Utica Avenue, OneNYC, and New York’s growth

» New York’s Subway is at a breaking point with an exploding number of riders. Is it time to expand the system deeper into Brooklyn?

It’s hard to fathom, but between 2009 and 2014—just five years—the New York Subway system’s ridership increased by 384 million annual rides, far more than any other U.S. rail system carries in total. This change was accomplished with no system expansions during the period, pushing more and more people onto the same already-crowded routes.

New York City’s increasing population is riding on the bench seats of the city’s subway cars. Now the City is contemplating ways to expand the system down Utica Avenue in Brooklyn; is the time right for expansion when the existing system is so crowded?

While growing ridership is a manifestation of the city’s relatively strong economy and a seemingly insatiable appetite to live there, a more crowded Subway system means lower quality of life for many of the people who rely on it daily. It means fewer available seats—if you’re lucky—a higher probability of having to wait for the next train during rush hour, lower service reliability, and, often, longer commutes.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) has proposed a five-year, $32 billion capital plan designed to address some of these concerns, including through the completion of the first phase of the Second Avenue Subway on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and initial work on that project’s second phase to 125th Street. The plan would also provide billions for the addition of communications-based train control (CBTC) to existing lines, which would ramp up capacity by reducing feasible train headways.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who supervises the MTA, has so far failed to fill the $15-billion hole in the plan. Despite his support for fully funding the capital plan at the state level, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has been unwilling to commit additional City funds to bridge the gap, and has not yet announced his support for the reasonable Move NY tolling plan, which would add tolls to free bridges into Manhattan while reducing costs for many Outer Borough drivers.

The de Blasio Administration has, however, laid out a broader vision for improving the city’s transportation system in the OneNYC citywide plan, released last week (the plan’s ambitions spread far beyond transportation). The plan recommends deploying CBTC more quickly, the continued construction of the Second Avenue Subway, the conversion of Brooklyn’s Long Island Rail Road Atlantic Branch into Subway-like operations, and increased availability of bus rapid transit.

Most dramatically, OneNYC recommends that the MTA study the extension of the Subway south along Utica Avenue through East Flatbush and Flatlands, a roughly four-mile route that would, if built, include the first new Subway stations outside Manhattan since 1989 and the first in Brooklyn since 1956. In the interim, the MTA plans to implement a bus rapid transit route along Utica this year.

In the city’s collective imagination, a Subway extension along Utica is practically as mythical as the Second Avenue Subway; it’s an idea that’s been floated around for a century. De Blasio’s most recent plan doesn’t help much to de-mystify the proposal, since it includes no clear financing source for the project. But the plan does suggest at least studying it.

As shown in the following map, a Utica Subway would fill a significant gap in Brooklyn’s transit network, offering faster commutes on the city’s third-busiest bus line, the B46, which currently serves about 46,000 daily riders. It’s also a route that serves a relatively low-income area, meaning it would bring significant transit benefits to people who are already very reliant on public transportation and who deserve a hand up. It will provide an important boost in equitable access to transportation to a currently underserved neighborhood.

Drag vertical line from left to right to see images (if this does not work for you, view the article in a web browser).

But does the fact that no Subway line currently serves that section of Brooklyn mean that the MTA should prioritize investing in a new corridor there? Is this the right place to be investing?

As the map below illustrates, the area around stations along a potential Utica Avenue Subway line has a density of 38,000 residents per square mile within a half mile of stops, and a total density, including jobs, of around 44,000 people per square mile. At the national scale, that’s a very built-up environment; a recent comparison of Los Angeles and San Francisco, for example, extolled the fact that Central L.A. averaged about 17,500 residents per square mile. 

But compared with other existing Subway corridors and the proposed second and third phases of the Second Avenue Subway, the Utica corridor comes up short. The existing line under Nostrand Avenue serves a corridor that is, in total, 57 percent denser. And the future Manhattan stops serve neighborhoods that are almost six times as dense when including residents and jobs.

Density is an essential characteristic when determining the appropriateness of a corridor for new transit services; indeed, it is often used as a proxy for potential ridership levels. Urbanist Vishaan Chakrabarti’s book A Country of Cities, for example, suggests in order to support rail from a cost-benefit perspective, neighborhoods must be “hyperdense” and feature 30 or more dwellings per acre.* At the Brooklyn average of 2.8 people per household, that equates to 54,000 people per square mile, or generally the areas colored red or blue in the maps above. In other words, that’s far more than the Utica corridor on average, but pretty typical for areas along Nostrand or Second Avenues.

This metric suggests that a Subway line on Utica would provide too high a level of transit service for a neighborhood that is significantly less dense than many other parts of the city served by the Subway.

The question of whether this corridor is adequately populated to support a Subway extension is relevant given New York’s exceedingly high construction costs, which have now depressingly risen above $2 billion a mile for Subway lines. If the City has the opportunity to devote funding to the construction of a line**, it better make sure that it is investing in the project that can provide the biggest bang for the buck.

To put it simply, is it worthwhile to spend $8 billion on a Utica Subway extension when the second and third phases of the Second Avenue Subway, which would serve many more people, are not yet funded? One might argue that in fact New York needs both projects, but it’s hard to square that idea with the hard, cold fact that the MTA’s capital plan, which would mostly fund maintenance, is missing $15 billion.

The problem with adding a new route along Utica extends beyond the question of whether there is an adequate population to support the line. Indeed, given the mounting congestion on the Subway system, additional ridership from Utica—assuming riders who currently drive or take the bus switch to the train—would make the already-difficult crowding worse. Is that a policy the City should be pursuing?

Above all else, I contend that the City’s priority must be to find ways to relieve congestion on existing lines before adding to the problem with new ridership from new lines. One way to do that is to encourage transit ridership growth on the city’s bus rapid transit network, which, unfortunately, has not absorbed much of the city’s increasing transit ridership. Another would be to, as OneNYC suggests, significantly speed up the installation of CBTC. A third would be to convert the region’s commuter rail lines into higher-capacity rapid transit.

One way to add service to Utica without necessarily worsening existing congestion would be to add capacity elsewhere in the system. In 1996, the Regional Plan Association’s Third Regional Plan proposed linking an extended Second Avenue Subway under the East River to the exact same Long Island Rail Road Atlantic Branch that de Blasio’s plan would convert into Subway-like service. If that branch were then to split off down Utica Avenue, new passengers would do little to worsen congestion.

But even if the major goal of transit investments were to serve new parts of the city with Subway service, would you start with Utica Avenue, assuming the Second Avenue Subway were completed? The density map of the city, shown above, suggests otherwise; indeed, Jackson Heights in Queens is denser than Utica Avenue and a new line along Northern Boulevard, combined with some other congestion relief into Manhattan, would probably address more peoples’ needs than a line along Utica. The same could be said of a line on Third Avenue in the Bronx.

Given these facts, the concept of spending billions of dollars on a Utica Subway line becomes less and less appealing. Certainly if the City committed to upzoning neighborhoods along the route to ensure that the line would attract adequate ridership to justify its cost, the logic behind its prioritization would become less murky. The density of neighborhoods near existing Subway lines, of course, is in itself a direct consequence of the existence of the Subway network. And if the MTA were to find a way to somehow significantly reduce its construction costs, many more train lines would be possible within the same budget.

A reduction in construction costs, however, is the holy grail that American transit systems seem unable to track down. Funding for the second phase of the Second Avenue Subway, while supported in OneNYC, is hardly definite, and it’s not like the federal government is offering generous expansion grants at the moment.

Utica Avenue does deserve improvement in its transit service. The new bus rapid transit line planned for the route will speed up commutes. But missing from the discussion is any intermediary between buses and Subways—it’s as if the vocabulary of high-capacity surface rail has been excised from the minds of transportation planners in New York City. As I’ve written before, Brooklyn is filled with opportunities to provide fast, surface-running light rail at a cost significantly lower than Subway service and a capacity higher than possible with New York-style bus rapid transit.*** If more of New York deserves access to high-quality, faster transportation, we should be looking at options other than just Subway extensions.

* Chakrabarti adapts this estimate from Boris Pushkarev’s Urban Rail in America (1982).

** As the City did, through back-end means, for the 7 Line extension currently under construction in Manhattan.

*** Many bus rapid transit services in Asia and South America, for example, operate in highway or highway-like rights-of-way that allow corridor capacities at or above those offered by light rail. But the New York environment makes such corridors impossible (and undesirable) to implement.

Image at top: Utica Avenue Subway Station, by Flickr user Ed Yourdon (cc).

23 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • tacony

    De Blasio is pushing for a Utica Ave subway as a political move, not as a priority due to a rational analysis of where to spend the money. Most voters aren’t thinking so critically about where there’s the greatest demand for new service. The 2nd Ave subway serves the “Upper East Side” while Utica would serve “working class Brooklyn.” Of course the vast majority of people who live and work around 2nd Ave aren’t millionaires, but that’s the image the neighborhood conjures to the public at large. Shuttling people from the East Side to office jobs in Midtown doesn’t sound like an equity move at first glance, despite the fact that it’d help a lot of poor people coming from the Bronx. A neglected neighborhood in Brooklyn, where people can’t even walk a couple avenues to an existing subway line, and have longer commutes sitting on a crowded bus? Much better politics.

    As you mention the project suddenly makes a lot of sense if the city is committed to upzoning Utica, which is full of strip malls and auto repair shops. I don’t think it’s been identified as a neighborhood where they’re pushing for new (affordable, of course) housing though. Putting the two together could be a good idea though. Upzone with 80/20 affordable and the promise of new subway service somewhere down the line? Not sure if it’d mollify the NIMBYs.

  • What if we instead extended the 2 and 5 from Brooklyn College 2 miles down Flatbush Avenue to Utica Avenue? Much of the same neighborhood could be covered at half the cost.

  • Great analysis. You make a pretty compelling argument against prioritizing this idea, which is otherwise exciting and clearly valuable to a transit-starved and transit-dependent area. The catch is that something really should be done for such an area in an outer borough for the sake of transit equity (and I totally agree with tacony about the image of Upper East Side vs outer Brooklyn; it’s an important one). Also, as you (and tacony) note, the areas in question are in decent shape to absorb new growth/density/upzoning too, so a line there could indeed make itself even more valuable in time if that was made a priority. Still, maybe your streetcar idea is more realistic! It is a pretty wide street much of the way…

  • david vartanoff

    So we confront the need to build both not either/or the FULL SAS and the Utica branch originally planned for when the IRT was built. The bottom line is we need both, and many other major cost transit projects. Time to shrink the budget of the five sided money wasting building and put US residents to work building infrastructure. This will be difficult, but it is the correct path.

  • Eric

    Alon Levy has suggested, correctly, that Utica is a worthy corridor because it is in the south of the city. In general, the subway system is more crowded in the downtown than the uptown direction. Adding new branches in Bronx or Queens would worsen this imbalance and make crowding worse, while adding new branches in Brooklyn (inducing new subway ridership from that direction) would restore the balance, allowing trains to be fully utilized at all times. In addition, Utica is already one of the city’s busiest bus corridors. These factors make Utica better than other outer borough proposals.

    Of course, a Utica line would be less valuable than a full-length SAS. But it also would likely be cheaper. Particularly if it can be elevated over most of its length, it has the potential of being vastly cheaper than a new subway through Midtown, and therefore valuable on a dollar per dollar basis.

  • Eric

    “In general, the subway system is more crowded in the downtown than the uptown direction.”

    (This obviously refers to the morning peak – in the evening peak it’s reversed.)

  • ComradeFrana

    Hm, 54,000 people per square mile (~ 20 000 people/km^2 in reasonable units) density necessary for a subway seems quite excessive, at least in comparison to some European cities with subways. AFAIK, at least on the district level, there is no such high density in Prague, Warsaw or Munich, only 1 district in Budapest and 3 in Vienna.

  • Craig

    Is the area adequately populated? Not yet, but maybe if it had some transit nearby…

    I also wonder if the lower density at present makes the project much easier to actually carry out than a similar project in a denser area.

  • boof

    Er, what was the density near the Nostrand line before the subway was there? Perhaps de Blasio wants the subway there to drive growth?

    • tacony

      That’s not the best comparison because the Nostrand Ave subway was built when zoning was extremely lax– essentially you could build 100% lot coverage everywhere and the zoning resolution then only mandated that high rises be stepped back to provide some “light and air.” It wasn’t until 1961 that zoning included widespread parking requirements and major limits on floor area ratio and setbacks everywhere for new construction in those parts of Brooklyn.

      Utica below Lefferts is zoned for low density commercial with off-street parking required. No new residential allowed. It’s a totally inappropriate land use for a subway line. You need to change the zoning to “drive growth.” Changing zoning opens up a big powder keg from all the people invested in a current zoning scheme who don’t want to see change.

  • boof

    (Oops, my comment is parallel to Craig, not in response to it.)

  • Seth Rosenblum

    I fell like if this project is considered as a zero-sum game of transit funding, then yes it makes more sense to spend the money on Second Avenue instead, as there is a proven user-base there vs. a hypothetical user-base on Utica.

    But if you treat this project more like the 7 extension, where you use upzoning and the prospect of increased property taxes to finance the construction, then this project makes a lot of sense. You can also do the construction now, while it’s somewhat cheaper to build in the neighborhood, and have the density grow after construction is finished.

  • Nathanael

    Both are needed. The big problem in NYC is that there seems to be an infinite amount of construction graft; even the NYC Department of Buildings got in on the graft, refusing to do its job of inspecting buildings and demanding that the MTA pay for the inspections instead.

  • Clarence

    Geez, this article needed a much better photo! Read the caption. Look at the photo.

  • Hal Kapell

    A slight correction. Grant Avenue station in Brooklyn was not the last “new” station in that borough. Like most other stations on the IND Fulton Street Line, it only replaced the earlier Grant Avenue station on the Fulton Street El, which closed in conjunction with the “new” station’s opening in April, 1956. Excluding the Fulton Street subway, the last entirely “new” stations to be built in Brooklyn were those on the IND Crosstown line (currently the “G” Line), which opened on July 1, 1937.

    Also, in addition to both the Nostrand and Utica Avenue extensions, the 1960’s-era transit plan plan included a cross-Brooklyn line, running rom a rebuilt Canarsie line along the right-of-way of the mostly-dormant LIRR freight line, intersecting both the Utica Avenue and Nostrand Avenue sibways.

  • david vartanoff

    Triboro RX is the name for the proposed use of the former LIRR/PRR/NH ROW which extends from the Hell Gate Bridge in a circular path to Brooklyn waterfront at 65th St. link
    https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=7&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0CDQQFjAG&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.capitalnewyork.com%2Farticle%2Fcity-hall%2F2015%2F02%2F8561985%2Frpa-calls-again-outer-borough-x-line&ei=xaJLVZGkE8nooATp44C4CA&usg=AFQjCNExhDLNMCQtV00RwLLTVGRdRkOrmA&sig2=nRE8sAAelqCq2asRa_IShg&bvm=bv.92765956,d.cGU

    MTA owns the ROW and it has the potential to open many new transit options in Bkly and Quns. Some versions opf the proposal include service across Hell Gate to the Bronx allowing travel skipping Manhattan–faster and less competition for seats.
    This route actually had some passenger service in the 1920s, but is in very rough shape today.

  • Just a Guy

    Actually if it wasn’t for the illegal ‘dollar vans’ which go up and down Utica Ave the B46 would serve more than 46,000 riders daily. I wouldn’t mind seeing an elevated line on Utica ave either. A good stretch of the ave is wide enough to accommodate commercial traffic.

  • I firmly second the idea that core capacity needs to be improved ahead of talking of any possible outward extensions. This is true not only for NYC, but for many other cities worldwide. Projects like Crossrail in London are precisely the right type of investment. However, temptations to extend the reach of a rail system out instead of expanding its core capacity still get traction every now and then. One example is the Moscow Metro, where transfer points are heavily overloaded (the system carries about 7 million people a day), yet a large fraction of recent expansion projects was to extend lines further out into the outlying districts, thus only increasing congestion at transfer points.

  • Loosh

    It might be time to bring back the El’s in Manhattan that were removed in the 1940s. At least along some of the busiest routes, duplication of service above-ground and below-ground would make sense. Yes — there are all sorts of concerns with NIMBYs, noise, and darkness, but it might be worth trying. The construction costs for an El structure would be a fraction of those of an underground line. It works in Chicago…in fact, people in Chicago prefer them to underground lines.

  • Ocean Railroader

    Brooklyn and New York City should rebuild their old streetcar systems as hybrid light rail subway systems. The idea is that the streetcars would run at street level but have sections of cut and cover tunnels to take them under major intersections or crowded sections of neighborhoods.

    Also the reality might be coming in that New York City might have to considering building parallel sets of subway tunnels next to or under existing subway lines to take pressure off of the existing system. Or they could build new subway lines on neighboring streets to take pressure off of the existing system.

  • J Adlai

    There are a number of comments on this post that suggest that NYC does not have enough core capacity to handle additional branch lines in the outerboroughs. I disagree with that notion. Currently, both IRT trunk lines feature local tracks that terminate in southern Manhattan. Admittedly, this capacity cannot currently be accessed by any potential branch routes to the south, but it would certainly be vastly cheaper to connect these tracks to a new East River Tube than to build adjacent tunnels or surface running rail lines along the length of the major trunk lines as some of the comments here suggest is a necessary investment.

    However, beyond that, the current system of Manhattan-Brooklyn crossings remain well below absolute capacity. For one, there is the Montague tunnel, which has extremely low ridership. At it’s peak, there are 10 R trains using this tunnel, which in theory has capacity for as many as 30 tph with current fixed block signalling, and potentially 33-35 if CBTC were installed. Once the Q is diverted from the Astoria branch, there will even be a ready made service to extend from the Broadway line in the W, which is slated to terminate at Whitehall St. Even now, track connections to Broad Street allow the J to be extended into Brooklyn. While the usefulness of the Nassau Line could be called into question, the line could be connected to the SAS north of Bowery in the future to allay this concern.

    Additionally, there’s also the extra capacity within the Rutgers tube (currently only using 15 tph), and the Clark St tube (hampered by the flat junctions at Rogers St in Brooklyn and 135th in Harlem). Even Canarsie, allegedly bursting at the seams from ridership, is mainly constrained by lack of available cars and lack of tail tracks at 14th street, not lack of capacity within the tube. Between these three sets of tubes and the Montague tunnel, there is capacity for an additional 40 trains per hour during the peak. At least.

    CBTC could squeeze even more capacity out of the existing trunks. Many of which are still not even running up against the capacity of the existing fixed block system. There is no need to embark on a prohibitively expensive expansion project of building more trunk capacity beyond the proposed 2nd avenue trunk. At best, a few new connectors between existing lines are all that is needed

  • daniel b

    que bonitos mapitas.

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