Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Will New York’s Bus Rapid Transit System Cause a Bus Revolution?

mta-2nd-ave-busVive la bus! The biggest non-rail form of mass transit has long suffered from an image problem, but now buses are beginning to see a comeback.

The resurgence stems, at least in part, from current economic realities — more people are moving to urban areas, requiring more need for mass transit, and trains are extremely expensive to build and maintain. Starting up and running a bus line, meanwhile, is a fraction of the cost.

There’s still the age-old “buses aren’t sexy” problem, which has always been grounded more in perception than reality — the stigma of “riding the bus” has all sorts of sociological roots that, at the end of the day, don’t have a shred of relevance to today’s modern-day commuter. Whether or not it’s traditionally been cool, the bus makes sense — and as we’ve always said, when transportation consumers are presented with a choice that works, they will gravitate towards it. And when you take the best of rail — the reliability, the speed — and apply it to buses, then commuters will make the obvious choice.

Nowhere is the revolution more in play than in New York City, where the Bx12 Select Bus Service, which high-tails it daily along Fordham Road in the Bronx. Launched two years ago, the line has had major growth and inspired intense loyalty among its passengers. It’s not just the adding of a bus lane, and enforcing it with police patrols that make this bus line so great –there’s also the measures taken to make boarding (the major time-waster on buses) more efficient, like offering a rear door for boarding and allowing passengers to swipe their Metro cards for entry while they’re waiting in line at the bus shelter, rather than paying as they enter the bus.

So how is the actual experience of riding this bus? New York magazine’s Robert Sullivan describes it as follows in a big profile this week on the city’s bus upsurge:

All of the sudden, here it comes: the Bx12. Right away, you see it’s different. A different paint job — new branding, as the transit people like to say — and bright-blue lights flashing on the header. Buying a ticket is different, too: You pay before you board, from a little box like a MetroCard vending machine that offers you a receipt. In the world of transit planning, boarding time is everything, and the receipt streamlines the process. “You just hold on to it,” a woman offers, shouting from under her earbuds. She smiles. “It’s much faster.”

Waiting on the curb, you notice that the bus has its own lane, painted terra-cotta, with signs to deflect non-bus traffic…. You see the big, roomy bus shelter holding enough people to fill a subway car, and you wonder if everyone will be able to get on. But when the Bx12 SBS pulls up, this monster of mundaneness opens up not one but two doors….

Traffic geeks know that about a third of bus delays comes from passenger-boarding issues, and now the doors of the Bx12 SBS open. The stopwatch is running … Twenty-two people board; about four get off. The doors close; the bus sets off. Total wait time: 23 seconds.

Riding on, you see that traffic is heavy. The Bronx River Parkway and the Hutch are jammed. The Bruckner looks like a diseased artery. But the bus cruises down the bus lane, with only one car (a Lexus with Connecticut plates) even thinking of getting in its way.

Still skeptical? You may not be when you hear this: The Bx12 can make the full trip during rush-hour in a total of 12 minutes.

If you think that sounds appealing, you’re not the only one: Weekly ridership on the Bx12 has increased 30% in the last year, and a 2009 study found that 98% of riders said they were satisfied with the service. This satisfaction can only be improved by the installation of GPS systems on buses, so passengers waiting at stops can know when the next bus is coming. (In our opinion, not having this technology on public transit is a form of purgatorial torture.) There’s also the introduction of signal priority, which allows buses approaching an intersection to keep the traffic light green until they pass.

Granted, the holy grail of bus transit — a lane separated by a barrier — is still elusive in the Big Apple. But it may not be for long: The DOT has an ambitious plan for the “34th Street Transitway,” which involves closing the major East Side-West Side artery to cars between Fifth and Sixth Avenues and adding a physically-separated bus line by 2012. Meanwhile, more and longer rapid-transit routes will be opening on First and Second Avenues, where a Select Bus Service will run from South Ferry (the very bottom of Manhattan) all the way to 125th Street (the very top). Now all New York commuters have to do is ride it, and we’ll see that policy skeptics critical of the bus revo


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