Thoughts on integrating the city into its own transit network

By · Published in 2012

In a sense, I offered up yesterday’s post on the progress on the Penn Station Access project on its own when, in reality, it came out of the larger context of a City Council hearing on intra-city mobility. Noting that reverse commuting and non-Manhattan-based job centers are growing, the Council’s Transportation Committee wanted to know what exactly the MTA was doing to help improve access throughout the city. After all, while Manhattan is the biggest driver of jobs, other areas are growing rapidly.

“More workers are commuting from Brooklyn to Queens, from the Bronx to Westchester, from Staten Island to New Jersey or Brooklyn than ever before and yet our city’s transit infrastructure has not kept pace,” Transportation Committee Chairman James Vacca said. “If it means that a person is going to take three buses, that person is likely to get into a car.”

In response to Vacca’s question, officials from the MTA took the opportunity to talk up the plans to beef up Metro-North service in the Bronx. Already, the commuter rail line is seeing rampant growth, and while we may have to wait the better part of a decade if we’re lucky, adding more stations will further help New Yorkers get where they need to be. It’s not really enough though, and it’s definitely not a fast enough solution.

First, Metro-North isn’t intended to be an intra-city transportation network. It’s designed to bring commuters from the suburbs to the city’s job and entertainment centers. Fares are significantly higher on Metro-North than on the subways, and stations are much further apart. Adding more stations in the Bronx may help the locals, but it be a disservice for the core Metro-North commuters trying to reach Midtown. The MTA may have to consider overhauling the City Ticket system and the entire fare structure if it intends for Metro-North to serve as urban transportation.

Second, promising Metro-North improvements some time after East Side Access is completed in 2019 isn’t fast enough. The city’s job patterns are showing decentralized growth now, today in 2012, and they have been for more than a few years. We can’t wait another seven or 10 or 15 years for Metro-North to amble its way through four or six stations in the Bronx.

The answer, despite my lukewarm embrace of it, is a faster and more creative approach toward Select Bus Service. For reasons unknown, the MTA and New York City’s Department of Transportation have treated borough borders as though they are immutable and uncrossable. Select Bus Service routes currently in service and on the drawing board rather cross from one borough into the next. They serve to deliver isolated commutes to the subway faster, but they don’t bring people to job centers. Where’s the SBS route from the far reaches of Brooklyn to JFK? Where are the radial routes from Jamaica Hospital? Where’s the bus from the Bronx to LaGuardia?

If the City and MTA want to bring more Metro-North stations to the Bronx, by all means, they should do so. It shouldn’t be the only solution to new job patterns and commuter demands. Buses can offer a flexible long-term solution, and it can be an interim one. Those bus routes could one day be replaced with a higher-capacity rail system. For now, though, we’re suffering from a strange borough-based territoriality and a lack of drive, urgency and creativity when it comes to adjusting our public transit system to new commuting patterns.

33 Responses to “Thoughts on integrating the city into its own transit network”

  1. Chet says:

    Very true about SBS. There should be at least one SBS line from Staten Island to the 4th Ave lines at either 59th or even better, 36th St in Brooklyn.

  2. Henry says:

    Well if they’re going to turn a Metro North line into urban transportation, they should also try to do so with some of the LIRR lines in Queens.

    Has anyone ever seriously considered using the Port Washington line in a similar manner? It is parallel to the 7…

  3. Jim D. says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! An expanded network of limited buses connecting major transit hubs would be an excellent start and could take some pressure off the overcrowded sections of the subway system. An excellent example can be found in Toronto where GO Transit operates a network of express buses that take riders directly to several universities and job centers. A student in Mississauga can take the GO bus from York University and be at school in 30 to 40 minutes, compared to the 90 minutes to 2 hours the trip would take using Mississauga Transit and TTC. The GO buses are so popular that the agency has purchased double-decker coaches for some routes.

  4. Matthias says:

    First, Metro-North isn’t intended to be an intercity transportation network.

    Do you mean intracity?

    It hardly seems fair for Bronx residents to have trains barreling through their neighborhoods without stopping to serve them. There are already quite a few local stations in the Bronx on the Harlem/New Haven Line. If stations can be added to the Hell Gate Line as well, that would be an ideal solution.

    • Spendmore Wastemore says:

      “It hardly seems fair for Bronx residents to have trains barreling through their neighborhoods without stopping to serve them.”


      The plane from Boston to LA doesn’t stop in my town either. Unfair Unfair!

    • Jerrold says:

      I was just about to say the same thing, but you beat me to it.

      The sentence “Metro-North isn’t intended to be an intercity transportation network” makes sense, but from the context he obviously meant INTRA-CITY.

  5. Larry Littlefield says:

    The decisions of the past 30 years have bankrupted the government. We’ll be lucky to keep some portion of the transportation system we have. Demands for a pony are ridiculous.

    The city has a policy of encouraging development in outer-borough areas where multiple transit lines come together, in places like Downtown Brooklyn, the Hub in the Bronx, and Jamaica and Long Island City Queens. Rather than move where they will and expect high subsidy transportation to follow them, firms need to move to places where lower subsidy transportation already exists.

    And people need to be grateful they have a transit system that can bring all of them to Manhattan and some of them to alternate employment centers elsewhere, rather than expecting a sub-45 minute commute from Princeton Junction to New Haven.

    • Chris says:

      I don’t think anybody is expecting quite that level of service, but it can’t be so inconvenient that people don’t want to use it. My commute is now 2.5 hours from Brooklyn to Wilton, CT. I have a car, but after balancing the costs and stresses, I will be selling it and using Metro North, despite the fact that the car can shave two hours off of my commute each day. If I were living in eastern Bronx instead, I think it would be a no-brainer to keep the car, since the driving stresses would be greatly reduced and I presume the bus ride to Fordham would be slow and unpleasant.

      • pete says:

        You better be getting 6 figures for that job. Spending 6 hours working and 6 hours commuting can’t pay.

      • mwdt says:

        Honestly, that’s the point where I would simply make the decision to move to Connecticut.

        • Chris says:

          It’s either I commute to CT or my wife commutes to the city for work and we both commute to the the city to maintain our friendships. The city easily wins that argument.

          (That said, anyone with a lead on a systems engineering job in the city would be most welcome to drop me a line!)

      • AG says:

        Chris – actually you make a good point. Connecticut has been one of the biggest lobbyist for the new East Bronx stations… because they want the labor force that can’t be filled by their own small population.

  6. jim says:

    Metro-North could provide a lot more reverse commute between the Bronx and Westchester with very little new construction. It doesn’t need Penn Station Access to do it. It just needs to through run trains between the Hudson Line and the Harlem and New Haven Lines using the Mott Haven wye, bypassing Manhattan altogether (like the current Yankee Stadium service).

    The problem for Metro-North to offer reverse commute is Grand Central. Three tracks peak, one reverse peak means that few trains can run reverse peak. But if one bypasses GCT, there’s plenty of capacity. The Mott Haven wye would probably need to be double tracks and the section of the Hudson Line between Spuyten Duyvil and Marble Hill triple tracked, but it would be fairly easy to run frequent local trains between, say, Croton-Harmon and New Rochelle and Croton-Harmon and White Plains.

    Fare structure is a different problem.

    • Alon Levy says:

      The problem with using the wye is that there’s no way you’re providing time-competitive trains from (say) Yonkers to New Rochelle when they have to go through the South Bronx. This kind of crosstown service is pretty hopeless everywhere unless you go through the expense of building a direct line.

      But Metro-North could run local trains from Grand Central to White Plains every 15 minutes all-day if it wanted and if it had fewer conductors per train. That’s what’s needed, and because the additional service would be off-peak, there’s capacity.

    • SEAN says:

      Also you will need aditional rolling stock for this service. Something inline with the M8’s & or duel powered locos.

    • AG says:

      you are correct…. however – persons forget that Connecticut is part funder of the New Haven line… and they want the 4 east Bronx stations as well. Not to mention – there are medical professionals who use the 6 train – who if they could would definitely pay for the Metro North to stop at Morris Park which is near Calvary – Jacobi – Albert Einstein – Montefiores offsites etc.

      Btw – how could you possibly run Hudson Line trains to New Rochelle or White Plains?

  7. JAzumah says:

    When the government has to provide all of the transportation, it undersupplies the market.

    • Alon Levy says:

      To my knowledge, every single system called RER or S-Bahn was built by the government.

      Hell, in Japan, the problem that led to JNR’s privatization was that it oversupplied the market rather than undersupplied it.

  8. DF says:

    I’m with the “stop asking for a pony” crowd. Can we agree that:
    1. You can’t have one-seat rides from everywhere to everywhere
    2. Even having two-seat rides from everywhere to everywhere is problematic when there are bodies of water with few crossings
    3. Pretty much any additional service requires an additional subsidy. So merely identifying trips that some people would like to take but that is inconvenient under current routings isn’t saying much.

    >Where’s the SBS route from the far reaches of Brooklyn to JFK?
    There is of course the local B15 connecting with the L and 3. At least based on the one time I have taken this bus, it is not obvious that the demand for long-distance service on this line is sufficient to spend limited funds creating a new bus route from elsewhere in Brooklyn or SBS’ing this one.

    >Where are the radial routes from Jamaica Hospital?
    I’m not familiar with the area … as best as I can tell there is plenty of service a few blocks away (and the huge transfer area around Jamaica station a few blocks more) but it seems hard to run service right by the hospital because it is hemmed in and the frontage road along the Van Wyck only runs one way.

    >Where’s the bus from the Bronx to LaGuardia?
    Any subway line or Metro-North line in the Bronx will take you to 125 St where you can transfer. From the eastern portion there are buses across the Whitestone to Flushing where you can transfer. So there are two-seat rides from much of the borough. A one-seat ride would be shorter but would still be circuitous because of the limited water crossings. It still might be worth it if there is a lot of pent-up demand but, again, it isn’t obvious that latent Bronx-LGA demand is one of the biggest unmet needs of the system.

    • Bolwerk says:

      1 & 2: you should have 2-seat rides to most substantial destinations. Airports, stadiums, major cultural centers, and major job centers certainly count.

      3: even in our bumblefuck world of under-utilized, over-supplied transit labor, providing transit along a major route probably reduces subsidies to automobiles – or at least gets more capacity at a lower cost than more lanes of highway.

    • ajedrez says:

      A route from Southwest Brooklyn to JFK would probably perform alright if you just ran a basic level of service (say, every 20-30 minutes)

  9. Metro-North officials believe the railroad is more than a “commuter” railroad. Those officials, and their predecessors, have maintained this for some time.

  10. Alon Levy says:

    Ben, what you say about Metro-North’s core market isn’t really true. The Harlem Line’s demand is fairly local. (The Hudson and New Haven Lines are the opposite.) There’s no technical reason Metro-North can’t run frequent all-stop off-peak service to White Plains, and charge subway fares within the city.

  11. I recently wrote about what the next steps for SBS should be here. We already have a system of express buses that serve otherwise transit-poor areas into Manhattan. I agree that we should also orient SBS to more of a grid, but using express buses seems like a pretty cheap and easy solution.

    I also recently wrote about commuter rail with stops close together! I’ve only taken it once, but I believe the LIRR has off peak “city tickets”, which let you go anywhere in the city for $3. I do think making metro north or LIRR into a more hybrid system would be a good thing, there are always ways you can run express trains to serve peripheral commuters while keeping a more local service that allows Bronx residents to reverse commute.

  12. BrooklynBus says:

    Ben, you hit the nail on the head with this one. The MTA was created to bring all the region’s transit together and towards that mission have failed miserably. Not enough routes cross borough and city lines and where there is capacity on the rails, fares need to be lowered so they can be used for intra city trips. Merely producing regional system maps does not integrate transit. You shoud not have to pay a double fare because you need two. Uses and a train or 3 buses. Unlimited rides for two hours wouldbe fairer.

  13. Andrew says:

    For reasons unknown, the MTA and New York City’s Department of Transportation have treated borough borders as though they are immutable and uncrossable.

    Why do you keep saying that? The Bx12 crosses between the Bronx and Manhattan, and the S79 (soon to be SBS) crosses between Staten Island and Brooklyn.

    The point of SBS has never been to carry people from outlying districts all the way into the Manhattan CBD. The express buses that do that now are highly subsidized despite the premium fare. The point of SBS is to improve bus service on busy corridors not served by the subway. All SBS routes rely heavily on their many transfer points to other services, both bus and subway.

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