Transforming NYC’s busways
Now that we’ve restricted traffic, here’s what we should do next
By Annie Weinstock
In October 2019, in response to the L Train slowdown, New York City Department of Transportation (NYCDOT) opened the 14th Street Busway. The success of the 14th Street Busway in New York led to Mayor Bill DeBlasio announcing five new busways to come. So far two of them — Jay Street in Brooklyn and Main Street in Flushing — have been implemented.
Busways aren’t new. Fulton Mall in Brooklyn opened in the 1970s. Denver opened the 16th Street Mall in 1982. There are bus malls in Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand. In Bogotá, Colombia; Belo Horizonte, Brazil; Mexico City; and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, downtown bus malls were designed as extensions of higher capacity Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems.
While the new NYC bus malls, now known as “busways”, have been hard fought and are already bringing significant benefits to bus riders, they are largely delineated with signs and offer little other indication to the public that they are places for people.
When a city stops all vehicles except for buses from traveling on a street, they reduce the amount of traffic significantly; even the most frequent of bus routes is not as frequent as constant traffic. This creates a new opportunity to develop a more people-centric space.
The busways in Denver, Vancouver, Mexico City, Bogota, Belo Horizonte, Dar es Salaam, and elsewhere were designed with intentionality. They did not simply put up a sign and call it a busway. They were designed as a cohesive whole by teams of architects, landscape architects, and engineers. They experimented with various textures of brick and granite pavers, created a seamless flow from building line to building line, planted street trees, installed attractive street lighting and street furniture, designed safe and attractive bicycle facilities, and built iconic bus stops and stations.
Today’s new busways can be thought of as pilot projects — the kind of tactical urbanism pioneered by Janette Sadik-Khan when she was NYCDOT Commissioner of Transportation. The thinking is, get something done quickly, see if it takes, then make it permanent. Indeed, the Better Market Street plan in San Francisco aims to upgrade San Francisco’s new Market Street busway to a full people-oriented street (though recently it was presented as a much scaled-back version of its original glory).
In NYC, the 14th Street Busway was announced as permanent in mid-2020. But in true NYC style, no plans were subsequently announced to upgrade the busway to something more akin to Denver or Mexico City’s centro histórico. Absent any further guidance from NYCDOT, the Union Square Partnership recently capitalized on this announcement by releasing their own designs for a permanent 14th Street Busway, connected with a renovated Union Square Plaza.
The design is forward-thinking, creating a seamless connection between the commercial activity on 14th Street with Union Square Plaza, and allowing buses to pass through. A station for the 14th Street Busway is notably absent, however, and would not only make sense given the importance of Union Square as a destination, but would also provide the opportunity of adding high-quality, iconic transit stations to the plan.
The Jay Street Busway and the Main Street Flushing Busway are much further from being the high-quality public spaces that many of their counterparts have been. For one thing, they operate on weekdays only and for limited hours. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, they are further from being true busways. Jay Street allows trucks and local access while Flushing Main Street even allows parallel parking on the corridor. These operational rules preclude a full build-out of these busways. Indeed, even the 14th Street Busway allows trucks and local access and it does not operate 24/7.
For the NYC busways to become true busways, the first step is to prohibit all traffic from entering and make them 24/7. The city should commit to off-hour truck deliveries so that trucks are only on the busway overnight. Deliveries at all other times should be required to be made by cargo bike. This would push more deliveries to cleaner, safer modes. The city should then do a proper, people-oriented design. While these designs would focus on creating vibrant public spaces, there is also an opportunity to increase the functionality of the busways.
Making buses move
While the public space aspects of a busway are important to the life and enjoyment of a city, busways are designed to move buses faster. Banning most traffic has had huge impacts on reducing travel times for bus passengers. Banning all traffic and adjacent parking would have even more.
But traffic isn’t the only thing slowing buses down. At popular bus stops, the full boarding process can take several minutes. Pre-paid boarding on Select Bus Service (SBS) routes has helped to remove the delay associated with fare payment on board and allows passengers to board at all doors. The rollout of the OMNY smart card systemwide will bring these benefits to all bus routes, including those on the busways.
But even a quicker fare payment process won’t help with the time that passengers spend stepping onto and off of the bus, which is about a foot off the ground. And due to the bus floor height, wheelchairs take even longer. Because the busways were designed around the bus stops with some of the highest boarding volumes (Jay Street being an exception), it would make sense to raise the bus stop platform to meet the level of the bus floor at all busway stops. While per passenger, this saves only about half of a second on average (with people in wheelchairs getting a much greater time savings), on aggregate, level boarding can save minutes per bus run. And it provides an easier and more equitable boarding experience for people in wheelchairs.
Facing the opposition
The rollout of the NYC busways has faced extreme opposition. Business owners and drivers alike have expressed anger over the loss of parking and through-traffic access. It is unlikely that any of these people ride the bus, so the busways are, to them, a net loss. Nor do bus riders tend to dominate public meetings in support of the time savings the busways will bring. Nonetheless, the hardest part — restricting most traffic — is now done on three new busways. Moving forward, transforming them into beautiful public spaces would be a win for everybody — including notably, the business owners, as studies have shown. Upgrading the busways would also go a long way towards gaining future public support for busways, not just from bus riders, but from anybody who is willing to envision a more people-oriented city.