BRT Moving Slower than Molasses

Tonight I attended a forum on Bus Rapid Transit sponsored by State Senator Liz Krueger's office and co-sponsored by newly elected councilmembers Lappin & Garodnick, CIVITAS and Transportation Alternatives as well as other local elected officials and community board members. There was even a representative from Borough President Scott Stringer's office.

First to present their side were a collection of folks from the MTA, city DOT and state DOT. The first disappointment to most of the people in attendence was that despite the broad-based community support for faster, more efficient and higher quality bus services all that is being discussed by city/state/MTA officials is a STUDY that will examine 15 routes to pick JUST 5 in June 2007 and then (assuming the planets are aligned) to implement by late 2008.

They have been dragging this study out for years. People are starting to get frustrated at the lack of progress and continuing uncertainty around the actual implementation. And you could almost understand the time to plan this out if their plan was even semi-ambitious, but alas it's about as minimal as BRT can get and even still honestly call it "BRT".

Their basic proposal would be to reclaim some parking spaces around the station (which would be about half the block). The stations which would offer pre-paid boarding waiting areas will be spaced out even more than the current "limited" bus lines - for the East Side I guess that would be similar to the express 4/5 trains: 125th, 86th, 59th, 42nd, 14th, etc.

And it would only have one dedicated bus lane on the right side of the street. As far as I could see, their plan mostly relied on signage and markings on the street to define the bus lane which is really no better than we currently have and probably unenforcable. Much of the rest of their presentation focused on how important it is to market and brand the BRT system, which is great and all, as long as it doesn't take one more day to implement. In the Q&A, they said the delay had to do with collecting a massive amount of data on parking patterns, which seems to suggest that they seem overly concerned about the dozens of people in cars illegally parking in the bus lane during rush hour over the tens of thousands that take buses on the M15.

Then Paul Steely White from Transportation Alterntives and Bruce Schaller each gave presentations which looked at international examples of good BRT that mostly have two physically separated bus lanes - one for local stops, one for express stops.

Frankly, it's time for some of the planning to be tested in the real world. It's time for a BRT pilot or two within 6 months and then a planned expansion to all 15 lines within a few year. This would give many underserved areas of the city that mostly rely on cars access to higher quality mass transit and connections to key transportation hubs. This would put into place a more efficient infrastructure as energy prices continue to increase.

Bureaucracy is a fact of life in the NYC transportation scene, with the possible exception of Port Authority, as well as major emergencies (they sure rebuilt the subways pretty fast after 9/11). The sad thing is, in the time that they've spent studying and considering how they're going to implement BRT, I could have, personally, with maybe a dozen helpers, have built a streetcar line or three. Maybe I'll still do this.
In the first half of the 20th century, when oil was scarce, the city built hundreds of miles of subway rail throughout the city. In the second half of the 20th century, when it was expensive, not a mile of rail was built.  I think as oil continues to become more expensive, it will become politically easier to build BRT or light rail or subway tunnels again.
Finally having some time to go to one of these things, and being a relatively new UES resident who wishes we had a 2nd Ave subway wisely completed ten years ago or more, I went to this meeting knowing nothing about BRT.  I certainly didn't know this had been in the works for a long time.

Not knowing that, and having to leave after the guy from Transportation Alternatives spoke, I had a more positive reaction to the meeting, thinking "well, good, I'm glad something is going to be done about 2nd Ave transportation."

But I did get that the MTA planners were vastly underreaching, compared with what the Transportation Alternatives rep presented, and I felt that whatever was going to be done, it was likely to be a half-arsed effort.

It seems the norm in America, and New York especially, to take great ideas, even ones that have been implemented elsewhere, and then to sort of plan to fail, being overly cautious and only partially implementing important features.  Inevitably people point to these efforts as failures and the idea is never tried again anywhere.  In the meantime, the public has to suffer through a bad system that was designed to fail.

The MTA et al. seems to be heading this way with BRT.

In a city where so many rely on cars, there certainly does need to be an effort, when implementing the system, to market it properly so the public knows they can leave their cars at home and safely get to work in time.  But traffic can't get that much worse with the loss of 1-2 lanes - busses already clog up these lanes anyway.  A properly implemented full BRT system could only improve traffic...

And now I'm rambling.  Anyway, I was glad to be able to go to the forum, and glad to hear your take on it.

Summary of LA's so-called BRT: They painted the buses red, in the hope that this would somehow make them go faster. Marketing is great and all, but what matters is actually improving service. A lot of the marketing around BRT, in fact, is just trying to disguise the bus as a train. I don't think it works very well. Why not just build a train in the first place?
Cos it's cheaper not to...
It seems to me that if you do it properly (set aside dedicated roadspace, create proper stations) you can create bus service that is just like a train, and then the only marketing you need is to let people know about it so they try it, and the service should speak for itself.

The alternative, as you mention, is to try to use the force of marketing to put a sheen on normal bus service and sort of wish it into being seen as BRT.  I certainly do hope that isn't what ends up happening here in NYC.

Except it's not a train. It's got rubber tires. The vehicles are small and cramped. The ride is less comfortable. It probably runs on the street at some point. And if you spend enough money to build a "train-like" BRT, it's basically the same cost as building a train in the first place, only trains have significantly lower operation and maintenance costs, since rails last longer than pavement, and one driver can drive a single bus, or an arbitrarily long train. Also, one thing that "proper" BRT does, with its dedicated busway, is internalize the road maintenance costs to the transportation agency, rather than having them disappear into the general road maintenance budget. On the whole, not a very good deal for the transportation agency.