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!

1 comment:

George K said...

Sorry I'm postng so late, but I would just like to comment that through-running is a great idea. Buses from the Bronx only go up to 23rd Street, meaning that people going to Lower Manhattan have to transfer. In addition, this would reduce the overlapping of bus routes along Madison/5th Avenue between 57th Street and 23rd Street. The only problem is that bus drivers may not want to drive such a long route.