NYC Experiments with Bus Rapid Transit

The Big Apple needs some serious help to make city buses be a faster, more reliable method of transportation.
by | August 2010

New York, New York: If high-speed buses can make it there, they'll make it anywhere.

In the last decade, bus rapid transit (BRT) in one form or another gradually has taken hold in cities nationwide. While the purest form of BRT -- where buses are treated like trains, with their own right-of-way -- remains rare in the United States, many cities have incrementally made bus routes faster and more appealing to riders.

In New York City, however, buses have remained maddeningly slow. Each year, the Straphangers Campaign, a local transit advocacy group, gives out the Pokey Award to the slowest bus route in the city. Last year's winner of the golden snail trophy, Manhattan's M42, traveled at 3.7 mph. "Most average, healthy New Yorkers can walk faster than that," says Cate Contino, campaign coordinator for the Straphangers.

That's the context in which the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) and the city's Department of Transportation are gradually introducing New York City's own version of BRT, known as Select Bus Service. The city's approach is to make simple changes that eliminate delays -- using off-board fare collection and buses that can be entered or exited through up to three doors -- and then, where practical, take more dramatic steps such as giving buses their own lanes and traffic signal priority.

The first Select Bus Service line opened in the Bronx in 2008, and bus speeds are up by 20 percent. In October, MTA will launch a "surface subway" on First and Second avenues in Manhattan, the city's busiest bus route. This summer, the city won an $18 million federal grant to bring BRT to Manhattan's 34th Street by 2012.

With the Empire State Building, the Jacob Javits Convention Center and, of course, the iconic Macy's, 34th Street is just the sort of exceptionally dense, congested place that makes New York what it is. For that reason, New York City is an unusually challenging place for BRT. The city can't pull new rights-of-way out of nowhere. When it has tried bus lanes, commuters and cabbies haven't been able to resist the temptation to use them too -- although enforcement cameras for Select Bus Service lines, newly approved by state legislators, should help. BRT often utilizes extra-long buses that stop at train-like stations, but where do you put the stations in New York City? Another big challenge is accommodating delivery trucks, which need a place to park in commercial districts.

As a result, New York's transportation planners will need to be nimble to make BRT work. "It's really a parking space by parking space, business by business process," says Janette Sadik-Khan, commissioner of New York City's Department of Transportation. "In a city of 8.4 million New Yorkers, there are 8.4 million traffic engineers."