Last week, the MTA announced an expansion of Select Bus Service (SBS), New York City’s version of a “Bus Rapid Transit” (BRT) system. Streetsblog has noted that this strategic move is essentially the MTA’s acknowledgment it’s not financially feasible to build subway lines fast enough to meet demand. In pioneering cities like Curitiba (the first to implement BRT), Taipei, and Jakarta, BRT has been a viable means to improve and/or increase public transportation service at a lower capital expenditure than traditional transit options that require fixed rails, tunneling for new routes, custom train cars, etc. The system can also be built quickly and incrementally, offering improvements to the populace sooner than other more labor-intensive options.

However, the fundamental flexibility of BRT is also the biggest hindrance to its realization in the United States, with uncertainty among elected officials, transit professionals and the public on what exactly BRT is. In fact, only 5 cities in the US have true BRT systems, according to The Institute for Transportation Policy, and New York City is not one of them.

The five major BRT elements are:

  • Running Ways: Can range from mixed use general lanes to fully-separated dedicated lanes
  • Stations: The entry point into the system and a main customer interface. Options range from basic stops to simple shelters to complex intermodal terminals. Platform height, station layout and passing capability at stations affect travel times.
  • Vehicles: Can range from standard buses to specialized, articulated vehicles with multiple doorways.
  • Fare Collection: Options range from on-board to pre-payment, which significantly improve dwell times.
  • Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS): Incorporation of technological advances to improves system performance such as travel time, operational efficiency, reliability and safety. Options include traffic light signal priority (light will change green when a bus approaches), automation for docking and lane changes, real-time passenger information and safety/security systems.

Within each element, costs of the options and their effectiveness often have a direct correlation, but the coaction between elements can provide exponential benefits with lower capital investment.

New York City operates six SBS lines along 5 corridors, with a B44 Brooklyn SBS route planned for Fall 2013 which will connect southern Sheepshead Bay with Williamsburg. None of these SBS lines qualify as BRT however (despite the frequent reference to the system as such), according to The Institute for Transportation Policy

The Institute has developed a 100 point ranking system for evaluating BRT systems, which include 5 major criteria:
  • Service Planning: includes off-vehicle fare collection, routes in top 10 demand corridors, peak and off-peak frequency, enforcement of right of way, operational control system to prevent bunching
  • Infrastructure: includes bus lanes in center of the road, physically separated right-of-way, stations shared by both directions
  • Station Design and Station Bus Interface: platform level boarding, number of doors
  • Quality of Service and Passenger Information Systems: branding of vehicles and system, safe weather protected stations,
  • Integration and Access: bicycle lands in corridor, bike sharing systems and bike parking at BRT stations

NYC’s existing SBS system, which currently runs along the Bx12, Bx41, M15, M34 / M34A, and S79 lines only get 35 points in the Institute’s ranking system. The main shortcomings include:

  • Exclusive lanes are not in the center of the road and they’re only in effect during extended peak periods. Furthermore, even city vehicles have been documented blocking SBS lanes, suggesting lax enforcement of the system in general.
  • Right-turning vehicles are still allowed to turn from the bus lane, which slow down the speed of the SBS buses.
  • Pre-payment does exist for SBS, but the lack of distinction between regular and SBS lines apart from bus branding led to customer confusion.
  • Without platform level boarding and other infrastructure measures, boarding times aren’t as fast as they could be with BRT systems.
  • When SBS was launched the system did not feature GPS, a critical component to most BRT systems, which assists in scheduling as well as real-time reporting for riders.

When SBS was being considered for New York City, New York had the slowest average bus speed in the United States. While the obvious explanation was traffic congestion, research by both private consulting firms and city agencies had shown that there are other significant contributors to bus delays in New York. Previous steps to improve bus speed, such as limited stop service, bus priority lanes, and peak-hour bus lanes were progressive but not aggressive enough.

When we first wrote about SBS in 2009  we said, “With so many infrastructure projects in progress simultaneously in New York City, visibility to SBS has not been high.” That is starting to change, with the latest MTA announcement and Christine Quinn’s support of SBS. But, global case studies have shown that its the fully-integrated BRT system investments that have experienced the types of ridership increases touted by BRT. These increases are at levels previously believed could only be achieved by rail transit. Speed increases of up to 20% have been reported by the NYC SBS system, but this in contrast to the 34% increase in the Cleveland BRT and 29% for the Los Angeles BRT. What’s more, though Cleveland and Los Angeles are among America’s best BRT systems, they pale in comparison to those in Curitiba, Brazil and Guangzhou, China.

We also advised:

Ultimately, incremental development may be an optimal strategy in the current economic climate as long as funding will not be cut based on early pilot results. Therefore, it is essential that pilot efforts in New York City truly encompass all of the necessary elements of success—including, but not limited to, community involvement, agency cooperation, transit-supportive land development, consumer marketing campaigns and true integration of BRT elements.

Though we are well beyond the pilot phase now, the same challenges remain. Select Bus Service, if it really intends to be an alternative to subway and fixed rail, needs to embrace more elements of true BRT. This would require a combination of financing and political will.

SBS funding was originally allocated via the Urban Partnership Agreement, that was defeated over congestion pricing. The trial corridors were funded through a mixture of New Starts, Small Starts, federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) program , PlaNYC allotment, state and city capital. The MTA just started discussing its next five year capital program, which transit experts believe will include funding for SBS projects. And Christine Quinn’s proposal for an SBS line to connect Brooklyn and Queens has at least one critical element of BRT–protected bus lanes. But will it be enough?

Get in touch with the author @untappedmich.