By SEWELL CHAN
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 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
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
"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
The 36 bus corridors being evaluated are
distributed across the five boroughs: 12 in Queens, 8 in Brooklyn, 6 in
Together, the corridors account for 40 percent of
total bus ridership. They include First and Second Avenues in
Several elements that could fit into a bus rapid
transit system are already under way in
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
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."