For some time now, the city’s bus system has been in free fall. Thanks to increasingly traffic-choked streets and a general disinterest in doing anything about it, the average bus speeds in New York are slower than in any major city in the world. Ridership is declining, and programs to improve service—like the promised expansion of SBS service—have been suspended by the cash-strapped MTA. Among the city’s many long-suffering commuters, few have it worse than the nearly 2.5 million New Yorkers who schlep it by bus each day.
On Thursday, the city pledged to finally get serious about reversing this problem. During his State of the City speech, Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled an ambitious plan to rapidly expand and improve bus lanes, with the goal of increasing average bus speeds 25 percent by the end of 2020. Currently, buses move at an average speed of just 7.4 miles per hour on city streets, and at the glacial pace of 4 mph in busy commercial districts.
A spokesperson for the Riders Alliance, whose Bus Turnaround Campaign has long pushed the mayor on this issue, said the plan was “exactly what bus riders need for fair access to opportunity in the city.” Mitchell White, a Riders Alliance member and Brooklyn resident, called it a “monumental step” toward transforming the bus network.
Specifically, the city intends to work with the MTA to optimize the bus network in every borough, starting with the Bronx, and to install bus lanes at an average of 10-15 miles a year—up from the current average of 7 miles per year. Traffic signal priority, which allows a bus to communicate with the signal to prolong a green light or shorten a red light, will be added to 300 intersections annually. A small pilot project will also create two miles of physically separated lanes in 2019, though it’s unclear how exactly those lanes will be separated or where they’ll be located.
Some of those initiatives will be in partnership with the MTA, which released its own bus turnaround plan last year. In a statement following de Blasio’s announcement, NYC Transit president Andy Byford said, “I welcome the Mayor’s support on initiatives we identified in our Bus Plan and Fast Forward Plan and have been working in close collaboration with our partners NYCDOT to implement. We are also counting on the Mayor’s engagement for us to obtain the robust funding and community support we need to fully implement these plans which will bring benefits to millions of New Yorkers.”
Matters of street redesigns, lane installation, and enforcement are things the city can control, and has long neglected.
Perhaps most crucially, the new plan will establish seven dedicated tow truck teams for continuous monitoring of perpetually-blocked bus lanes. Advocates have for years complained about the city’s hands-off approach to policing its 111 miles of dedicated bus lanes, and past pledges to crack down on scofflaws have yielded negligible results. A true enforcement push could be a game-changer, advocates note, though it would require buy-in on the part of the NYPD.
“We’re going to keep those bus lanes clear,” de Blasio vowed during his speech. In response to murmurs from the crowd—concerned owners of city-issued parking placards, perhaps?—the mayor assured them: “I hear you, over there. Just don’t park in the bus lane, and you’re not going to have a problem.”