Beat that Light, Every Bus Rider Says Silently

The M60 SBS line, which runs from the Upper West Side to LaGuardia Airport, currently makes use of transit signal priority. | Photo courtesy of Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit

BY SYDNEY PEREIRARed light, green light! The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is ramping up its efforts to install “transit signal priority” — a traffic light technology aimed at speeding up bus travel times and diminishing delays — across the city’s bus routes. Last week, the MTA announced that transit signal priority would be expanded to more routes “aggressively” as it works with the city Department of Transportation on implementation.

TSP works by connecting traffic lights to buses through a GPS signal — the traffic light can sense when a bus is approaching, according to Chris Pangilinan, the program director of technology and rider engagement at TransitCenter. The signal then, based on the bus’s location, stays green for longer so the bus just makes the light. Considering buses spend 21 percent of travel time at red lights, TSP could help buses cruise through traffic.

“Transit signal priority has a huge potential to remove a lot of that delay,” Pangilinan said, whose group, TransitCenter, is one of the transit advocacy organizations that is part of the Bus Turnaround Coalition.

The DOT and the MTA have been working since 2012 to implement signal priority, with similar TSP technologies dating back to 2006. The DOT’s starter program of TSP along five routes found signal priority reduced travel times by 14 percent during peak commuter hours, according to a July 2017 report. In some cases, travel reductions were as high as 25 percent.

To date, 10 routes have TSP, and another 10 are expected to be added by the end of 2020— even prior to the MTA’s recent ramping up commitment. The technology, however, still has a ways to go before becoming a citywide phenomenon. Upper Manhattan currently boasts signal priority along the M60 Select Bus Service from Broadway and W. 106th St. to LaGuardia Airport.

Bx12 SBS from Inwood into the Bronx was the second corridor to use TSP. The specific technology used there proved too pricey for the city, so TSP is no longer active on that route. A different TSP system the DOT developed in 2012 is the new generation that’s been implemented most recently.

“TSP really helped that bus,” said Andrew Albert, the co-chair of Upper West Side Community Board 7’s Transportation Committee, referring to the Bx12’s first TSP iteration. “That’s a long ride from the Pelham Bay Park area all the way to Inwood.”

Among the 10 routes where TSP is already in the works for 2020 are the Bx6 SBS that travels from Washington Heights to Hunts Point in the Bronx and the Bx12 SBS line between Inwood and the Bronx’s Coop City. Of the routes already online, only the M60 SBS and the M15 SBS, running from East Harlem to South Ferry, serve Manhattan; the others run in Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island.

Some city councilmembers are pushing the city to implement TSP along bus routes at double the pace DOT has planned. In January, Upper West Side Councilmember Mark Levine along with his Brooklyn colleagues Justin Brannan and Kalman Yeger introduced a bill that would require the DOT to implement signal priority at 10 routes per year for the next four years.

“New Yorkers have a right to a reliable transit system, but millions who rely on buses are suffering because of slower speeds and longer travel times,” Levine said in a written statement last week. “I’m especially excited that the MTA plans to equip every one of its 5,700 buses with transit signal priority (TSP) technology by 2020.”

The MTA’s Bus Action Plan announcement was welcome news to Levine, but his legislation points toward the next step, which is for the city’s DOT to bridge the gap between buses having the technology and routes being green lit for the innovation.

Upper West Side Councilmember Mark Levine rallied last fall with advocates for technology advances to speed bus travel time citywide. | Photo courtesy of Councilmember Mark Levine’s office

Levine rallied last year with members of the Coalition, suggesting that the DOT take a look at the M4, running between Penn Station and Washington Heights; the M5, from Herald Square to the George Washington Bridge; and the Bx19, which runs from Harlem to the Botanical Gardens in the Bronx. The Bus Turnaround Coalition rates all three with an ‘F,’ and the Bx19 is among the slowest with average speeds at around 4.7 miles per hour. A person walks about 3.1 miles an hour, according to the Coalition.

Despite widespread support for TSP from the community, city agencies, and politicians, citywide implementation faces challenges.

Some signal priority efforts outside of New York City focus on shortening red lights, but on city streets with high foot traffic, the DOT is instead reliant on extending green lights.

“Extending the green light is a lot easier to do for the bus coming down the avenue or whatever it might be and provide the benefits for the buses that way,” TransitCenter’s Pangilinan said.

Unfortunately for Manhattan riders, the technology is best suited to the outer boroughs along along two-way streets. The DOT emphasizes that each corridor has to be studied individually, but generally speaking, TSP works where there are not numerous turn signals, on streets with bus lanes, and along streets that don’t already use an existing signal progression approach — dubbed “green wave” — intended to keep traffic moving on a systemic rather than light-by-light basis.

These are issues in the DOT’s court. From the MTA side, its Bus Action Plan also commits to other upgrades, such as expanding bus lanes and all-door boarding. These tools work best together, according to the DOT.

TransitCenter’s Pangilinan echoed that sentiment. Each transit technology advance feeds the others, he said, adding, “That is where the magic happens, if you will.”

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