Sunday, September 30, 2012

Where to put more buses

Recently I raised the question of what it would take to get car and plane travel on the Northeast Corridor down below 24 million trips a year, which is fourteen percent of the current total. Some commenters, notably Alon Levy, argued that it could be done by increasing capacity on current Amtrak trains particularly by adding more cars and improving the signaling system. A new tunnel under the Hudson would be a big help, and this week Senator Schumer made the case for funding preliminary investments in the next budget.

In a follow-up post I argued that while we should definitely be pushing increases in rail capacity, we shouldn't ignore the fact that most of the recent increase in Northeast Corridor transit ridership has been by bus, notably using practices imported from China and Scotland. We definitely shouldn't take the simplistic approach of abandoning train advocacy and "loving the bus, but we should ask ourselves how much bang for the buck we get per hour of advocacy on trains as compared to buses. At this point it looks like we have the advocacy resources available to work on both.

So how can we get more buses on the Northeast Corridor? Well, the two big capacity constraints here in New York are the city streets and the bus terminals. The Port Authority Bus Terminal is full, and the only way that Bolt, Megabus and the Chinatown buses have been able to run more buses is by picking up passengers at the curb. Now that's being squashed.

I've talked quite a bit about frequent service in local transit, following some of Jarrett Walker's excellent posts, and building on the assumption that a train or bus line that comes reliably within ten minutes gives you "freedom" to not worry about the schedule. For intercity buses, the time frame is a little longer, given how long it takes to get a ticket, get your meals and snacks, get on line and board the bus. If there are buses coming every half hour, with enough seats for everyone who wants one, most people would be satisfied.

As I wrote back in 2008, once you're providing satisfactory service, the thing to do is to pick up somewhere else. The Port Authority Bus Terminal is convenient for people who live along the Eighth Avenue line or in Hudson County. It's kind of convenient for people who live a short distance from Times Square, but after thirty-five years I'm really coming to loathe that one-block tunnel.
Chinatown is convenient for people who live there, and for people who live near one of the Chinatown vans. It's also relatively convenient for the Sixth Avenue and Centre Street trains, but not for any of the Broadway or Lexington Avenue lines. In 2008 Megabus and Bolt Bus started picking up at Penn Station, and that was convenient for LIRR and New Jersey Transit riders. Peter Pan Bus Company, one of the co-owners of Bolt, approached Manhattan Community Board 6 about setting up a bus stop on Lexington Avenue across from Bloomingdale's, but were met with resistance.

In contrast, the George Washington Bridge bus station has been underutilized, and I think that's because it's not very convenient to get to. The tunnel from the subway is nicer, but that subway station is only served by the A train. To get to the terminal from the #1 train, you need to walk several blocks through the crowded streets of Washington Heights.

In the comments to my last post, Alon Levy wrote, "I'm implicitly assuming a distribution of New York-area stops that includes a variety of major destinations and origin clusters: Midtown, Chinatown, Fort Lee, Newark, White Plains, and so on. The problem with this is that whatever you do, the buses slow down dramatically once they need to use city streets. The more distributed the destinations are, the worse this problem is. Want to travel from the south to Flushing? Enjoy your hour-long slog through Manhattan and western Queens traffic. Really, any destination in Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island is a nightmare. From Boston, Jersey is also a nightmare."

I don't think Jersey is a nightmare from Boston, particularly Fort Lee and Secaucus, because many of the buses that go from Manhattan to Boston actually travel through the Lincoln Tunnel to New Jersey before crossing the George Washington Bridge, passing right through Fort Lee and Secaucus. White Plains, Flushing and Parkchester are are a shorter drive from Boston than Manhattan is.

On Twitter, John Morris pointed out that Bolt Bus already serves Newark Penn Station, a major train and bus hub. I discovered that they also have a stop in Soho just outside the Holland Tunnel. Megabus also serves the major New Jersey Transit transfer station in Secaucus. White Plains has long had intercity bus service through Greyhound, Shortline and Trailways.

The obvious locations for additional bus stops are close to major transit stations and highway offramps. My top nominees are Flushing, Jamaica, Jackson Heights, Parkchester, Fort Lee, Williamsburg (Lorimer Street), Elmhurst (Woodhaven Boulevard), Sunset Park (36th Street) and Bay Ridge (59th Street). I'm frankly puzzled that Chinatown bus companies aren't already running intercity buses from Sunset Park, Elmhurst and Flushing, but I've seen no evidence.

What can you do to make these bus stops more likely? Write to the DOT and the bus companies to suggest them. Lobby for bus lanes on the BQE and the LIE to speed the buses out of the city. Tolls on the BQE, the Cross-Bronx, the Major Deegan and the Bruckner Expressway would make room for buses to go faster.


James Sinclair said...

Correct me if Im wrong, but I dont think Megabus actually serves Secaucus, I would guess theyre just selling existing Coach USA seats under the megabus name (like their service to New Brunswick NJ....all it is are non-peak coach usa buses that you can get with a cheaper fare if buying on

Im pretty surprised the cheap lines dont terminate (from Boston) at George Washington Bridge bus station. Is it convenient for riders? Yes and no. Anyone going north of 34th hates penn station terminus because its an hour on the streets of manhattan, only to see your destination pass without being able to get off. Id assume the subway is faster anyway. Obviously, anyone going to that area anyway likes it.

If Megabus were to terminate at GW, they could pretty much cut 90 minutes from every round trip, letting them add more trips. Riders would also get an actual terminus, vs a sidewalk.

Im guessing we'll see a smaller party do this soon, like the newer bus line that services Alewife in Cambridge MA vs South Station to try and get ridership from north of Boston.

How many buses go between Boston and NYC every day? At least 50, and as far as I know, there are just three destinations....Chinatown, Penn and the Hilton (limoliner). Youd think there would be more branching out, like the DC area which has at least 10 bus stops for the lines going to NYC.

CComMack said...

I strongly second your comments about wondering why there isn't already a Flushing-Boston Chinatown bus.

I've taken BoltBus to, or rather through, Newark Penn Station (it's a Philadelphia-Newark-Boston run). It was OK, but Newark is a touch far from the expressways to really gain a lot of time at rush hour, for the through-customers. It works quite well for Newark (and nearby points)-Boston trips, though. Megabus's equivalent stop at Secaucus trades local passengers for better access to Midtown, but the Secaucus option doesn't scale like we want. For access to the city, I would recommend Journal Square, which I was surprised did not rate a mention on your list of nominees.

Ultimately, the model for your vision is the Atlantic City Casino Bus market. You can pick up a bus to one of the Boardwalk casinos from just about any town in New Jersey, on a limited schedule. The subsidized ridership creates just enough demand for private bus owners to make one or two runs a week, which is enough to cover the capital costs of the bus.

Presumably, at some point in scaling up buses from various points in NYC, you're going to max out capacity in (or to) Center City Philadelphia and South Station Bus Terminal in Boston, but I supposes that's a problem you'll deal with when it comes up?

transport_eng said...

You are forgetting Woodside. There is the LIRR station that connects to Port Washington and Main Line. The express trains bypass it, but all other trains to and from NY Penn stop there. 61st Woodside (7 train) is an ADA accessible station.

Cap'n Transit said...

I can't forget Woodside. That's my station! Of course I'd love to have intercity buses just a short walk away. But all LIRR trains stop at either Flushing or Jamaica, and they're closer to the Whitestone Bridge.

The Amateur Transporter said...

The "Low Line" near Delancey Street.

jazumah said...

The George Washington Bridge Bus Station is closed to new companies until construction is completed as per the Port Authority. I like Flushing-Boston, but there is a cultural barrier that will take some work to penetrate. I do not think Sunset Park is as good as Downtown Brooklyn near the Barclays Center. I think that service to Boston and DC could work from there.

Journal Square is interesting. There is platform space available and bus service that isn't purely express in nature could work really well. The vans near the GWB serve numerous towns on I-90 in MA. I actually would try Journal Square or even Exchange Place.

White Plains could be supercharged, particularly if a stop is made in Stamford. Printing money would be the proper term. Integration with commuter rail is critical in the suburbs because the drivers find commuter rail to be a viable alternative to driving.

The big issue is marketing. I find that tapping these new markets is going to be challenging because they have to compete with a massive existing bus infrastructure. Reaching these customers is also not as easy in some places. The GWB is supposed to be a bypass, but construction in the area is killing its reliability.

I think the greatest market simulation would come from reducing the suburban backtracking. That is the purpose of Secaucus (real Megabuses exclusively run there) and Newark. Metropark, New Brunswick, Princeton, Wayne, and even Dover are good nodes to "localize" some of the intercity bus service instead of hammering NYC with all of the buses.

jazumah said...

By the way, South Station is also full. Platforms have to be subleased from existing tenants.

Anonymous said...

This is completely based off of anecdotal evidence, but I've been on some really early morning runs from Flushing and late-night runs to Flushing. I don't know if this is still done by the bus companies that survived the crackdown, but I would hypothesize that these buses were probably on their way to a storage facility of some sort for the night. (I've always wondered where these buses end up - they can't just roam the streets forever.)

I would suggest that certain streets or blocks in Manhattan and the inner parts of the outer boroughs be dedicated to specifically bus drop-offs, becoming loading zones in the wee hours of the morning on night. For example, Chambers St (when it isn't being ripped up by DOT) is a continuous east-west street with lots of subway connections - why not drop off there?

Alon said...

Actually, one thing that would really help the buses is to let them use the West Side Highway. Going from New York to Boston via Jersey sounds like those convoluted airline trips that have you going from New York to North Carolina via Chicago.

threestationsquare said...

If PATH is ever extended to Newark Airport rail station then I think that would be a promising intercity bus stop, since it's convenient to the freeways and airport-bound travellers would be a significant market in their own right.

@James Sinclair: Secaucus is served by real Megabuses (not CoachUSA codeshares) running through from DC/Philadelphia to Boston, since it's right off the turnpike. There are no Megabus tickets between NYC and Secaucus.

@CComMack: If Boston South Station gets too full, Alewife, Back Bay and Riverside are also options. In Philadelphia, I wonder if it is worthwhile for any through NY-DC buses to stop at Woodcrest PATCO.

@Alon: Opening the West Side Highway to buses would be wonderful.

Matthew said...

WorldWide bus leaves from Riverside Station in Newton, MA. That's a 40-45 minute ride on the "D" branch of the Green Line to Government Center.

Stewart said...


Woodcrest PATCO would be a great location for an intercity bus depot. Together with Gov. Corzine's (unfunded) proposal to add an Atlantic City Line train stop there (to improve transit options for the AC Airport) it could become a regional transit hub.

neroden@gmail said...

In NYC, pick up somewhere else essentially slows down a bus. I've been on some of the buses which pick up somewhere else; they simply crawl through Manhattan traffic. It would generally be faster to get off the bus and take the subway.

Which kind of shows you something. If you can't get bus lanes (and the Lincoln Tunnel should probably be 100% bus and truck, no cars) then the buses should stop at the edge of the congested area. I'm not sure if they can even make it to Newark before hitting congestion, though.

I suppose you could try sending them to Staten Island on the Outerbridge Crossing and dropping people off at St. George Ferry Terminal, but would people tolerate that?

I suspect rail is the only option which can be expanded to meet capacity needs from New York to Philadelphia.

You might be able to pull off some minor improvements from New York to Boston, I suppose (buses to Jamaica via the Bronx-Whitestone bridge or something).

Cap'n Transit said...

Neroden, what I don't think you and Alon are getting is that I want to locate bus stops where the buses don't have to crawl through traffic. A bus from Boston goes through a lot less traffic to get to Flushing or White Plains than to get to the Port Authority. A bus from DC goes through a lot less traffic to get to Newark or Secaucus than to Chinatown.

All the locations I mentioned are close to one highway off-ramp or another.

Other places like Hempstead or Sunset Park may be too far from the beginning of congestion to be worthwhile, but if I'm going to spend the last couple of miles on the #7 train anyway, I'd rather get on it further out.