Second Avenue Subway: Rethink 2

Second Avenue Lower East Side Subway

We discussed yesterday the potential advantages of rethinking the construction phases of the Second Avenue Subway. Building a line down 125th Street first, rather than immediately thinking about continuing the subway downtown, would be a good choice. Realistically, however, the MTA is unlikely to change the order in which the line will be built, so we’re likely to see the downtown sections of the line completed before we’re even contemplating a 125th Street Line. But does the downtown extension as currently designed make sense? We think not. Instead, we’ll describe in this post why a detour off Second Avenue and into the Lower East Side makes a lot more sense than the current plans for the route.

Current Plans for the Second Avenue Subway in Downtown Manhattan

The first two phases of the subway as currently designed would act as an extension of the Broadway Q line and serve passengers on Second Avenue from 63rd Street up to 125th Street. The current plans for the third and fourth phases bring the same services down to the tip of Manhattan, with the line running roughly below Second Avenue and Chrystie Street until Chatham Square, where the line diverges east to provide a station near South Street Seaport and then finally at Hanover Square, which is about three blocks away from Battery Park.

The current plan calls for stations at 14th Street, Houston, and Grand before reaching Chatham Square. Each of those stations would be located immediately adjacent to stations serving existing lines (the L; F and V; and B and D, respectively), and two “avenue” blocks away from stations along the Lexington Avenue line. New stations along the Second Avenue Line at these three locations would provide minimal new benefits to existing riders. Here’s why:

14th Street Station: Riders here are just two blocks from the large Union Square complex, which already provides service to both West and East Midtown, Queens, the Bronx, and Brooklyn on the Lexington Avenue and Broadway Lines. A Second Avenue Subway would allow access to far East Side destinations, but the Lexington Lines are so close that the additional benefit is limited.

Houston Street Station: At Houston, the F and V lines already provide service to Midtown under 6th Avenue, as well as connections to Queens and Brooklyn. Importantly, riders wanting to get to the Upper East Side could easily take F trains to 63rd Street, where they would be able to transfer across the platform to uptown-bound Q trains in the first two phases of the Second Avenue Subway. Also, the Lexington Avenue Lines are very close.

Grand Street Station: Here, the B and D, also running on 6th Avenue, provide good service to Midtown, the Upper West Side, the Bronx, and Brooklyn. Riders wanting to get downtown can walk one or two blocks to the J, M, Z or Lexington Avenue Line stations.

But the most important point is this: since all three stations will be built where subway service already exists, no new areas of the city become more easily transit-accessible. And unlike our proposed 125th Street line, which also only would connect existing subway stations, the currently proposed Lower East Side route for the Second Avenue Subway doesn’t really provide better transfer opportunities, as the descriptions of the stops above demonstrate.

So, a revision is in order. The Second Avenue Subway’s downtown route should be significantly revised to provide two significant improvements: one, increasing subway access to currently transit-deprived areas of the city; and two, improving transfer opportunities for passengers who currently have trouble moving between lines.

Proposed Changes in the Subway’s Routing

As illustrated in the image above (here’s the PDF), the Second Avenue Subway would be more effective if its route were pushed down Avenues B or C in the East Village rather than if it were built as planned on Second Avenue in the Lower East Side. We propose a routing where the line diverges onto 14th Street, parallel to the existing L, before it turns off down one of the two East Village avenues. The line would then include a stop near Tompkins Park, another at Delancey Street, and a connection at East Broadway with the F line that currently stops there. It would then rejoin the existing downtown routing at Chatham Square.

Regional Plan Association has developed a similar plan in its recent report, but does not provide adequate evidence for why it is important, as we intend to do here. Second, RPA refers to the Lower East Side line as a spur, not the Second Avenue Subway’s main line.

But the MTA does not have the resources – and never will – to build a spur line. But because the stations that we propose eliminating – at Houston and Grand Street – do not serve significant employment bases, there’s little reason that the line down Second Avenue in this section of the city is absolutely necessary. In other words, people travelling from the Upper East Side will be going to workplaces downtown, not in the Lower East Side, so changing the route of the subway here will not alter their commutes. This new routing through the East Village should be the main and only line of the subway.

This proposal fulfills both criteria we set out for what would make an effective line by both serving transit-deprived areas and improving transfer opportunities for passengers attempting to move between lines.

For one, but moving the tracks two to three “avenue” blocks east, the subway serves the large, often poor and minority populations of the far east side whose apartments are simply too far from existing stations. This would be to the benefit especially of the Delancey Street Station, which would be located adjacent to the Williamsburg Bridge approach; many of the public housing units in this area are fundamentally isolated from the rest of the city and deserve greater connectivity. These people would benefit from greatly improved mobility and significantly reduced commuting time for travel up and downtown. The increasingly densely populated East Village, too, could benefit dramatically from the construction of a station at its heart, in Tompkins Square.

Why connect the line at East Broadway with the F train? Because it would allow commuters from Brooklyn travelling on the F to reach East Midtown far more easily than today. Currently, commuters on the F wishing to get to the Grand Central/United Nations area must either make the very long transfer at Bryant Park or walk from that 6th Avenue Station all the way East. There is no transfer at Broadway-Lafayette Street to the  6 train, a situation which is planned to be repaired, but which will only crowd the Lexington Lines even further. By allowing the Second Avenue Line to connect at East Broadway, commuters coming in from Brooklyn would have easy access to both the Lower East Side and East Midtown.

Along with the 125th Street Line, the Lower East Side diversion discussed here would have a positive role in improving transit for the city’s population. The currently proposed route, which does not provide any commute time improvements for inhabitants of the East Village, and which does not significantly improve transfer opportunities, simply is not an adequate choice. The MTA should seriously consider reworking its plan.

22 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • herenthere

    Well put! You should definitely submit this to the NY Times or the MTA!

  • Sven

    This makes so much sense!

    I would consider two modifications, though:

    a) Instead of a sharp turn eastward at 14th Street, you could start going diagonally southeast after 23rd Street. Then you could have a stop right in the heart of Stuyvesant town. Admittedly, it might make it harder to provide a connection to the L train.

    b) After passing through the LES, you could turn west onto Delancey Street and continue to Chambers Street along trackways of the J/M/Z which are currently abandoned. It would save on a lot of tunneling. You can connect to the F at Essex/Delancey. You would provide numerous connections at Canal St. The enormous Chambers Street station is easily big enough to be the line’s terminus.

    Granted, you would not get as far south as in the current plans. I presume the existing two-track J/M/Z line south of Chambers is used at capacity during rush hours. If a terminus at Hanover Square was required, you would have to pick up tunneling at Chambers, which would still be less new tunnel than currently proposed.

  • just wanted to let you know that this pair of posts just gave me a lot of respect for you and this blog…enough so that i’ve dedicated a post for this! :)

  • mark smith

    Your proposed LES re-routing of the 2nd ave. subway does provide better service for currently underserved areas. But it has two important drawbacks. First, the additional tunneling and additional station would add significantly to cost – probaby raising the cost by at least $1-2 billion. Where is this money going to come from?

    Second, your focus on serving the LES ignores the current plan’s improved connections to the B-D lines at Grand Street. The Grand Street station would become a major transfer point, allowing B-D passengers from Brooklyn to make easy connections with the second ave subway up the east side. The Grand Street transfer point also allows passangers coming up the new line from Chatam SQ, Seaport and Hanover Square to easily transfer to the B-D trains going up the west side. These transfers represent a large volume of passengers, which would not have similar connection options under your proposed revised plan.

  • Mr. Transit

    While an eastward curve in the planned 2nd Ave. subway would reach more people who live far from subway lines, there are at least 2 reasons why this idea was discarded. First, it significantly degrades any travel time savings to lower Manhattan on the 2nd Ave. route vs. the Lexington Ave. line. The primary purpose of 2nd Ave. is to relieve Lex. line overcrowding. Second, it is very expensive for the additional riders gained. A V train spur might be a better partial solution.

  • AlexB

    They planned to route the second avenue subway down second avenue because the purpose of the train is to serve people on the upper east side wanting to get to midtown and downtown and people from brooklyn wanting to get to midtown.

    I completely agree with the goal of this post. However, instead of continuing the subway down the planned water st route, why not just connect it to the F and the J and be done with it. If it’s connected to the F tunnel, it gives excellect east side access to people who live on the culver, 4th ave, and fulton st lines. If it’s connected to the J, it gives excellent access to all the trains that access canal st. everyone has access to the east side and you saved yourself the cost of building a new downtown subway – billions.

  • If the route follows 2nd Ave., what are the plans for lots of high-quality, high-security bicycle parking? This could be of great use to lots of folks to the east. Public bikes could be a major player, too.

    Certainly lots of people would not cycle, and this should not be a substitution for an LES route.

    (I live in nearly tram-free west Berlin now, before that on a busy tram line in Prague, and much earlier on E. 10th at 2nd and E. 10th at Ave. C)

  • Comment #4 from Mark Smith makes a great deal of sense. What Mr. Freemark proposes will be the most expensive subway line this side of Moscow (which was designed by out-of-work New York City subway engineers).

    Simply put, we cannot construct anything running under 14th Street. A subway line already exists there. Underpinning any existing line is the most expensive and dangerous item that is encountered in subway construction. When subway lines are underpinned for newer lines, as was done in 1973 for Rte 131A (remodified) it is to allow lines to pass under each other at right angles but never one under the other. It was done only once before for the construction of the 6th Ave subway below the H&M Tubes. In that case, the H&M was shut down and rebuilt. I don’t think anyone wants the 14th Street line shut down for an appreciable amount of time.

    But suppose money mysteriously pops up from somewhere. Then another issue makes its appearance. East Village and Alphabet City are located on landfill that closed up the old Collect Pond (site of the infamous Five Points) and several underground streams. Any subway there would have to cut into bedrock with significant dewatering as was done for the remediation of the Northern Manhattan stations in the mid 1970s. Is this the best use of MTA money?

    IMO, handing out reduced transfer Metro Cards from bus to subway for residents makes more sense than that which was proposed.

    Before we start proposing new lines for Manhattan it is important to keep in mind that subway construction is expensive and when we consider the utility and sewer relocation, underpinning and all that landfill that exists east of 3rd Ave, it really gets expensive — prohibitively expensive.

  • Andrew Dawson

    Trams running in this area might be a better option.

  • Russell Warshay

    The RPA has been calling for Phases 3 and 4 of the SAS to be 4 tracks. I have no idea from where the additional funding will come, but if that somehow became a reality, then two of the tracks could travel in the LES “teacup handle,” and two tracks could stay under 2nd Ave. North of 42nd St, a two track subway could be built under York and Pleasant Avenues.

    All of these ideas to enhance the capacity and utility of the SAS would easily cost several billion dollars. No one, myself included, has proposed a credible source of funding. Drifting slightly off topic, are there any emerging technologies that could dramatically lower the cost of subway construction? A major decrease in construction costs seems to me to be the best way to get more built.

  • are there any emerging technologies that could dramatically lower the cost of subway construction? A major decrease in construction costs seems to me to be the best way to get more built.

    Yes – planning the routes decades ahead of time, so that the city can avoid putting unstable buildings on top of the street or laying utilities underneath it. Also, avoiding corruption and incompetence helps a lot. New York’s subway costs are four times those of Tokyo not because Japan has better technology; it’s because Japan has better management.

  • Daniel Gentile

    Since it will be some time before the uptown section (Q extension) is completed, and ages before getting to LES, I offer this proposal for the LES. Continue the V line east in Houston, south on Pitt and E. Bway, west on Canal to Chrystie and unused BMT tracks south to Chambers St. station. This serves the same area and a provides a better terminus for the under used V. Chambers has extra tracks and platforms and a stub extension at Houston already exists.

  • Daniel, your proposed line is a detour upon detour. Nobody will ride it.

  • PS – The E. Bway station was built to have a line crossing there with part of the additional station constructed (http://www.columbia.edu/~brennan/abandoned/indsecsys.html)

  • Alon, The new demographic of LES is going to Wall St. and Midtown, an E. Houston station would be jammed. Again, this would also keep people from transferring from V trains at W.4th to get to Civic Center and Wall St. That is why it is under used.

  • The issue isn’t demographics or what was proposed in the Second System. It’s that your line looks like a snake.

  • Caelestor

    Hello, I would like to add in my opinions. This is a fantastic proposal, but if you’re going to head for the LES, you might as well forget about going to the financial district. Personally, Downtown doesn’t need another trunk line, and riders will prefer the express service on the Lex. Hence the following modifications that I propose:

    First, there is no way the SAS can tunnel under 14th Street. Instead, make it turn at 10th Street.

    Second, the Tompkins Square Park station should be located at Avenue A and 7th Street. This leads to the next point.

    Third, connect the SAS to the F so that the T runs into Brooklyn. When this happens in the 2020s/30s, rehabilitate the Culver Express so that the T makes local stops to Church Avenue, and the F runs express to Church Ave.

  • Henry

    The only issue I have with this new diagram is East Broadway’s supposed superiority over Grand Street. Grand Street is an overcrowded subway station in the heart of Chinatown with only one exit – it’s almost always crowded. The East Broadway station isn’t located near anything.

    I would suggest to have a transfer stop at Grand Street after Delancey and then either turning at Canal Street or continuing to Chatham Square and turning at Chambers to provide a crosstown route.

  • Alan

    Cool idea! Another option would be a short shuttle line through the LES and Stuy Town. It could start at Essex/Delancy, stop at E 4th, E 9th, and 14th St (on the Ave A side of the current stop)

  • On a parallel argument, I have been pushing for the proposed 2nd Avenue line to continue into the Bronx to replace the defunct 3rd Avenue El route. In a similar situation to the Lower East Side, the city has funded the construction of high-density subsidized housing along the 3rd avenue corridor with no economically viable transportation solutions. In theory, residents could take the Metro North. In practice, the prohibitive cost and intermittent Metro North leads most residents of these areas to take extended bus rides to the subway. I do not understand the argument that the collective tax dollars of NYC need to be focused primarily on making the lives of Upper East Siders more pleasant. It negates to address that the 4/5/6 congestion does not start in on the Upper East Side. It starts in the Bronx which like the Upper East Side is underserved by public transit relative to it’s density.

  • qolspony

    I think this is one of the better proposals that I have seen of the LES (Alphabet City). It offer rail service where there is none. That is simply the purpose of building public transportation. I know the drawback is the fact that it will take addition time to reach either Midtown Manhattan or the Financial district, by diverting from second avenue, but it will put subway where its needed. The other side of second avenue could be built later with the connection with the B/D lines at Grand ST., but the “F” line connection is almost as good. The only drawback of this line is that it would have to be build to lower Manhattan if it is going to be attractive. Another downside is that it won’t do much in lowering the crowds on the Lexington Avenue line if the second avenue “extension” isn’t built. As other people mentioned, the second avenue routing does allow more flexibility, because you can connect to the “B and D” or the JMZ. I like them both, but I like the Alphabet city plan better. Even if it doesn’t connect downtown Manhattan. A connection with the “F” line will offer some very exciting prospects, as the Culver line was built for express service. However, I would hate to see the lower eastside cut from the Financial district.

  • Jorge Orpinel

    Interesting analysis but I join the ones that disagree because:

    * This proposal effectively avoids the connection with D/B lines which is too important.
    * Although the new tunnel will be 2 blocks away from the 4,5,6 tunnel like you point out, these new stations are WAY more accessible for the area than the one or 2 in the green line (not to mention the 6… not great).
    * The lower-income population you refer to (and I’d add all the mid-income as well) would probably see the neighborhood rent go even higher that its current tendency with subway stations plopped where you suggest
    * Finally, The LES and East Village have good bus service, plus we can walk or bike!

    I don’t, however, use the argument of it being more expensive, if there’s a moment to extend/expand a new subway line to make sure its effective, its now. The costs of doing it at any other time would be simply unthinkable even.

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