New York City needs more interborough bus routes

By Walter Hook, Annie Weinstock, and Larson Holt

Source: Tdorante10 — CC BY-SA 4.0

In 2016, following a global trend, MTA New York City Transit (NYCT) embarked on a borough-by-borough Bus Network Redesign. Rapid progress was made under Andy Byford’s leadership. Excellent reports detailing existing conditions were completed for the Bronx , Queens, and Brooklyn. A redesign plan was finalized for the Bronx, a draft plan was released for Queens, and a Brooklyn plan was on he way. Advocacy groups put a lot of time and energy behind the effort.

But the redesigns were put on hold due to COVID-19. As TransitCenter’s Ben Fried was recently quoted as saying in the Daily News:

The MTA should be doing everything it can to improve service and win riders back.

TransitCenter also calls for fast tracking the redesigns. Indeed, the redesign needs to move forward.

One of the most interesting ideas in the redesign is to improve the interborough bus connections. These could have gone even further. Several new one-seat rides between boroughs could be key to “improv[ing] service and win[ning] riders back.” They could also help to win back some of the public support that was lost during the pre-COVID public engagement.

NYCT’s bus network has always isolated boroughs

Today, the NYCT bus network, with a few exceptions, is divided into routes that operate wholly within each of the five boroughs. Trips between the South Bronx and Manhattan, and between the outer parts of Brooklyn and Queens, for instance, are slow and difficult. These problems tend to disproportionately affect low income communities of color.

Indeed, NYCT acknowledges this in the Brooklyn Existing conditions report:

While some trips within Brooklyn can be difficult to make on public transit, the challenges only increase when one needs or wishes to travel to another borough.

Typically, the MTA designs bus routes to bring passengers to the nearest subway rather than providing one-seat bus rides across boroughs. The thinking is: fill as much open subway capacity as possible to reduce costs. However, every transfer between bus and subway includes:

One of the widely-accepted principles of bus route design is to establish a clear grid of frequent services. In New York City, within each borough, the bus network already operates largely as a grid, and these routes already operate at reasonably high frequency by US standards.

Running more bus routes between boroughs would fill one of the biggest gaps in today’s NYC bus network, making for shorter and simpler trips for riders.

Interborough routes in the NYC bus network redesign

So far, bus network redesign proposals have been released for Queens and the Bronx. Because they were done as standalone boroughs, the full city was not looked at in a holistic way. As NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer warned in a 2017 report:

While dividing these network redesigns by borough is one option, close consideration must be paid to improving inter-borough connectivity, which is currently deficient.

The draft Queens network includes some exciting new interborough routes, but the final Bronx network lacks new interborough routes while even cutting an existing one. Here, we explore what has been proposed, and what we think might be further explored in these plans. Ours are not definitive proposals but ideas to consider. In our next post, we will explore Brooklyn to Manhattan.

Queens

The Queens bus network redesign made the following proposals with regard to interborough bus routes originating in Queens:

The Queens Bus Network Redesign adds some exciting new interborough routes between Brooklyn and Queens, and some cool new express bus routes between Queens and Manhattan.

One proposal is to create a new linear ultra-limited route (stops about a mile apart) — Route QT1 — between Long Island City, Greenpoint/Williamsburg and Downtown Brooklyn. To make this trip today, you’d need to transfer between the B62 and the Q100. This route would serve the demand that would be served by the far more expensive BQX proposal, but the service would be faster, as it would make fewer stops and pass around obstructions.

The QT2 would provide another linear interborough link between Steinway and Williamsburg, and the QT4 would provide a direct connection between Downtown Brooklyn and Jackson Heights.

Proposed ultra-limited (stops around 1 mile apart) routes between Queens and Brooklyn. Source: Proposed Queens Local Bus Network Remix maps

The QT5 would combine today’s B15 and Q8, improving connections to Brookdale Hospital.

The QT50 would travel between LaGuardia Airport and the Bronx. However, survey data in the Existing Conditions report shows that most LGA-bound employees who reside in the Bronx are coming from the Central and South Bronx near Grand Concourse. In the Queens plan, the QT50 only travels as far as Pelham Bay Park, a subway station with minimal onward connections to the places most people need to go.

The proposal cut one interborough route — the popular Q60 that runs straight from Jamaica to Midtown down Queens Boulevard. In the redesign it terminates in Long Island City. As a popular bus route in Queens with 13,600 daily passengers, it’s not clear why the Midtown link was cut. It should not only be restored, it could be combined with the M57 to provide a better cross-town service with more subway connection options.

Even more daring are eight new proposed express bus routes between various points in Queens and the Financial District over the Williamsburg Bridge.

Proposed new express bus routes between Queens and the Financial District over the Williamsburg Bridge. Source: Proposed Queens Express Bus Network Remix map

These routes are visible on a separate Proposed Queens Express Bus Network Remix map (not yet written up in a report). They all have two stops along Grand Street in Williamsburg. This would result in headways of a bus every 4 minutes on Grand St and over the Williamsburg Bridge, which would be enough to justify dedicated bus or bus/HOV/truck lanes. These new routes might help to keep crowding down to safer levels on the L train as ridership begins to return to normal.

Some advocates are concerned that express buses tend to require higher subsidies, as they serve longer-distance travelers. In their defense, they capture trips that otherwise are at high risk of shifting to car trips. Adding a couple of stops at popular locations along the way, as these new routes do, would improve their efficiency.

In the bullet points above, we outlined the current plans for the Queens Bus Network Redesign. In addition to these, we think the Queens redesign could benefit from the following:

One of the problems with the existing express bus network from an equity perspective is that it jumps over entire neighborhoods, even where a route travels on an urban street. Northern Boulevard, for instance, currently has 4 express bus routes but none of them stop. The express bus network redesign reroutes all the express buses off of Northern Boulevard, but a better solution would be to leave them there, add a stop, and increase speeds on Northern Boulevard with BRT investments. Jackson Heights residents would then have the option, for example, to take a Citi Bike to a nearby express route into Midtown.

A lot of forced transfers remain in Ridgewood. Connecting the Q55 to the Q54; the Q39 to Q20; and the B52 to Q58 could save fleet and reduce forced transfers. While very long routes tend to compromise reliability, some of these routes like the Q20 are very short, and reliability issues are better addressed with priority measures and operational control systems.

Buses from both Queens and Brooklyn terminate around Ridgewood, forcing a transfer for interborough bus travel

The Bronx

In the South Bronx, there is already a useful grid of east-west interborough routes connecting to Manhattan. The Bronx Bus Network Redesign does not change them much. However, one east-west route was made worse: the Bx15 was shortened to no longer continue into Manhattan down 125th Street. Passengers wanting to make this trip would need to transfer to a new M125 route. This change weakens the grid for an already isolated South Bronx.

Source: The Bronx Bus Network Redesign: Final Plan

Currently, there are not many north-south routes connecting the South Bronx to Manhattan. Some of the most popular bus routes in the Bronx — the Bx1, Bx2, Bx41 SBS, Bx15, and Bx17 — terminate in the South Bronx, either at the 6 train, or at the 2/5 trains. This discontinuity of the Bronx North-South bus network no doubt contributes to the economic and social isolation of the South Bronx.

The Existing Conditions Report shows very high volume bus-subway transfers in the South Bronx. This issue is not addressed by the Bronx Bus Network Redesign Final Plan.

Blue circles indicate high transfer volumes between bus and subway (left). Bus map (right) shows clusters of proposed Bronx bus routes that would terminate at 3rd Ave and 149th St or at 3rd Ave and 138th.

Joining the Bx41 SBS to the M15 SBS; the Bx1 Ltd to the M1; and restoring the Bx15, would help many passengers on these popular routes avoid this cumbersome transfer to the subway, and reduce the number of buses dead-heading around the subway station. Dedicated bus and bike lanes on these bridges and bus priority measures along the routes to increase reliability would make these proposals successful.

Our proposal for extending Bx1 Ltd and the Bx41 SBS into Manhattan, to better connect the South Bronx.

These new interborough routes would be extensions of existing limited services overlaid on local routes, so the removal of additional stops would not create difficulties for the elderly and disabled.

The COVID pause gives us the opportunity to rethink parts of the bus network

The bus network redesigns, in the public engagement phase, faced fierce opposition. At the same time, implementation of the bus network redesigns has been paused due to COVID-19. Why not use this time to think up exciting new ways to get the public on side? Now, it is more crucial than ever that we build back our transit network in a way that both retains, and attracts, riders.

Reorientations is a blog by the staff of People-Oriented Cities. Each post provides a novel idea for “reorienting” cities away from cars and towards people.