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).

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.