Brooklyn Bus Redesign Version 1.2

About two weeks ago, Eric Goldwyn and I unveiled our Brooklyn bus redesign. It consolidates the borough from 550 route-km to about 350, and cuts the number of stops along the surviving lines from 1580 to 706; the increase in speed coming from stop consolidation and other treatments (i.e. bus lanes and prepayment) and the route consolidation together permit doubling the frequency with the same resources available today, guaranteeing that each bus route have at worst 6-minute frequency between 6 am and 10 pm. The first version we released was 1.0, and the version I blogged was 1.1. In this post I’d like to introduce changes as well as explain why we made certain decisions that have been criticized in comments here and elsewhere.

Version 1.2

V1.2 differs from v1.1 in just two ways. First, it was pointed out to me that we made a mistake in the map: the route we proposed for the B6 to take across the structure of the Brighton Line of the subway, at Avenue H, was not in fact a street crossing. At Avenue H the structure goes from trenched to the north to elevated in the south, and as a result the street does not go through. We fixed this error by restoring the present-day route, and also slightly changing the route of the B11 to follow what must be a high-quality bus lane.

And second, months ago, in arguments with former MTA planner Allan Rosen (who comments on blogs by the name BrooklynBus and has his own proposed redesign), there came the question of the route of the B9. Allan was supportive of the idea of running the B9 on Veterans Avenue, taking over what is now a B41 branch, rather than going to Kings Plaza as it does today, legacy of an era when Kings Plaza was a more important shopping destination. I also asked about straightening the route, which currently goes on a combination of Avenues L and M; Avenue M provides a straighter route connecting to the important destinations (the eastern end of the route, and the main drag in Midwood at Avenue M). Allan explained that no, a reroute to Avenue M is not feasible, as east of the heart of Midwood it’s a narrower residential street, forcing the bus to use the wider Avenue L. The only reason the straighter Avenue M route appeared on v1.0 and v1.1 is that I forgot to change it; after we went public with the map, he reminded us.

There are some associated changes to the stop spacing to accommodate the new routes (or, rather, the retention of old routes that we were wrong to try to change before), but overall there is practically no impact on overall trip times. The B9 is a few hundred meters longer than in v1.0 and v1.1, but the cost in on the order of 20 service-hours per weekday, which by itself is a lot lower than my uncertainty in the underlying numbers (which is about 100 hours).

Service-hours vs. fleet requirement

When putting together the redesign, we aimed at one cost metric: service-hours. This is the correct metric for variable bus operating costs, as they are dominated by the driver’s wage (which is hourly, not per km) and to a lesser extent maintenance costs (which are partly distance-based and partly time-based, as the frequent acceleration cycles common to slow bus traffic stress the engine). The MTA costs buses by distance and not time, which is not a bad approximation when all buses are about equally fast, but generates wrong results when the subject of the discussion is speeding up the buses, as we propose.

But there’s one more metric we did not consider: fleet requirement. Our redesign actually saves money there, which should not be a surprise, as it has more off-peak service, which implies less service at the peak. Our 10,000-hour schedule requires a fleet of 1,007 buses, which compares with 1,129 today excluding the MTA Bus-operated B100 and B103 (which look like they require about 40 vehicles between them). Our proposed v1.2 schedule has 7.5% fewer service-hours than today – not because we propose a cut but because we expect future additions and politicized slowdowns to add hours – but 14% fewer buses. The smaller fleet is to be used more intensively and somewhat more efficiently thanks to the removal of short, infrequent routes.

Since the goal is to keep the redesign roughly cost-neutral, it’s likely that overall service-hour figures will rise: higher operating costs will be balanced by slightly lower capital costs, as the MTA will need to procure slightly fewer buses and not need to expand depots for them as much. In 2008-11, the MTA spent $500,000 per bus on procurement; in 2014, this was the cost per standard bus (which is the vast majority of the MTA Bus and NYCT fleet), while articulated buses were $750,000. This is a premium of about 50% over London bus costs.

Overall the fleet requirement looks like a small proportion of the cost. A $500,000 bus, say $600,000 at today’s higher prices, operates for 12 years, and requires a team of about five drivers, each earning around $140,000 a year with benefits. This is just about market wage – San Francisco and Boston, which pay about the same, have trouble finding and retaining drivers; high bus driver wages should be viewed as similar to high wages for oil rig workers, compensating for poor work conditions. Excluding the costs of depot enlargement, the overall exchange rate seems to be about one bus = 40-45 daily service-minutes. At best, our redesign can squeeze maybe 100 extra daily hours out of better fleet utilization.

The Williamsburg issue

As Eric and I have always emphasized in our communications, our redesign is necessarily win-lose – it’s just that there’s overall much more winning than losing. This is true across neighborhoods as well as within neighborhoods. The diciest case is that of Williamsburg, where we are proposing to consolidate a number of routes into 1.5 north-south trunk lines: one is a continuation of the B44 running up Bedford, and the other goes up Graham and thence either Manhattan Avenue (connecting to the G) or McGuinness (a straighter route on a wider street). This guts service to South Williamsburg, especially west of the BQE, where the only remaining stops are the Marcy Avenue J/M/Z subway stop and another stop on Broadway at Bedford.

It’s not an optimal situation. However, it’s a necessary cut, for a number of reasons:

  1. The existing north-south lines in Williamsburg are for the most part quite weak. The average weekday ridership per route-km in Brooklyn is about 1,100. The Williamsburg routes are at 945 (B43), 613 (B62), 414 (B67), 358 (B48), 225 (B24), and 152 (B32). The strongest two run along the routes that we are retaining for north-south service, but the rest are so weak that consolidation is required; for the same reason, we are replacing the B48 and B69 (which is at 453) in Clinton Hill with a compromise route on Washington.
  2. The Williamsburg routes are not just weak but also wasteful, measured in ridership per service-hour. Borough average is 55, and the overall strong routes cluster in the 60s, with high ridership balanced by high service. The top three routes are the B74 (98), B1 (82), and B36 (70), serving short-hop trips in Southern Brooklyn. Among the Williamsburg, only the B43 (49) holds up; the B62 (42), B67 (39), B32 (35), B24 (35), and B48 (32) are weak, the last three all falling in the borough’s bottom six.
  3. The main north-south route in South Williamsburg west of the BQE is Bedford. Unfortunately, a continuous route up Bedford misses the all-important connection to the subway at Marcy. The B62 resolves this issue by detouring to serve Marcy, which slows down through-riders.
  4. Williamsburg streets are narrow. Even Bedford is only 18 meters wide, comparable to a Manhattan street. Bus speeds are unlikely to be high in such a situation, and bus lanes are guaranteed to be contentious due to the removal of on-street parking and loading access.
  5. The eastern margins of Williamsburg and Greenpoint are awkwardly just too far away for some people to walk to the subway (Meeker Avenue’s easternmost residential area, at Van Dam, is 960 meters from the nearest bus stop in our plan and 1,370 from the G train), but just close enough that most people will still walk rather than take a bus unless the bus is extremely frequent. Without the travel intensity found in Coney Island and at Kingsborough Community College, there is no hope for the travel volumes justifying very high frequency on the routes there, especially the B1. A frequency-ridership spiral is unavoidable, helping explain the poor performance of the B24 and B48.

The only possible compromise is to keep the B44’s current route on Lee, which in our plan we slightly straightened to reach the Marcy subway station faster. Keeping the northbound direction on Bedford, which serves South Williamsburg more centrally than Lee, is out of the question: south of Flushing Avenue, Nostrand is unambiguously more important, and the northern tail of the B44 is too weak to be allowed to drive the placement of the entire route. The cost of restoring the Lee/Taylor bus stop is small, around 12 daily service-hours, and this can be incorporated into the next version. However, it still only serves the area peripherally, and slows through-riders by around 1.5 minutes each way.

Brooklyn-Queens connections

People have told us that interborough connections are the new hot thing, to replace the borough-by-borough bus planning that currently exists. We are not depicting any on our map beyond what currently exists: one route to JFK, the aforementioned north-south Williamsburg route to Long Island City, and a bunch of east-west routes through Bed-Stuy terminating slightly east of the borough line. We are willing to be convinced otherwise, but so far it seems like adding more connections is difficult, for several unrelated reasons.

Hard boundaries

The Brooklyn-Queens border may not be as stark as the East River or the Harlem River, but it is nonetheless mostly hard. East of the Greenpoint/LIC border, the border follows a polluted industrial creek; the B24 crosses it twice and is very weak, and there’s no good route until the cluster of Grand, Metropolitan, and Flushing around Ridgewood. Metropolitan and Grand do go through, and we indicate them on our map. Flushing doesn’t; there’s no good route in Queens to connect it to except maybe a hybrid of the Q18 and Q47 to LaGuardia, and even that is uncertain.

Beyond Ridgewood, there is another hard boundary consisting of several cemeteries. The B13 goes through today, but is a weak route (473 riders/km, 38/hour) and should be cut to just a north-south subway feeder. To the immediate south of the cemeteries, several Queens buses go through to key connection points in Brooklyn. Only the southernmost zone, around Howard Beach, has weak connections.

Queens is not Brooklyn

Brooklyn is relatively uniformly dense, making a grid with uniformly high frequency tenable. Queens is not. East Elmhurst is several times denser than Queens Village. Central and Eastern Queens have a street hierarchy, in which the list of which streets get bus routes is preordained: Lefferts, Jamaica, Union Turnpike, Main, etc.; it’s not the relatively flat grid hierarchy that characterizes most of Brooklyn. There are multiple town centers to serve, with too sparse a rail network for buses to work purely as a rail feeder. The LIRR has so many stations that there are two distinct optimal maps, one assuming fare and schedule integration with commuter rail and one assuming today’s lack of integration.

What this means is that maybe a uniform 6-minute frequency is not right for Queens. Maybe the larger geographic size of Queens, with longer bus routes, permits slightly lower frequency, say every 8 minutes at the base (maybe even every 10). Combining routes is not always the right approach in this situation; there are going to be frequency-based seams.

Depot locations

There are some potential combinations of Brooklyn and Queens bus routes, most obviously on Avenue, which hosts the B54 and Q55. The B12 could even be combined with the Q56 and Q24 as branches. The Q58, an extremely strong circumferential, could be combined with the B38, the busiest Brooklyn route near its terminus. The problem is that the break points today tend to be very close to bus depots, and often they’re major destinations in their own right, such as the subway connection point at Broadway Junction or at Myrtle/Wyckhoff.

The B54/Q55 combination seems relatively easy, but the rest are more strained. At East New York Depot especially the loss of the easy pullout is unlikely to justify cutting the transfer to the few through-riders.

The City Line problem

At TransitCenter, we were asked specifically about the southernmost part of the Brooklyn/Queens border, covering City Line and Spring Creek on the Brooklyn side and Lindenwood and Howard Beach on the Queens side. The bus network there today is glaring in its gaps: there is no east-west connection south of the Q7 (the B15 looks like a connection on a map, but runs nonstop from Brooklyn to JFK). The street network itself is poorly connected, but even the existing connection at Linden doesn’t host local buses.

And yet, there’s not much room for serious improvements. The B15 could make a stop just over the border on the Queens side, but its route to the airport takes it through a highway with nowhere to stop; a BRT lane with some stops at north-south arteries like Woodhaven might be possible, but would not be a pleasant place to transfer at.

Worse, going on Linden and then southeast toward Howard Beach raises a difficult question: where does such a route go on the Brooklyn side? There are too many options: Gateway Center, New Lots on the 3, Euclid on the A/C. Reverse-branching is out of the question. Of those, probably the best is New Lots – Euclid serves a subway line that Howard Beach can get to more easily without the bus, and Gateway will always be too circuitous compared with driving on the Belt Parkway.

Tweaks vs. redesign

There are tweaks that improve Brooklyn-Queens connectivity, like merging the two Myrtle routes, giving the Brooklyn-JFK route dedicated lanes to facilitate a stop at Woodhaven, and changing the Metropolitan and Grand routes slightly to improve intra-Williamsburg east-west service (already depicted on our map). However, this is not the same as a redesign. In some parts of Brooklyn our proposal is a tweak, for example the east-west routes in Bed-Stuy, but in Southern Brooklyn and East New York we are rationalizing nearly everything into a grid, and in Bushwick and Canarsie we are proposing extensive changes.

Additional routes?

Based on the shape of our proposal, there are a few potential additions. One involves a 16th Avenue north-south route, possibly veering east to follow Cortelyou and Beverly. Another involves an Ocean Parkway bus to Church. A third involves extending the B17 up through Bed-Stuy to provide a second interpolating route between Nostrand and Malcolm X, which is available today (as the B15 and B43) but not on our map. A fourth involves going up Smith Street between Red Hook and Downtown Brooklyn until the subway stops in South Brooklyn are made wheelchair-accessible.

However, all of those add a hefty number of service-hours. Whether they’re tenable depends on how strictly NYC DOT implements our recommendations for dedicated lanes on every bus route. If no bus routes are added on top of the ones that exist today, v1.2 requires 11,050 revenue-hours and 1108 buses. This is still more or less achievable with current resources (it requires about a 1-1.5% increase in costs), but there is no room for any additional routes, or for restoring the B25. And that’s without taking into account compromises on bus stop spacing and bus route reliability.

In contrast, things are rosier if the reliability improvements we prescribe are implemented, and if every bus that needs a dedicated lane (i.e. nearly all of them) gets it even if motorists complain. There’s room in the budget for additional service. The above bus routes, excluding B25 restoration, total about 30 km including some possible tie-ins elsewhere in the system, creating nearly 800 new service-hours, bringing the system to the same place it is today, maybe just 1% short given additional efficiency and fleet savings.

And if higher ridership brings in more revenue for the same expense, there should be room for more service increases. The network in v1.2 could support maximum 5-minute peak headways on all routes for 210 more hours, which should not be hard to accommodate even with more routes. Going down to 4-minute peak headways requires another 370 hours, and going to 5-minute off-peak headways requires another 890.

To do all of this, another 1,300 hours or so are needed net of efficiency gains. To keep the subsidy per rider constant, this requires a 12% gain in overall linked trips, which isn’t outlandish (it would still leave Brooklyn with less bus ridership than at the 2002 peak). Making such expansion cost-neutral is harder: a linked trip nets about $2 in revenue, and this expansion would cost about $95 million annually, and then the required growth in ridership, 47.5 million, is 25% over Brooklyn’s unlinked bus ridership. It still looks achievable but very ambitious, relying on a positive frequency-ridership spiral.

Will this happen?

Some variant of a bus redesign will definitely happen. It’s in vogue in the US right now, and the MTA is taking this as an excuse to rationalize its bus service, which has accumulated a lot of oddities and historical artifacts that no longer make much sense.

The question is, will a good redesign happen? That I don’t know. I believe our redesign is good. The conversations I’ve had with bus planners at the MTA have been positive and suggest to me that, barring political interference, they are likely to come up with good redesigns as well, sharing the same overall characteristics as ours. We are working from the same set of best practices, for the most part.

But then the political question looms large. Physically separated bus lanes and signal priority require the city to give a damn about bus riders. Stop consolidation requires the MTA to stick to a long interstation even if minority of people who are hurt by it (e.g. by having high walk penalties and low wait penalties) complain. All of this requires political appointees at DOT and the MTA to consciously think how they can provide better public transit to the city they serve. Will they deliver?


  1. Michael James

    Stop consolidation requires the MTA to stick to a long interstation even if minority of people who are hurt by it (e.g. by having high walk penalties and low wait penalties) complain.

    I’ve always been told that it is the outcry by pensioners and other less-able-bodied (and in fact the simple lazy and fat) who kill such rationalisations, right at the local representative level. That this (frequent stops, local stops) are what buses are for. Since buses so often get caught up in the road congestion which is the cause of so much of their inability to adhere to timetables (and produces bus bunching, that most beloved of phenomena), they have a point. This is purely rhetorical, but are you sure your time savings will translate to the real world?

    But good luck.

    • Untangled

      are you sure your time savings will translate to the real world?

      The 333 in Sydney ran faster than the 380 when they were both around. Unlike North American express routes where spacing is over 1km (like Vancouver’s B-Lines or LA’s 700 series routes), the 333 only skipped around 1/2 the stops so it stopped only every 600m instead of 300m for the 380 (300m is the typical bus spacing in Sydney, surprisingly Melbourne’s trams is only 200m so it’s a fair bit longer). Despite spacing increasing by not that much, the 333 was a fair bit faster, up to 10 minutes in fact, between Bondi Beach and the CBD. So fairly certain longer-ish spacing will work in Brooklyn too.

      That said, the 380 runs between Bondi Beach and CBD has now been dumped and converted into the 333 so it now runs around every 5 minutes during the off-peak.

    • Alon Levy

      Yes, I am sure; I’m basing my travel time savings numbers on the local vs. limited buses in New York.

      Frustratingly, I don’t have data about what happens when a city consolidates stops and does nothing else; Nova Xarxa did stop consolidation plus redesign and saw sharp ridership growth. But there are models of travel time calibrated against actual ridership, and the same models tell you that the optimal stop spacing is in the 400-600 meters range, even counting the fact that most people don’t walk as fast as an able-bodied New Yorker.

  2. Eric

    Have you thought about adding an infrequent Williamsburg circulator route with transfers to the main route?

    • Alon Levy

      It’s definitely possible – there’s a lot you can do with 900-1,000 hours of extra room in the service-hours budget. But then you end up putting together a route that’s by definition weak and slow (since it’s unlikely to get bus lanes). Those 50 or however many daily revenue-hours can be spent better elsewhere. In Vancouver these infrequent circulators only pencil because by union agreements they’re driven by lower-paid junior drivers; in New York this is out of the question.

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  4. Untangled

    Talking about connections to Queens, I would think some routes between areas of higher density in Queens and Brooklyn via freeways would be warranted. Subway connection between the 2 boroughs are poor and buses aren’t much help when they only stick to surface roads. Brooklyn doesn’t have a good freeway network but Queens does and you could use those freeways to deliver faster buses from Brooklyn to Queens. Basically, they’ll travel locally within Brooklyn and then run express on a freeway to one of Queen’s dense areas. Since Queen’s isn’t uniformly dense, you don’t need to worry as much about skipping large areas like in Brooklyn so you can get away with focusing on dense areas, something freeway running forces you to do. You can’t charge express fares otherwise it won’t work but S79 gives you an idea of how it might look.

    • Alon Levy

      Hmmm. The B15 sort of does this with JFK. The problem is that it doesn’t work thaaaaaat well for the top job centers in Queens. Long Island City is next to Brooklyn and easy to serve on the surface (and also on the G, if the G didn’t suck). Jamaica has not-terrible subway connections from Brooklyn. Flushing could be connected, sure, but I don’t think there’s anywhere in Brooklyn with especially strong demand to Flushing specifically except Sunset Park, where there are already private Chinatown buses.

      The bigger problem with all of this is that freeway buses only really work if you’re traveling long distances by bus, which is really expensive to provide. The S79 doesn’t have amazing ridership per hour by non-SI standards but it still holds up, through running mostly on the surface and only using a short freeway segment across the bridge.

      • Untangled

        It doesn’t need to be just Flushing or places already connected to the subway. Forest Hills or Jackson Heights could work too. A service from Jamaica to parts of Brooklyn not served by the subway may work too. I don’t know the exact numbers of it’s worth pondering and if Chinatown buses can do it while making money, it might be worthwhile for the MTA.

        • Alon Levy

          The problem is that Jackson Heights has 18,000 jobs and Forest Hills (interpreted broadly to include the entire Queens Boulevard corridor from the LIE to Union Turnpike) has 25,000. They’re not so compelling destinations that it’s worth running low-turnover buses to them. Flushing is bigger and has that special ethnic tie to Sunset Park.

  5. LG

    Bus stop consolidation should be implemented regardless of route redesign, because the two aren’t dependent on one another to deliver performance gains. But it makes more sense to discuss stop consolidation in terms of time saved rather than distance when presenting it to riders. Bus riders don’t measure their trips in feet; they measure it in minutes. Eliminating 50% of bus stops will require an average rider to walk at most an additional 3 minutes, because stop spacing increases by about 800 feet and the average walk speed is about 260 feet per minute. 800 feet is a big number; 3 minutes is a very small amount of time. Walking an extra 3 minutes to a sheltered bus stop whose bus runs 5 minutes faster and comes twice as often will probably look to most like a good deal.

    Route changes seem good, but it may depend too much on the MTA reliably delivering on-time bus service with even headways where you’re changing single-transfer routes to two-transfer routes. For example, B82 riders currently have a direct connection to the D train and the B1 at 86th Street and Bay Parkway, and that B82 stop has between 20 and 40 riders waiting during rush hour for the bus in my experience. The proposed plan requires riders to take the B6 to transfer from the B82 to the D train and the B1. The B82 had 8 minute nominal headways or better during much of the day before the addition of SBS, but its actual headways varied between 0 and 20 minutes; it was common to see 3 B82 buses back to back, followed by a 20-minute gap, and had been for at least 20 years. The B6 was no better. Consequently, adding a transfer in this case increases trip time by 20 minutes rather than by 3 minutes, because the average bus rider will get fired if she is late for work 10% of the time and so must pad her schedule to account for the real bus schedule rather than the one the MTA claims to deliver.

      • LG

        From what I recall, the D transfer stop at 86th has higher passenger volume than the N transfer stop at W7th. Both are high-volume stops. But I can’t say whether passengers are coming from the D and the B1 or whether that area has more people who find the B82 useful. Might people-watch that corner sometime. The MTA should be tracking passenger boarding data. But if they do, I can’t find it online and, currently am not willing to spend the next three months waiting for a “no records found” response.

      • LG

        Suppose I should also clarify, just in case, that I don’t see any problem with your suggested re-routing of the B82. Some passengers will lose the same-stop D/B1 transfer, but others will gain useful bus service on 75th Street for twenty long blocks west of Bay Parkway.

        • Alon Levy

          Ooh, thanks.

          One more question: do you have a sense for whether the passengers transferring B82/B1 are transferring to the eastbound or westbound B1?

  6. chywang

    Where did you find current service-hour data for each line?

    Also, Nostrand Av and Marcus Garvey Blvd in northern Brooklyn are one-way. Does your plan involve making them two-way? Otherwise how does transfer work when you have one-way avenues (i.e. do the east-west bound lines stop at every one-way avenue with a bus)?

    • Alon Levy

      I added up the scheduled trip times to get revenue-hours. I sanity-checked the numbers against a roster that was leaked to me with every NYCT Brooklyn bus’s scheduled pay hours.

      And yes, the plan involves making Nostrand and Garvey two-way, for the reason you mention re transfers to east-west routes.

  7. Victor Mc

    Ultimately what does your redesign mean for the B103. My kids take the one that travels Downtown Brooklyn to school daily and they are frequently late for school because it’s either the bus does not come as scheduled, or several just passes the without stopping. When compared to other bus lines, there seem to be much fewer of the B103 buses. Feeling helpless should not be an option. Can you fix this problem by adding more busses to this line.

    • Alon Levy

      Is it really faster to take the B103 to Downtown Brooklyn than to take the B17 and transfer to the 4 (or 3)?

      Anyway, what this plan does (even as it dismembers the B103) is make the buses around 35% faster, a lot more frequent all day, and more regular, so the bunching problem should not be so acute.

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