Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Low bridge, everybody down!

Last month I talked about how nutty it is to ban buses from a parkway (PDF) in the name of scenic recreational driving, even as you widen that "parkway" to six or eight lanes to accommodate commuter traffic, in the process completely destroying any scenic or recreational character that it ever had. I argued that if the State DOT wants to have parkways they should cut them all back to four lanes maximum, with parallel bike and pedestrian facilities, but if they want to have highways they should allow buses to use them.

Our express and intercity bus networks could really use some limited-access highways where they could cruise. The current schedule for the BxM4B takes 34 minutes to go down Fifth Avenue from the Bronx County Courthouse to Madison Square on a Saturday; Google Maps says that on weekends it should take 24 minutes for a car, but you could shave at least ten minutes off that by taking the FDR Drive. The BxM2 takes 53 minutes to go from 230th and Broadway to Penn Station; Google Maps gives that 33 minutes in a car and 17 if you take the West Side Highway. So we're talking time savings of up to 20 minutes. This can make a difference in ridership, particularly on the intercity bus routes.

Okay, but what about all the low bridges that Bob Moses famously built over his parkways to keep out buses and trucks? Well, the New York City Department of Transportation has a new treat for us: the clearances on all the parkway bridges in the city, either in PDF format or as a KML file. No more squinting at signs in Google Maps!

Here are the heights for typical buses in the current MTA fleet:
MCI D4500: 11' 5" (the big express buses)
Orion V or NovaBus RTS diesel: 9' 10"
Orion V natural gas: 11' 5"
Orion VII: 11' 3" (the new low-floor models)
EcoSaver IV: 10' 1"

This means that they will all fit on the Henry Hudson Parkway up to 232nd Street, the FDR to the Willis Avenue Bridge (with the exception of the Brooklyn Bridge and a couple of on-ramps in Midtown), or the Bronx River Parkway to Gun Hill Road, and the Grand Central Parkway to 60th Road. The old diesels and the brand new EcoSaver IV can go anywhere except for the Jackie Robinson and Cross Island parkways, the northern end of the Henry Hudson Parkway and the section of the Grand Central Parkway along Flushing Meadows.

The most straightforward thing to do is to end the blanket ban on buses on the parkways, and simply restrict them based on their height. The current ban seems to be in the Codes, Rules and Regulations of the State of New York, not laws, which means that the Governor or the next Transportation Commissioner could do away with it by executive order, without having to go through the Legislature.

Speaking of which, does anyone think that Frank McArdle would give a rat's ass about buses? I suppose he could turn out to be a pleasant surprise like Ray LaHood, but I'm not holding my breath.

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