complete street, complete subway: a vision for a grander grand concourse, part 1

The Grand Boulevard and Concourse is a historic arterial that serves the West Bronx in many ways – it’s home to many residences and small businesses, hosts multiple subway lines, and is a critical north-south artery for motorists and cyclists alike. In recent years, NYC’s Department of Transportation upgraded parts of the Concourse [three links] with widened medians, new traffic signals, ornate lampposts, pedestrian islands, and traffic-calming measures like this one. However, much work remains. In this series, I present my ideas for completing the Grand Concourse and the subway line that runs beneath it.

[Fig. 1] Overview of a typical segment of the Grand Concourse, courtesy of Google Earth.

As the image above shows, the Grand Concourse (from 161st Street to Mosholu Pkwy) has a main road with 2 travel lanes in each direction, plus a pair of service roads (one for each direction) – each with a single travel lane, a bike lane, and a parking lane. There are also many “slip lanes” which allow vehicles to enter the main road from the service road and vice versa. Three bus routes – the Bx1, Bx2, and BxM4 – all run on the Concourse’s service roads, intermingled with private automobile, taxi, and bike traffic. The result is a clear mess for local bus riders; according to the Bus Turnaround site:

  • Bx1 average speed: 6.6 MPH; arrives in bunches 12.1% of the time.
  • Bx2 average speed: 5.3 MPH; arrives in bunches 14.6% of the time.

The statistics show that the Bx2 is only marginally faster than walking, and the Bx1 – despite running as an exclusive Limited six days a week – is only marginally faster than jogging. (Your average cyclist can easily overtake both!) Equally alarming are the bunching statistics – when buses arrive in bunches, it often means inordinately long waits for the next bus. I have personally observed this bunching on a regular basis – even during late night hours; I captured some of this bunching via photographs and screen captures of MTA’s BusTime app here, here, here, and here. Currently, NYC DOT’s solution to this mess consists solely of moving the bike lane à la Queens Boulevard.

Anyone who isn’t blind can see that this is hardly an improvement!

DOT’s plan does not address the bus bunching problem – a big problem, given that the Bx1 and Bx2 serve the 6th-busiest bus corridor in NYC; nor does it necessarily help cyclists as they’re still caught between vehicles using the slip lanes.

So can we design a Grand Concourse that works for all users? The answer is yes!

Here’s my layout of what a complete Concourse could look like:

[Fig. 2] A hypothetical model of a complete Grand Concourse, showing one block. Ideally, this treatment would apply to the Grand Concourse from 161st Street to Mosholu Pkwy. For simplicity, some elements (such as traffic signals and dashed lines for bike lanes at intersections) aren’t shown.

The model is pretty busy, so I’ve numbered several elements as follows:

  • 1) Sidewalk space
  • 2) Neckdown at curb
  • 3) Pedestrian island/refuge area
  • 4) Dedicated bus lane
  • 5) Select Bus Service bus stop (upgraded Bx1)
  • 6) Bus stop for local (Bx2) and express (BxM4) buses
  • 7) Protected two-way bike lane
  • 8) Citibike docking station
  • 9) Pedestrian seating area
  • 10) Planted malls

Before I go into detail, let’s talk about private auto traffic. As I mentioned before, the Concourse north of 161st Street has six lanes of traffic – three in each direction (4 lanes total on the main road and one lane on each service road). Given a recently completed DOT traffic calming project on the Concourse south of 161st Street resulting in 2 travel lanes in each direction (previously, there were as many as five lanes in each direction!), an opportunity exists to streamline traffic such that you have two travel lanes in each direction for the entire length of the Concourse! This will mitigate merging delays at the points where the number of travel lanes changes (I’m looking at you, 161st Street!). In the model above, private auto traffic travels on the service roads (except for select left turns, which I’ll address later in this post).

Now, let’s discuss the numbered elements above.

[Sidewalk Space and Neckdowns]

For pedestrian safety, all crossings on the Concourse would include neckdowns to reduce crosswalk length and increase visibility for both pedestrians and motorists; this is known as “daylighting.” Some parts of the Concourse already have neckdowns. Neckdowns increase sidewalk space – another plus for pedestrians.

[Pedestrian island/refuge area]

Widened medians of the Concourse provide more space for pedestrians in the “islands” between the travel lanes at each crossing. Some parts of the Concourse already have expanded islands.

[Dedicated Bus Lane and Upgraded Bus Stops]

With widened medians part of the ongoing Concourse renewal project, an opportunity exists to segregate bus traffic from all other traffic. We can do this by restricting all private auto traffic to the service roads and converting a travel lane on the main road to an exclusive bus lane. This will mitigate the bunching problem and increase bus reliability and speed. The Bx1 would become a full-time Select Bus route with ADA-compliant bus stations like the ones on the eastbound Pelham Pkwy on the Bx12 Select. Bx2 and BxM4 buses would use a separate bus station within the same block; this is already done on the Bx12. Ideally, the Bx1 would run 24 hours a day, with local service replacing the Select overnight.

24-hour bus service on the bus lanes demands 24-hour camera enforcement to deter motorists from illegally using the lanes (although exceptions may apply for emergency vehicles).

N.B.: Although I have a striped buffer separating the bus lanes and bike lanes in the model, the ideal is some form of physical separation (i.e. planted mall or permanent jersey barrier) between these lanes. At bus stops, if room permits, you could even have a “bypass bus lane” allowing a bus (say, a Select) to go around a stopped local or express bus. (The bus and bike lanes retain physical separation in this scenario.)

[Two-way protected bike lane]

Concourse cyclists deserve protected infrastructure – and what better way to do this than with a two-way protected bike lane (complete with bike traffic lights and physical separation) in the center of the Concourse? This alignment reduces conflicts between cyclists and all other vehicles – no more contending with double-parked cars, no more threats of “dooring,” and no more weaving into and out of traffic! The broken solid yellow line would allow cyclists to pass in the opposing lane, provided it is safe to do so.

Although not shown in the model, you can prevent motorists from driving on the bike lanes by installing a hard bollard between the bike lanes at each crossing.

[Citibike docking stations and bike parking]

Relocating all bus service to the main road presents an opportunity to reuse existing bus infrastructure – namely, replacing curbside bus stops with Citibike docking stations and private bike parking. Given that the Concourse feeds the Mosholu Greenway, this conversion will allow for rapid Citibike expansion in The Bronx.

[Pedestrian seating area]

Adding pedestrian seating up and down the Concourse will make it more pedestrian-friendly; they’re a smash-hit along the similarly busy Fordham Road!

[Planted malls]

The current Concourse renewal project includes more trees and planted malls; an opportunity exists to add more malls which, in addition to beautifying the Concourse, could serve as physical separation between the bus and bike lanes in the model above.

Now, as awesome as I believe these elements are, we must address left turns. At present, along the entire Grand Concourse, you can turn left from 23 streets in each direction (excluding bus-only left turns). To minimize conflicts with buses and bikes, many of these turns would be eliminated; however, some would stay. Here’s how one could allow left turns on a complete Concourse:

[Fig. 3] Hypothetical model of a complete Concourse with left-turn bay.

To prevent conflicts between left-turning vehicles and cyclists, all left turns will have dedicated left turn signal phases. From Mosholu Pkwy to 161st Street, I’d allow left turns at the following streets in both directions:

  • Bedford Park Blvd
  • Kingsbridge Rd
  • 184th Street
  • Burnside Ave
  • Tremont Ave
  • Mount Eden Ave/Pkwy
  • 170th Street
  • 167th Street
  • 165th Street
  • 161st Street

The allowable left turns south of 161st Street would stay as is.

[Parking]

Curbside parking on the Concourse is difficult to come by. Some stretches (primarily those near subway stations and shopping areas) have metered parking, while others have free parking. This, combined with alternate-side rules varying from twice a week to six days a week, invite rampant double-parking and cruising for spots. A complete Concourse cannot realize its full potential without parking reform; otherwise, double-parked cars will block travel lanes and cause congestion.

My solution is twofold: first, convert all curbside parking areas on the Concourse to metered parking. This encourages turnover and discourages double-parking. I’d have one hour limits on spots near subway stations and 2 hour limits everywhere else. (The curbside spots along Hostos Community College have 6 hour limits which I assume account for students and faculty; I’d keep these unless evidence shows you can get away with lower limits.)

Second, when meters aren’t in effect (i.e. at night and overnight), restrict parking. The best way to do this is with a residential permit program that allows Concourse residents to park curbside near their residences and disallows everyone else (other than emergency vehicles). The permit will cost some money and require periodic renewal (annual or monthly).

While not perfect, these solutions should aid in preserving smooth traffic flow on a complete Concourse.

In part 2 of this series, I will expound on local, Select, and express bus service on the Concourse, including bus stop locations.

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