Faster Buses Come to 34th Street in Manhattan -- But BRT, They're Not

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NYC Transportation Commissioner Sadik-Khan, MTA Employee Demonstrate Off-Board Bus Payment (photo: Brian Zumhagen/WNYC)

(With Brian Zumhagen, WNYC) New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his transportation chief, Janette Sadik-Khan,  were on hand this morning on 34th Street to hail the launch another "Select Bus Service" route in New York City on what has notoriously been one of the slowest bus routes in the city -- the 34th Street crosstown.  "You can walk faster," Sadik-Khan was once fond of pointing out of the route which passes Macy's flagship store, Penn Station, and the Empire State Building.

The planned improvements, including off-board payment, and allowing boarding at the back door will no doubt improve bus speeds, as they've done on Select Bus Service routes in the Bronx and along First and Second Avenues.

But the changes a far cry from what Sadik-Khan once described as the city's first "true Bus Rapid Transit." As originally envisioned, the 34th street bus lines were supposed to be physically segregated from the car lanes, preventing delivery trucks, cabbies, and disoriented tourists from driving in the bus lanes, as they are known to do on select bus service lines along First and Second Avenues, despite warnings of $115 fines.

The earlier plans would have made the 34th St line  more like the bus lines that glide by rows of traffic in cities like Bogota, Colombia, Mexico City, and Istanbul.

Bogota's Bus Rapid Transit Lanes, Right, Are Segregated from Car Lanes (photo: Andrea Bernstein)

But after an outcry from, among others, some large 34th St businesses, New York City's plans were scaled back.  "There were three different plans we submitted to community boards, and this is the one we selected," Sadik-Khan said today.

Sadik-Khan focused on  focused on the changes that will make the buses faster, including off-board payment.

Commuters now have to put their Metrocards in a machine at the bus stop and get a proof-of-payment receipt before they board, and they can enter the bus through the front or the back door.

Sadik-Khan says the new system will reduce delays, just as it has on the other two corridors where it's been introduced. "It's been a great success on First and Second Avenue, same thing on Fordham Road. So every time we've unveiled this, we've seen travel times get cut and ridership go up, so it's a great new model for bus service in New York City," she says.

Long Island commuter Amanda Kelaher takes the 34th Street crosstown bus from Penn Station to First Avenue every day. "It is really crowded, so it probably will help," she says. "You can get on in the back, they said, as opposed to going to the front, which is much easier, I guess. We'll see how it goes."

But some riders say they're not so happy about the changes. Beatrice Lebreton has taken the Select Bus Service line that's been running on First and Second Avenues since 2010, so she's familiar with the proof-of-payment system. "And every time I go get my ticket, I miss the bus," she says, erupting in laughter. "Just that extra step in the morning is not very convenient."

Once riders have their receipts, they need to hold on to them, because so-called "eagle teams" of transit police roam the SBS lines checking for proof-of-payment. Passengers who can't produce a receipt face a fine of $100.

Transportation Commissioner Sadik-Khan says more enforcement is on the way for 34th Street, with cameras coming to the corridor next year to make sure cars stay out of the bus lanes.

"We're very excited about the package of improvements, and we think it's going to be a much safer, smoother, faster ride for people on 34th Street," she says.