Saturday, March 29, 2014

If you're hub bound, there's room for you

Recently I posted that there seemed to be no room left in the subway tunnels and bridges leading into Manhattan. Threestationsquare, who had made the updated chart I used in that post, pointed me to the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council's Hub Bound Travel Study. And it turns out I was wrong. There is room - and the places where there is room have interesting potential.

The NYMTC is an arm of the New York State Department of Transportation that is responsible, among other things, for coming up with wildly inaccurate predictions of traffic volumes to justify bigger highways. But their underlying data is more sound, and a lot of it is online. The Hub Bound Travel Study is full of fascinating data for transportation nerds, and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

For our purposes, the relevant table is Appendix I, Table 6, "TOTAL RAIL TRAINS ENTERING AND LEAVING THE HUB ON A FALL BUSINESS DAY." Kind of poetic. (But it's trains going to the hub, not The Hub). If we look at the morning rush data for 2012, here's what we get:

There's a pretty wide spread between the #7 train, which manages to cram 23 trains per hour through the Steinway Tunnel, and the R train, which only sent eight trains an hour through the Montague Street Tunnel. In between we can see clusters in the low 20s, in the mid-teens, in the low teens, and then a few stragglers.

The busiest tunnels are the Lexington Avenue Express, the PATH, and the 60th and 53rd Street Tunnels to Queens. The uptown Broadway Express and the Cranberry Street Tunnel are also doing pretty well.

There is significant room on the Manhattan Bridge (as Threestationsquare mentioned) and the uptown #6 Local and Central Park West Express, and the Clark Street Tunnel to Brooklyn. Even the 14th Street Tunnel has capacity, despite promises that CBTC would improve things. We knew the Williamsburg Bridge had capacity, but it turns out, so do the locals on the Upper West Side.

The Montague Tunnel is currently closed to repair damage from Hurricane Sandy, but it's seen eight trains an hour since the M train was rerouted uptown in 2010. They ran 27 trains per hour in 2002, before the N was rerouted over the Manhattan Bridge. The R is just not a high-demand train in this area, because it crawls through Lower Manhattan. The two tunnels for the F (Rutgers Street and 63rd Street) see more trains, but they have plenty of room.

So there you have it! Looking forward to your fantasy maps...

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Light rail, streetcars and our goals

There's a lot to be said about light rail and streetcars; in this post I want to focus on how these two kinds of trolleys fit in with our goals (as articulated above), and particularly how they can get people out of their cars. If you're trying to decide which kind of train to push for, there are three major questions: (a) Can the train mix with cars and trucks? (b) Can the train mix with freight trains? (c) How long can the train be?

In contemporary usage, streetcars run for most of their length in mixed traffic. We don't have a good example here, but if you go to Girard Avenue in Philadelphia you can ride one. Light rail trains run for most of their length in their own right-of-way, but may cross many (or all) streets at grade. Good examples include the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail and Newark City Subway in New Jersey.

There are important differences between light rail, streetcars and other forms of rail. Elevated rail is raised above the street like the #7 train for most of its length, and subways go below the streets like the R train. Commuter rail can run elevated or in a cut like the LIRR Port Washington Line in Queens, but sometimes crosses streets and roads at grade like the LIRR Hempstead Branch in Garden City.

Commuter trains in the New York area typically share tracks with freight trains, which means that the Federal Railroad Administration requires them to be unnecessarily big and heavy. PATH trains run in subway tunnels in Manhattan, Jersey City and Hoboken, but they have a waiver from the FRA to run on shared track between Journal Square and Newark. Light rail and streetcar trains are typically not allowed on shared tracks, but the River Line between Trenton and Camden splits the time with the Chesapeake freight railroad: they run passenger service during days and evenings, and CSX runs freight overnight.

Because they mix with cars so much, streetcar trains are typically only one or two cars. Light rail trains sometimes have up to five or six cars. Subways and commuter trains can have ten or twelve cars.

Streetcars are often considered to be cheaper than light rail, and light rail to be cheaper than subways or commuter rail, but this is not magic. The cost comes primarily from grade separation and longer, heavier trains. This has important implications for transit, particularly in the New York area.

The first is that building the wrong system can limit your capacity. If you've got enough passengers to fill a four-car light rail train but you've only got a two-car streetcar, you're going to get crowding. Same if you've got enough passengers to fill a ten-car subway but they're trying to squeeze into a six-car light rail train.

The second is that building the wrong system can limit your speed. All other things being equal, a streetcar in mixed traffic is going to be slower than a light-rail or commuter train in a dedicated right-of-way with grade crossings, and a train with at-grade crossings is slower than one without them.

Both of these speed and capacity limitations have the effect of limiting how many passengers the line can carry, which can in turn limit revenue. They also decrease the value to passengers, which can drive them away. You may be able to pack those cars, but you'll have to keep the fare low to do it.

In a future post I'll discuss these factors in terms of specific projects here in the New York area.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Getting into Manhattan

I've got a whole bunch of ideas for subway and bus expansions in the boroughs, commuter rail and bus expansions in the suburbs, and even intercity rail and bus connections. They all wash up against one big problem: the capacity of crossings into and out of Manhattan is almost maxed out at peak commuting times, the few big expansions in the works are proceeding slowly, and there doesn't seem to be political will to do much more.

Of the subways that cross the East River and the PATH trains that cross the Hudson, almost all the bridges and tunnels are packed with trains at rush hour, and those trains packed with passengers. The one exception is the Williamsburg Bridge, which is constrained by technical challenges, by the depopulation of South Side Williamsburg, Bushwick and East New York, by zoning restrictions on building, and by the fact that the J and Z trains only go to lower Manhattan. Since the MTA rerouted the M train to Midtown, ridership has gone up, and so have rents in Ridgewood, but that is the only line that is not at full capacity.

The only new subway crossing that has been given serious consideration recently, the Subway to Secaucus, has been stuck on a shelf somewhere.

MTA Capital Construction has installed an improved signalling system (CBTC) on the L line, which has allowed them to run more trains through the Fourteenth Street Tunnel. This capacity has been rapidly filled by an increase in ridership. They are rolling out CBTC to other lines, as the Port Authority is doing with the PATH trains, but funding limitations have stretched the rollout over years. As with the L train, the increased capacity is not expected to be enough to handle an additional branch on any line, only to allow neighborhoods near the existing branches to add population and to give some breathing room to passengers.

With commuter rail, the constraints are the platforms at Penn Station and the Park Avenue Tunnel. Alon Levy pointed out years ago that the constraints at Penn Station are not technical, but due to the three government-run commuter rail agencies' insistence on terminating all trains there, and our politicians' inability to force them to implement through-running arrangements.

For years the MTA has been pouring billions of dollars into East Side Access, but that will not be finished until 2023 at the earliest. The ARC Tunnel from New Jersey and its successor, the Gateway Tunnel, are being blocked by Governor Christie, who has used ARC funding to pay for road expansions.

Bus capacity into Manhattan is similarly constrained. Buses crossing from New Jersey through the Lincoln Tunnel can terminate at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, but that is also full. Proposals to build garages with public funds have faltered, and no private company seems interested in building a garage or terminal. The Port Authority is renovating the George Washington Bridge terminal, but that is too far north, and connects to a downtown A train that is also very crowded.

Any buses that can't fit into the Port Authority use city streets to pick up and drop off, as do buses from the other crossings. A backlash from NIMBYs, mostly drivers and business owners but aided by misguided pedestrian advocates, has put a lid on any expansion of curbside bus access.

As with commuter trains, there is a potential for through-running with buses along 34th or 42nd streets or Church Street that could relieve some of these constraints, but the bus operators have shown little interest, and political leaders have been too busy pandering to the backlash.

One reason bus operators may be uninterested in through-running or building terminals or garages is that there are also capacity constraints for buses on the bridges and tunnels. Anyone who's tried to take the Q32 into Manhattan in the morning knows what happens to bus travel times when a bridge is free for any vehicle. Passengers on the inbound QM5 express bus know that things run a little smoother when there is a toll and a bus lane, and people who have ridden the Red and Tan number 20 know that congestion pricing makes it even better. But even those passengers say that the bus lanes are too short, and those crossings with lanes and tolls are at capacity as well.

So that's the dismal state of getting commuters to Manhattan. What should we do about it? I'll talk about that in future posts.