BRT and New York City, Part 2: What We’ve Got So Far

bx12.jpgSelect Bus Service has sped trips along the Bx12 route, but falls short of full BRT. Photo: Brad Aaron.

In the second installment of our interview with ITDP director Walter Hook, we look at the package of bus improvements implemented last year along the Bx12 line, and how it stacks up against full-featured Bus Rapid Transit. Read the first part of the interview here. Parts three and four will examine how full BRT could operate in New York.

Streetsblog: What’s your evaluation of the SBS pilot route on Fordham Road? Does it qualify as BRT?

Walter Hook: The Fordham Road "Select Bus Service" pilot route was a very successful bus service enhancement — including a number of BRT elements. The city is not calling it "BRT," though, and I think that is reasonable. A rule of thumb should be whether or not a map company would include the BRT system in a map of New York City. If it doesn’t appear on any map other than as a standard bus route, then it has failed to enter the public consciousness as something above and beyond normal bus services.

Fordham Road has a dedicated lane for most of its length, but it is not physically segregated and not enforced as well as it could be.

I knew TransJakarta had succeeded when I bought a 2007 tourist map and it included a map of TransJakarta and its stations. The Orange Line in LA is on the ‘Mass Transit Map’ which includes the subway and light rail lines, and it’s packed, so I think it’s a success. When I went to Taipei and asked about the BRT system, nobody knew what I was talking about. It wasn’t on any map. That is a sign that it has failed. In reality, Taipei only has dedicated lanes for buses, and continues to inefficiently operate the same tired old buses on them. It really cannot be called BRT.

Fordham Road has a dedicated lane for most of its length, but it is not physically segregated and not enforced as well as it could be. A BRT system does not necessarily need to have a physically-segregated lane. If the road is not congested, or bus frequency is very high, or enforcement is very tight, physical separation is not necessary. They removed a lot of parking, which took political courage, and this helps keep the lane free of vehicles. And the dedicated lane and signal priority are helping to increase speeds during the peak periods. But I suppose they have occasional problems with vehicles in the bus lanes because of too meek enforcement. If the New York state legislature would allow the city to have bus lane cameras that would help enforcement efforts.

SB: What do you think of the payment system they’ve set up?

WH: NYCT has instituted a pre-paid boarding system where people pay at the bus stop rather than when entering the bus. Off-board fare collection is a critical element of any BRT system. Once passengers get on, a ticket inspector checks periodically to make sure people have their receipts. This is the biggest innovation on Fordham Road and it brings the biggest benefit. User surveys and data collected so far indicate that the amount of time spent waiting for passengers to board and alight has dropped significantly while overall speeds — due to the lanes, signal priority and off-board fare collection — have gone up as much as 20 percent during peak period, when it counts.

The system is a technical success but I think full BRT can really hit the public consciousness to a greater degree.

This specific approach to fare collection is typical of European tram and U.S. LRT systems, as well as the Cleveland, Los Angeles, Eugene, Oregon and York (Toronto), Ontario BRT systems. It has the same benefits in terms of reducing boarding and alighting times. This means less time lost while people board the bus single-file past the driver, after waiting for people to get off the bus via the front door, which they are not supposed to do.

The main downside with this approach is fare evasion. Given the fiscal climate at the MTA, this is a worry. However, NYCT believes that because roving inspectors can fine evaders, evasion on Fordham Road is the same or lower than it was before, which bodes well for off-board fare collection in New York City.

Most full Latin American BRT systems have physically-enclosed stations with a manned ticket booth and turnstiles, like in a metro, to reduce fare evasion. These enclosed stations give the passenger a sense of security and make them feel like they are inside a system. They do have their downside, however. They take up a lot of space physically and visually, and sometimes create problems for pedestrians. They also increase operating costs significantly. Personnel are always very expensive in the U.S.

SB: And the Select Buses themselves?

WH: The buses they’re using on Fordham Road are not really BRT buses. They only have two relatively narrow doors — one in the front and one in the back — and high floors that make passengers step up and down. This slows down boarding and alighting. An articulated bus with three or four wide doors, with a floor level with the station platform, would further reduce stopping delays considerably. I was told that when the MTA first tendered for a low-floor articulated bus with three or four wide doors, no bus manufacturer was willing to bid. That seemed like it ought to be a solvable problem, and in fact I understand that now NYCT is planning to purchase three-door articulated buses next year.

The identity of the system remains an issue on Fordham Road. Though they have a distinct paint scheme, buses look like normal articulated buses, and the stations don’t have much of a separate identity from the new ones used in the rest of the bus system.

So, I think the system is a technical success but I think full BRT can really hit the public consciousness to a greater degree.