We like to keep an eye on what’s going on in the world of transport overseas as it can help inform discussion of what happens here and one of the most interesting recent examples comes to us from New York.
The city is well known for its subway system which in the year to the end of June carried over 2.6 billion trips but buses also play a significant role and over the same period, MTA buses carried another 700 million trips. That number has been falling fairly constantly though, down from over 950 million in the mid-2000’s. New York may have found a way to reverse that trend and all with the implementation of a temporary busway on 14th Street that has already been so successful that there are already calls for more of them on other Manhattan streets. But perhaps what’s most important to us is so far it appears to be another example of disappearing traffic.
The origin of the busway stems back to Hurricane Sandy in 2012 which among other damage, flooded the L train subway tunnels that run under 14th Street. In 2016 it was announced that to properly repair them they needed to close the Manhattan end of the line for 18 months (later reduced to 15 months).
The busway was initially proposed as one of the solutions to mitigate the impacts of that and would also help speed up the notoriously slow buses on the surface with those on 14th Street averaging only about 7.5km/h, not much faster than walking and even slower than the average speed of buses in Manhattan of about 9.5km/h. The slow speeds had also seen ridership reduce from about 36,000 trips per day to 27,000 per day over just five years.
The plan was to make large parts of 14th Street for buses, trucks, emergency vehicles and bikes only, with local car access allowed for within a single block. This would be in force from 6am to 10pm. The inclusion of trucks is an interesting one and something we often don’t think about enough.
Of course as with seemingly any change to a street almost anywhere in the world, the idea of restricting cars leads outrage from some segments of society and in this case, even to an unsuccessful lawsuit. Many complaints were that it would cause chaos on neighbouring streets.
The results (so far)
The busway was implemented just over a week ago and the results been so far have been incredibly positive.
Without all of the congestion, the buses are really flowing. So much so that now they’re often having to slow down so they don’t get too far ahead of their timetable.
Just rode the 14th Street Select Bus from 9th to Union Square and it was crazy fast. pic.twitter.com/vpSVYVQIWM
— Pat Kiernan (@patkiernan) October 4, 2019
People were actually enjoying their bus ride.
Reporters who flocked to the M14 during the first few days of the busway found jubilant bus riders shaving up to ten minutes off their normal commutes. As the WSJ noted, bus drivers had to slow down to keep on schedule. I echo AM New York reporter Vin Barone’s observation that it is exceedingly difficult to find someone calling New York City buses “amazing,” yet here we are:
I’m on a pretty full M14 entering Alphabet City and found a few busway fans. From Judy Kahn, who lives in the area and takes the bus across town: “I found it amazing. The difference is unbelievable.” It’s truly to find someone calling a bus amazing. pic.twitter.com/GjWUvqTial
— Vincent Barone (@vinbarone) October 3, 2019
As well as freely flowing buses, one thing I saw a number of comments on was just how much quieter and pleasant it made the streets (once the buses had passed).
As for the traffic impact on those neighbouring streets, it so far appears to have disappeared and reports are those streets are quieter than they were prior to the introduction with even those skeptical of the change positive about the result.
5:20pm at Monday #rushhour on #west13thstreet between 7th and Greenwich Aves. No traffic again. So far 14th st pilot program has been shockingly successful and not what we anticipated. We have fewer cars on the block than before the pilot program pic.twitter.com/R12EeMz3BK
— The West 13th Street Alliance (@W13thStAlliance) October 7, 2019
Well we certainly did not think our traffic problems would be improved by the shutdown but happy that they have. Don’t think anyone could have anticipated this shocking result of pilot program however The West 13th Street Alliance wanted to see the data on this pilot program 1st
— The West 13th Street Alliance (@W13thStAlliance) October 8, 2019
The results so far have already strengthened calls from advocacy groups to repeat the busway on other major east-west streets across Manhattan.
New York isn’t the only example of this recently with reports out of Sydney that since George St was closed to traffic for the construction of light rail, throughout the city centre traffic volumes decreased by more than 10%
The ultimate solution to traffic congestion. Traffic volumes on Sydney's George St plummeted ~100% as soon as it was closed to traffic. Throughout the city centre, traffic volumes declined by more than 10%. https://t.co/pf79Fd8IA5
— Christopher Standen (@multimodalism) October 4, 2019
How is this relevant to us
We’ve already got bus lanes and busways and we know they work. Where the example of the 14th Street busway is important to us is it’s another case of disappearing traffic. When we remove road space for cars it doesn’t mean that traffic just gets spread to neighbouring streets and so is worse, it’s that many people stop making unnecessary trips by cars. and that traffic often gets better. We have of course seen this ourselves with the disruption to Albert St for the City Rail Link which has seen traffic improve in many cases. We’re also seeing the number of cars entering the city consistently reduce.
Perhaps even more important for us is that today marks the start of Art Week and with that the first trial closures of High St which is a prelude to the Access for Everyone concept which will see traffic movement through the city significantly changed, including making the Queen St Valley people and public transport only.
It’s also an important point to think about for Auckland Transport’s Connected Communities programme which is about rolling out more/improved bus lanes across the region. Undoubtedly it will end up with as a modelling exercise where plans ultimately get watered down due to the perceived need to accommodate traffic. Perhaps AT need to take a leaf out of New York’s book and instead of compromising the bus (and bike?) lanes, simply start removing traffic lanes to disappear some traffic here.