Can New York Revolutionize Its Bus System?

Monday, July 12th, 2010

Can the MTA Revolutionize the City’s Bus System?

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.

There’s reason for pessimism:

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.)

But there’s also reason for optimism:

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.

  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.

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