Friday, May 30, 2008

BRT: Cheap to roll out, cheap to cut back

Ben Schiendelman's Seattle Transit Blog post, based on a Register-Guard story, observes that Eugene's transit agency is cutting BRT to the bone and raising fares.

The Ant, the Grasshopper and the Senator

Once upon a time, there was a Grasshopper who lived in a field. He saw an Ant passing by with a large nut on his bicycle rack.

"Yo, Ant. Where you off to?"

"I'm bringing this nut to our winter storage area."

"Dude, how can you live in that colony with all the tunnels! An insect has to be outside, breathe, get in touch with nature!"

"I get time to go out and experience nature. But our colony is very efficient. It's warm in the winter, and we conserve our resources."

"Yeah, man, conservation all the way! I totally support government research towards developing new sources of food. I think the new solar-powered plants are going to be huge. We've got to wean ourselves from foreign species. But dude, you gotta try some of this Colombian weed."

"But Grasshopper! All the government research and solar power are going to be wasted as long as you've got everyone traveling these huge distances by themselves. We're going to be reaching the peak of this solar season, and pretty soon energy will be scarce. I hope you're prepared."

"Don't worry, Ant, man! As long as I'm in touch with Nature, nothing bad can happen."

Not long after, the days began to get shorter, and the grass dried up. The Grasshopper began to get hungry, so he wrote a note:

"Dear Senator Antdams: I am hungry, and the grass and leaves are drying up. Please help."

Senator Antdams released a statement: "Many of my colleagues have constituents who need relief from dried-up grasses. They do not have the alternatives of a strong stockpile as we do in the Ant Colony. Therefore I propose that we take the Ant Colony's stockpile and use it to feed the grasshoppers so they can hop around outside."

The Ant complained, "But Senator, that stockpile was supposed to last all winter! If you use up our stockpile we'll go hungry!"

The Senator replied, "Insects are hurting and they need relief. My proposal will give them that relief. What do you propose?"

The Ant replied, "Well, the Grasshoppers have been stingy with us, chasing us away from leaves and grasses. I'm sorely tempted to keep the stockpile and let them die. But we've worked so hard this past summer that I think we have just enough to get us all, ants and grasshoppers, through the winter."

"But - and this is a big but - the grasshopper lifestyle is a mistake we can only afford to make once. The grasshoppers are still planning to spend all next summer wastefully hopping large distances alone and not spending any time stockpiling food. They've got to change their plans and live more sustainably. They've got to commit to more efficient colony living and do more walking. We should not share any of our stockpile with them until they make that commitment."

What do you think, Senator Antdams?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Transitioning Rockland and Saving a Bundle

As I've written before, the Tappan Zee Bridge is approaching the end of its intended lifespan, and the New York State Department of Transportation has been behaving badly in regards to the proper response. Apparently unilaterally, they decided that all the alternatives under serious consideration will involve increasing the number of car lanes on the bridge from seven to ten - adding one "general purpose" lane and two high-occupancy vehicle/bus lanes.

Since the current bridge has no room for any more lanes, all the "serious" alternatives involve spending $14.5 billion - yes, that's $14,500,000,000, about a billion dollars more than the cost of building the entire Second Avenue Subway from 126th Street to Hanover Square - to replace the bridge, instead of $2 billion to rehabilitate it. And those estimates were made several months ago; if the other mega-projects in the region are any guide, the costs will probably double by the end of the year.

Also, in a move that Hudson Riverkeeper Alex Matthiessen calls a "perversion of environmental due process," the DOT has (again unilaterally) decided to implement a confusing "tiered" system of environmental review, where the decision about highway lanes would be "streamlined" ahead, but the transit portion of the project would be left for later - most likely after the money runs out. Finally, they have not released any decision yet. Clearly, Commissioner Glynn thinks of this as a highway project with some transit lip-service to placate the enviros.

I was all ready to say, "Fuck it! Let the bridge fall into the river and we'll be done with it." But then I read some of the scoping documents, and after I woke up I realized that this would leave thousands of Rockland and Orange County residents without a way to get to their jobs in Westchester. I can't do that to these poor people! I have cousins in Rockland!

But now I don't need to worry about it. The oil crisis is going to take care of this for me, and the people who moved to sprawlville in Rockland will find themselves unable to afford to drive anywhere. They'll have to move to a transit-oriented neighborhood, either in Rockland or somewhere else. This is happening all over the country. In other places, people are even planning transition towns for post-auto-dependency culture. Rockland will too, soon, whether or not they use that Ithaca kind of terminology.

The State DOT, in its infinite wisdom, must have forseen this, right? Shyeah! This chart from one of their documents (PDF) pretty much says it all ... about DOT's methodology:

What goes up must ... keep going up! We're all going to keep moving onward and upward to more and bigger cars! The Alternatives Analysis Report explains the chart:

Traffic crossing the Tappan Zee Bridge has grown from 100,000 daily trips to nearly 150,000 daily trips since 1990, spurred on by the opening of I-287 in New Jersey (Figure 1-3). This growth is projected to continue in the future, based on NYMTC projections of economic growth in Rockland and Orange Counties, in particular.

Okay, let's take a look at the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council's socioeconomic and demographic methodology, shall we? It's all nicely laid out on Page 5 of this PDF: historical population, current population, survival rates, birth and death rates, migration rates. And sure enough, if Rockland had 217,000 people in 1970 and 290,000 residents in 2005, then of course it'll have 353,000 residents in 2030 (PDF, appendix, Table 4)! And they'll all be driving humongous SUVs the size of houses!

Of course, no mention of the role that road-building - and bridge-building can have on population. No mention of the role that cheap oil can have on population and land use. No mention of the possibility that adding three new bridge lanes could induce people to move to Rockland and drive across the bridge. No mention of the possibility that oil could get expensive and make it unsustainable to live in Sprawlsville, Rockland County - turning the three shiny lanes on the bridge into a $14.2 billion dollar waste of precious taxpayer money. In other words, a model that works fairly well to drive money into the DOT's coffers, but is wholly inadequate to the task of determining the best use of public funds. I'm surprised that the American Demographic Society's Ethics Committee doesn't have some horrible punishment in store for Juliette Bergman at the next Annual Meeting.

The State should spend $2 billion rehabilitating the bridge, and turn two lanes into exclusive BRT lanes and one into a shared bicycle/pedestrian path. If Westchester and Rockland want some transportation cash, then we can spend an extra billion developing a BRT network. Let's also spend a few billion restoring passenger service on the West Shore, Northern Branch and Putnam railroad lines, and extending passenger service on the Pascack Valley line to Suffern and maybe on to Harriman. Rezone the classic old towns of Suffern, Nyack, Spring Valley, Pearl River and Nanuet to allow for mixed-use development so that people can actually walk to shopping and the train station. If there's anything left over, we can use it for the Second Avenue Subway.

So people won't be able to drive from their sprawly Rockland McMansions to their sprawly Westchester office parks. Well, the jobs won't be in the office parks for too long anyway! Hell, with the money we've saved we can bring some jobs back to the "transition towns," and to the towns down the line like Hackensack, Paterson and Secaucus. Oh wait, they're in another state, aren't they? Did I just advocate regionalism? I'm such a heretic.

In any case, Governor Paterson is going to have a lot to do to preserve his progressive credentials if he doesn't stop this thing in its tracks, take it away from the DOT and the NYMTC and give it to someone who's actually paying attention to trends and understands about induced demand.

Tappan Zee: State DOT Still Behaving Badly

A faithful reader writes in with this suggestion about the Tappan Zee renovation/reconstruction project:

Dear Cap’n,

As you may be aware, the choice for a transit mode for the new Tappan Zee Bridge was to be made this month. I attended a public meeting for this at the beginning of the month and the representative in attendance from NYSDOT made this clear to those of us who were there to expect to hear something in May. The month is nearly over and no one has heard a thing from the project team regarding the chosen alternative. Perhaps this is worth a blog post?

P.S. I work as a planner so I understood everything that was presented at the TZ hearing, but NYSDOT did a horrible job of breaking this stuff down into a digestible format for the public. It was a jargon and PowerPoint-filled mess – all too typical for these meetings.



If you want to see this project transformed from a boondoggle to something that will improve people's lives in a meaningful way, you might want to let Governor Paterson know.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Connecting Brooklyn and Queens: Just what the doctor ordered?

There are many subway and commuter rail lines that cross from one borough to another, but some crossings are particularly underserved. One that's often mentioned is between Brooklyn and Queens.

There are in fact five subway lines that connect Brooklyn and Queens directly: the A/C Fulton Street Subway/Liberty Avenue El, the G Crosstown Subway, the M Myrtle/Ridgewood El, and the J/Z Fulton Street/Jamaica Avenue El. The LIRR Atlantic Branch also goes from Downtown Brooklyn to Jamaica. Connections from Jamaica and Ozone Park to Downtown Brooklyn are good, and connections from Greenpoint and the other G train neighborhoods to Long Island City are good. Connections from northern and western Queens to southern Brooklyn are not so good.

What we don't have right now is any concrete information about what neighborhood pairs people want to travel between in Brooklyn and Queens, so we don't know exactly where the greatest need is, or the greatest potential ridership. So we don't know which corridor to work with.

There is some information available, the census journey-to-work data. Working for the Regional Plan Association, Michael Frumin used this data to model potential ridership for one particular line: the Triboro RX proposal to run subway-frequency service along the NY Central Port Morris Branch, Hell Gate Bridge, NY Connecting Railroad and LIRR Bay Ridge Branch, from Yankee Stadium all the way to the Brooklyn Army Terminal. Frumin wrote, "At the end of the day, we can comfortably say that at least 76,000 New Yorkers (including 32,000 diverting from other modes of transportation) would use the Triboro RX to get to and from their jobs every day." Obviously, there are not that many people who live in Bay Ridge and work in Concourse Village or vice versa; most of the trips that Frumin projected would be less than a third of that length.

It'd be nice to have some easy interface to the journey-to-work data to be able to tell, for example, where the best place to build a new Brooklyn-to-Queens connection would be. It would also be helpful for estimating the effect of only building part of the "Triboro RX" at a time.

In fact, just because there's an unbroken set of tracks running from St. Mary's Park to Owl Head Park doesn't mean that you need to run a single train line the whole way. It might be better to use the line for extensions or branches to several different lines instead.

I'll give one example, which was actually considered by the MTA back in the 1960s: to extend the L train west to Brooklyn College. This and other uses of the Bay Ridge Branch were considered in a long and multi-branching SubChat thread last year. Someone was kind enough to post scans of a map that was released by the MTA and the city in 1969, and another that was printed in the New York Times in 1971. (The rest of the scans are worth a look as well). More potential uses later.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Street-level Rapid Transit: Getting the Transitways

So you want to build a bus rapid transit line. In an earlier post, I discussed the various characteristics that have been used to define BRT (or else features of BRT), and concluded that the one most likely to make the difference between "rapid" and "not rapid" is physical separation. But where do you put the physically separated right-of-way?

The answers to this question are roughly the same as for trolleys, so this applies to them too. We're talking about rights-of-way in cities, so there are usually three sources of property that are long enough for a useful transit line: existing or old rail rights-of-way, landfill near waterways, and roads. Occasionally you might have some large chunk of land come on the market, and you can use part of that for a rail line.

Here in New York, there aren't too many existing rail lines with room for new lines. There's been some talk about reactivating or supplementing some rail lines; I may have a chance to talk about them in another post. The Westway case pretty much outlawed landfill for the purpose of building transit. There may be some new transit in the Hudson Yards or other developments, but those aren't necessarily in the areas where transit is needed. That leaves roads.

Converting roads to transit is a political move, and can encounter political resistance. Every road is used by someone, and even the people who use lightly-used roads can object to losing a lane. Part of the reasoning behind "Plan B" is that by rejecting congestion pricing, motorists have refused to pay for the streets they use, and the city is therefore justified in reallocating it to whatever other uses they chose. It's a great principle, but in reality it may not be enough to overcome opposition. In choosing roads to convert to transit use, we should not assume that the Plan B reasoning will be enough to overcome opposition. We should keep in mind that some roads will be easier than others. I'm going to talk about various road widths and how easy or hard they may be to appropriate for transit.

One or two lanes. There exist two-lane busways; I've ridden on the West Busway in Pittsburgh. But the West Busway was converted from a rail line. It runs through a tunnel and a deep gorge with no shops or residences adjacent. Any one-lane or two-lane road that has destinations along it will probably have some people who are used to driving to those destinations, and the shops or residences will be used to receiving deliveries by truck. In Denver, Sixteenth Street was converted to a mall used only by pedestrians and buses, but I believe they still allow delivery vehicles; similarly for the Fulton Street Mall in Brooklyn.

One or two lanes, plus parking, convert the parking lanes to busways. Ensuring access to businesses and residences is the main thing, but people can be very protective of parking, especially in areas where there are more drivers.

Four lanes (or two lanes, one-way), plus parking. Merrick Boulevard in Southeastern Queens has this configuration, and a "BRT" plan has been shelved because of community objections. However, it is important to note that many of the objections were over the taking of parking lanes. The plan did not include physically separated lanes, and in fact the lanes would not have been dedicated to buses 24/7, so the line would not have been Rapid enough to attract proponents.

In streets that have four lanes plus parking, the two middle lanes serve vehicles anticipating turning left, but mainly they allow faster cars to pass slower ones, and increase the overall capacity of the road. They do not contribute as much to the functioning of car traffic as parking lanes do, so taking them for a busway is less likely to engender as much opposition as taking parking lanes. However, opposition can still be considerable.

Six or more lanes (or three or more lanes, one-way), with or without parking. In this case, the additional lanes are not necessary for faster cars to overtake slower ones. They just serve to add capacity and move traffic. Any objection will simply be that "traffic will get backed up." It probably will, but not as disastrously as it can with a simple two-lane road.

Dual-carriageway roads. In this case, there is already some kind of median on the road, which can be used for transit stops. Also, the cross streets are often not extended to the middle carriageway, meaning that transit in the middle can flow better.

Installing transit on the larger streets would also have a traffic calming effect, as has happened where the tramway was installed in Paris. Reducing the number of car lanes reduces the speed of the cars and their ability to change lanes quickly, making things much safer for pedestrians.

Because of this, the most promising road corridors for installation of BRT or light rail are the ones with dual carriageways such as Queens Boulevard, Ocean Parkway and the Grand Concourse. The next most promising are the ones with six lanes or more, like Northern Boulevard, Southern Boulevard and the LIE.

If you really really think that the best place to put BRT is on a two- or four-lane street, you're welcome to try. Just be prepared for some stiff opposition when you tell the local residents and businesses that you want to take away lanes and parking. You may be able to overcome that resistance with data on ridership and time savings, so have it ready.

Of course, buses and trams are flexible, so you could have them running in a shared lane for a short section, but in that section they wouldn't be Rapid.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Nothing New Under the Sun

You may remember that the Red Hook Tunnel Bus was not an original idea of mine, but had been discussed by lots of other people before. Turns out I've been duplicating other ideas as well. Great minds think alike - sometimes at the same time, according to Malcolm Gladwell.

And so last week I wrote about possibilities for putting transit back on the Brooklyn Bridge. In today's headlines, Streetsblogger Ben Fried linked to a NY1 story about this idea, featuring "Gridlock Sam" Schwartz. In the comments, Susan Donovan linked to a 2005 blog post by her husband Aaron, who now works for the MTA and might be able to pass the idea on to some others. Aaron's post includes a lot of interesting stuff about the extensive streetcar and elevated train network that used to be hooked up to the bridge.

Commenter J. Mork linked to an awesome movie filmed in 1899 by Edison from the front of a train crossing the bridge, where you can see pedestrians, carriages and a trolley.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Essential Service

Todays New York Times has an article about the federal government's Essential Air Service, which spends $100 million a year on subsidies to small airports, spending on average a hundred dollars per passenger. One such airport is in Plattsburgh, NY. Never mind that Plattsburgh is 30 miles from Burlington, VT, and 65 miles from Dorval. The military spent a huge amount of money converting an old base into a commercial airport (with free parking!) to "revitalize" the local economy, after lobbying by Senators Clinton and Schumer.

Imagine if the government had taken all that money and spent it on upgrading the train tracks between Albany and Montreal that pass through Plattsburgh? Could they convert them to continuous welded rail, and shave a significant amount of time off the route? Could they improve signaling? Add a spur to Albany Airport? How much more tourist traffic would come through Plattsburgh to the Adirondacks?

Tunnel xRT: the Queens Midtown Tunnel

This is the last of the major East River crossings to the Central Business District. The Queens Midtown Tunnel, like the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, carries no local buses, only the 21 express buses that make the loop, inbound through the tunnel and outbound over the Queensborough Bridge. There are some private buses that use the tunnel, including the New York Airport Service buses to Kennedy Airport.

There is a morning counterflow HOV 3+ lane on the Long Island Expressway, which begins in the middle of Calvary Cemetary, west of the BQE Interchange in West Maspeth. The lane has no entrances or exits from Maspeth to the tunnel, so there is no way for buses from the BQE to enter it. There is no evening HOV lane, and no bus lanes on any of the other tunnel approaches. However, two of the tunnel approaches have the capacity for busways: Eleventh Street as far north as 44th Drive in Queens and McGuinness Boulevard as far south as the BQE in Brooklyn, where it could connect with the Bedford Avenue BRT project.

The Q67 travels for part of its length along the expressway service road, but instead of going through the tunnel, it turns north towards Queens Plaza. Any new buses to use the tunnel would most likely be new bus routes, or else routes diverted from Queens Plaza.

On the Manhattan side of the bridge, things are very promising. As with the other bridges and tunnels, buses coming out of the Queens-Midtown Tunnel could connect to the First/Second Avenue BRT route. Last month, Transportation Commissioner Sadik-Khan revealed plans to make two lanes of 34th Street into an exclusive, separated busway, river to river. Linking this busway up through the Lincoln and Queens-Midtown Tunnels to the bus and HOV lanes on either side would be a great way to get buses moving.

It's true that 34th Street already has a major transit line running underneath it, but that doesn't go everywhere. Connecting the busway to the tunnels could relieve congestion at the Port Authority bus terminal, because some buses could be through-routed to points east. These could be local buses, such as a West New York to Williamsburg bus, or a Long Island City to Hoboken bus. They could also be long distance buses, allowing people from Long Island to take Greyhound-type buses through to New Jersey and points west with only short stops in Manhattan.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Improving the Elevators and Escalators

The New York Times had an interesting report today about the MTA's disgraceful record on elevator maintenance, and what some people, including President Roberts and Joseph Joyce, the General Superintendent of elevators and escalators, are doing to improve it. It ends with this quote from Joyce:

I’m trying to get these guys to think that, you know what, that could be your mom that’s walking with a cane and needs that escalator. Nothing in this world is guaranteed. It could be one of us in a wheelchair next month. And if you want to enjoy the city, you want to be able to utilize our public transportation system. You need that elevator to work.

If I were Joyce - and I had the support of higher-ups - I'd make it part of the job requirements for the elevator engineers to spend one day a month traveling around the city in a wheelchair. The bus lift people as well. I'd do it myself.

Bridge xRT: the Williamsburg Bridge

The Williamsburg Bridge is the other bridge that still carries heavy rail across the East River. It has four lanes of car/bus/truck traffic in each direction, and two pedestrian/bike paths that merge at the Manhattan end. There is currently only one bus that crosses the bridge, the B30, which is essentially a shuttle between Williamsburg Bridge Plaza and the western end of Delancey Street. At Williamsburg Bridge Plaza there is a bus terminal where five other bus lines meet up with the B30. There are also various private buses that cross the bridge. To my knowledge, there are no express buses.

If there were a reliable BRT corridor in Manhattan, the five bus lines could definitely be extended west across the bridge. On the Williamsburg side there are not very many suitable corridors for BRT. The only high-volume one is the short highway connecting the bridge to the BQE, but that could be used to bring buses from Queens to Lower Manhattan. The next largest corridor is Roebling Street, which is four lanes south of the Bridge, but only for three blocks, and then it connects to a number of two-lane streets.

On the Manhattan side of the bridge there are a number of streets - Delancey, Allen, Chrystie and Forsyth - that are way too wide for the amount of traffic they see, and are dangerous at that width. Perfect for the traffic calming effects of xRT. Going north, buses can connect to the First/Second Avenue BRT. Going south is a little more difficult, because the big streets don't actually lead to Lower Manhattan, where the jobs are. They just end at the FDR Drive. This is the same problem that the First/Second Avenue BRT is facing, though, and they're probably planning to take over the roadway under the Drive for a busway, so the buses coming off the Williamsburg Bridge can use that.

However, there is another option: the invaluable James Brennan has a page about the abandoned trolley station under Delancey Street. Some of it can be seen from the platforms of the Essex Street subway station, but he's got pictures. This is a perfect place for bus passengers to transfer to uptown F trains or downtown J, M and Z trains.

Here's the best part: the buses don't all have to stop there. The Downtown Track Map (261MB PNG file) shows that there are two unused trackbeds running from that station almost to Chambers Street, that could even be hooked up to buses coming off the Manhattan Bridge. If the tracks were re-aligned so that the subway trains only used the two westernmost platforms at Chambers Street (the M would have to terminate at Broad Street instead of Chambers), then the buses could turn around there. Isn't that fantastic?

There is also the possibility of through-running buses onto the Brooklyn Bridge from that point, just as the trolleys did on the old loop. The northbound buses can be through-run wherever the First/Second Avenue busway goes, but through-running to New Jersey through the Holland Tunnel doesn't seem very promising, because of the number of narrow streets.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Boondoggles: the New Jersey Turnpike Widening

The Tri-State Transportation Campaign has a great post about how the New Jersey Turnpike Authority is still trying to widen the turnpike, even though traffic volumes have been going down. Another one for the list of boondoggles.

Bridge xRT: The Queensboro Bridge

Sorry to skip over the Williamsburgh Bridge and the Midtown Tunnel, but I'll come back to them. The Queensborough Bridge is near to my home and my heart. I often take one or another of the three local buses that cross it, the Q32, the Q60 and the Q101. I also take the five local buses that terminate at Queensboro Plaza, just before the bridge; many of them will drop you right at the stairs for the E train. I haven't taken any of the 21 express buses that make a loop through the Midtown Tunnel, up Third or Sixth Avenue, and over the bridge, but I see them on Queens Boulevard all the time.

The main problem with the eight local buses is that they get stuck in traffic. In the morning rush, they can really crawl along Van Dam Street, Queens Boulevard and Northern Boulevard. PlaNYC included dedicated bus lanes on Queens Boulevard to speed these buses through; that went more or less nowhere, sadly. But if we got these bus lanes, what would happen to the buses on the other side?

Well, the Q32 goes all the way down Fifth Avenue to Penn Station. It's also notoriously unreliable; it won the Pokey Award for Queens in 2003. If it gets rerouted to the planned 34th Street Busway, that will speed things up a bit. Physically separating the lanes on Fifth and Madison Avenues could help as well.

The Q60 and Q101 get to the other side of the bridge and turn right around. The Q60 lays up on the block of 60th Street just north of the bridge, and the Q101 stops on Second Avenue between 58th and 59th Streets, and then goes onto the upper level via 57th Street. If we sent the other buses over the bridge, or increased the frequencies of the Q60 or Q101, where would they turn around?

Well, it turns out there's a place. Joseph Brennan has a page with old photos of the trolley terminal under the western end of the bridge. Trolleys used to turn around there, and people would get out and transfer to the Second Avenue El.

Since then, the kiosks where they used to come out of the ground have been hit several times by speeding cars. One is surrounded by cast-iron fencing, the only way to protect it. I don't recommend reopening these kiosks here, but a tunnel could be dug under Second Avenue, allowing people to transfer to the downtown M15, and eventually the Second Avenue BRT. Another possibility would be to have a ramp allowing buses to connect directly to the Second Avenue BRT without getting stuck in traffic; you could have a similar ramp for northbound buses from First Avenue.

Of course, the ideal connection would be with the Second Avenue Subway. Sadly, nobody thought of that, and the current plans are to have stops at 72nd and 55th Streets. Since it's going to be years before any of that is going to be dug, let's stick a stop in at 62nd Street, and move the 55th Street one down to 52nd.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Manhattan Bridge, a Transportation Powerhouse

"Powerhouse" is a funny metaphor, but what else can you say about a bridge that still has four subway tracks crossing it? The Manhattan Bridge not only carries the B,D,N and Q trains, but it's also a major truck route from Brooklyn, Staten Island and even New Jersey to Manhattan - and to New Jersey.

There is one path on either side of the bridge. They were both closed during World War II, to prevent spying on the Brooklyn Navy Yard, but somehow the City never got around to reopening them afterward. In the 1980s the bridge was discovered to be deficient, which meant that the subways on both sides were closed for several years. Then the north side (Sixth Avenue) was closed, and then the south side (Broadway). The paths were used as staging areas for the subway reconstruction, so the city did not make them available until 2001. The south/west path is intended primarily for pedestrians, and the north/east path primarily for cyclists.

In 2007, the DOT restricted a single lane to high-occupancy vehicles inbound from 6-10AM weekdays; it's not clear how much of an effect this has had on congestion or bus movements. The only city bus to cross the bridge is the B51, but there are several private buses that use it, primarily serving Chinese and Orthodox Jewish communities.

On the Brooklyn side, much of the traffic congestion on Flatbush Avenue can be blamed on merges for the Manhattan Bridge. It would make sense for buses to have an exclusive route through Downtown Brooklyn, either on Flatbush or on Flushing or Park Avenue.

Much of what I wrote about the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge applies to the Manhattan Bridge, with the main difference being that the Manhattan Bridge points people towards Midtown instead of Downtown. Through-running between Brooklyn and New Jersey would be easy because it's a straight shot across Canal Street (and wasn't there some DOT plan to make Canal Street one-way eastbound?), but you'd have to have a bunch of people who either (a) want to go from Brooklyn to Jersey or (b) want to get off along Canal Street and change to the subway, since there aren't too many destinations along Canal.

People from Brooklyn that aren't going to Lower Manhattan are more likely to be going to Midtown, so the best solution would be to hook up Manhattan Bridge buses to a north-south busway in Manhattan, such as the planned First/Second Avenue BRT.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Bridge xRT: Restoring the Glory of the Brooklyn Bridge

The Brooklyn Bridge has the distinction of being the only major bridge in the city not designed for cars. It was completed in 1883, two years before Karl Benz built the first passenger car, and 25 years before the Model T Ford. For city dwellers, a private horse-drawn carriage was a definite luxury, and most people crossed the bridge by train, trolley or horsecar. When the bridge opened it had one heavy-rail track, a trolley track, and one lane for carriages, in each direction, plus the pedestrian walkway. In 1944 the BRT (that's Brooklyn Rapid Transit) trains stopped running, and in 1954 the trolleys went out of business, leaving the city to devote six lanes to private cars and taxis.

With the increasing popularity of cycling in the city and in Brooklyn, there is often tension between cyclists and pedestrians on the walkway. The North/East path of the parallel Manhattan Bridge is primarily for cycling, but this does not seem to have reduced demand for the Brooklyn Bridge path.

The bridge currently does not allow commercial traffic or buses. In this post I assume that it is structurally capable of handling bus traffic, since it was designed for heavy rail, but it may have worn out since then. If it turns out that it is not safe for buses, then it should be redesigned to fully accommodate the existing demand among pedestrians and cyclists.

As with the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, the Brooklyn Bridge has a transitway that can feed it: the eight-block bus-only Fulton Mall. Five bus lines use the Fulton Mall for most of its length, and five others run on Livingston Street, one block south. These are all local buses connecting to nearby parts of Brooklyn, but some of them go as far as Long Island City, Ridgewood, East New York and Marine Park. Many of the people using these buses come to work in some of the offices, colleges and courthouses of Downtown Brooklyn, but many change for the subway to Manhattan. If we sent some of these buses over the bridge, a lot of them wouldn't have to change.

Between the Fulton Mall and the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge are the three blocks of Adams Street, one of the most over-designed streets in the borough. Adams Street can easily spare two lanes for dedicated busways. Those lanes can be connected to dedicated busways on the bridge itself, using the inner lanes of the roadway just like the old BRT tracks - BRT returns to the Brooklyn Bridge! If we really wanted to get creative, we could dedicate one or both of the outer lanes to bicycles so that pedestrians can have the walkway to themselves.

In Lower Manhattan, just about everything is a block or two from everything else, and if - as described in the previous posts - we've built dedicated busways on Sixth Avenue, West Street and/or the FDR Drive, it's a relatively simple matter to connect them to the Brooklyn Bridge. Many of the local buses that now terminate in Lower Manhattan could go to Downtown Brooklyn, or through-run to spread out destinations in Brooklyn, and vice versa.

At the other end of the Fulton Mall, many buses get stuck in traffic on Flatbush Avenue, which is a real bottleneck. The overall state of bus travel in Brooklyn is not going to get significantly better without removing that bottleneck by dedicating at least one lane of Flatbush in each direction to buses between Fulton Street and Atlantic Avenue.

So there you have it: to have Bus Rapid Transit over the Brooklyn Bridge, you first have to allow buses on the bridge. Then it's a relatively simple matter of running the Fulton Mall and Livingston Street buses down Adams Street, and figuring out where they go once they get to Manhattan.

Simple, yes. Easy - especially politically? Not so much. But all these posts assume a certain level of political and financial support for BRT. Without that, you're not going to get much BRT anywhere in the city.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Tunnel xRT: from Brooklyn to the Battery

In my last post, I discussed one way to get rapid-transit value even on non-rapid bus routes, by sending them over bridges and through tunnels. In this post I'm going to focus on the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel.

Faithful readers may remember that in an early post I suggested running some buses from Red Hook through this tunnel, to make up for the loss of service when the MTA shuts down the Smith-9th Street station. This suggestion, although not original to me, was taken up by City Council candidate Gary Reilly and some other pro-transit folk in the area. Following on a request from Assemblymember Millman, the MTA included it in the next Capital Plan, and then abruptly cancelled it due to lack of funds. Millman was "deeply disappointed," but did not express her support for congestion pricing to fund it soon enough or strongly enough to persuade her colleagues. She was also unable to prevent the Legislature from cutting $50 million from the MTA budget and giving it to the highway department. Not exactly an auspicious beginning.

In any case, the MTA's Brooklyn bus map (PDF) shows that the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel is already host to the x27 and x37 (to Bay Ridge), x28 and x38 (to Sea Gate) and x29 (to Coney Island) buses. The Staten Island map (PDF) shows that the x1-x20, x31 and x42 buses also pass through the tunnel. The maps don't show it, but the MTA Bus Company schedules show that the ex-Command routes BM1-BM4 to Mill Basin, Canarsie, Sheepshead Bay and Gerritsen Beach also use the tunnel. That's a total of 31 routes that use the tunnel; counting the individual bus runs is left as an exercise for the reader. There are probably private buses and vans that use it too.

The question to ask about bridge or tunnel xRT is what happens on either side of the tunnel? Sure, the buses may go fast in the tunnel, but it's not really BRT if they have to fight with single-occupant cars to get in there. If they just get dumped onto congested city streets on the other side, also not very rapid.

Paul White of Transportation Alternatives interviewed Bay Ridge express bus riders, who described a relatively rapid inbound trip on the Gowanus Expressway HOV lane and through the tunnel. Their main complaint was that the MTA doesn't run enough buses; the second complaint was that there is no southbound HOV lane for the trip home.

Staten Island commuters have expressed similar complaints. The Gowanus HOV lane was upgraded in 2002 from HOV-2 to HOV-3 (in other words, cars with only two people were no longer allowed to use it). According to the Staten Island Advance, they've recently asked for the HOV lane to be extended from the current 6-10AM hours to 5-11AM. This was denied by the State DOT because it would have cost an estimated $640,000 in "overtime" to move the jersey barriers an hour earlier and later. Don't ask me why you'd have people working overtime for something that happens every day; that's the State DOT for you.

But seriously, if there's demand for it to be open from 5-11AM and for the evening commute, why not make it permanent, 24-7? That would eliminate all the costs for moving those jersey barriers.

On the Manhattan side, I owe a lot of my thinking to some of the comments that Alon Levy has made on my blog. He has pointed out that the high capacity of the Lincoln Tunnel XBL is largely due to the Port Authority Bus Terminal, which allows buses to drop off their passengers quickly and then either go to a garage or turn around and go back. He also asserted that through-running of trains in Penn Station would allow the 20+ track operation to be condensed to four tracks. This suggests to me that the buses going through the tunnel won't be very rapid if they just get dumped into regular city traffic. In fact, in 2002 the city implemented the Church Street Transitway, eliminating most non-bus traffic, to speed traffic in that area, and in 2007 they installed "bus bulbs" on Broadway.

Where do the buses go from there? Almost all continue north to Midtown, many along the FDR Drive, a few on West Street and some on Sixth Avenue. Again, no exclusive right-of-way, so they get stuck in traffic and the result is that they're not very rapid - although they are express, meaning they don't stop every couple blocks to board passengers. Once they get to Midtown, some turn around and go back, but many park on city streets until the evening rush. At least one Manhattan resident has complained to me about idling buses taking up space and polluting the air.

The first improvement to be made to that system is to extend the Church Street Transitway north to Midtown and establish a parallel southbound one. Or to establish a dedicated right-of-way on the FDR Drive or West Street. That would ensure that the buses don't get stuck in traffic between Downtown and Midtown.

The second improvement is to have someplace for these buses to go. Why not implement through-running of buses? New Jersey Transit reports that it and five private operators all offer service to Lower Manhattan through the Holland Tunnel from points west. Go down to Lower Manhattan in midday and you'll see all these buses waiting to take people back to Jersey. What if they continued on through the tunnel to Brooklyn and Staten Island instead? What if some of the MTA buses went through the tunnel to Jersey? During the congestion pricing debates we heard from a number of people who lived in Brooklyn and worked in New Jersey. These buses could get them to work. If we can make it profitable for the private companies, we could even do it without increasing the MTA budget.

For the buses that go to Midtown, what if they continued on to the Bronx and maybe Queens? These routes used to be run by Liberty Lines and New York Bus Service, but they're all MTA Bus now. There are people who work in the Bronx and live in Brooklyn and vice versa. Through-running also attracts partly overlapping populations, as in the famous scene from The Brother from Another Planet:

Card Trickster: I have another magic trick for you. Wanna see me make all the white people disappear?
Subway Public Address Announcer: Fifty-Ninth Street, Columbus Circle; 125th Street next. This an Uptown A Express going to 207. Change for the AA local across the platform, the D, or the upper level, change for the number 1 Broadway trains.
Card Trickster: See, what'd I tell ya?
Subway Public Address Announcer: Uptown A, 125th street, next.

To recap: we already have something resembling BRT on the Gowanus and the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. Let's do the following to make it more BRT-like:

  • Make the Gowanus HOV lane two-way and 24/7
  • Run more buses
  • Extend the Church Street Transitway north, and institute a parallel southbound route
  • Institute through-running of buses to New Jersey and the Bronx

Have fun, guys!

Thursday, May 8, 2008


Okay, BRT is a collection of bus improvements, right? I can see why you'd want to pacakage your bus improvements together, if (a) you're building a whole new system and can't afford subways, or if (b) buses have such an image problem and you need to convince opinion leaders that no, this bus is full of people like you, not old and retarded people.

This is New York, though, where people will ride the buses, and if the buses are better, more people will ride them. Why do we need to package the bus improvements? Especially when finding a good BRT corridor can be a challenge, let's just stick the improvements in where we can and have done.

To refresh your memory, here are the major bus improvements that make up BRT: dedicated rights-of-way, signal priority, pre-payment, right-of-way enforcement. The most important for speed is the dedicated right-of-way. What I'm talking about in this post is putting in dedicated rights-of-way where we can, to speed up the existing bus routes.

The main point I want to make in this post is that buses can be made "rapid" for a short length of their route, speeding up commutes and adding capacity, even if the rapid section isn't long enough to justify calling the entire route "BRT." In fact, the rapid section can be shared by many bus routes.

It's well-known that the biggest transportation bottlenecks in the region are at the river crossings. This leads us right to one of my favorite charts of all time, courtesy of the Federal Highway Administration:

That graph is a bit out of date; this data from shows recent annual average daily traffic figures. The table below is the number of vehicles; You need to multiply it by a certain number, and add subway trips for the Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges, to get the total number of people.

Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel60,000
Brooklyn Bridge145,000
Manhattan Bridge150,000
Williamsburg Bridge140,000
Queens-Midtown Tunnel80,000
Queensboro Bridge200,000

The graph and table show that the capacity of the four city-owned East River bridges actually declined from a peak early in the century. Why? Because the city actually removed seventeen tracks from the bridges to make room for car lanes.

To be fair, there were actually eighteen tracks (in subway tunnels with higher capacity) added as these tracks were being removed, resulting in a net gain in capacity. If you add in the four tunnels leading into Penn Station, that's even more. These tunnels led to a significant short-term drop in ridership for the private companies operating trains and trolleys over the bridges (and ferry operators as well) and many of them went out of business or abandoned some of their tracks. The city government, believing cars to be the transportation of the future, turned the rights-of-way over to them rather than railbanking them for companies that might come one day.

Well, the time for cars has come and gone, and now we need that capacity back. We don't have the money to build new subways or elevated trains to connect to these bridges, but we can run more buses (and maybe eventually trolleys again) over the bridges.

The Lincoln Tunnel Exclusive Bus Lane (PDF) is one of the best demonstrations of bus capacity outperforming private cars. This single lane carries 62,000 passengers from 6:15 to 10:00 AM every weekday, in more than 1,700 buses, from the Turnpike Interchange through the Lincoln Tunnel to the Port Authority Bus Terminal. In other words, over the course of three hours and 45 minutes this single lane transports about as many people as the four-lane Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel does in 24 hours. It's currently at capacity, and the Port Authority is looking at ways to expand it.

What if we had an XBL on every major bridge and tunnel? We could take all the buses that pass nearby and feed them through it, bringing people into Manhattan where they can get to jobs easier. This would be a form of BRT, even if it doesn't have fancy brands or fake subway stations. I would argue that it would be much more effective than implementing BRT over long routes. This is not a criticism of the DOT or the MTA, because they're actually doing this - or talking about it.

I'll write a few posts about the various bridges and tunnels involved, and what the plans are to increase bus capacity.

In response to an earlier BRT post, Alon Levy commented that "the XBL works only because it feeds directly into a gigantic terminal." So I'll also talk about what can be done to speed the buses once they get across the bridges and tunnels, too.