The M34 and M34A +Select Bus Service+: a somewhat Miracle on 34th Street.
The 34th Street corridor is one of the slowest bus corridors in the city, if not on the planet. Buses go by at an average speed of just 5.5 miles per hour, and travel times from end to end can reach 45 minutes to an hour for essentially a 15-minute ride. The Straphangers’ Campaign, a transit advocacy and watchdog group, has repeatedly named the M34 the slowest bus in the city over the past decade, basically neck and neck with the M23 and M42 Crosstown routes. Yet, nothing is every done to alleviate the issues with the line. Until just a few years ago.
The DOT decided that with Select Bus Service and its bells and whistles, it can transform 34th Street into a corridor with faster service, better traffic management, a better design which caters to buses and pedestrians, and hopefully something that even tourists can use to get from Penn Station to the Empire State Building or to the Javits Center.
Select Bus Service debuted on November 13, 2011 with the exact same buses that were operating the line, the Orion VII hybrid-electric buses you see practically everywhere in the city. The only things that changed originally were the implementation of the curbside bus lanes (34th Street SBS Phase I, supposedly), off-board fare collection, and the renaming of the M16 to the M34A to make it seamless with the M34*.
As times passed, the DOT committed to restriping and repaving 34th Street in order to add bus bulbs to many of the SBS stops on 34th Street, which actually are the exact same stops minus a few, supposedly done to speed up the service. The most disused stops, though well patronized in reality, were combined with other widely used stops so that buses stop less and go more. The stops at 5th and Madison Avenues were combined as were the stops at Park Avenue South and Lexington Avenue.
As new buses were ordered by the MTA and distributed systemwide for older bus replacements, the decision was made to run the NovaBUS articulated buses in place of the hybrids for more capacity. Long overdue, as M34 and M34A buses were just about as overcrowded as they were BEFORE the conversion. As the transformation took place most recently, the crowds on the buses has gone down significanly, though the travel times are still just about as annoying as they were before.
Patience, says the DOT, while they work on the redesign (34th Street SBS Phase II, I suppose), starting from the Hudson Yards/Javits Center area and slowly making its way east to 1st Avenue. It should all be done by this year. There should be bus bulbs as found on the M15 SBS, new lane markings, and new street design which allows two bus lanes, two travel lanes and one parking lane alternating sides as you travel in either direction on 34th Street. For example, the parking lane between 5th and Madison might be on the eastbound side of the street, while the parking lane between Madison and Park Avenue South might be on the westbound side of the street, causing all lanes to shift over. While it may look awkward aesthetically and may feel awkward when driving, it is probably the best compromise for buses, general traffic to keep moving in either direction, and for people who want parking to access their residences.
Let’s see how this will turn out, because right now, with the construction, it looks a hot mess, and service isn’t any better. The buses look so much nicer, with the SBS wrap on the newer NovaBUS LFS Artic buses as opposed to the half-assed wraps on the Orion VII hybrids. I do understand, though, that those wraps were temporary and that they would eventually have to operate larger buses.
I still do not understand the merits of converting a crosstown into a Select route. The idea of SBS was to be a “surface subway” which sounds like a service akin to a Limited bus. Skipping many stops. Replacing Limited service. Converting a Crosstown route to SBS is more like creating a surface “shittle” (a fusion of “shit” and “shuttle”) across 34th Street where a crosstown subway line like the L train or the 42nd Street (S) train does not exist. If that’s the case, why not convert all the busy crosstowns to SBS? Oh, wait, there’s an Upper East Side councilperson (?) that wanted the MTA to consider converting the M86 to SBS as well. And then you have the M60 SBS coming this year. Well, the M60 is a crosstown, but it also serves Queens.
Nevertheless, I still feel that the M34 and M16 should have just received the articulated buses and ran their routes like they used to, much like the current M23 and the M14A/M14D power couple. But since the M34 has been constantly given the “Pokey” award, maybe something a bit more visible was needed to convince people that “yes, we are doing something about the problem and not just giving up before we even try anything.” Yep, that’s it. Make it look like you’re doing your job. One thing I do actually like is that the ends of the M34A don’t have as many machines being that they are near the endpoints on the line. It makes almost no sense to have a fare machine at 23rd and 1st, knowing that the next stop is the last stop, over at Waterside Plaza. The reason that stop has a ticket machine is because it is also the beginning of the line. It makes the job of fare inspectors easier as they can only concentrate on the meat of the corridor, 34th Street, between 1st and 9th Avenues.
By the way, SBS Phase I is basically curbside bus lanes and some transit signal priority experiments along the corridor. SBS Phase II reconfigures the street with bus bulbs and significant lane changes for better traffic and people flow. It is noteworthy because the ORIGINAL Phase II would have transformed 34th Street into a Transitway where buses would take over one side of the street east and west of the Empire State Building, and between 5th and 6th Avenues would have been a space exclusively for buses and pedestrians. It would have been a major shift in paradigm for the city and its residents who aren’t used to the European-inspired thinking behind the Transitway and associated pedestrian spaces. It was shot down by many residents who had concerns about emergency vehicle access to residences during fires or crime scenes as well as people who use 34th Street as the more comfortable way to get to the river crossings.
As much as I would have loved to see the 34th Street Transitway come to life due to its bold nature and promise to make it easier for buses to get across town, it would have been a political nightmare and a traffic nightmare during its construction, especially displacing traffic onto nearby side streets. What a disaster that would have been. My statement still stands: the priorities are in the wrong places as far as SBS rollout. If we want SBS to make a statement and improve access to “transit deserts,” we have to place these improvements where they make sense. Pipe dreams, huh?
*That was the reason the MTA gave us regular folks for renaming the M16 to the M34A. The real reason is because the software that goes into the SBS fare machines isn’t sophisticated enough to print out receipts with both routes on the receipt, nor does it allow the rider to choose a route before paying your fare; the screens aren’t touch screen like the MVMs and MEMs in the subway. It was just easier to rename the M16 instead of going through all that trouble.