As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread throughout the country, New York City is beginning to emerge from its initial lockdowns, with confirmed cases of COVID-19 reaching new daily lows and many cautiously returning to work. Prior to the pandemic that ground New York — and much of its transit network — to a halt, New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority had been engaged in a massive rework of its entire bus network. Going borough-by-borough, MTA New York City Transit’s (NYCT) in-house Operations Planning division has started from a clean slate to develop what they claim is the most efficient and user-friendly system.
People-Oriented Cities started working to evaluate NYCT’s Queens Plan back when “corona” was mostly recognized for being a beer brand. But as the MTA teeters on the verge of fiscal collapse, it’s worth revisiting the Queens plan and seeing how it might fare in a post-COVID world.
First, let’s acknowledge that it’s extremely unlikely the MTA will actually “go under” — as it’s done before, it will likely issue more debt. (A pre-COVID report suggested the MTA would be spending a staggering 36% of its annual budget on debt service by 2022.) However, cost-saving measures will likely be instituted which could impact the level of service that MTA and NYCT are able to deliver in Queens and in the Tri-State area more broadly. So let’s take a look at this plan and then discuss how it might fare for a region coping with coronavirus.
NYCT’s restructuring process, which started in Staten Island and has since extended to the Bronx, has generally started with an “Existing Conditions” report that focuses on the current issues bus passengers experience in each borough, followed by a draft plan and a final plan for route restructuring. During both the assessment and the planning phases, during most of which public gatherings were still possible, NYCT conducted hearings and outreach to determine community input.
However, in Queens, the plan announced in January has faced significant opposition due to a number of fairly significant changes to the NYCT routing structure in Queens. This article assesses the proposed changes by looking at the agency’s underlying strategy and the impact it has on riders. At various points, we will challenge both the NYCT decisions and the complaints made by transit activists, approaching these changes from a technocratic perspective that attempts to balance the service needs of communities in Queens with the operational realities of running a transit system.
Straightening the Routes
The most positive outcome of the new Queens plan is a series of routes that are much better aligned than their previous counterparts. The straighter a bus route is, the faster it can run — it’s as simple as that. Every single turn in a bus route not only increases travel time, since the bus moves more slowly through an intersection when making a turn, but also increases variability, because the bus may be subject to delays when making turns.
A great example of this is the old Q102 bus route, which had a bizarre almost-circular routing from Astoria to Roosevelt Island via Long Island City that virtually forced a transfer for anyone looking to get anywhere. Roosevelt Island’s new route, the QT78, brings an arrow-straight line off the Island into Queens that serves as a cross-borough route and continues to link the Island effectively, with even more subway and bus connections than before.
This isn’t to say that every route should be arrow-straight, either. Turns are a necessary evil so that bus routes can serve key population centers and destinations, and so a careful cost-benefit analysis must be made to determine the value each turn brings to riders. It seems like this plan has included this kind of analysis, and it’s refreshing to see some new life breathed into many of these decades-old routes.
The Subway Connectors
A number of these routes are being marketed as what they really are: connectors to the subway system. Queens is in part so dependent on buses because it has the least dense subway network of New York City’s boroughs (well, except for Staten Island), and a huge number of these bus riders would rather take the subway straight home if one existed. But instead, they’re forced to transfer at a number of key hubs, such as Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights, Main Street in Flushing, and Jamaica Center. By reprioritizing certain routes as subway connectors, the MTA is providing more direct connections to the subway.
That being said, the subways they’re connecting to are changing, which is frustrating to riders but actually a pretty thoughtful and strategic move. Most of these changes are happening along the Queens Boulevard Line (QBL), known to its riders as the E, F, M and R trains — and essentially the spinal cord of transportation in Queens. The two express services on the QBL, the E and F, are significantly overcrowded — to the point that seats have been ripped out of their trains in order to cram in more standing room — while the local M and R consistently have excess capacity at rush hour (though don’t ask anyone who actually commutes on them, they’ll say these are packed too).
This is partially because many of the buses dump passengers off at express stations, particularly Roosevelt Avenue and Kew Gardens-Union Turnpike. Basic commuter psychology tells us that when given the choice between a local and express train to the same destination, most everyone will take the express. In fact, many of the routes currently connecting Queens commuters to the subways take complex routings and sit in additional traffic for the sake of serving these major hubs. The Queens restructuring effectively de-hubs Roosevelt and Kew Gardens and disperses many bus commuters currently passing through this station to other local stations along the QBL. From a passenger perspective, this seems like a loss — they’re no longer able to get their express service into the city. From a technocratic perspective, the operational improvements of routing to local stations are a win for the subway and bus system, and realistically, most journey times will remain the same, even if they “feel” a bit longer on a local train.
The Plan also brings some changes to the bus systems at the borough’s two international airports, LaGuardia and Kennedy. Bus service to airports is crucial, since it’s the primary mode that most airport employees get to work; and it’s additionally important for LaGuardia since the airport isn’t connected to the subway system. The terminal routings at LaGuardia will finally be shifted around to make sense — in part thanks to the Port Authority’s ongoing renovations at that airport — and all buses will run from east to west through the terminals.
One of the Plan’s biggest controversies writ-large is that it essentially represents a massive reallocation of transit resources across the borough. It increases service in some areas at the expense of others, and this has suggested to activists that the Plan is a well-concealed budget cut. Jamaica and Flushing are big winners from this restructuring, with service increasing in geography and in frequency. A number of places where bus demand is slipping are seeing service cuts, such as Middle Village and Astoria; this is a strategic decision by the MTA not to hemorrhage its operating budget on these routes, but it also won’t reverse the downward trend.
Another change that is deeply unpopular is the sheer number of commutes that are being disrupted due to these changes. While some bus routings were inefficient and full of turns beforehand, people had gotten used to them — potentially centering their work commutes, school trips around bus lines, no matter how slow or operationally inefficient they were. This is where a technocratic perspective is just as important as empathy, as one must be able to make these kinds of tradeoffs when necessary for the greater good. Certainly, changing the routing will affect riders differently; these effects will mostly depend on each rider’s income, flexibility of their employment, and numerous other factors; however, delivering an efficient service in the long run is likely the most efficient and democratic way to reorient these routes.
The spacing of stops in the Queens Plan is one of the most significant changes proposed. The distance between stops is a difficult balance to strike when planning a bus network; too many stops will slow the bus down, but stops too far apart increase everyone’s journey time and pose a huge challenge for seniors and the disabled. An ideal stop spacing is generally considered to be around a quarter-mile for local services and a half-mile for limited services.
Conceptually, increasing stop spacing rarely reduces each passenger’s journey time, since passengers have a longer walk to catch the bus; but the resulting increase in bus speed reduces the bus’s operating cost, which means the MTA is essentially offloading its operating costs by making passengers walk. This is the kind of strategic move the MTA is making all over Queens with this plan; effectively doubling the stop spacing on most routes. This has been thought through to an extent, in the sense that key facilities such as hospitals and senior centers have had their stops preserved; but not as much as the “community” would like. In most cases, the local services are seeing their stops shift to around 1600 feet apart, with some limited services going up to 4000 feet apart. This is a pretty sizeable shift which abandons around a third of bus stops in Queens. This should be rethought down to around 1200’ and 3000’ spacing, respectively.
Ignoring the Existing Conditions
When our team researched the Plan, we first reviewed the Existing Conditions report the MTA put together describing the numerous issues currently befalling Queens bus passengers. Unfortunately, it seems like some planners at the MTA didn’t do this, because a number of key issues identified in the report have gone unanswered by the plan. A few of these unaddressed problems are quite confounding.
The Existing Conditions report describes the Q72 as one of the slowest and least reliable bus routes in the borough, including data that shows that it’s not only slow, but getting slower and more crowded year after year. (Hint: these two are connected.) When looking at the Q72’s route, this isn’t that much of a surprise, as it’s the only bus operating on Junction Boulevard — a key corridor in Corona that crosses the 7 train— and it has the added excitement of serving LaGuardia.
However, the Plan doesn’t recommend any changes to the Q72, not even an upgrade in frequency from its current 10–15 minute headways. This seems like a huge missed opportunity, and a failure to reallocate resources to a growing corridor clearly in need of service. In the Plan itself, none of the previous issues with the Q72 are discussed or addressed; the route is merely presented in its current form with no changes.
The same is true with the express bus network; the two slowest services, the QM10 and QM11, both feature oddly shaped routes that force them into the molasses of the Long Island Expressway at its junction with Queens Boulevard in Rego Park. These issues are clearly identified in the Existing Conditions report, but in the final plan, both routings remain exactly the same as before when obvious route alternatives could be designed to join the LIE further upstream.
And finally, the Existing Conditions report identifies a key missing link from LaGuardia to the Bronx, a service primarily geared toward airport workers. Survey data was collected to determine the originating neighborhoods of LGA employees who reside in the Bronx, which to the outside observer would seem a useful way of determining where a new LGA-to-Bronx service might operate. Most of the destinations identified were in the Central and South Bronx, mostly along or near Grand Concourse. So why does the QT50 — the new proposed LGA-to-Bronx route — only travel to Pelham Bay Park, a subway station with no rail and only minimal bus connections to the place most people actually want to go?
It’s not very useful to spend money and time researching existing conditions if the eventual Plan doesn’t actually address the issues raised in research, and this suggests the somewhat nefarious possibility that the Queens Bus Plan is really a budget cut wearing a fancy suit. Most of the unsolved problems could be simply solved by spending a bit more money — adding more frequency to the Q72, or extending the QT50 beyond the first exit off the Whitestone Bridge.
The Missed Opportunity
It’s evident from this plan that the MTA sees the bus as a secondary form of transportation to the subway. Much of this bus “transformation” plan relegates the bus to being a subway connector rather than a method of transportation in its own right. The subway is naturally a faster way to move between boroughs now, but that’s not just because its trains operate at 30 miles per hour on an exclusive right-of-way. That’s also because the power of the bus has not yet been harnessed as an interborough connector.
As evidence of this, most of today’s routes which link Queens and Brooklyn only connect to subway stations in the other borough and leave other neighborhoods underserved. Half of these interborough routes cross over the border and terminate at the first subway stop they can find. This is a problem for both bus and subway riders. For bus riders, the added transfer represents more waiting time and more walking that could be avoided with a one-seat ride. For subway riders, the added influx of these transferring passengers is a capacity crunch, especially at rush hour. Rather than designing the buses to shuttle riders to subways, the best design principle would be to design the buses to keep as many of their riders off the subway entirely.
An example of this are the routes which operate in between Queens and Manhattan. The Q32, Q60, and Q101 both cross the Queensboro Bridge, but the Q60 and Q101 immediately turn back at the foot of the bridge, requiring anyone continuing on further into Manhattan to transfer to the subway at Lexington Avenue or to another bus.
The Q101, which runs through subway deserts in Ditmars-Steinway, is a huge missed opportunity. Instead of providing an alternative to keep riders moving completely off the subway, the Q101 dumps them off unceremoniously with little opportunity for further travel.
Ironically, a Manhattan crosstown route, the M57, ends its route just a couple of blocks away. Given that crosstown subway connectivity is limited, joining the Q101 to the M57 would not only provide an alternative to the subway, but it would actually link two areas of the city where subway connectivity is relatively poor, and it would create one-seat rides that aren’t even possible as a two-seat ride with the subway now.
Somewhat of an alternative is created with the proposed QT61 route, which provides a new crosstown service along 59th Street in Manhattan and connects it to Elmhurst (see below); but it’s not clear why this isn’t a full crosstown route in the way a Q101+M57 could be.
The plan does create some new cross-borough connections that don’t exist at the moment, and this is a step in the right direction. The QT76, for instance, is a new route combining aspects of the current Q101 with the B24 route, providing a one-seat ride between Astoria and Williamsburg.
However, what this route effectively does is replaces a one-seat ride to Manhattan with a one-seat ride to Williamsburg, since the Q101 to Manhattan is going away in favor of the QT76 and the QT2, another route to Brooklyn. The idea to provide inter-borough service to Brooklyn is a great idea, but cutting the route to Manhattan in favor of one to Williamsburg is not.
Ultimately, it produces headlines like this:
The lack of cross-borough connection is evident in the resurgence of the Brooklyn-Queens Connector, or “BQX”, a streetcar line proposed by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration that would link Astoria to Red Hook in Brooklyn. The BQX has been spearheaded by the city’s Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), similar to the ferry system set up by the city, and instead of the MTA, which has no desire to operate a streetcar service. The BQX has been derided for coming in at a pricey $2.7 billion (and likely to cost more), but has been heralded for connecting a number of growing neighborhoods which lack good transit service.
It’s worth noting two things: one, most of the marketing around the BQX revolves around a need for connections between these underserved areas, not around the need for a streetcar specifically; and two, the BQX makes connections completely left behind by the bus networks of both Brooklyn and Queens.
The BQX hasn’t emerged because everyone is dying to see a streetcar line through their neighborhood; it’s because people in Brooklyn are tired of having to go through Manhattan or transfer between three buses to get to Astoria. It’s emerged because the MTA isn’t effective at planning cross-borough transit, and NYCEDC’s bigger scope of citywide economic development enables it to accomplish work at the cross-borough level. If they were, residents wouldn’t be clamoring for a $2.7 billion streetcar; the MTA and NYCDOT would be working on a much better-value bus rapid transit (BRT) system with a series of routes more effectively linking the boroughs, and the Mayor’s BQX team wouldn’t have to issue a series of outright lies about why buses aren’t a suitable alternative. Thankfully, the BQX is unlikely to come to fruition, especially as budgets are strained in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
The same issue is painfully apparent with the previously-mentioned QT50 bus, the proposed route that connects LaGuardia Airport to one corner of the Bronx. Clearly, the mandate to serve the Bronx is understood; however, the Queens planners were clearly not thinking how they might structure the route to also improve transit in the Bronx at the same time. The result is a forced transfer and missed opportunities for more comfortable bus rides.
Unfortunately, the borough-by-borough planning process the MTA has undertaken for this route restructuring is not indicative of a change in the MTA’s philosophy about this. While it’s good to see a handful of these Queens routes reach deeper into Brooklyn, this isn’t the paradigm shift that many transit riders were hoping for. This isn’t to say that every bus route needs to travel in more than one borough; but borough lines that don’t impede where New Yorkers reside, work, go to school, and go about their routines shouldn’t impede the transit system, either. To privately owned cars or ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft, these boundaries are completely arbitrary, and that’s in part why they remain heavily used to travel in between all of New York City’s boroughs.
New York City’s ongoing bus restructuring program is an opportunity to turn a subway-dependent city into a transit-dependent city; one which could see a paradigm shift in how people move around, reducing our reliance on a few key subway lines and providing multiple viable modes of travel into Manhattan from key locations in every borough. The real “restructuring” could have been rupturing the social norm by which every Queens resident is shuttled to the subway rather than provided multiple alternatives. Instead, this planning process feeds a broken, siloed mentality that all roads must lead to an already-crowded and challenged rail system, and represents a missed opportunity for all New Yorkers.
If anything, the coronavirus pandemic might be the perfect opportunity for a paradigm shift in how mobility is conceptualized and operated in New York City. Until a vaccine emerges, crowded rail systems may simply not be a viable option. Buses — which can more easily facilitate airflow that helps to disperse airborne coronavirus particles — will need to become a bigger part of the transit landscape, as will fully-outdoor commuting methods, particularly cycling and shared mobility products like Citi Bike and Revel.
As some New Yorkers also shift to personal vehicles in response to trhe pandemic, it’ll also be crucial to ensure that these restructured bus routes receive the priority on crowded city streets that they deserve — especially since most of the ridership on transit consists of essential workers who deserve a streamlined commute. New York is long-overdue to expand and extend its network of bus-only lanes, implement all-door boarding, and implement contactless digital fare collection, all of which would greatly speed up bus journey times. These are all worthy of a separate article (rest assured, we’ll write it!)
Most likely, however, the bureaucracy associated with these new routes will mean that they won’t hit the streets until NYC have returned to quasi-normal, assuming a vaccine is expected by next year, so they’ll be entering a world in recovery — but a world where ridership is just as uncertain as travel patterns, since some COVID-induced changes to commute patterns (and for some, the removal of a commute entirely) are here to stay.
Overall, the contents of the plan aren’t half-bad. There’s a lot of improvements (though not every rider will see them), and a lot of routes will make much more sense than they used to. Connections to subways will be easier for both those on the bus and those on the train. The resulting system is one that will be more efficient, more reliable, and to use a cliché often used by conservatives, is government running “more like a business”; gutting many of its money-losing ventures and concentrating its capital and its people where the demand is — in this case, Flushing and Jamaica, especially.
Transit isn’t a business, It’s a vital public service upon which millions depend, and this plan charts a dangerous path. These “business decisions” are based on past data, and 2020 has taught us that it’s impossible to forecast what might change in the next year. If the MTA continues disguising budget cuts as “service redesigns”, then Middle Village won’t feel like it’s in the Middle of anything anymore. ❒