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Whither BRT? Flatbush Avenue won't be first test for fast buses

Will there be Bus Rapid Transit (BRT)--with a dedicated express lane, staggered stoplights, and perhaps new loading platforms--on Flatbush Avenue past the proposed Atlantic Yards site? Maybe someday, though it's not the priority in the city's new test of BRT.

Will BRT be considered in the Atlantic Yards Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), due perhaps within weeks from the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC)? It's possible.

However, the Draft EIS, issued in July, didn't mention the city's plans to test BRT on Flatbush Avenue, even though dramatic improvements in transportation would be required to make such a megaproject work--and Flatbush Avenue could benefit from BRT whether or not Atlantic Yards proceeds.

(Above: the city's Flatbush Avenue BRT concept plan, which envisions new dedicated bus lanes north of Grand Army Plaza.)

Clashing plans

Plans to implement BRT on Flatbush would conflict with developer Forest City Ratner's current plan for drop-off lane on Flatbush to serve the arena block. In its comments on the Draft EIS, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign said:
One significant oversight in this regard in the EIS is any consideration of how the Flatbush Avenue drop-off lane is supposed to mesh with the current NYC DOT/NYC Transit effort that is considering a bus rapid transit line on Flatbush Avenue. Bus lanes on Flatbush and therefore bus service to and from the project site will be significantly disrupted by taxi, limousine and car traffic pulling across it to the planned drop-off area. The need for drop off lanes is not made clear in the DEIS. We urge that the Flatbush drop-off lane be removed from consideration, that rapid and high-frequency bus service along Flatbush Ave be fully designed into the project and that drive-up auto/taxi access be re-routed and restricted to smaller streets such as 6th Ave and Dean St.

Will that drop-off lane remain in the Final EIS? Will BRT be mentioned?

The Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods (CBN), in its response to the DEIS, also criticized the failure to mention BRT:
Because of the scale of the proposed project, transportation for the Atlantic Yards should be planned in coordination with the numerous other transportation plans and studies underway. The DEIS fails to incorporate proposals from these studies on the pretext that none are “final.”
One example: the city's BRT study.

CBN experts Brian Ketcham and Carolyn Konheim of Community Consulting Services wrote that bus statistics point to a crying need for BRT:
When we re-examine bus ridership using historic growth patterns of each line, it is clear that the addition of Atlantic Yards bus trips will put 7 out of 10 bus lines over capacity, with a demand on the B38 and B41 that warrants more significant measures such as Bus Rapid Transit.
No mention is made of bus advances under study, like Bus Rapid Transit, to serve high use feeder corridors and subway-starved, high auto use areas. Bus Rapid Transit lines being considered by the MTA along perimeter streets around the Atlantic Yards project are not mentioned in the DEIS, yet BRT infrastructure could very well interfere with the pedestrian infrastructure and vehicle drop-off lanes proposed in the project. Once again, although the Applicant boasts that Atlantic Yards is an example of “transit-oriented development,” no additional surface mass transit is proposed, nor is any additional rail transit proposed.

They said that the environmental review should, at a minimum, include a recommendation to accelerate implementation of "Bus Rapid Transit" corridors, including Flatbush Avenue.

The B41 bus traverses Flatbush Avenue; it has a "Limited" version that makes selected stops, but there are no special bus lanes or procedures to facilitate it.

The city's test case: Nostrand Avenue

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has since 2004 studied BRT, and earlier this year identified 15 transportation corridors in the five boroughs that could benefit from--and handle--BRT. The three from Brooklyn under considration: Flatbush Avenue; Flatlands Avenue/Kings Highway; and Nostrand Avenue.

Last week the New York Times reported that the MTA had chosen one route in each borough for a test case--in Brooklyn, Nostrand Avenue. The Times quoted city Transportation Commissioner Iris Weinshall as saying that two of the five routes--which she wouldn't identify--would be functional by the fall 2007, and the others by 2008. The Times reported:
Stops would be spaced from one-half mile to a full mile apart. The bus lanes would be painted a special color, and the buses would get a distinctive paint job, to differentiate them from their pokier cousins. Cameras would be mounted on buses and bus stops to photograph trucks and cars blocking the bus lanes, so tickets could be sent to the vehicles' owners.

On StreetsBlog, Aaron Naparstek pointed to Bogotá, Colombia, where BRT has helped make the city (7 million people, nearly as large as NYC) become a model for urban development. He noted that in Bogotá (and Paris, right), buses get their own, physically-separated right of way, while in New York, BRT would be vulnerable to double-parkers and other scofflaws.

Tweaks and twists

As the Times noted, to move things along, passengers on some buses could pay before boarding. Indeed, a simple rule requiring everyone to exit the bus from the rear would make service more rapid--though that might be physically untenable for some riders. (In Rio de Janeiro, as I observed a few years ago, bus riders enter from the back, pay a ticketseller at a turnstile, and exit through the front. Buses move like rockets.)

The Times reported:
One of the greatest obstacles to the program could be political. To clear the way for bus lanes, parking would be eliminated along some stretches of the routes, which could lead to protests from business owners or residents.

Even with all that, the Nostrand Avenue bus would move people 20 percent more rapidly, according to city estimates.

How would BRT on Flatbush work? Stay tuned for the Final EIS. Then again, it may not come up until after the Nostrand Avenue test case--and that pilot project might not begin until 2008.


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