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Small fixes like dedicated bus lanes can help New Yorkers reach their destination faster

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Passengers preparing to get off the M104 bus in Manhattan. The millions of commuters still relying on buses in New York City are facing difficulty getting where they need to go in a timely manner.

New York

IMAGINE being able to board a bus shortly after arriving at the stop. If the front of the bus is too crowded, enter via the back door and find a seat.

The bus then glides down a dedicated lane with traffic signals set to green, taking you from Jackson Heights, Queens, to Bushwick, Brooklyn, in 25 minutes.

Cities such as London and Oslo already have bus service like this. Last week, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority announced changes that could make this scenario a reality - including a full redesign of New York City's bus routes and all-door boarding.

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But one key thing is missing from the plan. The New York City Department of Transportation - whose jurisdiction falls under Mayor Bill de Blasio - controls the traffic flow on the streets buses travel.

Therefore, leadership from Mr de Blasio is essential to any effort to transform bus service. The mayor campaigned on a vision of making New York a fairer, more equitable city. With the bold new plan issued by the transit authority, he has an opportunity to help two million of the city's residents reach their destinations quickly.

Bus riders in New York generally have lower incomes and are more likely to be minorities and immigrants than subway riders. Buses can improve connections in neighbourhoods where there are few or no subway stops, including high-density, lower-income areas such as East Flatbush in Brooklyn and Hunts Point in the Bronx.

Because only a fourth of subway stations have elevators, buses are essential for people for whom the subway is not accessible, such as wheelchair users and anyone who has difficulty navigating stairs. The de Blasio administration does have a bus initiative, Select Bus Service, which includes dedicated bus lanes, but, under this programme, only two or three of New York City's 238 local bus routes are upgraded per year. New York buses are the slowest of any big city in the country, wait times are unpredictable and by both measures, things are getting worse.

It's not surprising that ridership on buses in the city dropped 21 per cent between 2002 and 2017, a period when the city's population grew by 7 per cent. Those who can access another option for getting around increasingly do. The millions still relying on buses are facing difficulty getting where they need to go in a timely manner.

According to the Centre for an Urban Future, healthcare workers are burdened with the longest average commutes of any sector of the city's economy. Nurses and home healthcare aides, whose jobs are often beyond reach of the subway, are increasingly worn down by trips that take much longer than they should.

The problem is due in part to traffic congestion, and the mayor's ability to control the flow of traffic gives him two powerful tools: dedicated bus lanes and priority at traffic signals.

Those low-cost strategies have proven very effective at dramatically increasing bus speeds and reliability, and expanding bus usage, in cities such as London, Seattle, Seoul and San Francisco.

It's logical to question the value of bus lanes in New York today. They are often blocked by cars and trucks and are used by the police for parking. Despite being weakened by those violations, bus lanes have still sped up travel times on routes that have them.

For example, the addition of a bus lane on First and Second Avenues in Manhattan increased travel speed by 11 per cent. If respected and enforced, bus lanes would do much more to speed and increase reliability of bus trips. Buses in New York spend roughly 20 per cent of their time at red lights.

The city has the technology to time traffic signals to turn green when a bus approaches, but only applies it to a small fraction of intersections. NYTIMES