It’s time for NYC to upgrade to real BRT
By Annie Weinstock
When Select Bus Service (SBS) first started in NYC, the city and the MTA referred to it as New York City’s Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) program. I and other technical folks, who were involved in designing and researching high-capacity BRT systems in other places, were not comfortable with this.
BRT is a set of interventions which, when combined, allow buses to travel unimpeded by traffic, spending minimal time at bus stops. At its best, BRT has nice stations that don’t block the sidewalk and serve a mix of bus routes, including local and express routes, that get people more directly to where they want to go.
Indeed, SBS achieved some significant speed gains over the limited-stop bus services it replaced. This was mainly on account of off-board fare collection. Off-board fare collection was critical to SBS’s speed gains because the number of passengers boarding at every station was so high. Before SBS, buses could spend several minutes waiting for everyone to pay their fares at the front door. Off-board fare collection, paired with all-door boarding, eliminated up to several minutes of boarding delay per stop.
The bus lanes themselves have had very little impact on speeds, owing to the fact that they are frequently blocked by deliveries and legal right turns.
There are other problems with SBS: passengers must still take a step up or down to board, adding seconds per passenger and minutes in the aggregate. If a person on a wheelchair needs to board, that person — and all passengers on the bus — faces an additional two-to-three-minute delay.
Stops are usually built on the sidewalk, blocking foot traffic; they are not particularly nice; and weather protection is minimal. Fare inspection happens on-board buses and inspectors typically stop the whole bus during the inspection, forcing passengers to wait and the bus to be delayed. With all these limitations, SBS speeds were averaging 8.8 miles per hour just before the pandemic, with wide variation, including a 4.6 mph crawl on the M34A SBS. That is only marginally better than the limited stop services they replaced.
While the goal of reducing subway costs and timelines is important, we are unlikely to get significant new subway infrastructure in the next decade (aside from hopefully three new stations on the Second Avenue Subway). Meanwhile, bus riders continue to make up a large portion of NYC transit passengers and it is they that bear the brunt of slow and late buses. Additionally, as increasing numbers of people flee the transit system for private cars, an exciting new option could help stem that flow.
Mayor Adams ran on a platform of bringing true Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) to New York City. The Transition Committee, on which I served, recommended gold-standard BRT. Transportation Alternatives included a “Go for Gold” strategy in their Policy Platform for Mayor Eric Adams.
True BRT could speed up buses significantly and create a new, high-quality transit option for millions of New Yorkers. Some international cities have built full BRT corridors in just three years. Indianapolis did it in five. Eric Adams has the opportunity to finally bring New York City up to par with the dozens of other cities that have done it right. Here’s what he should do.
East Side BRT
The M15-SBS and local together had 46,000 daily riders in 2019, one of the highest ridership bus routes in the US. They run up First Avenue and down Second Avenue. Even the SBS does so at a snail’s pace: 6.6 mph is slower than a bicycle. TransitCenter gives it a “D” grade, only marginally better than the local service which gets an F.
Sure, all-door boarding has helped. But it is stuck in traffic and rarely gets a chance to operate in its own lane.
The full 8.5-mile Second Avenue Subway, once built out, could be transformative for the east side of Manhattan. It would help lighten the load on the Lexington Avenue line, dramatically improve the trips of many of today’s M15 local and SBS passengers, and perhaps attract new passengers to transit who are currently driving. But we are unlikely to see the full buildout in any of our lifetimes.
A BRT on the East Side of Manhattan, designed right and with dedicated passing lanes, could conservatively carry 15,000 hourly passengers in each direction (PPHPD). For comparison, Bogotá’s BRT in areas with fewer intersections, comfortably carries 36,000 peak hour passengers in each direction and uncomfortably, is actually carrying 45,000 (there are solutions to this overcrowding!). That said, given the pre-pandemic M15 combined daily ridership of 46,000, and a conservative PPHPD of 4,600, even a doubling of the ridership would remain well below capacity and we may be able to squeak by without passing lanes. And while it won’t hit Bogota’s (or the NYC subway’s) 17mph, a reasonable estimate could be about 12mph, just slightly more than the BRT in Cleveland which has similar block lengths but goes curbside for a large portion of the route. Yet it could run much more frequently than a subway because its vehicle capacity is lower, so wait times would also be shorter. And it would be more resilient to weather conditions, breakdowns, signal failures, etc.
To properly serve the east side, a full BRT could be done on First or Second Avenue. However, First is wider than Second so it may be easier politically.
If the system eventually runs up against capacity constraints, the city could build another line on Second or Third Avenues. Not only would this resolve most capacity constraints, it would also give people even more options.
Building an East Side BRT also gives the city the opportunity to reclaim some of the unreasonable amount of road real estate currently devoted to cars. Stations can be an architectural feature in the middle of the street, rather than a quick shelter thrown up onto the sidewalk, blocking pedestrian’s paths.
Currently, the momentum for big new transportation projects is in the outer boroughs. I get that. However, the east side of Manhattan is a transit desert. And though there is little route-level demographic data available, the M15 tends to carry a large number of hospital workers and like the bus system at large, plenty of low-income New Yorkers.
There is no need to stop planning the Second Avenue Subway. But in the meantime, which could even be a lifetime, why not provide a great quality transit option to the tens of thousands of people who need it now.
Upgrade the other high-volume SBS corridors
The SBS corridors were originally chosen for good reason: they are the streets with the highest ridership bus routes in the city. Converting those corridors to full BRT would benefit a combined 360,000 riders every day. The city could do any one of these and it would benefit a lot of people.
After the M15-SBS on 1st and 2nd Avenues, the Bx12 on Fordham Road in the Bronx has the second highest ridership, with 40,000 pre-pandemic daily riders. The B46 on Utica Avenue in Brooklyn is next (36,000 daily riders). We are also waiting for a subway along Utica Avenue but there is no plan to make this actually happen. In the meantime, why not do real justice to the bus?
Flatbush Avenue could seriously benefit from a full street redesign, including true BRT in the middle for the B41. Running the B41 across the Manhattan Bridge and across Canal Street would provide shorter travel times for bus passengers currently traveling along the very congested Flatbush Avenue. It would also provide new connections for transit riders from Brooklyn into Manhattan, better preparing us for congestion pricing. It would also significantly improve the dire safety situation on Canal Street.
Reducing the number of inbound lanes on the Manhattan Bridge would help to control the out-of-control traffic into Manhattan.
Build nice stations with level boarding
Today’s SBS stations are little more than sign posts or small shelters, put up by an advertising company under contract to the city. They are generally built on the sidewalk, blocking pedestrian flow in order to avoid inconveniencing traffic.
The world’s best BRT systems have nice stations designed by architects, in the road bed, rather than on the sidewalk.
While bus advocates are sometimes skeptical of nice stations because of the cost (e.g., the needlessly complex South Dade TransitWay planned BRT stations), a nice station need not be overbuilt. A well-designed shelter or enclosure on a platform in the center of the road, to the taste of the city and its residents, can add architectural value to the streetscape, now otherwise blighted by traffic. Could a BRT station ever be worse than what we have today on our city streets?
A platform designed to be fully level with the bus floor can save significant time for all passengers in the aggregate but is particularly appreciated by passengers in wheelchairs, who can roll right on without having to wait for a wheelchair ramp. It can also provide a more comfortable, weather-protected environment for all passengers to wait.
Upgrade the Busways to Full BRT
The 14th Street Busway has reduced travel times between 3rd and 8th Avenues by up to 36%. NYCDOT has since added new busways on Jay Street, 181st Street, Flushing Main Street, Jamaica Avenue, and Archer Avenue. These busways are part of a renaissance in bus-only streets in NYC (though they have varying levels of enforcement and degrees to which they are still shared with cars). But Fulton Mall has been operating as a busway since the 1970’s.
The hard work of reclaiming space from cars on most of these streets is already done. We should upgrade the stops on each of these busways to include level boarding platforms, move them off of the sidewalk (where possible), size them to the demand, and make them more comfortable and attractive. These measures would speed the buses through and create attractive new transit infrastructure with little political cost. Doing these things would also go a long way to improving the public realm on what are essentially bus- and pedestrian-only streets.
On Fulton Mall, for example, moving the buses through stops more quickly could allow the MTA to shift some of the heavy volumes of buses off of Livingston Street, where the bus lanes do not function, and onto Fulton Mall.
The Union Square Partnership has developed a vision for Union Square which includes the 14th Street Busway. A high-quality BRT station at Union Square could be included in this plan to make a clear connection between the busway and the Union Square subway station. Union Square is also a high boarding volume location on 14th Street so passengers would benefit from the time savings treatments associated with an upgraded station.
Design for high capacity
This is New York City. We have a lot of people and a lot of transit riders. If we design the system for high ridership on the busy corridors, we will get the ridership (“if you build it, they will come”). We absolutely need fully dedicated lanes impermeable to other vehicles. We need stations with longer platforms so more buses can dock at a time. Those platforms also need to be wide enough to comfortably accommodate high volumes of passengers, and perfectly level with the bus floors so all users can access the bus with ease.
We need to restrict vehicular turning movements to prioritize bus passengers. We probably need dedicated bus-only passing lanes, at least on some corridors. We also need to better work out the interaction between local and express services so that everyone benefits. We need to consider a mix of services which can use the BRT corridor for some distance, then turn off and take people closer to their destinations. We need to fully integrate last-mile mobility, such as bike share and scooters, into the station design. All of these important features together form the basis of what is known as Gold-Standard BRT.
Select Bus Service was a good start because it demonstrated several important concepts. But it was not a high-capacity mass transit system. It is New York’s time for BRT.