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The one simple trick to fix NYC bus service


A 14th Street for buses offers a vision for NYC’s future streetscape. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

The past few weeks have been transformational for New York City’s streets. Whether New Yorkers realize it or not, the launch of the 14th St. Busway, after months of delays due to spurious lawsuits, and the lack of a traffic apocalypse on adjacent side streets should usher in a new era of re-envisioned city streets as buses are prioritized on key arteries at the expense of cars, ensuring that the city’s suffering bus network gets the boost it needs to run buses faster and more reliably than ever before. All it took was one simple trick advocates for years have been clamoring for: Get the cars out of the way.

The Busway brings faster buses and more riders

The history of the 14th Street project is one well known about these parts. In its current form, it grew out of the need to repair the L train tunnels following Superstorm Sandy, and we heard whisperings of a car-free busway as early as 2016. As 2017 unfolded, both the RPA and Transportation Alternatives issued calls for redesigning 14th Street to prioritize buses during the L train shutdown, and a year later, Arthur Schwartz, the pro-car villain in this story, filed the first of many lawsuits he would lob toward the city, state, DOT and MTA. Earlier this year, the Governor torpedoed a full-time L train shutdown, but the city rightly forged forward with the busway plans.

In late September, Schwartz finally lost an appeal that allowed DOT and the MTA to implement the vehicle restrictions, and for the past few weeks, the M14 and New York City bus riders have been enjoying the glories of the 14th St. Busway, the first of its kind in the borough of Manhattan. The early going has been a tremendous success for the MTA and DOT, as numbers released by the MTA have made clear. Since the lane restrictions went into effect, the average weekday ridership on the M14 has gone up by around 17% from approximately 26,000 riders per day to over 31,000. Note that this early period includes both Yom Kippur and Columbus Day, and the non-holiday average appears to be closer to 32,000. The M14 has lost nearly 25% of its weekday ridership since 2013, and this reversal, if it holds, would represent the line’s best performance since 2015. Weekend ridership went up by around 33% with only the introduction of the Select Bus Service treatment, and we’re still awaiting enough data on weekend trips since the lane restrictions were implemented.

Travel times are down too. Trips between 3rd and 8th Avenues now take an average of 10.6 minutes, down 30 percent from 15.1 minutes last year, and on-time performance has jumped to 68 percent from 45.6 percent in the weeks since the busway was implemented. I’ve heard many tales from riders noting too that buses have had to wait at stations because drivers have been too far ahead of schedule due to the lack of traffic. For the corridor’s 31,000 bus riders each day, this is an unqualified success and offers a clear path forward for the city and MTA to combat a decade of declining bus ridership.

As predicted, traffic apocalypse fails to materialize

And what of the doom and gloom Arthur Schwartz and his West Village neighbors swore up and down would arrive? It hasn’t materialized yet, according to INRIX, an urban analytics firm brought in to assess the impact of the busway. According to the early numbers, as INRIX notes, the 14th Street Busway “had no discernible performance changes to neighboring roads. As you can see from the table below, travel speeds have generally declined by a few tenths of a mile per hour with the largest decrease coming on 16th St. during the 4 p.m. hour.

INRIX data shows the minimal impacts the busway has had on side street traffic.

INRIX offered some commentary:

It’s remarkable that initial analysis showed little change immediately following this massive road network change. In most instances, a radical change road configuration causes havoc until a new ‘normal’ is established, but in this case it did not. In effect, the driving experience has not changed as a result of the busway’s opening.

The 14th St busway illustrates the common fear associated with removing car lanes for other modes (e.g. bus, bike). According to the data, the displacement of personal vehicles to neighboring roads was negligible, but the time savings for the tens of thousands of daily bus riders was massive. The impact, or lack-there-of, may seem surprising but similar projects around the world have had similar results. The reallocation of space from vehicles to buses represents a far more efficient use of a limited public resource…As a result of this project, more people are getting where they need to be faster and more reliably.

So the traffic apocalypse hasn’t arrived, and the business owners, such as Salvatore Vitale of Joe’s Pizza, who were complaining to Winnie Hu about the traffic restrictions seem to be doing A-OK. In short, everything the project’s proponents knew would happen – faster bus speeds, a reduction in driving, no traffic on side streets – has come to pass, as we seen in countless other cities around the world, and the worst predicted by opponents hasn’t materialized.

A victory lap for advocates and a glimpse at a better future for NYC’s buses

While the immediate history of the 14th St. project dates back only a few years, the first Manhattan busway nearly came to fruition along 34th St. in 2011. That time, then-Mayor Bloomberg gave up in the face of sustained public outcry from NIMBYs along 34th St., and I mourned the missed opportunity. It took nearly a decade for the city to make another attempt, and that is a fate hopefully we can avoid this time around. The advocates are pushing hard for an immediate commitment to more bus lanes and soon.

Thomas DeVito, Transportation Alternatives’ Director of Advocacy, penned a piece in the Daily News urging the rollout of a citywide busway plan. “If we’re smart, we’ll learn from the experience, and see this as just the beginning of a much bigger revolution on streets throughout the five boroughs. Most of New York City’s 2.4 million daily bus riders live in Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Staten Island. It’s in those boroughs and those neighborhoods where commutes are the longest and bus-priority streets are needed the most,” DeVito wrote. “We should not have to wait three years and gear up for a sustained battle to win every project.”

Over at Curbed New York, representatives from all of the city’s transit advocacy organizations offered their thoughts on ways to expand a bus lane prioritization program throughout the city. Aaron Gordon and I joined in with our takes as well. Though you should read everyone’s views, here’s what I had to say:

It’s trite to say everywhere, but how about everywhere and all that once? With the success of 14th Street in their back pockets, DOT and the MTA could roll out multiple busway corridors at once in a variety of neighborhoods at the same time. There is no real reason for a restructuring of streets one at a time other than fear of backlash, and the only real barrier to more busways along more streets in more boroughs right now is political trepidation. As the successes and popularity of the 14th Street pilot grow, so too should the political will.

With that in mind, the next projects should focus on streets outside of Manhattan where subway access is limited, bus ridership is high, and bus speeds are slow. Fordham Road has been an unqualified SBS success story, but traffic plagued speedy bus service. Utica Avenue’s B46 has encountered so many cars blocking its route that the MTA recently had to restructure service and reduce frequencies. Both routes would benefit from a busway.

In Queens, routes serving Flushing and Jamaica would help improve last-mile bus connections while providing transit relief to subway deserts. And in Manhattan, any major crosstown street could support a busway. The city could brush off the old plans for 34th Street or explore the Vision42 proposal, and dedicating most of 125th Street to buses would do wonders for Harlem. I’d also think big—or at least north/south—and explore turning a Manhattan avenue into a busway. Thinking big, after all, is how we can truly transform NYC streets for the better.

The call I issued on Curbed New York over the summer to reform environmental laws to grant de facto approval to transit priority projects still stands as well.

Gordon had previously offered a fuller overview of the Miracle on 14th Street the week after the busway made its debut. “The totality of this shift from a miserable, traffic-clogged thoroughfare to a pleasant urban street with speedy, efficient bus service feels like a miracle,” he wrote. “It is a miracle, when you consider how hard it is for anyone to accomplish anything positive in this city’s transportation scene.”

As the quiet and calm — and it is noticeably quieter without the constant headache-inducing din of traffic — descends upon 14th Street, transit officials and politicians too are taking up the call. Andy Byford told reporters last week that he would “love to replicate [busways] elsewhere” throughout the city, and even though he hasn’t experienced the busway in person yet, Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke at length about the future of the project during his weekly appearance on The Brian Lehrer Show on Friday. Despite hedging about the “test/pilot” nature of the program, the mayor indicated a willingness to expand this type of street treatment elsewhere. I’ll quote at length:

We did this to test this approach and to decide at the end of the test what it meant not just for 14th Street, but what it might mean beyond. But I said at the beginning, you know, this is not something you do for a few weeks. We’re taking that test into next year, and when it’s concluded we’re going to start to think about what it means for every place else. A lot of folks in the community were really concerned about some of the consequences of it, intended and unintended, and whether there’d be more traffic on the side streets and all that. We need to study that over a period of time and be responsive to those concerns as well. But the central reason we did it – and I’m the one who authorized it – is because we’ve got to get people back on the buses, we’ve got to get people to feel more comfortable with mass transit, we’ve got to get cars off the street, and the only way you’re going to get cars off the street is if mass transit works a lot better and is more reliable and faster. So, it’s very encouraging, but to everyone who’s either an advocate or already believes in the approach, we owe it to the whole city and to the community to really give this a thorough test, and then we will have a much stronger case if we make any other changes, going forward, because it’ll be based on a serious body of fact.

The mayor’s statement is a bit of a mealy-mouthed mess of mumbo jumbo, but he seems willing to explore the issue. And when he’s out of office in 27 months, the next mayor can take this busway ball and run with it aggressively. In the vein of DeVito’s call, it shouldn’t take three years — or 18 months — for the city and MTA to begin planning new busways.

I’m going to close this for now with a thought on the mayor’s words. As part of the back-and-forth with Lehrer, de Blasio also said, “It’s never been done before in New York City, and we’ve got to get it right, and we’ve got to play the long game.” The long game, of course, is catching up with us as the climate continues to change at a breakneck pace, and the city must do what it can quickly to curtail the use of private automobiles. With congestion pricing on the horizon, busways can be a major part of ensuring adequate transit service for those who leave their cars at home.

And yet, part of me thinks this reaction from the city has been a bit too much. The busway is great, and we knew it would be great because busways like this one work all over the world. We don’t need to pretend New York City invented the busway, and we don’t need to spend months studying the effects of the busway on bus service or traffic on adjacent streets. We have years of data from a variety of cities, and instead of falling back on New York Exceptionalism, we should push forward for more bus treatments all over the place as soon as possible. It’s not very complicated: Getting cars out of the way does wonders for bus service. That’s one secret trick and the true vision New York City and its bus riders deserve.

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