Survey Says: Washington Heights Residents Want Their Awful Bus Service Fixed

Coming to Washington Heights this spring! File photo: Dave Colon
Coming to Washington Heights this spring! File photo: Dave Colon

Ninety-two percent of bus riders on W. 181st Street in Upper Manhattan are dissatisfied with the service they get, according to new survey from the Department of Transportation, which hopes to improve bus times with a car-free busway this spring that’s so long overdue, it was first proposed by the prior administration.

As part of the DOT’s charm offensive to get the 181st Street Busway implemented, the agency did some outreach online and at bus stops — then shared the resulting data with Community Board 12’s Transportation Committee earlier this month, highlighting that frustrated bus riders think it’s time to improve bus service in the area. The move could be seen as a preemptive argument against any busway opponents who might pop up, although a November community board presentation even featured a car owner asking the DOT to build more busways.

via DOT
Graphic: DOT

As the above slide shows, 92 percent of bus riders on W. 181st Street are unsatisfied with the bus service on the stretch between Broadway and Wadsworth Avenue. The reasons for that are legion, but the two most common frustrations according to riders are long waits for a bus and having a bus stuck in traffic, each of which topped 60 percent as a a top issue for bus riders (riders could select more than one issue). The survey data reflects a reality that the DOT has touched on previous presentations on the proposed busway, namely that buses on the corridor linking Manhattan and the Bronx move at a stupefyingly slow 3.7 miles per hour.

Tooth-grindingly slow bus speeds are nothing new to W. 181st Street, unfortunately. The de Blasio administration is the second straight mayoralty to study the street as a congested mess of gridlock and the second consecutive administration to propose a busway on the stretch. The DOT under Mayor Bloomberg proposed a kind of proto-busway in 2010 in the form of a totally separated two-way transit mall, but the agency eventually settled for an eastbound afternoon rush hour bus lane, along with some turning bays and loading zones.

Even after the Bloomberg administration highlighted those street improvements for helping reduce crashes and improve overall travel speeds on West 181st, the stretch was backed up enough that people complained about slow speeds and congestion when the de Blasio administration did a neighborhood traffic study in Washington Heights from 2014 to 2017.

Seeing as how people have been complaining about slow bus speeds for a decade, the de Blasio administration will move ahead this spring with its busway proposal governed by the following rules:

  • Eastbound car traffic would be banned between Broadway and Wadsworth Avenue, while drivers going east between Wadsworth and Amsterdam Avenue would be required to turn right at the next intersection.
  • Westbound local traffic wouldn’t be banned from any part of the street, but those drivers would also need to make the first right turn off the block after they entered it.
  • At Amsterdam Avenue, drivers going east would no longer be permitted to make left turns onto Amsterdam.

In addition to the daily traffic restrictions from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., the city is also tweaking parking regulations in the area in an attempt to fix the block’s double parking illegal parking problem. Per a study of W. 181st Street, anywhere between 37 percent and 85 percent of vehicles parked on the block are double parked or parked illegally. In response, the DOT is adding 12 metered parking spots (though it’s removing four) and extending the time limits on the spots to two hours. The agency is also creating 11 short-term pick up and drop off spots, and extending the hours on existing truck loading spots to to 1 p.m.

Elsewhere in the survey data, the DOT said that their polls found 81 percent of respondents either agreed or strongly agreed with the idea to install a busway on W. 181st Street, and 46 percent of drivers who responded said they would take public transportation if it was more reliable — which the city has seen as a result of the 14th Street and Jay Street busways.

When government prioritizes buses, buses get better.

The W. 181st Street Busway is one of the projects from the mayor’s touted Better Buses Restart that was rolled out last June, with the promise to install 20 miles of busways and bus lanes across the city by the end of 2020 (the Jay Street Busway was the only one completed on time). The Main Street Busway in Flushing began in January, 2021, but a planned Fifth Avenue Busway in Manhattan was shrunk to a bus lane project because of opposition from Midtown luxury retailers, and a planned busway for Jamaica Avenue has been in stasis since Queens elected officials objected to the location and asked for it to be moved to Archer Avenue.

Activists are asking the mayor to get even more ambitious in 2021, with a demand that he install 30 miles of busways and bus lanes in this final year he’s in office.