Monday, April 25, 2011

Manhattan bus capacity, again

You might not realize it, but we're in the midst of a large expansion of transit capacity. That expansion is in jeopardy, though, primarily because a lot of people don't realize it. If we don't do something, it could come to a screeching halt, and years of work could be undone.

No, I'm not talking about the ARC tunnel or the Second Avenue Subway. I'm talking about the boom in buses. You may have heard about them - every once in a while there's a breathless "trend" article about how all the cool kids are taking Megabus or the Chinatown buses, because they can do social network marketing on their iPads in transit instead of wasting time behind the wheel listening to Rush Limbaugh and books on tape.

You may have also noticed the growth in other bus services: gambling buses to Atlantic City, Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods; Chinatown vans traveling to Flushing, Elmhurst and Sunset Park; Jamaican and Haitian dollar vans; I believe that the MTA also expanded express bus service after they took some routes over from the "private" operators. They've cut it back since, but I think overall there's still a net increase. Tour bus usage has also increased; many tour companies offer "hop-on, hop-off" tour bus networks that function as a parallel transit network without some of the "riff-raff" that tourists might fear in the subways. Hospitals like Sloan-Kettering and universities like NYU also run shuttle buses between campuses.

Well, that's wonderful, right? A large increase in transit capacity, largely undertaken by private operators, at no cost. No expensive holes in the ground, no stations, just reuse existing infrastructure. The miracle of buses! It almost seems too good to be true.

As usual, what seems too good to be true usually is. In this case, there is a cost. On a crowded island like Manhattan, the existing infrastructure is always being used by somebody, as we saw with the 34th Street Transitway. It turns out that they built the Port Authority bus terminals for a reason. Curbside long distance buses were tried years ago, and they require taking street and sidewalk space that other people want for parking and walking.

The buses themselves need places to lay over between peak periods, and these places are hard to come by, in part due to the gentrification of Manhattan. In 1950 and 1979 the corner of 40th and Ninth was a low-rent district; now there are very few left in Manhattan. Many bus drivers simply park their buses at the curbside for hours until the next shift.

I'm not sure how many people realized that this was actually a stealth land grab for transit, but the people who used to use the land have figured it out, and they're not happy. One article after another appears in the papers, each one a bit more insistent, each one enlisting another clueless pandering politician.

Right now the support for buses is diffuse, which means that there could be a big backlash that could set back transit in this city by years. I'll talk more about what we can do about this in a future post.


Pat said...

As a frequent Megabus/BoltBus rider, allow me to say: the loading zones around Penn Station ARE a circus.

Megabus tends to have the situation somewhat under control, because they're mostly using wider sidewalks and mostly avoiding the heaviest pedestrian traffic. On the other hand, their propensity for two hour delays can produce some very large crowds of people who are milling about in confusion.

BoltBus, on the other hand, has staked out some fairly narrow sidewalks that also have a lot of traffic. The NYC->DC route stops on a corner where people and luggage get piled up around a subway entrance, hotels, and shops, and it's nearly impassable to pedestrians who aren't waiting for the bus.

It's very useful to have these bus services connecting at Penn Station, but there are legitimate concerns. I'd rather improve the coordination and infrastructure in that area than ditch the buses, of course.

Auto traffic plays a role here, too. The worst crowds are caused by bus delays, the majority of which are traffic-related.

jazumah said...

Not to mention that the Port Authority is effectively closed to new entrants. They will not allow anything regular out of Area X.

murphstahoe said...

Here's an interesting example from San Francisco, backlash against Corporate shuttles that take employees from neighborhoods in SF (and around the Bay Area) to offices elsewhere.