Phased Implementation of Bus Redesign

Jarrett has a good post about the new Auckland bus redesign, which he had been involved in when he worked for international consultancy MRCagney, before he opened his own. He mentions one peculiar aspect of Auckland – namely, that it is so divided by water boundaries that different areas of it have independent surface transit networks – that facilitates gradual implementation. In contrast, in a city with a more connected street network, every route affects every other route, so redesign has to be implemented together, without any intermediate phases. He brings up Brooklyn (together with Queens) as one example of such a connected network, and I feel like I need to explain why a phased approach is appropriate there.

But this is not just about Brooklyn. The question of whether to implement changes abruptly or gradually generalizes to every scale, up to and including the type of regime (democratic, militaristic, communist, etc.). The scope of this post concerns bus networks anywhere. The arguments I bring up in favor of a phased approach in Brooklyn should also give correct answers in other cities, regardless of whether they end up recommending gradualism.

Sharp edges

Jarrett brings up one factor influencing whether phased implementation is appropriate: sharp edges between different parts of the city. In New York, the East River has few road crossings and many rail crossings; only one local bus crosses it in Brooklyn, the half-hourly B39, and only four cross it in Queens.

But even edges that look less sharp than the East River or the Hudson can be so stark so as to permit separate planning on their two sides. The Harlem River is one example: many Bronx buses cross it, but their routes in Manhattan are constrained based on which avenue or street the bridge connects to, so there’s not much scope for creative recombination.

Brooklyn itself has few internal sharp edges. The closest thing to a sharp edge is the combination of Greenwood Cemetery and Prospect Park, separating on one side Park Slope and South Brooklyn and on the other side Flatbush and Southern Brooklyn. A few marginal neighborhoods are sharply divided from the rest of the borough, especially Red Hook. But for those neighborhoods, the question of where in the rest of the borough they should connect to depends on the shape of the rest of the system.

That said, it’s plausible to talk about how the new network would look in various neighborhoods, if there are choke points or generally agreed upon spines. Red Hook is an especially good example, since it has a strong connection to Manhattan via the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel (hence, our proposed tunnel bus to Lower Manhattan). But as the arguments in comments here over Williamsburg show (and as my constant refrain about the north-south Bed-Stuy routes shows), it’s possible to discuss individual neighborhoods even if they’re more strongly connected, as long as it’s clear that it’s in the context of a greater network.

However, in one aspect, Jarrett and the MTA make a mistake: they treat the edge between Brooklyn and Queens as less sharp than it really is. In the north, the Newtown Creek choke point forces buses to all go up to Long Island City along a single bridge. In the center, a few route mergers passing through Bushwick and Ridgewood (especially the B54/Q55 on Myrtle) are reasonable, but fully integrated planning would not create very many connections. It’s possible to design the network for Brooklyn alone and then notate where Queens connections would happen, just as it’s possible to design a Manhattan network and point out that the M60 goes into Queens.

The subtle issue regarding Brooklyn and Queens concerns what happens in the south. At TransitCenter we were asked about connections to Howard Beach, but when I looked, I ran across a subtle geographic divide. The southeastern margin of Brooklyn and Queens is a series of small peninsulas with weak connections between them: Gerritsen Beach, Mill Basin, Bergen Beach, Canarsie, Starrett City, Spring Creek, Howard Beach, Old Howard Beach. When I crayoned a metro network for Lagos, which has the same problem in the west and northwest, I had to assume new metro bridges connecting various neighborhoods. On a surface transit network in a developed country, such bridges are unlikely to happen, forcing buses to use the main through-routes today, like Flatlands and Linden.

Is it good enough today?

The entire reform versus revolution discourse depends on how bad things are today. It’s unavoidable in discussions of socialism and Marxism. Socialists and even some social democrats hold that mid-20th century social reforms (like the New Deal) saved capitalism from itself, by making the working class’s situation less desperate. As a result, there is a contingent of leftists who call themselves accelerationists, who prefer to make things as bad as they can be (for example, by refusing to back the center-left against the far right) hoping that this would accelerate the revolution.

The “is it good enough today?” principle scales down to any level. When it comes to bus networks, it really asks, how much would the optimal route network differ from today’s situation?

The highly radial buses of San Jose today, Houston before Jarrett’s redesign, and Barcelona before Nova Xarxa all differ greatly from the redesigned networks. This encourages abrupt implementation, in two ways. First, the old routes are generally weak, increasing the pressure to get rid of them. And second, the old routes don’t feed the new grid trunk lines well, whereas the grid trunks feed one another. Nova Xarxa (which is a six-year process, retaining many old lines) has seen its phase 1 lines grow in ridership as each subsequent phase was implemented, making the early stages much less useful than the entire system.

In contrast, Brooklyn is firmly in the good enough basket. This does not mean its current network design is objectively good; it isn’t. But it does mean that most of its key trunk lines should survive redesign with at most light modifications. Among the 15 busiest Brooklyn routes today measured by ridership per km, only three see big changes: the B1 (straightened into a Southern Brooklyn grid), the B82 (cut to Kings Highway, its tails on both sides given to the B6), and the B41 (cut north of the B/Q subway connection at Parkside). A few more are merged into longer routes, like the B42 and the B60, but maintain their current route, just with through-service elsewhere. Key grid routes like Lafayette, Church, Nostrand, Avenue M, and Myrtle survive almost unchanged.

The Brooklyn redesign is not predominantly about starting from scratch, since the network today already has the characteristics of an imperfect grid. It’s about consolidating weak and weak-ish routes, straightening some buses that are too circuitous, and switching around buses to serve destinations that have grown stronger since the 1970s redesign. The East New York network in particular has a lot of meanders that should be fixed regardless of what happens anywhere else; the rest of the bus and subway network is good enough that people from East New York can then transfer to it even if increasing trunk frequency happens later.

Future changes

Bus redesigns are not immutable, to be done once in a few decades with long periods of stasis in between. Cities change, and the optimal bus network for 2025 may be different from that for 2019 in some situations. In a city where there’s relative stasis in development intensity, traffic, and any rail trunk, an abrupt change makes more sense. Realistically, such a change would come not when the first phase of a gradual implementation would have been done but when the middle or last phases would have. Thus, if the redesign is a long-lasting product it’s easier to wait for the first phase (which in an abrupt implementation is also the last phase) and not change much afterward.

This relates to California Transit Twitter’s biggest criticism of Jarrett’s San Jose redesign: that it does not incorporate the recent BART extension to Warm Springs. Jarrett unveiled his redesign for VTA in the spring of 2017, expecting BART to be extended from Warm Springs to the San Jose Flea Market at Berryessa by the end of the year, as BART had projected. Based on this expectation, he designed the network around an abrupt implementation, to go into effect shortly after trains would start running to Berryessa. Since then, BART has announced delays to the extension, talking about opening it only at the end of 2019. Trusting BART’s early promises of 2017 opening is an understandable error; Jarrett did not cause the BART timetable slip. But the outcome is that the VTA bus redesign is delayed.

The upshot is that in a city with a rapidly-growing rapid transit network, bus redesigns should be done on a continuous basis, tweaked every time a new subway line opens. The Bay Area is not generally such a city, but BART is expanding into San Jose, so in that part of the region, phased implementation with updates every few years is warranted. By the same principle, a city with rapid changes in where people live and work should expect recurrent changes to its surface transit network; this is less relevant to San Jose, since the growth nodes are the CBD (e.g. the upcoming Google building) and the Apple headquarters in Cupertino, but it’s relevant to cities in which residential areas are commercializing, such as San Francisco with SoMa.

New York, of course, has a static subway system, courtesy of extreme construction costs. It also has a relatively static workplace geography. However, in one respect, it is undergoing rapid change: it is gradually making its subway network accessible. When I say that the optimal networks for 2018, 2022, and 2026 are all different, I say this in reference to upcoming subway accessibility upgrades, as well as potential changes (i.e. de-interlining) that would increase subway frequency at the cost of one-seat rides. In Brooklyn, our plan to get rid of the B25 depends on upcoming accessibility upgrades for Broadway Junction, without which the bus should probably stay as an accessible alternative to the A and C trains. Likewise, our plan to retain the B63 comes from plans to only make the outermost R stations accessible but not the ones in Sunset Park or South Slope.

What about Nova Xarxa?

On two out of three metrics, Barcelona’s layout recommends an abrupt approach: it lacks internal sharp edges, and its preexisting network was too radial to be useful. On the third, it does not: it is rapidly expanding its metro network; however, the implementation of Nova Xarxa as far as I can tell has not been timed for the opening of L9/L10. So why is it phased there?

The fact that the early-phase lines of the network have seen further increases in ridership as the rest of the network has come online suggests that, on purely technical criteria, gradual implementation was not the right choice in Barcelona. However, in political reality, Nova Xarxa could not replace the entire radial network. Most bus routes in Barcelona today are still not Nova Xarxa. The system’s characteristic as an overlay that took over old lines that became superfluous forced it to be done in phases.

Conflicting excuses

In comments, people here have warned that a phased implementation can be an excuse to do nothing: put the few things everyone agrees on in the first phase, do that, and then postpone future phases indefinitely. This is a real risk. However, abrupt change has its own risks as well: it can be used as an excuse not to do low-cost or negative-cost things that can be implemented fast, such as merging the two Myrtle routes, redoing the East New York bus network in advance of the L train shutdown, and opening the Red Hook-Lower Manhattan route.

The upshot is that the question of gradualism seems independent from the question of obstructive bureaucrats and apparatchiks. There may well arise a local situation in which one answer to the main question is less vulnerable to political sabotage than the other, but it depends on idiosyncratic factors and is unlikely to be the case in general.

With the political criteria uncertain, the answer to whether network redesign should be done in one go or in stages should depend only on technical criteria. These differ from city to city and from region to region depending on local physical and urban geography. In New York, they suggest a phased implementation would work; elsewhere, they may not.

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