Commenter threestationsquare pointed out that I made an error in the chart I posted about overcrowded subways. He also noted that it's Table 20 of the NYMTC Hub-bound Travel Study that gives floor space per passenger during morning rush in 2012. Here's a bar graph based on it:
At the uncrowded end of this chart are the Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road commuter trains, and this makes a lot of sense. First of all, they have more seats. They run long distances, and people should be able to sit all the way from Speonk or Purdy's. But they're also premium service. There's a very good argument to be made that they're oversubsidized, but if we want to cut the subsidies the place to do it first is in station parking.
The other big group of uncrowded trains are the #7 and the trains that run through downtown Brooklyn and Brooklyn Heights (the 2, 3, 4, 5, and R), and a major factor in this is that there are alternatives that get people where they're going faster. A lot of people transfer from the #7 to the N or Q at Queensboro Plaza, and from the R to the N at Pacific Street or the B at Dekalb Avenue. Many people who can walk to these trains will walk a block or two further to get a quicker ride to Midtown on the B, D, E, M, N or Q.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, because it makes room for infill development, bringing new riders who fill up the train afterwards. It has already been happening for years on the #7 train, for example, where people get off in Jackson Heights to transfer to the Queens Boulevard trains. The space they leave is filled up by people who live in Woodside and Sunnyside. When those people get off at Queensboro Plaza, their space is taken up by people coming from the new developments in Long Island City. Something similar happens with the R in Downtown Brooklyn, but to a lesser degree.
The new buildings in Long Island City use that space on the #7 train to help get people out of their cars, by increasing the amount of carfree housing available in the area so that moving to the suburbs and buying a car seems less attractive. Unfortunately, it doesn't do that completely. Even though LIC's zoning does not require developers to build parking, it encourages parking construction by allowing them to build taller if they build parking. The result is the blight of garages lining Fifth Street.
In Downtown Brooklyn, particularly near the R station at Metrotech, the 2/3/4/5 stations at Hoyt and Nevins, and the big transfer station at Borough Hall the city has pursued a single-use vision of office construction and bent over backward to discourage residential development. Senator Schumer, who lives up the hill in Park Slope, recently reiterated that party line. In addition to use and height limitations, this is also accomplished with minimum parking requirements. The residents of Brooklyn Heights have fought reforms in these areas as well. The result is that residential development has been pushed to Dumbo, Fort Greene and Boerum Hill, which are a long walk from most of the stations on the 2/3/4/5 and R.
In a future post I'll talk about potential extensions for other lines. But these areas have transit capacity to meet the demand for walkable, transit-accessible living space a short distance from Manhattan. They just need to be zoned to allow it, without requiring parking that will compete with the trains and add more cars to an area that already has way too many.