Eric Goldwyn is a research scholar at New York University’s Marron Institute and an affiliated faculty fellow at NYU Shanghai. His writing on cities has previously appeared in New York magazine and the New Yorker online.
Brooklyn’s bus system is careening into crisis: Ridership in the New York City borough has declined by 20 percent over the last decade; one in four buses in Brooklyn arrive off-schedule. As researchers and academics at NYU’s Marron Institute of Urban Management who study, teach, and write about transportation, we decided to apply an evidence-based approach to redesigning this struggling transit network with the goal of speeding up vehicles and rebuilding ridership. We took on this project with the belief that Brooklyn is still a place where the bus can serve as a critical public utility. A good redesign has the potential to add millions of bus trips back to the network every year. We took this challenge as an exercise that could inform a real future revamp.
Among the reasons behind Brooklyn’s bus crisis are growing congestion and demographic change in the area—but also the system-wide service cuts that began in 2010. We aren’t the first to recognize this problem. Advocacy groups like Riders Alliance, TransitCenter, and the Straphangers Campaign have been beating the drum for a network redesign and other improvements for years. Even Nobel Prize winners understand how critical the bus is for connecting commuters.
The MTA seems to be listening. It recently announced that it will reimagine the entire bus network across New York City, starting with the Bronx. Traditionally, redesigns are the domain of consultants and transit agency planners. We chose to add our plan to this process so that there is more than one vision for elected officials, planners, and Brooklynites to consider.
When we decided to put forward a plan to fix Brooklyn’s bus network, we collected detailed land-use and transit data about Brooklyn, but also examined evidence from other redesigns and analyses of transit data to figure out how to rebuild ridership on a system that has seen decline for more than a decade.
Why rebuild the bus? Because Brooklyn’s buses serve nearly 190 million rides per year. If we can figure out how to get people back on the bus in Brooklyn, perhaps there are lessons we can apply to the nation, which is also shedding bus passengers at an alarming rate. And while subways and light rail systems may be splashier forms of transit, mayors and city councils looking to quickly improve the quality of life don’t have the option of giving those fixed-rail networks a swift makeover.
We also focus on the bus because it’s cheap: American cities already have extensive high-quality road networks—the city of New York will spend $14 billion over ten years repairing bridges and repaving roads. Since we’ve built this elaborate street network and are committed to maintaining it, we really owe it to ourselves to take full advantage of them. The same cannot be said for subways or light rail systems, which both require brand-new infrastructure just to get up and running.
Underlying our redesign is a belief, based on data, that faster, more frequent buses will attract more riders; thus, all of our recommendations are geared towards speeding up vehicles and pumping more of them through the redesigned routes. As a sanity check, we constrained ourselves to the existing service hours that the MTA currently allocates to bus service in Brooklyn. Then, we translated best practices from other cities into the Brooklyn context.
Here are our recommendations. You can explore the proposed route map we built here, or in the interactive map below. The colors correspond to frequency, with blue routes as the most frequent, followed by green and red.
Don’t put the bus in front of the bus lane
It’s true that buses can operate on existing roads. Other users, however, impede the bus. Double-parked cars, delivery trucks, and taxis, to name only a few, all contribute to congestion that slows down the bus and makes it unreliable.
In order to ensure that buses are able to move in congested cities, elected officials and planners need to stand up for infrastructure like center-running lanes to keep the bus separated from traffic. That generally requires taking a lane away from traffic or parking, which is politically difficult, because the streets with the busiest buses also tend to be the most popular with other drivers. In Brooklyn, the most congested streets also tend to also be narrower. For example, two of Brooklyn’s top bus corridors, Nostrand Avenue (for most of its length) and Church Avenue, are not wide enough for parking lanes, moving lanes, and bus lanes in both directions.
A system that encourages transfers allows for exponentially more possibilities than one that doesn’t.
Any redesign that doesn’t account for the delay created by existing traffic will fail. There are no win-win solutions to the problems facing the bus. People disdain the bus because it is poky and unreliable; talking to bus riders, we have recurrently heard complaints that a bus that is scheduled to come once every 10 minutes will instead have three buses bunched together every 30.
We need to prioritize the bus by installing bus lanes on all major bus roads, even at the expense of on-street parking. Transit passengers need to see that the bus is as important as new light rail, and a crucial component of this is giving buses priority on congested streets and at intersections.
More frequent than you’re thinking
Now that we have cleared some space for the bus along the busiest streets, we need to make sure they arrive as frequently as possible. In Brooklyn, we made the decision to stick to existing resource constraints and schedule a bus every 6 minutes or better from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day. On some routes, this doesn’t change much, but on others that see a bus every 10, 20, or 30 minutes between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m., this will radically transform what is possible and how Brooklynites view the bus network.
Our model for this was Nova Xarxa bus network in Barcelona, Spain. Looking at this city’s system, which was redesigned several years ago, we were struck by how often bus riders were now transferring from one bus to another. Prior to the redesign, buses arrived on average every 12 minutes, and only 13 percent of bus trips involving transfers. By 2015, midway through Nova Xarxa’s implementation of trunk routes coming every 6 minutes on average, this figure had risen to 26 percent. In contrast, in New York City, only 3 percent of bus trips involve bus-bus transfers.
By trying to design bus routes that serve complete trips, we end up with zig-zagging trajectories that are impossible to understand by just looking at the route map. These types of routes slow down service and penalize all passengers. A system that encourages transfers, however, allows for exponentially more possibilities than one that doesn’t. Barcelona’s bus ridership rose from 180 million in 2012, on the eve of Nova Xarxa’s implementation, to 202 million in 2017, and the trend in the first half of 2018 remains positive, with 1.4 percent increase over the first six months of 2017, as the final few trunks of Nova Xarxa are put into place. Over the same period of time, metro ridership has been stable; the buses neither cannibalized subway riders nor benefited from a general increase in transit usage, but instead induced more trips through better service.
Walk the walk
As politically expedient as it is to install a bus stop to satisfy constituents in a certain neighborhood, the outcome of trying to address every demand is a bus network that zigs and zags and puts a stop on every corner. When planning routes, transit agencies should think on a systemwide basis rather than on a rider-by-rider basis. When we examined the spacing of more than 1,500 bus stops in Brooklyn while carrying out our redesign, we found that the average distance between stops was 720 feet. When we compared this to cities in Europe and Asia, we found that those cities installed a stop every 1,300 to 1,800 feet.
If we double the distance between stops, Brooklyn buses would be able to travel at a higher speed for a longer period of time, which speeds up the overall trip and moves passengers more rapidly. With fewer stops, it is easier to equip every bus stop with a bus shelter where people can take a load off. Additionally, we were careful not to cut bus stops when nearby subway stations weren’t ADA-accessible. The more accessible the transit network is to all users, the easier it will be for everyone to access it, including those with balky knees, parents pushing strollers, and people who use wheelchairs.
When coming up with the optimal spacing between bus stops, we thought about the range of bus riders’ preferences. A non-disabled rider who is chiefly interested in minimizing travel time and does not mind walking is best served when stops are spaced every half mile. People who use wheelchairs travel more slowly, and all kinds of people may be willing to spend more time on a bus if it means less walking or less waiting. The stop spacing we recommend tries to average out these different needs, in contrast with most North American transit agencies, which have preferred to deal with heterogeneity by running local and limited buses on busy corridors. This has had the effect of reducing frequency for everyone.
All together now
Making the bus great again is not a simple task. It requires multiple, interconnected trade-offs. While we would like to see our ideas for Brooklyn adopted all at once, we also believe that changes can be phased in incrementally. By installing bus lanes and eliminating the delays created by traffic and by scheduling more bus service on fewer routes, New Yorkers will be able to count on the bus as they use it to get to work, school, or a doctor’s appointment. Better buses are critical to improving outcomes connected to equity, transportation benefits, and the environment, since the subway system cannot go everywhere even if it is expanded.
Our redesign in Brooklyn was in part a technical exercise. But a real bus network redesign would call for an equal dose of diplomatic adroitness. Fortunately, there are political forces willing to commit to better buses: for one, the Transportation Workers’ Union, which represents Brooklyn’s bus operators, understands that if buses keep bleeding riders, there won’t be work for bus drivers. Cities around the country need mayors and elected officials who will embrace a bold vision for change, and spend political capital to execute. Indeed, the lessons we have drawn upon for Brooklyn are relevant in all cities. By improving the bus network, it can be a service for everyone rather than the option of last resort.