The Site / The Fight

by Yonah Freemark
yfreemark (at) thetransportpolitic (dot) com
  • Le progrès ne vaut que s'il est partagé par tous.

Email newsletter

Twitter



For LaGuardia, an AirTrain that will save almost no one any time

» New York City’s LaGuardia Airport is its rail-inaccessible stepchild. A proposal to spend half a billion dollars on a new transit link there, however, may do little for most of the region.

LaGuardia Airport is the New York City airport closest to the nation’s largest business district in Midtown Manhattan. Getting there, however, is inconvenient and slow for people who rely on transit and expensive — and often also slow — for those who receive rides in cabs or shuttles. In other words, the experience of reaching the airport leaves something to be desired.

The New York region’s two other major airports — Newark and J.F.K. — each have dedicated AirTrain services that connect to adjacent commuter rail (and Subway services, in the case of J.F.K.). These lines were built by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in the 1990s and 2000s to improve transit access to these airports, leaving only LaGuardia without a rail link of its own.

This week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo stepped in, claiming to have solved the problem. His “Opportunity Agenda” for 2015, which includes a number of worthwhile projects such as Penn Station Access for Metro-North commuter trains, includes an AirTrain line to LaGuardia. As proposed, the project would do next to nothing to improve access to the airport. In fact, compared to existing transit services, most riders using the AirTrain would spend more time traveling to LaGuardia than they do now.

There is no hope that this AirTrain will “solve” the access to LaGuardia problem.

Governor Cuomo’s AirTrain, at least according to his press releases, would be built by the Port Authority and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and cost $450 million. Though funding for the project has not yet been identified, it could come from “existing sources,” though it is unclear what exactly that means.

As the map at the top of this article shows, Governor Cuomo’s proposed AirTrain would extend from LaGuardia Airport south along the Grand Central Parkway and then turn off to the east (the line in red). A terminus would be constructed south of the 7 Subway station at Mets-Willets Point and about 600 feet north of the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) station there. Though materials announcing the project suggested the route would be 1.5 miles long, my estimate suggests it would be about 2.3 miles.

The project’s “AirTrain” name suggests it would provide services using relatively short trains operating on an independent guideway. The bizarre rendering included in the governor’s presentation, pictured below, suggests that the project would feature an elevated guideway and train cars that appear to have been lifted from the LIRR. One can only assume that this image was photoshopped by someone who is not familiar with transportation technology.

The governor’s proposed route has not been studied in-depth; indeed, if the project’s sponsors expect to receive federal matching funds, it will have to undergo an alternative analysis that considers different routes and technologies. But the project’s relatively low cost (compared to the $10 billion LIRR East Side Access project, it’s peanuts) suggests that it could be funded purely with local or state dollars, which would not require that sort of review.

Yet the route clearly has been informed by past attempts to create rail links between the existing rail transit system and LaGuardia. Between 1998 and 2003, the City of New York and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority studied and attempted to fund an extension of the N Subway line from Astoria in western Queens to the airport. That roughly 2.9-mile expansion (shown in blue in the map above) was opposed vigorously by community groups that did not want to see an elevated train in their backyards. Most Queens politicians took up the opposition, and the tight budgetary environment post-9/11 provided an excuse to kill the project.

Governor Cuomo’s project would not have any of the negative community effects the proposal from fifteen years ago had. Its elevated tracks would be hidden behind a much more noisy and already-existing highway. Moreover, its terminus station at Mets-Willets Point would be surrounded by parking lots and sports facilities.

These attempts to shape a project that does nothing to disturb existing communities, however, has produced a proposal that would be worthless in terms of time savings for people traveling from the airport in almost all directions.

As the following chart demonstrates, transit travel times from LaGuardia to destinations throughout New York City — from Grand Central in Midtown Manhattan to Borough Hall in downtown Brooklyn to Jamaica in central Queens to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx — would be longer for passengers using the AirTrain than for passengers using existing transit services already offered by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.* This finding suggests that for most people in the Bronx, Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, and Long Island, AirTrain services will not be beneficial from a time perspective.

Given the fact that the AirTrain services would likely be automated, therefore reducing labor costs, it may be reasonable to assume that existing transit services to the airport would be eliminated to save costs. In other words, people may be forced to switch into the new, slower rail option.

For people coming from Flushing or Port Washington, directly to the east of the Mets-Willets Point station, travel times would be lower with the AirTrain service. Similarly, people coming from Penn Station and using the LIRR to get to Mets-Willets Point would have a slightly shorter commute to the airport with the AirTrain. However, it is worth emphasizing that LIRR service to this station only occurs on game days; LIRR has not indicated it would provide additional service for the AirTrain, and even if it did, trains would likely only come every half-hour during off-peak periods, suggesting that for most travelers from Penn Station, existing transit services to LaGuardia are faster than the AirTrain would be.

It’s hard to imagine how the state can justify spending half a billion dollars on a transit project that will increase travel times for most people.

The truth is that the City and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority have significantly improved bus service to LaGuardia over the past few years, introducing an improved limited-stop service from Woodside and Jackson Heights in 2013 and an improved M60 bus from Manhattan in 2014. These services are still slower than they ought to be, but, when combined with the subways they link to, they’re faster than the AirTrain would be, primarily because Mets-Willets point is not only too far east from the center of the region’s population but also because it is not a major interchange point.

How effective would other potential routes to LaGuardia be for reducing travel times for passengers?

The following chart compares travel times from LaGuardia to the same destinations throughout the city, but this time between not only existing transit services and the governor’s AirTrain proposal, but also the proposal to extend the N train from Astoria from fifteen years back (in blue) and an alternative–a rail route connecting Jackson Heights and the Airport via the Grand Central Parkway and the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (in orange, and on map above as well).

The alternative rail route to Jackson Heights could terminate near the Subway station at Broadway and Roosevelt in central Queens, where the 7, E, F, R, and M trains stop, or it could continue, likely at a very high expense, 2,000 feet to the Woodside stop on the LIRR. This route would be about 2.9 miles (or 3.3 miles with the LIRR connection).

This comparison suggests that, in almost every case, existing transit services offer travel times that are either significantly faster or similar to travel times that would be provided even by the N train extension or a new route from Jackson Heights. From Penn Station or Jamaica, an AirTrain connection to the LIRR at Woodside would provide considerable time savings, but in most other cases, existing services are just as effective.

In other words, the governor’s proposal and reasonable alternatives would do little to improve transit to LaGuardia. Very expensive alternatives, such as an express subway from Grand Central, would save significant time, but those are far more expensive than anyone in office appears willing to commit to at the moment. This suggests that perhaps a rail link to the airport — while a popular idea — may not be particularly effective in actually saving people time. If the AirTrain were built as the governor is proposing, it would likely do little to cut down on congestion at the airport. It is worth nothing that both Newark and J.F.K., despite their rail services, remain overwhelmed with vehicles waiting to pick up or drop off passengers.

But even if the AirTrain to LaGuardia were magically very effective at reducing travel times, it should not be the New York region’s transit priority. The second phase of the Second Avenue Subway, which would extend from 96th Street to 125th Street the line that is currently under construction, is expected to attract 100,000 riders a day. Yet it lacks committed funding sources. Extended Subway lines in the outer boroughs, such as a Nostrand Avenue Subway or the Triboro-RX, are completely off the political radar, despite the fact that they would serve hundreds of thousands of people daily, reduce travel times significantly, and do plenty to improve quality of life in poor and working class neighborhoods. Instead we’re talking about building a train to the airport.

The fact is that the governor of New York State, like most people in elected office, doesn’t take transit much and certainly isn’t reliant on it; to put matters bluntly, in a transit-oriented city like New York, he’s a member of the economic and social elite. This elite is unprepared to take advantage (or, in many cases, even know about) bus services that exist, and can only envision taking a train in one circumstance: When traveling to and from the airport. For him, a train to the airport is a must, even if it doesn’t actually improve transportation objectives and even if it isn’t the top priority compared to other options in a constrained spending environment.

* The charts in this article assume the following:

  • Average AirTrain or Subway speeds of 20 mph.
  • Transfer times between existing services and AirTrain of 5 minutes, with the exception of travelers from Jackson Heights Subway services (10 minutes) and travelers from the Mets-Willets Points Long Island Rail Road station (10 minutes), because of longer walking times.

Openings and Construction Starts Planned for 2015

TP-Main-Logo

» The future of transportation funding may be in question in the halls of federal, state, and local governments, but investment in improved transit continues at a remarkable pace in 2015. Explore The Transport Politic’s interactive database of projects across the continent.

The failure of the U.S. federal government to increase the gas tax since 1993 — in spite of inflation, an increasing population, and degraded infrastructure — has dominated the discussion on transportation policy since the late 2000s.* All that discussion, though, has failed to result in the development of long-term national revenue sources that accommodate the needs of municipalities interested in expanding their local transportation systems, and funding has stagnated. As a reaction to that state of relative austerity, policymakers from Arizona to Maine have argued for “fix-it-first” policies that emphasize enhancements of the existing system over any new construction.

The lack of expansion in federal revenues,

Continue reading Openings and Construction Starts Planned for 2015 »

Calgary’s soaring transit use suggests high ridership is possible even in sprawling cities

TP-Main-Logo

» Calgary’s popular transit system proves public transportation can work even in a sprawling boom town. But a downtown where auto use is discouraged is a must.

Calgary is a boomtown — the center of Canada’s resource economy, whose explosion in recent years has led to big gains in Calgary’s population and commercial activity. It’s the sort of place that might seem completely hostile to public transit; 87 percent of locals live in suburban environments where single-family homes and strip malls predominate; surrounding land is mostly flat and easily developable farmland; the city is almost 10 times bigger than it was in 1950, meaning it was mostly built in a post-automobile age; and big highways with massive interchanges are found throughout the region. Even the transit system it has serves many places that are hostile to pedestrians and hardly aesthetically pleasing.

It’s an environment that looks a lot more like Dallas or Phoenix than Copenhagen.

And yet Calgary

Continue reading Calgary’s soaring transit use suggests high ridership is possible even in sprawling cities »

With no new rail tunnel on the horizon under the Hudson, New York faces a looming transport crisis

» Damage to the North River tunnels could cut off most rail service into the nation’s center unless a new link is built soon.

There are many cities where rail lines serve an important purpose: They help connect important destinations; they reduce congestion on particularly intensely used corridors; they concentrate development and produce agglomeration benefits. These benefits are useful in making those cities more livable, economically vibrant places.

But only in certain cities — the largest, most densely developed places, particularly those with geographical constraints on growth — are those rail lines essential to making the metropolitan economy work. In New York City, there is no question that this is true; the region’s subway and commuter rail lines carry the bulk of peak flow into the Manhattan business districts thanks to the ability of trains to handle upwards of 40,000 people per hour on each line. Without those lines, people simply wouldn’t be able to get to work.*

Given the city’s reliance on those rail lines,

Continue reading With no new rail tunnel on the horizon under the Hudson, New York faces a looming transport crisis »

With infill stations, older transit agencies extend their reach

TP-Main-Logo

» A new station on Boston’s Orange Line prepares for opening, but infill stations of its type are all too rare.

Want to know a secret? One of the best ways to increase transit ridership at a reasonable price requires little additional service. It requires no new line extensions. And it can be done to maximize the value of existing urban neighborhoods.

This magic solution comes in the form of the infill station–a new stop constructed along an existing line, between two existing stations. Next week, Boston’s MBTA transit agency plans to open a new stop, Assembly Station, along the Orange Line in Somerville, a dense inner-ring suburb just to the northwest of downtown Boston.

Assembly is the latest in a series of recent infill stations in the U.S. located along older heavy rail lines whose other stations were generally constructed decades ago. Washington, D.C.’s NoMa Metro Station opened in 2004; the San Francisco region’s West Dublin/Pleasanton BART Station followed

Continue reading With infill stations, older transit agencies extend their reach »