Who’s Against Better Sidewalks and Bus Stops? These People…

CB 8 members oppose wider sidewalks and bus stops because they fear it will lead to gridlock. Photo: DOT [PDF]

Some CB 8 members oppose wider sidewalks at bus stops because they fear it will lead to gridlock. Photo: DOT [PDF]

Bus bulbs are sidewalk extensions at bus stops that enable passengers to board without the driver pulling in and out of traffic. They save transit riders time, shorten crossing distances for pedestrians, and keep sidewalks from getting cluttered by bus stop furniture. Who could be against that?

Well, on the Upper East Side, a few members of Manhattan Community Board 8 raised a stink Wednesday night about a plan to add bus bulbs to 86th Street. They were convinced bus bulbs would lead to gridlock and refused to believe a DOT analysis showing otherwise.

The plan from NYC DOT and the MTA to upgrade the crosstown M86 to Select Bus Service also calls for real-time bus arrival information kiosks and off-board fare collection, though not bus lanes. The line carries 25,000 riders daily — more passengers per mile than any other NYC bus route — and serves a neighborhood where about three out of every four households do not own a car. The plan would bring a combination of bus bulbs and neckdowns to the corners of Park, Lexington, and Third Avenues [PDF].

DOT first identified the M86 as a possible candidate for Select Bus Service in 2009, and approached CB 8 in 2012 about adding bus bulbs to 86th Street. At the time, the board didn’t object to the suggestion and, seeing that bus bulbs would provide space for off-board fare payment kiosks, asked for the machines [PDF 1, 2]. CB 7, which covers the M86 on the Upper West Side, followed suit and requested off-board fare payment in 2013.

Meanwhile, other projects were moving ahead. A Safe Streets for Seniors project, also supported by the board last year [PDF 12] included painted neckdowns and a pedestrian island on 86th Street at York Avenue [PDF]. A school safety plan included neckdowns along 86th Street and at nearby intersections.

The East 86th Street Association was also working on a streetscape beautification project to upgrade street lights and get money for new curbs, bike racks, trash cans, benches, and tree pits. To make construction simpler, the city combined many of the projects into one contract. DOT and MTA came back last October with a proposal that included street beautification, off-board fare payment, neckdowns, and bus bulbs. CB 8 voted to support the beautification component but held off on the rest [PDF 12].

The M86,

The M86 carries 25,000 riders daily. That’s more people per mile than any other NYC bus. Image: MTA/DOT [PDF]

To the East 86th Street Association, the neckdowns and bus bulbs that will improve the sidewalk for everyone and speed trips for tens of thousands of daily bus riders are just an intrusion on its “beautification” proposal.

Elaine Walsh, president of the East 86th Street Association and a CB 8 member, contends that the neckdowns at 86th and Park Avenue will be too intrusive in the historic district. (But parking lanes filled with late-model cars are historically appropriate, apparently.) The 86th Street Association sent emails to its membership encouraging opposition to the bus bulbs.

Michele Birnbaum, another CB 8 member who also serves as president of Historic Park Avenue, also opposed the neckdowns. “I do not want to see protruding sidewalks disturbing the streetscape,” Birnbaum said. Birnbaum is the same CB 8 member who has spoken against marked crosswalks linking to the East River Greenway and opposed a car-free Central Park because “it’s important that there’s a quick way for traffic to cut through local streets.”

Analysis of bus bulbs across the nation shows they cause minimal driver delay, and any effect is far outweighed by benefits to bus riders [PDF].

That’s true for 86th Street, DOT says. Wednesday night, the agency presented the results of a traffic analysis using vehicle counts on 86th Street. The model, which accounted for pedestrians and double parked vehicles during the morning rush hour, showed that the new configuration would require drivers to merge or wait while the bus is stopped, but would not cause significant delay.

Traffic modeling is not going to sway Walsh. “The whole thing is not realistic. 86th Street does not work that way,” she said of DOT’s analysis. “It will tie up traffic.”

Local council members were noncommittal about adding bus bulbs to 86th Street.

“Council Member [Dan] Garodnick has been an advocate of Select Bus Service routes, and will be meeting with the Department of Transportation to review the study that they released last night,” said spokesperson David Kimball-Stanley.

“I am pleased to have been working with Department of Transportation and the community on improvements to the 86th Street corridor, including safety neckdowns,” said Council Member Ben Kallos, who represents the area east of Lexington. “I am supportive of bus bulbs where they make sense, and will be working with DOT and the community to determine if the proposed location is one of those places.”

Off-board fare payment machines could be installed as early as this spring, with construction of other streetscape elements beginning this summer and wrapping this fall.