BY THE VILLAGE SUN | Many New Yorkers are a bit leery, understandably, about hopping back on mass transit right now. After all, we’re still being told to socially distance and be careful about touching surfaces in public.
Not surprisingly, then, it’s expected that more people will be commuting by car, feeling it’s just safer.
But on Monday, coinciding with phase one of the city’s reopening, Mayor de Blasio, in a bold show of support for mass transit, declared that the new 14th St. busway is now permanent.
“The 14th St. busway, this has been a success by every measure,” de Blasio said. “I said, we’re going to do it, we’re going to see if it works, we’re going to see, do people ride the bus more? Does the bus go faster? Does it have any negative impact on the surrounding streets? And the jury is back. The answer is, it is a clear success. We are making the 14th St. busway permanent.”
Launched in early October, the 14th St. busway was initially pitched as an 18-month pilot project. The stated plan was that, after the year and a half, the project would be assessed and then a decision made on whether to continue it. Now, however, after only eight months — with more than two of those months falling during the low-traffic COVID-19 lockdown — the busway has been decreed a permanent fixture on 14th St.
The first-of-its-kind program bans cars from 14th St. between Third and Ninth Aves. between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. seven days a week. Only buses and trucks are allowed as through traffic during those hours. Cars and taxis can enter the crosstown boulevard, but must then take their first right-hand turn off of it.
The mayor also announced Monday that the city is now moving forward with creating five more busways around town.
“I don’t think a busway like 14th St. was successfully achieved previously in city history,” de Blasio said. “The fact that today we’re saying 14th St. is now permanent [as a busway], five more coming in; it is the beginning of something really positive, obviously, between the busways, the Select Bus Service, all of these approaches have been working. And that opens the door to a very positive future for New York City. And this is a great time to do it because we got to give people confidence to come back to mass transit.”
Streetsblog reported that the new busways will include Fifth Ave. between 57th and 34th Sts.; E. 181st St. from Amsterdam Ave. to Broadway; Main St. between Sanford St. and Northern Boulevard, in Flushing, Queens; Jamaica Ave. from Sutphin Boulevard to 168th St., in Jamaica, Queens; and Jay St. between Fulton and Tillary Sts., in Downtown Brooklyn.
Along with the new busways, dedicated bus lanes will be added on E. 14th St. between First Ave. and Avenue C, as well as three other locations, in the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island. The E. 14th St. dedicated bus lanes will be added this month, the mayor said.
Predictably, transit-advocacy groups were elated at the news that the 14th St. busway is not going anywhere.
“The 14th St. Busway has been a resounding success,” said Danny Harris, executive director of Transportation Alternatives. “We are pleased to see it made permanent, and that more busways will soon be coming online. New Yorkers deserve a bus commute without being stuck in endless car traffic. Our streets must be a tool toward the city’s recovery, and we look forward to working with the Department of Transportation to bring more bus-only corridors across the five boroughs.”
“As almost everybody knows, the busway is a historically great success,” said Danny Pearlstein, communications director for the Riders Alliance. “Riders are thrilled to see it made permanent and inspire imitations citywide.”
The 14th St. busway has strong political support. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer tweeted her approval of locking it in for good.
Many refer to me as Borough President Brewer but from now on you can also refer to me as Busway President Brewer. I’m proud to have been the first elected official to support a busway on 14 Street and thrilled that @NYC_DOT has heeded my calls for a busway on 181 Street. https://t.co/aAYMm7aGnw
— Gale A. Brewer (@galeabrewer) June 8, 2020
However, many residents in the Village, Chelsea and surrounding areas, continue to staunchly oppose the no-cars concept.
Elissa Stein, a steering committee member of the ad-hoc 14th St. Coalition, which previously sued to stop the busway, said de Blasio making the call right now is “nonsensical.”
“The fact that the mayor made a permanent decision about the 14th St. busway during a pandemic, when New Yorkers were sheltering in and not traveling, not to mention before reports from a comprehensive study about the project’s impact was completed is downright nonsensical,” she said. “As the city moves toward renewed viability, both local residents and those living and working in neighborhoods affected by the [car] ban should have the options of every form of traffic possible to get us up and running again.”
Village attorney Arthur Schwartz has been waging an ongoing legal battle against the transit scheme. He’s had some success previously, twice delaying the busway’s launch.
Most recently, in early May, Schwartz filed a court appeal seeking to revoke the novel transit scheme. The plaintiffs include the Council of Chelsea Block Associations, the Flatiron Alliance, the W. 12th St. Block Association, the Upper W. 13th St. Block Association, and the W. 13th St. 100 Block Association.
Schwartz, who lives on W. 12th St., is arguing the case pro bono.
The lawsuit argues that the city failed to do a required environmental study for the busway under the State Environmental Quality Review Act, or SEQRA.
The appeal notes, presciently, that local residents predicted the city would make the busway permanent.
Meanwhile, the suit says, from the start, neighbors feared that banning cars from 14th St. would simply push the vehicles onto their side streets — mainly, 18th, 19th, 20th and 12th and 13th Sts. In fact, after the busway launched, car traffic and horn honking around one spot in particular — University Place and 12th and 13th Sts. — did significantly worsen, according to locals.
In December, the first survey after the busway’s launch found that both ridership and bus speeds were up. The report on the second survey — covering the winter period — was recently released; it shows that traffic volume and travel times on some side streets were up — though the travel times generally did not rise by much. Meanwhile, the data also show that the number of accidents in the area dropped for drivers and pedestrians, though held steady for cyclists.
There were supposed to be several more quarterly reports issued before the end of the 18-month pilot project.
“I thought it was weird timing,” Schwartz told The Village Sun, regarding de Blasio’s announcement that the busway was permanent.
The attorney said he figured the mayor did it since he’s facing criticism from all sides over the Black Lives Matter protests and needs “a feel-good story.”
“He doesn’t have many friends right now,” Schwartz noted.
“The case is going to be argued in September,” he said of the appeal. “And if I win, they’re going to have to stop the busway. And if I lose, then the next mayor’s going to have to figure out what to do about it.”
Schwartz added he’s also concerned about the busway’s impact on merchants along 14th St. Even before the pandemic and the “Pause,” merchants had complained that the busway was hurting their business. But Streetsblog skeptically demanded that the merchants “show their receipts” to prove their bottom line was really being impacted.
David Marcus, a founding member of the 14th St. Coalition, said de Blasio and TransAlt are “delusional” to think people won’t keep shunning mass transit for at least the near future.
“I am pissed to have been lied to — again,” Marcus said. “They never produced the data supporting the alleged increase in bus speed; particularly any incremental speed over what was achieved with the turn restrictions that were already in place, which produced 90 percent of the improvement.
“Nor have they ever addressed how much of the improvement was on the backs of the elderly and disabled, whose essential bus stops were removed to speed up the buses [for Select Bus Service].
“Most of all,” Marcus said, “it wasn’t anything close to the 18-month study they claimed it would be. Nor did they ever come back to review the busway with the community [after the end of the pilot project], as they promised they would.
“I heard de Blasio today claim the busway was an overwhelming success — but without any data to support that,” the busway critic continued. “It seems that it is not only Trump who can declare facts and truth without an ounce of corroborative evidence. … It’s really sad and so far from the reality of the harm it has foisted on our side streets, in favor of a minuscule percentage of New York City commuters.
“The proof is in the reality that most people are shunning public transportation in favor of the safety of their cars and it’s delusional to think that will change anytime soon, no matter what Transportation Alternatives fantasizes and lies about,” Marcus said.
“It is a flawed and thoughtless plan that panders to a well-endowed lobby of the minority.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released its recommendations for transportation during the pandemic.
For all transportation, the C.D.C. recommends practicing social distancing, keeping 6 feet away from others who are not in one’s household. Older adults and those with underlying medical conditions, should limit their travel, according to C.D.C.
Specifically for public transit, the health agency recommends straphangers avoid, or at least limit, touching frequently touched surfaces, such as kiosks, touchscreens, ticket machines, turnstiles, handrails and benches, as much as possible — and wash hands and use hand sanitizer as soon as possible after touching these surfaces.
Also, the C.D.C recommends that straphangers travel during non-peak hours, as well as “consider skipping a row of seats between yourself and other riders if possible” and “enter and exit buses through rear entry doors if possible.”
Finally, the agency advises, after exiting a bus or a subway station, straphangers should use hand sanitizer, then, after arriving at their destination, wash their hands with soap and hot water for 20 seconds.