Select Bus Service In-Depth: B44

B44 Select Bus Service

(c) 2013 C. Walton

The B44 +Select Bus Service+:  the weirdest Select Bus route in the history of Select Bus Service.

What a ride it has been, hearing about the B44 Select Bus Service saga.  From issues with the routing of the B44 northbound past Flatbush Avenue to the parking space debate in Sheepshead Bay to even the coordination of the SBS implementation with utility work on Nostrand north of Fulton Street, the B44 has had its share of local media attention.  Most notable is commentary from Allan Rosen, contributor at Sheepshead Bites and former MTA Operations Planning director who was responsible for many of the Southwest Brooklyn bus route changes back in the 1980s.  If there is anyone that has more to say on the B44 SBS saga, it would be him.

Let this review not be totally biased towards Mr. Rosen’s commentary, but simply commentary from my point of view.

The B44 runs from Williamsburg to Sheepshead Bay primarily along Nostrand Avenue, with northbound service on New York Avenue in Flatbush and Bedford-Stuyvesant.  The B44 Local and Limited ran on Nostrand and New York Avenues, but when the B44 was converted to Select Bus Service, the SBS was routed up Rogers Avenue instead for a faster ride up to Williamsburg.

The B44 Select Bus Service was a part of Bus Rapid Transit Phase I, originally designed as a precursor to future BRT service in New York and a pilot to see which direction the city would go in future SBS rollouts.  The pilot consisted of 5 BRT corridors ripe for bus improvements, one in each borough:  the Bx12 for the Bronx, the M15 for Manhattan, the B44 for Brooklyn, the Q5 for Queens, and the S79 for Staten Island.  The B44 was selected mainly for its access to subways into Manhattan from areas with little or no service as well as poor reliability from an operations standpoint.  The B44 was given the Brooklyn “Schleppie” award by the Straphangers Campaign for being the most unreliable route in Brooklyn in terms of buses bunching and not making it to their terminals on time.  Go figure: Nostrand Avenue isn’t really wide enough for traffic to <b>not</b> snarl B44 buses, local or Limited.  The B44 SBS attempts to answer this.

There are red offset bus lanes, curbside lanes for the narrower parts of Nostrand Avenue, and bus bulbs at most stops between Flushing Avenue and Flatbush Avenue to bring the bus stop out to the bus and still allow for parking on the street.  Rogers Avenue from Flatbush to Fulton also has the red lanes and bus bulbs.  There is also off-board fare collection for faster boarding, along with new bus shelters and tactile strips next to the curbs to mimic a subway station.  This is the first instance of Select Bus Service where buses can actually pull up to the stop and provide level boarding with the low floor of the bus at most of the completed bus bulbs (106th and 1st Ave on the M15 is the first complete bus bulbs, Houston and 1st is the first prototype bus bulb).  Also included in this project, another first for SBS, is the wayfinder stanchions which show neighborhood information, bus route information, and a screen to display real-time SBS bus tracking information to allow riders to see where their bus is before they decide to take the Select or opt for the local.

Aside from that, the B44 SBS runs fairly smoothly…that is, once operators and passengers have adjusted to the SBS service model.  You can take a ride from the Williamsburg Bridge Plaza to Sheepshead Bay in roughly and hour.  Never mind that the SBS runs pretty much like the old Limited, operating either from the Bridge Plaza to Avenue U/Nostrand or from Flushing/Nostrand to Knapp/Emmons in Sheepshead Bay.  The difference is that all SBS buses make certain stops south of Avenue U instead of the old Limited making all stops south of that point.  The SBS buses also travel up Rogers Avenue to Bedford Avenue as opposed to New York Avenue to Bedford.  This was done to make it easier to make the transition to Bedford Avenue once you get to Fulton Street.  The B44 local buses continue to run up New York Avenue from Farragut Av to Fulton Street… that is, if and when it comes.

B44 Select Bus Service

B44 Select stop at Kings Highway.
(c) 2013 C. Walton

The B44 local operation is so botched, it’s not even funny.  The locals either operate from Avenue U or Knapp Street as they once did, but except for the overnight hours with no SBS service, the local does not operate at all north of Flushing Avenue.  Might as well, since the SBS stops from Flushing Avenue to the Bridge Plaza are basically every other local stop and the distances between local and SBS stops are supposedly negligible (no more than 3 blocks apart).  Aside from that, more buses and more runs are assigned to SBS service than local service; it appears that some buses that would have run local are now Select and Limited buses are now all Select buses.  That means less local service to compete with all the Select buses running around.  This is the exact same thing that happened on the Bx12 at a more subtle scale but very apparent on the M15 which has roughly 50 buses wrapped for SBS when there was only 40 buses assigned to the old Limited.  More service was added to Select to make up for overcrowding and uneven intervals due to congestion.  It’s almost as if the MTA wants people to walk farther to an SBS stop to save travel time and then backtrack to their destination in the same time it would have taken their regular local bus, all in the name of operational cost savings.  The DOT appears interested in getting money from the BRT-happy federal government in order to get street resurfacing and improvements done.  Which they aren’t done yet, since Nostrand north of Fulton is still a mess, even though much of the utility work was already completed.

The B44 is one of the 10 busiest bus routes in the city, one of the 4 busiest routes in Brooklyn, and transports low-income residents of Brooklyn of many racial and religious groups, from Black to Jewish to West Indian.  Nostrand Avenue is ripe with small business activity, and New York Avenue has major hospitals nearby.  When the announcement was made to convert the B44 to SBS but run the northbound service via Rogers Avenue, I understood exactly why they did that, but at the same time was concerned about employees of Kings County Hospital and SUNY Downstate and their access to faster bus service.  The fact that the B44 local, the only service northbound on New York Avenue, doesn’t have enough buses or runs only underscores the issues with the B44 SBS implementation service-wise.  There are all these SBS buses which are practically empty northbound past Flatbush Avenue and practically full southbound up until Avenue U, and then there are these overcrowded local buses taking passengers that a) used to take the Limited and/or b) have no choice but to take the local for their trip.  I will say, though, that Rogers Avenue is a breeze compared to New York Avenue.

B44 riders in Sheepshead Bay got the short end of the stick by running SBS buses with a limited number of stops south of Flatbush Avenue instead of Limited to Avenue U and local the rest of the way to Knapp Street.  The SBS makes only 5 stops after Flatbush: Kings Highway, Avenue U, Avenue X, Shore Parkway, and Knapp Street.  Which is good if you are at the Sheepshead Nostrand projects and needed a quick ride to the (2) train.  If you previously had Limited service, like those transferring from the B31 or B2 at Avenue R, you are forced to take the local bus or walk to the nearest SBS stop.  The exact same deal occurred on the M15, only some M15 locals terminated along Pike Street near the Manhattan Bridge while some kept going down to South Ferry, thus reducing local service south of Houston even further.  In the case of the B44, local riders needing Williamsburg would have to either take the local all the way up and then transfer to SBS or walk to their nearest SBS and take that all the way up (which for northbound riders means walking or taking a crosstown to Rogers to get SBS service).  Never mind the possibility of having to transfer to another bus.  Which is fine, if you have an Unlimited-ride Metrocard, but horrendous if you don’t.

That is one of the biggest criticisms of Select Bus Service, that it really doesn’t offer flexibility between SBS and local service in the same corridor.  At the same time, if it was never offered before, then it should be no different now.  Also, if you cannot ride back and forth between the subway and local buses, then SBS should be no different if we are to believe it is akin to the subway.  Not to mention the debate about how much parking space on Nostrand would be lost if bus lanes were installed south of Flatbush Avenue or whether SBS stop spacing was really necessary south of Avenue U where the Limiteds ran pretty well before the conversion.  Being that south of Avenue U is mainly car country, residents questioned the merit of bus lanes taking up a travel lane unnecessarily even during peak times when buses don’t really get stuck in traffic as much as north of Avenue U.  This is worth mentioning even though the focus is on bus service, not traffic issues.

B44 Select Bus Service

(c) 2013 C. Walton

Some might question the merit of running all buses either to Avenue U or to Knapp Street when some areas of Sheepshead Bay are hurting more than others…namely, B36 riders coming from the Sheepshead Bay (B/Q) Station or B1/B49 riders (mainly B1 riders) who ride to Kingsborough Community College.  I would have suggested running some Avenue U short turns to Kingsborough Community College to alleviate the B1 and provide an alternative to the Q train to Manhattan.  The focus of the B44 would still be on Nostrand Avenue north of Flatbush, but at least South Brooklyn riders would be thrown a bone instead of left with close to no relief in sight.  Besides, many improvements to bus service could be afforded without hurting the operating budget by simply doing ridership studies and altering decades-old routes originally based off streetcar routes to rider demand.

Select Bus Service as the DOT and MTA are phasing it in doesn’t do the public justice, nor does it chip away from the operating budget.  Smart planning can make SBS a real game-changer, but this isn’t it.  The B44 SBS as is doesn’t change the way we look at bus service, it’s just a really juicy story to tell.  Another example of the MTA and DOT with their brains in the right place but still falling short of a true success.

 

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