MTA Pushes de Blasio for More Bus Lanes to Smooth Reopening Commutes

(This story was originally published on June 4th, 2020, by THE CITY.)

Post-pandemic London will limit some streets to buses, cyclists and pedestrians.

In San Francisco, the head of the local Municipal Transportation Authority has spoken of using emergency federal funding to quickly build more lanes reserved for buses and taxis.

And in Boston, there is talk of adding bus-only lanes and increasing stop sizes to allow for more social distancing among riders.

As New York gets set to start “reopening” on Monday, expanding the ranks of “essential” workers in the construction, manufacturing, retail and wholesale industries, the MTA is pushing City Hall to speed its rollout of 60 additional miles of bus-only lanes in all five boroughs.

That would boost bus lanes on city streets to more than 200 miles. But the de Blasio administration isn’t hitting the gas just yet.

Seeking a ‘Robust’ System

In a letter sent Thursday to Mayor Bill de Blasio, the interim president of New York City Transit wrote that a “robust bus system” is crucial for those heading back to work — and more dedicated lanes are urgently needed.

“We are all in agreement that New York and its world-class transit system will not only survive this unprecedented worldwide pandemic, but the rebound will make us smarter, better and more efficient,” NYCT chief Sarah Feinberg wrote. “Creating more dedicated bus lanes is one way to make that happen.”

Sarah Feinberg speaks at the Fulton Transit Center about her appointment as interim New York City Transit president.
Sarah Feinberg, interim president of New York City Transit
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

As part of larger coronavirus-driven budget cuts, City Hall has proposed chopping nearly $8 million in funding over the next two years from a 2019 plan to increase bus speeds by adding more exclusive lanes.

“The city needs to go in the opposite direction,” said Danny Pearlstein of Riders Alliance, an advocacy group. “The bus has been such a workhorse through this crisis.”

A City Hall spokesperson said the MTA needs to commit to boosting bus service.

“There’s no recovery without a safe, reliable and fast bus system,” said the spokesperson, Mitch Schwartz. “We’ve discussed bus lane expansion with the MTA, and we look forward to their commitment to increased service on bus lanes the city creates.”

The latest push for bus lanes comes as de Blasio and the MTA are at odds over how to deal with social distancing on city subways beginning Monday.

A Shift to Buses

Officials are worried that riders will stay away from the subway — and that more private and for-hire vehicles will clog city streets.

“It’s been obvious for a long time that we need to plan for a shift from subways to buses, and that busways are the fastest way to add some capacity to the transit system,” said Ben Fried of TransitCenter, an advocacy organization. “City Hall in New York should be out ahead of City Hall in Boston on this.”

Daily bus ridership during the pandemic bottomed out at fewer than 400,000 in April, but has climbed back to 715,000 as of Tuesday, according to Feinberg’s letter. In February, ridership was at 1.7 million on weekdays.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, I was often the only person on the bus,” said Kit Jelonek, 28, of Manhattan, who was taking the Bx7 to her job in The Bronx on Thursday. “But I’ve seen more people taking the bus and I expect a lot will keep riding.”

Transit sources told THE CITY that the MTA has been privately lobbying de Blasio for more bus lanes during the pandemic. Even before the coronavirus crisis, the MTA had been asking for buses to get traffic signal priority for smoother sailing.

Four of the city’s five borough presidents last week joined transit advocates to call for the addition of 40 miles of bus-only lanes to be put on the fast track.

‘Playing Catch-up’

Feinberg’s letter identifies three “priority corridors” for new or expanded bus lanes.

  • The Bronx: East 149th Street; Tremont Avenue; Fordham Road; University Avenue; Edward L. Grant Highway
  • Brooklyn: Flatbush Avenue, between Avenue H and Empire Boulevard
  • Staten Island: Bay Street, between the St. George Ferry Terminal and Canal Street; Richmond Terrace, between the ferry terminal and Jersey Street.

It also cites three priority locations for so-called busways, which are limited to bus traffic much of the day:

  • Manhattan: 181st Street, between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue
  • Queens: Main Street, between Kissena and Northern boulevards; Archer Avenue, between 146th and 168th streets
  • Brooklyn: Livingston Street, between Court Street and Flatbush Avenue.

“More bus lanes would help,” said Kim Cunningham-Jones, 61, a Manhattan hospital worker who commutes daily on the M1 bus to 138th Street. “More people are going to feel more comfortable on a bus than on a train.”

Fried said the success of bus-only restrictions along much of 14th Street in Manhattan should serve as a guide for city officials. The MTA said ridership and travel times along 14th Street have improved significantly since the new system started last year.

“New York is playing catch-up,” Fried said. “But we can catch up if the mayor decides he wants to.”

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