Recently I raised the question of what it would take to get car and plane travel on the Northeast Corridor down below 24 million trips a year, which is fourteen percent of the current total. Some commenters, notably Alon Levy, argued that it could be done by increasing capacity on current Amtrak trains particularly by adding more cars and improving the signaling system. A new tunnel under the Hudson would be a big help, and this week Senator Schumer made the case for funding preliminary investments in the next budget.
In a follow-up post I argued that while we should definitely be pushing increases in rail capacity, we shouldn't ignore the fact that most of the recent increase in Northeast Corridor transit ridership has been by bus, notably using practices imported from China and Scotland. We definitely shouldn't take the simplistic approach of abandoning train advocacy and "loving the bus, but we should ask ourselves how much bang for the buck we get per hour of advocacy on trains as compared to buses. At this point it looks like we have the advocacy resources available to work on both.
So how can we get more buses on the Northeast Corridor? Well, the two big capacity constraints here in New York are the city streets and the bus terminals. The Port Authority Bus Terminal is full, and the only way that Bolt, Megabus and the Chinatown buses have been able to run more buses is by picking up passengers at the curb. Now that's being squashed.
I've talked quite a bit about frequent service in local transit, following some of Jarrett Walker's excellent posts, and building on the assumption that a train or bus line that comes reliably within ten minutes gives you "freedom" to not worry about the schedule. For intercity buses, the time frame is a little longer, given how long it takes to get a ticket, get your meals and snacks, get on line and board the bus. If there are buses coming every half hour, with enough seats for everyone who wants one, most people would be satisfied.
As I wrote back in 2008, once you're providing satisfactory service, the thing to do is to pick up somewhere else. The Port Authority Bus Terminal is convenient for people who live along the Eighth Avenue line or in Hudson County. It's kind of convenient for people who live a short distance from Times Square, but after thirty-five years I'm really coming to loathe that one-block tunnel.
Chinatown is convenient for people who live there, and for people who live near one of the Chinatown vans. It's also relatively convenient for the Sixth Avenue and Centre Street trains, but not for any of the Broadway or Lexington Avenue lines. In 2008 Megabus and Bolt Bus started picking up at Penn Station, and that was convenient for LIRR and New Jersey Transit riders. Peter Pan Bus Company, one of the co-owners of Bolt, approached Manhattan Community Board 6 about setting up a bus stop on Lexington Avenue across from Bloomingdale's, but were met with resistance.
In contrast, the George Washington Bridge bus station has been underutilized, and I think that's because it's not very convenient to get to. The tunnel from the subway is nicer, but that subway station is only served by the A train. To get to the terminal from the #1 train, you need to walk several blocks through the crowded streets of Washington Heights.
In the comments to my last post, Alon Levy wrote, "I'm implicitly assuming a distribution of New York-area stops that includes a variety of major destinations and origin clusters: Midtown, Chinatown, Fort Lee, Newark, White Plains, and so on. The problem with this is that whatever you do, the buses slow down dramatically once they need to use city streets. The more distributed the destinations are, the worse this problem is. Want to travel from the south to Flushing? Enjoy your hour-long slog through Manhattan and western Queens traffic. Really, any destination in Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island is a nightmare. From Boston, Jersey is also a nightmare."
I don't think Jersey is a nightmare from Boston, particularly Fort Lee and Secaucus, because many of the buses that go from Manhattan to Boston actually travel through the Lincoln Tunnel to New Jersey before crossing the George Washington Bridge, passing right through Fort Lee and Secaucus. White Plains, Flushing and Parkchester are are a shorter drive from Boston than Manhattan is.
On Twitter, John Morris pointed out that Bolt Bus already serves Newark Penn Station, a major train and bus hub. I discovered that they also have a stop in Soho just outside the Holland Tunnel. Megabus also serves the major New Jersey Transit transfer station in Secaucus. White Plains has long had intercity bus service through Greyhound, Shortline and Trailways.
The obvious locations for additional bus stops are close to major transit stations and highway offramps. My top nominees are Flushing, Jamaica, Jackson Heights, Parkchester, Fort Lee, Williamsburg (Lorimer Street), Elmhurst (Woodhaven Boulevard), Sunset Park (36th Street) and Bay Ridge (59th Street). I'm frankly puzzled that Chinatown bus companies aren't already running intercity buses from Sunset Park, Elmhurst and Flushing, but I've seen no evidence.
What can you do to make these bus stops more likely? Write to the DOT and the bus companies to suggest them. Lobby for bus lanes on the BQE and the LIE to speed the buses out of the city. Tolls on the BQE, the Cross-Bronx, the Major Deegan and the Bruckner Expressway would make room for buses to go faster.