“Transit-Enlightened Cities” Showcase BRT’s Brilliance
New York City buses lurch along at an average speed of 7.5 miles per hour. But that is quickly changing, as NYC pushes for BRT. Photo via Pro-Zak.

New York City buses lurch along at an average speed of 7.5 miles per hour. But that is quickly changing, as NYC pushes for BRT. Photo via Pro-Zak.

“When [New York] adopts a world-class ‘Bus Rapid Transit’ system, people are going to have a tough time, efficiency-wise, telling a bus apart from a subway—it’s going to be like a subway with a view.” - Kyle Wiswall, general counsel for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

Bus rapid transit (BRT) systems — AKA “subways on the street” — are finally getting more of the attention they deserve these days.

Last week, former President Bill Clinton “gushed” about the benefits of BRT at an Institute for Transportation and Development Policy event. And early this week, New York Magazine published an article by Robert Sullivan about revolutionizing New York’s bus system.

In the article, Sullivan acknowledges a prejudice against buses, saying, “buses are what most people think of when they think of not getting anywhere.”  But he goes on to extol buses for their flexibility and low cost, highlighting how “a few transit-enlightened cities around the world” have given their bus systems dramatic makeovers — by making them BRT.  BRT systems take advantage of conventional bus systems’ merits while providing the high-capacity and high-speed services that most people still associate exclusively with subways. (Sullivan mentions cities like Bogotá, Cleveland, Jakarta, and Guangzhou among the transit-enlightened, but leaves out Curitiba, BRT’s birthplace.)

Sullivan analyzes the subway’s failures — including the 33-block Second Avenue line that, if completed by 2016, will have taken nearly a century since it was first proposed  – and concludes, “The future of movement in New York — how we get from home to work, how we navigate the city — is not going to be about subways.”

Nope — it’s going to be about “subways with a view.”

New York City is already working on dedicated bus lanes on First and Second Avenues, and just won federal funding for more bus-only lanes by 2012 as part of the 34th Street Transitway project.

As Sullivan highlights, much of the impetus behind New York’s push for BRT comes from Jay Walder, the MTA Chairman and Chief Executive Officer chosen by Governor David Paterson last year.

Walder was won over by bus rapid transit while working with Transport for London (TfL) from 2001 to 2006.

He said he realized that “it was virtually impossible to get anything done on the rail system quickly … so we set out to work on the buses.”  So, in spite of Margaret Thatcher’s infamous remark that, “A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure,” Walder and his team dedicated themselves to expanding the bus service and making it more efficient. And it was thanks in large part to Walder’s transport plans that London won its bid to host the 2012 Olympics.

Now, Walder is working to convince New Yorkers that buses are the transportation of the future in their city, too.  This can be tough; after all, the average bus speed is 7.5 miles per hour in New York — the slowest average speed of any U.S. city.

Still, as Sullivan points out, Walder’s vision that it’s time to embrace the bus in NYC has gained a surprising amount of consensus “among bureaucrats and transit geeks, Upper East Side assemblymen and outer-borough activists.”

And the Bronx’s Bx12 Select Bus Service (SBS) is surely capable of convincing cynical New Yorkers:

Waiting on the curb, you notice that the bus has its own lane, painted terra-cotta, with signs to deflect non-bus traffic. It is not a physically separated lane, the holy grail of Bus Rapid Transit. But it is a lane, and your fellow riders speak of police who patrol it regularly during rush hours. You see the big, roomy bus shelter holding enough people to fill a subway car, and you wonder if everyone will be able to get on. But when the Bx12 SBS pulls up, this monster of mundaneness opens up not one but two doors. If there is a heaven for bus drivers, it has buses with rear-door entrances.

The transit-interested rider, upon seeing a bus this size pull up at a station with two-dozen prepaid fares, breaks out his stopwatch. Traffic geeks know that about a third of bus delays comes from passenger-boarding issues, and now the doors of the Bx12 SBS open. The stopwatch is running … Twenty-two people board; about four get off. The doors close; the bus sets off. Total wait time: 23 seconds.

As New Yorkers watch the Bx12 whir by on its exclusive lane, they catch a quick glimpse of a bus service that has 98 percent approval from riders — which NYCDOT commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan says happens “about as often as Halley’s Comet” on any of the city’s public transit services.

Walder says the economic recession has helped in a way, by drawing attention to oft-ignored bus interests, and galvanizing bus advocates to rally to protect their routes.

And now, Walder says his priority is to make sure that bus-only lanes are enforced, and don’t allow even quick taxi stops or deliveries (presently, NYC bus-only lanes still allow both): “We all have an explanation about why entering a bus lane is a little thing and it’s okay. And the fact is that it’s not okay—the fact is that 75 to 100 people on a bus are held up over that.”

To read the full story, go here.

Rendering of completed First and Second Avenue Busways, highlighting: (1) pay-on-the-street stations; (2) lower, real-level entrance to speed boarding; (3) lights that buses will be able to "hold" green; (4) painted bus-only lanes. Image from NYCDOT and MTA via New York Magazine; illustration by Joe Zeff design.

Rendering of completed First and Second Avenue Busways, highlighting: (1) pay-on-the-street stations; (2) lower, real-level entrance to speed boarding; (3) lights that buses will be able to "hold" green; (4) painted bus-only lanes. Image from NYCDOT and MTA via New York Magazine; illustration by Joe Zeff design.

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  • Bena

    I agree with the sentiment of many of the above post, but BRT is a temporary solution for a limited locations at best, and at worst a complete waste of time money and a feel good political lip service to the people thing.
    Steel wheeled street-cars on embedded track are the only real serious solution for outer borough cross-town transit corridors. Real capital and operational cost are quite even when all is considered (environment, road maintenance, etc…).
    Another plus is the proven economic benefits of street-cars.
    Look as a native NY city kid who has been around the world and have ridden many BRT and street car systems, there is no comparison, busses have been and will always be ghetto, and we deserve and should demand better.

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  • MobilityMatters
  • http://twitter.com/StudioLFG StudioLFG

    Subways with a View: “Transit-Enlightened Cities” Showcase Bus Rapid Transit’s Brilliance: http://bit.ly/bVyQMB

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  • http://twitter.com/amytsommer amytsommer

    Is BRT the future for NYC? http://thecityfix.com/transit-enlightened-cities-showcase-brts-brilliance/

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  • Rob

    BRT has it’s place, but it is not the “subway on the street” by any stretch of the imagination.

    To understand public receptiveness to BRT in Bogata, for instance, one must also understand and appreciate pre-TransMilenio transportation there. The baseline of public opinion is an important variable to consider in interpreting public ratings of a new system. TransMilenio is new within decade, as of yet incomplete, and public ratings have already dropped significantly, it appears. As one observer recently wrote, “Transmilenio may be a minor miracle but Bogota’s transport problems need something more than that. Perhaps this is the main lesson that other cities planning to invest in busways should learn. BRT systems are far superior to traditional bus systems and much cheaper than metros [subway rail] . . . Currently, Transmilenio’s image in Bogota has been so tarnished that its future expansion is in genuine doubt. Much will depend on how Samuel Moreno, the winning mayoral candidate, follows through with his campaign promise to build a metro. But, even if he does proceed with this plan, he will still have to tackle the real political barriers hampering Transmilenio’s future success and preventing any real solution to the serious transport problems facing Bogota.”

    BRT may be quite useful, especially in places like the proposed DuPage County (IL) J-Line, but great care should be taken to avoid efforts to implement it in corridors where it is inappropriate, lacks necessary operational and infrastructure characteristics, or where it competes with other existing forms of equal or higher capacity transit alternatives. Many “globally significant” examples of BRT are evolving into other alternatives to keep in-step with maturing commuter expectations and volumes – a natural progression for BRT – with rail alternatives receiving planning consideration for the most heavily congested urban corridors. We should not be building “placeholder” solutions in places where the next level of transportation – rail – is already appropriate.

    El Monte busway: A 40 year experiment that still hasn’t got it right. Next stop, Hot Lane.

    TransMilenio: A ten year project with a dubious future.

    Ottawa Transitway: Make way for O-Train, apparently exceeding its ridership targets significantly.

    Am I railing against BRT? No. I actually support it if prudently developed and deployed. All too often, though, it isn’t. If BRT is to be useful in the United States, it can’t be used in an effort to prop-up urban highway expansion projects – an urban add-a-lane with express busses run ning in mixed traffic is *not* BRT . .

  • http://thecityfix.com/members/toryb/ Victoria Broadus

    Thanks for your comments! It’s true, the lanes are suffering right now since they’re not physically separated and have other vehicles in them (in the post we mention that the main goal right now is to enforce bus-only lanes, and in this post we focus more on some problems with NYC’s bus-only lanes). Still, we do think it’s a great step that NYC is even moving toward building a BRT system, and that this is bringing more attention to BRT systems in cities around the world.

  • herenthere

    but remember, unlike some other cities, the new SBS/BRT lane in Manhattan will not be physically separated, only demarcated. The ones that NYC already has are nearly always filled with non-buses and even police cars. leave it to the politicians.

  • Chris

    Let’s not get too excited. The first BRT line in the Bronx increased the average speed of the local bus route from 7.5 mph to about 10 mph. In NY’s case, buses are not instead of subways, they should be used to complement the subway, particularly in cross-suburban routes that do not enter Manhattan.

  • http://twitter.com/Garden27 Garden27

    Transit-Enlightened Cities. Bus Rapid Transit 1st in Curitiba Brazil then Bogotá, Cleveland, Jakarta, now 4 New York http://bit.ly/aQYTR6

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  • http://twitter.com/thejoelepstein thejoelepstein

    “Transit-Enlightened Cities” Showcase BRT’s Brilliance http://shar.es/mR5xe

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  • http://twitter.com/WhiteFlintRed_ WhiteFlintRed_

    http://bit.ly/9YC5jx /via @TheCityFix/says that bus discharging passengers=delay more than traffic

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  • http://twitter.com/TheCityFix TheCityFix

    “Transit-Enlightened Cities” Showcase BRT’s Brilliance http://bit.ly/9YC5jx

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  • http://twitter.com/bobdal bobdal

    “Transit-Enlightened Cities” Showcase BRT’s Brilliance http://bit.ly/bCEda6

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  • http://twitter.com/JanesWalkPhx JanesWalkPhx

    “#Transit-Enlightened #Cities” Showcase #BRT’s Brilliance http://bit.ly/aXOf2A (@TheCityFix)

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  • http://twitter.com/olympic_2012 olympic_2012

    And it was thanks in large part to Walder’s tran#sport plans that #London won its bid to host the 2012 #Olympics… http://bit.ly/aVsasx

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter