Manhattan Select Bus Service's Launching Pains: Cranky Passengers, Cabs in the Bus Lane, Faster Ride

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(Alex Goldmark — Transportation Nation) Manhattan got its first taste of "bus rapid transit" this week. New York's MTA calls it Select Bus Service, and it is rolling up and down dedicated red lanes...well, mostly.

I rode the M15 SBS in afternoon traffic from one of the busiest stops at 14th street through Midtown and up into the more residential (and busier) Upper East Side until 68th street, talking to riders along the way. For most of the trip it was clear this is a bus line working out the kinks on a good idea. Riders were still learning how to use the new payment system, which is on the sidewalk, not on the bus. And, to put it kindly, drivers of other vehicles are still learning to stay out of the bus lanes.

In all it took me just about 30 minutes each direction, a little under that going northbound and a little over heading southbound.

(There's some dispute about whether New York's system can even be fairly called BRT, since it doesn't include several important features of the systems in Bogota and Guanzhou, China, like physically separated lanes and BRT "stations" similar to light rail stations.)

That's fast in comparison to last week's options. Two riders told me they are now getting to work in half the time—but transit riders are notoriously inaccurate when estimating travel times. Most riders, though, haven't yet timed out their trips. They were more confused with the new payment system and with a route that now skips stops that the old express or "limited" bus used to make.

All along the route, though, New York City Department of Transportation and transit employees were on hand to explain how the new vending machines work, and answer questions about the new route. And man, were they needed.

A bigger problem may turn out to be just how selective the bus-only lanes turn out to be. Depending on the stretch, the M15 can fly past traffic—or get stuck behind obstacles like unloading trucks or taxis discharging passengers. Two times we watched traffic pass by while waiting for local buses to pull out of a stop.

(Two bunched local M15 buses block the bus lane)

Bus bunching proved to be the biggest complaint, causing waits of up to 20 minutes at times and waits of less than one minute at others.

Many times it was local M15 buses blocking the way for the faster SBS. Still, with fewer stops and a (mostly) respected dedicated lane, it was a faster bus trip up and down the east side than I've had before. Half an hour each—less time than it took me to write this, which I started at about 50th street on my cell phone next to confused passengers still wondering what to do with the paper receipt they were told to keep as proof of sidewalk payment. One person suggested there be recycling bins for the new paper waste.

UPDATE: NYPD tells WNYC that as of 10/12/10 a total of 378 summonses were issued along the Selected Bus Service lanes on 1st and 2nd Aves. The fines are $115 for parking summonses and $130 for most other violations (moving violations).