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Walking Tour Spurs Ideas to Improve 125th Street Bus Service

By Jeff Mays | January 18, 2013 8:05am

HARLEM — On a good day, air traffic controller Aazam Otero's trip from 125th Street and Lexington Ave to LaGuardia airport takes just under an hour.

On a bad day, the M60 bus takes 40 minutes to travel from Lexington Avenue just to the entrance ramp to the Triborough Bridge.

"Some days, the bus is right here," said Otero, who sometimes cycles to the airport from his Mott Haven home to avoid taking the bus.

"Other times, I have to wait 30 minutes just for the bus to arrive. You never know what you'll get."

Inconsistent service and traffic congestion are just a few of the reasons why the MTA announced plans in October to turn the M60 into Select Bus Service. There would be dedicated bus lanes, passengers would pay at street terminals before boarding and the buses could be equipped with technology that changes traffic lights as they approach.

This week, teams from the MTA and Department of Transportation took more than 50 area residents on a 1.2 mile stroll along 125th Street to get their ideas on ways to improve bus travel.

Among the suggestions were countdown clocks and better crosswalks to reduce jaywalking and a better way of helping disabled passengers onto the bus.

Community Board 9 board member Walter South suggested that the bus stops be made longer to accommodate more buses and increase passenger loading.

"There's a lot going on," said Eric Beaton, director of transportation development for the DOT. "We want to make sure we get it right."

More than 9,600 of the 32,000 passengers who use the four bus lines on 125th Street board the M60. However, only 10 percent of the people who board the M60 on 125th Street are headed to the airport. About 51 percent are using the bus for cross-town travel.

The bus is at a standstill 60 percent of the time that it's on 125th Street. At an average speed of  2.7 miles per hour, the M60 travels 5 miles slower than the average city bus along the stretch.

"It's embarrassing to have visitors to our city see people getting into shoving matches about getting on the bus," said Otero.

Select Bus Service would reduce the number of stops along 125th Street to as few as six, down from the current nine. The service can increase speed 15 to 20 percent and ridership jumps by 5 to 10 percent.

During the walk, DOT and MTA officials stopped at every major intersection to gather the thoughts of participants about changes that would improve the service. At 125th Street and Morningside Avenue, there was discussion about countdown clocks and improving a fork in the road that branched off to 124th Street.

"Those countdown clocks work," said Julius Tajiddin, founder of the grassroots group Preserve Harlem's Legacy. "I, as a driver, pay attention to them and people tend to obey them and not try to jaywalk."

Evan Bialostozky, a transportation planner with the MTA, said there was some thought about removing the bus stop at 125th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue because people usually get off a block earlier at Frederick Douglass Boulevard and walk to the train station to avoid waiting at the light.

Brodie Enoch, a government and community affairs manager for Transportation Alternatives and a member of Community Board 11, said that proposal might raise problems because of the prevalence of seniors in the area.

"Many of the seniors only take the bus. If you eliminate this bus stop it will definitely affect the seniors in the area," he said.

Another issue that came up was how moving bus stops would effect store owners along 125th Street.

Zenola Smalls, a vendor at 125th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard for the last 12 years, said altering the amount of available parking spaces would hurt her.

"The stores are very dependent on people being able to park their cars and run in and make their purchases," she said. With no parking until 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. respectively on 124th and 126th streets, "parking is at a premium," she said.

MTA officials are also considering moving the tour bus stop at 125th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard closer to the Apollo to ease congestion. And Madison Ave and 125th Street is one of the likely Select bus stops because of its proximity to the Metro North station.

Lexington and Park Avenue along 125th Street remain among the most troubled areas, many participants said. At Park Avenue, the trash and lack of light underneath the Metro North tracks make the area undesirable.

At the busy Lexington Avenue hub, the bus to the homeless shelters on Ward's Island are so packed that crowds flood the sidewalk. Raised vents at the 6 train stop designed to prevent flooding have become seating for people.

"They need more lighting and garbage pick up," said Laurent Delly, vice president of the Mount Morris Park Community Improvement Association. "It's a quality of life and safety issue."

MTA and DOT officials said they were meeting with CB 11 officials to address challenges raised by congestion in the area.

"This is not just a transit issue, it's a social issue," said Enoch.

"That's why we need to look at the overall flow of this area and not just one aspect," said 7th District City Council candidate Corey Ortega.

The plan is to implement the bus service changes later this year or by 2014 at the latest. Otero, who is forced to take the bus when its cold, rainy or unsafe to bike, said improving the bus service would make life easier.

"At least once a week I have to be creative and come up with a plan B just in case the bus doesn't work out," he said. "I'm sure there's a lot of creative things the (MTA and DOT) can do also."