With Debut of B44 SBS, Major Brooklyn Bus Route Poised to Draw More Riders

B44 SBS upgrades existing limited-stop service with bus lanes and other improvements. Photo: Stephen Miller

B44 SBS upgrades existing limited-stop service with bus lanes, off-board fare collection, and other improvements. Photo: Stephen Miller

After years of planning, B44 Select Bus Service launched yesterday on the Nostrand Avenue corridor.  Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, and MTA Chairman and CEO Tom Prendergast marked the occasion this afternoon at a newly-expanded bus stop at Church and Nostrand.

The B44, which serves nearly 40,000 riders each weekday along a 9.3-mile route between the Williamsburg Bridge and Sheepshead Bay, is the sixth SBS line in the city. The upgrade to B44 limited-stop service adds off-board fare collection, curb extensions at bus stops, priority for buses at stop lights (starting next year), and camera-enforced bus lanes. Funded largely by a $28 million federal grant [PDF], B44 SBS is projected to improve travel times by as much as 20 percent.

MTA Chairman and CEO Tom Prendergast, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. Photo: Stephen Miller

MTA Chairman and CEO Tom Prendergast, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. Photo: Stephen Miller

At today’s presser, Bloomberg stressed the need for data-driven transportation policy. “Everybody has a view whether the traffic is better or worse,” he said. “That’s not a way to measure whether traffic is faster or slower.”

Referring to the other five SBS routes, he said, “These things, it turns out, actually do save time. Buses work better and traffic is better. We’re not just trying to guess.”

DOT released a report [PDF] today compiling data from SBS projects on Fordham Road, Webster Avenue, Hylan Boulevard34th Street, and First and Second Avenues. Since 2008, the city has installed 38 miles of SBS lanes. Bus speeds have increased as much as 23 percent while all SBS routes combined have gained 20,000 daily riders after launching.

SBS stops along Nostrand and Rogers Avenues include WalkNYC wayfinding signs featuring area maps and real-time bus arrival information. (Since Bus Time is not scheduled to launch in Brooklyn and Queens until the first half of next year, the signs do not currently show real-time data.) MTA staff assigned to SBS stops during the launch phase were out today showing riders how to pay their fare before boarding the bus.

Local merchants are hoping the speedier buses will draw more customers from the 300,000 people who live within a quarter-mile of the route. Lindiwe Kamau owns a ceramics shop and serves as president of the Nostrand Avenue Merchants Association, which represents retailers between Linden Boulevard and Eastern Parkway. ”We have a lot of merchants who come from out of the area, and they drive, so [parking's] been their main concern,” she told Streetsblog. “We’re trying to support them and turn the situation into a plus.” The association is launching a discount program for riders who show their SBS receipts. So far, 21 businesses have signed up, and Kamau is aiming to involve more retailers before Small Business Saturday on November 30.

“We spent a lot of hours dealing with the transportation issue and speaking with the Department of Transportation and the MTA,” said Kamau, who had been skeptical of the project when it was in the early planning stages. ”We hope that it’s going to bring us some more customers, since it’s going to bring more accessibility.”

The B44 will maintain local northbound service on New York Avenue, while the northbound SBS buses have shifted two blocks west to Rogers Avenue, which has a new dedicated bus lane. ”The travel lanes and the parking lanes are pretty narrow [on New York Avenue],” said Eric Beaton, who directs Bus Rapid Transit programs at NYC DOT. ”It would’ve been a pretty tough place to do anything, and it would’ve had massive community impacts with taking out a lot of parking.”

To speed up service, a number of limited-service stops were eliminated along the route. Some SBS stations in Midwood and Sheepshead Bay, where there are no dedicated bus lanes, are more than a mile apart, which Council Member Jumaane Williams took issue with. Local service, however, was extended to the southern end of the route at Emmons Avenue in Sheepshead Bay. An MTA spokesperson said that stops chosen for SBS had the highest ridership on the route.

Although SBS is operational, the changes are still rolling out along the route: Markings are still being striped along sections of Rogers and Bedford Avenues, and some bus stops still have orange barrels around unfinished construction. Many car drivers have yet to get in the habit of respecting the camera-enforced bus lanes. A separate capital reconstruction of Nostrand Avenue from Flushing to Atlantic Avenues means bus riders have to put up with a bumpy road surface through Bedford Stuyvesant.

A project planned by the Department of Design and Construction will bring improved pedestrian crossings, curb extensions, medians, and plaza space to Williamsburg Bridge Plaza, the northern terminus of the B44. Construction is expected to begin later next year.

Since 2008, the MTA and NYC DOT have implemented six SBS routes. (A seventh, along 125th Street, is planned for next year after an on-again, off-again drama with local community boards and elected officials that resulted in a watered-down plan.)  Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio has promised to “accelerate implementation” of bus improvements, saying he would fast-track a system of “more than 20″ bus rapid transit lines.