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On Webster Avenue SBS, Buses Run 20% Faster and More People Are Riding

Bus lanes and off-board fare collection have resulted in big speed increases for Bx41 SBS riders on Webster Avenue compared to the old limited-stop service. Image: DOT/MTA [PDF]

Last June, DOT and the MTA cut the ribbon for Select Bus Service along Webster Avenue in the Bronx. Now the agencies have released a status report showing the impact of the 5.4-mile, $9 million project [PDF].

The bottom line for bus riders is that, as on other SBS lines, trips are faster and more predictable. The previous Bx41 Limited, with no bus lanes or off-board fare collection, averaged seven miles per hour and was unreliable, with trip times fluctuating by up to 20 minutes.

Trips on the Bx41 SBS are 19 to 23 percent shorter. Northbound evening trips now take 40 minutes instead of 52 minutes. Local service on the route has benefitted from the bus lanes, too, with trip times dropping by 11 to 17 percent. The share of total trip time that SBS buses spend immobile at stops and red lights is down from 49 percent to 39 percent

Opening up bottlenecks with new bus lanes helped eliminate many of the old delays. Northbound riders saved an average of nearly two minutes on each morning trip between 187th and 195th Streets, while southbound riders saved nearly four minutes on evening trips between 179th and 173rd Streets.

Bus lanes and off-board fare collection are responsible for the lion’s share of the speed improvements. These gains are all the more impressive considering that, unlike other SBS routes, Webster Avenue’s bus lanes are not camera-enforced. (Albany restricts the number of bus lanes that NYC can enforce with cameras; a change in state law would lift that restriction.) Trips are likely to get faster after DOT and the MTA install concrete “bus bulb” curb extensions and signal technology that gives buses priority at traffic lights, beginning next year.

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What’s Next for Select Bus Service in New York?

Select Bus Service is a big step up from the pokey local bus, but what's next? Photo: MTA/Flickr

Select Bus Service is a big step up from the pokey local bus. What’s next? Photo: MTA/Flickr

Last night, Streetsblog and the New York Transit Museum hosted a discussion on the future of Bus Rapid Transit in New York. Mayor de Blasio has pledged to implement “world-class” BRT, and DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg has promised a stepped-up timetable for expansion of Select Bus Service, New York’s brand of enhanced bus. But what will it take to get us there? Joan Byron of the Pratt Center for Community Development, Eric Beaton of NYC DOT, and Robert Thompson of New York City Transit joined Streetsblog Editor-in-Chief Ben Fried to talk about how Select Bus Service has progressed in NYC and where the program is headed.

SBS has its origins in studies that DOT, the MTA, and New York State DOT began in 2004. Today, the program has become a fixture, outlasting electoral changes and turnover at the top of agencies, Beaton noted, but at first it was a tenuous proposition, involving collaboration between government bureaucracies that rarely spoke to each other.

New leadership at DOT gave the program a jolt in 2007. “When suddenly there was a decision at the tops of the agencies that ‘Let’s do something,’ people were ready to go,” Thompson said. In 2008, the first SBS route went live on Fordham Road. Now there are seven SBS lines in all five boroughs, with several more in the planning phases.

SBS routes include a mix of camera-enforced painted bus lanes, off-board fare collection, signal priority for buses at intersections and curb extensions at bus stops. This suite of improvements has been deployed, to varying degrees, on each SBS route since 2008, and transit speeds have increased 15 to 23 percent on those corridors. More full-fledged BRT alignments separate buses from private car traffic to a greater degree, but last night’s panelists offered some reasons why that model may not work on many streets.

New York doesn’t have the street width that cities like Bogota can use to carve out space for separated busways with express and local service, and the city’s lack of side alleys means curb access for necessary deliveries like oil trucks has to be maintained. Center-running transit lanes are an option, but present downsides for local bus service. DOT had considered center-running BRT on Webster Avenue in the Bronx, which would have involved more left-turn restrictions on other traffic, then opted for “offset” bus lanes next to the parking lane. “At least for that particular corridor, the downsides were not worth the upsides,” Beaton said.

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Livable Streets Events

This Week: Join Streetsblog for a Discussion of BRT in NYC

On Wednesday, Streetsblog and the New York Transit Museum are hosting a roundtable discussion on Bus Rapid Transit in New York City. Streetsblog Editor-in-Chief Ben Fried will moderate a panel featuring Joan Byron of the Pratt Center for Community Development, Eric Beaton of NYC DOT, and Robert Thompson of New York City Transit. The event is free but registration is requested. It kicks off at 6:30 p.m. at the Transit Museum in Downtown Brooklyn. See you there!

For the full complement of events, check the Streetsblog calendar. Here are the highlights:

  • Tuesday: Want safer streets in Queens? Meet up with the Transportation Alternatives Queens Activist Committee to learn about street safety campaigns on Queens Boulevard, 21st Street, and in Jackson Heights and Corona. 6:30 p.m.
  • Also Tuesday: Brooklyn Community Board 10 chair Brian Kieran recently removed livable streets supporter Bob HuDock from the board’s transportation committee. The committee, which had been showing signs of progress since its days as a reliable opponent of street safety projects, will discuss a proposed bike rack and “the future direction of the committee” at its meeting this week. 7 p.m.
  • Thursday: Want more bike parking in Prospect Heights? Brooklyn Community Board 8 will decide whether to OK four new bike corrals in the neighborhood. The plans, requested by local businesses, have already received a thumbs up from the board’s transportation committee. 7 p.m.

Keep an eye on the calendar for updated listings. Got an event we should know about? Drop us a line.

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First Phase of Woodhaven Bus Upgrades Coming This Fall. Then What?

Select Bus Service on Woodhaven and Cross Bay Boulevards is coming to Queens in two phases. The first round, due early this fall, will bring nearly two miles of painted bus lanes and a road diet for service roads along more than a mile of Woodhaven Boulevard [PDF]. DOT has said it will release a design for the second phase later this fall.

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The first phase of bus upgrades on Woodhaven Boulevard calls for two stretches of bus lanes. Map: NYC DOT

We don’t know yet whether DOT will start to make good on Bill de Blasio’s campaign promise to build “world-class” Bus Rapid Transit. But a 2009 study of Woodhaven Boulevard offers a taste of the most basic BRT improvements the agency could propose, plus a cautionary tale for advocates.

The route DOT and the MTA are studying for SBS stretches nearly 14 miles from Woodside to the Rockaways, with the initial improvements focusing on a shorter stretch of Woodhaven Boulevard.

The agency will be adding offset bus lanes, running in each direction next to the parking lane, from Eliot Avenue to Metropolitan Avenue — about 1.4 miles, or one-tenth of the total project corridor. These lanes will be in effect only during rush hours, from 7 to 10 a.m. and from 4 to 7 p.m. The southern end of the new bus lanes is immediately north of a bridge over Long Island Rail Road tracks, where Woodhaven has three car lanes in each direction. By reducing the number of general traffic lanes north of this pinch point to the same number as the bridge, DOT can demonstrate how Woodhaven functions during rush hours with less space for cars and more for bus riders.

The second section of bus lanes covers slightly more than a half-mile in Ozone Park. There, curbside bus-only lanes will replace parking as Woodhaven and Cross Bay Boulevards approach the complex intersection of Rockaway Boulevard and Liberty Avenue, where many bus riders transfer to the A train. Like the bus lanes north of Metropolitan, these lanes will be in effect from 7 to 10 a.m. and 4 to 7 p.m., except for the final block of each approach, where the lanes will be for buses only between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.

According to DOT’s presentations, the agency expects the first phase to improve bus speeds by about 10 percent [PDF] on the sections with bus lanes. The bus lanes are unlikely to be camera-enforced, since state law allowing the use of cameras restricts them to just one Select Bus Service route in Queens, and DOT has already said that it will use cameras on the M60 SBS route, which runs through Astoria to LaGuardia Airport.

Advocates said the first round of improvements make sense as an incremental step on the way to something bigger. “Eventually, everyone could benefit from comprehensive solutions like center-median bus lanes and off-board fare collection. But it won’t happen overnight,” said Jess Nizar, senior organizer at the Riders Alliance. “Bus-only lanes are one step to making commutes faster for both bus riders and drivers.”

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Buenos Aires: Building a People-Friendly City

Buenos Aires is fast becoming one of the most admired cities in the world when it comes to reinventing streets and transportation.

Just over a year ago, the city launched MetroBus BRT (constructed in less than seven months) on 9 de Julio Avenue, which may be the world’s widest street. The transformation of four general traffic lanes to exclusive bus lanes has yielded huge dividends for the city and is a bold statement from Mayor Mauricio Macri about how Buenos Aires thinks about its streets. More than 650,000 people now ride MetroBus every day, and it has cut commutes in the city center from 50-55 minutes to an incredible 18 minutes.

That’s not the only benefit of this ambitious project. The creation of MetroBus freed up miles of narrow streets that used to be crammed with buses. Previously, Buenos Aires had some pedestrian streets, but moving the buses to the BRT corridor allowed the administration to create a large network of shared streets in downtown where pedestrians rule. On the shared streets, drivers aren’t permitted to park and the speed limit is an astonishingly low 10 km/h. Yes, that is not a misprint — you’re not allowed to drive faster than 6 mph!

Bicycling has also increased rapidly in the past four years — up from 0.5 percent mode share to 3 percent mode share and climbing. Ecobici is the city’s bike-share system which is expanding to 200 stations in early 2015. Oh, and add this amazing fact: Ecobici is free for all users for the first hour.

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Queens Residents Speak Up for Bus Rapid Transit on Woodhaven

New York City can do better by bus riders and pedestrians on Woodhaven Boulevard, shown here at Jamaica Avenue. Photo: Google Maps

New York City can do better for bus riders and pedestrians on Woodhaven Boulevard. Photo of Woodhaven at Jamaica Avenue via Google Maps

Woodhaven Boulevard is one of the city’s most dangerous roads – eight pedestrians were killed there from 2010 to 2012, more than any other street in Queens. And while bus riders make 30,000 trips on Woodhaven each day, they’re slowed down by congestion and awkwardly designed service roads.

The MTA and DOT are working on a redesign that could dramatically improve both problems by dedicating more space to walking and transit. As the plans are developed and the agencies present the project to the public, residents say there’s a disconnect between who’s speaking the loudest at community meetings and who would benefit from the potential improvements. There are people who support major changes along the Woodhaven corridor, but their perspectives aren’t coming through in the local media coverage.

Toby Sheppard Bloch and his wife, a Queens native, have lived in Glendale near the busy intersection of Woodhaven and Metropolitan Avenue for almost 10 years. They have a 5-year-old daughter. “I drive a bunch. I’m a general contractor, so I’m often behind the wheel,” he said. “Even as a driver, it’s a nerve-wracking road to drive down. There’s a lot of speeding, and it’s very crowded.”

Sheppard Bloch has seen many serious crashes on Woodhaven, and the danger spills over as impatient drivers use local streets as shortcuts. He’s worried about his daughter, who will soon be walking around the neighborhood to meet with friends. He and his wife often take the bus or their bikes to catch the subway at Queens Boulevard. The buses are often overcrowded and slow, he says.

The redesign needs to make a clean break with the status quo, he said. “We’ve committed as much space as we possibly can on Woodhaven to cars,” Sheppard Bloch said. “It’s broken. We need to think about a different approach.”

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Hints About Woodhaven BRT at MTA Reinvention Commission Panel

No room for BRT here, Assembly Member Phil Goldfeder said yesterday to the commission charged with thinking big about the future of transit. Photo: Google Maps

No room for BRT here, Assembly Member Phil Goldfeder said yesterday to the commission charged with thinking big about the future of transit. Photo: Google Maps

The “transportation reinvention commission” convened at the request of Governor Andrew Cuomo kicked off its public hearings yesterday with a panel of experts at MTA headquarters. Appointees, still trying to figure out the commission’s exact role, chewed over some of the region’s big transportation issues in a discussion that mostly lacked specifics. Still, there were a few notable comments, including new information about Bus Rapid Transit on Woodhaven Boulevard from NYC DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg.

BRT featured prominently yesterday, as panelists highlighted the need for closer collaboration between the MTA, NYC DOT, and other government agencies to bring robust transit improvements to low-income workers with long commutes in the outer boroughs.

“It seems that the less that you make, the further you have to travel,” Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, told the commission. ”My union agrees with the BRT for NYC coalition that we can improve the situation.”

“We are going to look at going to a more full-blown BRT model, let’s say for Woodhaven Boulevard,” said Trottenberg, who also serves as an MTA board member. After the meeting, she said the budget for the project is close to $200 million, higher than the $100 million she put forward at the end of May and suggesting a more ambitious allocation of space for surface transit. Previous Select Bus Service projects, with painted bus lanes, signal improvements, and sidewalk extensions at bus stops, have cost between $7 million and $27 million to build [PDF]. (The full Woodhaven project corridor is about 14 miles — longer than other SBS routes but not dramatically so.)

It’s too early to say what the Woodhaven BRT project will look like — DOT Director of Transit Development Eric Beaton said the agency does not yet have a design for Woodhaven and is continuing to meet with local communities. But in another indication that the city is serious about pursuing a robust configuration for transit lanes on Woodhaven, Beaton said costs for Woodhaven should be compared with projects like Euclid Avenue in Cleveland, or Geary Boulevard and Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco. Those projects feature center-running lanes (the SF busways have yet to be built).

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The Case for Center-Running Bus Lanes on Woodhaven Boulevard

We can rebuild Woodhaven Boulevard as a great transit street. We have the space.

We can rebuild Woodhaven Boulevard as a great transit street. We have the space.

The proposal to improve bus service on Woodhaven Boulevard and Cross Bay Boulevard in Queens is the most exciting street redesign in the works in New York City right now, with the potential to break new ground for bus riders and dramatically improve safety. With as many as five lanes in each direction, Woodhaven Boulevard has plenty of space that can be devoted to exclusive transitways and concrete pedestrian safety measures.

NYC DOT and the MTA are holding a series of public workshops to inform the project, with initial improvements scheduled for this year and more permanent changes coming later. This is a chance for the city and the MTA to build center-running transit lanes that will speed bus trips more than previous Select Bus Service routes, where buses often have to navigate around illegally-parked cars. Critical design decisions could be made this summer.

Kathi Ko at the Tri-State Transportation Campaign has filed dispatches from the first round of public meetings, and she reports that participants ranged from change-averse to eager for “big and bold ideas.”

Of course, it’s the change-averse who sit on the community boards and are getting most of the local press attention. Queens Community Board 9 transportation committee chair Kenichi Wilson told DOT that “the only way I would support” the project is if it doesn’t affect curbside parking, according to the Queens Chronicle. At an earlier meeting, the first vice chair of Queens CB 10, John Calcagnile, predicted that the elimination of parking to make way for interim bus lanes “will have a real negative effect on businesses in the area.”

Experience with Select Bus Service suggests otherwise. Along Fordham Avenue in the Bronx, parking was eliminated and meters were added to side streets in order to run curbside buses for the city’s first SBS route. Merchants objected at first, but three years later, retail sales had improved 71 percent — triple the borough-wide average.

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Every Bus Should Get Priority at NYC Traffic Signals

Some inexpensive technology could bring some substantial time savings to NYC bus riders. Image: DOT

Some inexpensive technology could bring substantial time savings to NYC bus riders. Image: DOT

New York City buses serve more than two million trips on an average weekday — more than twice the ridership as Los Angeles, which has the nation’s second-largest bus system.

And yet the city’s buses are also notoriously slow and unreliable. Gridlocked traffic, long boarding queues, and the succession of traffic lights bog down surface transit in NYC and keep many New Yorkers from riding the bus. This may be part of the reason why bus ridership has dipped seven percent since 2007, even as subway ridership is up 9 percent.

NYC DOT and the MTA have rolled out seven Select Bus Service lines that bypass congestion with dedicated lanes and tame boarding delays with pre-paid fare collection. The de Blasio administration plans to build out at least 13 more SBS lines — an important effort — but some of these gains in bus speeds can be realized without being tied to an SBS project.

Specifically, DOT could quickly improve bus speeds across the city by making a relatively small investment in traffic signal priority.

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Select Bus Service Launches on 125th Street

Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg speaks at today's event marking the launch of Select Bus Service on 125th Street. Photo: Stephen Miller

Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg speaks at today’s event marking the launch of Select Bus Service on 125th Street. Behind the podium are City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Council Member Mark Levine, Carmen Bianco of New York City Transit, State Senator Adriano Espaillat, and City Council Transportation Chair Ydanis Rodriguez. Photo: Stephen Miller

On Sunday, Select Bus Service launched on a route that stretches from 125th Street in Harlem to LaGuardia Airport. Public officials marked the occasion — the first SBS route to debut during the de Blasio era — at a Harlem press conference today. With off-board fare collection and dedicated bus lanes (on part of the route), the upgrades will speed cross-town trips for 33,000 bus riders daily, on both the M60 SBS route and local routes that will benefit from the bus lanes only.

Not that long ago, it seemed like SBS on 125th Street might never happen. The bus lanes were originally planned to extend between Second and Morningside Avenues, but after State Senator Bill Perkins led objections to the planning process, the plan was scaled back, calling for bus lanes between Second Avenue and Lenox. The entire project appeared dead soon after, then was revived in October after closed-door meetings with Perkins and other erstwhile opponents.

At today’s press conference, elected officials made the case for extending the bus lanes west to Morningside.

“While it’s a fabulous day for East Harlem, it’s a slightly less wonderful day for Central and West Harlem, because a key feature of this route, which is the bus-only lane you see right here, stops — comes to an abrupt halt — at Lenox Avenue,” said Council Member Mark Levine. ”That’s simply not fair to residents in the western part of this wonderful street.”

Levine, whose call for extending the bus lane was echoed by State Senator Adriano Espaillat, said he hoped that it could be implemented as soon as this fall.

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito thinks success on the initial segment will lead to westward expansion. “Once people start using this and really seeing the benefits, you’re going to start getting the support of people asking and clamoring for more,” she said. ”Some of us, we thought this wouldn’t move forward.”

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