Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Estimating crowded subways

It turns out that there's another hitch in estimating how crowded the subways are: in my last post I used the NYMTC's estimates of space per passenger from Table 20, but in the comments threestationsquare pointed out that they assume that every subway car has 602 square feet of space, which is definitely not true. Andrew suggested using the MTA's rush hour loading guidelines, which can be found on pages 26-31 of this PDF, and threestationsquare went with that. He also used the crowding in the 8AM hour, which makes sense since that's the peak hour for every line.

I'm on record as to the problems with loading guidelines. Capt Subway, who was a scheduler at the MTA for many years, added to my critique with his experiences, which are definitely worth a read. But the problems that the Capt noted are with the way the MTA measures compliance with the guidelines, and these are independent measures by the NYMTC. As Andrew noted, the rush hour guidelines are nowhere near as political as the off-peak guidelines, so I'm comfortable with that.

In every measure, however, the #7 train and the R have always been at the low end. This means that the capacity added in Long Island City has been a good thing, although as others have mentioned, a lot of people have moved into new apartments there since the fall of 2012, and more will come with Hunters Point South. There may not be any room left on the train by the time everything currently in the pipeline is built.

The J/M/Z and the 2/3 seem to have switched places, notably, so the zoning reforms should go in southern Bushwick rather than in Brooklyn Heights. But because there's still room on the R, we should allow some more residential development near Metrotech.

The Central Park West locals are an interesting challenge. As Jarrett Walker noted, when the "area served" by your station is half parkland or water, you need double the density to serve the same number of people - at least during the morning rush, when very few commuters are coming directly from Central Park. In consequence of the 2007 downzoning hysteria, that's not likely to happen soon. One thing that could help would be better crosstown bus service, so that more people can transfer from the bus.

It looks like, from the point of view of subway crowding, there isn't enough room to extend any of these subways. There may be the potential to reduce headways (which deserves its own post), but if not, I don't think it's worth a major capital investment if the rush hour loading is over 75% of the guidelines.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Infilling the subways

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.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

No more freight hostages

Twice in the past few days, someone has tried to pull a freight hostage argument on me.

If you're not familiar with it, the freight hostage argument is a classic muddle-headed transit advocate attack. "Oh, you muddle-headed transit advocates! How will you get your cereal if there are bus lanes everywhere? How will you get your bike parts if you tear down that highway?" For some reason, for years it was always cereal, but lately it's bike parts because that makes us look OMG so much more hypocritical!

The short answer to that is, "Fuck you," because what else do you say to someone who's telling you that your kids may have to die for cheap cereal or derailleurs, and that they have zero interest in imagining any other way things could be? Seriously, why waste your time on a person like that?

If you must engage with these kinds of arguments, you can start with something like, "If we can solve the problem of moving people around without automobiles, we can solve the problem of moving freight." The longer answer is to actually articulate a vision of freight movement that doesn't involve giant deadly trucks all over the roads. That's what I did in a series of posts over the past several years.

The basic idea is to first decide whether something needs to be moved in the first place. Then, borrowing from Chuck Marohn, we decide whether paved areas are highways, streets or country roads. Any freight that goes on a highway should instead be on a train or a boat, or in a pipe. Then we can tear down all the highways. Streets should be for people, bikes and trolleys. Country roads should be designed for small vehicles, moving slow, with generous sidepaths for pedestrians and slow cyclists.

The side effect of this will be that all of the stores and warehouses will have to be accessible by foot or streetcar from a train line. The more accessible they are, the more successful they will be.

There you have it! No more big trucks. No more big highways. No more big-box stores, no more malls. Now who's the muddle-headed thinker?

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Our overloaded subways

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, there are times when building new transit is not warranted. In particular, it is a waste of resources to build new radial capacity on the outskirts if it connects to a trunk line that can't absorb that capacity. I looked at the train crossings into Manhattan to see which could add trains in the peak. That information can suggest where to add branch lines. But what about extending existing lines or encouraging infill development?

The NYMTC's Hub Bound Travel Study has some useful data, but first it's important to give some context. They have an estimate for space per passenger, but it's only broken down by sector, not by line. They do have counts of train cars and passengers by line, so we can get passengers per car. The problem with that is that the cars are different sizes, so there is a lot more free space in an R train car with 341 people than a car with 308 people on the #4 train.

I don't know exactly which equipment was used on which lines in 2012, so I used the most recent train models I knew of. I couldn't find floor area figures, so I used the listed capacities. Please feel free to consult the spreadsheet and suggest revisions. (Edit, April 27: this chart is in fact inaccurate. Please see the comments below for threestationsquare's helpful observations.)

Here is an updated chart based on Table 20:

There are some additional questions that come to mind looking at the chart. If the demand for a line is low, is that always because it doesn't serve enough homes on the outskirts? Maybe, like the J train, it doesn't serve enough jobs. Maybe, like the R train, it's much slower than the alternative. Would extending these lines really get people out of their cars?

There is another question: yeah, an A train car with 713 people on it is really uncomfortable, but isn't a B train car with 429 people pretty uncomfortable too? This is why we need to continue to think about how we can offer comfortable alternatives to wasteful, dangerous individual car trips.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Carmageddon vs. Bridgegate

The New Jersey Department of Transportation will shut down two lanes of the Pulaski Skyway on Saturday, and recently Sarah Gonzalez was on WNYC with dire predictions of carmageddon.

My prediction is that these predictions, like most predictions of carmageddon, will not come true. There will hardly be any additional congestion. There is a simple reason: drivers are being warned in advance. In the recent Carmageddon episodes in Los Angeles and Seattle, not only were there dire warnings well in advance of the impending doom, but they were broadcast far and wide. When the time came, drivers took alternate routes or stayed at home, and the congestion failed to materialize.

The contrast with "Bridgegate" just a few miles up the river is particularly revealing. In Bridgegate, as with the Pulaski, there were two approach lanes taken out of service, but with Bridgegate there was absolutely no notice given. Drivers didn't know that the George Washington Bridge toll booths were closed until they got there, and many of them didn't even know then, until they got close enough to see. The element of surprise makes a huge difference.

There are other factors, in particular the availability of alternate routes, but that factor favors the Pulaski. As Larry Higgs tells us, there are many ways to get across the Meadowlands or the bay, and several of them don't even require driving.

The best outcome, in fact, would be for habitual drivers to take a transit option, realize that transit isn't so bad, and shift to transit permanently, as they seem to have done in Seattle. The bridge is a major contributor to crashes and pollution in Lower Manhattan. The best way to encourage transit use would be to turn the two remaining lanes of the Skyway into exclusive busways, but charging a well-advertised market-clearing price on the Holland Tunnel would work too. Unfortunately, nobody took up my suggestions, and drivers will have a nicely renovated bridge when it's all finished, making permanent shifts that much less likely. Thanks, Chris Christie!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Light rail in New York City?

Last week I talked about the practical differences between light rail, streetcars, subways and commuter rail. We have light rail right across the river in Hudson County, and there have been several proposals for streetcars and light rail here in New York City. I want to mention a few possibilities and discuss their technical and political feasibility.

As I pointed out last week, the lower construction cost of streetcars and light rail comes primarily from shorter, lighter trains and lack of grade separation. These in turn limit your capacity and speed, meaning that if you build the wrong system you can wind up with overcrowded trains and frustrated passengers, and not get as many people out of their cars as you could with a heavier system. The consequences of this in turn are that if you can afford light rail, don't build a streetcar. If you can afford a subway or an el, don't build light rail.

With that in mind, consider Raanan Geberer's suggestion, "How about light rail on the old Rockaway line?" Geberer is clearly a supporter of transit and he's trying to be helpful, but the old Rockaway Beach Branch is completely grade-separated. It should be returned to Long Island Rail Road trains, or connected to the subway, along the lines of Capt. Subway's proposal, to take full advantage of its potential.

Some of the supporters of rail on the Rockaway Beach Branch have mentioned the possibility of running light rail from Rockaway Park or Ozone Park onto the old "Lower Montauk" branch to Long Island City. The problem is that there are at least two freight trains a day that use those tracks. Because of the Federal Railroad Administration rules, the only way to run light rail would be to limit the freight trains to overnight hours. Unfortunately, I don't see enough potential ridership to justify that time separation. It might be more feasible to run a short diesel-multiple-unit shuttle, especially if it could be done without paying a lot of conductors.

So why do people like Geberer seem to think light rail would be so much better than subways or commuter rail? They are claimed to be quieter, but this is not really true. Yes, the heavier the train the more noise it makes, but that's a relatively minor factor. The noise is primarily a function of the supporting structure. The #7 train is elevated on reinforced concrete in Sunnyside and plain old steel everywhere else. You can have a conversation under the el in Sunnyside, but not in Woodside or Corona. This would not change significantly if you ran light rail trains on the same structures.

The main argument given by proponents of light rail on these lines is that it is somehow more modern than subways or commuter rail. This is nonsense: many of the tracks of the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail saw trains long before subways ran in New York City, and many of the cars in use on the New York subway and the Long Island Railroad are newer than the cars on the HBLR.

Sadly, this seems to be another case of what Ryan McGreal called "cargo cult urbanism": if it works in Jersey City and Phoenix and Seattle, it should be the hot new thing here in New York. (Cyclists who promote "BRT" as a panacea seem to have a similar shallowness of thinking.) In part, it's because many of the most ambitious new train lines are being built as light rail in places like Salt Lake City and Charlotte.

The thing is that those lines are being built as light rail for two reasons: (1) freight railroads have been abandoning their less-used lines all over the country, and (2) any new rail lines have faced such stiff competition from new highways that ridership projections haven't justified grade separation. Neither of those apply here in New York City. There is still a market for freight trains on the Bushwick, Bay Ridge and Montauk Branches and the Oak Point Link in the Bronx. None of these railroads are going to be abandoned any time soon. And there is such demand for transit that we could pack any new light rail trains that are run.

So I've pretty much ruled out mixed-traffic streetcars and legacy-freight light rail here in New York City. The one area where light rail or streetcars would make sense here is if we can dedicate lanes to them. If we can dedicate lanes to buses, we can dedicate them to streetcars or light rail. I looked at this issue almost six years ago, but it might be time for a re-look soon.