You would never guess it from the dispiriting news coming out of the MTA, but if you want to see the future of New York, then head up to the Bronx and take a bus. This is not the future of New York in which everyone has a solar-powered jet pack that takes them high over the city’s organic farmyards. Nor is this the apocalyptic future in which the final few New Yorkers with health care live just beyond the moat that surrounds what was once called Yankee Stadium. This is the future as seen in a new bus line: the Bx12 Select Bus Service, or SBS, for short.
The future highlighted by the Bx12 SBS takes as a very depressing starting point the fact that the New York City subway system, once the envy of the world, is stalled. Not literally—as when we sat on dark, un-air-conditioned cars between stations on the way to Simon and Garfunkel reunion concerts—but still, our subways are strained under a ridership that has grown 60 percent since 1990 and a permanent budgetary crisis that has, over the past two years, only gotten worse. Last month, faced with an $800 million budget gap, the MTA canceled two subway lines and 37 bus lines and dramatically reduced late-night and weekend service. No one is expecting Albany’s fiscal situation to improve anytime soon.
If this were, say, Shanghai, one could imagine the federal government sweeping in and not just restoring transit funding but modernizing and expanding our underground tracks. Shanghai didn’t even have a subway system until 1995, and it is now in the midst of dramatically expanding it to 22 lines. But this is not Shanghai; this is New York, where the first subway line was built in 1904 and many lines still use the antiquated (and sometimes dangerous) signal system that was installed about 25 years after Edison patented his lightbulb. The New York subway system’s grandest plan at the moment involves completing one new line on Second Avenue. It was proposed in 1929. It is currently scheduled to open its first branch in 2016. It will stretch 33 blocks, or just under two miles.
So the future of movement in New York—how we get from home to work, how we navigate the city—is not going to be about subways. But what about the bus? True, buses are what most people think of when they think of not getting anywhere: senior citizens waiting in lines, guys counting out change, double-parked cars. They are less sexy than subways and tend to be ignored until the MTA announces another round of service cuts. The last time buses were new was in the forties, when they were installed around the city as a cheaper, more flexible alternative to streetcars.
To a large extent, flexibility remains the bus’s chief advantage—unrailed, they can go wherever we want them to go—and they’re a relative bargain. But over the last decade, in a few transit-enlightened cities around the world, the bus has received a dramatic makeover. It has been reengineered to load passengers more quickly. It has become much more energy-efficient. And, most important, the bus system—the network of bus lines and its relationship to the city street—has been rethought. Buses that used to share the street with cars and trucks are now driving in lanes reserved exclusively for buses and are speeding through cities like trains in the street. They are becoming more like subways.
One city that has transformed its bus system is London, which in 2001 hired a New Yorker named Jay Walder to help overhaul its transit system. At the time, Londontown was gridlocked. Walder looked at the Tube, then carrying about 3 million daily passengers, and then looked at the bus system, which was carrying almost 6 million. “The recognition was that it was virtually impossible to get anything done on the rail system quickly,” Walder recalls. “So we set out to work on the buses. And what you found was that buses were already the backbone, and you had the opportunity in a relatively short time to make them a lot better.”
Last summer, Walder was tapped by Governor Paterson to become head of the MTA. This is not a good time to be in charge of a sprawling bureaucracy dependent on Albany money, and it’s a strange time to be doing so as an optimist. But Walder is a hopeful bureaucrat, and he believes that if there’s any way to grow New York transit, it’s through buses. The MTA and the city’s Department of Transportation recently unveiled plans to install dedicated bus lanes on First and Second Avenues this fall and on 34th Street in 2012. These, along with the Bx12 line in the Bronx, are being promoted as trial programs for what Walder hopes will be, by the end of his tenure, a reconfiguration of the city’s streets. “When the city adopts a world-class ‘Bus Rapid Transit’ system, people are going to have a tough time, efficiency-wise, telling a bus apart from a subway—it’s going to be like a subway with a view,” predicts Kyle Wiswall, general counsel for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A Bus-Centric Second Avenue
This fall, First and Second Avenues will be redesigned to accommodate Manhattan’s first Select Bus Service. The new M15 SBS will introduce some features that have radically improved bus systems abroad—and avoid others that planners have deemed too controversial.
1. Pay on the street
More than a third of all bus delays can be attributed to the time it takes passengers to board. Here they will swipe their MetroCards at street kiosks before the bus arrives.
2. Enter at the back
A new fleet of buses improve boarding time by being lower to the ground—and allowing rear-door entrance.
3. Hold the light green
Soon after Select Bus Service launches, buses will be equipped with “signal prioritization” technology that tells upcoming traffic lights to delay turning red.
4. Own the lane
A painted lane will be reserved for buses, and cameras will photograph stray cars and trucks. But some activists—and politicians—criticize the program for not including physically separated lanes.
The Superbus Worldwide
Major international cities have transformed their public-transit infrastructure for a fraction of the cost of building new subway lines. The most important element of Bus Rapid Transit: keeping cars out of bus lanes.
Photographs: Top to Bottom, Courtesy of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy; Ereissulapdivad’s Flickr; Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images; Courtesy of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy