Miracle on 14th Street: Now Advocates Want More Busways Across NYC

Issue 252

Sophia Lebowitz Nov 10, 2019

It’s eerily quiet on 14th Street these days. You can hear the birds chirp and cross the road without fearing for your life. If transportation advocates get their way, plenty more blocks in New York City will be free from the clog of cars as well.

Ridership of the M14 bus route that stretches down 14th Street has been declining for years but, on Oct. 3, New York City’s Department of Transportation (DOT) made a drastically pro-commuter change: it took cars off of the road. 

The decision was based on a 2016 plan for the impending L train shutdown and was meant to encourage those who previously used the L to get crosstown to take the bus instead. Even after it turned out the L would keep operating during repairs, the plan for the busway remained the same.

DOT faced constant resistance to the plan, mostly from drivers and those living on surrounding streets who, afraid that by removing cars from 14th Street they would suffer massive congestion, sued. Their legal challenge was rejected by an appellate court judge in September.

“Three years later, one lawsuit down, there is a beautiful, functioning bus and truck priority corridor from Third Avenue to Ninth Avenue in Manhattan,” says Chelsea Yamada, Transit Alternative’s Manhattan organizer.

Overnight, the M14 went from the slowest bus in Manhattan to the only one unaffected by car traffic. Weekdays between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., the M14 is in a transit-utopia, sharing the road solely with bike messengers and delivery trucks along 14th Street.

“It is now nothing short of a tremendous success,” says Danny Pearlstein of Riders Alliance, a straphangers advocacy group.

In areas that can be classified as transit deserts, buses like the M14 are a vital form of transportation.

“Buses typically cater to markets that are traditionally underserved by the subway,” says Yamada.

The M14 specifically serves inbound and outbound commuters from the Lower East Side, where there are not many other options for those commuting throughout the city, especially those traveling across town.

Yet riders aren’t the only ones benefiting from the car-free transit corridor. Delivery workers are having a much easier time getting New Yorkers what they need. Jim, a driver who makes drop-offs to the Garden of Eden Grocery Store on 14th and 6th Avenue feels the change.

“It’s more convenient and there’s more space,” he tells The Indypendent.

For cyclists doing deliveries on crowded, and at times hostile, Manhattan streets, 14th has become a breath of fresh air and a great way to cut across town to avoid congestion and the danger that it brings for those on a bike.

“The busway has tremendously helped both pedestrians and cyclists,” says Gareth Coco, a bicycle delivery worker from Sunset Park. “There’s less gridlock, so I’m able to get through seamlessly. I’ve noticed as well other cyclists acknowledging the traffic lights. They’ll actually come to a red light and allow pedestrians to cross.”

There are still skeptics out there though data from the traffic analytics firm INRX shows that the fears of residents on surrounding streets were unfounded. There has been only a marginal difference in average traffic speeds on 12th, 13th, 15th and 16th Streets since the busway opened. 

This singular transit corridor may not seem like a huge move by the DOT but it is setting a new tone in policy after the department’s long history of disappointing commuters.

Average speeds on the M14 had dropped to 4.5 miles per hour prior to the creation of the busway. Riders were fleeing. Yamada notes that “one in four bus riders from 2017 stopped riding the bus because they lost faith in a failing bus line. There were about 10,000 riders that stopped using that bus since 2017.”

All eyes are on 14th Street now. If ridership increases and trust begins to be restored in the MTA, the DOT will have all the more reason to revive other routes in a similar fashion.

“The city should absolutely be considering other major streets for conversion to busways, or transit and truck priority routes like 14th Street,” says Pearlstein. “These could include other Manhattan cross-streets as well as Fordham Road in the Bronx, Northern Boulevard in Queens and Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn.”

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