LaGuardia Airport and the Wrong Way AirTrain

New York City’s three major airports are notoriously difficult to reach by public transportation. While other global cities such as Paris, London and Tokyo all offer one seat rides to their respective airports, two or three seats is the norm for trips to JFK, Newark and LaGuardia Airports. No public transportation trip is more difficult than to LaGuardia in spite of its relative proximity to Midtown Manhattan.

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Rendering of LaGuardia AirTrain station. Source: Office of the Governor

LaGuardia’s inaccessibility owes in large part to a lack of a rail link. Though the AirTrains that provide service to Newark and JFK Airports are not without their own significant problems (Newark’s in particular), people that are airport bound can at least be certain that they will avoid automobile traffic on highways. To reach LaGuardia airport, travelers have a choice of five bus lines. The most viable of these bus lines is the Q70, which provides direct service from the Jackson Heights and Woodside Subway and LIRR stations. Though a fine service, it is still at the mercy of traffic on local roads and on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, which at times has been so bad that departing passengers have ditched their vehicles and walked to the airport.

Enter New York Governor Andrew Cuomo who on June 25th signed legislation authorizing the initiation of a planning study for LaGuardia Airport’s very own AirTrain. According to the Daily News, Cuomo asked “How can you not have a rail train to the city from a New York airport?…It’s just incomprehensible.” The AirTrain is the ribbon on top of an $8 billion renovation of the airport, which Vice President Joe Biden called “third world” in 2016 and has become one of the Governor’s pet projects.

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Map of proposed AirTrain with transit connections. Source: Office of the Governor

In an effort to step on as few toes as possible, to avoid the wrath of NIMBYs and to move the project forward as quickly as possible (as is Cuomo’s style), the Governor and his team have picked a route that avoids any use of eminent domain. To achieve this, the new 1.5 mile long AirTrain will be routed above the Grand Central Parkway away from Manhattan to the Mets-Willets point 7 train and LIRR stations. Manhattan-bound tourists and business people will have to backtrack before eventually making their way west towards Midtown on a crowded 7 train or on a Port Washington line LIRR train, which runs infrequently and costs significantly more than a subway swipe. It is hard to imagine that an AirTrain to the LIRR connection to Penn Station or to Grand Central Terminal (when East Side Access is complete) will take less than 30-minutes as the Governor’s office advertises. Avoiding the LIRR’s $6.25-$8.75 fare means a ride on the at capacity 7 line, which runs local most of the day. A local ride from Mets-Willets Point station to Grand Central takes 30 minutes on its own.

Better alternatives to the wrong-way AirTrain that the Governor is pushing forward have been suggested for decades. In the late 1990’s, planners proposed extending the N train to the airport from its terminus at Ditmars Avenue in Astoria. This is likely the best option to be proposed because it offers what all New York airports lack, a one seat ride to Midtown Manhattan (and for the cost of a subway swipe). But Astoria NIMBYs and then city council representative Peter Vallone managed to sink it. Other rail links have been proposed over the years, as detailed here, but none gained serious traction until Cuomo began to champion the current AirTrain iteration.

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Three LaGuardia rail link options. Source: The Transport Politic

The MTA continues to be in a state of emergency as Cuomo declared last summer. Buses are slower than ever and hemorrhaging riders. The Subway is literally crumbling back into the earth that was dug to build it a hundred years ago. These services and their 8 million daily riders could make great use of the $1.5 billion that will be spent on the LaGuardia AirTrain. Improving airport transportation connections is undoubtedly a noble and necessary cause, but is it really a priority right now with the system as a whole in crisis? Unfortunately, in the name of building things as fast and easily as possible the AirTrain along a circuitous route is getting priority. If that money is destined to be spent on the AirTrain, the state should at least connect it to the Jackson Heights Subway station, which is served by five subway lines, two of them express. Most of the route to that station would be over highways, just like the current plan.

Perhaps the simplest and most cost effective option would be improving the humble bus lines that connect LaGuardia airport today. The city and state could work together to provide bus-only lanes and traffic signal priority for the Q70 and M60 Select Bus Lines, which would allow them to speed past passenger cars and trucks that currently block their way. Though improving buses is undoubtedly the least glamorous option, it is the most practical. Hopefully someday LaGuardia would get its rail link, in the form of an N/W trains extension. But, until the transportation system as a whole is saved from imminent collapse, simple bus improvements must suffice.

 

 

 

Mexico City: If it’s cheap enough, I’ll take an Uber

I recently returned from a seven day stay in Mexico City, a busting, sprawling and exciting city with over 20 million inhabitants. Six months ago I extolled the wonders of public transportation in Japan following my return from a trip there. This post will by necessity cover a different range of topics because in Mexico City, ubers not trains and subways were my primary mode of transportation. In fact, I am a little ashamed to admit that I did not take a single subway, bus or train from the time I arrived in Mexico to the time I left. I either walked or took an uber, which were abundant and mind-blowingly cheap compared with New York prices.

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Mexico City

Whenever gas prices in the United States decrease, you can be sure that Americans will be filling up their tanks and driving more. This likely holds true in most countries around the world, even those with much better inter and intra-city transportation than the U.S. I always think to myself, if I had a car I surely would continue riding the subways and buses even if driving was very cheap. However, I found in Mexico City that if an uber was cheap enough, I would take it. Generally they were and I did.

The cost of a yellow cab ride from JFK airport into Manhattan is fixed at around $55. Use a ride hailing service and depending on traffic, the fare is likely to be similar. In Mexico City, the ride from Benito Juarez airport to the Tabacalera neighborhood near Downtown cost around $120 Mexican pesos, which comes out to around $6 US dollars. Split between me and three others I traveled with, an airport trip cost less per person than a single subway ride in New York.

A ride on the Mexico City subway is even cheaper. A single fare is only $5 pesos or about $.25 cents in America. But, in New York, cabs are a luxury good and subways are a normal good. In Mexico City for four tourists with the buying power of American salaries, subways were reduced to an inferior good and were replaced as a normal good by ubers. With this increased buying power, we opted every time for a trip in an uber because though it may be many times more expensive than a trip on the subway, at a relatively low price point, the comfort and convenience was always desirable.

A benefit of taking cars everywhere is that you see parts of a city you would otherwise miss above or below ground in a subway car. An issue however is that traffic in Mexico City can be dangerous, chaotic and choking. Roads were often very slow moving, filled with cabs, ubers, private cars and trucks. The effect of all these vehicles on the road was apparent in the smog and hazy air that blankets the city. Mexico City is also naturally prone to bad air pollution because it is surrounded on all sides by high mountains that trap dirty air above the metropolis.

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Mexico City Metrobus at a station in its dedicated lane

From its sidewalks and from the roads I noticed a lot of things that Mexico City does very well. On major avenues such as Insurgentes, bi-directional bus rapid transit lines hugged the center of the road. These, unlike Select Bus Service in New York City, are real bus rapid transit lines, with dedicated driving lines, traffic lights and high platform boarding on the same level as the bus floor. Bus lines like these have the ability to carry nearly as many passengers as a subway line and at a fraction of the price. I watched dozens of these buses pass while stuck in traffic in an uber.

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Typical Mexico City street, with bicycle lane

Mexico City also has a fair number of protected and painted bike lanes. Cycling however is not for the faint of heart there since drivers have the right of way, not pedestrians or cyclists. Cars routinely speed through crosswalks, make aggressive left and right turns when pedestrians have the right of way and blow through red lights. I walked very carefully throughout the trip and only crossed in front of a car at a stop sign when indication was clearly given that they would yield.

Tragedy in Park Slope, Death of Gateway and MTA Geniuses

Park Slope Tragedy

Last Monday in Park Slope at the intersection of 5th Avenue and 9th Street, a woman with a long dangerous driving record ran a red light and plowed into two families crossing the street. The driver attempted to speed away, but crashed into parked cars further down the street. Her dangerous and callous actions left two children, ages 1 and 4, dead and a pregnant woman with life-threatening injuries. The horrific scene occurred just steps from the Park Slope YMCA, where each day Mayor de Blasio arrives in a motorcade to briefly ride a stationary bicycle. This was not lost on concerned citizens and safe street advocates who rallied outside of the gym when the Mayor arrived the next day.

The deaths of two children in a crosswalk at the hands of a reckless driver reveals numerous shortcomings and inadequacies with our local government and with the way our society speaks and thinks about driving:

  • At an intersection in a densely populated neighborhood with a large number of children, street markings were worn, the pavement was in poor condition and no traffic calming measures had been taken.
  • The driver of the white Volvo had been cited 12 times in two years for speeding in a school zone, among other infractions, and yet had not had her license suspended.
  • The driver’s license has since been suspended, but Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez has stated that criminal charges will not be pressed. It is hard to think of another situation in which the deaths of two children would not lead to an arrest.

Further, the Mayor has proven that when it comes to reducing traffic fatalities, he is more of a hindrance than a catalyst of change. His daily 25 mile driving round trip on to the gym belies the City’s Vision Zero policy and weakens any message from his administration about making streets safer and less congested. It reveals that even in the most public transportation and pedestrian friendly city in the United States, cars are still given priority in planning issues and drivers will not be punished for threatening or taking a life from behind the wheel.

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9th Street in Park Slope

Death of Gateway

In between firing the Secretary of State, announcing likely harmful tariffs on steel and aluminum and downplaying Russia’s role in the poisoning of a double agent in London, President Trump took some time to pound a few more nails into the coffin for the Gateway Tunnel Project. Gateway, which was rated by the Obama administration as the most important infrastructure project in the country, was singled out by Trump, who said he would veto any infrastructure bill that includes Federal money for it. This follows on the heels of a statement by an amnesic FTA administrator, which I discussed earlier this year.

Unsurprisingly, Trump’s aversion to the Gateway project is motivated not by sound reasoning of cost or necessity, but by scorn for Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. According to the New York Times:

Mr. Trump has told Republicans that it makes no sense to give Mr. Schumer something that he covets — funding for the tunnels — at a time that Mr. Schumer is routinely blocking Mr. Trump’s nominees and other parts of his agenda, the person said.

The importance of the Gateway Project, which keeps people moving through the most economically productive area in the United States, is clearly outweighed by the pettiness of the “Infrastructure President.” As a result, New York and New Jersey continue to move dangerously close to a necessary shutdown of one of two current tunnels with no back up or long term plan.

MTA Genius Competition

With newsworthy delays piling up and New Yorkers abandoning the New York City Subway for Lyfts and Ubers, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the start of a “Genius Challenge” to develop ideas for how the system could be fixed. Anyone with a good idea from students to transportation wonks was invited to submit their proposals for improving signaling, subway cars and system-wide communication. From thousands of proposals submitted, eight ideas were recently chosen. Seven came from multinational corporations such as China’s CRRC MA, an affiliate of the world’s largest subway car manufacturer. The eighth however came from full time lawyer and part time transit buff Craig Avedisian.

Avedisian’s winning idea is to significantly extend the length of subway trains so that more people would fit on a single train, but not every car would be able to platform at each station. Subway lines would operate on an A/B system: stations would alternate between those two letters and subway trains would alternate between A and B sections of the train to platform at their corresponding location. In practice, at an A station, only those in A cars could alight, while B car passengers would still find themselves in the tunnel dark. If this proposals sounds like it would complicate an already complex system with its express and local trains, frequent reroutes and inadequate signage at times, you are probably right.

This proposal is on its face so unwieldy, unwise and impractical that it warrants little discussion of its operational and technical implications. But, to indulge briefly, imagine first a mad dash of B car riders through the length of the train to reach the exits at an A station, who did not position themselves correctly. Further, consider how longer trains would necessitate the reconfiguration of the subway’s 100 year old signaling system to extend the buffers between trains, which would reduce throughput and increase wait times. We will certainly be lucky if Avedisian collects his large cash prize and nothing more is made of his idea.

A Good Month for Transit

January 2018 proved to be a pretty good month for transportation in New York City if for absolutely nothing else. As I discussed in a previous blog post, Andy Byford started as president of New York City Transit (NYCT). In interviews and press conferences so far, he has demonstrated a fluency with the nuances of transit as well as a high degree of care for the riding public. Elsewhere, the R211 subway car contract was awarded at long last and encouraging details regarding Governor Cuomo’s Manhattan Congestion Pricing plan were made public.

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R211 Mock-Up on display at 34th Street Hudson Yards station.

R211

The R211 Subway Car contract, a project that I worked on at the MTA for two and a half years between 2015 and 2017, was awarded to Kawasaki Rail Car (KRC) at the MTA board on January 24th. If all option orders are exercised, KRC will deliver 1,612 cars to NYCT that will operate in the B Division (lettered lines). The R211 is different from any subway car class currently in operation in the NYC Subway because they will be the first subways in the United States with open gangways. Open gangways will allow passengers to safely pass between cars and distribute themselves better throughout the length of a train. Because of this, passengers will be able to board and alight faster, which in turn decreases train dwell time in stations.

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Mock-Up of R211 Open Gangway on display at 34th Street Hudson Yards station. (Photo Credit: Metro US)

Open gangways are not the only New York City first to be found on the R211 cars. They will also be the first NYC Subway cars to be fully equipped with CCTV in the passenger compartment. Both of these firsts, though exciting, are a reminder of how far behind the times public transportation is in New York and in the United States. Open gangways have been utilized by transportation agencies in Europe and Asia for decades. As for CCTV, it is troubling to learn that subway cars, which carry millions of passengers every year, lack a basic element of security infrastructure that is already used in New York by everyone from bodega employees to dog owners.

Congestion Pricing Follow-Up

The Fix NY panel, assembled by Governor Cuomo, released its initial proposal for congestion pricing in Manhattan’s Central Business District. Rather than placing tolling on every block, as Cuomo suggested could be done in comments made earlier in the month, all entries by cars, trucks and ride-sharing vehicles would be subject to a toll upon entry to Manhattan south of 60th Street. As the New York Times writes:

Drivers who enter a zone that stretches from 60th Street south to the Battery could be charged $11.52 during peak commuting hours, while trucks would have to pay $25.34. Passengers using ride-hailing apps, like Uber and Lyft, which have contributed significantly to the traffic problems, could face a $2 to $5 per-ride surcharge.

This is a proposal similar to the one promoted by former Department of Transportation traffic engineer Sam Schwartz, which could be very effective in reducing traffic in and around Manhattan’s busiest streets. Congestion Pricing is not however without its critics. Politicians from New York’s far flung and transit starved neighborhoods, such as those in eastern Queens, are critical of the impact these tolls could have on constituents that rely on their cars. However, as a study by the Tri-State Transportation Campaign shows, there is not a single district in the city where 10 or more percent of residents drive into Manhattan’s CBD and would therefore be subject to Congestion Pricing tolling. Even in areas where driving forms a significant portion of the commuting mode share total, few of those rides actually end in Manhattan. This study makes for another piece in a convincing argument for why Congestion Pricing should be instituted. Though a small minority of New Yorkers may pay more, as some politicians are crying, an exponentially greater number will benefit from less traffic, better air quality, faster buses and more money for public transportation.

Two Posts in One Today: Andy Byford and Congestion Pricing

Today I address two topics. The first is the arrival of Andy Byford at New York City Transit. The second is a brief explanation of Congestion Pricing and of a related recent development from Governor Cuomo.

Andy Byford

Today is somewhat of an exciting day for public transportation in New York City. Andy Byford, previously CEO of the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), started his first day of work as President of New York City Transit (NYCT) with a “flawless” ride on the 4 train. His impressive resume also includes time in management positions with transport agencies in London and Sydney prior to his mostly successful 5-year stint at the helm of the TTC. Though we cannot underestimate the challenges of running any large transportation agency, Byford likely faces his toughest test in New York where the buses and subways are in disarray.

Andy Byford, the chief executive of the Toronto Transit Commission, rides on a so-called open gangway train in Toronto.
Andy Byford riding the rails in Toronto (Image Credit: Toronto Star)

At the TTC (North America’s third largest transit agency after NYC and Mexico City) Byford oversaw a significant management shakeup, a major subway line extension and an increase in customer satisfaction. He has made it a point in his career to communicate with customers and treat them in an honest and dignified manner, demanding agency staff to do the same. He has already stated that customer satisfaction will be a central tenet of his work in New York as well.

I am excited for him to get started. Negotiating relationships with Governor Cuomo, Mayor de Blasio, labor unions, existing upper management and the riding public is no easy task. But, his attitude and experience leads me to be cautiously optimistic that he will find success here in New York.

Congestion Pricing

Congestion Pricing has become a popular topic of late in New York. Though cities around the globe including London and Stockholm already employ versions of Congestion Pricing in their Central Business Districts (CBDs) to great effect, New York is a late arrival to the table. For years, transportation planning guru “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz has shopped around his Move NY plan. But, it was mostly ignored by politicians and never quite made it into mainstream discussion.

The idea behind Congestion Pricing in New York, as detailed in Schwartz’s Move NY Plan, is to put tolls on four East River Crossings that are currently free for drivers and at other entrances to Manhattan’s CBD (south of 60th Street). Charging drivers a fee for entering some of New York’s busiest and most congested areas will first and foremost reduce the number of cars on the road and switch many car trips over to public transportation. New Yorkers can expect myriad improvements to their quality of life from having less cars on the road: cleaner air, fewer traffic accidents and faster moving city buses. Further, it addresses issues of equity that arise from charging no tolls on the Queensboro, Williamsburg, Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges. While a relatively wealthy car-owning individual can cross those bridges for free, lower income and car-less individuals and families are forced to pay multiples of $2.75 to make the same trip on public transportation. Money from the Congestion Pricing tolls, estimated at $1.5 billion per year, will be invested directly into public transportation, which ties the whole plan together.

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Manhattan Traffic

To me and to many others in the transportation planning community, Congestion Pricing in New York is an absolute slam dunk. However, the only players blocking the lane right now are a minority of drivers in the City that hold disproportionate sway over the future of this issue. Politicians in New York and throughout the United States are generally loathe to institute any measures that negatively impact drivers. Even self-described progressive Mayor de Blasio called Congestion Pricing “regressive,” instead opting for a “Millionaires Tax” to achieve similar transportation funding goals.

Congestion pricing has surprisingly found a somewhat willing ally in Governor Cuomo. Though his talk so far on the subject his lacked details, I am glad to see that he is at least willing to consider the subject unlike the Mayor. Yesterday however he offered a small glimpse into his thinking, which gives me angst about what form Cuomo’s Congestion Pricing might take. He said, “We have the ability with technology to put tolling anywhere in the city…” not just in the places advocated by the Move NY plan.

This statement makes me nervous because it circumvents the holistic approach of placing tolls only at entrances to Manhattan’s CBD and takes Congestion Pricing down to a block by block level. At that level, it is easy to see how blocks and neighborhoods in Manhattan and elsewhere could wield their political clout to keep tolls out. Wealthier car-owning individuals and families could clear the way for their automobiles, straddling less well-off blocks and neighborhoods with the tolling burden. If tolls are indeed placed anywhere in the City as Cuomo suggests, New York risks yoking the poor with the negative impacts of a Congestion Pricing plan that was meant to help them and misses out on the benefits that a coordinated tolling effort could bring.

 

Transportation Thoughts for 2018

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New Jersey entrance to Hudson River Rail Tunnels (Photo Credit: Amtrak)

Gateway Cancelled?

Just before the New Year, the Federal Transportation Administration denied that a funding agreement made between Governors Christie and Cuomo of New Jersey and New York and the Federal government for covering the costs of new train tunnels between the two states ever existed. Though the FTA under the anti-transportation Trump regime alleges that such an agreement is ‘fake news,’ the Obama administration had indeed promised to pay for half of the Gateway project, with NJ and NY making up 25 percent each. Christie and Cuomo had made positive progress in recent weeks towards fulfilling their states’ costs. However, without major contributions from the Federal government, it will be hard to pay for the estimated $25 billion price tag.

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Map of Gateway Program Projects

This denial is par for the course for the Trump administration, which seems to be in a competition with itself to see whether it can make the country implode from the inside or be destroyed from the outside first. The Gateway Project encompasses infrastructure work that is vital not just to the economy of the New York Metropolitan region, but the entire country. Without two new tunnels under the Hudson River , NJ Transit and Amtrak train throughput will be cut from nearly 30 trains into and out of Penn Station per hour to just 8 overall, when one of the existing tunnels is inevitably closed for Sandy-related repairs.

I have little optimism that the current administration will come to whatever senses it has and agree to fund this vital project. Hopefully the existing tunnels (and all of us) survive the remainder of the Trump years.

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The Red Hook houses, Brooklyn’s largest NYCHA campus

Subway to Red Hook?

One of Governor Cuomo’s State of the State Proposals for 2018 is for the MTA to study transportation options for Red Hook Brooklyn, including the possibility of an underwater subway tunnel from Manhattan. For starters, building better transportation for Red Hook, one of the most transit starved neighborhoods in Brooklyn in spite of its relative closeness to job centers, is a great and long overdue idea. However, sending the MTA in the direction of an underwater subway tunnel from Lower Manhattan is silly for many reasons.

First, as a recent NY Times article described in great detail, the MTA pays more per subway track mile than any other transportation agency in the world by far. With Gateway tunnel proposals eclipsing $20 billion, an even longer tube from Manhattan to Brooklyn would be wildly expensive. Second, only 10,000 people live in Red Hook, which for its geographic size and by New York standards is small. The cost of building one subway stop there is just too high. Third, pairing a one stop subway line with massive commercial and residential development would eventually result in higher prices for thousands of public housing residents in the neighborhood and place more people and investments in a place that is particularly vulnerable to sea level rise.

Red Hook undoubtedly deserves better public transportation options. The neighborhood was condemned to isolation when the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel was constructed and not much has been done to right that wrong since. But, a new multi-billion dollar subway tunnel is not the answer. I don’t know exactly what that answer is but it could be along the lines of implementing real Bus Rapid Transit or even following through on the BQX light rail line. Indeed the MTA must focus on rehabilitating the assets it currently has rather than chasing the next gubernatorial pipe dream.

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People walk between newly erected concrete barricades outside the 3 Times Square building in Times Square where a speeding vehicle struck pedestrians Thursday in New York City, U.S., May 19, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Segar

Bill de Blasio’s Expensive Bollards

In response to a number of hideous terrorist attacks carried out in Berlin, Nice and New York City, among others, that made use of civilian cars and trucks to kill, Mayor de Blasio proposed a $50 million roll-out of bollards intended to mitigate threats to busy pedestrian areas. Though measures to protect citizens from terrorist acts is an important job for city government, it can come at a great cost. That is literally true in this case. In a city where $2-4 billion only buys 1 mile of underground rail tracks, $50 million apparently will be spent on only 1,500 bollards at a cost of around $33,000 per bollard. As many in the transportation community have noted, this is a ridiculous sum for very simple infrastructural elements. Though they are advertised as bollards of a more decorative variety, under the guise of anything but counter terrorism, this would absolutely be cost prohibitive.

As bloggers like Second Avenue Sagas have noted on Twitter, the Mayor’s office should have taken a more critical look at the costs of this project, especially in the aftermath of the NY Times expose on the high costs of MTA work. Further, bollards are generally placed within the pedestrian space that it is meant to protect. Bollards impinge on pedestrian space but do nothing to slow or control the movement of vehicles that they protect the sidewalks from. When cities install bollards, they are choosing a bullet proof vest over gun control. Though bollards can be useful for protecting sidewalk space (and are certainly better than concrete slabs), for $50 million I would hope that the city would look at ways that car traffic can be managed and calmed for everyone’s safety, rather than resorting to boxing pedestrians in.

Not a fan of the Islanders, or their return to Long Island

The 2017-2018 NHL season will be the New York Islanders’ third and last season spent in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center arena. The team and the fans that give it its name (Long Islanders of course) never really felt at home in the red spaceship that Jay-Z built in the heart of Brownstone Brooklyn. This week the team announced that it had won a bid to build a brand new stadium in Belmont, Long Island adjacent to the race track that hosts the third race of the triple crown. The Islanders beat out MLS club NYCFC among others to claim the development rights. Andrew Cuomo was naturally on hand to celebrate the team’s “return home.”

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Rendering of new Islanders Stadium in Belmont, Long Island (Photo Credit: Sterling Project Development / Sterling Project Development via Newsday)

Disclaimer: This is not a post celebrating the Islanders and their 10-mile journey just over the Queens/Nassau border. I could care less about the NHL, the Islanders or the joy their fans feel. Instead, I’d like to talk briefly about the negative impacts of building a new stadium in Long Island for transportation and the environment.

The Barclays Center, controversial in its own right, is perhaps the single most most transit accessible stadium in the country save for Madison Square Garden. The stadium rests on top of the Atlantic Avenue-Barclays Center subway station, which serves 9 subway lines and is adjacent to the Atlantic Terminal LIRR station. Although the stadium finds itself somewhat out of place at the confluence of some dense residential neighborhoods of three and four story buildings, its transit connections certainly make it a logical place for a venue that attracts thousands of people a night. Unlike stadiums plopped in low-density areas such as Citi Field and MetLife Stadium, surrounded by a sea of parking lots, which attract thousands of drivers, mass transit is the only option for accessing the Barclays Center.

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Barclays Center, Brooklyn

It makes me happy to think about all of the Long Islanders that used to drive to hockey games at the Nassau Coliseum that must take the LIRR to and from the Barclays Center instead. Thousands of cars per game are likely taken off the road, which reduces carbon emissions, congestion around the former stadium and likely decreases instances of drunk driving. Forgive me if I have little sympathy for Long Islanders who were forced out of their cars and onto the train, where you can pregame legally on a commuter rail line that takes you from anywhere in Long Island directly to a brand new stadium in Brooklyn.

The New York Islanders’ new stadium will be at the heart of a mixed use commercial development in Western Long Island, (feet from the Queens border) which will include a mall and a hotel. Though the justification for this development may be described in terms of “economic development” or “identity,” to me it boils down to a rejection of mass transit and desire to continue embracing driving, a defining feature of the Long Island suburban experience. Transit accessibility in Belmont comes in the form of a single terminal stop, which spurs off of the LIRR mainline and has proved woefully inadequate in the past for crowds at the Belmont Stakes. As renderings of the new development show, there will be ample parking for the majority of people who will be driving to Islanders games now, rather than taking the train.

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Site plan for Belmont commercial redevelopment (Photo Credit: Sterling Project Development / Sterling Project Development via Newsday)

As Aaron Gordon of the Village Voice writes:

Currently, the LIRR is Belmont’s only rail connection. A one-stop spur off the Hempstead branch, the service only operates during Belmont meet dates and can only be reached via connection from points west: Jamaica, Atlantic Terminal, and Penn Station. So anyone coming to Belmont via Long Island — as one would expect most Islander fans would — has to go to Jamaica and switch to another train that will run express to Belmont. Not the least convenient experience in the world, but just enough to entice one to drive instead.   

Indeed the Belmont LIRR station is not exactly adequate for dozens of hockey games and other events that attract thousands of visitors throughout the year. Further, as Gordon suggests, the public will likely be picking up the tab for increased LIRR service to the station. Even though this development claims to be privately financed, it is unlikely that the public will be completely off the hook as with other projects of this nature. Gordon continues:

…when the transit authority is turning to its budget reserves to fund subway crisis repairs and spends 17 percent of its budget to pay down debt, it’s worrisome to be handing three local sports ownership groups a blank check for full-time rail service to their door.

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Geographic relation of the Islanders’ new Belmont home to the Barclays Center

Governor Cuomo and Long Islanders alike are thrilled that the Islanders are returning home (though again I would argue they never really left). Brooklyn, which never  embraced the team en masse, will shrug. Team and fan identity aside, this move represents a regression. A regression to car dependence, seas of parking lots and packed roads, which inevitably means more carbon emissions and less money for public transit.

Finally, an L Train Shutdown Mitigation Plan

Everyone in New York City likely knows by now that the Canarsie Tube, which carries the L train under the East River between Brooklyn and Manhattan, will be shut down for 15 months starting in 2019 for intensive repairs. These repairs are necessitated by damage wrought by Hurricane Sandy over five years ago. This MTA video does a good job of explaining how the tunnel was damaged, how it needs to be rebuilt and at the time, what the options were for doing this work. Since the 15-month full tunnel shutdown was chosen over a 3 year partial closure, we have been waiting with some impatience for the DOT and the MTA to release their plan to mitigate the impacts of the shutdown. On Wednesday, those plans were finally released to the public.

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An MTA worker inspects flooding in the Canarsie Tube after Sandy

The highlights of the DOT and MTA plan include:

  • A 14th Street busway, which will create dedicated space and new facilities for buses while also expanding sidewalks
  • HOV3 on the Williamsburg Bridge
  • A two-way protected bike lane along 13th street (Manhattan’s first)
  • A new ferry route between North Williamsburg and the terminus of the M14 SBS bus in Manhattan
  • Increased service and capacity on the JMZ lines, which run roughly parallel to the L train in Brooklyn, and on the G line, which connects to the L at Metropolitan-Lorimer
  • Subway Enhancements at stations along the JMZ and G lines such as the reopening of closed entrances and adding of turnstiles

Overall, the plan is relatively comprehensive and checks off many items on transportation planners wish lists (though in some cases they may have to settle for budget versions). Ben Kabak of the blog Second Avenue Sagas described it as “not horrible” but also “not great,” ruing DOT’s fear of banning single-occupancy cars from certain streets. What is perhaps most troubling in my opinion are projections that 70-80% of the displaced 225,000 daily L train riders that would normally pass through the Canarsie Tube every day will continue to use the NYC Subway. This has implications for nearly every subway line in the system; in particular those lines serving Northern Brooklyn and that connect at various points with the L: the A, C, G, J, M and Z trains.

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“Service Snapshot” of MTA/DOT L Train shutdown mitigation service
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Manhattan-specific look at 14th Street Busway and 13th Street bike lane

Closed Station Entrances

It is great to see that the MTA will be reopening a number of station entrances along the G, J, M and Z lines, which will improve passenger ingress and egress. Residents and business owners have complained about closed entrances for years; hopefully once L train service is restored, all of the reopened stairs will stay that way.

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A 3 train as seen from the Livonia Avenue L station in Brooklyn

In-System Transfers

The MTA will offer subway riders free transfers between the Broadway G station and the Hewes/Lorimer stations on the JMZ. As the blogger Vanshnookenraggen has proposed, there is an opportunity to transform this geographically proximate yet out-of-system transfer with one that is completely within the NYC Subway network. The Hewes and Lorimer Stations along Broadway would be closed and replaced with a station at Union Street, directly above the G station. Those two stations would then be connected from below ground to above, which would allow for an in-system transfer and likely for better capacity along both lines. This is however an unfunded and unplanned proposal that would likely cost tens of millions of dollars.

There is another free out-of-system transfer the plan proposes, between the Livonia Ave L station and the Junius St 3 station in Brownsville. I was surprised to see however that no work has been done yet on an in-system transfer between the two stations that literally sit one on top of the other, even though that project was approved as part of the 2015-2019 MTA Capital Plan.

Broadway Junction

Separate from the DOT/MTA’s plans for the L train shutdown is a study, recently started by the NYC Economic Development Corporation, to identify economic growth opportunities around the Broadway Junction transportation hub. East New York, the Brooklyn neighborhood where the Broadway Junction station is located, is one of the centerpieces of Mayor de Blasio’s affordable housing, economic development and job growth plan. Though the title of a NY Times article on this topic suggests potential forthcoming work on the train station itself, the surrounding area has so far been the focus. Hopefully the station, which will become an even more key transfer point for Brooklyn commuters during the L train shutdown as it connects the A, C, J and Z lines with the L, is looked at more closely for renovations and improvements in the coming months beyond what the DOT/MTA plan already proposes.

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A Rockaway Parkway bound L departs Broadway Junction

Going Forward

The plan released Wednesday is not the end all for L train shutdown mitigation. There will be more time for the public and for elected officials to opine on this initial proposal. Hopefully further plans include more restrictions on single occupancy vehicles and other provisions that will improve non-subway transportation options that may shrink the percent of commuters that continue to rely on the subway. The J, M and Z lines, which are currently experiencing some of the highest ridership growth in the city, will be under particular strain. Already proposed subway improvements will help, but there is more to be done to avoid inundating Northern Brooklyn subway lines with displaced L train riders.

 

 

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.

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).