Monday, October 6, 2008

Profitable Transit and its Enemies

In the past I've praised the New Jersey "dollar" vans, which are a shining beacon of bus service because they turn a profit without direct subsidies. Well, as linked from Streetsblog, now a few Hell's Kitchen residents, aided by Assemblymember Gottfried, want to firebomb that shining beacon. This is similar to the complaints in Chinatown from Councilmember Gerson, Community Board 3 and the Fifth Precinct.

How do you tell the difference between a NIMBY and a responsible citizen? The responsible citizen wants to find a solution to the problem that works for everyone; the NIMBY just wants to make the problem go away. It's true that bus ridership is growing, and that growth is leading to more sidewalk and street congestion, but the solution is not to make the buses go away. Rising bus ridership is good!

The solution is to find someplace to put the buses when they're not picking up or dropping off. The Times reports that the Port Authority Bus Terminal is essentially full. There are plans to expand it, but they won't happen for a while. Gotham Gazette reports that the city tried to allow bus parking on Pike Street by the FDR Drive, but "Residents of the nearby housing projects understandably were none too pleased and urged the board [CB3] to vote down the proposal. It did 23 to 7."

This NIMBYism is actually kind of mind-boggling. Hello! You live in a housing project with a highway bridge on one side and a highway on the other. What do you care if there are a few buses parked on the over-engineered street nearby? Same for the people in Manhattan Plaza, which looks like a project even if it isn't one. You live between the Lincoln Tunnel and Times Square, and you're complaining about a few buses?

Be that as it may, it's actually more efficient to store the buses outside Manhattan. The land is cheaper, and there's less demand for sidewalks and parking areas. I'm sure there are plenty of parking lots in Jamaica or Mill Basin that are pretty empty in the middle of the day. In fact, there are bus garages in Brooklyn and Queens that are pretty empty because their buses are in Manhattan. You know what, you could even have a deal between the Jersey bus garages and the Queens bus garages. And while the buses are on their way to and from Queens they could bring a few passengers with them.

Of course, what I'm suggesting is through-running, a process that has a long history of success. The subways do it; imagine if you had a yard in Manhattan for every subway line. The bus companies and agencies should do it too.

Now I'm kicking myself, because instead of the MTA buying the Brooklyn, Bronx and Queens bus companies like they did a few years ago, they should have sold them to New Jersey bus operators. If Academy bought Command Bus Lines and Spanish Transportation bought Triboro Coach, they would be able to through-run across the 34th Street bus lane - or Canal Street - and out to the garages. And they probably would have been profitable enough to provide good service without direct subsidies. What a missed opportunity.

As it is, we can still do this. I don't know at this point whether it's the city or the MTA who owns those garages in Queens and Brooklyn, but they can lease space during the day to the Jersey bus companies, or even just have a reciprocal agreement and send all the MTA express buses out to Jersey instead of keeping them on Church Street or Sixth Avenue.

The bottom line is that through-running could make reverse commutes easier and free up valuable land in Manhattan. Greater efficiency all around. What do you say, Gottfried? Gerson?


christine said...

Cap'n transit,

Your ire is misdirected. We (CHEKPEDS)in Hell's Kitchen love the shuttle buses,( one bus = 20 less cars) but we are upset because (1) the shuttle buses are constantly idling, (2)they stop in an MTA bus lane , and (3) we have proposed two perfectly good locations for layover to the Port Authority, but the latter prefers to store cars than buses.

If you had proposed simple solutions and no one listened , I think you would be frustrated as well.

Cap'n Transit said...

Christine, I'm sorry to give you the impression that I was directing any ire at you or CHEKPEDS. I have nothing but admiration for you and your organization, and I sympathize with your frustration. I agree with you that constant idling is bad, and I'm glad you found potential solutions.

I have to say that I don't think there should be such a thing as an "MTA bus lane." Bus lanes should be open to all buses and vans for travel, loading and unloading. They should not be used for long stops, or to wait for the bus to fill.

My main point in singling you out on Streetsblog was to ask you to take up the cause of through-running. It's not incompatible with your proposals, but it could make them unnecessary. By implementing through-running on a certain number of bus routes, we could free up enough space in the Port Authority so that there would be no need to load or unload buses outside. Meanwhile, the through-running buses could pick up and drop off at multiple on-street locations to cater to the customers who don't want to go inside to get their buses.

My hope is that you will see that value and maybe help to convince Gottfried and others of it.