Wednesday, April 30, 2008

BRT as a Means to an End

As I've written before, it's important to keep a broad perspective on things. While transit geeks like me get excited about the simple idea of creating more transit, that's not really enough reason. COMMUTE has a very good reason for promoting BRT: to serve underserved communities, particularly low-income people. In order to do that well, you need to not only know where the low-income people with shitty commutes live, but also where they need and want to go. I don't have that information, and if COMMUTE has it, they didn't share it with us. If someone can give me that information, I'll do what I can to help find good BRT routes to accommodate it.

I support the goal of serving underserved communities, and I have a few others, as described in this post:
  • Reducing pollution

  • Increasing transportation and land-use efficiency

  • Improving social interaction

  • Reducing carnage

These intermediate goals will also help low-income people, by improving their air quality, reducing the carnage on their streets, preserving jobs for them, and improving the social fabric of their neighborhoods. But in order to accomplish these goals, it's not enough to transport low income people. We need to get people out of their cars, and since car drivers in the New York area tend to be better-off, that means getting some middle-class and rich people out of their cars.

When it comes to getting people out of their cars, keep in mind that the rising cost of gasoline will accomplish much of this by itself. People who used to drive even though they're well-served by transit are now leaving the car at home, or even selling it, and taking that transit. If they couldn't get to their jobs and shopping easily by transit, they find other places to work and shop. Many people whose homes are not well-served by transit are moving to places that are.

Sprawly places like eastern Queens and southeastern Brooklyn pose a problem for sustainability: the way they're set up now, it's very difficult for someone to live out there and get to work and shopping without a car. The people who live there now could all move to western Queens and South Brooklyn, but that wouldn't be a very efficient use of space, would it? We need to find a way to reshape the sprawl into transit-oriented development: clusters of dense housing, employment and shopping near transit, and less-dense housing and parkland in between. This is hard to do without transit, so the question becomes how best to extend transit to these sprawly areas.

This is where I see the biggest value for BRT - and hopefully light rail, and eventually maybe more subways. This is also good because this is where there are the largest number of wide boulevards and highways, that can more easily be converted to BRT. Many of these places were originally designed around streetcars to begin with, but if not, they can be redeveloped around this model.

What kind of trips should we be designing BRT for? Just as it doesn't make sense to drive for your daily shopping, it doesn't make much sense to rely on transit for that daily shopping. We should be aiming, through zoning and subsidies if necessary, to have everyone live within convenient walking distance of a decent supermarket (and not tear down historic structures to build parking for supermarkets). Plain old buses (with signal prioritization and other improvements wherever possible) can accommodate other kinds of shopping and socializing.

Rapid transit should be for special occasion shopping, entertainment and socializing, and for commuting. That means - you guessed it - connections to Manhattan. But, as Joan Byron pointed out, there are also job centers in the other boroughs, and making connections between the boroughs should be a secondary goal. I'll explore some of these possibilities in future posts.

We should also think about long-distance connections: how easy is it for someone from Baychester to get to Penn Station for an Amtrak train? For someone from College Point to get to the Port Authority for a Peter Pan bus? For a resident of Kingsbridge to get to any of the airports?

1 comment:

Alon Levy said...

Eastern Queens and southeastern Brooklyn are sprawling by Manhattan's standards, but they're still some of the densest areas in the country. Brooklyn CB 18, the least dense in the borough, has similar densities to the transit-oriented edge cities of Paris and to all but the densest parts of London; even Tokyo has wards not much denser.