» 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.
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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).