The Brooklyn Bus Redesign is Out!

Marron just published my and Eric Goldwyn’s Brooklyn bus redesign proposal (with many thanks to Juliet Eldred for doing the graphics and design). The substance isn’t really changed from what we discussed last year. The delay in publication has had a few causes, of which I believe the biggest is that I completely missed that the links to many of the references in the lit review were dead and thus could not be typeset.

Instead of retyping an old blog post, I want to emphasize a few things that have come up in the last year. Some are specific to New York, others more general within the US. The idea of a bus redesign, introduced to the American discourse by Jarrett at the beginning of this decade, has gotten steadily more popular, and New York is beginning its own process, starting with the Bronx; in that context, it’s worthwhile pointing out specifics that Eric and I have learned from the Brooklyn process.

The redesign is a process, not a one-and-done program

Cities change. The point of a bus redesign is to let the bus network reflect the city of today and not that of when bus routes were set, typically when the streetcars were removed in the postwar era. The upshot is that the city can expect to change in the future, which means further bus redesigns may be necessary.

Instead of letting bus networks drift away from serving the city as is and doing a big redesign once in a generation, cities should change buses on an ongoing basis. American transit agencies are learning the principles of bus redesign this decade. They can and should use these principles for forward planning, tweaking bus routes as needed. Any of the following changes can trigger small changes in bus service:

  • New development
  • Shifts in commuting patterns even without new development
  • Changes in traffic patterns
  • Changes in the urban rail network
  • Long-term changes in driver labor, maintenance, etc.
  • Changes in bus technology, such as ride quality, dispatching, or pollution levels

In New York, the biggest ongoing change is probably the urban rail network. There are no subway extensions planned for Brooklyn, but there is expansion of subway accessibility, which changes the optimal bus network since some buses, like the B25 and B63, have no reason to exist if the subway lines they parallel are made accessible. There has been extensive activism about priorities here. To its credit, the MTA is accelerating accessibility retrofits, even though construction costs are extremely high.

New York’s current redesign process is flawed

Eric and I have heard negative feedback from various people involved in the process. Some are planners. One is a community activist, enough of a railfan and busfan not to NIMBY changes for the sake of NIMBYism, but nonetheless disaffected with how the Bronx redesign went.

As far as I can tell, the problem with the current process is that it’s too timid. In the Bronx, this timidity is understandable. The borough’s bus network is mostly good enough. The most important change in the Bronx is to speed up the buses through off-board fare collection, stop consolidation, bus lanes on main streets, and conditional signal priority, and plug the extra speed into higher frequency.

The MTA treats it as part of a separate process – select bus service (“SBS”) – and even though planning these two aspects separately is workable, the MTA does not understand that they are related and that speedups provide crucial resources for higher frequency. The problem here is with operating cost estimation. Like the other American agencies where I’ve asked, the MTA assumes bus costs scale with service-km, and thus higher speeds don’t change frequency. In reality, bus costs, dominated by driver wages, scale with service-hours. Higher speeds can be plugged one-to-one into higher frequency. In Brooklyn, only 30% of the benefits we estimate come from changing the network, and the other 70% come from speeding up the buses.

But Brooklyn is not the Bronx. The Bronx is largely good enough, in ways Brooklyn isn’t. Brooklyn is not terrible, but the bus network has too many circuitous or duplicative routes. Eric and I have consolidated about 530 km of bus route down to 350, without any of the coverage vs. ridership tradeoffs common to areas with less isotropic population density than Brooklyn. The MTA needs to be bolder in Brooklyn, and even bolder than that in Queens, if the redesign is to succeed.

The 14th Street bus lane

Eric and I encountered some political resistance to the idea of mass installation of bus lanes. Local interests listen to people with local connections, who are usually drivers. Transit riders are disproportionately riding to city center jobs, and have citywide rather than local political identities. When I went to an Open New York meeting, people began with a round of introductions in which people say their names and where they live, and the about 20 attendees represented maybe 15 different city neighborhoods. The upshot is that like Open New York’s mission of building more housing, the mission of diverting scarce street space from drivers to bus riders is best done on a citywide rather than street-by-street basis.

There is some hope of such a transformation happening. The bus lane on 14th Street survived a nuisance lawsuit, and ridership rose 17% almost immediately after it opened. The success is stark enough that a citywide increase in installation is plausible. City council speaker Corey Johnson promised to install 48 km of bus lane per year were he to be elected mayor, which is too passive but could do some good on the busiest routes.

10 comments

  1. Stephen Bauman

    The bus lane on 14th Street survived a nuisance lawsuit, and ridership rose 17% almost immediately after it opened.

    The implied, increased ridership due solely to faster service is vastly inflated.

    Here’s the problem with quoting Streetsblog statistics without looking at the source.

    First, here’s the source for that quote:
    http://www.mta.info/press-release/nyc-transit/select-bus-service-improvements-new-14th-street-busway-increase-m14-bus

    You will note that the 17% gain was a comparison between the first two weeks of October 2019 and September 2018. The comparison between the first two weeks of October 2019 and September 2019 shows only a 3% increase.

    The L-Train shutdown began in April 2019. Any 14th st bus use comparison that bridges this date also includes increased M14 use because of the L-Train shutdown. Weekday service along 14th Street was suspended between 8pm and 5am and all day on weekends.

    There was a September 2018 to September 2019 comparison that shows a 15% increase. Let’s assume this increase was due to the L-Train shutdown. That 15% can be used to adjust the Sept 2018 to Oct 2019 comparison to isolate the effect due solely to the decreased travel times introduced in Oct 2019. That comes to 2%. N.B. the difference between this calculation and the previous calculation’s 3% is due to rounding errors.

    Seasonal adjustments between September and October, within the same year have not been considered. Here is later MTA press release that can be used to include this factor.

    http://www.mta.info/press-release/nyc-transit/mta-deploys-first-all-electric-articulated-bus-fleet-14th-street-busway

    It shows that Sept 2018 to Oct 2018 weekday peak period M14 ridership increased approximately 3%. This seasonal adjustment reduces the ridership increase that can be attributed solely to increased bus speed.

  2. Ross Bleakney

    The redesign is a process, not a one-and-done program

    Yes! Absolutely. Cities change, and what’s more, some parts of a redesign are bound to fail. I think a city should redesign on a regular basis. Experiment to a certain extent, and see what works best. Of course there are some bus routes that just make obvious sense, and shouldn’t be altered in the least, but even minor changes should be considered. In the past, making changes was especially difficult, as you had to print new routes, and get the word out. But now, you could restructure every year and people would be OK. The key is that people need to know that a change is coming, which is why I think restructuring on a regular basis (every two years, every four years, etc.) would make a lot of sense.

    • Eric

      It’s not that simple. Old people, in particular, find it very difficult to adapt to a constantly changing transit system. Thus changes should happen as infrequently as possible (while still addressing serious needs when they arise).

      • Matthew Hutton

        But that isn’t agile. And massive changes every 5 years are harder to remember than small frequent insignificant ones.

        • Eric

          Oh no, the buzzword brigade has arrived. As a computer and smartphone user, you “agile programming” fanatics make my life miserable.

          • Matthew Hutton

            You don’t need to redo the schedules weekly or biweekly, annually would probably be a good compromise – and much better than generationally.

          • Nathanael

            I’d say that the impermanence of bus routes is why developers will build densities around streetcar tracks and subway stations, and not around bus lines if they can help it.

            So there’s something to be said for bus reorganization, *if you have a core rail network which you build out*

  3. Nathanael

    Red and Blue are swapped on your map ! The map itself has red as the highest frequency, but the key and the table have it as the lowest frequency!

    You might want to fix this and publish a second edition — it’s confusing!

  4. jonsalmans

    Alon, great article and awesome work. Do you have data on how much it costs to install signal priority per intersection, and how much time is saved per intersection?

    I am working on a blog post advocating signal priority for buses in Pittsburgh and it would be helpful to have better information on this topic. Thanks!

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