to walk a bit farther to the bus stop may be heartless, but permits buses to run much faster and more frequently. The Washington, D.C. Metro’s models find that a 10 percent increase in speed raises bus ridership by 4–10 percent; we believe our entire package, including bus priority and stop consolidation, will raise the average speed by 35 percent. Moreover, consolidating weaker routes allows concentrating service on the remaining system. There are trade-offs: People will have to walk farther to access their local bus, but it also means that they will have dramatically shorter, more predictable waiting times for faster, more reliable buses that will connect them to more of the borough.

Third, buses must arrive more often. Currently, there are bus routes in Brooklyn that schedule a bus every 10, 20, or 30 minutes between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. But the uncertainty of traffic adds delays that result in bunched buses that undermine the sober logic of the schedule. Our plan axes and combines many routes, but pays the riders back by running each bus route at worst every six minutes from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day.

The elements in our plan can be implemented individually, but work best together. High-quality bus lanes reduce the delays and uncertainty caused by traffic. Stop consolidation is responsible for a majority of the speedup in our plan. Route consolidation permits very high frequency on the network. All of this will work together to raise bus ridership. Trips that are unlikely today will become more feasible. New Yorkers almost never connect between two buses today, but the experience of Barcelona shows that improving frequency from an average of 12–15 minutes to six minutes will make people much more willing to transfer.

By eliminating the delays created by traffic, by changing the design of Brooklyn’s streets, and by reducing the wait time for service, New Yorkers will be able to plan their day around the bus, confident that it will get them to work, school, or a doctor’s appointment on time. While many of our recommendations are technical, we recognize that this fight requires political muscle over slide rules. The city needs a mayor who will embrace a bold vision for change. Improving the bus network can make it part of the solution to New York’s transit woes, rather than the option of last resort.

Dr. Alon Levy is an affiliated scholar at NYU’s Marron Institute of Urban Management. He has a Ph.D. in mathematics from Columbia University. Twitter: @alon_levy

Dr. Eric Goldwyn is a professor at NYU and research scholar at NYU’s Marron Institute of Urban Management. He has a Ph.D. in urban planning from Columbia University. Twitter: @ericgoldwyn

Get on the Bus: A Radical Plan for Brooklyn’s Bus Network