Select Bus Service In-Depth: M60

M60 Select Bus Service

The M60 to the Airport. (c) 2013 C. Walton

The M60 +Select Bus Service+:  the up-and-coming SBS…about damn time, too.

What is there to say about the M60?  Besides, a lot???

Let’s start with the basics.  The current M60 line runs from West End Ave/W 106th Street to LaGuardia Airport (LGA), passing through Morningside Heights, West Harlem, Central Harlem, East Harlem, Astoria, and East Elmhurst.  It runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, with NovaBUS LFS Artic buses fitted with luggage racks for airport passengers.  Ridership is roughly 16,000-18,000 riders a day, most of which are going from the airport to 125th for subways to Midtown or simply going across 125th Street.  Service runs generally every 10-30 minutes depending on the time of day with 19 buses assigned primarily to the M60 (buses #5968-5986 with luggage racks behind the right-side wheelchair securement area) although they do wind up on the M15 local in case of a shortage there.

The M60 was never always like this.  The line started in 1992 as an experiment for service from 125th Street to the airport.  It was basically a variant of the original M35 which ran from 125th Street to Astoria, but instead of terminating at 31st/Hoyt, it would run all the way to the airport, and instead of just serving the (4/5/6) trains at Lexington Avenue, it would also hit the Metro-North at Park Avenue and the (2/3) trains over at Lenox Avenue.  Buses ran every 20 minutes throughout the day and no overnight service was provided.  Eventually, the line was extended to 116th St/Broadway to serve Columbia University and shortly thereafter to its current terminal at 106th Street.   Overnight service was introduced not even 5 years ago due to the demand.  After 1AM and before 5AM, your only option to get to Manhattan was the Q33 to the (7) train.

Articulated buses weren’t used on the M60 until about three years ago: standard 40-foot diesel and hybrid buses were the name of the game.  Ridership soared so high that NYC Transit had to do something about it.  Transit wound up adding service at peak times of the day, introducing overnight service, running articulated buses, even adding luggage racks to buses in order to place luggage oout of the way of boarding passengers.  There are a few things that Transit can’t help such as slow drivers, traffic on 125th Street, the Triboro (RFK) Bridge, and traffic at the airport caused by air traffic delays.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns LaGuardia Airport, and the NYC DOT, along with the MTA, were pressed to find ways to improve access to LGA without building another Airtrain like at John F. Kennedy Airport (JFK) and facing opposition from Astoria NIMBYs (acronym for “Not In My Back Yard”) who don’t want any transit infrastructure or any public works projects built that might require seizure of land through eminent domain.  Bus Rapid Transit, or more locally Select Bus Service, was chosen as the right mode to move forward with to serve LGA better and for much cheaper than a train.

M60 Select Bus Service

M60 Select Bus Service (in red)

With all that said, there has been quite a bit of talk about the upcoming M60 SBS.

The process started roughly around September of 2011 when the DOT invited community members and stakeholders to a Better Bus Service open house and meeting in Harlem, supported by many in the community including State Senator Bill Perkins.  The following year, there was a concensus among the DOT and the MTA to convert the M60 to SBS and bring about changes to the 125th Street streetscape that would a) help the M60 reach LGA faster especially for those attending Columbia University and b) make bus service on 125th Street faster with the red bus lanes widely associated with SBS.

Subsequently, several open houses and meetings were held to show the public what the MTA and DOT have devised for better service along 125th Street:  the M60 would have the SBS treatment, the M100, M101, and Bx15 will operate as they currently do.  The M60 would be entirely SBS with its only stops on 125th Street being 2nd Avenue, Amsterdam Avenue, and the (A/B/C/D), (2/3), Metro-North, and the (4/5/6) stations.  Since the M60 has the highest 125th Street ridership of all 4 lines and serves LaGuardia Airport, the M60 was chosen for the SBS machines and fewer stops, although the M101 has overall higher ridership than the M60 and is a much longer route.  The Bx15 could have been chosen, although that line had its service realigned due to the Bx41 SBS in June of 2013.  The M60 SBS target implementation date was to be September 3, 2013.

Let’s talk about that.

Apparently, Senator Perkins felt that, even with all of the open houses and merchants association meetings, their concerns were not addressed but merely written down for recording purposes and disregarded in favor of their own findings and shoving them down the throats of Harlemites in an attempt to start it up before Mayor Bloomberg left office.   Do recall that it was Bloomberg’s DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan who spear-headed the BRT campaign and collaborated with the MTA to bring us Select Bus Service.

A “emergency town hall meeting” was held in May of 2013 to address the idea that the DOT was rushing Harlemites into a plan that would make 125th Street worse by increasing traffic, not addressing vendor and business concerns properly, and trapping buses in bus lanes on a street that may or may not be wide enough to accommodate them while still maintaining parking.

The idea was that the September 2013 start date was supposedly the DOT’s way of getting the project underway while the Bloomberg administration was still in office and there was little certainty as to whether the new administration would continue the momentum.  While many of the candidates supported SBS expansion, and there were quite a number of candidates, the money to see this through may dry up, effectively slowing progress.

So, if you saw SBS as a way to speed up travel times, you were pretty much the odd man out in a sea of debate (or should I say political games) between the DOT and MTA in one corner of the boxing ring and community leaders and merchants on the other side.  One side wants to see improvements as soon as possible before it will be close to impossible to make a difference; the other side wants their word in edgewise.  One side says that bus riders will see faster service and pedestrians will see safer streets; the other side says that traffic will come to a standstill and vendors will have to vacate their spots for the sake of buses.

One of the main concerns was parking on 125th Street.  The DOT would need extra curb space at designated SBS stops to add bus bulbs for the M60 SBS, being that SBS stops are physically separated from local bus stops (in every corridor except for the S79).  This would mean that parking that would otherwise be in those spots would have to move to other spots (or even other streets like 124th and 126th Streets) where street vendors would otherwise park their cars to sell their merchandise.  I don’t really buy that argument from the vendors’ perspective since they probably don’t have the proper permits to be there to begin with, nor is their merchandise worth buying in some cases.  If they wanted to sell their stuff, then a farmer’s market/flea market should be setup daily in front of the State Office Building at Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd or possibly that vacant lot at Lenox.  Let them park and setup shop there.  It’s still in the 125th Street business district, it’s still in central Harlem, and the subway and buses are right there.  It may not be near the Apollo, but there is the Red Rooster, the Lenox Lounge, etc.  The Apollo is down the street, something a quick bus ride or walk cannot fix.  Even with the parking garage near Lenox, there is still enough parking spots on parallel streets as well as cross streets for vendors and shoppers alike.  Besides, I would think that more people who shop on 125th are walking or taking transit versus driving.

The second major issue is the left-turn ban issue.  Most cross streets that don’t have any turn restrictions or currently have turn restrictions on to 125th Street would have restrictions turning from 125th.  This is to increase crosstown traffic flow and reduce bottleneck delays for cars waiting for people making left turns.  Some intersections would have left-turn bays (long ones, too) to allow cars to queue for the left turn while preserving the flow for those continuing across  125th.  I suspect this issue is more of a communication issue as people hear left turn bans and see the ways the DOT would force people to drive around in circles, wasting valuable parking and shopping time.  There are a number of people who drive all the way across 125th to access the Triboro Bridge or the West Side Highway simply because it is the most convenient route between the two.  Though 126th Street westbound and 124th Street eastbound (east of 5th Avenue) can absorb the traffic volumes, 125th should still be a smooth link, so left turns from 125th should just be accompanied with long left-turn bays or just not permitted altogether at certain intersections.

A third issue was the fact that the M60 was named as the SBS route instead of the M101 or Bx15.  A few people in Manhattan Community Board 9 was under the impression that when the DOT specified better bus service or SBS for the entire corridor of 125th Street, that must have meant the Bx15.  Other community boards felt that since the M101 is much longer and much more prone to delays and bunching, that line would have been the better candidate for SBS.  When the announcement was made to convert the M60, people made a connection that the MTA and DOT are only making “improvements” to 125th Street simply because the M60 goes to Columbia University and the Airport, so it serves those people more than local residents.  The M60 needed help for years, with issues ranging from getting across 125th Street to having to deal with the queue to and from the Triboro Bridge to coping with delays getting through the airport.

A side note:
This is not to say that the other three lines haven’t had their issue, but the M60 needed help, especially since M60 riders have much more circuitous alternatives to the Airport, while Harlem residents have other buses and multiple subway lines as alternatives to the M100 and M101 in Manhattan, the Bx15 to the Bronx.The SBS project actually makes a dent in all four lines, with bus lanes to keep them moving and quell the complaints about slow buses.

Let us be clear that all of the improvements to 125th Street that will foster SBS were originally to be applied to the majority of the corridor, mainly from Amsterdam Avenue to 2nd Avenue, so that everyone can benefit from faster service.  With all of the opposition to the planning process and community concerns, the DOT decided to revise the plan for SBS on 125th Street.  The revision came just a few short months after the emergency town hall meeting, which actually truncated the extent of the bus lanes and street treatments, basically halving the treatments, confining them to everything east of Lenox Avenue to the Triboro Bridge.  It was presented to all community boards in Manhattan (9, 10, and 11), but eventually after all boards’ transportation committees met before the fall break, the SBS plan was “scrapped” when in reality, it was put on hold until a future date.

Here’s the lowdown…

Community Board 9 was disappointed to find that the bus lanes would be non-existent along the West Harlem section of 125th and that a long-standing issue of the M60 stop at Amsterdam Ave being on Amsterdam instead of around the corner on 125th itself.

Community Board 10 was very adamantly against bus lanes in the core of 125th, mainly from just west of the Apollo to just east of the State Office Building, fearing it would displace local vendors and make access to businesses and attractions more difficult.  (I wonder if Board chair Henrietta Lyle had anything to do with this.)  Never mind that this is the same board that probably approved big name stores opening up shop in the neighborhood but eventually leading to raised rents in nearby properties so that small long-time business would eventually have to move out.

Community Board 11 was most in favor of any SBS improvements and would have been in favor of this project due to its community members really need bus service improvements.  Nevertheless, the board was very upset that the MTA and DOT wanted SBS to be rushed into the East Harlem section of 125th at the expense of not dealing with a long-standing issue with the board, namely the issue of relocating the M35 bus stop from its current location at Lexington/125th to another location without increasing the difficulty of operating the M35 through such a congested intersection.  The approval of SBS with CB11 would have caused the DOT to go back to CB9 and CB10 and get their support by simply showing that CB11 really needs it and it would help everyone out.  Being that they rejected the SBS proposal at hand meant that SBS would have to be revisited at a later time.

Thus, we are back at the table talking about SBS on 125th Street, which was placed back on the table due to a certain few congressmen (like Adriano Espaillat) lobbying to the DOT to revisit the proposal and to members of different advocacy groups like WeACT for Environmental Justice advocating for better transit access and holding elected officials accountable for their actions.  The target implementation date for the M60 SBS is around May of 2014.  This is for supposedly “Phase I” of M60 SBS, which apparently includes the revised SBS plan before it was shelved, namely the M60 converted to SBS and the bus lanes from Lenox to 2nd Avenue.  Phase II would apparently be an implementation of the rest of the SBS treatments much like the original SBS plan.

M60 Select Bus Service

Select Bus Service features to be implemented on the M60 in March.

Why is this all important?  We are about to embark on the first true inter-borough SBS line (the Bx12 and S79 don’t count, IMHO) and the hardest to implement, not necessarily because of the backlash and the emergency town hall meeting, but because of 125th Street being a major thoroughfare with major traffic issues during the peak hours.  The M60 is slated to shave off 10-15% off the travel time end to end, which is not very much, about 5 minutes overall, but in terms of just travel along 125th Street, it should save about 20% of travel time.  That is due more so to the stop spacing than the bus lanes.

Why is this all important still?  Harlemites such as myself have been complaining about how long it takes for buses to arrive after they have gone through choke points everywhere else, never mind that when they do show up, it takes forever to board and then once moving they take forever to get across town.  Many a time have I actually beat the bus walking across or have met it about 3/4 of the way to my destination.  Mind you, there are FOUR bus lines on 125th Street.  The bus lanes alone will help out all four bus lines.  The task now is to try and get the buses TO 125th Street so they can finally take advantage of the lanes.

The key to this plan is getting the buses across faster so that they can get to the end of the line faster and thus turn buses around faster and making them available for riders in the opposite direction.  The whole M60 line (and the entire M100, M101, and Bx15 lines too) will not get bus lane treatments, so whatever happens before and after 125th Street is up to the traffic gods.  The M60’s bus lane implementations will be limited to 125th Street and portions of Astoria Boulevard in Queens.  The M100 and M101 on Amsterdam will still have traffic issues, as well as the Bx15 on Third Avenue in the Bronx.  The Bx15 has help since it runs Limited during the day, but the M100 and M101 on Amsterdam are all-local operations.  The M101 on 3rd Avenue is Limited during the day, but due to its length and its choke points in Midtown, the line is fairly unreliable.

Which brings me to a quick point:  The Queens portion of the M60 have practically been summoned to the background, its spotlight taken away by 125th Street.  Queens CB1 and CB3 were given presentations about SBS on the M60 in the Queens portion of the line, mainly about the bus lane treatments, the M60 SBS service pattern with less stops than the current M60, and how the M60 SBS would affect other lines such as the Q19 along Astoria Blvd which has currently a very limited service span.

For information about this future SBS project, check here on nyc.gov.

Will the M60 SBS be as “successful” as the other corridors?  Good question.  I feel that it could work, but the level of success may be a bit low.

 My main concern?  Not fare evasion associated with proof-of-payment in New York City, not with the bus bulbs and local bus displacements by potential M60 SBS stops, not with the reduced amount of stops on the M60 once SBS starts.  

My main concern is the three to five eastbound blocks leading up to the Triboro Bridge.  Unless 124th Street east of 5th Avenue gets a major repaving and restructuring, there’s only but so much that can be done to calm the traffic leading to the Bridge.  There will be an offset bus lane and one general travel lane between Lenox Avenue and 3rd Avenue, then two general travel lanes and a curbside lane until 2nd Avenue.  

That may calm the traffic a bit, but the main culprit I feel is the traffic light cycle at the 2nd Avenue intersection.  There is equal amount of green time for traffic on 125th, traffic on 2nd Avenue, and traffic coming off the bridge.  If there is to be any relief in sight eastbound on 125th during the busiest times, the green time on 125th should be increased.  Alternately, there should be highway signs (similar to those on 1st and 2nd Avenues above the bus lanes) displaying information related to the proper lane to use to access the Willis Avenue and Triboro bridges as well as directions to the 124th Street alternate route.  It would go further to making it easier for traffic to be calmed and eventually make 125th Street a better street to travel by car or by bus.  These things can be done even without SBS, or just before SBS to make conditions easier once SBS does get implemented.  

Let’s just hope that it actually starts this time, and no more “emergency” town hall meetings or political arm-twisting.  Not to say that this will be the SBS of all SBS lines, not at all.  It has its issues now, which will only continue with the SBS conversion.  Less stops on Astoria Blvd might speed things up on the way to and from the airport, and only making major stops on 125th Street may reduce the amount of time it takes to get across to the west side…but then we also have the problem of going through the airport, which the Port Authority says it will alleviate once it gets its renovation plans underway, whenever that will be.  Governor Andrew Cuomo recently alluded to that in his State of the State address, which I hope will be rather soon, since the outdated overcrowded airport needs some attention.  If we can fix the issue of travel within the airport, that coupled with Astoria Blvd and 125th Street improvements can make for a better M60.  It could open the door for future bus improvements at LGA as well as set the precedent for BRT going forward…that is, if the DOT and MTA go about it a bit differently.

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2 Responses to Select Bus Service In-Depth: M60

  1. You would think as a m60 bus driver if you’re right behind an other m60…obviously the services are running late…that you would maybe wait a couple of mn (2) at the terminal D in LaGuardia…and pick up of few pax instead of leaving absolutely empty..and of course the next one was more 15mn late…we’ll of course with more people to pick up…that delay is certainly not going to improve…great communication with your drivers !!! Great l work….you get a solid F..
    In this age were communication is at it peek that should be a no brainer

    • C. Walton says:

      Sophie,
      I can understand where you’re coming from, and it can get quite frustrating when an “empty” M60 passes a packed one or one that is about to get packed. I do use the M60 to get to LaGuardia Airport (and often when I’m not flying anywhere), and it can get quite annoying, especially when trying to get into the airport on a busy night can make it more time-consuming for the buses to pick up and get out. The taxi overflow doesn’t make it any better. Sometimes, the reason empty M60s skip ahead is because the surface level dispatcher (SLD) at 125th Street/Lexington Avenue might have told the bus driver to take no passengers and take the bus to a certain point, such as 31st/Astoria Blvd, and pick up passengers there so that the mob of passengers at that stop don’t encounter a packed bus they cannot get on. I have been in that situation where I had to pass up two packed M60s at 31st Street before I can get on an emptier bus. The bus that isn’t packed can skip to 31st and pick up the mob that the first (packed) bus cannot. Some buses don’t even get to the airport and might get turned back and sent out of service to 125th Street/Second Avenue so that the bus can accommodate the mob of passengers waiting at Lexington Avenue. It’s all about balancing passenger loads with the limited amount of buses available, all while dealing with traffic on 125th, the approaches to the Triboro Bridge, and the Airport. That’s the best answer I can give since, even though I do work for the MTA, I am a subways guys, not a bus guy.

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