Select Bus Service In-Depth: M15

M15 Select Bus Service

(c) 2012 C. Walton

The M15 +Select Bus Service+: the SBS that almost wasn’t.  The SBS that was to start a series of SBS conversions upon passing a congestion pricing plan for Manhattan, which ultimately failed.  The SBS that doesn’t give too much hope for a full-length Second Avenue Subway even though the MTA is still committed to building it.

The M15 has always been the busiest line in the city, with a combined 57,000+ riders a day between the local and former Limited-Stop service turned Select Bus Service.  It runs from 125th Street in East Harlem to South Ferry in Lower Manhattan along 1st and 2nd Avenues and Allen, Madison, Water, and Pearl Streets.  It meanders through many neighborhoods of different ethnic groups and socioeconomic statuses including East Harlem, the Upper East Side, East Village, Chinatown, and the Financial District.  Local buses would run all the way down to South Ferry or just to Houston Street, while Limited-Stop buses either went to South Ferry, Houston Street, or the now defunct City Hall branch.  Nowadays, the local runs to South Ferry or just to Chinatown, while the SBS runs to South Ferry with a few trips during rush hours to Houston Street only.

Both 1st and 2nd Avenues are pretty wide, but once you make your way south of Houston Street, the streets get narrower.  The decision was made to implement the bus lanes north of Houston and eventually install Transit Signal Priority south of Houston, which hasn’t happened yet.

Started in 2010, this was the first SBS corridor on a one-way pair of streets, and is one of the busiest if not the busiest SBS corridor in the city.

Most of the SBS stops north of Houston Street are former Limited stops; the stops on Second Avenue that are placed due to subway construction are the main exceptions.  The only criticism I have in that regard is the elimination of stops at 72nd Street on both avenues, which is supposedly due to subway construction.  Otherwise, every SBS is a valid SBS stop.

South of Houston, SBS buses make certain stops whereas the Limited buses made all stops.  Though it was a move to make service south of Houston faster, maybe they should have just made all the Limiteds local down there and run locals to South Ferry only at night.  Nevertheless, some of the stop choices are short-sighted such as Grand and Hester Streets in place of Delancey (especially now that the B39 bus was restored) and Madison/Catherine Streets in place of Allen/Canal Street or Pike Street/East Broadway.

For the most part, depending on the bus operator, the ride can take anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and 15 minutes.  Many factors affect travel time, from traffic at specific choke points to double-parking, cabs, jaywalking, red traffic lights, and even dwell times at some stops.

Yes, even with SBS and its red bus lanes and off-board fare collection.

About the dwell time at some stops: 14th Street/1st Avenue was the biggest offender, pre-SBS and post-SBS conversion.  So much that instead of the two Metrocard machines and one coin machine at every SBS stop, 14th and 1st has 5 Metrocard machines and two coin machines.  This is due to the huge influx of hospital workers coming off the L train and getting on the northbound M15 to Bellevue, VA, and NYU hospitals.  Never mind the haphazard condition of the bus stops themselves (though this is helped by the DOT’s construction of the bus bulbs to bring the bus stop to the bus instead of the bus pulling into the stop) or the close proximity of the bus lanes to the curbside parking lane (or the parking lane too narrow causing cars to jut out and risk getting sideswiped by buses in the bus lane).  Bus bulbs apparently cannot be placed at certain stops due to the narrow sidewalk spaces on certain blocks; bus lanes supposedly can’t be offset on certain blocks due to the DOT’s prioritization of extra travel lanes at bridge and tunnel approaches.  Too bad, because the purpose of this SBS transformation is to make it easier and safer for non-motorists.

What I will praise the DOT for is the paving of 1st Avenue from 72nd to 125th, even though it was probably done to make the NYC Marathon run more bearable more so than to make the SBS experience more pleasant.  It was originally concrete for as long as I can remember, and the fact that they applied the bike/traffic/SBS features on top of this old concrete pavement concoction was laughable especially since most of the paint and markings wore off after the first year or two.  Now that everything is asphalt now, the experience is a lot smoother.  Couple that with the DOT constructing bus bulbs at certain stops on 1st Avenue (Houston, 106th and 116th Sts were first, 25th, 34th, and 79th Sts are built or in the process) and you have the makings of a better experience.  It took them only 4 years…

Houston Street Stop, M15 SBS

SBS stop at Houston Street/1st Avenue.
Example of a bus bulb. Note that the sidewalk extends out to the bus lane; parking is available past the stop, to the left out of view.
(c) 2012 C. Walton

I just wish the SBS stops on both avenues had bus bulbs and offset bus lanes as opposed to curbside lanes in certain places, so that there would be room for bus bulbs and parking spaces that don’t block the bus lane during the midday hours (meaning the curbside lane is buses only during the peak hours and parking only for all other times).  I understand that many vehicles use 2nd Avenue to the 59th Street Bridge and the Queens-Midtown Tunnel, but 1st Avenue gets this same traffic yet it has offset lanes (except from 60th to about 68th Street).  If you have more offset lanes on 2nd Avenue, then you can have bus bulbs at SBS stops and thus have more parking space available which won’t interfere with bus operations.

As far as south of Houston goes, I wish Allen street would have gotten repaving done in addition to the reconstruction of the Allen Street Mall in the center median.  Pike Street and Madison Street did, so why not Allen Street?

The only problem, from the MTA standpoint, is the fact that the SBS has a printed schedule with exact times of arrival.  Suppose there are no delays en route and the bus gets to a certain timepoint 5 minutes before the time shown, this bus would either a) sit at the stop for 5 minutes until departure, or b) start to crawl to the stop even in light to moderate traffic so as not to arrive too early.  If SBS is supposed to be faster, buses should not be held up anywhere for the sake of the schedule.  This is what active dispatching and real-time monitoring is all about, as installed in many BRT systems such as Transmilenio where buses are kept speedy while still maintaining a certain interval between buses.

If SBS is supposed to run every 5 minutes with a running time of 65 minutes from 125th to South Ferry during busy times, let the buses run their course, let the operators drive, and make adjustments as necessary due to traffic conditions.  If drivers are late, then let those buses flag stops and have buses either short turn or placed on standby as they do around Houston Street (some buses only go as far south as Houston Street).  Transit Signal Priority is supposed to help late buses too, but if it’s not installed and working, of course buses will bunch up or be super-late getting down to South Ferry.  It all comes down to operations, and it almost appears that the M15 SBS is just another bus line, with fancier buses, and a route which takes them all the way around the world and back just like the days of the Limited.

Not to mention the deplorable condition of the SBS buses themselves, much like the Bx12 SBS buses which seem to go for days without washes, inspection, maintenance, or any other upkeep due to them being pulled in and then right back out.  Let’s hope things get better with the new Mayor and new MTA chairman.

M15 Select Bus Service

The M15 Select Bus Service. (BTW, remember the flashing blue lights?)
(c) 2010 C. Walton

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This entry was posted in Blog Series, Bus Rapid Transit, Bus Travel, Select Bus Service, US Transit and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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