Speaking of "Just Do It": A 14th Street bus transit mall for Manhattan
The New York City newspapers have articles about the short distance dedicated transitway that is being created on part of 14th Street, between 3rd and 9th Avenues, in Manhattan. Not only will there be a "dedicated lane," for the most part, passenger cars will be "banned" as well.
This project was originally proposed when the L line subway was going to be closed 18 months for repairs.
-- ""RPA/Transit Riders Alliance proposal to respond to the L Subway shutdown includes a dedicated transitway on 14th Street in Manhattan," 2016
Curbed New York goes further, recommending banning cars from Manhattan ("It’s time to ban cars from Manhattan: New York City’s traffic woes have reached a tipping point, and banning cars is the solution"). Among other points, it states that only 22% of households in Manhattan own cars, but the surface mobility system privileges the movement of cars.
But even though plans have changed for the L Line, so that subway line remains operational while being repaired, the City Department of Transportation is going ahead with the proposal, which had been held up by a lawsuit.
-- 14th Street Transit & Truck Priority Pilot Project brochure, NYC DOT
While the New York Post article is pretty shrill ("The 14th Street car ban begins tomorrow — here’s what you should know"), referring to the initiative as a "car ban," befitting its pro-car editorial slant, another shrill NYP article ("De Blasio’s ‘busway’ plan for 14th Street is a nightmare set to unfold") inadvertently makes the point that to be most effective, the "car ban" should be extended further, especially through an area full of construction projects.
While the text doesn't really cover it, the headline of a New York Daily News article ("As city kicks cars off most of 14th St., fate of future street redesigns hangs in the balance") makes the point that the success or failure of this 18-month pilot will impact similar initiatives elsewhere in the city.
Recently, I picked up a bunch of books, many dating to the 1970s and some originally published overseas, on pedestrian zone initiatives, including what are called transit malls -- transit malls are dedicated to bus transit and may or may not have pro-pedestrian elements.
(Bus) Transit Malls. In the US, today, the most prominent transit malls are 16th Street in Denver, Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis, and the transit mall on 5th and 6th Avenues in Portland, Oregon. While these streets concentrate bus service, the Denver and Minneapolis bus malls also have a separate bus-mall-only bus that is free, basically an intra-district bus service.c
Making the case for intra-city (vs. inter-city) transit planning," 2011
Even more so than 16th Street in Denver, the Nicollet Mall is intended to be an active pedestrian district, which is tough because of how the retail and entertainment sectors are organized, but they continue to invest in this, including a recognition of the need for special treatments at night.
Nicollett Mall after a redesign including new sidewalks, nearly 250 trees, LED lighting, 12 bus shelters and the city’s largest public art display outside of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, as well as new street signage, point-of-interest signs and totem maps. Photo by Justin Gese.
The problem with transit malls is by concentrating bus service, they are great for bus service, but the quality of the pedestrian experience isn't so great, because buses are big and noisy.
A Streetcar Transit Mall: King Street, Toronto. More recently, Toronto has made a key section of King Street, a streetcar "mall."
In terms of its capture of total trips, the King Street streetcar is an outlier, where 75% of the mobility throughput (65,000 people) on the corridor is by streetcar and 25% by cars (20,000 vehicle trips), with such a high percentage of the throughput being captured by transit.
I know that on many of DC's primary bus routes, transit as a proportion of the passenger throughput isn't quite as high, but is still above 40%, which is very good.
King St. has changed to more pedestrian and TTC friendly with cars only allowed to go a single block along the street before having to turn off. (RICHARD LAUTENS / TORONTO STAR). The TTC announces the King Street streetcar prioritization project on vehicle livery for the streetcar line.
Shawn Micaleff, a columnist for the Toronto Star, has a piece on the King Street initiative, "King St. pilot project does what big cities around the world are doing," writing:
One of my earliest memories of feeling frustrated in Toronto was riding a streetcar. The streetcars themselves were fine: elegant street ships sailing the city’s rail network like an electric nervous system.I think this is one of the most important surface transportation initiatives right now in North America ("A transit miracle on King St. shows how it can work," Star), because despite the headline of the Micaleff column, the fact of the matter is that most cities are not prioritizing transit in this way, because the electorate continues to be car-centric, so that elected officials don't have the cover to be able to pursue transit prioritization on city streets.
What was confounding was that one lone car turning left, often just carrying one driver, could hold up an entire streetcar filled with dozens of people, sometimes up to 130 or over 200 people, depending on if it was a short or long streetcar. Other times there were just too many cars on the road to allow quick passage of a mass transit vehicle.
Something seemed out of whack. How could this be? Was there no political courage in this new city of mine to give vehicles carrying many people a quicker passage? My newcomer’s naïveté was soon corrected.
The world hasn't yet come to an end. According to Crain's New York Business ("Buses cruise 14th Street on first day of traffic experiment"). From the article:
The first day of the city's busway experiment on the crosstown street zipped buses along to the point drivers had to slow down to keep to their schedules, The Wall Street Journal reported.
The MTA's acting head of bus operations told the Journal the agency might have to shorten its schedules if the pace continues. That's quite a shift from a report earlier this year on the M14 route's reliability, which found only about half its buses typically arrived on time.
According to the New York Times ("Cars All but Banned on One of Manhattan’s Busiest Streets"), this only impacts 21,000 vehicles/day, which isn't a whole lot. From the article:
Buses cruised along without getting trapped behind cars.
Thousands of riders used to being late to work or for appointments were suddenly early.
On Thursday, New York City transformed one of its most congested streets into a “busway” that delighted long frustrated bus riders and transit advocates but left many drivers and local businesses fuming that the city had gone too far.
Passenger cars, including taxis and Ubers, were all but banned from 14th Street, a major crosstown route for 21,000 vehicles a day that links the East and West Sides of Manhattan.
It was New York’s most ambitious stand yet against cars since the first pedestrian plazas were carved out of asphalt more than a decade ago.
Transitways were more common in the 1970s and 1980s. But I didn't know that dedicated transitway networks were much more common in the 1970s and 1980s, as part of various initiatives to promote transit and the continued relevance of inner cities as major employment centers.
-- "We had bus lanes a half century ago and we can again," PlanIt Metro (WMATA, Washington), 2014
As automobile usage continued to grow and transit ridership dropped significantly, these transitway networks were discontinued, in DC, Philadelphia ("Did Philadelphia make a terrible mistake getting rid of the Chestnut Street Transitway," Philadelphia Inquirer), and elsewhere.
From the PI:
For many Philadelphians, it is an article of faith that the bus-only Transitway was a major policy fail that nearly killed shopping on Chestnut Street. But from the vantage of 2018 (as well as the back of a traffic-moored 42 bus) that narrative seems as outdated as tie-dye and bell-bottoms.Therefore creating a transit prioritized surface street in Manhattan is a big deal. New York City already has a large number of dedicated bus lanes, called Select Bus Service. But like in most places, these are exclusive lanes as part of a street that has other lanes dedicated to regular traffic.
Opened in 1975, the Transitway transformed the 12 busiest blocks of Chestnut Street — from Sixth to 18th — into a corridor that prioritized pedestrians and buses over cars. Because it was a product of the ‘70s, when cities were struggling to compete with suburban shopping, the Transitway was really an urban mall in transit clothing, featuring elaborately paved sidewalks, lots of pedestrian seating, and futuristic traffic lights called “Transitrons.”
Even though the city was mainly interested in simulating a suburban shopping experience, the corridor was still a transit-rider’s dream. In its original incarnation, buses cruised in both directions. Maybe the most futuristic thing about the Transitway was that you could get from one end of Center City to the other in under 15 minutes.
Yet, within a few years of its creation, merchants turned against the project. The Transitway was blamed for everything from dirty sidewalks to unruly teenage behavior, especially after the Easter Parade got out of hand in 1985 and shop windows were broken. Based on news clips from the time, it’s striking how much the complaints resemble those that would be leveled later against the Gallery, another disgraced ‘70s retail experiment.
-- Select Bus Service, NYC DOT
What is happening on 14th Street is different. Regular passenger car traffic is now excluded, so they are on the way to developing a bus transit mall, except that taxis/ride share vehicles (and this is not uncommon) and delivery vehicles still have access.
That New York City is creating a highly visible bus priority transitway on 14th Street is noteworthy. It will be highly prominent, and if successful (although NYC has other preconditions supporting success not necessarily possessed in the same way by others) it will make it easier for other transit agencies to promote and deploy similar initiatives.
(Like the Select Bus Service, DC is slowly expanding a new network of bus transitways. See "DC's downtown bus lanes aren't temporary after all," WTOP-radio).
How to make the 14th Street bus mall an even bigger deal: bi-articulated buses. In the piece I wrote in 2016 about this, which was originally a response to the planned closure of the L subway line, I suggested that like in Europe, it would be transformational to deploy bi-articulated buses.
I've seen them in operation on the bus mall in Hamburg's pedestrian district ("Monckebergstraße transitway in Hamburg, Germany and bi-articulated buses," 2014).
The 14th Street bus mall "pilot" would be an even bigger deal if they could use 80' bi-articulated buses. Or even just get a chance to demonstrate them.
Bi-articulated bus, on Mönckebergstraße in the Spitalerstraße pedestian district, Hamburg, Germany.
But the FTA and the FHWA don't allow bus vehicles of this length on public streets in the United States. (On freeways, some states allow similar length truck and trailer tandems.)