Award–winning journalist Andrea Bernstein is Senior Editor for Politics & Policy for WNYC News. She has previously served as Metro Editor, Political Director, Director of Transportation Nation, and Senior Reporter.
Say you’re standing on Second Avenue at rush hour, and you need to get downtown fast. You look uptown, at six lanes of traffic crawling along. Delivery trucks are double parked, bus drivers are waiting for a long line of passengers to board, and there is not a free taxi in sight. In 10 years time -- planners hope -- you’ll be able to get on a bus that feels nicer than the newest subway, and get downtown just as fast. But to embark on that future, New Yorkers will have to make some tough choices about whether to privilege mass transit or private cars. I have been listening in on the debate.
Facilitator: It’s like a subway train that operates in its own track –- without tracks. Rubber wheels.
A few dozen Bronx residents are attending a one of a series of work shop on bus rapid transit in New York.
Facilitator: Also, has subway-like station spacing.
Staffers from the MTA and the city DOT are showing mock-ups of what a New York street might look like.
Bus Rapid Transit – using buses like trains. You pay before you board. The bus pulls in, multiple doors open, you don’t have any stairs. There’s a lane only for buses, and stops about every eight blocks. BRT is working already in Istanbul, Mexico City, and most notably, Bogotá, Columbia
Vincente: In Bogotá, fugeddabout it that was out of sight!
Anna Vincente works for the Bronx environmental group Nos Quedamos. She was part of working group that travelled to Bogotá to see how that city has made it vastly easier to get around while greatly reducing pollution.
Vincente: If you could do something like that, that would be phenomenal because then you don’t have to worry about long lines. When we were in Bogotá Columbia, that went like (snaps fingers) that was fabulous.
But to get to that level of fabulous, a city has to be willing to make choices –- eliminating some street parking, for example, and taking lanes of traffic from private cars. Technology is readily available to turn red lights to green for buses. But there’s a catch.
Gualtieri: It reminds me last summer when I went to the Bronx zoo with my family in the car.
Retiree Richard Gualtieri got caught on the flip side.
Gualtieri: From the entrance to the Bronx zoo took a half an hour because it was constantly red so it could be green for the Fordham and it was unbelievable, half an hour, hungry kids.
The Fordham. That’s the so-called select bus service that links Upper Manhattan to the Bronx. It’s not BRT. It's a regular bus, with steps. But it shares some BRT features.
On a recent rainy morning, City Transportation Chief Janette Sadik-Kahn joined me to wait for the bus at the busy commercial intersection of Jerome Avenue and Fordham road.
Bernstein: So that's what we’re looking at here, metrocard-like machines.
Sadik-Kahn: So people put in their Metro-card grab their receipt and off they go.
No waiting in line at the front of the bus, fumbling for a Metrocard or exact change.
Sadik-Kahn: That’s responsible for about a third of the delay.
Sadik-Kahn says NYC has the largest bus fleet in North America – and the slowest bus speeds in North America. The Bronx Select travels with flashing lights in a designated lane colored terra cotta. But there’s no physical barrier that separates it from traffic.
Bernstein: I can see right now one car making a right turn. I can see another red car double parked there.
Sadik-Kahn: When we implement these kinds of changes, it takes a while to get used to them.
Still, Sadik-Kahn calls the Bronx select “a home run.” She says ridership is up 30 percent, travel time has improved by 11 percent.
Sadik-Kahn: And we just did a survey and some 98 percent are satisfied which is something that’s unheard of in New York City
We did a survey too:
Man: I can't believe they took away a hospital stop.
Woman: Que pasa mas, mas rapido.
Bernstein: Mucho mas rapido?
Woman: Mucho mas rapido.
Woman: It’s sometimes a little bit frustrating how you have to pay for your ticket in advance.
Bernstein: What do you do?
Man: I'm a bus driver.
Bernstein: You’re a bus driver!
But select service has its foes. In eastern Queens, transit agencies had hoped to put one on Merrick Boulevard. But Councilmember James Sanders said the merchants in his district wouldn’t hear of it.
Sanders: As soon as the word was getting out that the limited parking that they have was going to be taken away, they certainly complained. And also my neighbors complained because then people who would stop park their cars would try to use the residential side streets.
Sanders acknowledges that a select bus could have meant a faster commute for some of his constituents. But he says all transportation is not about commuting.
Sanders: If a person wanted to bring a pizza home for their family it would be difficult to do on a bus.
The Queens select bus service is on hold, for now. But plans are in the works for select buses in Brooklyn, Staten Island, and in the spring of 2010, on First and Second Avenue in Manhattan.
Walter Hook is the Executive Director of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. He's designed BRT systems in Mexico City, Johannesburg, and Jakarta – and says Second Avenue is tailor-made for BRT. As we stand at a bus stop in the East 60’s, Hook watches a M15 try to negotiate around a UPS truck which seems to have made its home here for the afternoon.
Hook: I mean, look, here’s an articulated bus pulling into traffic, it's already blocking two full lanes anyway.
Hook notes that planners have been trying to build a Second Avenue subway here for more than half a century. He says a BRT could be up and running in less than a tenth that time, and move people as quickly
Hooks advice to New York: build a physical barrier between Second Avenue traffic and the bus lane. Take three lanes –- one for stations and parking, one for the local, and one for the BRT. Anything less, he worries, will fall short. He says that’s what happened in Boston.
Hook: People got angry and they said you promised us a light rail and now you’ve just given us a bus stuck in congestion. Well, people are right to be angry. That’s not BRT that’s a bus painted silver operating in a traffic jam.
Transportation Commissioner Sadik-Kahn says other design solutions can do the trick.
Sadik-Kahn: New York is complex environment. We move some 7.3 million riders on the transit system every day. This isn’t Bogotá, we don’t have the opportunity to just grab streets and build out a whole new network. We have to work within the existing geometry of New York.
Hook is hoping it works. He says at least one American city should have a well-designed BRT, one that really does feel like a train.
Hook: There is no other solution for American cities. If you look across the globe, the only cities that have actually shifted people from private cars back into public transit are cities that have built bus rapid transit.
Back in the Bronx, Anna Vincente says she’ll be one of them.
Vincente: It takes me almost two hours, but if I take my car, 20 minutes But if I had a BRT, ba-da boom!
The final city planning workshop on BRT will be held in the evening, in Manhattan, June 18th.