New York Times     March 30, 2005

Trying to Get Buses to Crawl a Little Faster


After watching New York City bus speeds struggle to the point where some Manhattan buses crawl at 4 miles per hour - only slightly faster than the average human walks - transportation planners now think that if they can make buses move even 10 percent faster, they can revolutionize travel in the five boroughs.

That's right, just 10 percent.

In early May, a group of New York planners will visit Los Angeles to observe a program that has sped up buses there by 22 to 25 percent. The changes include designated bus lanes, straighter routes, easy-to-board low-floor buses, specially marked stations, far fewer stops, the elimination of schedules, and computerized signaling that gives buses priority at intersections.

New York City Transit, whose buses run on some of the most congested streets in the world, says it would be delighted to achieve even half of those speed gains. Thus, 10 m.p.h. could become 11 m.p.h. The agency has teamed up with the city and state Transportation Departments on a $2.9 million study of bus rapid transit, as the improvements are broadly known in the transit world.

Advocates of mass transit, who have been calling for bus improvements for more than a decade, say the study is long overdue.

"Anything would be an improvement because most people can walk faster than the buses run," said Beverly L. Dolinsky, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the transit agency's parent.

"Bus service has grown exponentially because of free subway-to-bus transfers. Now that they've got these customers, they need to keep them," she said.

The study, begun last July, started with 100 of the city's busiest streets. Planners selected 36 bus corridors and presented them for comment at public workshops across the city in December and January. Next month, they will narrow the list to 15 corridors; they intend to begin a demonstration project on 5 routes by 2007.

The transit agency is hardly known for successfully carrying out innovative bus service. In 1996, it began a $4.4 million effort to use satellite-based radio signals to let riders know when the next bus was coming. Technical problems stymied the effort, which quietly died in 2000, although a similar idea is being studied again.

The new rapid-bus project is being approached with caution, but planners say they are serious. "This is not a theoretical study," said Keith J. Hom, the chief of operations planning for the transit agency, which operates about 240 local and express bus routes. "We want practical solutions for speeding buses in New York City using existing technologies. We need to do something now to improve conditions."

Mr. Hom and his staff view the city's roads as a contested battlefield, with pedestrians, cyclists, automobiles, taxicabs and trucks vying with mass transit for control of every spot, from the center lane right to the curb. Progress, they say, can be measured only in small increments.

"You're not going to see a lot of this stuff initially, but maybe there is a mile here, a mile there that we can grab," Theodore V. Orosz, the transit agency's bus route planner for Manhattan and the Bronx, said half-jokingly. "We don't have a lot of money to spend, and there are a lot of constraints in terms of the street and traffic use."

When bus rapid transit is finally in place, the changes will probably include designated bus lanes that will not compete with parked cars for space. The new lanes may be one lane away from the curb, with the sidewalk bulging out at the corner for riders to board.

The agency, which says it does not have enough money to order new vehicles for the speedier routes, plans to draw from the 40- and 60-foot low-floor buses, instead of the older "kneeling" buses, in its fleet. The lower vehicles allow riders to board and exit quickly, reducing the "dwell time" that slows bus trips.

Bus rapid transit routes are usually straight, with few turns, and are best suited for long, wide boulevards. Stops will be fewer, spaced farther apart and specially marked, most likely by a bus shelter with a distinctive color or design. Regular all-stop routes will continue to be operated on the same streets.

Finally, perhaps the best-known feature of bus rapid transit is what planners call "intelligent transportation systems." A device will transmit a bus's position and speed, through centralized computers, to a traffic light as the bus approaches. The traffic light will then remain green for, say, 10 seconds longer than usual, or change from red to green 10 seconds sooner than usual, to allow the bus to pass.

Coordinating bus movements is a complex affair. While New York City Transit operates the 4,512 buses and establishes routes, schedules and stops, the city's Department of Transportation manages the bus-stop signs, poles and shelters, as well as traffic flow, traffic lights and street signs.

That split in responsibilities is one reason New York has lagged behind other cities in exploring bus rapid transit. Under the slogan "think rail, use buses," the Federal Transit Administration awarded grants in 1999 to 10 transit agencies, including those in Boston, Cleveland, Hartford, Miami and Washington.

Los Angeles, seen as an innovator in speedier bus transportation, began a bus rapid transit program in 2000 on two lines and 38 miles. By this June, with federal support, the city will have 28 such lines on 450 miles. The system costs $200,000 a mile, compared with $30 million to $50 million a mile to build light rail and $200 million to $300 million for a new subway, said Rex Gephart, the director of regional transit planning in Los Angeles.

New York officials acknowledged they want to catch up.

"We haven't been as innovative or creative as we probably should have been," said the city's transportation commissioner, Iris Weinshall. "The question is, how do you service the needs of goods and services, pedestrians and bicyclists, commercial and for-hire vehicles? From my perspective, it really is about creating viable alternatives for people taking their cars around Manhattan."

The 36 bus corridors being evaluated are distributed across the five boroughs: 12 in Queens, 8 in Brooklyn, 6 in Manhattan, 6 in the Bronx and 4 on Staten Island.

Together, the corridors account for 40 percent of total bus ridership. They include First and Second Avenues in Manhattan - the home of the M15, the busiest bus line, with a daily ridership of 66,000 - and major corridors like Fordham Road in the Bronx, Kissena Boulevard in Queens and Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn.

But the Manhattan crosstown routes most notorious for their maddening slowness - like the M23 and the M96 - are not part of the study. The short distances traveled and the need to stop at every avenue do not make bus rapid transit feasible, planners said.

Several elements that could fit into a bus rapid transit system are already under way in New York. The city plans to install traffic signal controllers at 14 intersections along Victory Boulevard and Bay Street on Staten Island. The state is examining building dedicated busways on the Staten Island Expressway and the Cross Bronx Expressway.

New York City Transit already has 12 passenger bus depots throughout the five boroughs that could serve as terminals for rapid buses. Two more - at Coney Island-Stillwell Avenue and Kings Plaza in Brooklyn - are under construction, and yet another two are being planned. Finally, New Yorkers who already use the 35 bus routes that offer limited-stop service are familiar with the concept.

The task is to build on those efforts and to coordinate them better, said Mr. Hom, the chief of operations planning. "It's really a system," he said of the plans for faster buses. "It isn't putting a fancy bus with a happy face out there and calling it B.R.T. The sum of the elements is greater than the elements individually."