Rail Transportation in Japan

I recently got back from nine days in Japan, spent mostly in and around Tokyo and Kyoto. Over the course of my stay I traveled half a dozen times on the Shinkansen bullet train and took approximately 40 trips on various subways and commuter rail lines. Here, I want to share my experiences and observations of rail travel in Japan and in some cases offer comparisons to and suggestions for the New York City Subway, New York commuter rail and Amtrak. All rail lines I took in Japan were superlatively clean, reliable, frequent and comfortable. Many if not all of these descriptors elude American rail transportation services on any given day.

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Tokyo Subway Map

Overview: Tokyo

The Tokyo Subway system, a combination of the Toei Subway and Tokyo Metro, is the busiest in the world carrying over 3 billion riders annually. For comparison, the NYC Subway carries around 1.7 billion. Excluded from this figure is ridership on Japan Railways lines such as the Yamanote Line, which circles central Tokyo and the Chuo Line, which extends from the central station far into the suburbs. All together they form a huge public transportation network, with hundreds of interchanges and options.

The first thing I noticed when riding the Yamanote Line the day I arrived was the smoothness of the ride. In America, rail passengers can expect to be bumped and jostled by uneven roadbeds no matter where they are. In Tokyo however, trains glide over their tracks as if disconnected from the ground. The Yamanote Line’s route is similar to a subway, staying only within metro Tokyo, but operates more like a commuter line with faster speeds, achieved in part by greater distances between stations. Crowded Yamanote Line trains arrive in both directions at a 60-90 second headway, intervals that no American transit system can successfully achieve.

The Tokyo subway arrives at similar headways to the Yamanote Line, but operates at slower speeds. In many cases stations are much closer together and curves are tighter as trains wind beneath the labyrinth of city streets above. We were generally able to find seats on the subway and luckily never had to be shoved into a train car by platform attendants.

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Shinkansen N700 series at Kyoto Station

Overview: Shinkansen (Bullet Train)

The Tokaido Sanyo Shinkansen, which connects the four largest cities in Japan (Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya and Osaka) is the busiest high speed rail line in the world. While we waited for our return train to Tokyo from Kyoto, I watched as 16-car trains departed the station exactly on time every fiveish minutes in both directions. The ride quality of the Shinkansen, like the trains in Tokyo, is shockingly smooth. The train hums and glides, rather than shaking and rattling, as it accelerates soon after departure to a top speed of 200 mph. The Shinkansen is a true feat of engineering with no near equivalent in the United States and only a few international peers. (See my previous post about high speed rail and America’s shortcomings compared with the likes of Japan, France and Germany here).

One of the keys to its speed, safety and capacity is that the entire Tokaido Sanyo line runs completely separate from other slower rail services. In the United States, Acela high speed services share track with the likes of slower commuter trains, freight trains and other Amtrak trains. This is not only dangerous but also disallows the Acela from reaching its top speed for any sustained period. The Shinkansen only runs on track with trains that operate at the same speeds, allowing them to operate only minutes apart.

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In Japan local trains are kept separate from Shinkansen tracks, elevated to the right

Another important aspect of Shinkansen infrastructure is the straightness of its track. The faster, heavier and longer a train is, the wider the radius of a curve must be for it to sustain its speed. In the U.S. an Amtrak train careened off of a curve outside of Philadelphia that was designed for only 50 mph. In Japan, Shinkansen trains maintain their top speed around turns because the radius is exceedingly forgiving.

Wayfinding

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A dynamic display on the Tokyo Metro Hanzomon Line shows current car number and its relation to exits at the next station

One of the many strengths of the subway, commuter and intercity rail lines in Japan is thoughtful and abundant signage. With the exception of one trip on the Fukutoshin Line of the Tokyo Metro that overshot our intended stop by one, we were never lost in our rail travels. All signs either flip between Japanese and English or show both at once. Even when signs showed Japanese, color coding by line and service often provided enough information to get by. In the New York City Subway, there is an increasing obsession with hi-tech signage and dynamic displays, which manifests itself in, among other projects, Andrew Cuomo’s Enhanced Station Initiative. While many of the displays in Japan were dynamic, static signs in stations which pointed commuters to a specific track based on line maps of the routes proved to be the most useful guides. In the NYC Subway it can be difficult to decipher how a train will actually operate at any given time based on the written descriptions found posted at the edges of platforms. In Japan, even when various skip stop and local services operated from the same track, train type and what stops it would make were always clear both on the platform and onboard.

Stations and Accessibility

None of the Tokyo subway, Yamanote Line or Shinkansen stations I used were beautiful. There was little adornment, no art and no USB charging stations. However, what they lack in aesthetic treatments favored by Andrew Cuomo, they make up for in functionality. Stations did have wifi, but in the case of the Tokyo subway, trains arrived before I had time to connect; a good problem to have.

The NYC Subway is perhaps the least accessible rail system in the world for people with disabilities. The difficulties for disabled persons in New York continues to be well documented of late as they struggle to use a subway system with oft-broken elevators at only 23% of stations. Most of the rail stations I used in Tokyo and Kyoto had elevators along with other considerations for disabled persons that aren’t found in New York. Most stations benefit from 4-foot high platform screen doors, which prevent accidental customer falls onto the tracks. Most elevators, both in stations and in buildings throughout Japan, have a separate set of buttons that are closer to the floor so they can be accessed by people in wheelchairs. Further, sidewalks and floors in stations and throughout Tokyo and Kyoto are embedded with rubber rumble strips, like those found on crosswalk ramps in New York. These help visually or physically disabled persons find their way and prevent accidental movements into dangerous parts of the street or station.

Airport Connections

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Airport terminals in Japan are better too

I flew into and out of Haneda International Airport, which is only 10 miles from central Tokyo. Right outside the international terminal is a station on the Tokyo Monorail, which takes riders directly to Hamamatsucho Station where transfer is available to the Yamanote Line among others. Narita Airport, though a significant 40 miles away from the center of the city, has three different express rail lines connecting it to different parts of Tokyo, which makes it feel much closer. These fast, frequent and simple rail connections to the Tokyo airports stand in stark contrast to the chore of reaching New York area airports. This was made unpleasantly apparent upon return to Newark Airport. Four Newark Air Trains arrived in the wrong direction before one headed our way showed up. We missed an NJ Transit train because of this. The next one (at 8pm on a Monday) did not arrive for another 22 minutes. Fittingly, the C train we got on at 34th Street – Penn Station for the last leg of our journey was a nearly 60-year old R32, which rattled and shook all the way back to Brooklyn.

Emery Roth’s New York Architecture

Emery Roth and his sons Julian and Richard may be the most prolific New York architects you have never heard of. Together they formed the architecture firm, Emery Roth and Sons. Manhattan’s upper east and upper west sides are dotted with Roth’s pre-war works such as the El Dorado, 930 5th Avenue and the San Remo. Post-war, after Emery’s death, his sons went on to design dozens of Midtown and Downtown Manhattan office towers and were associated with a handful of notable projects, including the first World Trade Center and the Pan Am Building. However, unlike similarly prolific contemporary architects and their epochal peers, Emery Roth and his work lives on in relative obscurity.

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El Dorado
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San Remo

The office building where I work, 2 Broadway in the Financial District, a boxy and asymmetrically massed and set-back tower adjacent to Bowling Green is an Emery Roth and Sons design from 1959. I discovered Emery Roth for the first time when I saw the name of his firm carved into stone at the entrance to the building. After that I began to notice Roth’s name on office buildings throughout the Financial District. I also discovered that Emery Roth and Sons designed my high school, the Bronx High School of Science. Combined with my time working at 2 Broadway, I have spent close to seven years in buildings of their design.

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2 Broadway
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Bronx HS of Science

Much of Emery Roth and Sons’ work, particularly their post-war office towers, lack architectural significance which likely contributes in no small part to their relative lack of name-brand recognition. There is a high degree of similarity between the towers they designed, most in the International Style, defined by an imposing rectilinear form and uniform glass curtain wall. This is exemplified in structures like 55 Water Street and Paramount Plaza. Others are set back in complex ways, likely to achieve their maximum floor area ratio within the confines of local zoning regulations, like 60 Broad Street.

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55 Water Street
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Paramount Plaza
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60 Broad Street

Emery Roth and Sons also collaborated with more famous architects on a number of New York’s most controversial skyscrapers. Many will remember that Japanese Architect Minoru Yamasaki was responsible for the polarizing design of the first World Trade Center towers. However, fewer likely know that Emery Roth and Sons was the architect of record on the project. The Pan Am building (now MetLife), which looms over Grand Central Terminal, was designed by Emery Roth and Sons along with Walter Gropius and Pietro Belluschi. The latter two and in particular Gropius, one of the 20th Century’s most famous architects, are surely better remembered.

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Pan Am (MetLife) Building
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World Trade Center 1 and 2

Present day architects as prolific in New York today as Emery Roth and Sons were in their day, like Robert AM Stern, Kohn Pederson Fox and Rafael Vinoly, are well known for the large-scale projects they have designed. Stern’s neo-classical, grandiose yet austere luxury apartment towers like 220 Central Park South and 30 Park Place even emulate Roth’s pre-war works like 880 5th Avenue and the Ritz Tower. But, while Stern continues to earn commissions for his stone-clad luxury towers, early 20th Century incarnations and their architect Emery Roth languish in relative obscurity.

Emery Roth and Sons designed over 100 buildings, primarily in Manhattan, over a remarkable 100-year period, yet occupy an obscure place in New York architectural history. It is hard to pick a stand out building from their catalog of post-war office buildings, built en-masse in the International Style in Midtown and the Financial District. Further, their work on famous, if controversial buildings is obscured by the reputations of their fellow architects like Walter Gropius and Minoru Yamasaki.

I am curious if anyone reading has ever heard of Emery Roth and Sons and encourage you to comment either way. Going forward I would like to learn more about the history of this prolific architecture firm and to hear some other opinions on their work and significance. I have included a number of pictures of their New York buildings, many of which you have likely seen or passed but never thought twice about.

Comments on Arcadis’s Global Mobility Index

Arcadis, a global design consultant, recently released their “Sustainable Cities Mobility Index,” which rates 100 cities around the globe on how sustainable their urban mobility is (full report can be found here). In other words, the report grades cities on their transportation systems and its implications for “People” (quality of life), “Planet” (the environment) and “Profit” (economic growth). According to this rating system, Hong Kong has the best urban transport system in the world. New York is the highest rated American city at 23. Without diving too deep into the specific metrics used to develop their mobility index, I wanted to comment on a few of the conclusions they reached.

It is no surprise to the author of this blog that the transportation system in Hong Kong was rated as the best in the world. The Hong Kong subway, with its astonishing farebox recovery rate, was presented in a previous post as a model of financial and operational performance. Arcadis, which takes public transportation, cycling, pedestrians and airports into account, rates Hong Kong highly for its large international airport and its modern, efficient and relatively inexpensive subway system. Hong Kong’s system is rated as best for people, but suffers under “Planet” because of pollution levels.

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Hong Kong International Airport, with city in the background

Coming in at second in the “People” index is, somewhat surprisingly, the combined transport system for New York City. Subway riders in New York these days suffer through myriad delays and infrastructure shut downs as its 113 year old subway system struggles to modernize, expand and improve. New York’s airports are consistently ranked poorly in comparison to their European and Asian peers, especially when it comes to public transportation access. Average bus speeds for New York buses is the slowest of any major city in the United States, according to the Bus Turnaround campaign. Most users of these transportation services would likely not agree with New York’s ranking in this index, especially when compared to Tokyo, Singapore or Paris.

A particularly surprising component of New York’s high “People” ranking is that it is 100% accessible. In many ways, the NYC Subway is a very geographically accessible system, in that there are 472 stations in four boroughs that provide access to hundreds of miles of local and express track. Further, the vast majority of New Yorkers live within a 10 minute walk of a bus stop. However, as the advocates who started the “Access Denied” project, the 10% of New Yorkers with disabilities and the 13% of the population that is over 65 can attest, New York’s transport system is not very accessible for the disabled. While every local NYC Bus is wheelchair accessible, only 110 out of those 472 subway stations (23%) in New York is equipped with an elevator. And, as the Access Denied project points out, because of maintenance and frequent failures, that number is often lower on any given day.

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What the NYC Subway looks like to someone with disabilities. Source and larger map here

Though New York’s transport system is not necessarily worthy of its high ranking on the People index, due to realities about its service today and its real levels of accessibility, it is surely deserving of its rank as best in the United States overall. According to patch.com, rating the NYC Subway as best in the country will shock commuters. But, when matched up against transport systems in cities like Washington DC and San Francisco in spite of New York’s recent and continuing problems, I have to wonder, who is actually shocked?

In San Francisco, the next highest rated American city in the index, the BART system operates rolling stock with by far the highest average age of any system in the country. Next, at 42nd overall is Washington DC, which has no permanent funding source established for its transport system and has suffered severe and sometimes deadly problems in its Metro system, prompting the creation of (among other responses) the twitter account @dcmetrosucks. New York surely has its problems, but no one should be shocked that it is ranked higher than any other American city.

I leave Los Angeles out of this comparison because though it is famously car friendly, it is taking the most significant steps of any American city to expand and improve transportation and to replace car trips with bus or train trips. Seattle is also in that conversation as it works to triple the length of its light rail network and has completely revamped its bus system with a combination of large scale and tactical improvements.

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A light rail train on the Los Angeles Metro Expo Line

Which is all to say that transportation systems of every mode in American cities, whether you agree with Arcadis’s index or not, are falling behind their global peers. This index, if nothing else, should remind urban and transportation planners that all American cities should strive for top-10 or even top-20 rankings in the future to keep them on pace with the likes of Hong Kong (#1), Paris (#3), Seoul (#4) and London (#7).

Five years since Superstorm Sandy

It is hard to tell from walking around waterside neighborhoods in New York if the city as a whole is better prepared for a Sandy-like storm five years later to the day. In particularly vulnerable neighborhoods like the Rockaways, beach sand has been restored and the brittle wooden boardwalk, which broke under the force of flooding from Sandy, has been rebuilt in concrete as a flood resiliency measure. On Staten Island’s east shore, an area decimated by flooding five years ago that remains extremely vulnerable, residents have begun a managed retreat from water. However, the city has a lot of work ahead to adequately protect lives and property from flooding and in some cases contradicts resiliency measures by building new and rebuilding along vulnerable waterfronts.

 

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Contradictions between resiliency efforts and new development are clear in neighborhoods like the Financial District, which was among the hardest hit by Sandy flooding. There are encouraging signs, like the installation of flood barriers at entrances to the South Ferry and Whitehall Street subway stations and continued work on the beautiful and lush Battery Park, which forms the anchor of the “Big U.” Building owners have also provisioned for the installation of flood barriers to protect their property in anticipation of a storm. Yet, completion of the Big U is still years away and development along the East and Hudson Rivers, like the luxurious Seaport Residences continues apace, placing more lives and property potentially in harm’s way.

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Anchors for temporary flood walls installed in the Financial District

Little flood resiliency work has been done in the Gowanus neighborhood, which suffered severe flooding from the canal that gives it its name. Here the contradictions between flood mitigation efforts and growth are quite clear. Hundreds of new apartments welcomed residents in the last year between Carroll and 2nd Streets along the banks of the canal in advance of a potential rezoning that would bring thousands more. There are plans for flood gates to protect the area, but as a recent dnainfo.com article states, “Not Anytime Soon.”

In the days leading up to today, the five year anniversary of the storm, most articles that have been published on the topic assert that New York did not learn its lesson and continues to build residences in flood-prone areas. Indeed, owing to the enormity of the city’s waterfront (over 500 miles) and its incredible geographic and built diversity, there is no silver bullet for flooding concerns. Though in some cases new developments built to higher design standards and with waterfront esplanades, as required in places, can be contribute positively to New York’s resiliency efforts, work done so far can maybe best be described as patchwork. And like a fence or a dam, one weak link or crack can lead to inundation in spite of other efforts.

On the streets of a seemingly invincible city that welcomes and says goodbye to thousands of new residents every month, it can be hard to remember the havoc that Hurricane Sandy wrought. But, five years later, the NYC Subway system like dozens of NYCHA properties, is still recovering from the storm, causing severe disruptions to peoples’ lives. Hopefully, when the L Train shuts down in 2019, inconveniencing hundreds of thousands of people every day, we remember why it is necessary.

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Map of NYC flood zones, graded from 1 to 6 (Source nyc.gov)

In Washington DC, the official position on climate change of the President, the head of the EPA and many members of congress is denial, which imperils not just New York but the entire world. Storms like Hurricane Sandy are almost certain to become more frequent. In low-lying neighborhoods like Howard Beach, Queens, flooding is a daily tidal occurrence. It is perhaps up to New Yorkers then to avoid contradicting resiliency efforts by having long memories and frank conversations about the dangers and realities of flooding, sea level rise and storms fueled by a warming planet. Indeed the Federal Government and its denialist senselessness will only make things worse and in many cases, the best intentions of City and State government like “Build it Back” have failed to make New York more resilient, continuing to let people live in harm’s way.

Cough Triangle and New York’s Highway-side Parks

Cough Triangle is a small patch of green with eight benches and four trees shadowed by the sinister peeling green paint and rusted streel of the Gowanus Expressway overpass in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. As its NYC Parks page notes, the name “Cough” is not a local colloquialism based on its proximity to the pollutant spewing cars, trucks and buses of the expressway overhead, but an acronym made from the names of the streets that cut its triangular shape. That is “COUrt Street, Garnet Street and Hamilton Avenue.” However, in spite of the whimsical nature of its roots, the name Cough Triangle is provocative because of its proximity to a significant source of air pollution, the Gowanus Expressway, built by Robert Moses in the mid-20th Century.

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Cough Triangle Park under the Gowanus Expressway (Source: forgetten-ny.com)

Robert Moses, New York City’s master builder over the course of decades, was responsible for building thousands of miles of new roads, Shea Stadium and hundreds of new parks and playgrounds through the metropolitan area. These new parks ranged in scale from the grand, master-planned grounds of Flushing Meadows to tiny playgrounds carved into blocks throughout the city. Many of the parks Moses developed offered him a loophole to build highways under the guise of “parkways,” in the absence of Federal funding for roads. This lead to the development of large, amenity filled parks like Riverside as well as dozens of smaller parks and playgrounds, crammed into fissures in the urban fabric that highways like the Brooklyn Queens Expressway (BQE) wrought.

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Map from “Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City” by Pierre Christin & Olivier Balez

Though these small spaces offer play and green spaces to neighborhoods that may not have had access to them before, it is important to consider the health implications for vulnerable parkgoing members of the population (in particular children and the elderly). According to the American Lung Association, a panel of expert scientists from the Health Effects Institute “concluded that traffic pollution causes asthma attacks in children, and may cause a wide range of other effects including: the onset of childhood asthma, impaired lung function, premature death and death from cardiovascular diseases, and cardiovascular morbidity. The area most affected, they concluded, was roughly 0.2 to 0.3 miles (300 to 500 meters) from the highway.” In the case of these parks, highways are not just close, but the defining features of their locations.

One mile north of Cough Triangle, following the path of the BQE, is Van Voorhees Park in the Columbia Waterfront District. Expanded to five acres when the BQE was plowed through the neighborhood in 1956, “adjacent” does not quite adequately describe this park’s physical relationship to the highway. The highway’s six lanes as well as three exit ramps cut up Van Voorhees Park into different and distinct sections. Aside from poor air quality, highway traffic entering or exiting the BQE also endangers parkgoers moving into, out of and between the park’s distinct parts.

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Van Voorhees Park with BQE in the background (Source nycgovparks.org)

Further north in Williamsburg, Jaime Campiz playground is situated on a triangular lot between the BQE, Metropolitan Avenue and Marcy Avenue, which serves as an entrance ramp to the highway. The park was initially constructed in 1949, following acquisition of the land for the purposes of building the highway. Though buffered from the highway by dense trees, the presence six lanes of car, bus and truck traffic is inescapable in this small park, which likely suffers both from poor air quality and from the dangers of proximity to on-ramps similarly to Van Voorhees.

In South Slope, adjacent to the Prospect Expressway (a spur of the BQE), is Detective Joseph Mayrose Park. Built on land acquired for construction of the expressway, this park opened in 1956, six years before the road opened to car traffic. Here the expressway is in a trench, rather than on a viaduct, but the effect is no less profound as the sound of traffic echoes off of the subterranean walls. Of the four parks discussed here, Mayrose Park is the only one within a half mile of a major park (Prospect Park to the north east).

Cough Triangle’s unintended link between unfortunate name and even more unfortunate location served as a jumping off point for examining a few of these strange, small parks in New York City that were constructed in some cases as throw-ins for neighborhoods ravished by massive expressways. Each park suffers from the circumstances its creation and location as it users may too.

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Map of Brooklyn highways and parks discussed

Though it is beyond the scope of this blog to say whether parks like Van Voorhees or the Cough Triangle cause more harm than they abate, all could undoubtedly benefit from closer looks at how air pollution can be mitigated in site-specific ways. Further, these parks and their proximity to sources of air pollution and particulate matter should serve as cautionary tales to city planners going forward. Even in a city like New York where land is as expensive as it is hard to come by, the green and play spaces that parks offer city dwellers should never be a throwaway add on to other projects. Parkgoers with young and old lungs and hearts deserve carefully sited and designed parks that mitigate air pollution rather than be proximate to it.

 

Why can’t we get excited about high speed rail?

I can’t think of anyone (myself included) who has come back from a trip to Germany, France or Italy and hasn’t been astounded by the remarkable speed, convenience and affordability of those countries’ rail networks. In particular their high speed train networks, which support train travel between 150 and approx. 220 mph, are true feats of engineering that power intercity commerce and connection. In the last 10 years, China has built more High Speed Rail (HSR) track than the combined length of every other HSR system in the world and carries nearly 1 billion people every year. Japan is home to the Tokaido Shinkansen, the busiest single stretch of HSR in the world (and a topic of a future blog post following my November trip to Tokyo and Kyoto).

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Frecciarossa 1000 high speed train in Italy, which operates at 186 mph

In America however we settle for slow, meandering and expensive train service, even along the North East Corridor (NEC), which connects the cities of the BOSWASH megalopolis, home to over 50 million people. The NEC is, relative to train service in the rest of the country, a success. It turns a profit and carries more Amtrak riders by far than any other route. But, no one is exactly excited about HSR in America. I’m here to tell you why you should be, why other transportation fads aren’t worth the coverage they’re given and provide a little background on historical attitudes towards rail travel in this country.

In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, railroads like the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe crisscrossed the United States. Thousands of miles of track were laid carrying passengers between destinations as distant as Chicago and Los Angeles. Car and air travel began eating into rail passenger numbers in the first half of the 20th Century and by the second half, passenger rail travel of every iteration was thrown into steep decline. Long distance trains could not come close to matching the speed of air travel and following the passage of the Interstate Highway Act in 1956, shorter trips were increasingly taken by private automobile. By 1971, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, Amtrak, took over most intercity rail travel in the United States as air and car travel continued to grow and flourish.

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Amtrak diesel train pulls into Saratoga Springs, NY station

Over the same period that passenger rail in the United States floundered, Japan, France, Italy and Germany were putting HSR lines into service connecting the city centers of Tokyo to Osaka, Paris to Lyon, Milan to Rome and Frankfurt to Munich. While America doubled down on highways and cars, airplanes and airports, these countries were investing in fast, safe and efficient HSR, in spite of the growth of car and air travel in those countries too. In Italy, where I studied abroad for 5 months in 2012, trips between Bologna and Milan cost as much as a significantly slower and less comfortable bus trip between New York and Boston. The difference in experience is so broad it defies logic why for a trip of a similar distance anyone would settle for a bus or Amtrak regional train (at a similar price point).

A train that makes the trip from New York to Washington DC in 90 minutes with a decent snack car and room to move around that skips the trip to the airport or commuter traffic is something to be excited about, especially because the technology to do so has been on display across the world for half a century. If given the choice of a bus or a train (irrespective of cost), even the Northeast Regional as opposed to the “high speed” Acela, the comfort of the latter wins every time. And yet, we continue settling for traffic jams, decreasing aircraft leg room and on Amtrak, slower-than-a-car speeds on busy routes that hardly justify steep ticket prices.

Many in America are getting excited about new, futuristic transportation options like Elon Musk’s Hyper-Loop, which touts speeds faster than an airplane, or for shorter trips, self-driving cars. Those technologies however face myriad technological and regulatory hurdles and offer false hope of what transportation of tomorrow could look like. This is all not to say that HSR in America can solve every intercity transportation puzzle; trips over 500 miles would likely continue to be beaten by airlines. But, for trips around 300 miles between dense (and relatively dense) urban cores like New York and Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles or Dallas and Houston, there is no better answer than HSR, which relies on technology almost as old as the Interstate Highway Act.

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Virgin-branded 16 seater hyper loop

To bring true HSR to America will be an incredible task matched only by its incredible cost. Upgrading just the NEC to accommodate average speeds of 125-150 mph will cost hundreds of billions of dollars. On Amtrak’s website, the current list of NEC projects, most just needed to keep the system operating in its current form, is staggering. The price tag of the Gateway Project alone has been estimated at $30 billion, to say nothing of a current political climate that is inhospitable at best.

Indeed, movement on true HSR for the NEC will go absolutely nowhere without serious excitement and support. Though trains may not be sexy or capture the imagination like the Hyperloop, it is the proven, possible, most energy efficient and best way to connect our major cities. Major steps are being taken in California to connect San Francisco to Los Angeles and even in Texas, to connect Dallas to Houston on the Texas Central Railway using Japanese HSR technology. If successful, though in their infancy today, these projects could provide a road map, or rather a train map to other HSR systems across the country.

Real Estate and Transportation Funding

How to pay for large scale infrastructure projects, particularly public transportation in cities like New York, has been a historically vexing proposition. It is both a problem of funding capital expenses, such as expansions and improvements and of operating revenue. The Interborough Rapid Transit Company, which built and operated the first subway in Manhattan, fed real estate speculation by building lines, such as the 7 in Queens, essentially to nowhere.

“When it opened in 1915, it was meant to spur growth in Queens and expand the city eastward. It did just that, and in a really big way. The population of the borough increased from 284,000 in 1910 to 1,079,000 in 1930, 25 years after the launch of the 7 train.”

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7 Line along Queens Boulevard in 1917 (Source: Curbed NY via G.W. Pullis)

This attitude of “if they build it they will come” worked out well for these early subway pioneers. The Queens Boulevard viaduct pictured above surrounded by empty fields was quickly filled in by the dense, midrise apartment buildings that characterize the Sunnyside and Woodside neighborhoods today. Though initial capital construction may have been achievable through cooperation with real estate developers, the IRT lines fell into disrepair by the 1930s. City policy to depress fares decimated the finances of the IRT and of the competing Brooklyn Manhattan Transit Company (BMT), which eventually led to their purchase by the city and consolidation with the Independent System.

Aside from fares that were kept below inflation by city policy, why else did these private companies fail to remain profitable and cede to purchase by the city after only a few decades? Not unlike the NYC Subway today, outside of farebox revenue, our public transportation systems have no guaranteed revenue source and are beholden to state lawmakers (often those that live hundreds of miles away from New York City) for vital capital dollars. It is almost cliché to say that the NYC Subway is the backbone of the city; the great circulatory system of the greatest city in the world. Yet, private employers reap enumerable benefits (and dollars) from the presence of the NYC Subway, a one way relationship that attracts employees and investment to gleaming office towers, while the subway rots in its 100 year old hole.

The decay of the NYC Subway, a victim of its own relative success and the success of New York City in the past 25 years, is not an uncommon story for American transportation systems. Chronic problems stemming from lack of capital investment in equipment improvements with sometimes deadly consequences plague BART in California, MBTA in Massachusetts and most painfully, Metro in Washington DC. However, in other cities, most notably Hong Kong, transportation systems are models of efficiency, capability and financial strength. “How can Hong Kong afford all of this?” asks The Atlantic’s Neil Padukone, “The answer is deceptively simple: “’Value Capture.’”

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Hong Kong Subway station with full height platform screen doors

Hong Kong recognizes the value that its subway operator MTR offers businesses, and in exchange receives a cut of their profits. Hong Kong MTR is also a developer and a landlord, which generates profits just like a normal developer or a landlord; except that money is put towards the good maintenance and technological improvements that make the Hong Kong subway so clean, fast and reliable. By capturing the value that the Hong Kong subway lends to private entities in an incredibly dense metropolis of over 7 million people, it is not subject to the same political whims nor is it as depending on farebox recovery as other systems (although fares in Hong Kong do cover an almost unfathomable 185% of operating expenses compared with just 41% in New York).

The New York City Subway has in the past decade attempted to leverage the value it provides to the real estate sector in two notable ways. To build the 7 Line extension to Hudson Yards, the city floated almost $3 billion of bonds, which were expected to be paid back in full by the massive commercial and residential development on Manhattan’s Far West Side, which was only achievable with such a subway link. However, the taxes to be collected on Hudson Yards developments could fall hundreds of millions of dollars short of paying the New York taxpayers back. Separately, developer SL Green has committed to $200 million of improvements to the Grand Central Subway station, one of the city’s busiest, in exchange for allowance to build a 1,500 foot office tower. Though these improvements are not unnecessary, they do not tip the scale in the grand scheme of transit improvements that the NYC Subway needs.

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Hudson Yards development under construction this year (Source: Curbed NY via NYConstructionPhoto)

What is stopping the New York City Subway from capturing some of the value it lends to private entities? The MTA is already a huge real estate presence in the city, with hundreds of stations, many with stores, newsstands, coffee shops and barber shops. The TURNSTYLE mini-mall, which was built in an underutilized corridor of the 59th Street-Columbus Circle station is a great example of what could be. However, what is stopping it from expanding into more substantive real estate development that could provide a consistent revenue stream? How does the NYC Subway avoid missing out on the benefits of the value it adds to the city and on real estate and investment booms that would not be possible without its existence?

Answering those questions to be the topic of a future blog post, but until then, your comments, ideas and opinions are welcome! Thanks for sticking with me on my first blog post.