Better Buses

Better Buses, Commentary, Queens

While the #7 train is down – run a Midtown Tunnel bus!

Yesterday I wrote about the need to shut down the #7 line through the Steinway Tunnels between Queensboro Plaza and Times Square for eleven weekends from January to April, and for five weekends in the fall, as articulated by the MTA staff who attended a Town Hall organized by City Council member Jimmy Van Bramer.  The MTA convinced me: they showed how the emergency weekend shutdowns allowed them to improve reliability on the line, and made an argument that Communications Based Train Control (CBTC) will improve train frequency and reliability.

Okay, so what do we do in the meantime?  For years, every time they have to shut down the Steinway Tunnels, the MTA planners’ response has been the same: run shuttle buses from the bypassed stations to Court Square and Queensboro Plaza.  This turns a ten-minute ride from Vernon-Jackson to Grand Central into a 45-minute odyssey.  There is a better way.

Map: Cap'n Transit. According to Google Maps, these lines are ten minutes from Penn Station.

In 2009, Cap’n Transit observed that according to Google Maps, a car driven from Penn Station through the Queens-Midtown Tunnel could get to Broadway and 21st Street in Astoria, the 39th Avenue station in Astoria, the 46th-Bliss Street station in Sunnyside or the Greenpoint Avenue station in Greenpoint in ten minutes without traffic, or thirty minutes with traffic.  Following a similar suggestion for Red Hook in 2007, he suggested that the MTA run shuttle buses through the tunnel and along 34th Street instead of – or in addition to – up Jackson Avenue to Queensboro Plaza.

Last year I suggested to Jimmy that he ask the MTA.  He did, with support from Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan, Council Speaker Christine Qunn and State Senator Mike Gianaris.  The MTA gave a lame response and that was the end of it.

On Tuesday night, I asked the MTA staff directly for a tunnel bus.  Jimmy again supported my request and offered to contribute city money for it.   I was heartened to hear several other residents echoing my request.  Peter Cafiero, Chief of Operations Planning, said that they had looked at the issue, the bus would get stuck in traffic, and it would cost $50,000 a weekend to run buses through the tunnel every ten minutes.  Their usual solution is to run buses to the nearest station, and that’s what they plan to do this time.

To me this sounds like an excuse to avoid trying something different.  Jimmy (I’m pretty sure it was him, although it might have been one of the other town-hall speakers) said that it was a failure of imagination, which pretty much sums it up.  The planners have no incentive to do anything beyond a shuttle bus, so they’re not going to try and make things any easier for residents.

Here’s why I don’t think the tunnel buses would have to cost so much or get stuck in traffic.  The request that Jimmy made last year was for a bus to Grand Central.  It kinda makes sense to run a bus to Grand Central since that’s the next stop on the #7 train, but to do that they’d have to run four blocks west on 39th Street, three blocks north on Madison Avenue, five blocks east on 42nd Street and six blocks south on Second Avenue, all in mixed traffic.  Yes, that would make them slow and unreliable.

If instead the buses ran west on 34th Street to Penn Station, around the block on 35th Street and back on 34th, they could travel the entire way on exclusive bus lanes.  True, sometimes the lanes are blocked, but they’re a lot quicker than fighting with cars and trucks on Madison Avenue and 42nd Street.  This would allow riders to transfer to the subways at Park Avenue, Herald Square and Penn Station.  Grand Central, Times Square and Bryant Park are a one-stop subway ride or a short walk away.

I hope that Cafiero and his staff will consider 34th Street and not Grand Central as the logical route for the tunnel buses.  If they do, I expect that they will find the buses to be cheaper and more reliable on that route.

Background, Better Buses, Commentary, News

Van Bramer, Nolan, Quinn, Gianaris call for Midtown Tunnel bus

The MTA is doing track work on the #7 line to improve speed and reliability. That’s good. As they have done for previous track work projects, they will be shutting down the line between Queensboro Plaza and Times Square for the next seven weekends. That’s bad.

The N, R and E trains will be running, and people coming from points east will be able to transfer. The MTA usually runs shuttle buses for people to get to and from the three stations in Long Island City with no service. That’s good. But the transfers can add five to ten minutes to a trip. Worse, the shuttle buses don’t go to Manhattan; they stop at Queensboro Plaza, where passengers have to change for the N. For the next several weekends, people who are normally fifteen minutes from Grand Central will spend fifteen minutes on the bus just to get to the N, which doesn’t even go to Grand Central. That’s bad.

What’s especially frustrating for LIC residents is that many of them live only five minutes by car from the Queens Midtown Tunnel. If they could walk through the tunnel, they could get to Manhattan faster than by taking the shuttle bus. Those who own cars can drive into Manhattan if they want to deal with the traffic and the hassle of finding parking. Those who don’t own cars are stuck with the shuttle bus.

Last year, in response to a previous service disruption, Councilmember Eric Gioia held a rally asking the MTA to run buses through the tunnel to Grand Central. Cap’n Transit took that a step further and suggested running the buses on the 34th Street bus lanes to Penn Station, so that travelers could switch to the subway at Penn Station, Herald Square or Park Avenue. He produced maps showing that, according to Google directions, when there is no traffic (as on weekends), buses can get to Penn Station in ten minutes from Ravenswood, Dutch Kills, Sunnyside or Greenpoint. In fifteen minutes they can get to Penn Station from the Triboro Bridge, Jackson Heights, Maspeth, Bushwick or Williamsburg. Of course, if they made stops in between it would take a little longer; the point is that lots of people want to go to Manhattan, and a bus could get them there pretty darn quick.

Bus routes through the tunnel
Map: Cap’n Transit

As far as I know, the MTA never responded to Gioia or to Cap’n Transit. They ran the inconvenient shuttle buses, and that was it. Now they’re planning to do it again. This morning, Gioia’s successor, Jimmy Van Bramer, held another rally asking for a tunnel bus. He was joined by Astoria Assemblymember Mike Gianaris (who has announced that he is running to represent this area in the State Senate next year), Assemblymember Cathy Nolan and Council Chair Christine Quinn.

WNYC’s Brian Zumhagen was actually able to get a response from the MTA. An unnamed spokesman says that “shuttle buses directly to Grand Central would create big traffic tie-ups in Long Island City and on the East Side of Manhattan.” It’s not clear why they would cause any more tie-ups in LIC than the buses to Queens Plaza, or why they would cause any significant tie-ups in weekend traffic. That comment shows that the MTA is looking for reasons not to accommodate riders.

At this point it remains to be seen whether all that star power will have the desired effect. If you care about this issue, I suggest that you contact Jimmy or Cathy and ask how you can help.

Background, Better Buses

The cama suite life

Photo by Craig James
Photo by Craig James
I was chatting with a friend today about long-distance travel. I mentioned how I’ve taken a number of overnight bus, train and ferry trips, and he told me about bus travel in his home country of Argentina. Turns out that there are several classes of bus travel there, and the highest class, “cama suite,” is pretty swanky. (Cama is Spanish for bed.) The overnight buses have seats that fold down completely horizontal, with lots of room (three across), attendants, full meals and “lots of alcohol.”

I went home and researched it, and everything I’ve found confirms Antonio’s account. There are lots of reports from English-speaking travelers in Argentina, complete with photos, like the one by American tourist Craig James, who took the photo of “full cama” service above. Craig’s daughter Caroline was less impressed by the “semi-cama” service on a subsequent leg of their trip.

More details can be found on the websites of the several for-profit bus companies, such as Expreso Alberino. That’s right, several for-profit bus companies: according to the handy Omnilineas website, the popular Buenos Aires-Bariloche route is handled by at least five different companies, with prices ranging from about $60 to $90 US.

I’m seriously wondering about the economic factors that allow companies to profitably run such luxurious bus service, but somehow prevent planes, trains and private cars from taking all the business. And how this fits in with the results of the National Geographic Greendex survey that ranked Argentines as some of the greenest people in the world (PDF), except for the amount of beef they consume.

Could we ever see something like that here in the US? Well, we do have the LimoLiner between New York and Boston. That has seen mixed reviews, but seems to be doing well, having recently added service to Hartford. However, it’s only a five-hour trip (max); as far as I know there’s nothing similar for overnight trips. Maybe someone should try a NYC-Chicago or NYC-Atlanta run?

Background, Better Buses

Oxford, England, Bus Rider’s Paradise?

Buses on Gloucester Green

(Photo from The Oxford and Chilterns Bus Page.)

I’m writing this from a bus. Nothing particularly special about bringing a laptop on a bus, but in this case my laptop has full AC power from an outlet under the window seat. I was hoping to be able to post it via on-bus broadband wifi, but that doesn’t seem to be working. I have been able to pick up wifi signals from nearby buses, however. The bus is new, comfortable and spacious – particularly spacious because I’m sitting near the wheelchair spot.

You may have heard of the Bolt Buses; this is not one of those, but one of its inspirations. I’m in Barton, Oxfordshire, on the Airline bus from Oxford to Heathrow. On the way here I took the train, but I figured I’d try the bus on the way back. The trip takes almost the same amount of time – an hour and a half – but is cheaper: eighteen pounds, or about thirty-six dollars, versus twenty-two pounds and change for the train. The bus is direct; for the train you have to go into London and take another train back out to Heathrow. After the central bus station there were three stops leading out to a park-and-ride on the outskirts of town.

I actually missed the 10AM bus, but I’m not worried about missing my flight; I just took the 10:20. The frequency of the buses is about the same as the trains: every twenty minutes in the mornings and evenings, every two hours from 10PM to 4AM, and every half hour in between. That’s seven days a week – but on weekends the morning service starts at 6AM instead of 5AM. There are also buses to Gatwick Airport, and express buses direct to London every 5-10 minutes – the latter operated by two competing companies. This bus is about three-quarters full.

While in Oxford I stayed in a room above High Street, one of the main streets in town. Unlike a similar room in the US, there were no honking cars under my window because that part of High Street is restricted to buses and bicycles, and there was a steady stream of them until late in the night. The buses were mostly hybrid, so I didn’t experience the noise and pollution that I used to associate with buses. There were the airport buses, express buses, long-distance buses and local buses. Now, here on the M40 highway, there are numerous buses traveling in both directions. As far as I could tell, they were all privately operated by for-profit companies.

I had come here expecting a fairly limited transportation system, based in part on Kingdom by the Sea, Paul Theroux’s Thatcher-era exploration of the United Kingdom by train, bus, foot and ferry. Judging by what I’ve seen this week, England seems to be recovering from some of that. It obviously has a long way to go – only a few of the eliminated train lines have been reactivated – but public transit in Oxford looks very healthy indeed.

Better Buses, Commentary

Prestige and buses

Despite what some may think, there is a certain amount of prestige attached to riding a bus in New York City. I’ve made that observation in blog comments before, on Streetsblog and more recently on the Overhead Wire, but I think it deserves its own blog post.

Contrary to the way that Peter Smith presents it, I am not claiming that riding the bus here is always a prestigious activity. What I am saying, based on my own observation, is that there are plenty of middle-class and even upper-class New Yorkers who ride the bus. I’m referring here specifically to local public buses; express and long-distance buses have their own idiosyncrasies.

The Upper East Side of Manhattan is one of the most wealthy places in the world. If you ride one of the buses that go through it, you’ll see lots of well-off, well-dressed people, including white people, older adults and women. Many people ride the bus who might be considered “elite”: for example, I once ran into former Parks Commissioner Henry Stern (who has his own car and an illegally reserved parking spot in the middle of Central Park) on the M57.

A middle-aged Asian female friend who lives on the Upper East Side once told me that she avoids the subway; my understanding was that it was because in her mind she has an association between the subway and crime that goes back to the graffiti-covered trains of the 1970s. In any case, she took buses (or sometimes taxis) everywhere she went.

As you get further from the Upper East Side, the prestige of local buses diminishes, and in most of Brooklyn and Queens until in Hempstead or Mount Vernon or Paterson they’re largely used by poor and working-class Black and Latino people – and college students. Further afield, in towns like Kingston and Hartford they’re mostly seen as welfare transportation for the homeless and the mentally disabled.

Let me be clear here: I’m not saying that the bus-riding experience here is necessarily any better (objectively, in terms of speed or comfort) than that in Garden City, or in Syracuse or Denver. I’m saying that here, better-off people are willing to ride the bus; any prestige that attaches to the bus is through association with these relatively prestigious riders. It’s not “bull shit,” and I’m willing to defend the validity of my observation against all comers.

Regardless, why might it be that upper-middle-class people are willing to ride the bus in New York? I think it’s all relative. In Manhattan bus service is pretty frequent, and owning and maintaining a car is an expensive and exhausting proposition. Why would they prefer it to the subway? Because of the daylight and the relatively low historical crime rate, but also because the subway doesn’t really work for travel within the Upper East Side or from Upper East to Upper West. The Second Avenue Subway, when it finally gets built, may change some of that.

This fact has strong implications for bus design and planning. The main one is that convenience, safety and reliability are much more important in attracting riders than any branding strategy. The branding on NYC buses is lame and always has been; the buses have “gotten people out of their cars” (more accurately, prevented them from shifting to cars) simply by being more convenient than a car – and that’s more due to the relative lack of car subsidies than anything the buses have done. Want successful buses? Tear down the bypasses and tear up the parking lots.

The other is that prestigious associations are the best marketing strategy, and we already have that in NYC. NYC Transit is wasting precious money and effort in branding its “Select Bus” routes. Forget the fancy paint job; people will ride the bus if it’s more convenient. They know it’s good enough for the rich folks on Madison Avenue, so why wouldn’t it be good for them? More importantly, don’t think you can skimp on real, honest improvements in convenience, safety and reliability and make up for it through branding. New Yorkers have seen it all.

Better Buses, Commentary, Queens

From Bus to Subway in Kew Gardens

On Tuesday night, June 2, I will be attending the first Queens Bus Rapid Transit workshop in Jackson Heights. Here’s a proposal I will be bringing with me.

“Bus rapid transit” is no more than the sum of its parts, and many elements of it can be used by themselves to produce a significant improvement in transportation quality. One such element is enclosed stations with pre-boarding fare control. The Union Turnpike station is ideally suited to this, because most of the facilities already exist. The subway station has the usual fare control system with turnstiles and high-wheel gates. It also has an enclosed connection to a roadway.

Just north of Kew Gardens, an eight-lane highway passes under Queens Boulevard. The middle four lanes are the Jackie Robinson Parkway headed for East New York. The lanes on either side carry through traffic on Union Turnpike. On either side of those lanes are two more with traffic turning onto Queens Boulevard.


The Union Turnpike-Kew Gardens subway station is a major station in central Queens. It’s one of the several points where subway riders from Manhattan and western Queens can transfer to the bus network that is the only transit for much of eastern Queens. The Q46 goes east on Union Turnpike from here, the Q74 goes north on Main Street, the Q10 goes south to Kennedy Airport and the Q37 south to Ozone Park.

Bus routes that feed the Union Turnpike station

The subway-bus transfers are often slow and clumsy because the buses take circuitous routes to turn around. For example, the Q46 terminates on the north side of Queens Boulevard, then has to go two blocks west, make a U-turn, go back east and then take a big left onto Union Turnpike.

Even to get to the bus stops, subway passengers have to climb three flights of stairs. For some of the more popular buses, the stairs are not wide enough to handle peak demand, and there is conflict between passengers going down and passengers going up.

Meanwhile, people who live in Glendale don’t have any subway or train service, and limited bus service to connect them to the subway. Getting from Kew Gardens Hills to Kew Gardens requires a long walk, a long ride or two bus transfers. These are two of the Underserved Areas identified in the NYC DOT Phase II report (PDF).

Improving these transfers could trim five to ten minutes off of each bus rider’s commute, which would be a huge boost to transit in central Queens. Here’s one way to do it: right now the buses all go up to Queens Boulevard, turn and stop at the subway stairs. Passengers bound for the subway go up to go down. But if the buses continued on through the tunnel they’d be at the mezzanine level of the subway station.


How would the passengers get into the station? Well in fact, that mezzanine used to be open to Union Turnpike for many years, with just a guardrail separating people from cars. It was not very pleasant walking next to the noisy, smelly, speeding traffic. In a recent renovation the MTA installed glass bricks that make the station much nicer; you can see the road through them.


Now imagine that the glass bricks, fence and guardrail are gone, and there are bus stops there. You’re riding in on the Q46, and instead of going up to Queens Boulevard it goes through the tunnel and stops. You get off, go down one flight of stairs, and get on your train. If you’re coming from the train, you go up one flight of stairs and get on your bus. No turnstiles, no dipping Metrocards, no waiting for everyone else to dip their Metrocard, and much less crowding on narrow stairs.

To do this, the MTA would have to reconfigure the routes, which could allow for better connections between neighborhoods. The Q74 and Q46 could turn around at Park Lane, but they could also continue on to Metropolitan Avenue, Woodhaven Boulevard or Myrtle Avenue in Glendale. The Q10 and Q37 could turn at the 141st Street loop, but they could continue along the Grand Central Parkway service road to Main Street, Parsons Boulevard, 164th Street or even Utopia Parkway, connecting with the Q25, Q34, Q44 or Q65.


The roadway under Queens Boulevard would also have to be reconfigured. The approach to the bus stops would have to be restricted to buses only, to prevent private vehicles from beating the fare by dropping off passengers inside the fare control zone. This would also prevent through traffic from being blocked by stopped buses. I don’t know how much space there is under there for bus stops, so it may require devoting all four lanes of what’s currently considered Union Turnpike to buses and requiring cars to use the four middle lanes. However, it might only require one lane in each direction, in which case the barriers could be moved so that all car traffic has three lanes available to it.

Background, Better Buses, Dominican Republic, Santo Domingo

Transit in Santo Domingo

When I travel, I often find the transit systems of other places interesting, but Santo Domingo’s was really fascinating. Here’s a fairly large (over two million people, the second largest in the Caribbean after Havana), fairly dense (23,000 per square mile) city with low private car ownership (the country as a whole had only 4.4% in 2004). But there are no dedicated lanes for buses, and until this past Monday there was no rail transit. How do they get around?

guagua1aHardcore transportation development experts may chuckle, because there are many cities in this situation around the world. I’ve been to both Ciudad Juárez and Bamako, which both have over a million people, more than 10,000 people per square mile and no rail or dedicated bus transit. I didn’t have much opportunity to study the transit system in those cities, but I was in Santo Domingo for over two weeks. Here’s what I saw:

There are essentially six tiers of transport in Santo Domingo: private cars, reserved taxis, full-size buses, carros publicos, guaguas, motoconchos and non-motorized private transport (bicycles and pedestrians). I’ve listed them in approximate order of prestige.

Private cars and reserved taxis work very much like in New York: you have a car, or you call a cab. Similarly with bicycles and pedestrians, although I’ve written about the pedestrian situation in previous posts. Before the subway was built, the transit system was composed of the remaining categories.

Full-size buses are the most similar to buses in the US or Europe. The main operator in our neighborhood was Caribe Tours; they had marked bus stops and only stopped at those. They usually had working air conditioning, but I only rode them once, because I almost always saw them full of people standing. Just inside the door was a turnstile operated by a cashier who could make change; my son was allowed to ride free, but I was asked to lift him over the turnstile. The inside of the bus was clean, relatively new, and well-maintained.

On our second day in Santo Domingo, we went with one of my wife’s colleagues to see if we could ride the subway. My wife’s colleague spoke better Spanish than any of us, so she asked the soldiers guarding the entrance if we could go in. They politely said it was off limits and wouldn’t open until November, so she asked them how we could get to the park we wanted to visit. They explained how to use the guaguas and which route to take, which was a big help and got us off on a good start.

Guaguas are minibuses (sometimes minivans) that operate on fixed routes. The price in June was twenty pesos, about sixty cents US. I never saw one with air conditioning, and in fact the side doors were always open. In addition to the driver they have a cobrador, which literally means “fare collector,” but they also act as conductors and touts. The routes are confusing, so at any bus stop the cobrador will call out the major destinations. People can bring luggage on the guaguas; one time my son and I boarded a bus and came face to face with a chicken sitting on a man’s lap.

The guaguas are operated by independent contractors, and their profits are proportional to the number of fares they collect. Because of this, drivers and cobradores will try to pack as many people into the bus as they possibly can. If there are only a few passengers, the driver will go slow, and the cobrador will jump down at every stop and shout the destinations at everyone nearby. Sometimes they will stop in between official bus stops to try and convince people to ride.

The most common guagua has three or four rows of seats in the back, with two seats on the left and one on the right. When these are full, there are jump seats that fold down in the aisle. This would be crowded enough, but the cobradores insist on squeezing five people into those four seats, no matter how fat, so that they can announce to potential passengers that “hay asientos!” If a passenger in the back seat has to get out, everyone in the jump seats in front has to stand up and move out of the way. There are also various jump seats mounted on the engine well, and then room for standees; if there are too many standees, the cobrador will ride hanging out the side door. Small children are expected to sit on laps whenever seats are scarce.

Because the guaguas can go slow when they’re not full, and spend a lot of time loading and unloading, many people opt for the carros publicos. These are taxis (usually small Japanese sedans) that run on fixed routes. They cost thirty pesos (about ninety cents US), and have no cobradores, but the drivers of these will also try to fit as many people in as possible, to the point of having four or five people across in the back seat and two in the front, sitting on laps whenever possible. The advantage is that they fill up quicker, so they tend to spend less time fishing for passengers, loading and unloading.

The motoconchos have a similar advantage to the carros publicos, with even less room. These are motorcycles (or maybe scooters) that take passengers on the back. I never felt comfortable trying them.

For the first week I saw several minibuses passing by our hotel with doors closed and air conditioning on; they looked so comfortable compared to the guaguas we rode! They occasionally let passengers off at our stop, but never let anyone on. I asked around, but no one could tell me where to get them. Finally I went to the major bus transfer point on the Avenida Duarte, and found the answer. They were medium-distance buses going to and from towns an hour or two away. That’s why they got the air conditioning, and that’s why they couldn’t pick up passengers within the city limits.

In another post, I’ll explain why I think the case of Santo Domingo is relevant for us here in the US.

Background, Better Buses, Brazil, Curitiba

Eh Curitiba!

Being a transit geek and spending an inordinate amount of time reading Streetsblog, I’m well aware of the city of Curitiba, Brazil, famed as a pioneer of Bus Rapid Transit. I’ve even translated an article about Curitiba’s plans to build an elevated metro instead of expanding their BRT system.

I was kind of amused, therefore, to hear the name of the city shouted out as I was boarding a crowded #7 train on Tuesday morning. A man boarding behind me shouted, “Eh Curitiba!” and a woman at another door responded “Saudades do brasil!”

It turned out that they knew each other, and were clearly tourists, losing their balance on the subway and taking pictures of each other, but I noticed another couple chuckling and exchanging glances. A few minutes later I heard that couple quietly talking to each other in Portuguese: they too were Brazilian, but didn’t know the others.

I was curious: why had the man shouted out the name of a Brazilian city? What did he think of Curitiba’s BRT, and of the 7 train? I didn’t work up the courage to ask, and in fact I must confess I eavesdropped, although often it’s not hard to eavesdrop on Brazilians. In fact, the larger group heard the couple speaking Portuguese and started up a conversation as the train headed into the tunnel at Hunterspoint Avenue. Here’s what I was able to pick up:

The couple was from Rio de Janeiro and had been living in New York for five years. The other group was from the state of Paraná (of which Curitiba is the capital), but not from Curitiba itself. They were clearly tourists, but based on the code-switching of a boy in the group (“Olha o bridge, pai!”) had probably been living somewhere in the US for a couple of years.

Based on this, my guess is that the man’s invocation of Curitiba was a reference to the “ultra-crush capacities” often mentioned when people question the applicability of the Curitiba model to North American cities. Being from the countryside of Paraná, when he and his friends squeezed their way onto the #7 train the first thing they thought of was being packed on a bus in Curitiba. If the Flushing Line at rush hour is like Curitiba now, and people want to build more BRT, it doesn’t exactly make me hopeful for the future of transit in New York City.