How to get buses to run on schedule? Restrict other traffic

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In an unexpected twist, major subway repairs are helping New York City public transit run ahead of schedule.

Since Thursday, October 3, the city’s Department of Transportation has been restricting the number of vehicles that can travel on Manhattan’s bustling 14th Street every day between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. The plan was originally put in place in 2016 after New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority announced it would shut down the L train, which runs below ground across 14th Street in Manhattan, during months of much-needed repairs to the train line. Fewer vehicles on the road would make space for all the L train riders taking shuttle buses instead. Though a complete L train shutdown was averted at the last minute, the 14th Street driving restrictions held.

Per the rules, cars, taxis, and other non-MTA automobiles can only access the street during those hours to get to a garage or pick up and drop off passengers. Otherwise, 14th Street is uncharacteristically quiet. Those who don’t follow the rules will be subject to fines of at least $50 starting in about 60 days.

The restrictions-alternatively known as the 14th Street busway-have only been in place for a few days, but bus drivers are already purposefully driving slower to arrive at their stops on time, reports the Wall Street Journal. New York City public transit riders are predictably thrilled.

Travis Eby, a member of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign Advisory Board, tweeted on October 3, “Had to see it for myself. Buses are really moving, I love it so much @NYC_DOT. Best of all-thousands of New Yorkers get to experience how fast buses can move them when we take space back from cars.”

Had to see it for myself. Buses are really moving, I love it so much @NYC_DOT. Best of all – thousands of New Yorkers get to experience how fast buses can move them when we take space back from cars. pic.twitter.com/Ze3UirPbzx

– Travis R. Eby (@travis_robert) October 3, 2019

Many have posted videos of a clear 14th Street, often echoing Eby’s praise:

The removal of cars from 14th street is working incredibly well. I’m pretty blown away. Nice work @NYC_DOT. pic.twitter.com/YAik3z946N

– Charlie O’Donnell (@ceonyc) October 3, 2019

The excitement even caused “14th Street” to trend on Twitter the day the restrictions began:

Sometimes I think I’m in a “public-transit-matters” bubble BUT THEN I SEE 14TH STREET IS TRENDING ON TWITTER @NYCTBus @NYC_DOT pic.twitter.com/2zqMPF9Oyd

– Kaitlin McCready (@KaitMcCready) October 3, 2019

The DOT’s new restrictions have improved more than just the mood of city residents. Bus speeds on the street have gone up from their usual slow pace. While Manhattan’s overall bus speed average is 5.9 miles per hour, the M14, which travels across 14th Street, travels at a pace of somewhere between 4.8 and 4.5 miles per hour. (To put that in perspective, taxis in downtown Manhattan average about 7 miles per hour.)

The busway could remain a fixture of the city, though it’s currently set to remain in effect for just the next 18 months. While crosstown bus commuters have been pleased with the outcome so far, some business owners on 14th Street lament the decrease in car traffic. Car owners who park in the area aren’t quite thrilled, either.

DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg said during an October 2 briefing that the busway would act as a sort of “trial” for what city streets might look like when congestion pricing takes effect in Manhattan in 2021. Congestion pricing would make it more expensive to drive into and out of the city during peak hours via the bridges and tunnels south of 61st Street.

Trottenberg hopes the lack of cars on 14th Street will increase the number of people who ride the M14 bus, where ridership has decreased by around 30% over the past five years.

There’s a precedent for such an increase in ridership. In Toronto, Canada, city officials banned cars and trucks from the busy King Street to make clearer routes for public transit in November 2017. Since then, streetcar ridership on King Street has gone up by 16% on weekdays. Streetcar service also got more reliable, and riders now save about 30,000 minutes of travel time daily. Both King Street in Toronto and 14th Street in New York could serve as examples for other cities dealing with congestion and crawling public transit commutes-clearing one major street of private traffic in other cities could encourage more public commuting there, because it allows public transit to be more effective.

As for the L train construction that started all of this, it’s apparently going well too. In late September, Governor Andrew Cuomo said the subway line will be fully up and running three months earlier than previously expected-in April 2020.