By Antonia Noori Farzan
On a Monday afternoon, Rahman Habibur stood at the end of a snaking line on Flushing’s Main Street with a bag of groceries in each hand, waiting for the bus. Habibur, who works at a bakery in Long Island City, commutes via bus from his home in the Bronx to Flushing – a little over six miles away – to catch the No. 7 train that gets him to work.
The trip takes about an hour and fifteen minutes, he said, “if everything goes right.” By his estimation, that happens about once a week. More often than not, the bus gets caught in traffic, especially once the bus reaches Flushing’s crowded downtown. Then, it can take close to two hours.
Starting in November, the MTA and city Department of Transportation plan to make the Q44, which runs from Jamaica to the Bronx Zoo, into a Select Bus Service route with designated bus lanes in specific areas, including along Flushing’s Main Street. The buses will also have a transmitter that communicates with traffic signals, reducing the number of stops at red lights, and will require riders pay for tickets before the board.
In theory, this means that passengers like Habibur would have a faster commute. But not everyone supports the change.
In her office above 41st Road, a busy side street lined with dental offices, bakeries and hair salons in downtown Flushing, Marilyn Bitterman, the district manager for Community Board 7, threw up her hands in exasperation at the mention of the SBS plan.
“Yes, it is a faster bus, but if you’re going to have designated bus lanes, it’s going to affect small businesses by taking their parking away,” she said. She fears that shoppers and diners will avoid Flushing as a result. “It’s just as easy to get into your car and go elsewhere.”
Though she acknowledges that commuters on the Q44 are likely to benefit, she feels that the MTA and the DOT are being shortsighted. “I can weigh the argument from both sides of the fence, but you’ve got to keep in mind the people who do drive.”
It’s an argument that Lucius Riccio, who first introduced bus rapid transit to New York City as transportation commissioner under Mayor David Dinkins, has heard before.
“You take parking away from people, they go crazy,” he said recently in his office at Columbia University, which is filled with yellowed newspaper clippings from his time as commissioner. “The city was not designed to create parking.”
Still, he acknowledged, “In many parts of the city, you really need an automobile.” Eastern Queens is one of those areas: New York City transit routes forms what he describes as a “hub and spoke,” not a concentric circle, so it’s easy to commute into Manhattan but hard to travel between boroughs.
That’s one of the reasons why Philip McManus, the founder of the Queens Public Transit Committee, isn’t supportive of the changes to the Q44.
“We want people to think bigger than Select Bus Service,” he said in a recent telephone interview from his home in the Rockaways.
Faster buses, he believes, are a stopgap solution that allow the MTA to ignore what the outer boroughs really need: more subways. Given that traveling from borough to borough, or even from neighborhood to neighborhood within Queens, often requires multiple bus transfers and spending a considerable amount of time in traffic, he argues, few people will stop driving.
Though Riccio acknowledges bus rapid transit may not convert drivers into bus riders and reduce the number of cars on the roads, he feels the city has an obligation to improve bus service in the outer boroughs.
“If you look at who doesn’t have a car out there, it’s people who are at the lower end of the income strata,” he said. “They depend on mass transit.”
Boarding the Q44 at last, Habibur didn’t require much time to contemplate the MTA and DOT’s plan: “I think that that would be cool,” he said.