Although the city’s economy is dependent on its strong public transit system, workers in densely-populated peripheral areas often cannot efficiently access places of employment and other much-needed economic opportunities. Over 750,000 New York City workers commute over an hour each way to work, with two-thirds of these individuals traveling to jobs where they earn less than $35,000 annually. Furthermore, many low-wage service and blue-collar workers need to access jobs outside of Manhattan’s Central Business District in communities without immediate access to the subway system.
Over the last few years, demonstrable progress has been made in addressing these challenges. Since 2008, the MTA and New York City Department of Transportation (NYCDOT) have begun to develop a citywide Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) network to efficiently expand and connect public transportation in peripheral low- and moderate-income communities. As part of their Select Bus Service (SBS) program, this BRT network is comprised of bus routes in all five boroughs that utilize off-board fare collection, bus-only lanes, signal prioritization and targeted bus stops to improve transit time. As opposed to large-scale subway and commuter rail projects, BRT can make better use of infrastructure we already have – our streets – and deliver mobility to underserved neighborhoods at a cost of millions, rather than billions, per mile.
Pratt Center has been instrumental in the development and growth of Bus Rapid Transit across New York City. In 2006, we mapped underserved residential communities and outer-borough employment centers, and documented racial and economic disparities in commuting times of New Yorkers. We then utilized this information in convening Communities United for Transportation Equity (COMMUTE!) – a grassroots coalition including our community-based partners calling for the engagement of local stakeholders in efforts to address unequal transit access. Through COMMUTE!, we educated elected officials about BRT’s benefits, defining a transportation agenda that prioritized it while building an effective base of strong political support. When NYCDOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Kahn announced plans for a citywide BRT network, she noted the importance of our work and the support we had garnered to make BRT a reality.
Furthermore, the City’s BRT plans demonstrate the impact of our research, advocacy, and organizing on the development of a more equitable transportation system. Due to our work, the MTA and NYCDOT have strengthened the community engagement process in the design and implementation of new routes, taking into account many of the direct recommendations that we and COMMUTE! member organizations made by convening Community Advisory Committees (CAC) and increasingly inclusive planning workshops to elicit substance local input. Additionally, the MTA and NYCDOT’s methodology for identifying new routes was informed by the criteria we established for assessing transit needs.
Since the City launched SBS, Pratt Center has continued to be an important and effective champion of BRT. Through extensive outreach, education and mobilization, we work to maximize community participation in the MTA and NYCDOT’s planning workshops for new SBS routes, and ensure that local stakeholders have a meaningful voice in the development of their community’s transportation infrastructure. We partner with small businesses to ensure that new SBS routes enhance, not hurt, local commercial strips. New routes can change pedestrian traffic and affect businesses’ loading zones and curbside delivery access, so their input and participation is imperative to the success of BRT. We are working closely with the Nostrand Avenue Merchants’ Association (NAMA) so that the B44 SBS route in Crown Heights strengthens NAMA’s efforts to create a stronger and more sustainable small business corridor.
We also engage in strategic advocacy for the design and development of new SBS routes that connect multiple communities and boroughs, and mirror the integrated transit infrastructure of the subways aboveground. We additionally advise NYCDOT on engagement and communication strategies for the planning and implementation of new routes. As a recognized expert on BRT in the U.S., we also provide strategic analysis and research in support of regional and national BRT advocacy. In the years ahead we will continue to advocate for a more robust BRT network with more routes, inter-borough itineraries, strategic connections with subways, and dramatically improved transportation access to transit-starved low- and moderate-income communities.