ANALYSIS: Money is the Real Star of the Queens Bus Network Redesign

Baby you're a rich bus too: The MTA found the cash to keep the Q53 in this version fo the Queens bus redesign. Image: Around the Horn via Flickr
Baby you're a rich bus too: The MTA found the cash to keep the Q53 in this version fo the Queens bus redesign. Image: Around the Horn via Flickr

Money can’t buy you love, but it can buy the MTA fewer headaches when rolling out its Queens bus redesign.

In its second attempt to straighten the borough’s spaghetti bus routes and consolidate too-close stops, the transit agency has abandoned its previous “revenue-neutral” approach to speeding up buses and increasing ridership. So where the previous attempt created winners and losers, the no-longer-revenue-neutral approach does something familiar to any fan of a big-market sports team: paper over possible shortcomings with wads of cold hard cash.

But who knows? It might just work.

“If it’s ‘throw money at it,’ then maybe that’s a good thing, because they do need to invest in bus service in Queens,” said Riders Alliance Director of Policy and Communication Danny Pearlstein.

This time around, with the simple addition of money, the MTA appears to be achieving its goal of simplifying and straightening bus routes, while answering the loudest concerns from the first go ’round:

  • Remember how residents of Community Board 6 were upset about the Q23 being split into two routes and moving off 69th Avenue? The Q23 is still being rerouted into a kind of L shape that connects East Elmhurst to Fresh Meadows by way of 108th Street and Union Turnpike. But an all-new Q14 will cover the lopped off slice of East Elmhurst and bring riders all the way to Fresh Pond. And an all-new Q73 will pick up at the 69th Avenue stops in Forest Hills and run all the way to Queensborough Community College primarily running along Jewel Avenue and 73rd Avenue.
  • Remember how residents of Jackson Heights were really upset about the Q66 no longer going past Woodside or the medley of buses no longer going to the Roosevelt Avenue subway hub? The Q66 will now go all the way to Long Island City, though in an effort to keep the route straight, it will run along Northern Boulevard. The lopped-off sections on 35th Avenue and 21st Street will now be taken care of by the new Q63 that connects Queensboro Plaza and Elmhurst by way of Northern Boulevard and Broadway. Additionally, the Q32, Q33, Q49 and Q52 are all being routed to 74th Street. And the Q53, which was on the chopping block due to providing duplicative service to the Q52, is coming off said block.
  • Remember how state Sen. John Liu was upset about how the revenue-neutral nature of the first plan resulted in the removal of the Q1 and Q36 buses and the consolidation of three express bus lines in Whitestone? Well, thanks to new money, Little Neck now gets rush service, the route type focusing on whisking people to transit hubs, to Hollis and Jamaica with the all-new Q45. But that’s not all! The new local route Q57 will take people between the eastern Queens border and the Rockaway Boulevard A train, through the Jamaica hub. And the new Q82 will provide rush service between the UBS Arena, home of the hated Islanders, and Jamaica. At the same time, the Q1 is back and will be kissing cousins with the Q45 and and Q82, to cover the gaps left by the rush routes’ non-stop service. The QM2, QM20 and QM32 are no longer getting consolidated, though each bus drops two or three minutes on its peak frequency.

The decision to throw money at things and build on top of the existing network instead of wiping the slate clean is most apparent at the Jamaica transit hub. Where the last plan reduced the number of bus routes servicing the hub to 14, the new plan has 28 routes converging the area, with a heavy emphasis on rush routes bringing in riders from eastern and southern Queens.

It’s amazing what the MTA can accomplish when the city DOT creates two successful busways for the area.

Look at all those bus lines.
Look at all those bus lines.

Money also means that even as the MTA creates 19 new bus routes out of whole cloth or through consolidation, the agency can afford to run the majority of its local service every 10 minutes or less, a level that it considers “high frequency.” Forty-five of the 85 proposed buses have headways of 10 minutes or less during the weekday peaks in the morning and evening, and 26 do so all day long. Only eight routes will be outside that 10-minute window.

If there’s one clear upgrade to this new plan, there’s also the matter of how the redesign is being presented. The first attempt at a redesign was ambitious, but in retrospect, it had the ambition of attempting to build a bicycle while you’re trying to ride it at the same time. The decision to rename every route and give vague indications of where stops would be was too much to put on people’s plates, especially while trying to pitch one-seat rides turning into multiple-seat rides to a skeptical public.

MTA Chairman and CEO Janno Lieber promised on Tuesday that there was no cap on the amount of money the agency is willing to spend on the redesign. That promise may be tested as riders on one line or another press for more frequent service or better bus stop amenities or restored stops, and someday in the future there might be a financial calamity that comes for lines deemed “inessential.”

For now, the redesign hinges on the trench warfare of determining which bus stops survive and which ones fall by the wayside, which the transit agency lists on each route profile. The MTA’s opening gambit calls for consolidating 1,685 stops from the network, and spacing out local stops between 1,050 feet and 1,320 feet away from each other, which is less than the European standard of 1,500 feet, but still more than the current average of 909 feet between stops in Queens.

“This balancing is critical to picking up speed,” Pearlstein said. “The problem is because bus service been permitted to deteriorate so far, the people who really value speed were already driven away from the system, and have found other ways of getting around. So there’s a core group of people who depend on bus service, who are not in a hurry, but the system needs to be able to work for everyone to potentially take the bus.”

With scheduled meetings at all of Queens’ 14 community boards and the agency’s general willingness to appear in front of paragovernmental organizations like civic groups and business groups, planners and government liaisons will get an earful. But if the Bronx redesign is a guide, where the consolidation of 400 stops grew the average distance between stops from 882 feet to 1,092, planners built themselves wiggle room to restore some proposed cuts.