Staten Island’s Closed BRT Disaster

After having constructed something like bus rapid transit in the Bronx and Manhattan, the MTA is moving forward with its plan to have a line in each borough and has made a proposal for Staten Island Select Bus Service. Buses would run from the Staten Island Mall to Hylan Boulevard, the main corridor serving the South Shore, and thence to Brooklyn over the Verrazano Bridge to connect to the subway. As Ben Kabak reports, this is intended to resuscitate the idea of SBS after the cancellation of the 34th Street Transitway.

To see why this is such a bad plan, let us look at Staten Island’s existing bus map. The S79 follows the route proposed by the MTA and would become an SBS line under this proposal. But there are nine other lines on Hylan: the S78, which goes to St. George and connects to the Ferry, and eight express routes, which cross to Brooklyn and use expressways to get to Manhattan. The S78 has about two thirds the annual ridership of the S79; the eight express routes have between them about 30% more ridership than the S79.

The problem with MTA-style BRT is that it’s inherently closed, because it bundles lane separation with innovations that should be applied everywhere, such as proof of payment. Although buses could run partly in mixed traffic and partly in dedicated lanes, as they should, the fare collection systems and incompatible, and the MTA has ruled out off-board fare collection on non-SBS routes. Recall from the MTA’s smartcard report that:

Local and express buses will continue to have a farebox unit
o Accept contactless cards as primary payment method
o Accept coins (nickels, dimes and quarters) as secondary method

o Bus operator must be able to confirm fare paid by all means of payment

In other words, the best industry practice is ruled out, and the attempts at fixing it within the MTA’s rules only make things worse. On First and Second Avenues, where local and select buses use the same bus lanes, the stations are separate, reducing the effective frequency of buses on the corridor. On Hylan, which is a much lower-traffic and therefore lower-frequency route than First/Second, this is devastating to frequency on the shared trunk line. If the inspectors keep forcing buses to sit still during inspections, as they have on the Bx12 and M15 SBS routes, then reliability will drop as well.

The configuration of Hylan is such that open BRT, used in cities from Berlin to Brisbane, would be perfect for the corridor, if the fare collection were done right. The entirety of the Hylan corridor (except perhaps in the far south of Staten Island) as well as the approaches to the Verrazano Bridge would get dedicated lanes, and buses would be free to use parts of the infrastructure as needed. People with express bus passes who don’t mind taking a local or SBS pass for the trip could even board and transfer.

Because under open BRT dedicated lanes would not involve special branding, it would be easy to extend this to congested portions of Staten Island’s two other batches of relatively busy buses: the S53, which runs from the North Shore to the Verrazano and Bay Ridge, and the S44/S46/S48, which run on parallel streets from the North Shore to St. George. The S53 would be especially important, as it runs orthogonally to the borough’s rail infrastructure, and does not compete either with the Staten Island Railway or with a future North Shore service on the existing railroad corridor.

Once you count the need to pay first-world wages to more drivers, BRT infrastructure is not cheaper than rail for equal capacity, unless traffic is very low. The advantage of BRT is that it can branch out and run in mixed traffic. Closed BRT, as the MTA is proposing, is the worst of both worlds – high operating costs, no branching – and with the splitting of frequency for riders who stay on Hylan, it may not even be much of an improvement over local buses. It deserves no support from good transit advocates.


  1. ant6n

    Didn’t they start to allow people to show the SBS slip to the driver of a local bus running along the SBS corridor? While not an ideal solution, something similar could be done here. Or they could just run all express along the SBS corridor, not stopping at all. Neither way ain’t ideal.

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