Eric Adams Is Pushing a Plan to Speed Up Buses. Will It Work?

The B41 bus rolls forward in fits and starts. Cars cut in front of it and dollar vans and delivery trucks block access to the curb to pick up passengers.

On bad days, it takes Josh Hyman and his daughter, Penelope, half an hour to ride the bus less than a mile along Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn to her elementary school.

“It’s all that traffic clogging Flatbush Avenue that really gets you,” said Mr. Hyman, 38, a political organizer.

The tortoise-like pace is the result of a spaghetti tangle of gridlocked routes across the city that have made the nation’s largest municipal bus system frustratingly unreliable for its 1.2 million daily riders. Average bus speeds have remained stubbornly slow for years, though they increased during the height of the coronavirus pandemic when the streets were largely empty.

While New York buses have long been overshadowed by the subway, which has far more riders, the system is vital to many neighborhoods — especially outside Manhattan — the train does not reach.

A plan to more than double the miles of bus lanes in New York to nearly 400 miles would create one of the largest such networks in the world. Credit…Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Now, Mayor Eric Adams is pursuing the city’s most ambitious effort ever to speed up some of the slowest buses in the country: a doubling of dedicated bus lanes that would carve out faster corridors through some of New York’s most congested streets. The city plans to build 150 miles of new bus lanes over the next four years, adding to 140 miles of existing lanes to create one of the largest such networks in the world.

Better bus service is crucial to New York’s recovery from the pandemic as traffic has roared back and a congestion pricing plan to discourage drivers from using Manhattan’s busiest sections has been delayed. While many people have yet to return to the transit system, buses have proved more resilient than the subway and commuter trains. Bus ridership, which fell to 20 percent of prepandemic levels in April 2020, has bounced back to 62 percent.

New York’s outdated and inefficient bus system, where the average speed is 8.1 miles per hour, is used primarily by low-income riders who do not have cars and often live far from the subway.

“This is a fundamental equity issue,” said Janno Lieber, the chairman and chief executive of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the bus system. “The bus lanes and busways are the only way we’re going to be able to deliver what New York needs — which is a much faster bus system.”

Other global cities, including London and Beijing, are ahead in turning over limited street space to buses as they aim to coax drivers out of cars, make more room for cyclists and pedestrians, and reduce climate-harming emissions.

But in New York, some local officials, business leaders and community groups say that bus lanes can actually worsen congestion by taking away travel lanes and parking spots, push traffic to surrounding streets, and accomplish little when some lanes don’t carry many buses.

“The city hasn’t learned from its mistake,” said Paul Kerzner, 71, the general counsel for a property owners and civic association in Queens, which unsuccessfully sued to block a bus lane three years ago in the Ridgewood neighborhood.

Still, in New York and elsewhere, bus lanes and busways, which bar almost all through traffic on roadways, have been shown to improve service. After a stretch of Main Street in Flushing, Queens, a notoriously gridlocked corridor, was turned into a busway last year, rush-hour bus speeds rose by 50 percent

Beijing has set a blistering pace for bus lanes, carving out 624 miles since the first one opened in 1997 to stem soaring car ownership. The average travel speed in the lanes is 12.4 m.p.h. at peak times, over 50 percent faster than the average bus speed in New York.

London, with 180 miles of bus lanes on its busiest roads, has placed some of them at pinch points to improve traffic flow and expanded to 24/7 service on many lanes, which has helped improve travel times and reliability.

“I would have been so late without the bus lanes,” said Sara Redje, a young rider in southwest London. “They are so efficient.”

London, where the buses run faster than in New York, has created 180 miles of bus lanes, many of which operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Credit…Holly-Marie Cato for The New York Times

The bus lanes in London have been a “a real success story” that helped turn around its bus system and “remain incredibly important and a backbone of road based public transport,” according to Philipp Rode, the executive director of LSE Cities, a research center on urban issues at the London School of Economics.

Though American cities have been slower to embrace bus lanes, many accelerated their efforts during the pandemic as buses emerged as a vital transit option, especially for essential workers. San Francisco, a city of just 47 square miles, now has 65 miles of transit lanes, of which nearly 15 miles were added in the last two years.

Bus lanes have more than doubled in Boston while pop-up bus lanes were added to key routes in Chicago. Houston’s first bus rapid transit service, the Silver Line, opened on a five-mile bus lane through a bustling employment and retail center.

In New York, bus lanes arrived in a 1963 traffic experiment on Livingston Street in Brooklyn and Victory Boulevard on Staten Island. But the Brooklyn lane was blocked so often that city officials later deemed it “less than a great success.”

Bus lanes were not a priority in a city where cars ruled the streets and were even protested on the steps of City Hall in the 1970s, recalled Samuel I. Schwartz, a former traffic commissioner. In 1986, the actress Katharine Hepburn, who owned a townhouse on East 49th Street in Manhattan, wrote him to complain about “bus corridors” on 49th and 50th Streets.

In the late 2000s, city officials turned to bus lanes to help create a limited number of quicker bus routes. Mayor Bill de Blasio, under pressure from transit advocates, continued expanding bus lanes, including a new busway on 14th Street in Manhattan in 2019.

“Congestion has become a one-way ratchet to slower buses,” said Ben Fried, a spokesman for TransitCenter, an advocacy group. “The problem has intensified in the last 20 to 25 years.”

But with more bus lanes has come more opposition in a densely populated city with fierce competition for scarce street space. A high-profile busway planned for Fifth Avenue in Manhattan was put on hold in October after a powerful real estate developer expressed concerns to Mr. de Blasio.

N.Y.C. Mayor Eric Adams’s New Administration

Card 1 of 8

Schools Chancellor: David Banks. The longtime New York City educator, who rose to prominence after creating a network of public all-boys schools, takes the lead at the nation’s largest public school system as it struggles to emerge from the pandemic.

Police Commissioner: Keechant Sewell. The Nassau County chief of detectives becomes New York City’s first female police commissioner, taking over the nation’s largest police force amid ​​a crisis of trust in American policing and a troubling rise in violence.

Commissioner of Correction Department: Louis Molina. ​​The former N.Y.P.D. officer, who was the chief of the Las Vegas public safety department, is tasked with leading the city’s embattled Correction Department and restoring order at the troubled Rikers Island jail complex.

Chief Counsel: Brendan McGuire. ​​After a stint as a partner in a law firm’s white-collar practice, the former federal prosecutor returns to the public sector to advise the mayor on legal matters involving City Hall, the executive staff and administrative matters.

Transportation Commissioner: Ydanis Rodriguez. ​​The Manhattan council member is a trusted ally of Mr. Adams. Mr. Rodriguez will face major challenges in his new role: In 2021, traffic deaths in the city soared to their highest level since 2013, partly due to speeding and reckless driving.

Health Commissioner: Dr. Ashwin Vasan. Dr. Dave A. Chokshi, the current commissioner, stays in the role to provide continuity to the city’s pandemic response. In mid-March, Dr. Vasan, the president of a mental health and public health charity, will take over.

Deputy mayors. ​​Mr. Adams announced five women as deputy mayors, including Lorraine Grillo as his top deputy. Philip Banks III, a former N.Y.P.D. chief who resigned while under federal investigation in 2014, later announced his own appointment as deputy mayor for public safety.

Executive director of mayoral security: Bernard Adams. Amid concerns of nepotism, Mayor Adams’s brother, who is a retired police sergeant, will oversee mayoral security after he was originally named as deputy police commissioner.

Queens residents have complained that a rush-hour bus lane on Fresh Pond Road in Ridgewood has made driving a nightmare. Gary Bangiyev, who owns a barbershop, said the bus lane had cost him many customers. “People cannot park, so they go somewhere else,” he said.

City Councilman Joseph Borelli, who represents Staten Island, said a bus lane on Richmond Avenue in his district is empty most of the time. “It’s just silly, it was done just so someone could say we did another mile,” he said. “If the goal is to build a number of bus lanes just to meet a goal, that’s not good.”

Under a recently released master streets plan, 20 miles of new or upgraded bus lanes are to be installed this year, followed by an additional 130 miles by 2026.

Flatbush Avenue is one of the corridors that is being considered for a bus lane under the mayor’s plan. Credit…Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Mr. Adams, a bus rider himself, has pledged to go further, aiming for 150 miles of new bus lanes and busways by the end of his first term in 2025. “The goals he laid out in his campaign are ambitious and the administration will do everything we can to meet them,” said Charles Lutvak, a spokesman for the mayor.

Ydanis Rodriguez, whom Mr. Adams appointed as his transportation commissioner, acknowledged that “we know we have a lot of work to do,” but emphasized that officials were committed to making New York “a true bus city.”

Though no details have been released about new bus lanes, M.T.A. officials said Flatbush Avenue was among more than a dozen locations being considered.

Danny Pearlstein, a spokesman for Riders Alliance, an advocacy group, said that along with more bus lanes, more enforcement was needed to keep cars out.

City and transit officials have expanded automated camera enforcement of bus lanes, with more than 600,000 violations issued last year. Drivers who received one ticket were far less likely to get another, Mr. Lieber said.

The B41 shuttles riders along a thriving commercial corridor that links the north and south ends of Brooklyn at an average speed of 6.6 m.p.h. — earning a failing grade from transit advocates.

“It will take a million years from one point to another,” said Councilwoman Rita Joseph, who represents the neighborhood.

The benefits of a bus lane outweigh the negatives, Ms. Joseph said, adding: “I know I’m going to get pushback from the drivers, but we have to meet halfway.”

But some residents and business say there is simply no room for a bus lane.

“If you put in a bus lane, the business community in Flatbush is going to be hurt,” said Muhammad Aziz, 28, whose family owns a gas station and storefront for cellphones and money transfer services. “If someone is stuck in traffic, they don’t stop.”

Muhammed Aziz, whose family owns a gas station and store on Flatbush Avenue, said that there was no room for a bus lane and that adding one would hurt businesses.Credit…Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

But bus riders like Mr. Hyman, the commuter father, said the need was obvious.

“It’s a no-brainer,” he said. “When everything runs smoothly — and you don’t have that anger and commuter tension — it just takes pressure off everyone.”

Claire Fu contributed research from Beijing.

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