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
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).

Categories
Finance Metro Rail New York

When American transit agencies ignore the world’s move to open gangways

» Virtually every new metro or subway train purchased by transit agencies over the past ten years has been built with open gangways—allowing passengers to walk from one end of the train to the other. Except in the United States.

New York City’s Second Avenue Subway project, which in its first phase will bring transit service north from 63rd to 96th Streets in Manhattan, will provide many benefits for commuters, offering three new stations and much easier access from the Upper East Side to western Midtown. It will reduce congestion on the Lexington Avenue Subway (4/5/6) by as much as 13 percent—a boon for commuters on the single-most-used transit corridor in the country. And it will respond to the simple fact that New York City is growing quickly; it has added half a million people since 2000 and continues to expand.

But the Second Avenue Subway project has its issues—notably the fact that at $4.5 billion, it’s outrageously expensive given its 1.7-mile length. Given these construction costs, few projects of this magnitude are possible. So what alternatives do congested, growing cities like New York have to increase the capacity of their transit systems?

All around the world, cities investing in their metros—a term I’ll use here to describe systems like New York’s Subway, the Bay Area BART, and others—are choosing to include open gangways on their trains.* It’s a simple concept to understand: Basically, people who board a train are able to walk from one end of the train to the other without opening doors or stepping outside of the train.

Open gangways provide a number of advantages: One, they expand capacity by allowing riders to use the space that typically sits empty between cars. This added capacity means that a metro line can carry more people with trains of the same length. Two, it allows passengers to redistribute themselves throughout the train while the vehicle is moving, reducing problems associated with many people boarding in the same doorway, such as slow exiting times and poorly distributed standees. Three, it increases safety at times of low ridership by increasing the number of “eyes” in the train. There are no obvious downsides.

Open gangways offer passengers the benefit of an improved, less congested, and safer environment as compared to trains with individual cars, the standard you’re used to if you live in the U.S. And it’s no surprise that transit agencies all around the world are choosing open-gangway trains for virtually every new vehicle purchase. This is documented in the following map, where green cities represent places where the metro systems run at least some trains that are all open-gangway. Those that are red do not. Click on the map for a higher-resolution, larger version.

I used the World Metro Database to help me create the map below and the table at the end of this article, but the Database is out of date and, in some places, incorrect and as a result, I collected the information shown here one agency at a time. The vast majority of metro systems are investing in trains with open gangways.

Yet American transit agencies have ignored the concept. New metro trains have been or are being purchased in Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and Washington, among others, but they all continue to be built with individualized cars, with no open gangways. It’s as if the agencies simply have not gotten the message. Only Honolulu, which has a new purpose-built metro currently under construction, will adopt this technology. Perhaps the other agencies will get the message once that system opens in two years.

I wrote about this issue six years ago, interviewing representatives from New York and Washington transit agencies to ask why their new trains did not feature open gangways. The responses were anemic: In Washington, a spokesman told me that the agency had “no plans to change it just to change it,” as if the concept of open gangways was frivolous. In New York, I was told that open gangways would only be possible if “we have a budget for Research and Design for an entirely new subway car.”

Others have suggested that the handicap in the U.S. is that transit agencies have specifications that make them incapable of handling such vehicles. Some say that U.S. agencies need trains with short cars, but the Paris region features a commuter train with open gangways with cars that are shorter than even the notoriously short Chicago L vehicles (43’5″ versus 48′). Some say that the maintenance expense would be too high to transition to these trains (since maintenance facilities might have to be altered to handle cars that are permanently affixed to one another), but many of the European agencies, with metro systems just as old as those in the U.S., have been able to accommodate the trains in their facilities, probably with the assistance of the train manufacturers. Some suggest that these trains would be more expensive, but evidence suggests otherwise.**

London, which has resisted adding open gangways to its “deep tube” fleet (it has such trains already on its “sub-surface” lines) because of issues with tight curves, has recently come around to the concept. In its future metro vehicle feasibility study, London found that open gangways were not only possible, allowing walk-through trains, but that they would increase train capacity by up to 10 percent, while reducing train weight and energy consumption.

When I analyzed this subject in 2009, I didn’t realize the degree to which the world standard had shifted. 75 percent of non-U.S. metros now offer open-gangway trains in their fleets, representing systems as varied as the brand-new networks in China to the ancient facilities in Berlin or Budapest. The last time Mexico City, Madrid, Oslo, or Amsterdam bought a train with individual, separated cars was back in the 1990s. Even our compatriots just across the border in Montreal and Toronto have come around. Every major train manufacturer offers trains with open gangways off the shelf. What is holding U.S. systems back?

Back in 2013, New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority announced in its long-term capital needs assessment that “consideration should be given to” trains with open gangways. We’ve heard no more on this subject in the intervening time, despite some positive coverage of the news.

Yet the agency, like others around the country, has the opportunity to address some of its problems through the purchase of these trains. On the congested Lexington Avenue Line, which I discussed at the beginning, about 45.6 feet of each train’s 513.3-foot length is used up by the empty four feet between each car and the 10 feet reserved for the cabs at the center of the trains.

That means that, if the Lexington Avenue Line were transitioned to trains with open gangways, the line could gain almost an entire car-length of capacity on every train. That’s practically as much relief as the Second Avenue Subway will provide—at the cost of trains that would be purchased anyway.

Open gangways are hardly the end-all be-all of transit operations. They won’t guarantee better service or necessarily attract more riders. And they may not be able to resolve some issues, such as the fact that Washington’s Metro runs trains of different car lengths on each line.

But the fact that every U.S. transit agency—with the exception of Honolulu’s—has failed to adopt to this trend and has no plans to change, raises important questions. Just how much are the management of these transit agencies isolating themselves from world best practice? This is hardly an isolated case. The fact that transit agencies around the world are transitioning infrequent suburban rail operations into frequent regional rail services seems to be lost on most U.S. commuter rail agencies.

If the problem is simply a lack of knowledge, that’s no excuse given the existence of this website or Wikipedia or countless other sources. If the problem is petrified management, stuck in an older technological age and unable to try something new, staffers at those agencies should be working to convince them of at least the possibility of change. If the problem is some sort of U.S.-specific regulatory problem enforced by the federal government, let’s work to adjust it.

I’m skeptical that this technology is just “not possible” on historic U.S. systems; it’s been adapted to too many places around the world in all sorts of conditions for that to be the case. But if the problem is that transit agency management simply doesn’t care enough to adjust their operational standards to respond to improvements that can be offered to passengers, well… it’s time to kick the bums out.

* You could call trains with open gangways “articulated,” but this typically refers to a specific type of gangway, often where the truck (the bogies, where the wheels are) is right below the gangway. A traditional train would have two trucks supporting each car (a 10-car train would have 20 trucks), but an articulated train might have every two cars sharing one truck, such that a 10-car train could have as few as just 11 trucks, vastly reducing weight and energy consumption.

** For example, I compared two contracts conducted in the early 2000s with one metro manufacturer, Alstom. In 2001, Paris bought 805 metro cars (each 49.6 feet long, in open-gangway train configurations) for €695 million. In 2002, New York bought 600 subway cars (each 60.2 feet long, without open gangways) for $962 million. When converted to U.S. dollars (at the July 2001 rate of 1.16 dollars to the euro) and inflation-adjusted to 2002 dollars, the Paris contract was $820 million. This means that, per foot of subway car, Paris paid $20,535 and New York paid $24,200, despite the fact that New York’s contract included, as this article notes, lots of empty space!

World metros, showing presence of open gangways on train fleets
Sort by clicking on column headers.
CityCountryOpen gangways?ContinentYear open gangways addedLast train purchased with individual cars
AlgiersAlgeriaYesAfrica2011n/a
CairoEgyptNoAfrica
YerevanArmeniaNoAsia
BakuAzerbaijanYesAsia2014?
BeijingChinaYesAsia20041999
ChangshaChinaYesAsia2014n/a
ChengduChinaYesAsia2010n/a
ChongqingChinaYesAsia2005n/a
DalianChinaYesAsia2003n/a
GuangzhouChinaYesAsia
HangzhouChinaYesAsia2012n/a
HarbinChinaYesAsia2013n/a
Hong KongChinaYesAsia
KunmingChinaYesAsia2012n/a
NanjingChinaYesAsia2005n/a
NingboChinaYesAsia2014n/a
ShanghaiChinaYesAsia
ShenyangChinaYesAsia2010n/a
ShenzhenChinaYesAsia2004n/a
SuzhouChinaYesAsia2012n/a
TianjinChinaYesAsia20061984
WuhanChinaYesAsia2004n/a
WuxiChinaYesAsia2014n/a
XianChinaYesAsia2011n/a
ZhengzhouChinaYesAsia2013n/a
TbilisiGeorgiaNoAsia
BangaloreIndiaYesAsia2011n/a
ChennaiIndiaYesAsia2015n/a
KolkataIndiaYesAsia
MumbaiIndiaYesAsia2014n/a
New DelhiIndiaYesAsia2002n/a
TehranIranYesAsia
FukuokaJapanYesAsia
HiroshimaJapanNoAsia
KitakyushuJapanYesAsia
KobeJapanYesAsia
KyotoJapanYesAsia
NagoyaJapanYesAsia
OsakaJapanYesAsia
SapporoJapanYesAsia
SendaiJapanYesAsia
TokyoJapanYesAsia
YokohamaJapanYesAsia
AlmatyKazakhstanYesAsia2011n/a
Kuala LumpurMalaysiaSemiAsia
PyongyangNorth KoreaNoAsia
ManilaPhillippinesSemiAsia
MeccaSaudi ArabiaIn planningAsia2019n/a
SingaporeSingaporeYesAsia1987n/a
BusanSouth KoreaYesAsia
DaeguSouth KoreaIn planningAsia
DaejeonSouth KoreaYesAsia
GwangjuSouth KoreaYesAsia
IncheonSouth KoreaYesAsia
SeoulSouth KoreaYesAsia
KaohsiungTaiwanYesAsia
TaipeiTaiwanYesAsia1997n/a
BangkokThailandYesAsia1999n/a
AnkaraTurkeyYesAsia
IstanbulTurkeyYesAsia2000n/a
IzmirTurkeyNoAsia
DubaiUAEYesAsia2009n/a
TashkentUzbekistanNoAsia
ViennaAustriaYesEurope20021993
MinskBelarusIn planningEurope2016?
BrusselsBelgiumYesEurope20071999
SofiaBulgariaNoEurope20051998
PragueCzech RepublicNoEurope
CopenhagenDenmarkYesEurope2002n/a
HelsinkiFinlandYesEurope20011982
LilleFranceIn planningEurope20151999
LyonFranceNoEurope
MarseilleFranceNoEurope
ParisFranceYesEurope19921986
RennesFranceSemiEurope
ToulouseFranceSemiEurope
BerlinGermanyYesEurope19951993
HamburgGermanyYesEurope20122005
MunichGermanyYesEurope20001995
NurembergGermanyYesEurope20041993
AthensGreeceSemiEurope
ThessalonikiGreeceIn planningEurope2018n/a
BudapestHungaryYesEurope
BresciaItalyYesEurope2013n/a
MilanItalyYesEurope20091991
NaplesItalyNoEurope
RomeItalyYesEurope20051999
TurinItalySemiEurope
AmsterdamNetherlandsYesEurope20131997
OsloNorwayYesEurope20051994
WarsawPolandYesEurope20002009
LisbonPortugalYesEurope19991998
BucharestRomaniaYesEurope20021992
KazanRussiaNoEurope
MoscowRussiaIn planningEurope
Nizhny NovgorodRussiaNoEurope
NovosibirskRussiaNoEurope
SamaraRussiaNoEurope
St PetersburgRussiaNoEurope
YekaterinburgRussiaNoEurope
BarcelonaSpainYesEurope
BilbaoSpainYesEurope1995n/a
MadridSpainYesEurope20021998
ValenciaSpainYesEurope
StockholmSwedenSemiEurope
LausanneSwitzerlandYesEurope2008n/a
GlasgowUKIn planningEurope
LondonUKYesEurope20102011
NewcastleUKSemiEurope
DnepropetrovskUkraineNoEurope
KharkivUkraineNoEurope
KievUkraineNoEurope
MontrealCanadaIn planningNorth America20151980
TorontoCanadaYesNorth America20112001
VancouverCanadaSemiNorth America
Santo DomingoDominican RepublicYesNorth America2009n/a
MexicoMexicoYesNorth America20021998
PanamaPanamaYesNorth America2014n/a
AtlantaUSANoNorth America
BaltimoreUSANoNorth America
BostonUSANoNorth America
ChicagoUSANoNorth America
ClevelandUSANoNorth America
HonoluluUSAIn planningNorth America2017n/a
Las VegasUSANoNorth America
Los AngelesUSANoNorth America
MiamiUSANoNorth America
New YorkUSANoNorth America
PATHUSANoNorth America
PhiladelphiaUSANoNorth America
San FranciscoUSANoNorth America
San JuanUSANoNorth America
WashingtonUSANoNorth America
Buenos AiresArgentinaYesSouth America2013
Belo HorizonteBrazilYesSouth America
BrasiliaBrazilNoSouth America
Porto AlegreBrazilYesSouth America
RecifeBrazilYesSouth America20121985
Rio de JaneiroBrazilYesSouth America
SalvadorBrazilYesSouth America2014n/a
Sao PauloBrazilYesSouth America20021999
SantiagoChileYesSouth America19971987
ValparaisoChileNoSouth America
MedellinColumbiaYesSouth America20091995
LimaPeruYesSouth America2011n/a
CaracasVenezuelaYesSouth America
MaracaiboVenezuelaNoSouth America
Note: This list may have errors and it is incomplete; please comment if you identify any issues. The list only includes heavy rail services, not light-rail-grade services, such as the Frankfurt U-Bahn.

Image at top: Potential future London Tube, from Transport for London. World map of metros based on world map base SVG by @F1LT3R of Hyper-Metrix on Wikipedia.

Edit, April 11: I updated values for Moscow, Kazan, Kiev, Kharkiv, Sofia, and Novosibirsk to reflect the fact that they do not currently have metros with open gangways.

Categories
Airport Metro Rail New York

For LaGuardia, an AirTrain that will save almost no one any time

» New York City’s LaGuardia Airport is its rail-inaccessible stepchild. A proposal to spend half a billion dollars on a new transit link there, however, may do little for most of the region.

LaGuardia Airport is the New York City airport closest to the nation’s largest business district in Midtown Manhattan. Getting there, however, is inconvenient and slow for people who rely on transit and expensive — and often also slow — for those who receive rides in cabs or shuttles. In other words, the experience of reaching the airport leaves something to be desired.

The New York region’s two other major airports — Newark and J.F.K. — each have dedicated AirTrain services that connect to adjacent commuter rail (and Subway services, in the case of J.F.K.). These lines were built by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in the 1990s and 2000s to improve transit access to these airports, leaving only LaGuardia without a rail link of its own.

This week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo stepped in, claiming to have solved the problem. His “Opportunity Agenda” for 2015, which includes a number of worthwhile projects such as Penn Station Access for Metro-North commuter trains, includes an AirTrain line to LaGuardia. As proposed, the project would do next to nothing to improve access to the airport. In fact, compared to existing transit services, most riders using the AirTrain would spend more time traveling to LaGuardia than they do now.

There is no hope that this AirTrain will “solve” the access to LaGuardia problem.

Governor Cuomo’s AirTrain, at least according to his press releases, would be built by the Port Authority and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and cost $450 million. Though funding for the project has not yet been identified, it could come from “existing sources,” though it is unclear what exactly that means.

As the map at the top of this article shows, Governor Cuomo’s proposed AirTrain would extend from LaGuardia Airport south along the Grand Central Parkway and then turn off to the east (the line in red). A terminus would be constructed south of the 7 Subway station at Mets-Willets Point and about 600 feet north of the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) station there. Though materials announcing the project suggested the route would be 1.5 miles long, my estimate suggests it would be about 2.3 miles.

The project’s “AirTrain” name suggests it would provide services using relatively short trains operating on an independent guideway. The bizarre rendering included in the governor’s presentation, pictured below, suggests that the project would feature an elevated guideway and train cars that appear to have been lifted from the LIRR. One can only assume that this image was photoshopped by someone who is not familiar with transportation technology.

The governor’s proposed route has not been studied in-depth; indeed, if the project’s sponsors expect to receive federal matching funds, it will have to undergo an alternative analysis that considers different routes and technologies. But the project’s relatively low cost (compared to the $10 billion LIRR East Side Access project, it’s peanuts) suggests that it could be funded purely with local or state dollars, which would not require that sort of review.

Yet the route clearly has been informed by past attempts to create rail links between the existing rail transit system and LaGuardia. Between 1998 and 2003, the City of New York and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority studied and attempted to fund an extension of the N Subway line from Astoria in western Queens to the airport. That roughly 2.9-mile expansion (shown in blue in the map above) was opposed vigorously by community groups that did not want to see an elevated train in their backyards. Most Queens politicians took up the opposition, and the tight budgetary environment post-9/11 provided an excuse to kill the project.

Governor Cuomo’s project would not have any of the negative community effects the proposal from fifteen years ago had. Its elevated tracks would be hidden behind a much more noisy and already-existing highway. Moreover, its terminus station at Mets-Willets Point would be surrounded by parking lots and sports facilities.

These attempts to shape a project that does nothing to disturb existing communities, however, has produced a proposal that would be worthless in terms of time savings for people traveling from the airport in almost all directions.

As the following chart demonstrates, transit travel times from LaGuardia to destinations throughout New York City — from Grand Central in Midtown Manhattan to Borough Hall in downtown Brooklyn to Jamaica in central Queens to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx — would be longer for passengers using the AirTrain than for passengers using existing transit services already offered by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.* This finding suggests that for most people in the Bronx, Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, and Long Island, AirTrain services will not be beneficial from a time perspective.

Given the fact that the AirTrain services would likely be automated, therefore reducing labor costs, it may be reasonable to assume that existing transit services to the airport would be eliminated to save costs. In other words, people may be forced to switch into the new, slower rail option.

For people coming from Flushing or Port Washington, directly to the east of the Mets-Willets Point station, travel times would be lower with the AirTrain service. Similarly, people coming from Penn Station and using the LIRR to get to Mets-Willets Point would have a slightly shorter commute to the airport with the AirTrain. However, it is worth emphasizing that LIRR service to this station only occurs on game days; LIRR has not indicated it would provide additional service for the AirTrain, and even if it did, trains would likely only come every half-hour during off-peak periods, suggesting that for most travelers from Penn Station, existing transit services to LaGuardia are faster than the AirTrain would be.

It’s hard to imagine how the state can justify spending half a billion dollars on a transit project that will increase travel times for most people.

The truth is that the City and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority have significantly improved bus service to LaGuardia over the past few years, introducing an improved limited-stop service from Woodside and Jackson Heights in 2013 and an improved M60 bus from Manhattan in 2014. These services are still slower than they ought to be, but, when combined with the subways they link to, they’re faster than the AirTrain would be, primarily because Mets-Willets point is not only too far east from the center of the region’s population but also because it is not a major interchange point.

How effective would other potential routes to LaGuardia be for reducing travel times for passengers?

The following chart compares travel times from LaGuardia to the same destinations throughout the city, but this time between not only existing transit services and the governor’s AirTrain proposal, but also the proposal to extend the N train from Astoria from fifteen years back (in blue) and an alternative–a rail route connecting Jackson Heights and the Airport via the Grand Central Parkway and the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (in orange, and on map above as well).

The alternative rail route to Jackson Heights could terminate near the Subway station at Broadway and Roosevelt in central Queens, where the 7, E, F, R, and M trains stop, or it could continue, likely at a very high expense, 2,000 feet to the Woodside stop on the LIRR. This route would be about 2.9 miles (or 3.3 miles with the LIRR connection).

This comparison suggests that, in almost every case, existing transit services offer travel times that are either significantly faster or similar to travel times that would be provided even by the N train extension or a new route from Jackson Heights. From Penn Station or Jamaica, an AirTrain connection to the LIRR at Woodside would provide considerable time savings, but in most other cases, existing services are just as effective.

In other words, the governor’s proposal and reasonable alternatives would do little to improve transit to LaGuardia. Very expensive alternatives, such as an express subway from Grand Central, would save significant time, but those are far more expensive than anyone in office appears willing to commit to at the moment. This suggests that perhaps a rail link to the airport — while a popular idea — may not be particularly effective in actually saving people time. If the AirTrain were built as the governor is proposing, it would likely do little to cut down on congestion at the airport. It is worth nothing that both Newark and J.F.K., despite their rail services, remain overwhelmed with vehicles waiting to pick up or drop off passengers.

But even if the AirTrain to LaGuardia were magically very effective at reducing travel times, it should not be the New York region’s transit priority. The second phase of the Second Avenue Subway, which would extend from 96th Street to 125th Street the line that is currently under construction, is expected to attract 100,000 riders a day. Yet it lacks committed funding sources. Extended Subway lines in the outer boroughs, such as a Nostrand Avenue Subway or the Triboro-RX, are completely off the political radar, despite the fact that they would serve hundreds of thousands of people daily, reduce travel times significantly, and do plenty to improve quality of life in poor and working class neighborhoods. Instead we’re talking about building a train to the airport.

The fact is that the governor of New York State, like most people in elected office, doesn’t take transit much and certainly isn’t reliant on it; to put matters bluntly, in a transit-oriented city like New York, he’s a member of the economic and social elite. This elite is unprepared to take advantage (or, in many cases, even know about) bus services that exist, and can only envision taking a train in one circumstance: When traveling to and from the airport. For him, a train to the airport is a must, even if it doesn’t actually improve transportation objectives and even if it isn’t the top priority compared to other options in a constrained spending environment.

* The charts in this article assume the following:

  • Average AirTrain or Subway speeds of 20 mph.
  • Transfer times between existing services and AirTrain of 5 minutes, with the exception of travelers from Jackson Heights Subway services (10 minutes) and travelers from the Mets-Willets Points Long Island Rail Road station (10 minutes), because of longer walking times.
Categories
Boston Metro Rail

With infill stations, older transit agencies extend their reach

» A new station on Boston’s Orange Line prepares for opening, but infill stations of its type are all too rare.

Want to know a secret? One of the best ways to increase transit ridership at a reasonable price requires little additional service. It requires no new line extensions. And it can be done to maximize the value of existing urban neighborhoods.

This magic solution comes in the form of the infill station–a new stop constructed along an existing line, between two existing stations. Next week, Boston’s MBTA transit agency plans to open a new stop, Assembly Station, along the Orange Line in Somerville, a dense inner-ring suburb just to the northwest of downtown Boston.

Assembly is the latest in a series of recent infill stations in the U.S. located along older heavy rail lines whose other stations were generally constructed decades ago. Washington, D.C.’s NoMa Metro Station opened in 2004; the San Francisco region’s West Dublin/Pleasanton BART Station followed in 2011. In Boston, new stations have been constructed along the upgraded commuter rail-becoming-regional rail Fairmount Corridor. And Chicago has had success with the opening of two infill stations in 2012, the Morgan Station in the city’s West Loop and the Oakton-Skokie Station in the northern suburbs.

Yet those expansions are exceptions to the rule. Two infill stations are currently planned in Northern Virginia, at Potomac Yard along the Metro in Alexandria and at Potomac Shores along the VRE commuter line, and one new station is under construction along the Green Line in Chicago.

But few other cities or transit systems are even considering the possibility of investing in infill stops, even as line extensions are proliferating around the country. That’s a big disappointment.

The advantages of infill stations result from the fact that people are simply more likely to use transit when they’re closer to it — and from the fact that the older transit systems in many cities have widely spaced stations that are underserving potentially significant markets. Erick Guerra and Robert Cervero, affiliated with the University of California-Berkeley, have demonstrated that people living or working within a quarter mile of a transit station produce about twice as many transit rides as people living or working more than half a mile away. In other words, with fewer stations on a line, the number of people willing to use public transportation as a whole is likely reduced.

Assembly Station, which has been in the works for several years, promises significant benefits — 5,000 future daily riders taking advantage of a 10-minute ride to the region’s central business district, at a construction cost of about $30 million. The station fits in the 1.3-mile gap between two existing stations and is the first new stop built along Boston’s T rapid transit network in 26 years. When combined with the $1.7 billion Green Line light rail extension planned for opening later this decade, 85 percent of Somerville’s residents will live within walking distance of rapid transit, up from just 15 percent today.

The cost-per-rider comparison between the two Somerville projects is indicative of the value offered by infill stations: While Assembly Station cost about $6,000 per rider served, the Green Line Extension will cost $38,000 per rider served — six times more. Both projects will provide benefits, but the cost-effectiveness of infill stations in terms of attracting riders is clear. While infill stations will reduce transit speeds to some extent, within reason the number of new riders they attract will more than make up for the change.

Assembly Station was made possible in part thanks to a $15 million contribution from Federal Realty Investment Trust, which is building a $1.5 billion mixed-use community adjacent to the station. This Assembly Row project will eventually include 2,100 housing units, 500,000 square feet of retail, and 1.75 million square feet of office space, in effect creating a transit-oriented mini-city in an area that was once home to an automobile plant and, after that, a strip mall.

The ingenious decision to combine the creation of a dense new development with a new transit station encourages the production of a virtuous cycle of more people living near transit who thus are more likely to use transit.

There are many other places throughout the country where there are similar opportunities for new infill stations. San Francisco’s BART studied a new subway station at 30th Street and the Mission years ago but has done little to act on the idea. Other cities have the physical conditions that are right for infill stations but little momentum to implement them. Portland’s light rail system, for example, has several long inter-station gaps: The distance between Lloyd Center and Hollywood/NE 42nd (east of downtown) is 1.7 miles, certainly long enough to justify a new station in between. In Atlanta, similarly, the gap between Arts Center and Lindbergh Center on the Red and Gold Marta lines is 2.7 miles, passing through a zone of potential redevelopment.

These examples are just the tip of the iceberg; there are dozens of similar situations around the country.

Transit agencies looking for ways to maximize the use of their existing lines should look to literally fill the gaps between their existing stations. In doing so, they offer the opportunity to build additional ridership and spur redevelopment.

Image at top from MBTA.