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A asphalt bus lane in New York City painted with red paint.
Bus-only lanes not only speed up commutes for bus riders, but deployed at scale, can make transit more efficient and make everyone’s rider quicker and faster.

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How better bus lanes can fix everyone’s commute

New York’s 14th Street Busway demonstrates a virtuous cycle: more riders, fewer cars on the street, and an improved commute for all

It was supposed to lead to a “carpocolypse.” The 14th Street Busway, a long-delayed pilot program in New York City to expedite service by creating bus-only lanes on a major east-west street in the lower half of Manhattan, was predicted to be a disaster for drivers.

Ever since the new thoroughfare was opened in mid-October, with red paint clearly marking lanes as bus-only, reports have shown that the new busway not only met its goal of making bus travel faster—9.7 minutes for the entire route, according to a city analysis released in December—but it also had minimal impact on car trips. Surrounding streets saw trips increase by 3.5 minutes at most.

The 14th Street Busway in New York City is a great case study in why drivers shouldn’t fight funding for transit—but should support it for their own good. Traditionally, transportation politics at a local level has been viewed as a zero-sum game; giving space to cyclists or other car-free means of transportation results in less room for drivers and longer trips, which many believe will bring more painful commutes.

But the Busway’s early success suggests that’s the wrong framework for evaluation. Investing in better transit creates a virtuous cycle that can help everybody’s commute. Better and speedier transit options mean more people ride in densely packed buses, meaning fewer cars on the road, resulting in faster drive times, even for those who still take a car to work.

“Drivers who themselves are not going to ever use public transit benefit from less people taking up space with their cars,” says Joe Cutrufo, communications director for Transportation Alternatives, a New York advocacy group. “If they want to maximize the effect of that phenomenon, they should support more bus lanes”

Passengers board a New York City bus at a major intersection.
Bus ridership in New York City has fallen for six consecutive years, according to a report released last week by the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA).

Stopping transit ridership from falling off a cliff

The Busway’s success comes during a tough time for New York City transit. Bus ridership in New York City has fallen for six consecutive years, according to a report released last week by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA).

It’s indicative of what’s become a national transit crisis. According to the latest annual report from the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), national bus ridership plummeted by 5.3 percent last year, and has dropped 11 percent since 2007. While there aren’t studies that track which mode of transit former bus riders choose, it’s a safe bet that some ended up taking cars or rideshare services that contributed to increased traffic congestion.

“As the bus hemorrhages ridership, it decreases the effectiveness of mass transit,” says Daniel Pearlstein, policy and communications director for Riders Alliance, a local public transit advocacy group.

During its short existence so far, the Busway has boosted bus ridership 24 percent on weekdays and 30 percent on weekends. The impact has spilled over to Citi Bike, the city’s bike-share network; there’s been a 17 percent increase in bike usage on 14th Street during the morning commute, and ridership has also jumped on new protected bike lanes on 12th and 13th streets.

The Busway’s success isn’t merely due to its New York City location. Other cities have seen similar results from segregated bus lanes and bus rapid transit systems. A test of a bus-only lane on Flower Street in Downtown Los Angeles last fall increased bus speeds by 20 percent. San Francisco plans to ban most auto traffic on busy Market Street downtown starting on January 29. And in the Latin American cities where bus rapid transit was first pioneered beginning in the 1970s, it’s been a cheap and effective way to boost ridership and efficiency.

Taking space away from cars isn’t necessarily taking time away from drivers

The Busway is just a single road in a much larger urban transportation network. But its ability to move more people faster suggests that scaling can begin making a significant difference. American commute times are rising, and cities are especially burdened by the added traffic congestion from services such as Uber and Lyft as well as more daily deliveries resulting from the growing volume of e-commerce.

There’s traditionally been a reluctance in the U.S. to devote space on roadways to anything that isn’t a car. But with traffic congestion continuing to get worse, Cutrufo and others believe it’s long past time to worry about the comfort levels of car commuters and consider overall efficiency.

“There are lots of myths getting in the way of having an honest discussion with drivers about transportation,” says Cutrufo.

What about taking lanes away from cars and causing traffic to simply move to other streets? Studies of the 14th Street Busway’s impact show that nearby streets haven’t seen significant upticks in traffic congestion. And while some drivers might not like the idea of sharing road space with buses, busways offer an incredibly cost-effective mass transit solution compared to light rail or subways.

“What’s the alternative, build a subway?” says Cutrufo. “That’s an order of magnitude more expensive. We can build a busway for the cost of paint and some traffic control devices, or we can build tunnels that cost billions and billions of dollars.”

What about the argument that car drivers pay for road upkeep with the money they pay for fuel, and deserve the right-of-way? The National Gas Tax does go toward funding road construction, but that money is typically used for highway and interstates, not local roads. Local road funding comes from local taxes, including property taxes. So there’s an argument to be made that some bus riders are subsidizing your car trip.

There are also long-term savings in making existing roadways more efficient, and wringing more value out of our public infrastructure with innovations like busways, instead of building out more roads that add to long-term maintenance costs. (Every new lane-mile of road costs approximately $24,000 per year to preserve in a state of good repair, according to a report by Transportation for America.) Investing in more roads is what Pearlstein called “going down the asphalt path,” committing to both more road repairs and the phenomenon of induced demand; if you add more lanes for cars, traffic will fill it.

A ribbon of highways leading into downtown Houston.
A recent $7 billion highway expansion project in Houston has been cited as an example of the phenomenon of induced demand; adding road space just adds more cars and more traffic.

The future of transportation?

Cutrufo believes the 14th Street Busway is not just a sign of things to come in New York City, but in cities around the country, and even the world: transportation planning that takes space away from cars. Cities around the world are establishing car bans, and results from the 2019 Menino Survey of Mayors in the U.S. found that 76 percent of mayors believed their cities were too car-oriented.

“The zeitgeist in planning is rapidly shifting away from what’s we’ve seen in the last decade, which is balancing the need of drivers and pedestrians and transit riders and cyclists,” says Cutrufo. “I think we’re seeing a lot of cities come to terms with the idea that things have been out of balance for so long, that we need to pull intentionally in the opposite direction. If you want to make buses a more attractive mode, you need to make them faster and keep cars out of the way.”

As Pearlstein sees it, 2020 could be the summer of red paint in New York City. In his State of the City address earlier this year, Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged to increase bus speeds in New York City by 25 percent by the end of 2020, an ambitious goal that could be met in part with more busways (Curbed compiled a list of suggested routes). Achieving a 25 percent increase in bus speed would “transform New York,” he says, and hopefully set an example for other cities.

“The stakes are huge,” he says. “We have two million daily bus riders. More busways would improve so many commutes, and could be accomplished this year. A city can create a quick, excellent bus system, if they have the political will.”

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