Dedicated Bus Corridors Could Help Get New York Moving Again

As we speak, New York's train system is starting to come back online, with new updates by the minute. The MTA is doing a commendable job at restoring service quickly and communicating the news. It is not yet clear, however, when full train service will resume. Meanwhile traffic is high as more people are forced to drive. The bus system is playing a central role, but it is threatened by traffic on the streets and crowding in the buses. Here is a proposal that could help with both: dedicated bus corridors.

Here's how it would work. First, a new bus corridor system map would be created and released to the public. To the extent possible, the map should mirror pre-Sandy transit routes so that riders are familiar with the new system. The map should also favor the most heavily traveled routes. Routes covered by soon-to-resume train service could be excluded. All roads on the map would be dedicated for use only by buses, emergency vehicles and select delivery vehicles. The buses could be from any bus company, public or private, as long as they carry a large enough number of passengers. The system would remain in effect until the train system resumes service, or longer as desired.

A bus corridor system has two major advantages. First, it would move people as fast as is possible without the full train system. Buses have a higher throughput than cars because they fit people closer together on the road. It's like a high-powered fire hydrant compared to a little home garden sprinkler. Dedicated corridors would move buses even faster by keeping buses out of traffic and making buses more popular relative to cars. And by moving buses faster, each bus can run its routes faster. That means more bus service and less on-bus crowding without acquiring any new buses.

Second, the system can be implemented right now. We don't need to wait for train repairs or other new infrastructure. The system can even be designed to mimic pre-Sandy transit system routes, so that riders don't have to learn a whole new system. This will bring transit as close to normal as is currently possible.

New York already has something similar in its four Select Bus Service lines. Until the trains resume, these buses are the best transit in town. But they benefit from special lane markings and pre-boarding fare payment mechanisms. These features can be extended throughout the system, but not overnight. Meanwhile, rapid transit is needed.

The closest precedent in New York is the 2010 proposal for dedicated bus lanes on half of the lanes of 34th Street. This proposal remains a good idea, both for 34th Street and for other clogged roads across the city. A temporary dedicated bus corridor system for the post-Sandy recovery would provide New York with valuable experience to help make future decisions on permanent bus corridors.

Worldwide, there are precedents for entire transit systems based on dedicated bus corridors. The most prominent example comes from the city of Curitiba in southern Brazil. The city of Curitiba was designed around bus corridors, with remarkable success. It has achieved a first-rate transit system at a fraction of the cost of subways. Other cities have implemented bus rapid transit with varying degrees of success. A crucial factor is whether the buses have their own dedicated corridor to keep them out of traffic.

The need to improve the bus system harkens back to debates over congestion pricing. Congestion pricing would have reduced the number of cars on the road, making buses run faster -- exactly what the city needs right now. Unfortunately New York did not pass congestion pricing when it had the chance in 2008. The lessons of Sandy should be remembered the next time congestion pricing comes up for debate.

One disadvantage of congestion pricing is that it hurts those who can't afford to pay the price. In contrast, dedicated bus corridors wouldn't cost drivers more money, though they would mean that drivers would face more traffic on the other roads. This is the biggest downside to bus corridors. But with the transit system in immediate crisis, what's most important is to get people moving rapidly. A dedicated bus corridor system may be the best way to achieve this.

Ultimately, the merits of a dedicated bus corridor system depend on how fast train service will resume. I am not privy to any special information about this, but presumably the MTA is, along with the city and state governments. They're the ones who must make the call on this. For the sake of New York, let's hope they make the right call.