Monday, April 28, 2008

BRT Bait-and-Switch: the COMMUTE Plan

In the first post in this series, I identified a very serious bait-and-switch, often practiced by unscrupulous anti-transit people, where Bus Rapid Transit ("BRT") is set up as "just like subways, only cheaper!" in order to divide and conquer pro-transit forces. In the second post, I pointed out a much more benign one, where BRT was put forth as a solution for slow bus routes, even though the planned BRT would do nothing to speed the slow routes.

In this post I will discuss another well-intentioned bait-and-switch, but one that I also feel is not a good idea. This one comes from the Pratt University Center for Community Development, in support of the COMMUTE coalition. It's laid out in an article for the Gotham Gazette by the Pratt Center's Joan Byron. Byron unfortunately characterizes BRT as "a subway running above the ground on rubber tires," but otherwise she makes several good points. There are other flaws in her reasoning, however.

Byron's argument is essentially this: Even in New York, there are thousands of people who have long commutes to low-paying jobs. One of our top transportation priorities should be to shorten the commutes for these low-income workers, giving them more time to live their lives. Another should be to connect these workers with more opportunities, giving them more power in the job market. BRT can accomplish both these goals, for less money and less political hassle than digging a subway. She mentions the joint NYCDOT/MTA BRT effort, and links to a map of improved routes proposed by COMMUTE.

There's no question that Byron's goals are laudable. My concerns are whether BRT can accomplish them for significantly less money and hassle than rail, and whether the BRT routes that COMMUTE proposes would do much towards those goals.

The largest clusters of red dots on the low-income long-commute map are in Inwood/Washington Heights, Corona, Flushing, Flatbush and Sunset Park. All these areas are fairly well-served by transit, however: just about every dot in those clusters is within a fifteen-minute walk to a subway station. The main problem seems to be that the jobs require a long ride on those subways. You might say that the northern part of Corona/East Elmhurst, southern Flushing, and eastern Sunset Park are too far from the train, but of those, only Corona would be served by the proposed BRT routes.

It's important to remember that the non-grade-separated BRT that COMMUTE is advocating can almost never travel faster than a subway along the same route, because the subways are grade-separated. Any of the proposed BRT routes that parallel subways (such as those on Broadway in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn) will be slower, and will thus not shorten the commute times for these commuters.

The sad story of the Merrick Boulevard BRT line showed that many people will fight tooth and nail to preserve parking, and thus that BRT routes that involve removing parking will likely face more political opposition than ones that don't. This means that all the BRT routes proposed for four-lane or narrower corridors (such as Third Avenue in the Bronx, Sutphin and Parsons Boulevards in Queens, and Broadway and Utica Avenue in Brooklyn) will be very difficult to implement. How much more difficult would a subway be?

The BRT routes shown on the map do not seem to have much of a pattern to them. Byron criticizes the NYCDOT/MTA BRT plans for relying on transfers to subways and commuter rail, but for BRT to work without transfers it has to go to jobs. Byron put forth a great goal of connecting low-income workers to closer jobs that are currently difficult to get to by transit, but how do the COMMUTE routes help? They don't seem to go to very many obvious low-wage job centers. If they are in fact designed to do this, spelling that out is essential to winning the political support necessary to overcome the parking defenders.

The corridors where it is easiest to implement BRT are corridors where there is already a large number of lanes dedicated to moving cars. It's much easier to convert car lanes to BRT lanes than it is to convert parking lanes to BRT. This means six-lane or wider boulevards, and expressways. For this reason, COMMUTE's proposed routes along the Gowanus Expressway, LIE and Astoria Boulevard/Grand Central Parkway are the most likely to succeed - and they can be designed to serve populations in Sunset Park, Jamaica and Corona. Main Street and Northern Boulevard are other promising candidates. The DOT should give all of these a good look, and consider other corridors, but leave the other COMMUTE recommendations to a later stage.

Ever since I first saw that low-income commute density map, I've been wondering where these people all commute to, and how we can make their commutes shorter. I'd like to see that study. I also hope that some day, the Pratt Center or another organization will do a real study assessing the skills in these low-wage, long-commute neighborhoods, find jobs to match them, and plot routes to make the commutes easier. That would be very cool. This apparently random BRT wishlist - not so cool.


fpteditors said...

They have us fighing over specific projects. Meanwhile the existence of a tariff on public investment skews the planning. We should advocate the abolishment of the tariff (fares) as a start to ending the trillion-dollar carbon-auto subsidy. We need a mass grass-roots movement.

Stephanie said...

One of the most touted arguments in favor of BRT over creating a new or expanding existing subway lines is that BRT takes considerably less time to implement than capital rail projects. For example, Bogota put in its entire BRT system in only 3 years. Compare that to the time it takes to get subway projects off the ground (not to mention funded).

There are definitely problems with it (especially the "Select Bus Service" version that NYC is implementing), but the fast turn-around of implementation and the relative low cost of the system seem like huge factors in its favor.

Cap'n Transit said...

I'm not against BRT in principle, I just don't think that any BRT plan is automatically good. FPT, I'm not "fighting" over this, and I would hope that the COMMUTE folks would welcome a healthy discussion of the merits of their proposals.

Stephanie, a BRT line takes infinitely long to implement if the political opposition is strong enough, and I think that's the case with two-lane BRT on four-lane streets.

Yes, subways can take a long time, but they can get done if the political will is there. Light rail is just as quick to implement as BRT. Planning for the Tramway des Maréchaux in Paris was begun in 2000, ground was broken in mid-2003 and revenue service began in December 2006.

Louis said...

Would it be such a crime to initiate crosstown BRT routes? Why so much redundancy over the rail? Why not try something that rail doesn't do yet?

By the way, buses running from Sheepshead Bay to 125th streets via ANY NYC streets is not going to be great BRT service. The longer the route, the more hopeless consistent operation becomes. They are pretty lines though. But so are bus maps until you're on the bus, and realize it's not quite so pretty on the ground.

Alex said...

The specific routes proposed by COMMUTE may not be the best ones. The proposal serves more to show how BRT could be an intra-city service that complements the subway instead of an intra-borough service that only feeds into it.

COMMUTE's proposed routes were chosen to connect points that now require multiple transfers to reach. The routes may not save time, but they reduce psychological barriers in a way that could increase ridership.

The various aspects of BRT can be implemented in phases: signal prioritization, pre-payment, etc. in a way that speeds travel but doesn't immediately remove parking. The point is that each of things improves people's daily lives and doesn't require mobilizing billions of dollars.

New York politics are defined by constant cat fights between community groups, business organizations, politicians, etc., etc. If New Yorkers had the ability (like they do on the west coast) to just vote yes or no, I believe they would vote yes a lot more often than politicians get things done.

Cap'n Transit said...

Alex, the phased implementation you describe is the worst kind of BRT bait-and-switch. Signal prioritization and pre-payment do not "a subway running above the ground on rubber tires" make. If you're not talking about a separated right-of-way for the majority of the route, then please don't call it "BRT." Call it quality bus, bus improvements, select bus, anything but "rapid."

There's no real reason that signal prioritization or pre-payment need to be rolled out a route at a time. Signal prioritization can be done by sector, and pre-payment can be done by stop.