Every day, 32,000 bus riders traverse Manhattan on 125th Street, crossing Harlem at a glacial pace. Improvements are on the way as part of the next round of Select Bus Service improvements, with DOT and the MTA recently holding a second public workshop (PDF ) for the project, though the precise changes that bus riders can expect remain to be determined.
The M60 is the busiest of the street’s four major lines, carrying 9,600 passengers per day, with most of them making local trips (only one in ten M60 riders take the bus to LaGuardia Airport). As it moves down 125th Street, the M60 spends 60 percent of its time stopped in traffic and moves at an average of 2.7 miles per hour, according to a DNAinfo report  on this Monday’s workshop. That’s not any faster than the typical walking speed, and far below the citywide average bus speed of 7.7 mph.
What’s causing these delays? A big part of the answer will come as no surprise to anyone who takes the bus in Harlem: Illegal parking. Bus drivers must constantly weave around illegally parked cars and jockey with traffic, slowing their trips to a crawl.
DOT set up a camera on every block of 125th Street between Second and Amsterdam Avenues, taking a photo every 60 seconds from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. The camera between Fifth and Madison Avenues captured double-parked drivers 41 percent of the day, according to DNAinfo .
At the first public workshop, DOT and MTA announced  that 125th Street is in line to receive a slate of improvements similar to those seen on other Select Bus Service corridors, including dedicated bus lanes, off-board fare collection, low-floor buses, priority for buses at stop lights and reducing the number of stops served by SBS buses. Scheduled for completion by 2014, the changes are projected to speed rides from Morningside Heights to LaGuardia by at least 12 percent, with the biggest gains coming between Lexington Avenue and the airport, where trips will be up to 18 percent faster.
The rampant illegal parking also highlights the need to price the curb and enforce the rules so double-parked vehicles don’t block the bus lane.
The status quo of underpriced curbside parking clearly isn’t benefitting anyone. Whether merchants will appreciate that remains to be seen, but their customers will benefit from higher parking turnover and the resulting reductions in double-parking and traffic cruising for spots. As part of its research, DOT staff surveyed 200 businesses between Second and Amsterdam Avenues, finding that 59 percent of customers walk and 20 percent take the bus.
The 125th Street project has been spurred on by transit activists  who saw Select Bus Service improvements on First and Second Avenues and wanted to bring them to Harlem’s poky crosstown buses.
“We’re very supportive of the project overall,” said Jake Carlson of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, which is a member of the project’s newly-formed Community Advisory Committee. Carlson raised concerns about where the MTA and DOT go from here and how community input will factor into the agencies’ decision-making process. “All we know is that there will be another meeting sometime in the spring,” he said.