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.
116 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Sigh

    “…a rail link to the airport — while a popular idea — may not be particularly effective in actually saving people time”

    Right. Thank you for taking the time to think about this.

  • Though it is true that there was local opposition to prior attempts to build train access to LGA, it came in the context of the peculiarities of the funding for the train’s construction. As with the JFK AirTrain today, the way the bonds were written, airport passenger charges would provide the revenue. Anyone taking a flight would have already paid for access to the train as part of their airplane tickets. For people coming from outside the airport, there would have to be a separate/additional entrance fare from the subway AND there could be no local stops in the neighborhoods where the train was built. As a result, the local people felt that the train was coming through their proverbial (and literal) backyards but it wasn’t for them. They were right.

    I don’t know the details, but I would assume that if any bonds would be necessary to build this LGA train, a similar situation will ensue. The “existing sources” idea might be the way around this potential pitfall.

  • Peter

    Your analysis focuses exclusively on time without taking account of cost. Assuming current AirTrain prices, a trip from Times Square to LGA via Cuomo’s proposed connection would cost me $7.50. That’s half the cost of the Airporter shuttle bus, and a quarter the price of a cab. Surely there is appeal there for a set of LGA users, even if the train is not saving them any travel time. (They could travel even more cheaply by going subway-to-city-bus, but we know from travel patterns that riders generally prefer rail-to-rail transfers over changing modes).

    Also, I would argue that the perceived time advantage for surface transit over even a slow rail connection is largely ephemeral. Although I know that theoretically a taxi or bus could get me from Midtown to LGA in 20-25 minutes, given the realities of NYC traffic I need to budget 45-60 mins at most times of day. So a rail trip that I know will take 45 minutes isn’t actually a time penalty.

    In a vacuum, I too would prefer to see a more direct rail connection, but given the higher cost and certainty of strident NIMBY opposition to alternatives like the N/R extension, is it worth it? I think Cuomo’s plan isn’t ideal, but to contend it offers “no hope” of improving transit to LGA is overly pessimistic.

    • The problem with what you’re saying is that all these advantages are also present at the JFK AirTrain. What’s more, the JFK AirTrain plus LIRR or subway is faster than a taxi to many Manhattan destinations during the day, because of traffic. And yet, the JFK AirTrain gets only about 18,000 daily passengers. Now, LGA possibly has more O&D traffic than JFK, but the train’s mode share would be lower because it’s slower than a cab, especially to the Upper East Side, the top neighborhood for originating passengers.

      • Peter

        Alon, you imply that JFK AirTrain ridership is disappointingly low, but cite the 18,000 passenger figure without any context. Based on stat sheets from the Port Authority here and here it looks like the AirTrain is currently attracting somewhere north of 6 million annual riders. (And the second document makes clear that number has been rising steadily every year since it opened, not falling even during the 2008-10 recession when overall airline passenger traffic did decline).

        The figures the PA provides for JFK ground transportation are so confusingly labeled that I can’t figure out exactly what share those AirTrain numbers represent, but it looks respectable. If we equate JFK Airtrain with a single MTA subway station, 6 million+ riders would make it about the 50th busiest station in the system. The Newark AirTrain has a similar story of steadily rising ridership, to nearly 2.4 million in 2013.

        So what’s your basis for implying the existing AirTrains are underperforming? Maybe you have better figures than I do. But I was under the impression they were generally successful.

        • The numbers I had were a bit lower, but with the newer numbers, it’s 21,000 (assuming an annual-to-weekday ratio of 300, which holds for the subway). This is still pitiful for a $1.9 billion project. The fact that nearly $100,000 per daily passenger is considered a success for an airport connector tells you exactly how much the people building these lines care about non-airport riders.

  • Jim Tobias

    LIRR every 30 minutes, off-peak? Stadium parking? Location east of the airport, not west? This looks squarely aimed at LI passengers, not NYC.

    Also, I’ve flown via Newark for 30 years and have never encountered ‘overwhelming’ congestion; never anything as bad as typical conditions at JFK or LaGuardia. But AirTrain service is often poor, with especially long waits early AM.

    • Sending the AirTrain to Mets-Willets Point does not do all that much for those on Long Island… Getting to Mets-Willets Point from stations anywhere other than on the Port Washington Branch. For most coming from LI, they would have to take three trains (one to Jamaica, one to Woodside, one to Mets-Willets Point, and then finally the AirTrain to LGA). It’s not really time competitive with the Q70, let alone driving.

  • Peaton

    Is there way that BRT could be implemented? Has there been any renewed interest in Harlem? Or either a connection from Queens to Grand Central or a circumferential Brooklyn-Queens Route?

    • barman

      There’s already BRT to Harlem via the M60. It’s actually pretty convenient, I just wish they’d put a terminal map in the bus and some automated announcements. Some drivers are very good at announcing the terminals clearly and even the airlines that serve them, but many aren’t.

      • Peaton

        I thought that that project got torpedoed because of dedicated lanes on 125th. What is its rating by ITDP?

        • It’s watered down BRT much like the rest of the SBS network. There are dedicated lanes on half of 125th but no dedicated lanes on the western half (although people are still trying to change that.)

          New York does not have rights-of-way that are both large enough for ITDP-standard BRT and not already served by subway. The two big exceptions to this are Woodhaven Blvd, the eastern half of Pelham Pkwy, and the former North Shore rail line, but the first has a parallel rail ROW, the third is a former rail ROW, and the second bottlenecks in many different places (and grade separation is tricky because the area is extremely hilly.)

          • QB in the gap between the QB Line and the 7 counts, no?

            Also, Linden Boulevard, but it just isn’t an important enough corridor for that.

            • I mean, it is wide enough, but the Q60 that runs on it doesn’t even garner enough ridership to justify frequent headways 7 days a week. Perhaps if one wanted to build the Woodhaven BRT out to QBP via Queens Blvd, it would be feasible, but as it is it’s not very justified.

    • Alex

      This is a good question. While the buses work great sometimes, other times they are completely unreliable. To me, the exclusive ROW is the primary benefit of a rail connection, more so that time savings. I’ve had some bad experiences trying to take the M60 to LGA where there was an extended wait for the bus. When it finally did come, it was too full to take on more than a handful of passengers. While the SBS lanes on 125th help, the bus can still get snarled in traffic. That unreliability has soured me on taking the bus to LGA. Setting up bus lanes might be a better (and much cheaper) solution than any of the rail proposals. Yeah, it would take some political capital, but if you made them HOV+bus lanes, I think you could sell people on that.

      • Raoul

        Unfortunately I have had the same experience with the AirTrains at both JFK and Newark – and have missed flights due to this. In one case the Air Train at JFK was out of service (with no notice on any airport website) and the bus alternatives offered were unable to cope with the numbers of people required. In the other case the AirTrain at Newark broke down leaving us stranded in the little cars for over an hour. The M60 bus does occasionally get snarled in traffic in Queens and is also over full sometimes, but it has been pretty reliable for me in conjunction with the N train.

        We are making progress in NYC but are still decades behind most major international cities in terms of single seat access from downtown to Airport. Ideally, I’d like to see a service like in Seoul or Hong Kong where I can check in my bags downtown, but I’m sure I won’t live long enough to see that in NY.

        • The service in Seoul that you mentioned underperformed ridership expectation by about an order of magnitude initially (link). It does better today – it’s only off by a factor of three – but nearly all of that ridership is on local trains, not express trains.

      • Michael

        Agreed. The current bus situation is not workable, especially around holidays. The Airtrain to JFK has always been convenient for me, and has been able to handle heavy traffic around holidays, while buses get held up in traffic, as well as being held up by crowds. I once had a trip to LGA take 4 times as long as it should have, because there were large crowds trying to get onto the already-full buses, and the driver would let more people get on at each stop even though there was no room for them. Then he would just sit there for 10 minutes because people were in front of the white line.

        So yes, on paper the proposed rail link to LGA may take longer, but knowing that your train will actually get you there in the advertised amount of time makes it an actual alternative to car/taxi.

  • Neil

    I’m a bit surprised that even the Jackson Heights connection is slower than the current transit connection. How could a rail connection with no intermediate stops at Jackson Heights be slower than the Q70? Only way that seems plausible is because the walk from the subway station to the AirTrain would be longer than any potential traffic congestion the bus encounters on the BQE and Grand Central, both of which are prone to traffic jams. In reality I suspect the bus is actually slower than a Jackson Heights rail connection for large parts of the day, maybe even the proposed one. Average AirTrain speed of 20 mph sounds rather slow, as there are no stops along the way.

    As for Long Island passengers, the current setup serves all but Port Washington Line customers better than the proposed AirTrain. Train to Woodside, then transfer to the Q70 (one stop). The AirTrain would be much slower because of an additional transfer and ride on the 7. All branches serve Woodside, only one serves Shea Stadium.

  • While Cuomo’s alignment as shown is indeed less-than-ideal, it does raise the tantalizing possibility of connecting the JFK airtrain into the LGA airtrain by elevating over the Van Wyck.

    This presumes they stick with Bombardier ART as opposed to, say, writing a contract that expressly prohibits interoperability considerations (e.g. Translink-style).

    • Who needs a JFK-LGA connection, though? Practically everyone flying into JFK either continues to another flight from JFK or is an O&D passenger. Maybe Delta has plan to move all of its domestic flights to LGA or something, but in that case, maybe subsidizing Delta’s consolidation plans isn’t the best use of city or state money, given that the MTA can’t even scrounge money for a subway to East Harlem that even Bloomberg wanted.

      • Bgriff

        Subsidizing Delta’s consolidation is not ideal, but the benefit — which is big — is that Delta (and American) consolidating operations frees up a bunch of very scarce NY airport capacity for more flights. The problem is that Delta has no incentive to pay for, or even want, this, since that new capacity could be used for competitive flights, so they wouldn’t want to pay for it, and the state is stuck holding the bill. (Given Delta’s incentive to hog capacity and squeeze out competitors, there would also need to be stronger incentives for airlines to use larger aircraft and avoid duplicate flights than there are now.)

        There is plenty of room to debate whether that would be a good use of public funds or whether the benefit is worth the cost, but it does at least have a benefit for New Yorkers.

        • Okay, so assuming that transiting passengers would be willing to take an airport people mover between two separate airports (does that ever happen anywhere), it would benefit the region by letting airlines consolidate. Bear in mind, those are the airlines that fly small planes because that’s the only way they can provide frequent service on high-traffic corridors like New York-Chicago, and having each airline fly a larger plane every three hours with an offset providing hourly service to passengers is impossible because of customer loyalty programs. If the city were that concerned about capacity and passengers’ welfare, it would pressure airlines to end all customer loyalty programs and transition to unified schedules and cross-honored tickets. It already happens within the industry, in the sense that if you fly on one Delta Connection company like ExpressJet you can switch your flight to another Delta Connection company like Endeavor as if it were on the same airline.

      • “The AirTrain connection to Jamaica is quite useful, since it lets people from all over Long Island connect to the airport.” — Alon Levy, May 28th 2014.

        Through-routing an LGA-JFK airtrain multiplies that usefulness by bringing LGA into the fold of Long Island-accessible airports. The inter-airport connectivity is just icing.

        • First, that was the same post in which I said that at domestic airports like LGA these connections are less useful. Long Islanders can fly out of Islip to many of the destinations served by LGA; they can’t do so to most of JFK’s destinations because half of JFK’s traffic is international. For what it’s worth, within the city, passengers usually originate in Manhattan (link).

          Second, a connection to LGA that goes through Jamaica is really circuitous from the west (i.e. the dominant direction). If it’s important to connect to the LIRR Main Line, Woodside is a lot better, and also provides a connection to the 7.

          I still like the N/Q connection much more. It’s a bit better at serving the main origin area of LGA riders (the East Side, especially the Upper East Side) and the main destination area (the Midtown hotel cluster, which is a bit north of Times Square). It also can be built with one fewer transfer, without branching the 7 and cutting frequency to Flushing; at the MTA’s outreach meeting about LGA service, passengers strongly preferred a 60-minute one-seat ride to a 45-minute two-seat ride, so avoiding an AirTrain is good if it’s practical. At JFK it’s harder because there’s no line that points that way, so the only way to serve it is to keep the AirTrain as it is or to create a new branch that only goes to the airport and inconveniently branches off the main line just west of Forest Hills. But at LGA, it’s possible to just extend the N/Q.

          • A lot of the Penn-bound trains bypass Woodside. Construction is also a lot more expensive, since the only decently-wide thoroughfare already has the 7 train on top of it.

            I concur that an Astoria El extension is the optimal solution. However, anyone with a Hagstrom map and some basic spatial reasoning skills has been able to figure this out since LGA opened. It hasn’t happened yet. And as imperfect solutions go, Airtrain to Willets has a lot going for it.

            • Ugh, I thought Woodside was where Sunnyside Junction should be, relative to the Grand Central Parkway. Never mind.

              The frequency to Woodside… you know my opinion on that (P.S. head over to my place).

              Anyway, the issue with Cuomo’s proposal isn’t that it’s imperfect; it’s that it’s not good. I don’t think it could get enough ridership to justify even $450 million, whereas an N/Q extension would also provide service to more areas of Astoria as well as faster trips to Manhattan with fewer transfers. Most Astoria Line stations get somewhat more than 10,000 weekday riders, so adding two stations between Ditmars and airport grounds would probably add as much ridership as would come from the airport itself. JFK is 18,000; LGA has slightly higher O&D traffic, so for an N/Q extension, something like 22,000 is a reasonable estimate. So that’s maybe 40,000 weekday riders, whereas the slower-to-everywhere-except-Flushing AirTrain would be lucky to get a quarter as much traffic.

          • Rob

            A lot of critics of extending the N train say that the train is already overcrowded. I know there has been signal work done on the L train to increase the number of trains. Does this need to happen on the N too?

            I’m not an expert on transportation, so please answer patiently!

            • Rich

              I haven’t seen that criticism personally. The 7 is overcrowded and getting CBTC right now. Next is the Queens Blvd lines (E/F/M/R). All subway lines seem overcrowded at peak hours, but it’s all relative. The N isn’t as overcrowded as the E/F/M/R and 4/5/6. The N can handle extra load, especially if it’s non-commuter customers (airport passengers.)

  • A big issue with a western alignment is, if you look closely on Google Maps, a flight path at 82/GCP. It essentially means that at that point you cannot have an elevated line, which makes things complicated because a line from the west would have very little room to all of a sudden elevate over the GCP/278 interchange (since there is no median space west of that location on the GCP, and getting to 278 requires weaving around the GCP if you start from the median.) An alignment from the east completely gets rid of that problem.

    • Bgriff

      This is true, but I do wonder if the problem could be mitigated by running the train from the central terminal to the Marine Air Terminal/car rental area on airport property, beside the existing road connecting the two areas. The Marine Air Terminal doesn’t get enough traffic to warrant a stop by itself, but that combined with the car rental facilities nearby could make it an equivalent to JFK’s Federal Circle station. Then join the GCP somewhere around 81st St and either run a station to Jackson Heights, or easier and cheaper run the line to an elevated station above the GCP at Astoria Blvd station. There would still be some NIMBY disruption in the area of the corner of GCP & 81st St, but much less so than the old N train proposal.

      Ideal would be to build this as well as the alignment westward to Willets Pt and also down to Jamaica, but that gets expensive.

  • Matt Steele

    Here’s my rough idea… close LGA (it causes airspace congestion that pulls down JFK/EWR) and consolidate flights at JFK/EWR (right now air frequencies are split across multiple airports even by the same airlines, reducing gauge).

    Then create an airport express train that runs JFK – Jamaica – Manhattan – Newark – EWR. Not sure how this would work with existing tunnel capacity, but more reason for new tunnels. Ideally this could, in the long term, convert the existing AirTrain modes for full terminal-to-terminal access, but I doubt that would be possible. But why not just have an airport shuttle that runs JFK – Jamaica – Manhattan – Newark – EWR on a one seat ride?

    • MissKitty

      Except for the part where closing LGA is a completely stupid idea, but you just keep sitting there playing with yourself over it.
      Way to do your homework before making a stupid post.

    • Dave S

      Agree with Miss Kitty… how exactly can JFK and EWR absorb an additional 26.7 million more passengers per year?! It’s not as if those other 2 airports aren’t already crowded too.

      (Passenger statistics for LGA found here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LaGuardia_Airport)

      • Larger planes.

        Not that New York should be closing its busiest O&D airport, but it has a lot of flights with tiny planes. Domestic flights use narrowbodies even on thick markets like NY-Chicago and NY-LA, with several airlines splitting the market, often between two or different airports.

  • Bgriff

    I agree with your analysis in general, though I do think your travel time is simplifying out one useful factor: reliability. I have taken various buses (M60 and the various Queens options) many times to LGA from various starting points and I have rarely if ever experienced travel times like the ones you are quoting, both due to street congestion slowing the bus trip, and bus bunching or other problems meaning bus headways are long and unpredictable.

    Based on the times quoted I suspect your analysis does not take into account headways at all, in which case the AirTrain travel times would also need to be extended on average, and may even be extended by more than the bus travel times in some cases because you are forced into a three-seat ride instead of a two-seat ride in many cases (for example, from Jay St. Borough Hall one can take a long but one-seat ride on the F to Roosevelt Av and transfer to the bus there, whereas all non-7-train starting points will need to make a subway transfer). But, the bus unpredictability factor is removed, and that can be worth a lot in practice.

    Granted, it would probably be cheaper for somebody to just teach the MTA how to run a bus network that isn’t a complete disaster.

  • Brandon

    Its even worse if you look at it in purely access terms, or in terms of seat-rides. That’s where the Jackson Heights and Astoria alternatives both blow this one out of the water.

    Another alternative not discussed here is an Airtrain from Sutphin/Jamaica where it would connect to call LIRR lines (and a poorer selection of subways than Jackson Heights).

  • Michael

    This seems like it will benefit the real estate developers hoping to gentrify Willet’s Point (who happen to be some of Cuomo’s largest donors) more than any existing city residents. A direct link to the airport is pretty much the only thing that would make Willet’s Point seem more relevant or appealing to investors/customers than any other of the region’s megaprojects.

  • Sam

    Is an underground option just not realistic? Run from Broadway/Roosevelt–put two extra stops in Northern & 30th Ave. Would probably cost a billion more, but would have actual value.

    • MissKitty

      Cost a billion more? Uh, honey, do your homework before you post. The Second Avenue Subway is currently coming in at a billion and a half PLUS per MILE.

      • Rich

        Actually, if I’m not mistaken, the last time the alternatives were studied, $1 billion was almost exactly the estimated cost difference between the Willets Point and Jackson Heights options. I’m having trouble finding the source at the moment, but I did read that recently.

  • Charles

    Go Big or Go Home.

    I would suggest that they should be building a subway along the East and the West alignments. The Subway would then continue across the top of Manhattan, under the Hudson to Edgewater, through the unused Susquehanna Edgewater tunnel to intersect with the Hudson Bergen Northern Extension, the Vince Lombardi Service Area to Teterboro and even to Hackensack and the Pascack Valley line.

    It would connect so many things and would provide a much needed expansion in the Subway were it is needed. The Subway needs a cross Manhattan connection to Queens north of 42 street.

    • Sam

      A northern queens subway line that terminates at willets/shea is a great idea.

    • NikolasM

      If this were China that line would be fast-tracked.

      • If this were China, the city would have built Second Avenue Subway already.

        • Bob

          Yeah, but if this were China:

          a) We’d be paying the people building the 2nd Ave Subway $7/hour, and at least a few dozen would die in the process of building it
          b) Eminent domain would amount to a bunch of large men coming to your house and telling you that you have until tomorrow evening to leave.

          • $7/hour is a decent middle-class wage in Beijing and Shanghai. Of course, you always get what you pay for – work in China is a lot more labor-intensive, so overall costs are about the same. Here in Stockholm they’re starting to build subway extensions that cost less per unit length than in the Chinese cities for which I have cost statistics.

  • Isn’t it true that the city wants to redevelop Willet’s Point by putting up a number of shopping centers and housing?

    And let’s not forget Cuomo’s plans to renovate JFK. Cuomo absolutely has a plan here. One to improve mobility? Probably not. One to make a lot of money? Almost certainly.

    Personally, I see this Airtrain as a smokescreen that can be used to acquire land for the city while also raising the interest of speculators and investors.

  • 4thepeople

    Many might agree that of course it is legit for Mr. Freemark to publish any blog posts, even ones like this one. On the other hand, many transit advocates might be more and more frustrated about several of Mr. Freemark’s recent analyses. Many might think that the analysis of this LaGuardia airport rail link blog post is obviously flawed in several ways, as already pointed out in the comments (“your analysis […] is simplifying out one useful factor: reliability” and “your analysis does not take into account headways at all” by Bgriff; “Your analysis focuses exclusively on time without taking account of cost” by Peter).

    For many rail advocates, it is frustrating, to see somebody who is sometimes refered to as a “transit booster” once again trash rail. And it’s contradictory as well: In other blog posts, Mr. Freemark is 1) unhappy with long headways, laments that transit 2) needs to speed up, and that 3) it would be beneficial for streetcars to have their dedicated right of way. So in many ways it is contradictory to oppose the proposed LaGuardia rail link, as it is 1) very likely to have relatively short headways (definitely shorter than unrealiable departure times of buses in bus bunching or caught in traffic), 2) will have a higher average speed than the M60 bus (Mr. Freemark links to a NYC webpage stating that currently “M60 buses are stopped over 60% of the time, and at times the bus moves as slow as 2.7 mph”), and 3) of course have a dedicated right of way, making it completely independent of any traffic problems (this is NYC after all), and consequently very reliable.

    In addition, many might be aware of the fact that there are many people (as much as many transit advocates would like to change that mindset and make buses more attractive) who might never want to set a foot in a bus, but who have no problem using rail. And also for people who have no problem using a bus, a rail-rail connection is much more attractive than a rail-bus connection.

    For many rail advocates, it might especially sad to see, how finally Mr. Freemark falls into the trap so many have gone into before: Playing out different rail projects against each other, when writing “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”. Some rail advocates might think, so instead of publishing a rant against a LaGuardia rail link, then rather advocate for all the other rail projects as well, because they should be constructed, too. Rather than saying “I’m against this rail project, rather build those rail projects instead”, it would be more helpful to say “Let’s build this rail project, and all of those other rail projects, let’s increase funding for rail overall etc.” Still there is hope, as there is a chance for rail advocacy to improve in the future…

    • To support rail or transit does not mean giving carte blanche to anyone waving a plan around. This reeks of political oppurtunism, particularly since the MTA has a giant $15B gap in the capital plan for even normal investment and maintenance, and Cuomo has $6B of free money just sitting around from bank settlements. The LGA AirTrain has a real opportunity cost, particularly when the Federal, State, and City governments do not have the capacity to increase infrastructure funding by a significant amount.

      Frequency is not really relevant. At all times, the current M60 bus runs every ten minutes. The Q70 bus runs every 15 minutes. Judging by the JFK AirTrain, which serves an even bigger airport, a rail link’s frequency would most likely be every 7-8 minutes during peak hours and every 15 minutes off-peak, which is not much better than what is being offered at present. All cases would require a transfer to a subway train running every 10-minutes in the off-peak, or a LIRR train at Mets-Willets Point that runs even less frequently than the current connection to the Q70 at Woodside.

    • It’s completely legit to think some rail lines are cost-effective and others aren’t, and to think there are nefarious political reasons why power brokers want the cost-ineffective ones more. If instead of thinking of it as “rail is good, yay” you think of it as an issue of neighborhood equity, what you’re saying boils down to “residents of East Harlem should suck it up and support government spending on airports and not demand that the government prioritize their needs more.”

    • Dave S

      “In addition, many might be aware of the fact that there are many people (as much as many transit advocates would like to change that mindset and make buses more attractive) who might never want to set a foot in a bus, but who have no problem using rail.”

      So basically, because some people have a strong preference for rail/hatred of bus, we should spend a half-billion dollars on rail, both in the hopes that they will switch from (presumably) driving/taxiing to the new rail option and regardless of what it does for the commutes of the many more existing people using the bus now.

      That’s great public policy there… spending public dollars on what “some people” prefer… instead of what benefits the greatest number of people.

      • Terrell M

        I’m really glad that you said this, Dave, because I feel like this point has been missed by most. We can’t go off building this for the people who hate busses, because the expense isn’t worth the few people complaining. But of course who cares, right?
        Oh wait…

  • […] some concern as there are a lot of unknowns about the proposed routing. Both Second Ave Sagas and The Transport Politic have pointed out some major flaws with the routing but there are still some major upsides that I […]

    • 4thepeople

      Thank you very much for posting this link. Many might it is an excellent article. When writing “The Transport Politic gives a detailed breakdown of different point-to-point travel times via different potential routes including the N train extension and an alternative route from Jackson Heights to LaGuardia via the BQE”, what could be added in the article is that Mr. Freemark’s breakdown is not factual at all, as Mr. Freemark uses fictional travel times, as regarding the new LaGuardia rail link it is not even publicly known yet what exact alignment will be chosen, how frequency and speed will be like (as AirTrain’s top speed is 60mph and there might be no intermediate stops on the LaGuardia route, average speed might also be faster than 20mph), still Mr. Freemark decides to make wild calculations about route length, average speed and transfer time in order to come to his Randal O’Toole conclusion that “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”.

      Many might think it’s also great how the article makes the case for the governor’s proposal as the way to go: “There is also the issue of building any new infrastructure in a city as crowded as New York. There isn’t much new land for trains and train yards. Extending a subway to the airport would have to be all underground which would be cost prohibitive. Elevated tracks through residential neighborhoods are a non starter. The routing along the Grand Central Parkway to Willets Point solves all problems. It can run elevated (and thus much cheaper to build) because it’s running between a highway and Flushing Bay.” So instead of coming to the conclusion that no rail should be built to LaGuardia, as supposedly rail would not be fast enough for Mr. Freemark, the governor’s proposal is the feasible way to get it done. As the article ends with the statement that new LaGuardia rail link “can’t come soon enough”, for many it might remain interesting to see, if once again New York City will squander a great opportunity, as naysayers like Mr. Freemark made the cause for no rail infrastructure to be built, or if many people will get behind this proposal now, and it will be the time in history when finally a LaGuardia rail link comes into place, for the people to benefit from it.

      • Rich

        For me, the big problem with the governor’s plan is where it connects to other services. The end of the 7 train? A low-traffic branch of the LIRR with long headways? That’s incredibly inconvenient for almost everyone, coming from almost every direction. The article’s travel time estimates are imperfect at best. But to me it’s common sense that the location of the connection ensures poor travel times compared to the Q70 and nearly all rail alternatives.

      • Jonah

        Why are you writing in such an odd, stilted style about what “many might find?”

    • Neil

      I don’t think your response really addresses Mr. Freemark’s point on travel time. If the current subway to Q70 would be faster for most than the proposed air train, how could travel time be moot? I’m a bit skeptical about the travel time with the Q70 being better, but my guess is outside of a few hours around rush hour, it’s the faster route.

  • Bruce Thompson

    As one who makes frequent trips into NY, often through LaGuardia, I find the governor’s proposal totally worthless. The current option of the Q70LTD works quite well and brings one to a multitude of options to get into Manhattan (or even other boroughs). Also, I think the cost (half a billion) is very much on the low side and would not be surprised if it is closer to a billion. Perhaps a change of vehicle on the Q70 would be more useful, something with a very low floor, making it easier to ingress with bags. While there seems to be a significant bias against rubber-tired vehicles (buses), a proper type of vehicle can make the trip seem similar to rail at a greatly reduced cost. And some of the money saved could be used to update the Jackson Hts. station.

    • Rich

      That’s a great point about better busses on the Q70 line. If the Q70 were simply like Barcelona’s excellent Aerobus service, that would be amazing. That would be far cheaper – and better – than the governor’s plan.

  • Rich

    This is a great article. Thank you.

    I think it’s 90% on point. The only part I’m skeptical of is the analysis of alternatives. While the governor’s plan will quite obviously be inconvenient for everyone, I find it difficult to believe that a connection from Jackson Heights or Astoria would have travel times as long as stated.

    There are other advantages to the alternatives that are not properly explored. One is the possibility of a one-seat ride from Manhattan via Astoria. Another is the fact that a connection to Jackson Heights / Woodside would link to the LIRR main line (instead of a branch) and express subway services like the E train. Those are huge advantages to those alternatives.

  • Michael

    As I mentioned earlier, The Related Companies is one of the largest campaign donors to Cuomo. This train alignment is obviously being used as a selling point for the gentrification of Willet’s Point (a politically/ethically controversial project)

    Using the Grand Central Parkway right-of-way makes perfect sense…. in the opposite direction, where it could easily meet up with an N station closer to Manhattan or even the 125th street Metro North/6 train station via the Triborough bridge.

    The current alignment makes no sense (other than inflating otherwise worthless “iron triangle” land values) when its logic is applied to that alternative.

  • Akiva

    I agree that the Second Avenue subway is a priority. However most major metropolitan areas even in the United States of America let alone across the world have direct rapid transit access to their airports. So where does New York City sang among other cities?

    • The social factors that lead New York’s elite to overrate airport transit also exist everywhere else in the world; airport transit boondoggles happen even in countries with generally solid rapid transit. It’s a “what if everyone else jumped from a bridge?” situation.

  • Pup E.

    I hope they will consider the congestion on the LIRR/Port Washington and 7 lines. Anyone who’s been sardine-canned on those trains during Mets games – or even worse, when Mets games overlap with the US Open matches – knows that unless they plan on increasing service to those lines, this will not work. It’s already a tight, often standing-room-only commute during peak rush hours, even during baseball’s off season, I can’t imagine them adding a new population of travelers on board.

    • 4thepeople

      Many might think the article linked above “Why Cuomo’s AirTrain Route Will Work” was great:
      https://www.vanshnookenraggen.com/_index/2015/01/why-cuomos-airtrain-route-will-work/

      It explains the situation regarding the capacity increase on the 7 line and LIRR in easy terms:
      “The MTA is undergoing two large projects which will address this: first they are installing a Communications-Based Train Control (CBTC) on the 7 train which will allow for more trains with closer headways so there will be higher capacity on the 7 train. Second there is the East Side Access project which will bring LIRR trains into Grand Central. Specifically this will allow Port Washington line riders a one seat ride to Grand Central as well as Penn Station. These enhancements will increase service to Willets Point so much so that either line will be able to handle the new airport travelers.”

  • Laura Jones

    As a former NYér that still visits family and friends, I would look forward to a train that would take me to the LIRR and the subway from LGA. I prefer to travel by train or subway and avoid any bus and taxi that I can. I don’t fly into LGA because of the hassle of getting anywhere from there. With the train I could easily get to Manhattan, LI (I confess my family lives in Port Washington) or even Jersey if I had to. It’s not all about the time, sometimes it’s about the convenience.

  • MissKitty

    The N train proposal down Grand Central won’t happen, nor an AirTrain connection. With the NIMBYS restricting it to the path of the highway, the elevation to get over the rails serving Amtrak won’t bring an elevated train down low enough when it gets to the airport. Look at a map – the end of the runway is right at the GCP.

    The article leaves out another major thing going against this project here … let us say it *does* come online in 2020/2021, what have you. And the project steps in and renovates the Willets Point LIRR station, making it serviceable and more accessible, the LIRR still has the tiny problem of Amtrak’s planned (not proposed, but this will happen) closure of the each of the East River Tunnels for a year or more at a time for a complete renovation. You think the LIRR is going to be adding any more trains to the schedule? Hell no.

    This is a complete waste of time.

    • Eric

      “With the NIMBYS restricting it to the path of the highway, the elevation to get over the rails serving Amtrak won’t bring an elevated train down low enough when it gets to the airport. ”

      So you make it elevated west of the BQE interchange, and at-grade east of that interchange. There is plenty of room there to widen the GCP ROW by the width of two tracks. This isn’t so hard.

  • Bronx

    Elevated N train extension along the Grand Central Parkway with local stops is the only implementation that accounts for future population density surrounding the airport.

    Two birds one stone.

    The N also travels down the heart of the Manhattan CBD.

  • Jon

    Thanks, these are insightful comments about project I really hadn’t known about. It seems as if it should have been able to be configured much more successfully.

    Having had to travel to and from Manhattan to use La Guardia (not recommended), a useful transit link has been needed for the best part of a century. I was idly wondering if an option with rubber tires on rails had been considered, as a way to minimize intrusive noise? Also, if an alignment further East might have found a more propitious, faster routing, and improved access to currently underserved areas?

    One benefit of the project, that may not have been considered, is that riders on this transit will be removed from existing congestion on area roadways.

  • MR

    No one seems to be taking into account future traffic congestion for buses as the population will likely continue to boom in Woodside, Jackson Heights and Elmhurst. Bus service to LGA will only become more problematic in regards to traffic outside of a true BRT.

  • Jesse

    Roosevelt Avenue already has a full abandoned two-track platform with stub tracks that turn south from Queens Boulevard. Why not realign the stubs and build a subway connection through there? http://www.columbia.edu/~brennan/abandoned/roosevelt.html

  • I just remembered this bit of history: LGA was built specifically around auto access. LaGuardia wanted an airport in the city, and Floyd Bennett was too far from Manhattan. Instead of building a subway under Utica or extending the Nostrand Avenue Line under Flatbush, LaGuardia built a new airport from scratch near the Queens Midtown Tunnel.

  • mrok

    The airtrain should run from 125th st in Manhattan over the Triboro bridge right into the grand central pkwy to LGA. This will give it access to connect to all the lines that stop on 125th in Manhattan and the N, Q Line that stops on Astoria Blvd. This would give the people of NY faster access from upper manhattan to Queens, which at the moment is a long ride. They should have a walkway at 94th st that leads into the airport. The Airtran should continue on the GCP until it reaches the jfk airtran. This it serves both airport and can also have stops in neighborhoods through out queens which at the moment have minimal transportation options. Astoria, east elmhurst, the border of corona and flushing by 108th st, north forest hills by the High school, and Briarwood behind the courts on main st.

  • While I appreciate the unfortunate fetish for airport rail lines that has resulted in such things as the (built) BART Oakland Airport connector and the (hopefully never built) Pearson Airport Express in Toronto, there are good reasons not to dismiss this out of hand:

    1) More reliable transit times – mentioned by several commenters, while the rail line may be longer at ideal times there is likely not going to be the same running time variability. After all, guidebooks say a taxi from LGA to mid-town can take between 15 and 60 minutes.

    2) Tourists will likely feel more comfortable taking a train than a bus because it will be easier for them to comprehend. The commenters on this site, all being transit experts, are comfortable with the M60 and Q70, but somone new to New York may not be.

    3) The subway has a lot more room for luggage than a bus. I even crammed in a large suitcase on a sardine-packed AM rush hour “A” train from Washington Heights.

    4) Ignores planned improvements to the LIRR/7 train that could improve speed. In addition to the Eastside Access, what if the “7” express train service span was expanded?

    5) Avoids multimodal transfers using stairs (presumably) – not many people enjoy lugging suitcase up from the subway to the bus or down from the el, or vice versa

    6) Takes into account political reality – according to New York rapid transit history books, New York residents hated elevated railroads as early as the 1880s and 1890s. Any new elevated railroad in a populated area is a non-starter – it is unfortunate that an el was built to Astoria and not a subway.

    How about a branch of the 7 (the 8) to the airport for a one-seat ride to Manhattan?

    • Neil

      1) The Q70 is only a few miles, most of the trip to Midtown is on rail. So it shouldn’t as unreliable as a taxi all the way to Midtwown. The BQE/Grand Central has to be completely jammed for it greatly increase trip time. If the BQE/Grand Central Parkway average speed is 15 mph, the highway portion would take 12 minutes. Going further from Jackson Heights to Shea Stadium takes 8 minutes, add a few minutes if coming from the E/F and transferring.

      2) Boston visitors use the Silver Line to get Logan Airport. Its shown clearly on all the rapid transit maps, it’s not understand. It’s specially designed to hold more luggage. One boost to make loading and unloading passengers on the Q70 easier is to have free fares; most are transferring to the subway anyway.

    • JJ

      Pearson Airport Express in Toronto opens this Spring/Summer.

    • 1. The problem is that in non-rush hour traffic, a taxi is still going to be faster. This is not the case for JFK: from most of Manhattan, including Midtown, it’s faster to take the E or the LIRR to the AirTrain.

      2. Personally, as a transit expert, I just use JFK, even when I fly domestically and LGA is an option. Tourists tend to be more transfer-averse than locals, and this favors the N/Q extension: no people mover transfer, and shorter walking time to the Midtown hotel cluster from 59th and Lex, 5th and Lex, or 49th and 7th than from Grand Central or Times Square.

      3. That depends on how the interior is set up; the M60 prioritizes airport riders over local 125th Street riders already. At any rate, an N/Q extension would be subway all the way.

      4. The 7 express is unidirectional, based on commute peaks and not airport travelers’ needs.

      5. Since the hotels cluster a bit north of 42nd, some 7 riders would need a transfer anyway.

      6. Astoria residents opposed a line that wouldn’t serve them. An extension with two in-neighborhood stops could be more popular.

      Finally, branching the 7 is a nonstarter, since it would cut frequency to Flushing, the outer boroughs’ busiest subway station. The tail should not wag the dog.

      • Rich

        Good points. And a special THANK YOU for mentioning that the 7 is a three-track express that only operates during the rush hour, in the peak direction. It’s not an express that will help most airport riders, making the 7 a particularly poor choice if you’re only going to connect the AirTrain to one subway line.

  • Chris

    To me, the extension of the N line makes the most sense to get to LGA. But how do you get the people in the area to support it? Buy out the key objectors’ houses, and sell them to people who want the mass transit option to reach NYC. The cost will be negligible, as one would by a typical 2 family home for under $1,000,000 and resell it at the same price, save transaction expenses.

    But if the main concern is noise, then make the run as straight as possible – the noisiest parts of the subway are on the tight curves.

    Yet, I can’t help but think – is there a way to run a spur of the subway from Astoria Blvd along the Grand Central right of way to LGA? I see important problems, such as the Hell Gate connection blocking east bound progress to LGA. Could they be overcome? I do not know…..

  • Mike

    From Suffolk county it would be faster to drive. getting to the LIRR station at willets point from Ronkonkoma, Huntington or Babylon is difficult at best, that’s why so many people drive to the Met games

  • Dan B.

    The Astoria/LGA proposal involves the Ditmars stop? Has using the Astoria Blvd. stop as the AirTrain connection ever been looked at? It’s easier to get to than Willets Point. Perhaps decking over the Grand Central to create an AirTrain platform and then running down the Grand Central. And the train wouldn’t go through anyone’s backyard. That station needs to be replaced anyway. It’s going to collapse any day now.

    It seems like the only (but major) problem is that there is no real median to work with on some of that stretch of the GCP heading towards LGA. :/

    • MR

      If building an Air Train along Grand Central is possible in that area, I would think the best thing to do would be to build an Air Train track that actually runs from the Ditmars stop eastward. The track would run parallel to the Amtrak elevated train but would then branch off over the GCP to LaGuardia. This way you can create an Astoria station stop for Amtrak and future Metro North trains that would being going to Penn Station. As such, someone could go from Penn Station to Ditmars in about 10 minutes on a Metro North train, transfer to the Air Train and be at LaGuardia in another ten minutes. Ideally this option could also be attractive to people in Astoria, as it offers a new and faster option to get to Manhattan’s Westside in about half the time of the N train while also opening up train access to jobs in places like White Plains or Stamford.

    • CT

      Exactly. This makes so much sense to me. A multi-modal transportation center built over the 31st St/Astoria Blvd/GCP interchange with a new AirTrain heading directly east over the GCP median to LGA. This would connect Manhattan-convenient subways (15 minutes from Midtown), bus and other car traffic at the foot of the RFK bridge (easy Bronx/Harlem/UES access), and GCP traffic. It wouldn’t be so different from the Jamaica AirTrain station. The interchange is a mess already, so it could only be an improvement. And there would be no new elevated train tracks over anyone’s quiet street or back yard. Why isn’t this an option? Every time I pass through this interchange I can envision the new transportation center built above it.

      • Walter Deane

        So what is happening with this crazy idea to build a Laguardia Airport train station to the east of Citifield? Is there an organized effort to stop it?

  • […] When it comes to travel times, Cuomo’s proposed LaGuardia AirTrain wouldn’t fare well compared to existing bus and subway service. Graph: The Transport Politic […]

  • […] When it comes to travel times, Cuomo’s proposed LaGuardia AirTrain wouldn’t fare well compared to existing bus and subway service. Graph: The Transport Politic […]

  • JPods would like to privately fund the construction and operation of a solar-powered JPods networks to LaGuardia Airport. We have met with the Port Authority on this in the past.

    JPods will be building in Secaucus, NJ this spring.
    http://www.jpods.com/conceptvideo

    Here is an example of software we can give to people to help design networks for their communities.
    http://www.jpods.com/node/136

    What pays for building these networks is a 90% conversion of energy costs into profits. The capital costs are 1/10th that of light rail and the capacity is 10 times light rail.

    As similar technology, Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) was built as a solution to the 1973 Oil Embargo in Morgantown, WV.

  • Yuri

    While I generally like the Transport Politic’s analysis, this article stands somewhere between misguided and absurd.

    1. It takes into account only _estimated_ travel times, and they are estimated in a wrong way. It takes “the average subway speed in New York City” (20 mph) and assumes the AirTrain will run with that speed. Why would a modern express train with no intermediate stops run with any speed less than 55 mph (90 km/h)? This is a totally unrealistic assumption.

    2. It does not take into account the issue of headways and wait time. The current express bus Q70 _in_theory_ runs every 15 minutes. This means it is quite realistic to expect to wait for that bus for up to 20 minutes. In fact, I personally waited for M60 for 20 minutes in the past (which _in_theory_ runs every 10 minutes). On the other hand, the AirTrain will likely run, both in theory AND in practice, every 5 minutes or so. Here is an immediate saving of 15 minutes for an airport-bound traveler (who would not want to arrive late and hence will have to leave early enough to assume the 20-minute wait for a bus). This is already greater than the difference in travel times “predicted” by the article.

    3. It makes some wild assumptions about the transfer time. For example, it estimates the LIRR to AirTrain transfer time at 10 minutes. Nothing stops one from building the new AirTrain station in such a way as to minimize the transfer time and make it negligible. The “Mets-Willets Point” area is such a wasteland (mostly empty space and parking lots) than ANYTHING can be build there to the greatest convenience imaginable and theoretically possible. Heck, one can even build a cross-platform transfer over there, if desired!

    4. The article completely ignores the issue of reliability. One simply _has_ to take into account the fact that a bus may get stuck in traffic and sit there for 10-15 minutes, despite any official travel times in published schedules. The AirTrain will NOT, and so one does not have to factor in those additional 10-15 minutes for the “what if we get stuck in traffic” scenario. Also, I would assume the AirTrain would be much better in adhering to the schedule than any current NYC bus routes. “Bus bunching” is a major problem in all major cities.

    5. The article completely ignores the upcoming opening of the LIRR East Side Access project, which will make both the Grand Central Station and the Penn Station within a quick and easy LIRR ride from “Mets-Willets Point”. And these are the two primary transfer points for all suburban travelers, i.e. for a huge chunk of potential ridership.

    6. The article treats the current off-peak headways on the LIRR’s Port Washington branch (every 30 minutes) as set in stone. Nothing is stopping LIRR from running the trains on this line more frequently, say, every 15 minutes, if airport traffic warrants it. Here is another 15 minutes off the Transport Politic’s “guesstimates”.

    Overall, this is an exceptionally poor analysis. Shame on the Transport Politic for such a mediocre job.

    • Yuri, I’m sorry you didn’t find this a compelling piece. A few quick responses to your points:

      1. Yes, these are estimated times. Perhaps the AirTrain will be faster than 20 mph on average. But let’s assume that the trains are able to go up to an average of 55 mph, as you propose (sadly, that is a very unlikely average speed, despite the fact that it’s a new system; the JFK AirTrain’s non-stop portion from Jamaica to Federal Circle is 3 miles in 4 minutes, which is 45 mph; the trip from Jamaica to Terminal 1, just one more stop, is 4.7 miles in 9 minutes, which is 31 mph). Even with AirTrains running at 55 mph, my estimates suggest that the governor’s proposal would still be slower from Borough Hall, Jamaica, Fulton, and Yankee Stadium. It would be slightly (30 seconds) faster from Grand Central, and a few minutes faster from Penn, but only via LIRR. The fundamental issue is that you have to take transit significantly further (to Willets) to get on the train, which is an issue that cannot be solved even with faster AirTrain service. I should note that if the alternatives I analyzed (from Jackson Heights or Astoria) were able to reach 55 mph average speeds (again, extremely unlikely), they would be about 7 minutes faster from Grand Central. The Jackson Heights alternative would be by far the quickest to LGA from Penn Station and Jamaica via LIRR (less than 20 minutes). So clearly faster speed has some big benefits.

      2. Headways and wait times are very important, I agree. The AirTrain would likely run every 15 minutes off-peak (or 16 minutes on weekends, given the JFK example). At a much lower cost, you could significantly improve the quality of existing services on bus and ensure much better headways throughout the day.

      3. I based the transfer times to LIRR at Willets Point based on the Governor’s map. The train could be designed in any way, true, but I based this analysis on what the governor proposed, which is a relatively long walking distance between LIRR and the AirTrain (the stop would be much closer to the 7 Subway).

      4. Reliability is a huge issue, agreed! But we can solve that problem for the buses at a much cheaper price, and/or build the AirTrain to Jackson Heights or Subway to Astoria, which are better alternatives anyway. I didn’t say I was against trains! I said I was against the alignment as proposed.

      5. East Side Access is a big deal, totally agree. Unfortunately, Willets Point will remain accessible only to the Port Washington Line, meaning that people from the rest of Long Island would have to go way into the city (to Woodside, interestingly) and then back out to make it to the AirTrain. I agree, though, in theory ESA should make it quicker to Willets Point from GCT. Assuming that trains take 17 minutes to Willets Point (the same as from Penn to Willets Point), this would reduce travel times from Grand Central by about 10 minutes, making it much more time competitive. Unfortunately, headways remain a huge issue, as you noted in #2 (and see #6)! Most people counting on frequent trains will take the Subway, which they can use without a schedule, unlike the current and future Port Washington line. This LIRR situation is not true for Jamaica (where JFK AirTrains go), where there are frequent LIRR trains all day.

      6. Yes, LIRR frequencies should be improved. However, airport traffic will (a) not be adequate to warrant it; and (b) not produce change at LIRR even if we wanted it to. Note that New Jersey Transit continues to provide pretty terrible off-peak service to Newark despite the AirTrain there. Is the Governor willing to commit operations dollars to LIRR to ensure more frequent trains? He certainly has not promised this.

      • Yuri

        Yonah, I think you are missing my main point. Results of any quantitative analysis are only as good as its underlying assumptions, even if the calculations themselves are correct. Given how much was missed in your analysis (headways, reliability, transfer time, changes to the existing LIRR services, etc) and how wild some estimates are, the error bars on your travel times should be of the order of 20-30 minutes or even more. With such huge error bars, any meaningful comparison of the overall travel times (which should include all the above factors) is impossible from your data, because all the travel time differences are smaller than those error bars.

        Yet, you present your findings as exact and “scientific-looking”, and moreover, you make very strong statements based on this data (“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.”). This is my main objection: you simply cannot make such strong statements based on such approximate analysis and such shaky underlying assumptions. If done right (high speed, very short convenient transfers at Mets-Willets Point, reduced headways on the Port Washington branch), the propose AirTrain _can_ result in time savings.

        I do agree with you, however, that other options on your map may do this job better. But it is also true they will be more expensive. So, it remains to be seen, which option will score best in the “cost per minute saved” or “cost per new passenger” criteria. And who knows, maybe the Governor’s proposal will not look so bad…

  • Pat

    The yellow “Jackson Heights” route on your map runs pretty close to the Amtrak right of way in from the Hell Gate Bridge to Sunnyside and then Penn Station. So it ought to be feasible to build a single-seat ride from midtown to the airport, using the existing East River tubes and Amtrak ROW, with new construction required only over the BQE and GCP and a short stretch of 30th Avenue just south of St. Michael’s Cemetery, maybe 2.5 miles in all. Such a ride would only take about 20 minutes. The problem of congestion in the East River tunnels — which will be eased somewhat by East Side Access by the time this could be built — might be addressed in part by using the NJT trains that deadhead out to Sunnyside anyway to continue strait on to the airport — which would be a huge boon for airport-bound passengers from Jersey as well.

    • No, bad idea: that capacity has better uses, for Metro-North Penn Station Access and LIRR trains. Moreover, Penn Station is a bad destination for an LGA connector and Grand Central a mediocre one, given that the hotels are concentrated in Midtown West and the originating passengers on the Upper East Side (see map here). The N extension is close to perfect for connecting to the main Manhattan destinations (the only better one is the F, but the F is required for QB duty).

  • […] and the LIRR. The proposal has practically no merit even as an airport connector: Ben Kabak and Yonah Freemark both note, with helpful graphics, that the connection is so circuitous it’d be slower than […]

  • Arnorian

    Why not add a branch to the Port Washington branch, from the corner of 44th Avenue and 114th Street, along the Grand Central Parkway, to the airport? Trains would go from the airport to Woodside, where connections are much better (bunch of LIRR lines, 7, 7 express). If there is available capacity outside peak hours the trains could continue to Penn Station or Grand Central Terminal.

  • […] takes. The first comes to us from Yonah Freemark who dusted off The Transport Politic to share his thoughts on the proposal. Freemark’s headline sums it up: The LaGuardia AirTrain “will save almost no one any […]

  • juninho

    Since the Port Authority owns all three major NYC-area airports, here is the one-seat ride dream scenario that connects those three to the other three transport hubs in NYC (Penn Startion, Grand Central, and WTC stations). Price tag: $Billions, but what the heck:

    1) Extend PATH to EWR. This is the lowest hanging fruit and has been proposed as recently as last year by Gov Christie. Since the EWR AirTrain is nearing 20 years old, replace it’s elevated structure with PATH service to make it a one-seat ride from Lower Manhattan (WTC station).

    2) Lower Manhattan East Side Access at WTC: In cooperation with the LIRR, tunnel under the East River to bring the LIRR to WTC from Atlantic Terminal, and also create parallel tracks to create an express service to JFK for the PATH train.

    3) Create a connection from JFK to LGA along the Van Wyck/Grand Central highways like this article somewhat proposes. Go the distance…

    4) Create an express train from LGA to Grand Central that goes under Northern Blvd and into Sunnyside Yards and then utilizes East Side Access to get to Grand Central. Of course the PATH will need its own tubes since it’s regulated by the FRA unlike the MTA subway and LIRR.

    5) Finally connect Grand Central to 33rd St PATH and whalla!, you’ve connected Grand Central and Penn Station like everyone wants (almost: they’ll have to re-open the pedestrian walkway from 33rd St station).

    6) Then create a PATH connection from WTC to the 9th Street PATH station.

    Magically, EWR, LGA and JFK will all be connected to the other three major transport hubs: NYP, GCC, and WTC stations!

    Cost: $50 Billion minimum, but hey, the Port Authority raises its own bonds and is free from political interference, no? ;)

  • david vaartanoff

    1, Yes, should have been done instead of Airtrain.
    2. If LIRR gets connected to WTC, no need for PATH to JFK. While there are likely PATH users wanting to access JFK, a decent transfer at WTC should be sufficient.
    3.Yes
    4. LIRR is subject to FRA, PATH is also although many would say this is wrong because the justification is no longer valid. As to LGA to GCT, if it were given to LIRR then using East Side Access could be used.
    5. Far more feasible would be to extend PATH along 9th St with a transfer station at Astor Place. There has also been talk of connecting PATH at WTC to the #6 Local tracks at Brooklyn Bridge on the IRT. Yes cars could be built that are IRT/PATH compatible, and once the FRA supervision of PATH is abolished it could be through routed although there is a question aas to equipment utilisation and loadbalancing. The #6 typically runs full 10 car trains all day, PATH7 IINM. For most purposes, getting riders from WTC to a very close transfer to the East Side IRT is probably sufficient.
    6. No need, More importantly, PATH’s 33rd St servicesare very busy in rush hour already, but platforms @ Christopher and 9th St. are not easily extendable and need second egress for crowd safety.

    Bottom line, some of what you propose is good, but IMHO if the $$ you state were available, several other projects would take precedence on my list.

  • Walter

    Greetings. I am not familiar with you website / blog and am pleased to have found it in an “air train” search. I hope that you can condense your piece on the proposed air train and see if you can turn it into a Times or a Daily News or a Post op-ed column….As someone who works on the East Side, the new air train would cause me to spend dramatically more time to get to LaGuardia…the plan would have me taking a local 7 train to the south and east of the airport, and then to get off of the subway at Willit’s Point, and then (presumably) to go down an escalator or elevator, and then to walk a bit, and then to go up an elevator or escalator, and then to walk a bit and to then go through another turnstile, and then to walk a bit more to a new platform, where I would wait for the new train (this is the drill with the JFK Airtrain). This dance would all be done with luggage….and it makes no sense. A one metro card, one in and out of a subway car should be the way to go, with the fastest access west aiding the most travelers…this would mean that an extension of the N train is what is best for potential users, and if there is community opposition to an above ground extension, then it could be tunneled to the terminal. Cuomo and the other limousine taking politicians really should not be making polices that they know nothing about as they are not straphangers…and probably never will be.

  • […] If it winds up shaving only five minutes off travel times to Manhattan — and some analysts are skeptical it will save any time at all — it will be a good backup plan for budget-conscious travelers or when the taxi queue runs to […]

  • […] figures in a public hearing last month — but either way, from most places in New York City, it won’t be faster than taking existing bus service to the airport, because it will run southeast from the airport, away from […]

  • […] figures in a public hearing last month — but either way, from most places in New York City, it won’t be faster than taking existing bus service to the airport, because it will run southeast from the airport, away from […]

  • Jeff

    Roosevelt Ave. is a major transit hub, connects to way more subways and LIRR trains, and can get air travelers to Manhattan 10-15 minutes quicker than the Willets Point 7 train. These reasons should be the ONLY priority here! This is why the Q70 was routed there. I cannot believe this was not even considered!

    • Rich

      I’ve read that it was considered, but would cost three times as much, as it would need to go through a dense, developed neighborhood, (most likely via a new tunnel.)

      • Jeff

        The way I read it, the extension to Woodside would be cost prohibitive. The line to Roosevelt would use the same elevated track technology but be .6 miles longer. This should only increase the project cost by 20-30%. A small price to pay to connect to the 7-M-F-E-R, serving over a hundred station destinations. There are already several reasonable ways to get from Roosevelt to Woodside, so forget about that for now. The Willets Point option connects to few LIRR trains anyway, so no major loss there. The goal here should be to connect LGA travelers and workers to as many destinations as possible, quickly and reliably, not lining the pockets of the developers that bought up all the property at Willets Point!

  • Jeff

    Is there any reason why a branch loop of the E Train couldn’t go directly through La Guardia on every fourth or fifth run? It could branch up to Queens Midtown Expressway between the Roosevelt/Broadway stop and the 65 St./Broadway stop right at the point where it passes under the expressway, and head high speed non stop to La Guardia and back.

    This would have distinct advantages over all other proposals:
    1) All track would be along the expressways, having the same cost per mile as the Willets Point proposal and the same low impact on and resistance from residential neighborhoods.
    2) Provides a single seat ride from LGA to Manhattan and Jamaica Queens.
    3) Directly connects LGA and JFK Airports. A much more realistic alternative to spending another 2 billion to connect Willets Point to Jamaica.
    4) Directly connects to most major transit hubs in Manhattan/Queens.
    5) Eliminates the cost of building a new terminus station.
    6) Should provide the fastest travel times and be much more convenient than any other options.
    7) Completely eliminates potentially long walks to make connections regarded as major slow downs in the bar graph analysis of several other alternatives.
    8) Could completely eliminate the cost of the Q70 as redundant, or perhaps reduce the Q70 to simply circle between Roosevelt Ave and Woodside, if other LIRR connection possibilities are not deemed satisfactory.

    • M. Moore

      Hey Jeff, I like your idea, which helped me come up with this one!

      train to the Plane LGA through Woodside to Manhattan to Brooklyn to JFK

      Have the Train to the plane run along the A (as it once did) from Howard Beach through Manhattan stopping at major stops (not sure exactly where would be optimal), then after Port Authority follow the E then branching off using a route similar to Jeff’s Woodside proposal

      This way, one in Manhattan could easily reach either Airport easily by simply using the A and E tracks. Could also (in a long roundabout kind of way) help those on Long Island reach LGA…sort of
      It might be expensive, not sure how well it would work. What do you guys think? (please answer understandingly :3 ) Are the A and E tracks overcrowded already?

  • HKGuy

    The Q33 bus is a nightmare. It crawls through an Alice in Wonderland route. I can’t see how this won’t be an improvement. This is only a preliminary plan, so the immediate piling on seems at best carping at this point.

    • The Q33 was replaced by the Q70 a few years back. The new Q70 LTD uses highways and only stops at Woodside, Jackson Heights, and LGA, and total travel time between Woodside and LGA is only around 15 minutes, so the need for a brand new rail link going in the wrong direction isn’t quite clear.

  • Chris

    The Q70 and M60 SBS routes are major improvements over the slow and overcrowded buses that covered the last mile or two from subway stations. I love trains but would continue to take the E train to the Q70, or the N train to the M60, over Cuomo’s train.

    I do appreciate Cuomo wanting a rail link, though. We need one–just not the one that was proposed.

  • Eric

    I agree that a trip to Willets Point, then circling back, is too far out of the way and wastes time, but the problem with the current subway/bus connection is that the bus gets stuck in gridlock. For example, on March 6 (2015), it took the M60 bus, with its supposedly fast SBS service, 1 hour 15 minutes to get from Lexington Ave/125th St to LaGuardia. My wife took the Q70 from Roosevelt and had a similar experience (except that there was no Q70, probably because they were all stuck in traffic). There was gridlock in and around the airport and buses were stuck in it as there are no dedicated lanes for buses. The claims about current subway/bus travel times are based on MTA fantasy schedules rather than reality, and don’t account for the need to drag heavy bags up and down flights of stairs. Either rail or dedicated bus lanes from which cars are prohibited, and the prohibition is enforced, must be used.

  • Mark J. Ambrose

    The mayor has just proposed a light rail line running from Sunset Park, Brooklyn to Astoria, Queens. It would be interesting to explore whether such a line might be routed to terminate at LaGuardia. If that line were to have good connections to most of the subway lines in Brooklyn an Queens as well as the LIRR, it might be the superior option for getting to LGA, simply because whatever line you were on, you would be just one connection away from the train to LaGuardia.

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