Categories
Infrastructure Metro Rail New York Stations

The case of the missing platform doors

» Platform screen doors could save lives, reduce trash on the tracks, and improve the customer experience. Yet they’ve been repeatedly pushed back as a solution in cities like New York. At fault: A bureaucracy that isn’t able to plan for technological change and is unresponsive even to its own board members.

Charles Moerdler wants to make the New York City Subway better for its passengers, but he keeps getting blown off. His story is parochial in that it is relevant directly to New York, but it is also generalizable—representative in its own way of how American transit agencies respond to the availability of new technologies, even when those new technologies can save lives and improve operations.

Moerdler may be one of the most prominent, if unrecognized (perhaps even by himself), advocates of what are known as platform screen doors. These glass doors, which line the edge of train platforms and prevent people from jumping, falling, or being pushed onto the tracks, are installed on rapid transit systems all over the world. They are aligned with a train’s own doors and are designed to open when a train pulls up. They can play an important role in improving transit safety, in many cases literally saving lives, and they can prevent people from throwing trash onto the tracks, a typical cause of system-disrupting track fires.

Yet they’re also virtually non-existent on rapid transit systems in the U.S. Why is that?

I’ll return to Moerdler in a second, but suffice it to say that his advocacy has been repeatedly and condescendingly rebuffed—I document the instances below—by leadership at the agency that runs the Subway, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), where he is a board member. Partly as a consequence, like many other systems, the New York City Subway remains dangerously susceptible to people getting hit by trains and service disruptions. No progress, at least in the public eye, has been made on addressing this problem. This public bureaucracy seems incapable of adjusting to technological change.

Platform screen doors: A worldwide phenomenon for rapid transit, except in the U.S.

Platform screen doors may be familiar to anyone who has used an automated people mover at airports from Chicago O’Hare to New York JFK, and they have a number of benefits. They allow platforms to act as insulated rooms, physically stopping people from jumping or falling onto the tracks—a particular plus for blind people. They prevent people from trashing the tracks—a major cause of subway delays. They allow trains to enter stations at higher speeds, and they make it far more feasible to air condition those stops.

Doors can be installed at full heights, completely isolating the platform from the tracks, or they can be installed more cheaply at a lower height. They can be installed at all stations along a line, or just some of them. They can be added on lines that are automated, and on others that are not.

The doors aren’t free. Costs may vary from about €2.6 million per station for a project now underway in Paris to about $10 million per station, according to an estimate for Montréal.

The MTA suggests that platform doors could require platform edge reinforcement, electrical upgrades, and a new interface between trains and signals. So determining the relative importance of lives saved and reduced trash fires resulting from platform doors, compared to other potential investments, is needed for any system considering their implementation.

Clearly, many cities have decided they’re worth the cost. The below map illustrates all of the rapid transit systems around the world—excluding airport people movers—noting in yellow and green those systems with platform screen doors at at least some of their stations (click to expand).

As the map shows, none of the major rapid transit systems in the U.S. include such doors—not New York, but also not Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Miami, Philadelphia, San Francisco, or Washington. Only Las Vegas’ monorail, a tourist attraction, and Honolulu’s line, now under construction, include them.

In Europe and Asia, however, platform screen doors are quite common. They’ve been installed on new systems in cities as disparate as Bangkok, Chengdu, Copenhagen, Dubai, Singapore, Toulouse, and Turin. They’ve been added to existing lines in places from Beijing to London and Paris. And many cities are installing them now.

In South Korea, there have been particularly significant efforts to incorporate platform doors at existing stations. In Japan, the government has recommended their installation at every station with at least 100,000 daily commuters and identified a significant reduction in accidents following their addition. The doors are common on every rail system in China.

In other words, the doors are ubiquitous for new rapid transit lines in the wealthier parts of the world. Except for in the U.S.

Return to New York

One explanation for the difference may be the manner in which American transit agencies approach technological change. Which brings us back to Charles Moerdler.

Don’t feel bad for Chuck. He’s a partner in a major law firm. Despite being yelled at by the current MTA chair, Moerdler feels empowered in his job as an MTA board member.

Yet my examination of MTA board minutes suggests that he’s been given misleading answers to his queries about the possibilities of such doors at least eight times, by a panoply of different officials, over the past five years.

To rehash:

  • In March 2012, then-MTA President Tom Prendergast told Moerdler that platform doors were being considered for installation, and he said they could improve safety, comfort, and timeliness of trains. Then- and now-MTA chairman Joe Lhota said “we will look at” the doors, though he suggested “it’s not something I think we’ll see, quite honestly, in your lifetime or my lifetime.”
  • In January 2013, an MTA Senior Vice President said the agency was considering the possible use of platform door barriers and other mechanisms to check for intrusions on the track.
  • In May 2014, Moerdler generated discussion among board members about the potential for platform doors to address safety and operational issues, to no real response from MTA officials.
  • In June 2014, then-New York City Transit President Carmen Bianco suggested that two initiatives, including intrusion detection and the feasibility of platform doors, “are ongoing.”
  • In November 2016, then-New York City Transit President Veronique Hakim “agreed to look into the feasibility of a pilot program for the installation of platform doors,” according to the minutes. Another board member noted that the agency needed a study to examine the issue.
  • In February 2017, Subways Senior Vice President Wynton Habersham said that the issue of platform doors “is currently under consideration, and agreed to get back to [board] Members with further information at a future date.” He agreed to produce a report on the cost and feasibility of platform doors in New York.
  • In March 2017, Habersham “agreed to consider the use of platform doors,” and the agency suggested a “comprehensive study” was being explored at that moment.
  • In September 2017, Moerdler was again promised by agency officials that platform doors were possible, and the idea had not been abandoned.

The MTA has never produced a comprehensive analysis of the potential for such doors, nor has it committed seriously to installing them. The way in which Moerdler has been treated is indicative of the agency’s unwillingness to invest in new technologies. For years, the agency has been responding to him as if the public is on the cusp of learning about the potential for platform doors, and yet responses over the years collectively indicate little progress.

Perhaps the MTA does, in fact, have something forthcoming. And the fact is that there has been repeated evidence that the MTA is at least minimally interested in investing in such technologies. In 2007, agency officials suggested that the Second Avenue Subway could include such doors. Board members designated $2.4 million in funds for platform doors in the 2010-to-2014 capital plan; this expenditure was delayed and supposed to be completed in December 2016 (it wasn’t). The agency complained about the difficulty of implementation in early 2013, noting that door installation would be costly, have to respond to varying train lengths, door placements, and differences in station designs. In February 2016, the MTA suggested it would put platform doors at the L train’s 6th Avenue station. By November last year, the agency noted that the S shuttle from Times Square to Grand Central might be a better option.*

All along, people kept getting hurt and, in some cases, dying. Just last year 102 people were accidentally hit by trains at stations, and another 51 allegedly or definitely attempted suicide by jumping in front of trains.

The agency’s response to Moerdler isn’t just evidence of an embarrassingly inappropriate relationship with board members. It’s also a disappointment for riders.

To be fair, I would be remiss to avoid mentioning the challenges the MTA would face if it were to attempt the installation of platform screen doors. The doors generally require several basic features to work: Trains that stop in the almost-exact same place every time; level and even platforms; and train doors that are always located in the same place.**

Stopping trains in the same place each time they arrive at stations typically requires advanced signaling, a feature that New York’s Subway is notoriously lacking. Level platforms require renovations. Train doors being located in the same place is difficult to achieve with a mixed fleet of trains featuring doors in different locations. Achieving any of these features would not be simple, and it would require MTA dedicate new funds to be accomplished.

Yet there are MTA services that are already practically ready for the installation of such doors. The L train has advanced, CBTC signaling that is similar to automation and can guarantee reliable stopping. It also has a train fleet whose doors are all located in the same place. Once the 7 train’s CBTC renovation is completed, it too will have those two features. So, interestingly, does the Q train’s just-opened portion under Second Avenue in Manhattan. The first two feature congested platforms where the dangers of falling in front of a train are real. And all three need to keep the tracks clear of trash to maintain appropriate operations.

But, at least as of now, the MTA has no plans to add platform doors to any of the lines. One explanation may be that the agency wants to hold off for a future in which it changes the location of train doors.

Promoting technological change

It’s hard to understand why, exactly, the management of American transit agencies act in the manner that they do. While they could use more funds in many cases, the biggest agencies work with billions of dollars of capital and operating funds, more than most agencies in Europe or Asia. While they’re public sector bureaucracies, so is virtually every other transit agency in the world. While agency leadership keeps changing, many staff members have remained there for years. While boards aren’t particularly responsive from a democratic perspective, neither are the heads of transit agencies in most other countries—and, even if they were, it’s hard to believe that issues like platform screen doors will ever rise to the top of issues relating to popular protest.

The best explanation I have is that management is simply uninterested in making the decisions necessary to bring their technologies up to speed. Given their (real or imagined) sense of being constantly under siege, transit agency leadership would prefer to just keep the existing system working as it does today: Better safe than sorry. And the repeated complaints of one board member, not backed by others and not likely to raise the concerns of the political official who appointed him (the governor), simply doesn’t matter enough.

It is also undoubtedly true that the fact that platform doors can, for now, only be installed at some stations, on some lines, poses a political challenge to doing it anywhere. Yet that hasn’t prevented the improvement of service in some places over others. And in the places where it is possible, the primary problem is a lack of foresight and coordination. If, when the MTA had begun renovations on the L or the 7, it had committed to platform doors, it could have simply incorporated their installation into the overall renovation plan, as have other cities. Including them now wouldn’t represent such a struggle. Comprehensive planning about multiple elements of a project clearly is not the agency’s high point.

There are reasons for hope, however. About two years ago, I wrote about the complete failure of American transit agencies to purchase open-gangway trains, which increase capacity by allowing people to walk between cars—a failure that could not be attributable to technology or cost and that was degrading customer service. Agencies offered surface-level, unreasonable excuses for their approach.

But in January 2016 (surely not just, if at all, as a consequence of my article), the MTA announced it would purchase an open-gangway train, and a portion of a prototype has been built.

It will take decades for the full fleet to be converted, but the decision signals that there is a willingness, somewhere deep in the heart of American transit bureaucracy, for change.

* Philadelphia, among other cities, has also considered platform doors.

** There are some inventive approaches to handling situations with doors in different locations using ropes, but these seem unlikely to be feasible in a rapid-transit context.

Categories
Elections Metro Rail New York

The boundaries that divide our transit systems

PATH

» In New York City, transit providers create new services to handle disruptions—even when existing lines can support the load.

Beginning early this month, PATH—the metro rail system operated by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey that connects Manhattan and Northern New Jersey—began installing new signals, forcing the closure of a section of its network in New York City. In the process, the agency is providing a bus shuttle service as a substitute over the course of 17 weekends, shuttling passengers on an above-ground route between the Midtown business district and the World Trade Center, where PATH trains continue to run.

All of this might make sense under normal circumstances; in fact, in places like Chicago where rail lines have been shut down, bus service replacement has worked well. Yet in New York, the service being replaced runs on a corridor shared by other subway lines*—but they’re managed by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) instead. Those lines not only are faster than the buses PATH is providing, but they show up more often, and they connect directly underground to the World Trade Center (which the buses do not).

Benjamin Kabak of Second Avenue Sagas delved into the details—and appropriately condemned—this service change last week. PATH has chosen to shuttle its passengers rather than take advantage of existing New York City Transit Subway services, giving them vouchers to use on the buses instead of working with the MTA to let riders take advantage of the trains it is running. It is a disappointing reflection of the state of cooperation between the Port Authority and the MTA.

Yet I can’t help chiming in, too, to discuss the mentality of transit operators that choose to pursue this course of action. For, while PATH’s “bustitution” is uniquely problematic, the agency’s perspective on how to act is hardly rare at all. Indeed, as I’ll describe below, given their general understanding about how to operate, it is a surprise that we don’t see more actions of this sort by transit agencies in the U.S.

Operators act as if their riders are incapable of using other services—or as if those other services simply don’t exist

It is possible that the Port Authority asked the MTA to provide free transfer rides to its PATH riders arriving at the World Trade Center, and the MTA declined the idea. Or perhaps the Port Authority determined that providing riders vouchers for rides on the MTA would be more expensive than operating the relatively minimal-cost substitute bus (see below). Even so, the decision to “bustitute” smacks of agencies that don’t believe customers should be transferring between services.

PATH’s approach is to assume that its customers can only take PATH-branded services, and thus that if the PATH rail line isn’t working, they’ll have to take a new PATH bus. Other transit services might as well not exist.

PATH, of course, is hardly alone in this approach. The MTA was capable of producing a map that demonstrated “regional transit connections,” including the Subway, PATH, and other services—but only during the Super Bowl in 2014. Otherwise, the Subway map treats PATH (which carries more than 250,000 riders a day) as a minor railroad hardly visible on the map, and with its service in New Jersey simply not shown.

In Chicago, the commuter rail agency Metra and the local metro rail system, the CTA ‘L,’ share stations at two points (the product, no doubt, of clearheaded thinking at some point decades ago), yet riders are provided no discount to transfer between these services. When required by state legislation to provide a single, shared fare card, the commuter rail agency responded by cooperating on the development of an app that can’t be used to board a CTA bus or train.

These agencies operate with isolation mentalities, ignoring the fact that their riders may well want to take advantage of other transit services, or even (gasp!) that many of them already do.

This approach has nefarious consequences that extend not only into the service that operators provide but also into the projects they choose to build. When planning a new route, for example, agencies often ignore the potential for improving existing services operated by other agencies; this results, for example, in BART pushing a multi-billion dollar expansion of its services to San Jose instead of encouraging local stakeholders to invest in improving existing commuter rail services such as Caltrain or Altamont Corridor Express.

Operators act as if they are in competition with other operators

Behind PATH’s decision to provide users a bus to substitute for its weekend service outage is the sense that the agency is somehow in competition with New York City’s Subway network. The agencies both provide services under Sixth Avenue, but to transfer between trains requires leaving one system and entering the other. From the rider’s perspective, the relationship between the two services is confrontational, rather than cooperative—and the weekend “bustitution” furthers this impression.

What’s ironic about this arrangement, of course, is that both PATH and the New York City Subway are run by public agencies (supposedly) serving in the public interest and receiving public subsidies to operate and construct projects. Each receives funding from the federal government to maintain infrastructure. Each operates on a tax-free basis. And each is controlled by state governments (in the case of the Port Authority, its management is 50 percent controlled by the State of New Jersey). One would think they might have an incentive to work together.

In other cases, transit agencies are even more directly linked. In the Chicago region, for example, both CTA and Metra receive operating subsidies from the same regional sales tax and from the same state matching funds (MTA and PATH have different operating subsidy sources). Yet those agencies’ management is divorced from one another and neither is compelled to consult the other when developing service plans or integrating fare systems.

The results are familiar to transit riders in many parts of the country: Difficulty making multimodal transfers, confusion about which services operate where and when, and additional costs when using multiple operators.

Sources of operator isolation

It is worth noting that the “bustitution” provided by PATH will not be particularly expensive to provide on the grand scheme of things. Using the information provided by PATH about its weekend service, I estimated that the agency would need a total of four buses to provide service—such a small number that the organization can surely scrounge up the buses from its existing airport fleets.

Assuming operating costs of New York City Transit buses in 2014 (from the Federal Transit Administration’s database), the total costs of operation will be between $720,000 and $930,000 for all of the relevant weekends (depending on whether you calculate based on average cost per vehicle revenue hour or revenue mile). These costs would account for less than a third of a percent of PATH’s $342 million 2016 operating budget.

Nevertheless, it would be cheaper for both transit systems overall for the MTA to simply absorb the transferring PATH riders during the weekend shutdowns. This would require no additional operating costs on the part of the Port Authority and likely nothing for the Subway system either, as it has the capacity to absorb these weekend passengers. But this would mean the MTA and the Port Authority would have to work for the good of the general public, not just their respective riders or agencies.

To place the blame for the operator malfunctions described above on the operators alone is almost as bad as the actions of the operators themselves. For while it is true that operators often have a lot of responsibility for the way they interact with their peers, it is also true that their economic and political makeup often obligates them to act as they do.

Transit operators in the U.S., as noted above, are universally subsidized. Those subsidies are provided to operators based on pre-set parameters that have been negotiated over time between elected officials, the public (through referenda), and the operators. In general, the subsidies are attributed to operators without operating requirements. As a result, operators are often free to make their own decisions about how to spend their funds, without required consideration of regional needs, potential overlap with other agencies, or direction from political officials.

Most transit providers are public authorities with boards appointed by elected officials representing local, regional, and state governments. In many cases, the same elected officials appoint officials to multiple transit boards; New York’s governor appoints representatives to both the MTA and the Port Authority, for example. This setup might imply that elected officials have some oversight responsibility (or sense of obligation) to make the right decisions for transit riders.

In regions where transit services are consolidated, such as in Boston or Minneapolis, these conditions are less problematic. State leadership holds transit service accountable and sets priorities for system expansion. And one agency (MBTA or Metro Transit) is tasked with setting service standards, and the agencies generally have an incentive to encourage riders to experience the system as a whole, not just a collection of lines.

That said, even in Boston, unified control of the transit system under one agency hasn’t prevented such absurdities as it costing riders $6.75 to ride between Braintree and South Station on commuter rail and only $2.25 to make the same trip on the Red Line subway. The commuter rail line, yes, is nine minutes faster—but it also runs only 18 times a day in total, versus every 9 to 12 minutes on the Red Line.

A better grasp on what regional goals are for transit networks in general, and a commensurate focus by elected officials on telling agencies what to do, rather than letting agencies operate in isolated fiefdoms, would aid American transit riders. In places with multiple transit agencies, it probably shouldn’t be up to individual operators to determine which services to prioritize, or what fares to charge, or where to expand, or how to deal with a major service change due to construction.

Elected officials rarely take responsibility for running transit services effectively and responsibly, the sort of “Sewer Socialism” Sandy Johnston has focused on of late. Transit agencies shouldn’t operate in a vacuum, devoid of political involvement (despite their considerable public subsidies), but they often do—and they do so with the explicit support of politicians who don’t have the interest, engagement, or expertise to demand better. New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo should force the Port Authority and the MTA to work together. His constituents should demand that he does.

* Riders trying to get from Midtown near Sixth Avenue (where the PATH runs) to the World Trade Center have several options on the Subway system: Taking the 1 to Chambers Street; the 2 or 3 to Park Place; the E to World Trade Center; the A or C to Chambers Street or Fulton Street; or the R to Cortlandt Street.

Image at top: PATH’s 33rd Street Station, from Flickr user Friscocali (cc).

Categories
Boston Finance Infrastructure Light Rail

Frequent service, not escalator access, is what attracts transit users

Boston's Green Line

» Boston’s Green Line extension, bloated after years of planning, gets slimmed down. A lesson for other cities. 

Given how reliant the people of New York City are on their Subway, an outsider just looking at ridership data might conclude that the system must be paved with gold, or at least its stations must be decent to look at. After all, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that the comfort of a transit system plays an essential role in encouraging people to abandon their cars and get on the train or bus. That’s why, some would argue, it’s so important to put amenities like USB charging and wifi into transit vehicles.

Yet anyone who has ever ridden the Subway knows first hand that its success has nothing to do with aesthetics or access to luxury amenities. Stations are hardly in good shape, trains are packed, and cell service is spotty at best. People ride the Subway in spite of these things; they ride it because it’s fast, it’s frequent, and it’s (relatively) reliable.

Too often, this simple fact is ignored by public agencies actually making decisions about how to invest. New York’s own $4 billion World Trade Center Transportation Hub—perhaps the world’s single-most expensive station—is evidence of that; rather than improve service frequency or speed, officials chose to direct public funds to a white monument that does nothing to actually ease the lives of daily commuters.

Initial plans for the MBTA’s Green Line extension, which would extend light rail service from Cambridge into Somerville and Medford—all three are close-in suburbs of Boston—featured none of the extravagances of downtown Manhattan’s new transit terminal. Yet it too was designed with unnecessary features that, while nice, did little to actually solve the travel needs of its future users.  Its projected construction costs exploded such that officials announced last year the proposal could be cancelled. Now, after several months of review, the MBTA and the state government have voted to proceed with design changes meant to significantly bring down costs—but without compromising the quality of transit service to be offered to riders.

Agencies with pricey projects around the country should look for similar opportunities to minimize costs.

A rail line for one of the nation’s most transit-friendly communities

The seven-station extension of the Green Line proposed for Boston would be the region’s first rapid transit expansion since the completion of the Red Line extension in 1985. Running along two branches northwest from today’s terminus at Lechmere—one branch to Union Square in Somerville, the other to College Avenue, near Tufts University—the 4.7 miles of new track would run along existing commuter rail lines and connect to some of the country’s densest, most transit-friendly neighborhoods. See the Transit Explorer map below for details.

The project would vastly improve connections of Somerville and Medford residents to jobs hubs in Cambridge and Boston and is expected to attract 45,000 daily riders by 2030. That would make it one of the most effective projects in the nation from the perspective of riders per mile operated.

The project has been in planning for decades. A 1990 lawsuit required that the line be completed by 2011 as a sort of trade-off in exchange for the completion of the Big Dig. But faced with limited funding, mounting MBTA debt, and a lack of adequate state political support, the project failed to gain traction and the state kept pushing it off. Finally, initial construction activity began in 2013 and the federal government agreed to provide a significant New Starts grant to the project in 2015.

Yet even as the project advanced, its estimated construction costs mounted ominously. Federal reports show total costs rising from $1.1 billion in 2013 to $1.7 billion in 2014 to $2.3 billion in early 2015. By late last year, the project’s budget had reached $3 billion, and the state announced that it was not only cancelling certain contracts related to its completion but also that, in the context of a transit agency stretched beyond anything it could handle, it was considering cancelling it altogether.*

Redesign by necessity

But the MBTA submitted the Green Line extension to a review by a project management team, and that group released its report on how to save the project yesterday. The document details how the project’s price tag could be substantially reduced, returning it to a (still-expensive but) doable $2.3 billion cost.

The changes are reasonable because, rather than cutting the quality of service provided to riders in terms of transit service, they focus on aesthetic elements that, even if they improve the general atmosphere of the system, likely do little to actually get people onto trains. The essentials, like the frequency of trains, their speed, and their capacity, are maintained.

What the team does recommend is vastly simplifying proposed station designs. As the below chart from the report indicates, the stations would be slimmed down. 15 elevators would be replaced by six (while maintaining wheelchair accessibility throughout); escalators and fare gates would be eliminated entirely; and full-length station canopies would be cut down to shelters. In total, these changes would slash almost $300 million from the project budget, with virtually no impact on ridership experience.

Changes in Green Line stations

The changes will make the MBTA’s built footprint less visible; there will be no Calatrava extravagances here. As the below images show, Ball Square station in Medford was initially designed to feature a plaza, a headhouse (a multi-story building featuring elevators and escalators), a concourse, and a fully covered platform. What would be built in its place is an open-air and very simple train stop, with more room for future transit-oriented development.

Customers may suffer through the cold for a few more minutes, but trains will come frequently enough that shouldn’t be a major concern. Meanwhile, MBTA will save itself millions of dollars of future maintenance costs not upkeeping expensive and unreliable machinery and not keeping thousands of square feet of interior space clean. These savings aren’t even accounted for in the capital costs of the project but they’ll pay off in a lower operating budget for years to come.

Initial proposal Revised proposal
ball-sq-before ball-sq-after

The management team also proposes a reduction in the size of the proposed vehicle maintenance facility and affiliated transportation building, which together will save more than $100 million and not affect the MBTA’s ability to keep trains moving. An expensive parking deck will be replaced with a parking lot. Bridges that the initial plan suggested needed to be completely replaced will be simply renovated.

If the choices about what to eliminate seem obvious, consider the alternative: The Purple Line in suburban Washington, D.C. also underwent a considerable cost-cutting process earlier this year. Yet the changes there will reduce passenger quality of service by increasing headways between trains, reducing train capacity, and lengthening the walking distance between the line and a Metro station in Silver Spring. While these efficiencies aren’t dramatic enough to imperil the overall value of the line, they will hurt the passenger experience in the long term, while those on the Green Line will not.

The changes in Boston must be approved by the Federal Transit Administration, which has final say over whether the redesigned project meets the initial project goals. And local governments need to scrounge up an additional $73 million to meet the gap in project costs that remains—without this funding, the project could still be on the chopping block. Yet these are surmountable obstacles and the project now seems likely to move forward.

Nuance by design

Boston’s example is no panacea; the quality of the transit environment does matter. While nice materials, enclosed stations, escalators, and overhead canopies may do little to expand ridership, they improve peoples’ daily experience, and that’s important. The nicer we can make the public sphere, the better our cities will be to live in.

But it’s refreshing to see a transit agency propose a cost-cutting approach that does nothing to negatively impact the level of service being proposed. Rather than take out a constricted budgetary environment on riders by reducing service, the MBTA is proposing to stick to the essentials, and that’s the right move.

Were construction costs in Boston lower, the MBTA could afford to give riders both good service and a comfortable environment. But like transit agencies around the country, the MBTA has been unable to lower costs to international standards. In this environment, it serves as a model for other agencies looking to invest in transit on a limited budget.

* There is some question as to whether the state actually can ever cancel the project, given that it was mandated through the legal process.

Image at top from Flickr user Bill Damon (cc). Other images from Green Line project management team report.

Categories
Commuter Rail Intercity Rail Leipzig Philadelphia

For rail services, downtown sometimes isn’t the right place for a terminus

leipzig-markt

» For commuter rail, through-running is becoming increasingly popular in city after city looking to take advantage of faster travel times, direct suburb-to-suburb services, and more downtown stops. Leipzig, Germany, whose City Tunnel opened in 2013, is a case in point.

There’s a romantic notion of the downtown rail terminal in the American popular culture, often expressed in movies and books. It’s a scene that is easy to conjure up in one’s mind: The steaming locomotive comes slowly to a halt at the end of a track, passengers stream out into a giant waiting room, and from there they exit into the bustling metropolis. The railroad terminal is the physical manifestation of the end of a journey and the exciting moment of arrival.

For railroad companies and government agencies, the need to create this welcoming travel environment has inspired multi-billion-dollar station redevelopment schemes. The argument made has been that in order to achieve the appropriate travel experience, people should arrive for train travel—whether intercity or commuter—in one, massive facility where trains begin and end their trips.

But what if this orientation towards rail terminals is actually reducing the effectiveness of our rail system? What if we eliminated terminals downtown altogether and just replaced them with regular old stops on the line, leaving terminals for outer suburban places?

European cities from Basel to Brussels have done just that, replacing commuter rail services ending at central depots with through-running operations where trains stop at several places in the city rather than one thanks to new rail tunnels. They’re expensive investments, but they may make commuting a faster and more enjoyable experience.

The Leipzig experience

Until 2013, commuter rail service in Leipzig, a half-million-person city in eastern Germany, departed from two major train stations—the Hauptbahnhof just north of the center and the Bayerishcher Bahnhof south of it. This produced a peculiar situation in which people traveling from one suburb to another had no easy connection between trains and also required travelers to make a transfer to a local bus or tram—or take a walk—to get to the center of the city.

As early as 1915, city planners plotted a connection between the stations (and some preliminary work was actually completed), but not until the 1990s was a plan finalized, and construction on the City Tunnel didn’t get underway until 2003. The roughly one-mile subway link added two intermediary stations right in the center of downtown (including one at Markt, pictured above). Though the project was years late and its budget exploded to €960 million—of which the Saxony region covered about half the costs—the project was completed.

The following map illustrates the connection the tunnel has provided: A direct link through the center of the city offering a route for six S-Bahn (regional rail) services.

Leipzig S-Bahn

The tunnel saved people using the system lots of time—and now about 55,000 riders are using the link on a typical weekday. It’s well used.

During my time in Leipzig in May as part of the International Transport Forum’s Media Travel Programme, I spoke with Mayor Burkhard Jung about the value this project brought to his city.

Jung, who was a primary advocate for the project, emphasized that the new stations in the center of the city dramatically improved the local economic environment. “Everything changed,” he told me; “it helped the whole business district” by bringing many more visitors. Suburbanites, who once would have avoided the center, or at least only been to the areas directly near the stations, suddenly had very frequent rail access to subway stations directly in the downtown.

Jung also pointed out that the project was contributing to the overall goal of getting more people on transit. “We can’t solve the emissions, noise problems if we don’t solve the mode split problem,” he said. According to him, the city is already heading in the right direction, with a clear shift away from private passenger cars over the last five years.

That’s no surprise when you think about it. Passengers heading in to Leipzig on the S-Bahn who used to have just one available destination downtown—the train line’s terminus—now have four to choose from. That opens up four times as many possibilities in terms of places to go for a night out or a weekend shopping trip.

Meanwhile, the train itself has become more useful, now that instead of just ending downtown, it heads off to another suburban location. And instead of passengers having to run to another potentially far-away platform at the main station to switch to a destination not on one’s train line, they can just get off at any of the City Tunnel’s stations and wait for the next train, since they all operate on the same tracks.

The construction of the City Tunnel did not mean the end of terminus-based rail services entirely in Leipzig. The Hauptbahnhof—which happens to be the largest railway station in the world and also a major shopping center—is still being used, though its focus has shifted to intercity trains. Some intercity trains, however, will be shifted to the City Tunnel in the coming year, though there are capacity limitations.

Many other cities have invested similarly

Leipzig’s investment in its new urban rail tunnel has brought new vitality to its center city but it is in some ways late to the game. In fact, many of its European peers have built similar center-city rail lines over the past few decades in order to provide through-running rail service stopping at many downtown destinations.

Berlin opened its Stadtbahn in the 1880s, providing intercity and commuter service on an elevated line running east-west through the center of the city. Even today, long-distance German high-speed trains hail at several of its stops as they travel from or through Berlin. In the 1930s, Berlin complemented this service with an S-Bahn subway running north-south through the center.

Other cities followed this trend of providing tunneled service for commuter and intercity rail through their centers. Brussels connected its north and south stations in 1952; in 1967, Madrid linked its major stations with the “Tunnel of Laughter;” in 1969, Paris inaugurated its RER regional rail network with a tunnel straight through the center of the city; Munich provided an S-Bahn connection in 1972; Zurich linked up its S-Bahn trains in 1990; Basel built its network in 1997; Bilbao followed in 1999; and Milan began providing inter-suburban train service through downtown in 2004.

That’s hardly an exhaustive list, and many other cities are planning even more: Brussels is building another tunnel to create its own RER network by 2025; Berlin, Geneva, Munich, Stuttgart, and Zurich are all planning or building additional cross-city regional rail links; and London has a new regional rail line under construction and another planned.

Even South American cities are getting into the mix. In Buenos Aires, the new RER network, which includes a cross-city tunneled link (shown in the following video, in Spanish, but worth the watch even if you don’t understand the language) is expected to double suburban rail ridership.

Each of these cities has identified the benefits of combining frequent and fast regional rail networks with through-running train services under their centers. The benefits are clear: More destinations for riders; more accessibility to locations downtown; and the ability to get from one side of a region to another without transferring between trains. They’ve also saved their rail operators considerable expense by allowing them to turn their trains around somewhere other than downtown, which is the most difficult place to do so.

This is a particular benefit because peak times, which require many services heading in or out of downtown, require train operators to stack trains at the terminus, which takes up lots of storage space (in expensive areas of the city) and necessitates many platforms at the terminus, since there aren’t any other downtown station stops. A through-running service allows trains to be stored elsewhere and passengers to be distributed among several stops.

For example, Paris’ RER line A, a through-running regional rail service, carries about as many people daily (more than one million riders) on just two tracks as all services operated by commuter rail services in New York City, including Long Island Rail Road, Metro-North, and New Jersey Transit, which require dozens of platforms at the two Manhattan terminals, Grand Central and Penn Station, and which require acres of train storage areas near downtown, either under Grand Central or at the huge yards on Manhattan’s West Side or Sunnyside. In Paris, trains stop at six central-city subway stops, distributing ridership, and train storage is on the suburban fringe.

Cities with through-running regional rail services have moved away from the terminus-as-destination model of providing suburban and intercity rail service. That’s a transition that benefits riders and the cities they live in.

What potential do we have for through-running in the U.S.?

In the 1980s, Philadelphia opened its Center City Commuter Connection, a new subway for regional rail trains running directly through downtown, with three stops along the way. The project did, in fact, provide riders using that city’s commuter system significantly more alternatives for destinations downtown. Ridership has increased by more than 50 percent over the past 15 years, increasing from 80,000 typical daily trips in 1996 to 135,000 last year.

But because of limited funding, a circuitous regional network (many trains heading east through the tunnel actually end up heading west, and vice-verse), and a lack of commitment to maintaining high train service frequencies or through-running services in general, Philadelphia’s system has not reached its potential. Nonetheless, the infrastructure is there.

New York also has the infrastructure for through-running between Connecticut, Long Island, and New Jersey thanks to tunnels under Penn Station, but trains are segregated between three operators, each of which only has one terminal station in the Manhattan core. Through-running would require cooperation between these operators and, to optimize ridership distribution (to prevent long station stops for boarding and unloading), additional new subway stations in the core, which may be technically difficult and would certainly be pricey.

Other American cities, including Baltimore, Boston, and Chicago, have commuter rail termini located relatively close to one another but which would require new, expensive downtown tunnels to connect them. Are these top infrastructure priorities for cities that have many transportation needs? That’s an open question. But what is undoubtedly true is that if we want more effective commuter rail services that serve more people, we should at least be considering them—a step few U.S. cities have taken thus far.

Image at top: Leipzig City Tunnel Markt station, photograph by Yonah Freemark. Map from City Tunnel Leipzig.

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Finance Metro Rail New York

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).