A Transit Miracle on 34th Street

NYC DOT is proposing to turn Manhattan’s 34th Street into a river-to-river "transitway."

In what she half-jokingly called "probably the first-ever co-presentation" between their two agencies, Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan stood with New York City Transit President Howard Roberts earlier this week to unveil the city’s current Bus Rapid Transit program in its entirety — including a plan that would "redefine the public realm" on Manhattan’s 34th St. by redesigning it as the city’s first "transitway."

At a forum co-hosted by the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, Transportation Alternatives, the Pratt Center for Community Development and the Straphangers Campaign, over 100 people gathered at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx Tuesday morning, just a few blocks from where the city is poised to launch its first BRT project on Fordham Road, to hear international experts explain how other programs work, and don’t work, around the world. Walter Hook, executive director of New York’s Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, profiled elements of BRT models in cities like Jakarta, Indonesia and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where his organization has served a consultatory role. Oscar Edmundo Diaz, also with ITDP and once a senior advisor to former Bogotá Mayor Enrique Peñalosa, detailed the workings of the wildly successful TransMilenio, which Hook described as state-of-the-art in Bus Rapid Transit.

Outlining New York’s plans, Sadik-Khan previewed big changes for some of the city’s major corridors.

The block between 5th and 6th Aves. would be reserved for buses and people, with cars traveling away from the CBD on either side

  • 34th Street, Manhattan: DOT will repave and restripe for five lanes between Third and Ninth Avenues by the end of this year, with painted bus lanes on the north and south sides and three auto lanes in the center. Service hours will also be extended. Phase 2 calls for a 34th Street Transitway, closing the street to cars between Fifth and Sixth and installing pedestrian plazas. On either side of that block, there would be two lanes for cars heading in one direction — toward the rivers — while on the other half of the street, buses would have two extra-wide lanes separated from traffic. In other words, buses would constitute the only through traffic on 34th Street. According to Sadik-Khan, 34th Street BRT will eventually tie in to new East River ferry service (details to be announced next week). Here’s the 34th St. slideshow.
  • Hylan Boulevard, Staten Island: BRT will run from Richmond Avenue across the Verrazano Bridge. The route will include a reversible center-lane protected busway with raised boarding stations. We hope to have more on this soon.
  • Fifth and Madison Avenues, Manhattan: On Fifth, dual bus lanes will be installed from 23rd to 59th Street, while dual lanes on Madison will be extended from 42nd Street to 23rd.

NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly has pledged a unit dedicated to bus lane enforcement, Sadik-Khan said. But she added that the city needs Albany to approve bus-mounted cameras as well. Though the program lost $112 million in funding with the defeat of congestion pricing, Sadik-Khan said the city has applied for federal funds to expedite BRT build-out. While the timetable for some projects is still undetermined, Bx12 Select Bus Service will launch in June as planned, and Phase 1 of 34th Street will be completed this year.

Sadik-Khan and Roberts acknowledged the gap between New York BRT and other world-class systems, where six-door, articulated, level-boarding buses travel in buffered lanes, taking on up to 42,000 passengers per direction per hour. For one thing, Roberts said the MTA has yet to find a manufacturer that can produce a bus that both meets modern BRT standards and can stand up to the city’s demanding transit schedule (this bus wasn’t mentioned). So for now, the city is moving ahead with components it can put into place relatively quickly: pre-board payment, signal prioritization, more buses, fewer stops, and painted (mostly curbside) lanes.

"We’re not Curitiba and we’re not Bogotá," said Sadik-Khan, "but we’re getting there."