Tenth story in an occasional series on the greening of New York City. Click here to view the series.
NEW YORK -- The city's much-maligned bus system is getting a face-lift.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) surprised commuters on Manhattan's East Side last fall by launching shiny stretch coaches to replace old grimy buses on the route that links the island's southern tip to East Harlem. The new buses cruise 90 percent of the route in a new "bus only" lane marked by signs warning motorists that they face $115 fines for parking or driving in the path.
The M15 Select Bus Service (SBS) is New York City's version of "bus rapid transit," a Latin American innovation that's being copied around the world. The Manhattan route runs along 1st and 2nd avenues and was first seen as a stopgap measure until a new subway line could be completed, but the city's Department of Transportation says the service is likely here to stay.
As with bus rapid transit in Curitiba, Brazil, and Bogota, Colombia, New York's Select Bus requires passengers to pay prior to boarding to speed up the trip. With ticket in hand, riders can board through any door, instead of all lining up single file at the front to pay their fare one by one.
The buses themselves resemble light-rail trains, and they move in their own lanes. Federal grants are helping to pay for the improvements, even after MTA budget woes forced the agency to cut dozens of regular bus routes early last year.
Despite fits and starts, New Yorkers seem to be quickly taking to the new concept. Though no studies have been undertaken yet to see how things have improved on the M15 route, anecdotally, riders estimate the trip to be at least 50 percent faster than before.
"It's a lot faster," said Daniel Hernandez, a Brooklyn resident who rides the bus to work daily in Midtown Manhattan. "The best part is you can board through the back door. That speeds things up a lot."
Indeed, northbound traveling from the South Street Seaport to 42nd Street took a reporter less than 20 minutes to travel more than 50 blocks, a time comparable to a trip on a subway train that stops at every station. Southbound from Harlem, the trip gets disrupted by the 2nd Avenue subway construction but can still cover 125th Street to the Chrysler Building in about the same amount of time.
The system isn't perfect. There are no big stations, the bus lanes aren't physically separated from other streets, and the buses can get stuck at red lights. Bus-transit proponents envision systems that work much like above-ground subway networks, but SBS buses occasionally intermingle with traffic, and passenger vehicles are allowed to use the lanes for right turns.
But activists who pressure the city's DOT to improve transit say the system is ahead of what bus riders must endure on other routes. They're eager to expand SBS throughout the city.
"I don't think you'll ever see something like what exists in Bogota just because of the physical infrastructure constraints in New York City," said Elena Conte, an official at the nonprofit Pratt Center for Community Development.
"But the thing is, that's perfectly fine, because right now, bus service in New York City is so atrociously slow that if you even see improvements on a fraction of the level of what's possible with full-fledged bus rapid transit, you're talking major improvements in people's lives."
New York's testing of bus rapid transit began in 2008 in the Bronx, where DOT and MTA jointly implemented a system for the Bx12 bus along Fordham Road and Pelham Parkway.
The east-west route has since become one of New York's most heavily used. The Straphangers Campaign, a division of the nonprofit New York Public Interest Research Group that advocates for public transit riders, surveyed the route this summer and found that it now runs 25 percent faster than the old express service.
"It has really, really done a great job for east-west commutes in the Bronx," said Cate Contino, a campaign coordinator. "Ridership on that has skyrocketed. It's now in like the top five or 10 for the city."
Contino said her organization plans to conduct a similar survey of the newest M15 Select Bus Service this month. She expects similar results.
The M15 on the east side of Manhattan is the second extension to the system and now the longest, stretching about 9 miles. Before SBS was implemented there, the Straphangers Campaign estimated that both the local and express M15 buses serviced about 50,000 people per day.
The rollout wasn't smooth. Confusion over how to pay quickly set in, and the local press railed against reports of drivers doling out $100 fines to passengers who failed to pay before boarding. Rush hour traffic also overwhelmed some parts of the line -- complaints poured in that the 14th Street stop didn't have enough pay kiosks and sometimes ran out of the paper needed to print proofs of purchase.
The bus lanes themselves weren't respected when first introduced. Drivers and even the New York Police Department routinely flouted the rules and parked their vehicles in the lanes.
And the systems still sometimes have to share space with street traffic, a further limitation. The bus-only rule is only enforced during rush hour on some stretches, and the buses still occasionally find themselves vying with trucks making deliveries for the space.
"It's kind of like 'bus rapid transit light,'" Contino admitted. "It has a variety of beneficial features, but it's not what a planner would think of when you say bus rapid transit, with a physically separated right of way, iconic stations, prescribed waiting areas."
But growing pains seem to be easing. Regular passengers have become familiar with the pay-before-you-board system, and even praise it, recalling how long it often took the bus to get moving when passengers had to pay their fares at boarding.
The city also recently installed a camera system on the Bronx and Manhattan SBS routes to stiffen enforcement. DOT officials declined multiple requests for interviews, but their press office said in an e-mail that, although they don't have figures to gauge compliance, they nevertheless feel that the cameras will have the intended effect.
But it's the cost advantage that really hits home.
Officials estimate that modern metropolitan areas spend on average $1 billion per mile to build a new subway line. A full-blown, Bogota-style bus rapid transit system is estimated to be roughly a thousand times cheaper -- just $1 million per mile.
Expansion of "bus rapid transit light" throughout New York City is now under way.
DOT plans to roll out a new line in Brooklyn, along the B44 route from Sheepshead Bay to Williamsburg.
Up next is likely a line along 34th Street in Manhattan that would cross the island east to west along that notoriously difficult thoroughfare. The city has considered plans to cut the middle portion off to passenger vehicles entirely to speed up the route for buses. Now Contino says there's talk that the entire route could become the first full-blown bus rapid transit route, with all curbside parking eliminated in favor of buses and stations.
Even Staten Island will likely be included. In that borough, DOT is already experimenting with technology that allows regular bus drivers to order a red light to turn green as it approaches, speeding up travel times to the Staten Island Ferry port. Officials are considering expanding this "signal prioritization technology" to the SBS routes in Manhattan and the Bronx and to any new routes added later.
Officials are also eying Queens for opportunities there. A recent DOT study of the feasibility of spreading bus rapid transit throughout the city concluded that the five boroughs could all benefit from such systems in at least eight to 10 heavily congested traffic corridors in each borough.
That suggests up to 50 new lines could be added to the nascent system in the years to come. Both the Pratt Center and Straphangers Campaign say their experience with the two lines put in so far tells them this is a good way for the city to go. DOT reports suggest the city is already moving forward on 16 of the most promising routes.
"We want a transportation network that gives access to everyone, where driving truly is an option and a last resort," Contino said. "The city is only going to get more crowded and more congested, and improving these mass modalities is going to help riders in the long run."