NEW YORK—Reaching boroughs other than Manhattan comes with difficulty, and time. Speeding up commutes between boroughs and inside boroughs themselves has been the subject of multiple reports, and a concern for millions of New Yorkers.
“As our city decentralizes its job growth, our transit infrastructure must be adapted to meet our changing needs, and support job growth all across our city,” said Councilman James Vacca, chair of the City Council’s Committee on Transportation, on Tuesday.
With subway expansion comes prohibitive costs, and new Metro North stations, in East Bronx and Manhattan, won’t arrive until after East Side Access gets completed in 2019 or later, said a MTA official. Commuter rail fare costs more than bus and subway fare. The quickest and cheapest way of extending public transportation? Buses.
“One of the major advantages of the bus network is that it’s always adaptable—if we need to change or add a route to service, a new economic hub, or housing development, it’s possible at a much lower cost and a greater speed than adding a subway line,” said Vacca.
“More workers are commuting to jobs outside of Manhattan than ever before, and as policymakers we must acknowledge that and adapt the bus network to meet those needs. … The economic future of our city depends on that,” Vacca said.
At the City Council hearing at 250 Broadway examining the issue, a host of city transportation officials and transportation advocates crowded into a room for updates on the latest expansion developments.
Bus Rapid Transit has been introduced into New York City’s bus system, called Select Bus Service (SBS) by the city’s Department of Transportation. SBS includes passengers paying before they board the bus, multiple doors for getting on, dedicated bus lanes, and cameras making sure the lanes stay clear. Traffic controllers also align more green lights for the buses.
Two corridors in Manhattan—34th Street and First/Second avenues—and an East-West SBS route cutting across the Bronx on Fordham Avenue into Upper Manhattan were phase one. Bus speeds on the Fordham route have increased by 20 percent, and ridership by 10 percent.
Webster Avenue (which runs by Fordham University and the Bronx Zoo), Nostrand Avenue/Rogers Avenue in Brooklyn, and Hylan Boulevard on Staten Island are shortlisted for phase two. SBS on the Staten Island route is slated to begin Sept. 2, according to a DOT official. The other two routes don’t have firm dates.
Routes to LaGuardia Airport are being looked at too, such as making the Q33 from Jackson Heights, Queens swifter, as well as the M60 route that starts in Harlem and goes through Astoria.
‘Not Kept Pace’
Job and commuting growth in the outer boroughs prompted the hearing—particularly a 2011 report from the Center for an Urban Future titled “Behind the Curb,” which finds “a disproportionate share of the city’s recent job growth, transit ridership gains, and population growth have occurred in the four boroughs outside of Manhattan, yet transit service in the boroughs has not kept pace, and the biggest losers have been the city’s working poor.”
But “while the percentages of increase in some of these inter-borough, inter-country, trips has increased greater than the percentage of people going to Manhattan, in many cases it’s starting from a smaller base,” said Peter Cafiero, chief of operation planning for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. “That doesn’t mean we should ignore it, but we can’t ignore the trips to Manhattan as well.”
DOT officials said they have little money for improved service, yet Councilman Eric Ulrich of Queens was unhappy with that, saying “It’s not a question of funding.”
“Your agency … is receiving hundreds of millions of dollars to do these wonderful experimental things,” Ulrich said. He thinks Queens is getting ignored and wants SBS to come to Woodhaven Boulevard, currently “a traffic nightmare.”
‘Dire Fiscal Straits’
The report “Behind the Curb” lists the MTA’s “dire fiscal straits” as one of several big obstacles standing in the way of bringing a good SBS system to New York. Recommendations from the report include city and state legislators coming together to give more funding to the MTA; developing better transit options to growing job centers such as downtown Flushing, Queens; and building elevated platforms on high-volume corridors for faster and easier access for disabled riders.
Bus and other transit improvements could help ease median commute times from the four outer boroughs, which, according to census data, are the highest in the nation. “For transit riders, they range from 52 minutes each way in Brooklyn to a barely comprehensible 69 minutes each way in Staten Island,” said Eric Giles, author of the report, on Tuesday.Jeffrey Zupan, a senior fellow for transportation with the nonprofit Regional Plan Association, also co-authored a report about regional mobility, in 2008, titled “Tomorrow’s Transit.” He listed a range of potential transportation improvements, such as a new subway line that would snake through Queens, connecting Yankee Stadium to Bay Ridge. However, “none of these ideas, no matter how good, will be implemented without money,” he said.
“The mobility fee has been eroded, the revenues from fuel taxes are declining as cars get more efficient, and congestion pricing, passed by this council, did not find sufficient support in Albany,” he added. “Without added revenues for transit, the ideas expressed here will remain just ideas.”
In the Bronx, on the Bx12 Select Bus Service route, from 5 p.m.–6 p.m., a bus is supposed to stop every five minutes. After one bus came, the next didn’t come for six to seven minutes. The next two buses came in two to three minutes.
“It’s a little slow sometimes,” said Cici D., a commuter who rides Bx12 almost every day. “But it gets you across town pretty fast.”
With reporting by Benjamin Chasteen
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