Saturday, June 12, 2010

How the "surface subway" can hurt the real subway

A year and a half ago I called Aaron Naparstek out for using the phrase "surface subway" to describe bus rapid transit. Now the News is reporting that on Monday Commissioner Sadik-Khan used it to describe the plans for Select Bus Service on First and Second Avenues: "We are basically building a surface subway for the 54,000 riders who use this route every day," she told Pete Donohue.

On Wednesday, Ben at Second Avenue Sagas took the Commissioner to task for calling it a "surface subway." He pointed out that the main features that distinguish Select Bus Service from the existing M15 Limited are offboard fare collection and dedicated lanes. The dedicated lanes are not physically separated, though, which means that any jerk with a car who thinks he/she is more important than a bus can park there. Maybe they'll get a ticket, maybe they won't. There is no signal prioritization and no camera enforcement. The result is that while it takes 22 minutes to get from 125th Street to Houston on the Lexington Avenue line, Select Bus Service will only reduce the time on the bus from 90 minutes to 80. Finally, even the best Bus Rapid Transit can't transport anywhere near the number of people that a subway can, because the vehicles are just that much shorter.

In the comments to Ben's post, Marty Barfowitz defends Sadik-Khan:
“surface subway” is a metaphor. it’s a sound bite. it’s a fast, easy way to explain and sell a new transit concept to a public, a political establishment and a local press that barely pays attention to this stuff. [...] it’s, frankly, a bit ridiculous to suggest that the use of this term is “cheating” new yorkers. as if anyone is going to step aboard the SBS and think: hey, this is supposed to do everything a subway does! rip-off!

I have to disagree with the honorable Mr. Barfowitz on several counts. First of all, any poet will tell you that a metaphor is more than just a comparison. It involves an analogy between something that exists in one domain and something that exists in another. We already have surface subways, they're called trains.

Secondly, I think that people are going to do just that: step aboard and discover that it's just a bus with a few extra features that don't save nearly enough time. And they are going to shout "rip-off!" If the News can make such a big deal out of the "farebeating" on the Bx12 even though revenues are up 30%, they're going to make a big deal out of the disappointment over the "surface subway."

What is especially troubling is the fact that several people over the past few years have pointed out the apparent contradiction in spending billions on the Second Avenue Subway while cutting bus service for lack of funding. Some have suggested canceling the Second Avenue Subway yet again. Portraying Select Bus Service as a "surface subway" instead of as important bus improvements feeds into that argument. If we can have a "surface subway" at a fraction of the cost, what do we need to dig a real subway for?

The answer, of course, is that for a fraction of the cost you get a fraction of the benefit. But while Pete Donohue might get that, don't expect Steve Cuozzo to get it, and don't expect greedy Assemblymembers to refrain from using it as a handy excuse to steal more from the MTA budget.

1 comment:

Helen Bushnell said...

I like buses and trains, but I agree with you. A bus is a bus and a train is a train. We should call things what they are.

I also not convinced that BRT is always better than frequent buses.