June 10, 2002

A New York Question: Shall We Walk, or Do We Have Time to Take a Bus?


It sounds like a trivia question about a rerun of "Wild Kingdom" but it is of much greater interest to the inhabitants of the asphalt jungle: What moves slower than a running chicken (9 miles per hour) and even slower than a king penguin (5.3 m.p.h.)?

Answer: The M96 bus, which averages 4.3 m.p.h. at midday as it creeps and crowds its way through traffic on 96th Street in Manhattan.

In fact, in a city that transit officials acknowledge has the slowest bus service in America, there are 16 bus routes in four boroughs where the average speeds are less than 7 m.p.h., only 4 m.p.h. faster than the average human walks. According to New York City Transit, the average bus speed citywide has gotten slower over the last five years.

With this in mind the envelope, please two transit advocacy groups have just handed out the first-ever Pokey Awards, presented to the city's 25 slowest bus routes, including the very slowest, the M96; the only slightly faster M23 on 23rd Street in Manhattan; and the Q32 along Queens Boulevard, which clocks in at a blistering 5.6 m.p.h.

The awards, sent by e-mail to reporters and accompanied by a picture of an Oscar-like statuette of a golden snail, were intended as a funny way to highlight a problem that bus riders are not laughing about.

But the announcement was also used by the groups the Straphangers Campaign and Transportation Alternatives as a way to increase pressure on city and transit officials to offer a new kind of service that has already begun in some other busy cities, most ambitiously in Los Angeles, and that has been improving bus speeds significantly.

Known as bus rapid transit, the concept, long in use in Europe, Asia and South America, is something like crossing a subway line with a bus line. Instead of buses loading as they always have, with lines of people trooping slowly up the steps and paying near the driver, bus rapid transit allows people to pay before they board, at street stations that work much the way subway stations do. When a bus arrives, people step from a platform into the bus, whose floor is at the same level as the platform.

Then, instead of having to contend with the same traffic and mistimed lights as the rest of the vehicles on the road, buses in rapid-transit systems use bus-only lanes. Or where that is impossible, sensors allow traffic lights to automatically turn green for buses, transforming them into a kind of above-ground train that stops only at stations.

Transit advocates lobbied unsuccessfully earlier this year for the inclusion of a rapid-transit bus-only lane on West Street when it was being rebuilt near the World Trade Center site. The advocates' idea was to have a bus-only lane for extra-fast bus service that would snake around the city, going up the West Side, perhaps going across 42nd Street and then back down an East Side street to Lower Manhattan.

While city officials decided against that, a serious setback for bus rapid-transit proponents, the city's Transportation Department has begun meeting with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority about the issue of speeding up bus service, and both agencies say they are seriously considering some bus rapid-transit ideas for the first time.

Among the ideas, transit officials said, are lengthening some bus stops so that more buses can fit on crowded routes. They are considering eliminating bus stops on some routes, so that buses would not stop almost every block. And they are also considering working with the city to coordinate traffic signals with bus traffic and install a physical separation between regular lanes and bus lanes along some routes.

"It could be cones or it could be a rubber barrier," said Charles Seaton, a spokesman for New York City Transit. "We're not sure yet, but anything to keep the lanes clear to keep bus traffic running more smoothly and quickly."

In a month or so, the agencies added, they will also begin an experimental program in which video cameras will be mounted on the front of some buses to help the police go after cars and trucks that are blocking bus lanes and bus stops. In addition, dozens of low-floor buses much easier to board, especially for older and disabled riders are already running in the city and several hundred more are on order now. (New York buses spend as much as 30 percent of their time waiting for passengers to get on and off.)

For many years, transit officials complained that there was little they could do to speed up buses, especially in Manhattan, because traffic was simply too thick. But Gene Russianoff, a staff lawyer for the Straphangers Campaign, said that Los Angeles and other cities with legendary traffic problems have already begun to show that many things can be done to load buses faster and give them priority on the roads.

"It's not as if slow buses are like the weather, that all you can do is complain about them," Mr. Russianoff said. "It's galling, I think, that Los Angeles is in the lead in this."

In a report that accompanied the Pokey Awards, Bruce Schaller, a transportation consultant, wrote that the Los Angeles system, which began two years ago and is being expanded, has improved average speeds along overcrowded Ventura Boulevard, to 20 m.p.h. from 15 m.p.h. the kind of velocity that New York bus riders can only dream about.