The new Queens Bus Network Redesign is progress.
But we miss the old plan
By Walter Hook and Annie Weinstock
The Queens Bus Network Redesign has been out for two months now, and we’ve finally had a chance to review it. There are a couple of good reviews already out there, both from Streetsblog and from the Effective Transportation Alliance.
Both are worth reading and include many important observations. In this piece, we take a different approach, reviewing the new network from the perspective of best practices in bus network redesign. In essence, the new Queens redesign is likely to bring a lot of benefits, but some compromises have been made in the face of public pushback.
What to love
The original version of the Queens Bus Network Redesign was bold and had many improvements over today’s network. Unfortunately, some benefits were never fully understood and did not survive the public process. The new version retains and even adds a lot of improvements. We hope the MTA can see this one through. Here are a bunch of the things that the MTA should be touting:
Big improvement in clarity
The MTA deserves praise for making the new design easier to understand. The last one changed all the existing route numbers without articulating how people’s current routes would change. Ultimately, people want to know how their trips will be impacted more than how the network as a whole will change. This time, the approach is much better: stick to the old route numbers, where feasible, and show the changes as clearly as possible.
Better frequency on many routes
The frequency changes in the new network are much clearer than in the previous draft, and the new network significantly improves frequencies on a number of routes. This, despite the fact that there is plenty of capacity at existing frequencies. This is impressive given the fiscal environment and the loss of ridership during the pandemic. Given all the issues to balance, the frequency decisions are laudable.
Bus stop rebalancing
Removing stops is an important means to decreasing travel times, as each stop adds a minimum of 16 seconds to the total trip time. It is politically difficult to remove bus stops in New York City, and while the stop removals proposed are not nearly as aggressive as in the previous draft, it strikes a better balance between community concerns about stop removal and the need to speed up buses. This plan is more aggressive on bus stop rebalancing than the Bronx redesign and should have a bigger speed impact.
On many routes, a lower frequency local service has been left on the same corridor as a more limited stop service. This makes sense as a way of balancing the needs of passengers with greater difficulty walking against those wishing for higher speed services, so long as the demand is high enough to justify a reasonable frequency for both services.
More priority for buses
The call for more bus priority measures is unobjectionably good. It should be pointed out, however, that most of the curb-aligned and curb-adjacent bus lanes in New York City don’t work very well. Enforcement is weak, even with the on-board bus cameras and even with better enforcement. Additionally, there are too many reasons why vehicles are allowed in the bus lane, undermining the purpose of the cameras altogether.
A better way to implement more bus priority measures would be to use central-median bus lanes on two-way streets, ban more turning movements across the bus lanes, use rigid barriers where possible, and pilot parking-protected bus lanes.
Two steps forward, one step back
While overall, the plan has a lot of exciting improvements, it also loses some important design ideas included in the previous plan. In many of those cases, it is possible that better communication could have won more support.
The plan backs away from a new grid
Some of the more aggressive route straightening suggested in the original draft has been abandoned. One of the principles of bus network design is to establish a clear grid of straight routes, as Jarrett Walker has explained well.
Most of the Queens bus routes already form a grid pattern. The grid breaks down, however, in two areas:
- Around major — usually express — subway hubs, where the network becomes more hub-and-spoke; and
- At borough borders, where routes often terminate unnecessarily.
The MTA has historically tried to save money by routing longer trips onto the subway system. This can make some passenger trips longer and slower. This has also tended to create bus congestion around these express subway stations and passenger congestion on the subway platforms.
The first Queens Bus Network Redesign tried to move away from terminating large clusters of bus routes at express subway stations, and closer to a grid of services. This was especially visible in Jackson Heights: Several bus routes that currently terminate at Roosevelt Avenue-Jackson Heights Station were proposed to be straightened and rerouted to local 7 stations and then extended to points beyond in order to complete the bus network grid.
This would have saved bus service miles which could have been redeployed elsewhere and decongested Roosevelt Av-Jackson Heights Station. These benefits outweighed inconvenience for some passengers who were trying to access the R, M, E, or F at Roosevelt Avenue and previously had direct access. The reduction in congestion alone would have offset the added delay for many trips. A lot of the public were not happy about the changes, however.
For one thing, there were concerns that not all of the 7 local stations are accessible stations. Of course, this should be rectified by making them accessible. The other reasons for not supporting these changes were less clear, however. We suspect that it may because the benefits are not completely obvious and were not so well-articulated in the presentations we saw. These changes have mostly been withdrawn from the new network.
New interborough routes remain, but are less inspiring
The first draft of the plan also made a more aggressive effort to improve the route network between boroughs. There are many bus network problems in New York City that stem from the fact that the bus routes have been planned independently by borough, rather than as an integrated citywide network. We wrote about this in detail last year. Such independent planning is particularly clear at many points along the Brooklyn-Queens border, where passengers are forced to transfer just because they are leaving one borough and entering another. The subway system is also predominantly radial, so passengers going from Queens to Brooklyn must often travel a long way out of their way.
The first draft of the plan had some exciting new interborough links, many of them ultra-limited routes that would have created fast and direct new connections. These routes didn’t have much of a constituency as they were new. Meanwhile, they sometimes replaced existing local routes which included many more stops. These route cancellations caused unease among stakeholders.
The new plan splits the difference: They’ve kept some of the new interborough routes which basically join two local routes (one in Queens and one in Brooklyn, for example) but rather than being ultra-limited like in the last plan, or ultra-local like today, they will be more of a typical limited-stop service. So, the new routes will be less radical and less efficient, but also less disruptive of the existing service pattern.
To put some specifics to this:
- Brooklyn-Queens Waterfront: Today, to travel along the waterfront between Long Island City, Greenpoint/Williamsburg and Downtown Brooklyn, passengers must take the B62 on the Brooklyn side, and transfer to the Q100 in Queens. In the first draft of the plan, this currently awkward connection was to be served by a new ultra-limited QT1. This would have been a good attempt at creating a true Brooklyn-Queens waterfront connection which the ill-fated BQX streetcar was designed to do but would have cost ridiculously more money and had more stops. Now, it will be served by a limited version of the current B62 that is extended into Queens.
- Downtown Brooklyn to Jackson Heights: Currently, to travel between Jackson Heights and Downtown Brooklyn, one would take the F train, which goes all the way into Manhattan and out again, and takes about 50 minutes. The first draft proposed the QT4, which would have provided a direct connection between Downtown Brooklyn and Jackson Heights, replacing the current B57 with an ultra-limited stop service. This has been turned into a red limited with the same new routing, which seems reasonable. Its not time competitive with the F for end-to-end trips but serves all the points in-between with a reasonably quick service into Downtown Brooklyn or Jackson Heights.
- Steinway to Williamsburg: The first draft proposed the QT2, an ultra-limited between Steinway and Williamsburg. This has been downgraded to a local route Q68, which partially replaces the discontinued Q101 which currently goes into Manhattan. Downgraded, this route will have so many stops that it is unlikely to attract many passengers.
It is good that these new interborough routes survived the revision, but they have all compromised on travel time, making them a step back from the original redesign.
Local and “Rush” routes into subway deserts
The new plan creates something called “Rush” routes, which are a tweaked repackaging of what the first plan had called “Rushing to the Subway” routes. These routes are essentially express feeder routes to the subway for passengers living beyond the footprint of the subway system. They are similar to existing routes which serve the same purpose, except that they run express as they approach the subway station. Where “Rush” routes are planned, there is usually a local version operating on the same corridor.*
These changes are mostly positive. Most passengers are probably going to the subway, so they will benefit from fewer stops along the way, while relatively few passengers will be inconvenienced by the loss of the local stops. Those who are stopping along the way will need to transfer to the local route, but such passengers are relatively few.
This can be seen on Union Turnpike. Currently, passengers headed from Manhattan into Glen Oaks, Oakland Gardens, and Fresh Meadows would either take the E or F to Kew Gardens/Union Turnpike and then transfer to the Q46 local, or would take an express bus directly from Manhattan. The Q46 (and a similar Q48) will now run express from the Kew Gardens/Union Turnpike subway station to Fresh Meadows, then continue to Oakland Gardens and Glen Oaks making local stops.
For those passengers requiring local stops to Fresh Meadows, the existing Q23 will be extended past its current terminus in Forest Hills, down Queens Boulevard and then along Union Turnpike, making local stops to Fresh Meadows.
While the changes described above are more or less unobjectionable, we suspect that “Rush Route” concept is being used to draw passengers out of the express buses and onto the subway. Pretty much all of these routes will serve areas also served by express buses, and express buses are facing significant service cuts. The MTA’s existing conditions report makes a fairly convincing case that express buses are, with a few notable exceptions, expensive to operate, with poor cost recovery rates (see table below).
Several of the express bus options (QM1, QM5, QM6, QM8 and QM31) which serve the same neighborhoods in Queens that will be served by the new “Rush” routes face longer headways in the new version. The table below shows the precise headway changes as well as some of the efficiency metrics and ridership for these routes.
On the one hand, it is easy to see why the MTA would consider reducing these services. Ridership is very low, cost recovery is well below the bus system average in most cases, and subsidies are high.
On the other hand, it is normal for a long-distance service to have lower productivity. That said, some fairly minor improvements to the Staten Island express bus network boosted those routes’ ridership and efficiency dramatically.
There was an interesting proposal in the first plan to run new express bus routes over the Williamsburg Bridge into Manhattan, with one or two stops along Grand Street in Williamsburg a destination in its own right. These routes might have attracted more passengers to express bus services, and the additional passengers would have supported more frequency. They would also have helped alleviate congestion on the L Train. As we wrote last year, with congestion pricing still likely in the foreseeable future, providing fast new options for transit across the East River should be a priority. However, these proposals have been dropped.
It is far from certain that express bus passengers will be lured to the subway system as a result of these changes. Many express bus passengers have a variety of reasons for preferring their express bus to a transfer to the subway, including a more direct route, desire for a one seat ride, dislike of the increasingly poor conditions in the subway stations, fear of crime and harassment on the subway, difficulty navigating stairs, etc.
Second time’s a charm?
The MTA staff should be commended for bringing this plan back out. The plan is several levels of improvement over today’s network and advocates should generally be supportive. The plan would have been more ambitious if the MTA had better defended some of their more courageous proposals in the first plan. More attention to the concerns of the express bus users might further have broadened the plan’s appeal. But in general we are supportive of the new plan. It will be interesting to see if the citizens of Queens and their elected officials are more supportive this time.
*In the old plan, it wasn’t easy to tell how the new routes related to existing routes, so we are not sure how much they’ve changed from the previous plan.