The key here is that "BRT" has not just been sold as a bus improvement, it's been sold as an alternative to the subway. Aaron and even Commissioner Sadik-Khan have called it a "surface subway." Tri-State writes, "Select Bus is an effective way to bring faster, more reliable transit service to parts of the city which are underserved by the rail network." The Pratt Center writes about its "COMMUTE" plan:
In tight-budget times, BRT makes more sense than ever. Multi-billion dollar subway and commuter rail projects don't serve the communities with the most urgent transit needs; they also require an all-or nothing commitment that burdens the transit system and its riders with debt, and don't deliver their promised benefits for many years.
I'm all for bus improvements, but Byron, Slevin and friends are going beyond that and arguing that we should abandon any push to expand the subway network and focus on "BRT." How's that working out for us? Well, let's see, I've been waiting for many years and still haven't seen a physically separated busway delivered to the streets of New York. Our transit system and its riders? Burdened with debt in part from deferred maintenance while we're twiddling our thumbs waiting for "BRT" to arrive.
What went wrong? The pro-BRT crowd assumes that the only competition between cars and transit is for capital funding. BRT requires less capital funding, so it must be easier to put in. Well, no. Transit competes with cars for a number of different resources. Money, yes, but also land, people (to maintain and operate the system), the goodwill of the public, and the attention of the public.
Cars have a vast advantage in terms of people, because most of the operators and many of the maintenance staff are either volunteer or privately funded. In other places they have a vast advantage in terms of money. Here in New York the money is more balanced, but it still probably tilts towards the cars. "BRT" requires a bit less money to build, but more money and people to build.
What makes "BRT" so superficially cheap is that it requires no purchase or appropriation of land. Instead, it takes the land from cars, which Byron and Slevin treat as having zero cost. To the people who like to get their bottled water and Goya beans delivered to their doorstep, that land has a cost. To the people who believe that their customers all come by car, that land has a cost. To people who drive, the land used for "a vital traffic lane" has a cost.
These people may be wrong, or they may be blowing the whole thing out of proportion, but that's not the point. The point is that they and their representatives have to be convinced, just like the taxpayers and their representatives have to be convinced to support subway construction. Both of those require political energy, which is in short supply. The question is which one requires less energy.
In terms of goodwill and attention, the subway beats "BRT" by far. There are two separate, independent volunteer blogs dedicated to the construction of the Second Avenue Subway. Ben Kabak has branched out into other topics, but anything relating to the Second Avenue Subway gets his immediate attention. Phoenix has what, four blogs devoted to its tiny light rail line? There is no such blog for any of the "Select Bus" projects. People are fiercely dedicated to the subway system in a way that they just aren't with buses. They're inspired by subway construction in a way that just doesn't happen with buses. The subway has their goodwill, and it holds their attention.
Speaking of attention, who has been fighting for the 34th Street Transitway? Me, Streetsblog and the East Side Volunteer Committee of Transportation Alternatives. While this project was under attack by the ninnies at the Post and the Goya bean moron, where was Kate Slevin? Everywhere but 34th Street. Where was Joan Byron? Furthering kvetchocracy in Washington heights. Where was Aaron Naparstek? fighting for a bike lane. Eventually Tri-State blogged a bit about it, and Transportation Alternatives got involved, but it was too late. This is not the first time that the BRT activists have been MIA when they were needed, either. They were MIA for the Merrick Boulevard Select Bus too.
I'm not saying that these aren't worthy projects. (Okay, well maybe I am saying that furthering kvetchocracy is not a worthy project, but Byron has plenty of projects that are worthy.) I'm saying that buses just aren't that inspiring. I don't really blame Slevin and Byron and Aaron for getting bored and wandering off to work on other projects. Trains are that inspiring. Maybe they don't interest the BRT activists, but they do interest plenty of people, so that when kvetching started taking off on Second Avenue, the bloggers were there to remind people that there's a LOT of people behind the subway project.
The BRT efforts draw time and attention away from subway expansion, but they don't hold the attention, and the result is money and effort down the drain. Right now what we need to be doing is not spending a lot of time and energy fighting Mr. Goya Beans, but building support and starting to plan for our next subway expansion project. Whether you think that should be Phase 2 of the Second Avenue Subway, or the Tribororx, or the Seven to Secaucus, or the South Fourth Street tunnel, we need to get the ball moving now.