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John Petro

The Tremendous Potential (and Ultimate Limitations) of Buses

In this week's New York Magazine, Robert Sullivan looks at the unique potential that revamping the city's bus system has for increasing mobility and access along the city's most heavily-traveled corridors. Specifically, Sullivan describes the introduction of "Select Bus Service" on Fordham Road in the Bronx and similar projects currently underway on First and Second Avenue and 34th Street in Manhattan, and currently under consideration for Norstrand Avenue in Brooklyn.

These Select Bus Service projects incorporate principles of Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, which are meant to enhance the speed and efficiency of buses along specific routes. BRT emulates some of the characteristics of rail travel, such as prepaid fares (you buy your ticket before you board, thereby eliminating the time it takes for bus passengers to look for change or their Metrocard), multiple doors for getting on and off buses, and a dedicated right of way. Other enhancements are aesthetic or meant to attract riders to buses that may not have considered them as a viable transportation option such as special branding and distinctive bus design and painting.

These enhancements can drastically increase bus speeds and accommodate more riders. And because many of these enhancements are relatively low-cost, BRT holds considerable appeal and potential for city transportation officials.

Select Bus Service was first introduced on Fordham Road in the Bronx in June 2008 and the results have been stellar. Travel time along the corridor has decreased by 20 percent, ridership is up 32 percent, and 98 percent of customers report that they are satisfied with the service. Now DOT and the MTA are replicating their success and Manhattan's east side will get Select Bus Service beginning in October 2010.

Improving bus service is a no-brainer since it allows the city to enhance service very quickly at relatively little cost. Select Bus Service should be aggressively rolled out on more corridors in Manhattan, but also critically in underserved neighborhoods in the outer boroughs.

But Select Bus Service is not an adequate substitution for heavy rail--buses simply do not have the same capacity as subways. An enhanced bus route in New York City is estimated to have a capacity of about 6,300 passengers during peak hours. Compare that with 28,000 passengers per hour on the Lexington Avenue line and you'll see that Bus Rapid Transit will never be anything like a "Subway on the Street".

Instead, improving bus service is the low-hanging fruit, the missing link in the city's transportation network. But there is still considerable opposition to Select Bus Service in New York City. Earlier this year, then Democratic mayoral candidate Bill Thompson infuriated progressives by campaigning against enhanced bus service. Claiming that Select Bus Service would hurt neighborhood businesses along Norstrand Avenue because is would take away street parking spaces (never mind that parking will stay intact).

The city will have to battle similar misguided opposition as it moves forward. The DOT is smartly engaging communities served by the new service with community meetings and presentations on the proposed changes to ensure community support. As the success of new lines becomes apparent, it is likely that more communities will demand similar enhancements in their neighborhoods.

And once the city tackles the problem of slow-moving buses, all that is needed is a viable plan to enhance and expand the city's aging subway system. These improvements won't come quite as cheaply, but without them, the city's future will be in jeopardy.

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Posted at 5:39 PM, Jul 07, 2010 in Urban Affairs
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