Monday, June 19, 2017

How we get safer crosstown streets


The killing of Citibike rider Dan Hanegby by a Short Line bus driver on West Twenty-Sixth Street this week highlighted a number of critical problems with the way buses are managed in Manhattan, and pointed up serious conflicts and contradictions in the agendas of transit, pedestrian and cycling advocates in the New York area and beyond.

It’s true that buses are dangerous to cyclists, and to pedestrians as well. The person who has always articulated this most clearly and forcefully has been Peter Smith. In a guest piece for Cyclelicious he focuses on “Bus Rapid Transit”; in a comment on a Greater Greater Washington post he talks about buses and bikes in general, and in a comment on a Bike Portland post he specifically discusses cases where bus drivers hit cyclists.

On a basic level, Smith is right: if we are really committed to Vision Zero, "the end goal is to do away with all vehicles that cannot live harmoniously with human beings — buses and cars should be the first to go." And although he claims that buses are more scary than cars, he also says that "the single occupancy vehicle in the city is the greatest manifestation of that evil—so it shouldn’t be tolerated."

If buses (and cars and trucks) cannot coexist with cyclists and pedestrians, what do we do about it? Smith’s vision is primarily centered around bikes and pedestrians, but sometimes people want to go further than they can bike. Sometimes we want to carry things - maybe very big things. And sometimes we can’t walk or bike at all. The answer, of course, is trains, as I’ve written before, and as @DoorZone wrote on Twitter in response to this tragedy:



That’s a lovely vision of the future, but how do we get to it? Even the wise cannot see all ends, but it seems like gradually investing more and more in rail (including at-grade trolleys), pedestrian and cycling infrastructure, and ending subsidies and requirements for roads and parking will lead to an incremental shift away from cars, buses and trucks and towards trains, bikes and walking. I think we can also do more with wheelbarrows, hand carts, cargo bikes and other non-motorized freight carriers than we currently do.

Unfortunately, our city’s advocates for walking and cycling aren’t conducting anything like a coherent campaign to shift our long-distance and heavy-goods movement from cars, buses and trucks to trains and trolleys. In fact, many of them are actively hostile to subways and trolleys, treating them as luxuries for the rich. In contrast, they elevate walking, cycling - and buses. In particular, they are fond of "Bus Rapid Transit," which they see as cheap, quick and democratic, and sometimes explicitly tout as a "surface subway."

These proposals are often presented as ways to get working-class New Yorkers to from homes outside of Manhattan to jobs outside of Manhattan, but there are still lots of jobs in Manhattan, and it’s a convenient transfer point to get to other parts of the metro area. In particular, there are lots of working-class people who live in parts of New Jersey and Rockland County where the bus is the most convenient way to get to work - and in fact, the Lincoln Tunnel Exclusive Bus Lane is the most rapid bus facility in the metro area.

But because of the way buses are mismanaged in New York City, there are almost no through-running bus lines. People from New Jersey have to get off the bus at or near the Port Authority Bus Terminal and make their way to jobs or shopping, usually by transferring to a subway.

The "Bus Rapid Transit" boosters are right about one aspect of buses: they can be scaled up quickly in response to increased demand. This worked very well when demand for transit rose beginning in 2007, in response to rising gas prices and crashing home equity. People began taking the bus in greater numbers, not just to get from the New Jersey suburbs in to Manhattan, but from cities like Philadelphia and Washington, and even further afield through the Chinatown bus network and relative newcomers like Megabus, Bolt and Vamoose.

The problem was that the "BRT" facility - the Exclusive Bus Lane and the Port Authority Bus Terminal that it feeds into - were already over capacity. So our "BRT" activists immediately demanded that it be expanded, right? No, they were actually pretty quiet about it, which left the bus operators to establish pick-up spots on the street, at handy transfer points in Manhattan, particularly Chinatown and Midtown.

When NIMBY "community members" came out to complain about the buses, were our “BRT” activists there to oppose them? No, they were pretty much AWOL, as they had been when NIMBYs torpedoed the 34th Street Busway. They did nothing as the State Senate forced bus operators to run a gauntlet of NIMBYs before they could legally pick up passengers on the street, and they haven’t had the power to increase off-street infrastructure.

Despite Peter Smith’s allegations I have not seen any proof that buses are any more dangerous than cars. In fact, we would expect them to be less dangerous, since they are operated by trained professionals with their careers potentially on the line. And yet self-proclaimed pedestrian advocates like Christine Berthet continue to repeat these allegations and to lobby for ever-greater restrictions on buses, and others in the livable streets movement echo them.

So what should we do to make our streets safer for cyclists? Some have called for physically separated crosstown bike lanes at key intervals. I like this idea. But what if you’re riding to a destination - or to a Citibike station - that isn’t on one of those streets? Can we create physically separated lanes on every street in the city? I don’t think that’s feasible or necessary.


As I’ve been arguing for years, we need to reconfigure our "side" streets as yield streets. They are all at least sixty feet wide. If you’ve ever been on one when it’s closed for construction or events, you know that they have plenty of room for two-way car traffic, and a hundred years ago they were all two-way. They can even accommodate a lane of parked cars on each side, plus a lane of moving cars in each direction, as long as the vehicles are all relatively narrow. When people started double parking it caused congestion, so the city changed them to one-way traffic flow - which has in turn led to a large increase in traffic as drivers circle the blocks. But when there is no double-parking the driving lane is extra wide, which leads to drivers speeding and crowding out cyclists.

The solution, as recommended by Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and the NACTO Street Design Guide, is to reserve space for loading zones throughout the length of each block, return all the streets to two-way flow, and ramp up enforcement of double parking. Then it is important to monitor the situation and increase the space for loading zones as necessary. Additional traffic calming measures like chicanes and pavement treatments may be necessary. If the design is implemented properly, drivers will be deterred from speeding by the prospect of a head-on collision, and will be less likely to pressure cyclists into the door zones.

You might have wondered why, instead of 26th Street in Manhattan where Dan Hornegby was killed, I used a picture of the 137-00 block of 45th Avenue in Flushing to illustrate an over-wide one-way cross street. As you can see from the second photo, the rest of the blocks on 45th Avenue are two-way, and people drive much more slowly and carefully. (Holly Avenue, one block south, is the same width, two-way, and a bus route.) Again, these yield streets are not a substitute for protected bike lanes, but a treatment for streets that are not chosen as high-priority cycling corridors. In other words, it should be the default configuration for all streets that are less than eighty feet wide.

In the long term, yes, we do need to get buses off our streets, but the urgency to get private cars off the streets is just as great. In the short term, we could do a lot more to accommodate buses in Manhattan, like facilitating through-running and stops on major crosstown streets. To make crosstown streets safer for cyclists, we should implement protected bike lanes leading to Citibike stations near all Midtown subway stations. The rest of the crosstown streets should be reconfigured as two-way yield streets.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Long distance coaches should carry bikes


A couple of hears ago I was in Penn Station and heard an announcement about bustitution due to track work. The announcer informed us that the buses would not be able to accept bikes. Just the day before I had been talking with some people about cycling in Montreal. I haven't had a chance to experience it, because I haven't been there since before they rolled out the Bixi bike share. Years ago I had planned to bring my bike there on a visit, but there was bustitution and Amtrak informed me I wouldn't be allowed to take the bike on the substitute buses.

In many small cities, government-run local buses are equipped with a front rack that can hold two or three bicycles. But the policy of long distance, usually private, coach operators (at least in North America) is typically that they will only allow bikes to be stored in the cargo bins if they are in boxes, with the handlebars removed. Of course, it is very difficult for a bicycle rider to carry a box large enough to hold the bike, and removing and reattaching handlebars requires time, skill and specialized tools.

Why do they do this? It smells to me of that toxic combination of elitism and liability worries that makes it painful to interact with American corporations. The owners and executives of the coach companies don't take their own buses, and they don't ride bikes. They don't want to take bikes on the coaches: they take up a lot of space, it's time-consuming for the drivers, and they're afraid of being sued if the bikes get broken. Their lawyers said something about liability, so they made a rule: no bikes.

If we could get long distance coaches to accept bicycles in a convenient way, this could easily be used to extend the coach network, with a measurable benefit to the lives of people who don't own cars. When I was a teenager, I was essentially cut off from all the jobs at the local mall because it was five miles from the nearest coach station. The roads from the bus station to the mall were relatively friendly to bike riders, but the roads from my town to the bus station were not. This would also encourage people to take a coach for tourism.

I’ve seen a few blog posts by bike advocates in favor of racks on city buses, or space for bikes on trains. But I don’t recall ever seeing one in favor of convenient bike storage on long-distance coaches. Do you know any coach operators that carry bikes conveniently? Was there anything that overcame their objections and persuaded them to do this?

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Better transit on the hundred foot avenues


We’ve got them all over New York City: avenues that are a hundred feet wide from property line to property line. Some of them are dangerous speedways like Gun Hill Road in the Bronx, and some are congested urban business corridors like Atlantic Avenue in Boerum Hill. Some run through transit deserts like Little Neck Parkway, while others have four-track subways and multiple bus lines like Seventh Avenue in Manhattan.

I wish I could point to a single one of these and say that its configuration is ideal for our goals, but even Seventh Avenue has many shortcomings That said, some of these avenues are clearly better than others for local transit, some are better than others for long-distance transit, and some are better than others for pedestrian comfort and convenience.

I’ve realized that these avenues work as interesting case studies for how terrain, politics, land use and function interact to produce environments that are better or worse for transit and walking. Transit and pedestrian improvements can be independent, or they can complement each other. Running transit underground, as on Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn, or elevating it, as on Brighton Beach Avenue, is great for transit speed, frequency and reliability, but it’s no guarantee of a safe and comfortable pedestrian environment. Rezoning to allow and encourage shops and residences right next to the sidewalk can also improve conditions for pedestrians.

I’ve talked a lot about subways and els already. You know I’m in favor of them. But while we’re fighting for grade-separated rapid transit - or even if we have it - we still need to talk about surface transit. Surface transit is great for short, local trips, especially for people with mobility impairments, and reallocating street space from mixed traffic to transit, pedestrians or even parking can improve conditions for walking.

I’m planning a series of posts that explore some of these hundred foot avenues and evaluate particular strategies for their effectiveness in promoting transit or walking, or both. Stay tuned!

Friday, January 27, 2017

Do we need the Port Authority Bus Terminal?

In 2015 I talked about the proposal to build a new bus terminal in downtown Flushing, and came up with the following list of six features. The current Port Authority terminal on 41st Street provides some of these some of the time:
  1. One-stop shopping for buses.
  2. Easy transfer between buses, and from buses to trains.
  3. Short-term bus layovers.
  4. Long-term bus layovers.
  5. Avoiding street congestion. There are ramps for the upper level, and an outbound tunnel under Ninth Avenue. This leaves many buses stuck in traffic, particularly those heading north and east.
  6. Ticketing, shelter, bathrooms, food and shopping for people waiting for buses.

Any transit system is easier and more attractive with one-stop shopping, short-term bus layovers and easy transfers. But long-term bus layovers, avoiding congestion and passenger facilities are more important for long distance trips than short ones.

If I’m taking the bus to Binghamton, I might have to wait an hour or more, so it’s really important for me to have shelter, bathrooms, tickets and food. (It would be nice to have seating and a place to store my bag, but that’s a whole other post.)

Cheaper services with higher frequency, like the New Jersey Transit 166 bus, don’t need a terminal, any more than the M5 does. Of course we all need safe places to pee and grab a snack, but people waiting fifteen minutes for a half hour New Jersey Transit bus ride don’t have any more need than people waiting fifteen minutes for a half hour New York City Transit bus ride.

All movement is quicker if you don’t have a lot of people or vehicles in your way. But for someone who’s getting off right on the other end of the Lincoln Tunnel, going up three flights of stairs cuts out most of that time savings. Trips with more than a mile between stops benefit more from grade separation, because they have the time for a bus to get up to speed.

As I pointed out in my post on the proposed Flushing bus terminal, there are actually advantages to having buses pick up and drop off on the street. It allows for through-running, so that passengers whose destination is beyond the terminus can just stay on the bus, which then heads out to a layover point in a less congested area. Street pickups can also make transfers more efficient and robust by spreading them out across multiple stops.

Street-level transfers are better for the local economy. Bathrooms and shelter are public goods that need to be provided by the government, but food and shopping? That’s what downtown streets are for, in a very real sense. In Flushing the streets do an excellent job of providing snacks, drinks and banking for bus and train passengers. A government-owned building filled with corporate concessions is necessarily less dynamic and less friendly to small businesses.

The Port Authority Bus Terminal in Midtown provides all these services for long-distance bus lines like Greyhound, Peter Pan and Adirondack Trailways, but it claims to have no room for other long-distance carriers like Megabus, Fung Wah, Vamoose and Hampton Jitney. Some of these companies claim they save passengers money by not paying gate fees to the Port Authority, which is another way of saying that the City doesn’t charge enough for what is essentially a rental of valuable commercial real estate.

Other bus companies say that they offer more convenient pickups in Chinatown and the Upper East Side. But that just begs the question: if bus terminals are so great, why we don’t have them for every direction that buses go? Someone decided it was better to have apartment buildings at the mouth of the Midtown Tunnel, and office buildings near the Holland Tunnel. Were they wrong?

The other claim, that there is no room in the Port Authority terminal for Bolt and LimoLiner, is also questionable. Why do Red and Tan, Academy and Suburban load all their buses in the terminal, when most of them leave frequently for short runs? Why is New Jersey Transit, a government-owned provider of short-haul services, the biggest carrier in the terminal?

Imagine if New Jersey Transit shifted just half of their bus pickups to the street. First of all, I’ve been told that there are more jobs in East Midtown than near the Port Authority. Some of the buses could pick people up and drop them off closer to their jobs. Second, the buses could provide transfers to other trains beside the Seventh and Eighth Avenue, Broadway and 41st Street lines. That would all take a load off the E, 7 and Shuttle trains.

Moving some local NJ Transit buses to the street would free up space in the terminal. I’ve heard that the tight schedules are a source of delays, so just having more wiggle room would improve reliability on the remaining routes. This would still leave room to bring in some long distance services off the street. If it turns out we still need room for long distance services, we can move more NJ Transit buses to the street, as well as some of the shorter, more frequent runs by private carriers.

Some people might complain that the buses would just get stuck in Midtown traffic. This is why it is essential to give them, and the jitney vans, full access to the dedicated bus lanes on 34th, 42nd and 57th Streets, and to make those lanes real busways instead of the half-assed arrangement we’ve had since the DOT botched the process on 34th Street. It would also help to make them true through-running routes, going through the Midtown Tunnel or over the Queensboro Bridge.

You may have heard that the Port Authority board has declared its bus terminal to be at the end of its life, and said that it wants to use eminent domain to acquire a new property somewhere west of the current terminal, build a new terminal there at a cost of billions of dollars, and sell the current terminal to developers. The main thing wrong with this is that it would be horrible for subway transfers.

It’s bad enough to have a terminal where only the east end touches Eighth Avenue, meaning that some passengers have to walk more than two avenue blocks to get to their trains. The Port Authority Board wants to add at least another full avenue block. From what I’ve heard, most of these people have chauffeurs and all of them have free parking, and they’re baby boomers who equate driving with success, so none of them ever make this transfer.

Stephen Smith has argued that any amount in the billions should be spent building enough train tunnels under the Hudson to accommodate all the bus passengers, so that bus transfers can be made in New Jersey, and the terminal can be torn down and not replaced.

I agree with Stephen’s vision as the ultimate goal, but in the medium term there will be short trips that are best made by bus through the Lincoln Tunnel, and those trips should have access to our streets for pickup and dropoff. There will also be long distance bus trips that will be more convenient if they connect to the subway than to a commuter train, and we should have a terminal for them in Manhattan.

The good news is that a terminal serving a few long-distance routes can be much smaller than the current one. It could fit on the site of the South Wing of the current terminal, and probably doesn’t need as many levels - or the parking garage. If that wing really needs to be rebuilt, some of the buses could be relocated temporarily to the lower level of the North Wing - or the Farley Post Office.

The bottom line is that we don’t need a huge bus terminal if we have trains. If we want to spend billions improving our transit system, rail is a much more efficient, sustainable and wise place to spend it.