Building a Transit System for One City

By Joan Byron

New York’s density and economic vitality would be impossible without the connectivity our transit system provides. But that system doesn’t serve everyone equally. 758,000 New Yorkers travel over an hour to work, each way; two-thirds of those workers are on their way to jobs that pay less than $35,000 per year. Lay a subway map over a census map of household incomes, and you’ll see evidence that the cost of housing in walkable, transit-rich neighborhoods is pushing poor and working-class families out to what used to be called “two-fare zones.” Though the MetroCard has eliminated the extra charge for transferring from bus to subway, living out of reach of the subway still exacts a heavy price—from individual commuters, from their families and from their neighborhoods.

Businesses suffer too. The boroughs have outpaced Manhattan in job growth; health care, education, retail, logistics and manufacturing clusters have grown, often in locations off the subway grid. Workers can’t find jobs within a reasonable commute from their homes, and businesses located miles from the nearest subway stop send vans and livery cars to pick up their workers.

It’s not just work trips that are hard. Hospitals and the networks of health services that surround them can take hours to reach, especially for seniors and disabled people who can’t navigate subway stairs. Colleges that should be offering young people ladders out of poverty are themselves out of reach.

There is no fiscally or physically feasible scenario in which the transit deficits experienced by residents and workers of outlying neighborhoods can be addressed by rail expansion. But Bus Rapid Transit is not only achievable; it’s transformative. Areas of the city that were once quasi-suburban, car-dependent enclaves have changed demographically and economically. Car ownership is declining, multi-earner households are increasing, and work destinations are less and less often in Manhattan. Major streets in Staten Island, southeast Brooklyn, eastern Queens, and the northeast Bronx are six or more lanes wide, with medians that could accommodate stations that would allow riders to prepay their fares and board from platforms level with bus floors.

The interventions that would bring true Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) to subway-starved neighborhoods would reduce congestion and make streets safer for walking and biking, as has been the case on the M15 Select Bus Service (SBS) corridor in Manhattan. They could also help local retail strips compete with big box and mall chains by increasing foot traffic on streets that are now made chaotic and dangerous by car-dominated 1960s design.

To bring real BRT to the places that need it most will cost money—but a tiny fraction of what any of the subway and commuter rail projects now on the boards would involve. Cleveland’s Health Line, widely hailed as the highest-standard BRT corridor in the U.S., was completed for under $200 million, less than $30 million per mile; Phase One of the Second Avenue Subway has cost $3 billion per mile.

Bringing real BRT to New York will require both political will and agency bandwidth.

More than money, bringing real BRT to New York will require both political will and agency bandwidth. Select Bus Service has delivered real improvements in bus speed and reliability because the MTA and DOT have learned to work together, and also to work with local stakeholders to identify and solve problems as corridors are being planned. That kind of engagement—from the selection of routes to the placement of lanes and stations—is labor-intensive but pays off by maximizing system performance and local benefits and by addressing the real and perceived concerns of potential opponents. Accelerating the rollout of new SBS routes, and delivering genuine BRT where it is most needed, will require leadership from the mayor and from champions in the City Council and an expanded staffing commitment within the agencies.

A number of visions for full-featured, networked Bus Rapid Transit have been put forward—by DOT, MTA and by my own organization, the Pratt Center for Community Development. They cross bridges and connect boroughs, joining underserved neighborhoods and hard-to-reach job centers, turning a transit system of two cities into one that works for everyone.

The incoming mayor can accelerate the delivery of BRT by ensuring that partnerships with the State continue, by recruiting progressive allies in the City Council and allocating the modest amounts of capital funding needed to build dedicated lanes and iconic stations—and no less importantly, to staff the robust planning capacity, NYC DOT needs to open the planning bottleneck.

Joan Byron is Director of Policy at the PRATT Center for Community Development, where she elads research and advocacly on issues of social justice in New YOrk city's built environment.