Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Bus Rapid Transit and NYC

Tonight I attended the meeting of Auto-Free New York, which as you might imagine is a transit advocacy group. The focus of the meeting was a presentation on Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) by Joan Byron of the Pratt Institute.

Byron started off with an in-depth introduction to the subject matter that focused on inequity in transit accessibility and commuting times across the city. The summary is that for a high percentage of poor and/or minority residents, commuting times often exceed an hour, whereas accessibility to white collar jobs and the homes of (largely) white people is far better.

The solution put forth by Pratt together with COMMUTE, is BRT. Byron pointed to BRT programs in Curitiba, Brazil and Bogota, Colombia as examples of BRT success, along with the "Select Bus Service" operated along the B12 line in the Bronx. The B12, however, is not a BRT system; rather it incorporates a few aspects of BRT service that are more suited to a New York environment. First, the B12 lets riders purchase tickets in advance and board from both doors on an "honor system" that is enforced with spot checks and summonses for farebeaters. Second, parts of the bus route are painted and enforced as bus only lanes. Third, technology on board the bus can make sure that the bus always gets a green light at intersections. prioritizing transit over individual vehicles.

Here's the rub: as Cap'n Transit has laid out in excruciating detail, THIS IS NOT BRT. It's also no replacement for rail transit, which while expensive, is the efficient core of a successful transit system.

I encourage Pratt and COMMUTE to focus their advocacy on driving the following improvements to the entire MTA Bus system: (1) off-board payment and dual door boarding, (2) signal prioritization for buses, and (3) bus lane enforcement cameras mounted on MTA buses. These are fairly cheap, readily implementable improvements to the existing bus system that would dramatically improve bus service, and bus utilization, throughout the city.

I would hate to lose sight of the goal of improving transit outcomes for poorly served areas by focusing on a concept (BRT) over results. We can make incredible service improvements to our bus system - and we don't need "BRT" to do so. Our bus system is an essential complement to our rail network that can and must be improved, dramatically. But to maintain a sustainable transit system that can serve the needs of a growing city, we will have to continue to expand our rail network.

Lastly, it is worth noting that one of the primary success stories held up as a BRT exemplar, Curitiba, is replacing it's BRT system with . . . subways!

I've got a lot more to say on this syubject, but I wanted to put something up while the meeting was still fresh in my mind. Good night!

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