» New stations in the Bronx could significantly speed up travel times for people who spend too long getting to work every day. But there must be reasonable service frequencies offered at a reasonable price.
The Metro-North commuter railroad offers convenient service from Grand Central Terminal to Connecticut and Upstate New York. Though all of its trains run through the Bronx, the population there rarely uses its services, because they are simply not designed for transit-reliant city dwellers. They stick to the bus and the subway, despite those modes being slower.
The opening of the East Side Access project at the end of this decade will direct certain Long Island Railroad trains to a new station under Grand Central, opening up capacity at Penn Station for Metro-North trains. This service change offers many opportunities for dramatically improving the commutes of thousands of people in the Bronx — if it is planned right. A potential new service along an existing Amtrak line is up for discussion this month.*
New York, of course, is hardly alone in needing to dramatically improve the use of its commuter rail lines. Cities from Boston to Chicago provide service on rail lines with few inner city stations, miserably low frequencies, and much too expensive fares. But because of Gotham’s huge size and the continued concentration of jobs in central Manhattan, opportunities for improvement there are greatest.
In the case of the Penn Station Access Study (PSAS), the benefits could be enormous.** The proposal is considering whether to invest in four new stations in the Bronx — at Co-op City (a 55,000-person community completed in 1971 and isolated from rail transit stations), Morris Park, Parkchester, and Hunts Point. Certain Metro-North New Haven Line trains, which currently run along the Metro-North Harlem Line into Grand Central, would be redirected onto what is now the Hell Gate Amtrak-only route from New Rochelle to Penn Station, along which the new stops would be built. This relatively cheap project would require little investment in the tracks, which are in reasonable condition and far under capacity.
There is strong evidence for the value of improving connections between the Bronx and Manhattan. As the chart below shows, more than 10% of workers in the areas surrounding the stations planned for new service work in West Midtown, directly adjacent to Penn Station. Another 20% or so work in Downtown Manhattan, Downtown Brooklyn, and the Upper West Side, all of which would be easier to access through direct service to Penn Station.
Moreover, those residents currently have very long travel times to get to their jobs in the city. New Yorkers already suffer from the longest commutes in the country, but residents of the Bronx and particularly Co-op City, which is far from any subway line, are particularly cut off. As the below chart shows, more than 36% of workers who live in Co-op City have commutes of more than an hour, and less than 30% have travel times to work of less than 30 minutes. Despite this fact, people continue to rely on transit for their daily travel, because commuting by car is too expensive and, in New York, just as slow.
The clearest explanation for the slow travel times is that the two modes of transit available for Co-op City residents are not particularly quick. The express BxM7 bus runs from Co-op City to East Midtown in 52 minutes, but it is more expensive than subway service and does not provide direct access to the West Side of the island. The Bx26 bus connects Co-op City to the 2 train, which does run to West Midtown, but that trip takes 74 minutes at best, no picnic in the park. The proposed new Metro-North station would connect the neighborhood with Penn Station in just 27 minutes and be linked to a neighborhood bus circulator to ensure that everyone in the area has easy access to the stop.
Residents near the proposed Morris Park, Parkchester, and Hunts Point stations would see similar benefits, though those stations are closer to existing subway stops and the residents suffer less from long travel times to work.
Based on existing Metro-North service to the Bronx, however, there is reason to question how many people will take advantage of the Metro-North service to these new stations. As the chart above shows, Metro-North trips are considerably more expensive than subway or bus journeys, even over the same distance. In addition, commuter rail service is infrequent both at peak and off-peak times, meaning that customers have to rely on schedules, limiting the travel time benefits compared to slower bus or subway service.
It is therefore unsurprising that the mode share for commuter rail services is so low in three representative Bronx Census Tracts where subway and commuter rail service is offered, as shown in the chart below. With so few trains to actually take to work and such a high cost to do so, no one can justify taking Metro-North. If the new stations in the Bronx similarly run only twice an hour and cost twice as much as the subway, few will be able to take advantage of the time savings into Manhattan the trains will offer. This is a failure of the existing service, but one that we are capable of addressing.
We don’t yet know how much Metro-North is planning to charge for travel on its new service, but it will likely be similar to what is already being demanded of Bronx riders. And frequencies will also likely be limited to just two trains an hour or so. But those policies will seriously constrain the potential ridership at these stations; what’s the point of investing millions in new stops if they’re not used?
One could make the argument that people who live further from the center of a city should pay more to travel, as they are benefitting from cheaper housing costs. But in New York City, apartments are expensive everywhere, and most jobs are in the center of the city. The transportation system thus must provide reasonable cost service for everyone to get to work in Midtown or Downtown in a reasonable amount of time. Charging people double the price to take a faster trip or giving them a very slow but cheap alternative, represents a social injustice that relegates people with lower incomes to wasting their lives in transit.
The improvements in Metro-North service that would provide for increased frequencies in service would require more train cars, but directing existing subway passengers to Metro-North would relieve congestion on the subway, which would have positive spill-over effects. Lowering the fare to subway levels for in-city commuters would also require a significant subsidy, but there is no reason to think that a well-managed commuter rail system would cost any more to operate than the subway system if they’re both attracting many passengers.
A note: In public meetings (presentations for Co-op City and Morris Park), the MTA has argued that the primary beneficiaries of the new service will be Bronx residents who work in the suburbs and use the trains for reverse-peak travel. A 2002 study indicated that 82% of ridership from a proposed Co-op City stop would be for people living there but working in the northern suburbs. This fits with Metro-North’s existing rider profile, in which of the 13,200 daily boardings in the Bronx, 2/3 are outbound.
Yet the analysis of existing work patterns show that the vast majority of people living in proposed station areas in the Bronx work in New York City. Only 47 of more than 36,000 employees work in Stamford, supposedly a big destination, and Westchester County cities have employment from the Bronx zones maxing out in the hundreds, a pittance compared to central Manhattan employment. The likely explanation for the choices of today’s Bronx riders is the lack of alternative (there is no subway service out of the city); in other words, the existing performance is not worthy of imitation. If anything, we should be looking for ways to expand capacity along commuter rail lines to allow many more people to benefit from faster travel into work in Manhattan.
* Also under discussion is the re-routing of some Metro-North Hudson Line trains along Manhattan’s Empire Corridor, a new service that would include the construction of two new Manhattan stations, one at 125th Street, and the other at 60th.
** The less likely improvement of Long Island Railroad service in southeast Queens could produce even more travel time savings for riders, but that is on no one’s agenda at the moment, unfortunately.
Image at top: Proposed Co-op City Station, from MTA