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How to improve NYC transportation: Ideas from around the world

No city moves people through the night quite like New York. The 24-hour city has the best 24-hour transit network.

But building on that network starts with borrowing from other cities. Citi Bike and bus lanes are two notable, recent examples of foreign transit ideas imported from Europe.

“New York is not its own planet,” said TransitCenter Spokesman Jon Orcutt, who served as the policy director at the city’s Department of Transportation when the agency moved to implement the bikes and the lanes.

“We can learn things from other places and apply those lessons here,” he continued. “It’s really just about making something a priority and bringing a problem-solving approach to enact it.”

Other cities, like Copenhagen, are shining examples of better bike and bus infrastructure. London leads with transit tech. Here are some of the best ideas from around the world.

Copenhagen: Traffic-light priority for bikes, buses

Copenhagen announced in February that it installed 380
Photo Credit: Getty Images / Leonardo Patrizi

Copenhagen announced in February that it installed 380 new traffic lights that give priority to buses and cyclists. The lights are part of the city's goal to achieve a net-zero carbon footprint by 2025. With the smart lights in place, bus speeds are estimated to improve between 5 and 20 percent and cyclists are expected to save 10 percent on their commute times, according to the Cycling Embassy of Denmark. So while the MTA falls behind in coordinating traffic-signal priority for city buses, Copenhagen's commuters are catching the green lights.

Curitiba, Brazil: Bus rapid transit

Over the past 40 years, several Latin American
Photo Credit: Marcio Silva

Over the past 40 years, several Latin American cities have bought into Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) -- a transit mode that treats buses like trains, giving buses a lane that's separated from car traffic. NYC's Select Bus Service is diet BRT. No true BRT service exists in New York, though a route has been proposed to run on top of an old rail right of way on Staten Island's North Shore. Orcutt said implementing BRT in other areas of the city could be complicated, but bits and pieces of BRT should come to the city. "I'm less interested in trying to force through a specific model than finding a model that you can apply across our entire system," Orcutt said.

Seattle: Reduced fares for low-income residents

Seattle began issuing income-based fare reductions for mass
Photo Credit: Getty Images / David Johnson

Seattle began issuing income-based fare reductions for mass transit commuters last year. King County Metro Transit manages the program, which offers reduced-fare cards to anyone living in a household where the income is less than twice the federal poverty level. That's $47,700 for a family of four. The card is good for use on the city's rails, buses, streetcars and passenger ferries.

While the effectiveness of the policy is still being studied, Riders Alliance has pitched a similar proposal for New York City. The advocacy group has been rallying for half-fare MetroCards for poor New Yorkers as a way to combat income inequality. "Low-income folks don't have enough money to take advantage of the discounts for monthly MetroCards, so fare policy and fare hikes impact them the most," said Rebecca Bailin, of the alliance. "It's time New York City takes the lead on this."

Seoul: Bus-mounted lane-enforcement cams

City bus ridership has plummeted in recent years.
Photo Credit: Getty Images / iStockphoto / Vincent St Thomas

City bus ridership has plummeted in recent years. The MTA shed 46 million bus passengers between 2010 and 2015, according to a recent city report. Beholden to the whims of drivers on clogged city streets, transit experts believe the city needs to do more to ensure buses can cut through congestion. While some bus lanes are photo enforced in New York, South Korea has gone further to protect its bus lanes. In cities like Seoul, buses are equipped with cameras that photograph license plates of drivers caught blocking their lanes.

San Francisco has also utilized forward-facing cameras. After a pilot in 2008, all city buses are now equipped with the technology. So if a bus has to weave around an illegally parked vehicle, the car owner is fined $110. "People will ride transit if it's fast, reliable and frequent," Orcutt said. "We have good frequency in New York, but we need to improve speed and reliability -- that means clearing a path for buses."

Singapore: Congestion pricing

London, Milan and other major cities have implemented
Photo Credit: Petegar

London, Milan and other major cities have implemented some form of congestion pricing to cut down on overcrowding while promoting, and raising funding for, mass transit. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg attempted and failed to bring what would have been the first broadly implemented congestion pricing model in the country to NYC. The Move New York coalition revived and renamed the idea last year.

The group pitched a dynamic toll structure that would "increase higher tolls where transit options are most available and lower tolls where transit is either not available or a less viable option," according to the plan. The group projects that the plan would generate $1.5 billion per year for New York's regional mass transit, road and bridge network.

The Netherlands: 'Glow in the dark' road striping

The Netherlands began exploring
Photo Credit: AFP / Getty Images / Remko De Waal

The Netherlands began exploring "glow in the dark" road striping in 2014 -- a more out-there idea to increase highway visibility and reduce the need for street lights from a Dutch design firm Studio Roosgaarde. The glow comes from special paint that absorbs ultraviolet light during the day to glow green after sunset for up to eight hours. It's part of a "smart highway" design that the firm is working on.

Toronto: Open gangways on subway cars

Overcrowding is routinely the leading cause of delays
Photo Credit: Getty Images / bukharova

Overcrowding is routinely the leading cause of delays in the MTA subway system. This July, there were 51,309 recorded delays -- 19,371 of which were due to overstuffed subway cars. Toronto, London, Paris and Tokyo are addressing this problem through design: open gangway subway cars. These types of cars are all connected through open halls. Transit experts believe it can increase capacity by 10 percent. The MTA has pledged to bring the train cars to New York City in the future. The agency began the process this summer to solicit bids for the construction of 1,025 new subway cars -- 750 of which will feature open gangways.

Barcelona: Branched hand poles in subways, buses

A small but smart design could go a
Photo Credit: josanmu

A small but smart design could go a long way. MTA's new buses that are beginning to proliferate in Queens, as well as future subway cars, will feature split hand poles to provide additional space for straphangers to hold on (and hopefully cut down on awkward hand touching).

London: Open fare payment technology

At 22 years old, the MetroCard has aged
Photo Credit: Getty Images / George Clerk

At 22 years old, the MetroCard has aged poorly compared with the rate of technological advancements in its lifetime. Managing the MetroCard has becoming increasingly expensive to maintain. It costs the MTA about 15 cents to collect every dollar in revenue. The MTA's already working on replacing the MetroCard and is looking at cities like London for help. The authority plans to adopt a fare payment model similar to the Oyster card, which would allow for New York City commuters to use a credit card, smartphone or proprietary card to pass through a turnstile.

"There's the technology that would allow for subway riders to pass through turnstiles without taking anything out of their wallet -- you might not even know that you're walking through the gate," said Jeff Maki, senior director of strategy at Intersection. "That's huge for commuters. And it can help the MTA cut operating costs."


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