» The city’s largest borough currently suffers from a large gap in service, but relatively inexpensive improvements could address those problems well.
Though New Yorkers overall are used to some of the longest commute times in the country, residents of southeast Queens are particularly affected. The inhabitants of this large segment of the borough between JFK Airport and Jamaica, from Brooklyn to the city line, have average travel times to work of more than 50 minutes. That’s each way.
It’s a terrible situation, especially since so many people in the pretty dense neighborhood rely on public transportation to get around — and so many are headed to Midtown and downtown Manhattan, areas with high levels of train and bus service already. Transit planners have a moral obligation to find ways to improve their commutes, even in face of the mounting budget deficit currently pounding New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
|Commute times in Queens||Transit share in Queens|
Fortunately, there are several cheap investments the city could make that would substantially reduce the trip times of those living in this part of the borough, starting with a change in fare policy. Leveraging existing transit corridors to a fuller extent by constructing more stations in southeast Queens is also a serious and relatively inexpensive option.
New York offers a standard ticket price for its subway and bus services; the same fare is paid for trips consisting of just a few blocks or twenty miles. The same applies for the city’s unlimited passes, which allow rides anywhere in the city on buses and subways for a set price over a period of time.
There are positives and negatives associated with this system — one thing it certainly does is instill the idea that the whole city is accessible to every citizen, of any class — but it certainly preferences people who live far from their jobs. Yet New York City is structured in a way that makes further densification of the central city core very difficult, even as most jobs continue to be located in Manhattan; people from the outskirts of the city, like it or not, need to be able to get to the center in a reasonably short period of time.
That single-fare policy has not been extended to the MTA’s commuter rail systems, Metro-North and the Long Island Railroad, both of which provide quick access from the outer boroughs to parts of the Manhattan office districts, at a higher price. From Jamaica, at the northwest tip of Queens’ southeast quadrant, a ride to Penn Station on the LIRR takes 19 minutes and costs $7.60 at peak times (or $5.46 during off-peak times); on the E Express Subway (faster than most), the trip requires 34 minutes, for $2.25 (or about $1.50 using an unlimited pass).
For many commuters, there’s a difficult choice to make: pay more than twice as much and get a 45% faster ride, or save money and squeeze into buses and subways. Most choose the latter option because it’s cheaper — which explains the high average commute times for people from Southeast Queens in spite of the large number of transit lines that criss-cross the area.
It also explains the under-use of some of the existing branches of the LIRR in southeast Queens, including the Far Rockaway Branch, which stops at Locust Manor and Laurelton Stations; the Hempstead branch, which includes stations at Queens Village and Hollis; and the West Hempstead branch, with its stop at St. Albans.
Thus an easy fix for this problem would be to make in-city trips on the commuter railroads the same price as those on the subway and buses, and allow commuters to make free transfers between the two. This would instantly reduce typical travel times for people in this section of Queens (and areas of the northern Bronx) and increase the use of the existing commuter rail capacity on the three LIRR corridors mentioned above.
If the city subsidized this fare reduction, the state-financed MTA could continue charging current fares on trips coming from outside of the city without encouraging debate over differences in transit provisions for the city and its suburbs, a discussion already at the heart of many of the agency’s financial problems.
Creating fare equity between the commuter railroads and the subways would produce significant time savings for the residents of southeast Queens. But the introduction of more people onto the LIRR system would require some substantial changes in commuter rail operations in order for the services to remain reliable. For one, in-city stations benefiting from reduced fares would have to have turnstiles installed so that free transfers could be enforced. Or, the MTA could wait for the universal contactless farecard it is already developing, a ticket designed to allow conductors on the commuter trains to make pass inspections using the same system as installed at subway faregates.
The introduction of thousands of new daily riders on LIRR trains would likely cause some capacity problems, since many of the system’s trains are already overcrowded at rush hour. Some of the difficulties would be solved with the opening of East Side Access to Grand Central Terminal in 2016, which will allow a larger number of trains to enter Manhattan. Moreover, with increasing ridership likely to occur anyway, the railroad will have to buy more trains over the next decade; if these vehicles were configured more like rapid transit, with more doors and more standing room (unlike existing LIRR trains, which prioritize comfortable seating), the larger number of riders could be handled easily.
And of course, there’s another easy way to relieve capacity issues at Penn Station: simply run trains through from New Jersey to Long Island, reducing track use in the central segments of the system. It can be done.
Though the MTA would lose revenue by significantly reducing the cost of inner-city commuter rail trips, it would likely also increase transit ridership on trips coming from areas at the edges of the metropolis. Meanwhile, the changes I’ve suggested would require limited investment above and beyond what was already planned — the new contactless farecard is being designed already; new trains are to be ordered within a few years anyway, and a change in their design won’t affect their pricetag.
But there are other, more costly investments that would focus on the commuting problems of this particularly isolated neighborhood. By adding stations to the three branches of the LIRR that pass through the community, a far larger slice of the population would suddenly find itself within half a mile of a rail station. Though adding a stop or two for each line would slightly increase the commute times of people coming from further away, they would significantly reduce the trip times of people in this neighborhood by providing quick, direct access to Midtown Manhattan and connections further down the line to subway routes heading throughout the city.
Building a new station is not exactly a cheap proposition, but taking advantage of an existing rail line, rather than, say, extending a subway (something that’s been proposed for Southeast Queens in the past), is a much less expensive alternative.
And then there’s AirTrain JFK.
Since it opened in December 2003, the line has become an important tool for commuters getting to and from JFK Airport; it connects each of the airport’s terminals directly to LIRR and subway services (E, J, and Z trains) at Jamaica, and to A Subway services at Howard Beach. Elevated above the median of the Van Wyck Expressway, its route passes directly adjacent to some of the neighborhoods that suffer from exactly the long commutes that irritate so many people who live in southeast Queens.
Unfortunately, because the AirTrain was built with funds from the federal government’s Aviation Trust Fund and airport Passenger Facility Charge revenues, it could not include local stations — the only stops on the line are at airport terminals, passenger facilities, and at the transit drop-offs at Howard Beach and Jamaica. Federal regulations state that those revenue sources can only be used for a project that “must exclusively serve airport traffic.” This results in a number of peculiar situations that ultimately reduce the effectiveness of transit that serves airports in the United States, since through-running and local (non-airport) stops are basically banned by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Theoretically, several new stations could be added to AirTrain along the Van Wyck corridor without reducing existing capacity by creating side-platform stations and building access tracks separate from the express tracks used by JFK-Jamaica trains. This would be a pricey investment, since it would require the creation of a new track connection between Howard Beach and Jamaica trains (to avoid interrupting airport express and inter-terminal service) and it would require the construction of a series of elevated platforms above a freeway and connected to an in-use transit line. Faregates would also have to be installed at JFK terminals to ensure that passengers pay the correct charge, since those riding on the new Howard Beach-Jamaica train would pay standard subway fares, while those heading for the airport would continue to pay the $5 airport fee.
These improvements would provide direct operations from a number of isolated neighborhoods to Jamaica and Howard Beach, from which there would be easy transfers to Midtown and Downtown Manhattan-bound trains.
It would have been more convenient to make these changes when the project was first being built, to say the least. But these changes wouldn’t affect the quality of the original investment and therefore would not pose an affront to FAA regulations.
Sadly, the MTA has done very little to address the excessive commute times of southeast Queens residents, who deserve improved transportation access, and there has been no coordinated planning for better transit service for the neighborhood. Its denizens are likely to see long trip times for decades to come.