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Where should NYC roll out its next busways?

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The runaway success of the 14th Street car ban makes similar interventions in the city a no-brainer

Courtesy of New York City Department of Transportation

Two weeks after it launched, the 14th Street busway—the subject of legal challenges, arguments, and much hand-wringing before it even had a chance to prove itself—appears to be a runaway success.

There are plenty of anecdotes showing that the pilot program, which has all but banned private cars from 14th Street, is doing what the MTA and the Department of Transportation hoped it would; that is, speed up buses along the notoriously congested thoroughfare.

The New York Times called it “transformative.” Streetsblog found that shoppers along 14th Street see the roadway as being safer now that it’s not full of traffic. And this editor recently rode the M14 from Third to Eighth avenues in just seven minutes—a trek that, pre-busway, would have taken at least twice that amount of time.

But there’s also hard evidence that the busway is working as intended. According to figures released by the MTA, buses are moving faster—travel times are down by around 30 percent—and ridership is up. And the fears of congestion moving off of 14th Street to the surrounding roadways also appear to be overblown: A preliminary study conducted by Inrix, a firm that analyzes traffic data, found that speeds have not changed dramatically on 12th, 13th, 15th, or 16th streets.

The success of the 14th Street pilot may pave the way for similar interventions on other major thoroughfares; DOT commissioner Polly Trottenberg said that the program will “be a template” for the rest of the city. And regular bus riders can probably think of many roads on which a car-free busway is sorely needed (our pick: Fulton Street in Brooklyn).

But what do the experts think? We asked transit advocates where they think the city should start rolling out additional busways—here’s what they had to say.

Danny Pearlstein, policy and communications director at Riders Alliance

I think there are a number of good candidates, in no particular order. Fordham Road in the Bronx: The city’s first Select Bus Service route and only profitable (!) route in the borough, jam-packed even off-peak. Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn: Brooklyn’s busiest bus route, recently subject to an MTA service cut so every speed increase counts that much more. Northern Boulevard in Queens: runs from end to end of the city’s largest borough and could help lots of folks who live very far from the subway with a quick, affordable transit trip to work, school, shopping, etc. And Lexington Avenue in Manhattan, home to the busiest subway route in North America, one which will see substantial services outages during the next few years as the MTA upgrades the signal system.

An aerial view of a large roadway in a city, with cars, trucks, and buses on the street.
Lexington Avenue in Manhattan.
Max Touhey

Ben Fried, communications director at TransitCenter

The easiest next step is 34th Street. The city almost went ahead with a 34th Street transitway in 2011—they should dust off that plan and make it happen. The design for 34th Street manages to create good separation between cars and buses with a different approach than the 14th Street ban on through traffic.

It’s important to stay flexible as we look to build on the lessons of 14th Street. Lots of high ridership bus routes need to bypass car traffic and the solutions won’t always look like 14th Street. There are dozens if not hundreds of street segments around the five boroughs where the answer is to set aside a few hundred feet of pavement for a bus lane, or upgrade a traffic signal to hold green lights for approaching buses. As bus riders and advocates, we need to press City Hall and the MTA to follow through on these smaller-scale bus improvements too. Making the bus fast and reliable on a citywide scale requires both types of approaches.

Aaron Gordon, senior reporter at Jalopnik and erstwhile Signal Problems author

I certainly think more busways should be implemented. 34th Street, which the city had a plan for years ago but scrapped, immediately comes to mind. It has a ferry terminal on one side, Hudson Yards on the other, Herald Square in the middle, and horrid traffic throughout.

But I don’t want New Yorkers to lose sight of the fact that there are plenty of other tools in the toolkit. Yes, more busways where they make sense, but the lesson from 14th Street—that buses are a great way to get around the city when given a dedicated right of way, all-door boarding, and sensible distances between stops—can be applied even on roads with other traffic. Every bus lane in the city should have the same 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. hours as 14th St does; none of this “weekdays only” crap. Every bus lane should have automatic lane enforcement or separators from regular traffic; none of this paint-and-pray nonsense. And if we are going to pursue more busways, let’s think about how to make the streets more pleasant for people, too: expanded sidewalks, more greenery, seating areas, art, and life. The 14th Street Busway rules, but hopefully it’s just the beginning.

Jaqi Cohen, campaign director at Straphangers

I think the perfect place to pilot bus-priority transit improvements is right at the heart of Manhattan on 42nd Street, specifically to improve service along the M42. The M42 is one of the slowest buses in New York City, moving about as fast as the average person can walk at just over three miles per hour.

Nick Sifuentes, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign

The obvious candidates for similar treatments are 34th Street and 42nd Street Both streets have heavy pedestrian traffic, major bus thoroughfares, and terrible traffic gridlock, leading to slow buses. Like 14th Street, both serve multiple subway lines and are important crosstown transit links that are made less effective because of traffic.

We’d also add the 125th St corridor, which is actually near where I live. The M60 is a critical connection between upper Manhattan and LaGuardia, as well as between Manhattan and Queens via bus. The four buses that run along 125th also serve multiple subways and see high usage. Also a viable candidate is the 86th St transverse through Central Park; there are redundant car routes north and south, and the bus serves a key crosstown link between subways.

In the outer boroughs, Fordham Rd. in the Bronx is an important cross-Bronx connection in a part of the city that lacks easy east-west transit connections, and with the Bronx redesign well underway, this should be a priority corridor for DOT to do a lot more on street-level changes to accommodate bus riders.

A crowded street in a large city, with trucks, cars, and pedestrians stuck in traffic.
42nd Street in Manhattan.
Max Touhey

Joe Cutrufo, communications director at Transportation Alternatives

There are opportunities all over the city. Consider the streets where the most heavily-used bus routes run, like Fordham Road in the Bronx, which serves 50,000 riders every day. Or Utica Avenue in Brooklyn, home to Brooklyn’s busiest bus route (the B46), which has seen ridership declines due to poor service. And in Queens, converting Northern Boulevard (the new “Boulevard of Death”) would dramatically improve service for New Yorkers in some of the city’s most bus-dependent neighborhoods while making the thoroughfare safer for everyone. And 42nd Street in Manhattan seems like a no-brainer: it’s a busy, slow bus (the M42 has ranked among the city’s slowest for years), and connects North America’s busiest bus station with North America’s third-busiest rail station, not to mention ferry terminals on both ends and popular attractions like Bryant Park and Times Square.

Benjamin Kabak, editor of Second Ave. Sagas

It’s trite to say everywhere, but how about everywhere and all that once? With the success of 14th Street in their back pockets, DOT and the MTA could roll out multiple busway corridors at once in a variety of neighborhoods at the same time. There is no real reason for a restructuring of streets one at a time other than fear of backlash, and the only real barrier to more busways along more streets in more boroughs right now is political trepidation. As the successes and popularity of the 14th Street pilot grow, so too should the political will.

With that in mind, the next projects should focus on streets outside of Manhattan where subway access is limited, bus ridership is high, and bus speeds are slow. Fordham Road has been an unqualified SBS success story, but traffic plagued speedy bus service. Utica Avenue’s B46 has encountered so many cars blocking its route that the MTA recently had to restructure service and reduce frequencies. Both routes would benefit from a busway.

In Queens, routes serving Flushing and Jamaica would help improve last-mile bus connections while providing transit relief to subway deserts. And in Manhattan, any major crosstown street could support a busway. The city could brush off the old plans for 34th Street or explore the Vision42 proposal, and dedicating most of 125th Street to buses would do wonders for Harlem. I’d also think big—or at least north/south—and explore turning a Manhattan avenue into a busway. Thinking big, after all, is how we can truly transform NYC streets for the better.