Erin Paglione (M’21) majored in Natural Sciences concentrating in Designing Solutions with a minor in Government, Society, and Politics (Social Sciences). She used her Capstone Project to investigate the current state of bus transit in New York City and propose improvements. This is a summary of her proposal and alternative solutions to improve bus transit. Her full Capstone is available to read here.

Introduction

New York City (NYC) is the largest city in the United States, has the highest population density, and is a major economic center. It also produces a large amount of greenhouse gas emissions, 30% of which come from the transportation sector. The City is trying to decrease its GHG emissions by 80% and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.  While reducing greenhouse gas emissions, NYC also aims to improve residents, commuters, and visitors’ transportation options.  NYC buses are some of the slowest and least reliable in the US.

Quantifying the problem

In NYC, bus ridership is falling, possibly due to the slow and unreliable nature of bus transit. NYC buses are some of the country’s slowest, averaging only 7.3 mph (11.7 km/h) across the whole system. Such extremely slow bus speeds are notable compared to other large US cities and are quite abysmal compared to highly efficient bus rapid transit systems. For example, Bogotá, Colombia has an average bus speed of 17 mph (27 km/h), more than twice as fast as NYC, with a comparable city population and absolute bus ridership (BRTData, 2018).

Average bus speed does not only depend on how fast buses move while they are driving. The amount of time stopped at bus stations dropping off and picking up passengers and stopped at red lights also factors into it.  NYC buses spend just over half their time in traffic (see Fig. 1).  If this is reduced, it could significantly improve average bus speeds.

Figure 1. Percentages of a NYC bus’s time spent in traffic, stopped at a bus stop, and stuck at a red light.  From Forman, 2017.
Figure 2. Map of NYC showing subway coverage (purple) and speeds of bus routes. 64% of New York City residents live within 1/2 mile of a subway station (City of New York, 2019), represented in purple. The colored lines represent the average speeds of those bus routes. The areas in outer Queens have some of the fastest buses.

Transportation options are not evenly distributed across the city, nor are slow bus speeds (see Fig. 2). Some areas, like outer Queens and Brooklyn, without reliable transit, have a higher proportion of low-income communities who rely on public transit to commute to work and school and may not have access to other transportation like personal vehicles or for-hire vehicles.

Other cities also have declining bus ridership, suggesting that there are other obstacles besides slow speeds. Thus, any solutions proposed to address the issue should also consider other factors, like app-based For-Hire Vehicle services (for example Uber and Lyft) and general commuting trends.  These obstacles must be addressed as part of any holistic transportation reboot.

Bus Rapid Transit proposal for New York City

Based on two case studies of Bogotá, Colombia and Jakarta, Indonesia, my capstone proposes a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system for NYC.  Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is a highly efficient bus transit system that has gained popularity in Latin America and other cities worldwide.  The Institute for Transportation & Development Policy, one of the leading organizations in the BRT field, has developed a BRT Standard for evaluating and ranking BRT systems. Essential best practices of BRT are:

  • Barrier-separated bus lanes;
  • Center median-aligned bus lanes;
  • Turn restrictions across bus lanes;
  • Barrier-controlled bus stations;
  • Platform-level boarding;
  • Thoughtful and effective service planning of routes and stations;
  • Excellent passenger communication; and
  • Integration with other transportation infrastructure.

My proposed system has dedicated and barrier-segregated bus lanes that are contraflow and median-aligned where possible. This proposal also includes platform-level boarding, increased station spacing, and real-time monitoring from a central control center to provide transit signal priority and real-time data for passengers (see Fig. 3).

Figure 3. Diagram of proposed BRT corridor design.

Alternatives to Bus Rapid Transit

Business as usual

New York City has one of the largest bus transit systems in the US, with an average weekday ridership of over 2 million, a nearly 6,000 bus fleet, and 327 routes (MTA, 2020c). Two hundred forty-two thousand NYC residents commute to work by bus, 10% of the working population (NYC Planning, 2019).  The City of New York is aware of the problems with bus service explained above and has developed a Better Buses Action Plan to address it (NYC DOT, 2019).

Expanded subway

Figure 4. Subway map Upper East Side. From MTA, 2021.

An alternative to Bus Rapid Transit would be to expand the subway system.  This is currently happening with the Second Avenue subway (Q train), which is now in the second phase (see Fig. 4).  The first phase of the Second Ave subway accomplished its main goal: relieving overcrowding on the parallel Lexington Avenue subway lines (4/5/6 trains).  Ridership fell 11% on the Lex Ave lines between January 2016 and 2017, when the Second Ave subway opened (Fitzsimmons & Sun, 2017).  Taxi usage on the Upper East Side also dropped 20% between January 2016 and 2017, which has also been attributed to the Second Ave subway (Weaver, 2017).

This project has had successful outcomes so far, and Phases 2 and 3 are planned with an additional ten stations. However, these positive outcomes have come at a steep price.  The Second Avenue subway was first proposed in 1920, nearly a century before the first phase opened in 2017 and cost $4.5 billion (Paumgarten, 2017).  All that for only three stations and two miles of track.

Figure 5. Map of QueensLink proposal for revival of the abandoned Rockaway Beach subway line.  From QueensLink.

In Queens, there is a proposal for a reboot of an abandoned subway line.  It would be a North-South corridor connecting areas of the borough without subway access.  The proposal uses existing aboveground tracks and infrastructure, so it would likely cost less than blasting through bedrock for a new subway tunnel.  Both of these are examples of an extended subway route to improve public transportation in the city.

Expanded Select Bus Service

Select Bus Service (SBS) is NYC’s version of BRT. It was first implemented in 2008 in the Bronx with the Bx12 and has since grown to 16 routes in all five boroughs (NYC DOT, n.d.-b). The main goal of SBS was to reduce congestion and improve bus speeds in the slowest and highest-ridership bus routes (NYC DOT, 2013). SBS buses are 15-30% more efficient than buses on other NYC routes, reducing GHG emissions and other pollutants (NYC DOT, 2020).

Key components of Select Bus Service compared to full Bus Rapid Transit

The main difference between SBS and NYC’s standard local or limited bus service is off-board fare collection. When passengers ride SBS, they must pay their fare at kiosks at the bus stop. Intermittent fare agents check these proof-of-payment tickets.

Most bus lanes are curb-aligned with only a few corridors offset or center-aligned (NYC DOT, 2019), which is relatively inefficient. A challenge with busway alignment is that NYC buses have doors on the right side, appropriate for curb-aligned bus lanes (Jaffe, 2015). A central, median-aligned bus lane would require new buses with left-side doors or more complex platform placement, both of which make this an unattractive option. Most SBS routes and several other bus routes have transit signal priority (TSP) that allows more efficient bus service by reducing the time buses set at red lights. This has reduced travel times up to 25% on these routes (NYC DOT, 2018a).

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