Thursday, January 31, 2008

... when it's finished.

One of the old jokes about New York is, "It'll be great when it's finished." Of course, the city and its transit system will never really be finished, but it's pretty obvious that there are gaping holes in the system. Wide swaths of Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx have no subway service. Service is spotty even in some parts of Manhattan, and Staten Island has only the SIRT and insufficient ferry and express bus service.

The sad thing is that many of the underserved areas did have decent transit service eighty years ago, in the form of elevated trains, at-grade rail or streetcars. When these lines were torn up, it was either assumed that their customers would eventually all have cars (and never get stuck in traffic), or else a promise was made to replace them with subways. A whole network of planned subways was never built, because the city lost much of its tax base in the 1960s and 70s, and the federal and state governments preferred to fund highways.

After years of false starts, the Second Avenue Subway has actually been making significant progress, but it is tremendously expensive, it only includes Phase 1 (from 63rd to 96th Streets) and word just came out this week that even that might be cut back. With the chronic delays on the Second Avenue Subway and the intense NIMBY opposition to construction of a rail connection to La Guardia Airport, the most people are willing to discuss in terms of subway expansion is the extension of the Second Avenue subway to its proposed routes in the Bronx and Brooklyn.

The only people willing to propose new transit services are developers, who somehow get people to take seriously their plans for a one-stop extension of the #7 train to far West Midtown, and a new East River tunnel aimed at creating a one-seat ride to Kennedy Airport. One major exception is City Councilmember Lew Fidler's proposal for a rail tunnel under the Narrows to Staten Island, although it has been argued that this is not meant seriously, only to distract from the debate over congestion pricing. Even Fidler, though, does not propose the construction of either of the lines once planned for his Brooklyn district, the extension of the Nostrand Avenue Subway to Sheepshead Bay and the Utica Avenue line, which would run from the terminus of the V train at Second Avenue and Houston Street through Williamsburg and Crown Heights to Floyd Bennett Field.

No one is willing to discuss the Winfield Spur, the Fulton Street/Liberty Avenue extension in southeast Queens, the extension of the Concourse Line to White Plains Road, the extension of the Archer Avenue Line along the Long Island Railroad right-of-way, or any of the other expansions. This is the current legacy of the Second Avenue Subway.

Even though they are cheaper to build, trolleys don't seem much more popular. Bob Diamond's plan to bring trolleys back to South Brooklyn failed when Giuliani's DOT pulled its support. George Haikalis's plan to run trolleys on 42nd Street occasionally captures people's interest, but never seems to get the support it needs.

What was really depressing was that Mayor Bloomberg's grand PlaNYC2030 contains one single new subway line: the Second Avenue Subway. That and the single-stop #7 train extension to the Javits Center. Nothing else. In 2030 I'll be nearing old age. In my lifetime, the only train lines opened have been the 63rd Street Tunnel and the Archer Avenue Line. Is this the best the city can do?

Monday, January 14, 2008

Of Rats and Gods

This is the second of a planned series of posts about New York's Penn Station; the previous one gave some background about the original station and its demolition in 1964.

As I mentioned, the destruction of Penn Station inspired the historical preservationists to make sure that nothing like it could happen again. Much was made of the structure that replaced it. On the west side of the superblock, the fourth Madison Square Garden arena was built; on the block between 33rd and 34th Streets, the One Penn Plaza office tower and on the east, Two Penn Plaza.

All the tracks and platforms remained, but when passengers climbed the stairs, instead of emerging into the Great Hall, they found themselves in a maze of low passageways filled with fast-food restaurants, newsstands and convenience stores. There were no grand spaces and no daylight. In the famous words of architectural historian Vincent Scully, "One entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat."

I was born several years after the demolition of the original Penn Station, so I don't have firsthand knowledge, but my understanding is that none of the changes affected the physical process of getting off the train and onto the subway, or out onto the street. It was just as convenient (or inconvenient) as it had been since the Eighth Avenue Subway was opened in 1932. This is the central observation I want to make in this post: from the point of view of actually getting from one place to another, the difference was entirely psychological, and almost entirely symbolic.

In fact, in the past ten years, New Jersey Transit and the Long Island Rail Road have both added new stairs and new concourses. While they have not been able to bring daylight in, they have at least raised some of the ceilings and made it less cramped and more convenient. They're not finished, either: New Jersey Transit plans to build a new entrance to its concourse to reduce crowding at the 32nd Street entrance.

Let's keep thinking about the practical side of getting from one place to another. I don't have any data on the final destinations of people coming in to Penn Station, so if anyone reading this can point me to the data, I'd appreciate it. However, many of the arguments for the LIRR East Side Access project state that a large number of LIRR commuters are actually heading for destinations near Grand Central. In any case, some very large number of Penn Station travelers change to the subway. There are job sites nearby, but they're a small percentage of the commuter destinations. The Javits Center is a few blocks away, but they're long, unpleasant blocks.

There may be more job sites within walking distance in the future. The current $14 billion "Moynihan Station" plan includes several new office buildings to be built in the immediate area, and the "Hudson Yards" plans call for office and residential development between Penn Station and the river. Even with all that development, though, the vast majority of the people who pass through Penn Station will be transferring to subways or walking to job sites east or north of the station. Very few will be headed west.

This is the critical thing: the new Moynihan Station, as planned, will bring almost no practical benefit to people traveling through Penn Station. The benefits will be almost entirely psychological and symbolic.

I'm very aware of the importance of psychological and symbolic victories, and I think it would be great to bring light back into Penn Station, to put an end to a shameful episode in the city's building history, and to restore to rail passengers their rightful status as gods.

But is it worth fourteen two billion dollars? By comparison, it's estimated that it would cost $13.3 billion to build the entire Second Avenue Subway, from 125th Street to Hanover Square.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The #7 Train: Read the fine print

I took the #7 train yesterday. After reading the MTA brochure, I thought all the disruptions were going to be east of 61st Street; the line would be functioning normally between there and Times Square. This was not what happened.

I got to the station and there were handmade signs on all the turnstiles saying that there was no Manhattan-bound service; we had to go to 61st Street and take an express train back. So I went up to the platform and waited. And waited. Two inbound trains went by on the express track. It was more than ten minutes before a train stopped at my station, and there were already lots of people on the platform when I got there, so it had to have been at least fifteen minutes.

Looking at the track maps, I can see how it'd be difficult to get the trains from the outbound local track to the inbound local track. The train would have to switch to the express track before 69th Street, then go past the next switch and reverse. Doable, but maybe too complicated. I also don't know where they're planning to put the new switches, so maybe they couldn't send the trains that far east.

Looking over the MTA service advisories and the brochure, I see the notice: Manhattan-bound trains skip 52, 46, 40, and 33 Sts (PDF). I guess I was so overwhelmed with all the other stuff that I didn't notice the part that affected my own station! Well, that sucks, and it brings down my whole opinion of this outage. It would help if they could run more trains and shorten the wait. In any case, they'd better give us free LIRR trips to Penn Station at least!

P.S. Maybe the Chinatown vans would be an alternative for some people who live in Flushing and work downtown? If anyone tries this, please let me know.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The #7 Train: Almost There

I was all ready to do a "what if?" post on the MTA's plans to mitigate the #7 train construction. But they did a lot of things right! Most important is the free LIRR service. Still, they could have done a bit better.

In case it isn't clear from what you've read, the MTA is adding switches on either side of the 74th Street station. Once this is done, if there's a situation where the trains need to avoid a local track for part of the way, they can still stop at 74th Street to allow people to change for the Queens Boulevard trains and the buses. This will be a good thing.

Because of this, however, there is going to be no express service from now until February 29, and no service at all between Woodside and Flushing on weekends from now until February 11.

The MTA is doing a lot to mitigate these weekend disruptions. There will be a shuttle bus serving all local stops between Woodside and Flushing, an express shuttle bus nonstop between 74th Street and Main Street, and an overnight express shuttle bus nonstop between Woodside and Main Street. Finally, and most importantly, Long Island Railroad trains will be free between Flushing and Penn Station during these weekends. This will accommodate a lot of people.

There are only two problems that I see with this plan: it doesn't address the loss of weekday express service, and it doesn't do anything for people going to and from Corona - including Corona Park.

Weekday express service can save people some time, but that's not its primary function. According to the schedule it saves people from Flushing Main Street about eight minutes - not a big deal. The main function of express service is to put the through passengers in one set of trains so that there's some room for us by the time the train gets to Woodside. This is no longer happening, so the morning commute is not going to be fun.

On the weekends, people going to and from Jackson Heights can take the E or F trains. People going to and from Flushing can take the railroad for free. What about people from Corona? They have to change for the shuttle that stops everywhere. Even the people who live near the mighty Junction Boulevard express station are now on a local shuttle. To make matters worse, Flushing Meadows/Corona Park is now a big hassle to get to. It's kind of cold weather for a park, but what about those of us who want to go to the Queens Museum, the New York Hall of Science, or the skating rink? We get to sit on a shuttle bus in Roosevelt Avenue traffic for however long.

What are some solutions for the express problem? First of all, LIRR tickets from Main Street to Penn Station should be at most $2, possibly free. The LIRR has room on many of those trains, and room in the schedule to run a few more trains, even if they're shuttles to Woodside or Hunters Point Avenue. Of course, that leaves our friends in Corona out in the cold again, so let's get to them.

Corona has that for-now-useless express stop at Junction Boulevard and three local stops, and they normally have a one-seat ride to Midtown. Under the current plan, they're now taking the local shuttle on weekends, and the local train on weekdays. No LIRR for them! Corona, in case you didn't know, is one of the poorer neighborhoods in Queens. It looks really bad to give them worse service than the comparatively better-off people in Flushing and Jackson Heights. So what could the MTA do for them?

The MTA could run express buses ... to where "express buses" normally go: Manhattan! They could go from the stops on Roosevelt Avenue, turn on Junction Boulevard, and take either Ditmars Boulevard or the LIE, like the almost-useless QM3 (PDF) and QM22 (PDF). They could do this on weekdays (relieving crowding on the trains) and weekends (providing a one-seat ride instead of the train to the shuttle bus).

Finally, what about those of us who live in Woodside or Sunnyside and want to go to Flushing Meadows? Couldn't the LIRR open the Shea Stadium station for weekends during this time? And what about people in Jackson Heights? Couldn't the daytime "express" shuttle buses stop at Flushing Meadows (on request, of course) as well as Main Street? Would that slow the buses down significantly? I doubt it.

What's the bottom line? It's better than the lame plan that the MTA came up with for the Smith-9th Street closure. I'm very happy about the three levels of shuttle bus and the free LIRR service. That shows that someone at the MTA cares. Now let's see them care about the people of Corona. And a few more touches to make this a truly great plan.