Southern Brooklyn

Our Mass Transit Future – Part 1: What Is Wrong With Select Bus Service?

Source: tracktwentynine / Flickr

THE COMMUTE: Last week, I mentioned how the benefits of Select Bus Service (SBS) have been exaggerated and the disadvantages minimized, and how the MTA continues to push forward with additional proposed routes without performing proper evaluations of existing routes. I have also written several times about why the Nostrand Avenue corridor is the wrong choice for SBS. The issue goes much deeper than just the removal of a few parking spaces. That is not the reason I oppose it. SBS, or Bus Rapid Transit as it is called elsewhere, has its place as part of a coordinated transportation policy. However, in New York, we have no such policy. SBS is mostly being used as a substitute for not constructing new subway lines or reactivating existing rights of way. In this first part of a three-part series, I discuss SBS in greater detail.

The Beginnings Of SBS

SBS made sense along the first corridor where it was implemented, Fordham Road and Pelham Parkway in The Bronx. It was defeated along Merrick Boulevard in Queens. Then DOT and the MTA turned to a new strategy, that of using SBS as an excuse to not plan for the future with the construction of new rapid transit lines, ruling them out forever, because construction costs are so high in New York City — $2.3 billion per mile for Second Avenue.

We have existing rights of way that are unused or underused, which can be converted to light rail, heavy rail, people movers, or even monorail at a fraction of what a new subway would cost. The Long Island Railroad’s (LIRR) Bay Ridge Line, just south of Avenue H, is a prime example. The Triboro RX Plan has been discussed in transit circles for decades but has gone nowhere.

In Manhattan

Why do you suppose the MTA chose First Avenue and Second Avenue as the second SBS corridor? Did it make any sense to build SBS along a street where a subway is being proposed and constructed? Of course not. Not to mention the fact that its operation would be disturbed by the subway construction, which will continue for years. This corridor was chosen for one reason only — as an excuse to not build the lower portion of the Second Avenue subway, which, technically, still is planned but unfunded, with no funding likely to be forthcoming. By exaggerating the benefits of SBS, the city can claim that the completed portion north of 63rd Street is all that is necessary and the long promised subway need not be completed or extended to Brooklyn, as once envisioned.

SBS’s success has been exaggerated by using primarily only one barometer, the amount of time buses save making their runs. Reduced bus travel times mean fewer buses are needed. That translates into lower operating costs. That is the real reason for implementation, and that most of the costs are not being paid by the MTA. Lower operating costs are good, but does it help you, the passenger? That would be the true measure of success, not just if it saves the MTA money.

The MTA would like to convince you that you are saving time because buses travel faster, but is that really the case? The answer is yes, if you are making a long trip. However, if your trip is short, the answer is maybe, or perhaps your trip is now even longer.

The SBS makes fewer stops than the Limited it replaces. (SBS, when first announced in 2003, was to supplement Limited service, not replace it.) That means longer walks to and from the bus stops. The MTA quotes timesavings in terms of minutes saved along the entire line. How many actually realize those savings by riding an entire SBS line? For shorter trips, the MTA refers to percentages by stating that your time on the bus will be reduced by 15 or 20 percent. Using percentages gives the impression you will be saving more than only the three to six minutes actually saved, unless you are travelling a long distance by bus, like half the length of Manhattan (6.7 miles), in which case you would save considerable time.

Some Limited passengers have switched to slower locals since their bus stops were eliminated, resulting in longer trip times for them. Many believe that local service has been negatively impacted, since SBS was instituted. On First Avenue and Second Avenue, there have been complaints of 20-minute waits or longer for a local while three to five SBS buses pass. For those who have to walk an extra five minutes to board at an SBS stop and another extra five minutes when they get off, where is their timesavings? Also, increased travel times for local passengers is not a concern of the MTA when measuring SBS’s success. Only SBS passengers are surveyed for their opinions.

The MTA supposedly uses a model that factors in walking distance in projecting trip times. As I mentioned last week, the model’s assumptions and how it works have not been made public. You know the old saying: “Garbage in, garbage out?” If the MTA is proud of its model why have they not shared any information about it? In none of the corridors where SBS is operating have there been any actual data shared showing savings of passenger trip times. As of six years ago, the model was not even sophisticated enough to do planning on the local level, but only useful in assessing regional trends. Is it more accurate today? Who knows? Does it use outdated 2000 census data as input? Again — who knows? Only the MTA knows, and they are not talking.

It is insufficient merely for the MTA to state that they have a model and we should just trust that it works fine. Has the MTA is been upfront with us in the past revealing all the facts? No, they have not. So why should we believe them now? In their B44 SBS presentations, such as the one presented before CB15, the fact that a lane of moving traffic was being removed in parts of the corridor was never even mentioned. One had to study the diagrams and know the current number of lanes to determine that. They also were not up front in responding to the concerns of the board, which is why they oppose it.

SBS on 34th Street, the third corridor where it was established, and one that I initially supported, has thus far been a miserable failure, due to lack of enforcement of the bus lane. Bus stops at major transfer points such as Lexington Avenue have been eliminated, necessitating extra walks for some, negating the one, two, or three minutes that may be saved. (Also, it replaced the local service so you cannot avoid the SBS and not walk further, perhaps.) That’s it. Even if you ride from First Avenue to Sixth Avenue, you only save a couple of minutes. That is, if prepaying your fare does not cause you to miss the bus, in which case your trip could actually take longer.

In Staten Island

In Staten Island, along Hylan Boulevard, the other corridor where SBS was recently implemented, I wonder if more could have been accomplished simply by improving local bus access to Staten Island Rapid Transit stations, rather than by constructing an SBS line. It is really just a Limited bus with specially-marked SBS stops and buses painted in the SBS paint scheme. The exclusive lane is only in effect only for three hours a day and not a unique feature of SBS. There is no fare prepayment because usage is not heavy enough to warrant it. Also, there are no bus bulbs at stops to ease boarding. Its only distinguishing feature as SBS is the priority traffic signals for buses, which are not yet in effect.

Travel timesavings, thus far, is half what was predicted. Motorists have complained about reduced roadway capacity caused by the exclusive lanes. DOT’s response is: If you don’t like it, take the bus. Fine, if the bus takes you where you want to go. However, even with the addition of free transfers, most Staten Island / Brooklyn trips by bus will still require three or four buses and two fares. While two buses in Staten Island are allowed for one fare, a second bus in Brooklyn will cost a double fare and the ride will still take longer than by auto. SBS is just not a suitable alternative for many trips, so DOT’s response to drivers is simply inappropriate.

Next Week: “Our Mass Transit Future – Part 2: What Happened to Democracy?” will discuss where SBS is needed, where else it is a poor replacement for rail, and what needs to be done to safeguard our future.

The Commute is a weekly feature highlighting news and information about the city’s mass transit system and transportation infrastructure. It is written by Allan Rosen, a Manhattan Beach resident and former Director of MTA/NYC Transit Bus Planning (1981).

Disclaimer: The above is an opinion column and may not represent the thoughts or position of Sheepshead Bites. Based upon their expertise in their respective fields, our columnists are responsible for fact-checking their own work, and their submissions are edited only for length, grammar and clarity. If you would like to submit an opinion piece or become a regularly featured contributor, please e-mail nberke [at] sheepsheadbites [dot] com.