By: Joel Epstein
How come every time I am in Latin America I come down with a case of transit envy? It happened again recently when I landed in Lima where my sobrino Teo is spending his remote Spring college semester. January, February and March in Boston or Summer along the Malecón de Miraflores in Lima? You decide.
The current 6 pm to 6 am curfew is putting a cramp in El Joven’s style but for me, the relative calm of the typically bustling city, offered a chance to study El Metropolitano, the workhorse of Lima’s transit system. I also got to enjoy Ciclovía — the weekly open streets event — and savor the country, its natural beauty, the food and the culture.
Though no one I met in Perú thought much of the succession of corrupt leaders who have ruled the country these past fifty years, to their credit, most Peruvians seem to believe that Covid is a deadly disease that needs to be taken seriously. In the cities, most everyone wears a mask, more or less correctly, and temperature taking and having your hands sprayed with alcohol is the drill at all businesses. Many stores and offices have also installed disinfectant mats at the entrance. On mass transit, airline flights and intercity buses, face masks, temperature taking and face shields are all required. Plastic, the bane of modern civilization, is in widespread use everywhere. And a negative PCR Covid test is required to enter the country, something that President Biden also recently mandated of all international travelers arriving in the U.S.
Given the density of many Latin American cities, necessity is the mother of invention. Around the continent, bus rapid transit (BRT) is the solution; a lower cost way to move hundreds of thousands of people a day quickly and without the intensive capital and maintenance investments inherent in heavy and light rail transportation. New York has its own form of BRT in the MTA’s Select Bus Service (SBS). SBS is a good start but we can learn a lot by staying truer to the often lower cost Latin American, Asian and European models.
Great cities take great leadership and great leaders recognize that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Hank Gutman is New York City’s new transportation commissioner. With just 11 months left in the current mayor’s term, we should all hope Gutman is up to the challenge of making New York’s streets safer and working with the MTA to accelerate bus service. According to EMBARQ — The WRI Center for Sustainable Transports, before the pandemic, some 19.6 million passengers were riding bus rapid transit daily in Latin America, which has the most cities globally with BRT systems. Regarding New York’s faster bus service goal, I hope that Gutman proves to be a transportation commissioner with the courage to work with the MTA to imitate genuine bus rapid transit, a proven transportation strategy that Latin America has been employing for decades. BRTs can and should be cost-effective solutions to our transit needs in New York’s many transit deserts. They don’t need to be the over-engineered and costly Lexus models like the MTA has delivered with the 7 train to Hudson Yards and the Second Avenue subway. My recommendation: build basic BRT systems in our transit deserts in Queens and Brooklyn, and between Co-op City and the rest of the Bronx and spend the money saved on elevators to the platforms where required to make the system fully accessible, and linking new BRT stations with safe, pedestrian and bike infrastructure and Citibike docks.
[Note: the Department of Transportation has experimented with center-lane bus lanes. The recent redesign of the Edward L. Grant Highway in Highbridge in the Bronx is a promising development].
To those who will say New Yorkers won’t embrace buses because they are inconvenient or slow, let’s prove them wrong with fast, frequent BRTs on bus-only lanes which the haters also said would never work on 14th Street when the L train was being repaired.
It is encouraging that Commissioner Gutman’s first official act as head of the DOT was pledging to install 10,000 new bike racks over the next two years. A shortage of safe and secure bike parking has discouraged bike riding, contributed to bike theft and hurt City neighborhoods with inferior bike infrastructure [Oonee, a safe bike storage facility at Barclays in Brooklyn is an effort to change that].
The Commissioner’s pledge is welcome news. I hope his actions on new bus rapid transit will be similarly good news for commuters in a city that has often had to push the current mayor to stop treating bus riders, pedestrians and bikers like second class citizens. In short, it took the Covid 19 pandemic for the mayor to embrace the City’s open streets program.
Transportation advocates have challenged the City to build 30 more miles of bus lanes by the end of 2021. A common mistake too many transportation leaders make is thinking BRTs require too much infrastructure to work on smaller streets and in residential neighborhoods. In Lima, simple platforms like the one in Barranco, demonstrate the way BRTs can be shoehorned into existing older residential neighborhoods. Given our climate, low-cost modifications can be made to protect riders from the rain and snow.
The critical piece is the City finding the courage to build in the center lane, and to commit to at level bus boarding. It is time the City created real bus rapid transit (on center-running bus-only lanes) à la Lima, Bogotá, México City and dozens of other cities.
At Estación Bulevar in Barranco in Lima, gently sloping ramps make the platform accessible for the handicapped and elderly and those traveling with baggage and obviate the need for costly elevators.
The experience of riding fast, frequent, train-like buses in Lima, Bogotá, Cartagena and México DF, leaves me scratching my head over why North America and New York in particular has been so slow to adopt this low-cost alternative to rail. Sure, there are the exceptions including the successful Orange Line (senselessly renamed the F Line recently) through L.A.’s San Fernando Valley.
Perú Plastico. This is what the pandemic has wrought. Like the biting line in the classic 1967 Mike Nichols’ film, The Graduate, now all of us are Benjamin Braddock, trying to find our way in a world turned upside down by the past four years paired with a virulent strain of the Coronavirus. The sound track for this remake is Rubén Blades’ Plastico and the setting is Lima’s El Metropolitano. Oh, and there is also this, free of the usual pasajeros.
Yours in transit,
Joel Epstein is a New Yorker and an advocate for public transit, livable cities and public space.
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