1968: The Transit That Was Promised

Writing a comparison with Seattle’s transit now wouldn’t be useful if we didn’t also compared the past. Seattle and New York’s pasts are actually eerily similar. In 1968, Seattle voted 50.8-49.2 to build a brand new regional transit system similar to BART or DC Metro. However, the referendum needed to pass a 60% threshold, and so the system was never built and the federal money slated for Seattle instead went to Atlanta.

Likewise, in 1968 things were looking up for the MTA. As a brand new agency with a political mandate to modernize and expand transit, in 1968 the authority published a bold plan to do just that. Unfortunately for New York, at around the same time both the New York City fiscal crisis and the system’s legacy of deferred maintenance hit, and the agency went into a death spiral trying to put out those fires. But what would it have looked like if that plan had been built out?

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A Case For Transit Expansion: Seattle vs. New York

I’ve temporarily moved to Seattle for a summer internship, and it’s been quite a culture shock for a New Yorker used to 24/7 life and dirt-cheap food. Equally interesting, however, is the public transport system here. Seattle’s public transit isn’t as good as New York’s, but it can be very effective. The light rail is quick, easy-to-use, and well-kept, the fare media isn’t from the same era as the floppy disk, and transit agencies across the region cooperate and work well with each other. Granted, bus reliability leaves something to be desired because of how bad traffic is here, but for the most part the transit is pretty good for an American city.

More interesting, though, is Seattle’s continued commitment to investment and expansion of their light rail system. The regional transit agency, Sound Transit, is pushing forward a third ballot initiative in as many years to bring 58 miles of 100% grade-separated rail to the region by 2040, at a cost of $53.8B. Coming from a state where state funding of basic transit maintenance is considered a heavy political lift, this kind of regional commitment to investment is mind-blowing.

Now, a direct comparison between the two situations is a bit unfair. Seattle is an up-and-coming city with a young light-rail system, whereas New York is an old, mature city with legacy infrastructure issues. However, New York also needs to consider expansion; existing infrastructure is over-capacity, and the city is hitting growth predictions five years ahead of schedule. While we should still be funding maintenance, we should also be planning for the future.

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How Frequent is Transit in Your City?

Frequent transit maps, as described by Jarrett Walker, are very useful; you can figure out where you can just show up to a bus stop and not waste your time waiting for that once-hourly bus. They can also show you where service is concentrated, either to serve lots of people on a busy bus corridor, or to funnel riders into a particularly important destination, and can thus provide insights as to how to expand a transit network.

However, actually making them by hand, particularly for a huge operation like New York City’s MTA, or for a metropolitan area split between several transit agencies like the Bay Area, can be a huge pain, particularly if the agency doesn’t post something akin to the service guide found on the back of a New York City bus map. It’s one of the factors as to why this kind of mapping, although more useful for customers, is not very common (the other reasons including but not limited to; inertia, politics, etc.) Fortunately, many transit agencies already collect and publish information about trips, service patterns, travel times, and such using Google’s GTFS specification, so that people can plan trips using a trip planner like Google Transit. So with a little bit of Python and matplotlib, you can make a quick and dirty transit map that looks something like this:

bcfgkuh1

A frequent transit map for the New York City metro area. The darker the line, the more frequent it is.

 

In fact, because GTFS is a standard, it isn’t very hard to reuse the same code for other transit agencies. For example, by reusing code I was able to generate a frequent transit map for the top 20 metropolitan areas by population in the country, all mapped to the same standard and at the same scale. The code to generate this wasn’t particularly difficult at all, either.

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The Lower Montauk: The True Opportunity for Brooklyn-Queens Light Rail

Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley has proposed a light rail reactivation of the Montauk Line, which ended passenger service in 2012 due to low usage and the cost of upgrading the line with federally-mandated PTC. Granted, usage would be low on any rail line that only saw two trains a day and ran express (real passenger service ended in 1998), so Crowley’s argument is that after almost 20 years of growth, running a dependable light-rail service would make good use of lightly-used freight tracks and be a respectively used service.

I would be inclined to disagree, if we were talking about a strict reactivation of the old right-of-way. Past Flushing Ave, the line runs entirely through industrial areas, and even if you were to rezone all of that industrial land and redevelop it (highly unlikely given the lack of manufacturing space remaining in the city,) the presence of Newton Creek, First Calvary Cemetery, the BQE, and the LIE all within a stone’s throw of the line would limit the catchment area of any stations past Flushing Av. In addition, the LIC terminus right now is not very developed; the Hunters Point South development could change that, but besides the East River Ferry the terminus misses the transportation hub at the center of LIC several blocks north.

LIC-Industrial1

The rail line in black, and developmental barriers in red.

LIC Industrial2

Long Island City Station, in the lower left of the image, is several blocks away from the nearest E, G, M, N, Q, and R stops.

Fortunately, there is an alternative; a rail line branches off at Andrews Av to head southwest towards Williamsburg.

Lower-Montauk-Light-Rail

Such a connection would run on the existing spur line to Bushwick Pl, where the light-rail would run on Montrose Av, Division Av, and Kent Av before terminating at the East River Ferry pier in Williamsburg. A routing on Kent Av would allow connections with the East River Ferry and the planned BQX; but if the routing were to have a negative impact on the Brooklyn-Queens Greenway and the BQX were not to proceed, the line could instead terminate at Roebling St.

Stations were sited to provide maximum connections to the existing transit network and destinations along the way. As far as other potential sites go, there is no station connecting to the Myrtle Av Line because it would not be feasible to build an intermediate station for connections and there is nothing in the immediate area of that rail junction to serve. Likewise, there are no stations between Bushwick Av and Fresh Pond Road because that area is both mostly industrial and a high flood-zone risk; it might not be beneficial to support development in such a flood-prone location. Ultimately, because the station spacing is so sparse, the line could potentially function as an express connection between Jamaica and Williamsburg, in contrast to the frequently-stopping slog that is the J. Because Williamsburg is so much more heavily built up than LIC (and short of ripping up the highways and cemeteries or filling in Newton Creek, will continue to be so), such a line would be better patronized and spur more development than a line to LIC.

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Flawed Proposals: Off-street Bus Terminals

Once in a while, someone will suggest a bus terminal in Flushing as the solution to the chronic bus and traffic congestion in Flushing. It sounds like a nice idea; separating buses and cars is bound to make both faster. However, these proposals are generally horribly misguided, for a variety of reasons. The latest one, for a bus terminal west of Prince Street, manages to get everything wrong, by moving it as far from the existing subway complex and retail hub as possible. This location makes absolutely no sense; the station’s facilities are all to the east, including a new eastern entrance that was built in 1999 to relieve crowding at the existing western entrance.

In general, I am opposed to an off-street terminal for largely two reasons:

1. In New York City, off street bus terminals, especially those run by the MTA, tend to be pedestrian dead zones.

Off street bus terminals exist in the five boroughs; the 165 St terminal and Williamsburg Bridge Plaza are notable examples. However, they tend to be located in out-of-the-way locations where transfers may not be convenient; for example, the 165 St terminal is located a full three blocks away from the nearest subway entrance. Where they do exist, they tend to create huge dead zones in otherwise thriving neighborhoods. This is excusable at Williamsburg Bridge Plaza, which is right next to the bridge’s highway-like approach; this is less appropriate at Jamaica, and completely inappropriate in a thriving neighborhood like Flushing. The addition of a giant pedestrian dead zone to Flushing would either kill the development already occuring, or stymie the development that DCP is trying to generate in Flushing West.

DCP is hoping to get around the issue by enticing a developer to cap a bus terminal with a mixed-use development. This approach is used in Hong Kong to try to reduce the impact of bus terminals on the surrounding neighborhood. However, keep in mind that Hong Kong has extremely high property prices, reaching above thousands of dollars per sq ft; property prices in Flushing are certainly high, but nowhere near those levels. Combined with the hard height limits in Flushing West due to LaGuardia Airport nearby, it might not be possible to entice developers to build both a bus terminal big enough for all of Flushing’s buses, and a development as well.

2. Bus terminals may not actually end up reducing congestion.

If you look at where they’re proposing to build another bus terminal, it is in the north and west. Let’s take a look at this diagram:

Flushing-Diagrams

As you can see, the overwhelming majority of bus traffic comes from the south and east, via Kissena Blvd. To get to somewhere north of Roosevelt Av and west of Prince St, all of these buses would have to cross not only Main St, but Roosevelt Avenue, and going northbound would have to make a left at some point. All of these buses would still be going through the most congested area bar some serious rerouting, and due to all the additional turning movements would cause additional congestion.

A good example of where turning movements cause too much congestion is the parking lot of the New World Mall located at the intersection of 40th Road and Main St in downtown Flushing. Theoretically, a parking lot for the New World Mall should ease congestion; if all the drivers visiting the mall have a guaranteed free parking space, that reduces congestion from mall-bound drivers who circle the block looking for free parking. However, because the cars are turning in a heavily trafficked intersection and must wait for breaks in pedestrian traffic to do so, the parking lot ends up causing more congestion than there should be.

This project was proposed by an anti-bus business elite in Flushing, as Cap’n Transit asserts. However, if done correctly, a bus terminal could potentially reduce bus congestion and car congestion in Flushing, without necessarily compromising transfers.

 

The Ideal Flushing Bus Terminal: The Union St Parking Garage

FlusshingCurrent

The Union St Parking Garage is bounded by 37 Av, 138 St, 39 Av, and Union St. As a parking lot, it’s ripe for redevelopment, and a bus terminal, especially with development on top, would be perfect. It’s a better location for this than the DCP location, because unlike Flushing West it is located in an already vibrant section of Flushing, and height limit restrictions are probably more negotiable because it’s farther away from the airport. On top of that subway entrances do exist as far east as the pedestrian walk that cuts to the Union St Parking Garage, so it’s not even that much farther from transit.

Unfortunately, the best option isn’t available because redevelopment of the parking garage is already underway. However, we can still reroute some of the bus routes through the area, like so:

FlushingNew

The key to this plan is rerouting all Main St bound bus traffic from Kissena Blvd onto Barclay Av and Union St, since the merge from Kissena Blvd onto Main St is currently the biggest cause for delays in the area. Barclay Av is lightly trafficked and would be converted to two-way, bus only operation between Kissena Blvd and Union St. The Q17 and Q27 would terminate along 138 St, while the Q25, Q34, and Q65 would stop on Union St before heading north and turning left on 35 Av to reach their existing routes, since lefts from Union onto Northern aren’t really possible.

The farthest buses in this plan from the subway are as close as the closest buses under a Flushing West plan (Prince St is as far from the westernmost entrance as Union St is from the northernmost entrance), and distances for some riders could be shortened further by creating a small pedestrian walkway between 138 St and Roosevelt Av. Not only is it more convenient for passengers than the current proposal, but it is easier to implement; all the traffic changes here, save Barclays Av, use traffic patterns already used by buses that go through the area, whereas going through Flushing West would require creative rejigging of routes; there isn’t currently an easy way to route a lot of buses from west of Main St to east of Main St south of Northern Blvd that doesn’t miss most of the dense neighborhood.

By locating it at the Union St Parking Garage site, you place passengers in a more developed, pedestrian friendly section of Flushing, as well as activate the current development going up on the parking garage site. Riders won’t be significantly farther from the subway, and speeds should increase for routes no longer using Main St. It’s definitely cheaper than the other option, which is to build some sort of tunnel for either light rail or bus underneath Main St.

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The New Second System, Revised

After publishing my proposal for subway expansion, I received feedback on the plan. Some of it was constructive, and got me thinking, so I revised the proposal in order to improve it. Most of the adjustments were in the Bronx, but there were some small ones in Queens as well.

Future-Subway-Map-Bronx-Revised

In the Bronx, the (A) is curtailed to Fordham Plaza, where a convenient cross-platform interchange would be built. The (A) to Bay Plaza would add way too much mileage to the longest route in the system, and if the transfer is convenient enough, it would be just as good as one continuous Pelham Pkwy/Fordham Road Line.

The second part of the revision is a link from 145 St on the Lenox Avenue Line to 161 St – Yankee Stadium on the Jerome Avenue Line. Something like this was actually planned in the early days of the TA using the former 9th Av Elevated ROW. As part of this, 148 St would be closed, also providing a future possible home for the Transit Museum. This would allow for the doubling of Jerome Avenue service, allowing Jerome Av peak express services while also reducing transfer volume at 149 St – Grand Concourse. The boosting of this service would provide more service to the corridor and points west, thus reducing the need for a University or Sedgwick Avenue Line.

Future-Subway-Map-Queens-Revised

As noted by vanshnookenragen, it would be significantly easier to make a 73 Av Line via the Jamaica Yard. This has been depicted in the map shown, although I have my doubts about whether or not you could do it without significantly harming yard operations. The 73 Av Line is also extended two stops east, to Francis Lewis Blvd and Springfield Blvd. Francis Lewis Blvd is definitely a worthy terminal stop; the cost-benefit of Springfield Blvd station (or Bell Blvd instead, which is denser but has poorer bus connections) is dubious given the very low-density nature of the neighborhood. However, the relatively close distance of Union Tpke and the overcrowded Q46 ensures at least some level of high ridership, and it is also a faster trip to take a train from Springfield/73 to Forest Hills than to take the bus to Springfield/Hillside and the train from there due to the wider stop spacing and the lack of stops between Main St/73 Av and Forest Hills.

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The Second Avenue Subway as part of a new Second System

Future-Subway-Map

In my previous post, I described a “core” expansion that would relieve the Lexington Avenue Line in Manhattan, the Queens Blvd Line in Queens, and the Jerome Av and Grand Concourse Lines in the Bronx. This new Second System would relieve services enough to embark on a new series of expansions in the outer boroughs that would relieve congested bus corridors, and shorten commute times for outer borough commuters by a significant amount.

The Bronx

Future-Subway-Map-Bronx

The new Second System would see very minimal expansion in the Bronx. Most north-south travel needs would be met by the existing network, the Third Av/Pelham Pkwy Line, and the planned Penn Station Access project in the East Bronx. Coupled with the fact that there is no available north-south capacity from the new “core” system or the existing system to extend north, that would mean no new north-south lines within the Bronx.

However, a new extension of the A to Fordham Plaza would run east, using the yard tracks into the 207 St Yard, crossing the river using a bridge, and then tunneling into the ridge before traveling under Fordham Rd to Fordham Plaza. This would replace the western half of the busy Bx12 Select Bus route, connecting the A to the 1, 4, D, and Metro-North, and the new Pelham Pkwy line to Co-op City. At Fordham Plaza, the line could either terminate at a middle platform built at the station, or merge into the Pelham Pkwy line and continue on to Bay Plaza.

Side note: due to the use of the 207 St Yard tracks, trains would turn off just before Dyckman St. As a result, Inwood-207 St could potentially be shut down if the MTA desired to do so, and used for train storage or as a relocation of the Transit Museum, which the “core” connection between Hanover Square and Court St would’ve displaced.

Queens and… Nassau?

Future-Subway-Map-Queens

The “core” system would relieve the overcrowded Flushing and Queens Blvd lines by either taking over railroad rights-of-way (in the case of the Port Washington Branch) or by constructing lines parallel to them (in the case of the Main Line.) While the takeover of the Port Washington branch would give subway service to Northern Queens and Nassau immediately, the Second System would be needed to fully utilize the capacity freed up by the Queens Blvd Bypass, which would link the 63 St tunnel to Forest Hills, taking over local service east of Forest Hills to 179th St. Using this new capacity, nearly all the lines currently terminating in Forest Hills and Jamaica could be extended.

Illustration of current and future Queens Blvd & Bypass services.

Illustration of current and future Queens Blvd & Bypass services.

The local Queens Blvd lines would also be extended, but for different reasons. Currently, both terminate at Forest Hills, but the service run on these lines is limited by the need to fumigate passengers at the end of a line. One of the local lines would be extended south to meet the deactivated Rockaway Beach Branch ROW, running south before terminating at Howard Beach – JFK Airport. This would provide a valuable north-south connection in Queens, as well as provide faster midtown access than the current A train. The other local line would be extended east of Forest Hills via 73 Av to 188th St. While bus service past 188th St continues to be intense, extension east would be complicated by the slow speed of the local train. (It doesn’t matter which local service gets extended where, but for the sake of argument let’s suppose that the M goes to Howard Beach and the R goes to 188th St.) This would decongest the situation at the existing terminal, but if either extension occurred Woodhaven Blvd on the Queens Blvd line would have to be converted to an express station; even today, Roosevelt Av gets too crowded from people transferring from the east, and the extension of the local lines would only make it worse.

The express Queens Blvd lines would be extended both east and south. The F would be extended down Hillside Avenue to Springfield Blvd, while the E would turn south and join the LIRR ROW directly south of the existing station paralleling the existing tracks to Springfield Blvd, as the 1968 Program for Action called for. Both would make stops at streets with major bus routes, providing quick connections to the bus network while obviating the need for many bus lines to divert into Jamaica. This would allow for a rationalization of the bus network in both eastern and southern Queens. Either could be extended to Nassau and terminate at a major hub (North Shore LIJ for the F, and either Valley Stream LIRR or Green Acres Mall for the E), but I would consider that too expensive and too extensive to include in this Second System.

Brooklyn

Future-Subway-Map-Brooklyn

In the “core” expansion, a Utica Av line would be built, extending the 4 south to Avenue H and eventually Kings Plaza. This line would then be connected to the Second Avenue trunk via Williamsburg and the Lower East Side, giving one of the two major subway-free corridors in Brooklyn a subway line. As part of the new Second System, the Nostrand Avenue line would also be extended south to Avenue U. No other major expansions would occur, except the Triboro RX.

Triboro RX

Future-Subway-Map-Triboro

This is included as part of the Second System mostly because it would be cheap to construct. There are two versions of the plan that have been pushed, differing in how they travel through the Bronx. One would use an abandoned railway line to connect to the 6, the 2/5, and eventually the B/D and 4 at Yankee Stadium, while the other would run along the Amtrak ROW to Hunts Point and Co-op City. I don’t like either option; the former has poor connections to some of the subway lines it crosses and doesn’t connect to many more of them, while the latter doesn’t even intersect subway lines. In fact, I don’t really support the notion of the Triboro RX going into the Bronx at all; it would needlessly make the circumferential arc too wide while suboptimally connecting to lines in places that do not currently support a lot of Bronx-Queens travel. (There was formerly a bus line across the Triboro between the Bronx and Queens, but it was discontinued due to low ridership.) Instead, I would rather have the line turn west at Randall’s Island and connect to the 125th St spur of the Second Avenue Subway. It would provide quick, easy connections to all of the north-south lines, and for the majority of people it would not significantly increase circumferential travel time.

Ultimately, I believe that these expansions would be suitable for New York for the next fifty or hundred years. After this expansion, focus should be shifted to building a robust surface network, whether or not it is light rail, BRT, or streetcars. This will be detailed in a later post.

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