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NYC Buses: Time for a Turnaround

New Yorkers take 2.5 million rides on the city’s buses every day. While NYC’s buses provide essential transit, especially in areas beyond the reach of the subway, they are among the nation’s slowest and least reliable.

Now a coalition of transit advocates are promoting practical strategies to improve the performance of NYC buses systemwide.

Transit advocates knew something was wrong when they observed declining bus ridership despite increasing population, a growing economy, and record-high subway ridership. To figure out what could be done about it, they spoke to industry experts and researched successful efforts in peer cities to identify common sense solutions to NYC’s bus problems. This research is summarized in their report “Turnaround: Fixing New York City’s Buses”.

The bus system faces big challenges, but these challenges have clear, proven solutions. By transforming how riders get on and off the bus, designing streets to prioritize buses, adopting better methods to keep buses on schedule, and redesigning the bus network and routes, policy makers in city government and the MTA can turn around the decline of the city’s buses and attract riders back to the system.

We’ll get to see how serious public officials are about tackling these problems on October 6, when the City Council transportation committee holds an oversight hearing on how to improve the quality of NYC bus service.

This Streetfilm was produced in partnership with TransitCenter, the second in a series of four films examining transit in American cities. If you enjoyed this one, check out the first film, “High Frequency: Why Houston is Back on the Bus.”

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DOT Moves Ahead With Redesign of Deadly Myrtle-Wyckoff Intersection

After a one-day trial in April, this block will soon be car-free year-round. Photo: David Meyer

DOT is moving ahead with a new plaza and safety improvements at the intersection of Myrtle Avenue, Wyckoff Avenue, and Palmetto Street on the border of Brooklyn and Queens, the Ridgewood Times reports, with work slated to start today. The project got a thumbs up from one of the neighboring community boards and a thumbs down from the other but has enjoyed strong support from local Council Member Antonio Reynoso throughout the process.

The Myrtle-Wyckoff transit hub is served by two subway lines and six bus routes and sees much more foot traffic than auto traffic. It’s also a six-spoke intersection with many turning conflicts. Motorists have killed three people there since 2009. In 2013, a turning MTA bus driver killed Ella Bandes in a crosswalk. DOT’s subsequent adjustments to reduce conflicts did not prevent another turning MTA bus driver from killing Edgar Torres the following year. Bandes’s parents, Judy Kottick and Ken Bandes, have repeatedly called on DOT to take stronger steps to save lives.

DOT’s redesign will convert one block of Wyckoff, between Myrtle and Gates Avenue, to a car-free space, making it safer for people to walk between the Myrtle-Wyckoff subway station and the Ridgewood Bus Terminal on Palmetto [PDF]. In addition to installing the plaza, DOT will extend sidewalks at corners, shortening crossing distances and slowing motorist turns. The potential for vehicle movements to conflict with pedestrian movements will be greatly reduced.

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DOT’s 5-Year Plan: Faster Buses, Smarter Parking, 5-Boro Citi Bike, Lots More

NYC DOT published a new strategic plan yesterday [PDF], marking the first time the agency has refreshed its guiding document under Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner Polly Trottenberg.

stratplanIn addition to synthesizing a lot of work that DOT has previously announced (pedestrian safety plans, Select Bus Service routes, a wider Brooklyn Bridge promenade), the update includes several new projects and initiatives. The big headline-grabber is a center-running two-way protected bike lane on Delancey Street connecting the Williamsburg Bridge and Allen Street, slated for next year.

Advocates have been calling to complete that missing link in the bike network for ages. With the L train shutdown coming up in 2019, time is of the essence to get a safe, high-capacity bikeway on Delancey to handle the swarms of people on bikes who’ll come over the bridge. The Delancey project is one of four bridge access projects DOT aims to complete in the next two years. Though DOT doesn’t name the other bridges in the plan, it says the projects in its Harlem River bridges initiative will be a priority.

There’s a mountain of other stuff in the strategic plan. While some of the goals should be more ambitious (10 miles of protected bike lanes per year isn’t enough in the Vision Zero era) and the benchmarks for success could be more specific (most timetables call for hitting key milestones either by 2017 or by 2021, the last year of a hypothetical second term for de Blasio), the ideas are solid.

In a way the document underscores the urgency of securing more funds and political backing from City Hall for DOT’s initiatives — given sufficient resources, DOT is going to put them to good use.

Here’s my compilation of new ideas and goals from DOT that I think Streetsblog readers will find especially interesting.

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De Blasio Doesn’t Need to Defend His Bike Policies, He Needs to Take Action

DOT will add 18 more miles of protected lanes to this map in 2016, but there's a lot of work left to do to create a cohesive citywide network of safe bike routes. Map: Jon Orcutt

DOT will add 18 more miles of protected lanes to this map in 2016, but there’s a lot of work left to do to create a cohesive citywide network of safe bike routes. Map: Jon Orcutt

Two days before a mass demonstration and bike ride to demand more action from the de Blasio administration to prevent cyclist deaths, the mayor and DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg made a media play that seems designed to deflect pressure, announcing that the city is on track to build a record 18 miles of protected bike lanes this year.

With bicyclist deaths on the rise, the mayor should be redoubling his efforts to redesign streets for safer cycling in order to achieve his goal of zero traffic fatalities by 2024. Instead he’s getting defensive.

It’s true that DOT’s progress in 2016 stacks up well compared to previous years, and the current batch of projects includes important new protected bike lane segments on streets like Queens BoulevardAmsterdam Avenue, and Chrystie Street.

The fact remains, however, that recent additions to the bike network have not been sufficient to prevent a troubling increase in cyclist deaths this year. For two years running, de Blasio has refused to increase the budget for street redesigns and accelerate the implementation of projects that are proven to save lives. If the mayor chose to make street redesigns a higher priority, DOT could improve safety on many more streets each year.

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Reynoso Tells DOT: Grand Street Needs a Safer Bike Lane ASAP

Council Member Antonio Reynoso today urged DOT to upgrade the bike lanes on the Grand Street in North Brooklyn. The existing painted lanes did not protect Matthew von Ohlen, who was struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver in July.

Antonio Reynoso. Photo: NYC DOT

In a letter sent this afternoon to DOT Brooklyn Borough Commissioner Keith Bray, Reynoso calls for “the immediate installation of safety mitigations along Borinquen Place/Grand Street from the BQE to the Metropolitan Ave Bridge.”

Grand Street is an essential bike connection between the bridge and Williamsburg, Bushwick, and Ridgewood. But its painted bike lanes are often blocked by double-parked cars and provide limited separation from the heavy truck traffic generated by nearby industrial areas.

Pointing to the impending L Train shutdown, which will disrupt trips for hundreds of thousands of subway riders, Reynoso says the local streets are poorly designed for current needs, let alone additional demands:

We should be making a plan now to best prioritize bus, bike, and pedestrian travel that gives community residents the opportunity to move safely and efficiently. Grand Street already serves as a main connector to and from Manhattan, yet the corridor is not equipped with adequate safety measures to accommodate the increasing number of pedestrians and cyclists who use the street.

At Brooklyn Community Board 1’s August full board meeting and again at last Thursday’s transportation committee meeting, Von Ohlen’s friends and family called for a protected bike lane on Grand Street. Von Ohlen, 35, was riding on Grand Street early in the morning on July 3 when the driver of a Chevy Camaro knocked him off his bike and dragged him 20 to 30 feet. (Police located the vehicle on July 6, but have not apprehended a suspect.)

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De Blasio’s Office Ducks Responsibility for Erasing Eastern Pkwy Ped Islands

Pedestrian islands on Eastern Parkway barely lasted nine months before DOT ripped them up, and no one in the de Blasio administration will say why. Photo: David Meyer

Pedestrian islands on Eastern Parkway barely lasted nine months before DOT ripped them up, and no one in the de Blasio administration will say why. Photo: David Meyer

DOT removed pedestrian islands on Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights yesterday, undoing years of street safety advocacy work on the part of local residents and community board members with no public process, and no one in the de Blasio administration is taking responsibility.

Earlier this week, the Post reported that organizers of the West Indian Day Parade requested that concrete medians at Kingston and Brooklyn avenues be destroyed so floats and trucks “can navigate the roadway” for the event, which is held once a year. It’s not clear how the islands, which were installed in 2015, would impact the parade, since identical street treatments have been in place for years elsewhere along the route.

We asked City Hall if the order to remove the islands originated with the mayor’s office. “This was an NYPD directive, not City Hall’s,” de Blasio spokesperson Austin Finan told us via email.

NYPD referred us to DOT. When we called DOT for comment, the person who answered the phone said all agency press reps were away from their desks. DOT got back to us, but only to ask which NYPD staffer referred us to DOT.

Brooklyn Community Board 8, which endorsed the project that included the islands, was not notified that they would be removed, according to Rob Witherwax, a longtime street safety advocate who serves on the board’s transportation committee. Witherwax said he learned about the changes on Streetsblog.

DOT rarely undertakes street safety projects without the approval of the local community board, but the agency does not always consult boards before removing bike and pedestrian infrastructure.

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Eyes on the Street: Phase 2 of Queens Boulevard Redesign Takes Shape

Green paint is down on a new section of the Queens Boulevard bike lane in Elmhurst.

The second phase of the Queens Boulevard redesign runs from 74th Street to Eliot Avenue [PDF], extending east from phase one, which was implemented in Woodside last year. After construction wraps up this summer, there will be 2.5 miles of continuous median-aligned bike lanes on the most important east-west route in Queens.

In addition to the bike lane, the project calms car traffic and creates safer walking conditions. Below is a new crosswalk at a stop-controlled transition from the center roadway to the service road at Cornish Avenue. Previously, the design enabled drivers to merge quickly, without stopping.

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DOT, NYPD Remove New Eastern Parkway Ped Islands for Once-a-Year Parade

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The city is removing two pedestrian islands from Eastern Parkway to accommodate the West Indian Day Parade, but the parade has passed three other islands for years, including this one by the Brooklyn Museum. Image: Google Earth

DOT and NYPD are destroying two concrete pedestrian islands the city installed less than a year ago on Eastern Parkway at the request of organizers of next weekend’s West Indian Day Parade, the Post reports.

Instead of making the parade accommodate permanent pedestrian infrastructure, the city is undoing safety measures that protect people 365 days out of the year to accommodate an event on a single day.

The medians — at the intersections of Kingston and Brooklyn Avenues — were installed in December as part of a Safe Routes to Schools plan for Arista Prep Academy and Nursery School and the Oholei Torah yeshiva that was in the works for 10 years [PDF]. The intersection of Kingston and Eastern Parkway is also a Vision Zero priority intersection where seven people were severely injured from 2009 and 2013.

The West Indian Day Parade draws more than a million people to Eastern Parkway every Labor Day. DOT must have been aware of the parade when planning the project.

It’s not clear why the parade is incompatible with the islands, especially since the route has already passed by three concrete pedestrian islands west of Washington Avenue for years. Those islands will not be removed. Parade officials were nevertheless able to convince the city to remove the two new concrete islands.

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DOT Posts East River Bridge Bike Counts, But Not as Open Data

DOT has posted detailed bike counts from the four East River bridges from April through July of this year, a promising new step in making its data on bicycling publicly available. The data was released as monthly PDFs that include bike counts on each bridge, cumulative precipitation, and temperature ranges for each day.

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The increasingly crowded Queensboro Bridge north outer roadway. Image via Streetfilms

It’s the first time DOT has published such granular information. But the release would be better if the counts were published as a feed on the city’s open data portal, which would make it much easier to analyze the information.

DOT has been counting bicyclists on the Manhattan, Brooklyn, Williamsburg, and Queensboro bridges since the 1980s, but only since 2014 has it deployed automated counters to collect a more robust data set. The city used to only count bicyclists a few days out of each month. Now it counts every day.

Last year’s “screenline” bike counts (which include the Staten Island Ferry Whitehall Terminal and the Hudson River Greenway at 50th Street, in addition to the bridges) were not released until this past May. Not only will the timely release of data speed up public access, but the greater detail in these spreadsheets can also lead to a better understanding of how factors like temperature or precipitation affect cycling rates.

To measure changes in cycling volumes, DOT uses counts from weekdays without precipitation, to ensure that it is comparing apples to apples. Using this method, the new counts show that the number of cyclists riding over the bridges increased by 7.9, 7.2, 10.3 percent respectively in April, June, and July, compared to the same months the previous year. In May, the count decreased 3.7 percent.

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Eyes on the Street: Drivers Can Now Park All Over the E 38th Street Bike Lane

Mere weeks after installing a parking-protected bike lane on East 38th Street in Marine Park, DOT removed the protection, caving to complaints about the narrower roadway even though the motor vehicle lane was still a roomy 12 feet wide.

Streetsblog reader Jeffrey Diamond shot this video of how the bike lane, which is part of a project designed to improve bike access to the Jamaica Bay Greenway, is working now that it’s not protected. (Diamond also has video of the entire Marine Park bike lane project.)

As you can see, 38th Street has resumed its function as a drop-off zone free-for-all by the park, rife with sloppy, illegal parking and standing. Odds are, losing the ability to easily double-park was what stoked the complaints to DOT in the first place. Diamond warns that once recreational sports start back up in the fall, the bike lane obstructions will only get worse.

The irony is that more people could safely access Marine Park by bicycle instead of driving — if they had good bicycle infrastructure connecting them to it. Instead, the neighborhood keeps its double-parking zone.