Sunday, September 5, 2010

Undermining bus lanes

This spring in Downtown Brooklyn, the Department of Transportation rolled out new exclusive bus lanes on Livingston Street (PDF), in part to make up for construction in the Fulton Street transit mall a block over. Sounds good, but a visit to Livingston Street showed that not all bus passengers are benefiting.

Last month I caught a bus on Livingston Street, but we drove the rest of the street in the regular travel lanes, stuck behind private cars. One of the passengers asked the driver why he didn't use the bus lanes, and he said that he's been ticketed for it.

As you might have guessed, this bus was not an official MTA bus, but rather a privately-owned "dollar van." I'm not sure how the van was registered, but legally it's not a bus, so the traffic cop had grounds for writing a ticket. By the letter of the law, it all makes sense.

Practically speaking, though, it's an incredibly boneheaded move. First of all, this punishes the passengers on the van by stopping it to write the ticket, and by delaying passengers on it and every other van whose driver avoids the lane. Secondly, because it does not significantly deter the vans from operating, it slows down the MTA buses every time the vans cross the lanes to pick up passengers at the curb. For that matter, it slows down private cars as well.

This is part of the same pattern where the MTA will not operate sufficient service in these areas to meet demand, and the City will not license vans where they operate, but will not allocate enough resources to shut them down completely either, so the van drivers and passengers are harassed, but the problems of unregulated vans still exist.

I could kind of see the need to keep vans out of the bus lanes if there were a high volume of MTA buses that were slowed down by lots of vans, but that wasn't happening when I was there. As it is it's a completely nonsensical enforcement of arbitrary rules. The NYPD should internally acknowledge that from a practical point of view the vans are mass transit whose passengers could benefit from the use of the lane, and put their enforcement resources to work somewhere else.

The DOT's plans for Livingston Street don't acknowledge the presence of any non-MTA transit on the street. It seems bizarre that they would do such an elaborate study based entirely on legal fictions without addressing the situation as it exists on the ground, but as far as I can tell that's what they did. If they had any intention that these lanes would be used by private vans, they should probably communicate that to the NYPD.


busplanner said...

Cap'n Transit - "but that wasn't happening when I was there."

I won't get into a discussion of whether NYC should license vans to compete with buses (I simply don't have the knowledge); but the phrase in quotes above concerned me.

Why? Because a marked bus stop or a marked bus lane is for buses. And one cannot always know when the next bus is coming.

In Boston and New Jersey, I am aware of cases of people ticketed for parking in bus stops or using bus only lanes going to court with excuses like "I didn't see a bus coming" or "no bus is scheduled for the next 30 minutes and I just needed to run into a store for a minute or two".

Unless there is a clear time period indicated for the use of a bus stop, bus lane (or any other traffic/parking related rule), effective and consistent enforcement is called for. Your van operator was not authorized. He got a ticket. He learned his lesson. (Actually, if he was not authorized, he should be ticketed every time he pulled into the bus lane to pick up and discharge.)

Unknown said...

Busplanner, while I understand where you are coming from, the bus lanes have spare capacity. An urban street can handle several hundred cars an hour. Even with the stop-and-go of buses, which is ferociously consumptive of lane capacity, the lanes have spare capacity. While allowing every tom-dick-and-harry to use the lanes would clearly be disruptive to bus operations, there is no reason some sort of toll operation can't be set up. Additionally, doing so would provide the MTA with its own source of dedicated revenue--no bad thing.

jazumah said...

Some of the vans are licensed as buses (15 seats in the vehicle including the driver).

It is clear that the NYCDOT doesn't respect the vans. This is why (in general) they are not playing ball with regards to replacing discontinued routes. To implement a priority bus grid and not provide access for the vans creates a two tiered transportation system. If the NYCDOT isn't going to respect them, why should they comply with the regulations?

The illegal van problem will disappear when the legal vans operated in Caribbean areas are treated properly. The Chinese vans and vans in the other parts of the city simply don't get harassed.

Cap'n Transit said...

Busplanner, my point is that these are buses. For the purpose of these lanes, why should they be treated differently from any other buses?

busplanner said...

Cap'n Transit - As you indicated in your post, you could understand banning vans if the bus lane were crowded. It just did not happen to be crowded when you were there.

Temporal enforcement can work (allow vans during off-peak; but not during peak, for example); however, my experience with temporal rules is that they don't work well.

So, the question of allowing vans boils down to a few points:

1. In the peak period, is there capacity?

2. If yes, can one easily distinguish between the licensed (registered/approved) vans and the vans that have not gotten approval? Is the city willing to enforce often enough to discourage unlicensed vans?

3. Are the city and/or MTA policies concerning licensing vans and approving their routes/service areas reasonable? If not, how should they be modified?

Note that one should not want unlicensed vans using the bus only lane. Unlicensed vans have a much higher incidence of being in unsafe operating condition, lacking adequate insurance, and often having inadequately trained drivers or drivers with poor driving records. On the other hand, licensed vans should be required to have periodic safety checks (as should all buses), carry appropriate insurance (as should all buses), and have operators trained on rules such as how to use the bus lanes properly. (Just as taxi drivers have to pass tests on a variety of subjects, so should van operators carrying the public.) I don't know whether a Commercial Drivers License with Passenger Endorsement is required in New York for operators of 15 passenger vans; but it should be. Finally, van operators who develop poor driving records should have their van operator licenses revoked.

Note: Attempted to post this yesterday. It appeared for a few seconds, then disappeared. But e-mails were sent to those requesting e-mails of comments.