Guest Post: Why the focus on Penn Station?


A glimpse at SHoP’s grand proposal for a new Penn Station.

Alon Levy, a long-time SAS reader and commenter, runs his own site called Pedestrian Observations. Late on Friday, he published he thoughts on the discussion over Penn Station and the driving factors behind the push to limit Madison Square Garden’s occupancy permit to 10 or 15 years. Rather than excerpting Levy’s post, I asked him if I could run it here as a guest post, and what follows are his words and arguments. It’s a very astute commentary on some of the overarching concerns. Check out the original post on Alon’s website for a healthy discussion that grew over the weekend.

Penn Station is in the news again: the Municipal Art Society ran a public competition for a rebuilt station house, involving proposals by four different architectural firms. This does not include any track-level improvements at all: only the concourses and above-ground infrastructure are to be rebuilt, at a cost of $9.5 billion according to one of the four firms. The quotes from the architects and other backers of rebuilding use language like “great train station” and “gateway to the city,” and this is where the subtle hate of the city’s actual residents lies: why the focus on Penn Station? Why not a subway station?

The headline figure for the ridership at Penn Station is 600,000-650,000 a day, but this is a wild exaggeration. First, this includes both entries and exits, so the real number is half that. Second, about half of the number comes from subway riders, who these discussions always ignore. And third, there is a large number of passengers transferring between commuter rail and the subway who are doubled-counted; at subway stations, passengers transferring between lines are not even single-counted, since the subway counts entries at the turnstiles. Taking an average of boardings and alightings when both numbers are given or just boardings otherwise, Penn Station has 100,000 weekday LIRR riders, 80,000 weekday New Jersey Transit riders, and 170,000 weekday subway riders between the two stations. However, people transferring between the subway and commuter rail are double-counted.

In contrast, not counting any connecting passengers, there are 195,000 weekday Times Square subway riders. Without detailed data about transfer volumes at each station we can’t compare the two, but since the proposals for a better Penn Station focus only on the mainline station, the number of passengers served is certainly less than that of Times Square passengers.

Indeed, every single problem that the architects are trying to fix with Penn Station exists at Times Square. Times Square has low ceilings. The corridors between different lines and between the platforms and the exits are as labyrinthine as at Penn Station. In my experience rush hour passenger crowding levels within the station itself are comparable. Most platforms are wider, but nobody is proposing to widen platforms at Penn Station, and the 42nd Street Shuttle platforms are narrow and curvy and have been this way since 1918. The tickets are all integrated because the trains are all run by one operator, but again nobody who proposes to replace Penn Station is talking about the separate LIRR, NJ Transit, and Amtrak fiefs.

There are some legitimate changes that could be done if Penn Station is knocked down and rebuilt: instead of a hack involving paving over platforms to increase their width, the platform level could be rebuilt, two tracks at a time, with six approach tracks in each direction each splitting into two platform tracks, giving twelve tracks on six platforms; the train box appears about 140 meters wide, enough for 15-meter-wide platforms (compare 10 meters on the Chuo Line platform at Tokyo Station, where 28 trains per hour turn on two tracks).

However, the technical issues here are a lot less important than the fact that city leaders, architects, and even transit commentators assume that it is more important for New York to have a great train station used by 200,000 suburban commuters than for it to have a great subway station used by (at least) 200,000 city residents. It speaks to the utter hatred most city leaders have of the people who live in what they consider their fief or perhaps their playground. For most people in the city, there are more important transportation facilities, and even on a metro area level Penn Station isn’t unusually important.

This leaves the argument that Penn Station is a gateway to the city. But if the point is to impress a few thousand tourists, why not spend the same money on improving tourist amenities at Times Square, building more hotels? Or maybe building free housing for tens of thousands of homeless people (both the ones at Penn Station and the ones in the rest of the city) so that they stop being homeless and disturbing the rest of the population? If the point is to have great art, why not spend the money on employing artists to produce more work or to improve the aesthetics of the city’s ordinary spaces?

Of course, none of those options involves city leaders getting together and building important edifices with plaques with their names on them. So at the end the idea is to tax actual city inhabitants $10 billion to build a monument to the vision of city leaders. Large corporations pay their executives hundreds of millions a year in stock options and bonuses; governments cannot pay top political power brokers this way, so instead they spend large quantities of money on monuments that glorify them.

Categories : Penn Station

84 Responses to “Guest Post: Why the focus on Penn Station?”

  1. JVM says:

    It’s silly to build a grandiose transit station at all, subway or otherwise. As a transit rider I’d much rather they spent capital expenditures on practical considerations and improved maintenance.

    You’re dead on about what’s going on: city leaders think this is high status. They’re the ones that get to make the call. So this is what gets done. And the subway continues to crumble.

    Let’s not even get started on what commuter rail really is: A massive subsidy for wealthy suburbanites. Subsidy per ride for the commuter trains is on the order of $7 per passenger/ride ($14 round trip daily!), a subsidy captured disproportionately by the wealthy. (citation: http://www.wnyc.org/blogs/tran.....rs-a-buck/)

    • Eric` says:

      1. Every transit mode is subsidized, including urban modes like the subway.
      2. Better to subsidize commuter rail for suburbanites than freeways for suburbanites.

    • Bolwerk says:

      To some extent, these things are subsidies to transit unions. There may be regulatory reasons this is difficult in the U.S., but railroads can be run profitably if we want.

    • Spendmore Wastemore says:


      I disagree, even my after in cantankerous ire over $100K bus drivers and $200K LIRR thieves.

      Penn is a daily insult to everyone who has to pass through it; it’s like having burnt coffee every morning in a leaky paper cup that splashes some on your sleeve. The fix for that place involves generous amounts of dynamite.

      Contrast Grand Central. By your taste we would tear that down and put up an office building over it. All ya need is some pedestrian tunnels to get the the trains, ya know, and people who use it must all be wealthy… who but the wealthy drags through a public transit commute 10x week.

      • AG says:

        Except Grand Central is what it is…. it’s not anyone’s fault that Penn was sold and destroyed first.

  2. Nyland8 says:

    From the article: “Taking an average of boardings and alightings when both numbers are given or just boardings otherwise, Penn Station has 100,000 weekday LIRR riders, 80,000 weekday New Jersey Transit riders, and 170,000 weekday subway riders between the two stations. However, people transferring between the subway and commuter rail are double-counted.”

    I guess this means that the Amtrak numbers don’t fit into the equation? Why would they be excluded?

    It strikes me that merely comparing traffic numbers with Times Square falls far short of making the case against a larger, more open Penn Station. As it is, the experience of outbound Penn Station passengers is one of up to 20+ minutes of ennui, followed by up to 10 minutes of severe angst. This anxiety oscillation is not the case with subway-only riders, who merely go to the platform they know their next available train is expected to depart from. And as regards timing ones arrival to coincide with commuter rail departure, that would seem to be a function of how far you’re coming from. The longer your subway distance, the more you have to pad your time in favor of waiting around at Penn.

    On at least two occasions in the last year, I’ve found myself waiting in a queue of well over 20 people at the NJTransit ticket machines, with only 5-6 minutes before my scheduled departure. And just this past month, what would ordinarily be considered a small delay in the 1 Train led to a 40 minute, late night off-peak LIRR departure delay. These events create levels of apprehension I just never have on the subway.

    Of course, as has been often stated, without fundamental changes in track and platform quantity and layout, lingering in an architectural wonder would not have changed my experience very much.

    But aside from that, shouldn’t the onus of building a better train station rest on the public it most serves? If the bulk of the ridership comes from Long Island, New Jersey, Amtrak and, someday, Connecticut, then why should the bill for building something new go to NYC? Only Long Island’s portion could rightly be charged to Albany. The rest of the funds for renovation or expansion should come from D.C., Trenton and, someday soon, Hartford. If we really need a “great train station” and a “gateway to the city”, then federal money should represent the bulk of the financing.

    • Alon Levy says:

      Amtrak is 13,000 passengers per day (not weekday), but the same We Must Rebuild Penn Station people assume Amtrak is going to leave for the Farley post office anyway.

      What you say about ticket machines is a real problem, but is also not really relevant to rebuilding the station. The solutions to long lines at TVMs are to integrate the existing TVMs of different railroads, structure ticketing to give more incentives for multi-use tickets and season passes to discourage people from hogging TVMs, and build more TVMs to deal with remaining crunches. A thousand extra TVMs are still a rounding error compared to any city megaproject. I think prettier architecture for you to stare at during your 40-minute delay is small consolation.

      Not to mention that it’s ridiculous that a city this large should have 40-minute frequencies on commuter rail at any time of day. Maaaaybe some outer branches can make do with half-hourly service, but unless you’re traveling beyond current electrification there’s no excuse. Raising off-peak frequency to non-US megacity levels, with less staffing and maybe shorter trains, is almost cost-free.

      • Bolwerk says:

        I would add, TVMs on the trains could help too. Being in a line is less of a problem if you’re already moving.

        • Michael K says:

          I have been testing out the new NJ Transit mobile ticketing app on my android phone and it works extremely well.
          It is currently only in use on the Pascack Valley Line and Meadowlands, but I have been using it to travel to from Hoboken and NY Penn to Hackensack and I grin as I pass the 30 people in line for the TVM 2 minutes before departure.

      • AG says:

        I say spend money the make a system viable where ppl with smart phones can buy tickets…. shortens the line and save PLENTY of money.

    • Mike says:

      The current mix of passengers is also based on the relatively poor amount of service Amtrak provides. If Penn Station were to be the hub for true HSR to Philly/DC, Boston, Montreal, Toronto, and Chicago, Amtrak passenger counts would start approaching LIRR and NJT levels.

      Better headways on NJT and LIRR trains would also help passengers make their connections without getting stuck in the station for much time.

  3. Max Roberts says:

    Hatred seems too strong a word for me, indifference perhaps.

    Doesn’t matter where you go in the world, long distance travel is more glamorous and headline-catching than short distance travel.

    • Bolwerk says:

      I agree it’s probably more indifference than hatred.

      However, Amtrak at Penn is only barely ever what could be called long-distance travel. Amtrak’s main user base out of Penn is regional rail. These people are often going to other large- and medium-sized cities for a quick trip or on business.

  4. John-2 says:

    I suppose we should just be thankful that the idea of spending a bit of money on a train station at all is back in vogue — the mindset when the current Penn was built was pretty much what was good for the subway riders of the early 1960s was good for commuter and long-distance rail passengers, in terms of an underground, low-ceiling maze with little charm.

    That said, the concept designs for the proposed new Penn Station for the most part came across like the Calatrava porcupine as being form-over-function, and more about a monument to the designers (and the politicians who may give the future green light for the project) than it is about the people who will be using it over the next 50-100 years. There are better places to spent limited mass transit dollars, and the new Penn idea really won’t be in the serious stages for another decade at the earliest (and may or may not include the extra block for Gateway). Whatever goes it shouldn’t break the bank above street level while doing little more than putting lipstick on a pig for the actual tracks, platforms and access points underground.

  5. BoerumHillScott says:

    I don’t think any of this conversation would be happening if the original Penn Station had been built as a series of underground concourses with office and event space above. The arts community in New York feels that it has to make up for their defeat over 50 years ago.

    I am not opposed to the plans, if enough dollars could be found through new office buildings to pay for the entire project. However, given the failure of other massive office buildings to get off the ground with much lower construction costs and approved plans, I don’t see that ever happening.

  6. marv says:

    The central post office, the central telephone office and the central train station are perhaps relic of the past from which we should move on.

    The NY metro area would be better off if non-through running rail trains terminated in Jamaica and Secaucus. Have rapid continuous shuttles run from Jamaica to Secaucus both
    *via NY Penn Station, and
    *via an extended Jamaica=>Brooklyn=>downtown=>Hoboken to Secaucus line
    *Service to Grand Central could continue as planned as that station was foolishly built as a dead end (with an abandoned boring machine in place to make a further extension even more difficult).

    Each shuttle line would use 1 track in each direction that would then divide in two around an island platform at each of the stations to increase capacity. Shuttle trains would have several wide doors and few if any seats to allow for rapid boarding and debarking and would run at maximum 2 minute head ways.

    Only though running trains would come into Penn Station NY greatly increasing the capacity over what we now have.

    To increase utility and spread boarding over more stations, these shuttles could be extended though Newark and then terminate at Liberty Aiport using the one track splitting into two at stations model.

    This restructuring could carry even more value if the new Manhattan ->Hoboken tunnel was double decked. The #7 could use it to go on to secaucus (with a stop at hoboken) via existing trackage giving NJ long needed access to the east side.

    *The major construction required by this concept is 1 needed rail tunnel under both the Hudson and East Rivers. Saved would be costly constructions of new (underground) terminals.
    *gained would be an effective dual hub system with commuters able to reach their final destination more rapidly. Given the post 9/11 environment, reducing the concentration of people in on location could also be a plus.

    • Nyland8 says:

      Of course, gone would be the one-seat ride to many people’s destination, possibly leading to great opposition to this idea. Ironically, ALL the MSG patrons from LI and NJ would then require an added shuttle leg on their journey.

      That said, decentralization from one major hub to multiple minor hubs is generally a good idea.

      I would modify your proposal by running your second shuttle only from Atlantic Terminal to Fulton to Hoboken Terminal, leaving out the redundancy of Secaucus/Jamaica and precluding any interference with existing NJT trains that already terminate in Hoboken, or any LIRR trains that stop at East New York, etc.

      Combine this idea with running at least one cross-town subway out to Lautenberg, and a great deal of pressure and anxiety at NY Penn Station evaporates. Taken together, these projects could totally obviate any perceived need to build another grand monument to political egos on the footprint of MSG.

      • AG says:

        Also – to those complaining about dark conditions…. it’s amazing what they can do with LED’s nowadays. They can almost mimic daylight and they are very efficient. That and making wider walkways should be pretty easy… in fact didn’t the current tenants at Penn release such an idea in the past year or so?

  7. paulb says:

    I’m intrigued by AL’s argument that civic, uh, “leaders” like these projects as a way to confer immortality on themselves. The involvement of “Pat” Moynihan’s family in pushing for the new Amtrak station despite its arguable benefit to the city says to me he’s on the right track (pun recognized but not intentional).

  8. Matthias says:

    I don’t understand the suspicion/hatred of good architecture. Certainly the PATH station money pit should not be repeated, but plenty of city residents use Penn Station and deserve a better station. (I hate having to use it every time I want to go somewhere–I can feel those 1960s urban planners still oppressing us.) If we want more ridership, high-speed rail and a new river tunnel, a new station should be part of that (and a new building should absolutely be paired with platform improvements).

    A new building should not be an end in itself, but Penn is an important part of our transportation system and woefully inadequate. Let’s not downplay its importance or fall into an “us vs. them” mentality about it.

    • Bolwerk says:

      Nobody is against good architecture. What most of us speaking out against these types of vanity projects are against are the vanity, because we recognize that $9B spent on tracks and ROWs is money better spent than $9B on a single building the vast majority of people using it will spend perhaps 15m/day in.

      Yes, Penn has inadequacies, but most of them can be addressed without a new building. Beauty is something that will just have to wait for a generation with money to burn to afford it.

  9. BoerumBum says:

    RE: The “Gateway to the City” arguement – A much better way to welcome tourists to the city would be to improve transit connections to the area airports.

    • AG says:

      If there was a rating system – I’d give a +10 for that comment. Rail to airport connections are a MUCH better use of the money than some faux-monument.

  10. AlexB says:

    Keeping Penn is an exercise in throwing good money after bad. Rebuilding it does more than boost politician’s ego or pander to suburban commuters. At least a couple of the MAS design competition entries showed the new Penn Station extending from 33rd to 30th, a block wider than before, in keeping with Amtrak’s Gateway proposal. They are obviously looking for a way to unify the whole station with one building instead of just replacing what’s there. This would be a major improvement over the silliness of having a Penn Station and a Moynihan Station and a Penn South or ARC station, with each connected by a maze of confusing tunnels and stairs. There are many reasons to re-build the existing station besides aesthetics which have gone completely over your head or been willfully ignored. By going through this exercise, we have the opportunity to address all the issues at once: open space, the stadium, leveraging development around the new station, unifying multiple train services, architecture. If we followed “practical” incrementalists, we would forever be tweaking and adjusting and renovating and wasting time and money, throwing millions in the trash in perpetuity trying to fix something that’s not fixable.

    • Alon Levy says:

      On the contrary. If you look more carefully at the SHoP rendering above, you’ll see it still keeps the narrow, single-direction escalators leading down to narrow platforms. The Penn Station train box is very wide, about 150 meters, and this is enough for anything if the station is ripped up and rebuilt. Hence my comment in the original post about 12 platform tracks with 6 wide platforms. But instead of thinking in terms of improved passenger circulation, quick access and egress, and high passenger throughput, the architects are thinking in terms of expanding the station’s footprint.

      Also, I resent being called an incrementalist. Have you seen what I’ve proposed for the city’s regional rail system? Forget ARC; I’ve routinely argued for a direct rail tunnel between Manhattan and Staten Island. It’s just that I think that if there’s $10 billion to spend, it should go to those train tunnels and to more efficient operations rather than to showcasing one train station.

      • AlexB says:

        Fair enough, you aren’t an incrementalist, and I do appreciate your proposal for regional rail. In general, I fully agree that track and capacity improvements should trump station improvements. But if your goal is to realize better passenger access and flow by rearranging platforms and tracks, I find it very difficult to see how that will be accomplished without significant demolition and renovation that would inevitably cost hundreds of millions, if not over a billion (the way people build things in NY). If you are going through all that effort, and you are building a new tunnel to Jersey (sometime) and you already have a station and stadium that are almost 50 years old and universally despised, why the unwillingness to thing big? For the new tunnel to Jersey, would you have it come into the existing station box? Why can’t we have the new station and the new tracks and platforms? If a signature train station or building belongs anywhere in NYC, this is it.

        • Alon Levy says:

          I do think big. That’s why I think that in addition to a second Hudson tunnel pair feeding into the existing station they should build a Penn-Grand Central connection, and then additional tunnels serving Lower Manhattan.

          Better passenger access and egress is much cheaper than a new station. The LIRR did some renovations in the 1990s that added new access points to tracks 13-21; those can be extended south to track 1. The back offices can be kicked out (only 50% of the lower concourse floor area is used for passenger circulation). Amtrak can drop the single-file queuing and instead open its escalators to free NJT and LIRR use and vice versa. The biggest problems with Penn are organizational.

        • Bolwerk says:

          What we should want is a train and passenger throughput that is high enough to keep crowds down. People don’t have to wait as much if their trains come more often. It’s how the NYC subway manages crowds.

          Nobody has put forth a convincing argument that such a goal necessitates a new station. If anything, a new station is just spending billions of dollars without necessarily addressing the above problem.

          That doesn’t mean there are legitimate improvements to make to Penn, but don’t be enamored by a shiny new station.

          • Bolwerk says:

            That doesn’t mean there are ^not legitimate improvements

          • Nathanael says:

            Bolwerk: that’s exactly what can’t happen with intercity rail. Intercity traffic will ALWAYS have people waiting, even if it runs perfectly to clockface schedules.

            Which is why Penn Station needs waiting space. Even if you manage to run the commuter services so as to require no waiting, the intercity Amtrak services (and I think some of the outer NJT, LIRR, and Metro-North services are basically intercity too) will require space for waiting passengers.

  11. Eric F says:

    NYC actually is finishing up a decade+ project to improve the transit experience at what is now called Fulton Center. NYC did the same thing at South Ferry (then knocked back by Sandy), so it’s not like internal subway stations have not been the subject of grand plans. I understand that Times Square itself has seen improvement projects over the years.

    It’s an interesting premise, but not sure I accept it. Penn Station is a gateway in a sense that Times Square is not. Times Square is a transfer point and end station for travel to its district. Attractive gateways are a common feature of great cities. Further, passengers linger at gatweays longer as part of the nature of commuter and long-distance train travel in a way that is not the case as subway stations with higly frequent service in simple 1×1 or 2×2 track configurations.

    Also, if Penn had no capacity issues, no one is probably engaing in this planning. The fact is that Penn is inadequate for its current and projected passenger load, and achieving capacity increases with aesthetic improvements makes intuitive sense.

    • Bolwerk says:

      I’d really question how much of a gateway Penn is. Many of its commuter users must work on the east side, and many non-commuter users must have destinations all over the city. Figure if you live in Far Rockaway or Staten Island and need to go to Washington, one of your best options is still through Penn, especially if you need top go on a whim.

      How about some de-centralization? Queens and Brooklyn both have north of 2M people, bigger than any city in the northeast except New York itself. There is no reason they shouldn’t see some direct Amtrak service too. They don’t need big facilities or grand terminals, either.

      • Eric F says:

        As a planning matter, never mind Amtrak, I’m surprised that Brooklyn and Staten Island don’t at least have an interstate bus terminal. Brooklyn has 2 million people, and Greyhound can’t fill a regular 50 person bus to Philly from there? Presumably, nobody wants such a terminal in their backyard, but a couple modest terminals throughout the boroughs would be quite useful I would think.

        • BoerumHillScott says:

          Brooklyn has a small Greyhound terminal, but when looking at a 3+ hour bus ride, I don’t think the prospect of an additional 20 minutes on the subway is that big of a deal.

          • BrooklynBus says:

            Maybe for you it is an extra 20 minute ride, but from southern Brooklyn, it is an extra hour. And where is that Greyhound terminal anyway? When I used Greyhound in 2011 to come back from Atlantic City, we had to go to Penn Station.

            • Eric F says:

              Canarsie/Little Neck, etc. to Manhattan with luggage to get to the PA Terminal is not short and not fun.

            • It’s on Livingston St., but I have no idea what buses run from there. Greyhound doesn’t make a comprehensive list of routes readily available.

              • BrooklynBus says:

                Now that you mention it, I believe it is near Nevins St.

                You would think it would be in their best interests to publicize what leaves from there.

                Why they coudn’t incorporate a bus terminal at Atlantic Terminal defies all logic. For the last 30 years I’ve even advocated a local bus terminal there for about ten local bus routes to get all te bus routes off Lvingston Street and operate a light rail along Fulton Street from Atlantic Terminal to Brooklyn Bridge Park then south along the waterfront to Red Hook. But when DOT studied light rail, they never considered such a route but instead proposed to operate it along Atlantic Avenue which was just foolish. There is enough demand to justify service about every three minutes all day long and it would be much more economical to operate than buses because you woulldn’t have to charge any fares and you could board from all doors. All you woud need woud be a convenient transfer within Atlantic Terminal.

              • tacony palmyra says:

                I think the only routes that run from the Brooklyn station go through Port Authority as well, which makes it useless. You get on the bus in Brooklyn, go sit in Port Authority for 15 minutes, and then go to Atlantic City.

                Greyhound’s website has confounded me for years but there’s a good bit of info buried in this site (which appears to be for internal purposes… they apparently don’t think customers need to know): http://extranet.greyhound.com/Revsup/

            • Bolwerk says:

              The more important point is, given how clogged the road crossings are, a bus from the boroughs may just not be more favorable than the subway to a bus on the west side.

              • BrooklynBus says:

                Don’t follow your logic. How would road crossings get more crowded? Presumably if more buses went to other terminals scattered over the city, fewer buses would use Port Authority, so buses would switch from one road crossing to another and people would save time. If this encourages moe bus travel and less driving, that would be a good thing.

                • Bolwerk says:

                  More crowded? They’re already crowded. If you take a bus from Brooklyn to DC, you might spend an hour and a half more than you should cutting across the NYC, maybe just waiting at a bridge approach.

                  So, it’s understandable why buses all leave from a single point near the exit. However, Amtrak really doesn’t have that limitation. They should be able to bring people to the boroughs.

                  • BrookynBus says:

                    So you don’t want more buses using crossings other than the Lincoln Tunnel. But if they used other crossings as well, that might reduce traffic at the Lincoln Tunnel if fewer buses served the Port Authority. The slight traffic increase spread out over te other crossings might be worth the extra 30 to 60 minutes some woud save by not having to use the Port Authority. There should be at least one bus terminal in each borough.

                    And exactly what are you proposing with Amtrak by having it “bring people to the boroughs”?

        • Bolwerk says:

          For 50 people/day, a terminal is a bit much. A curb stop is plenty for several times that much. BoerumHillScott might be right; at least with the buses, it might just save time to skip the bridges and use the subway. Megabus seems to have calculated that being near the tunnel is the best option, leaving people to make what I consider a rater over-the-top jaunt to the far west side.

          Amtrak has no such limitation, and the infrastructure is already partly there. Amtrak to Jamaica would service outer Queens much better. With tunnels crossing Lower Manhattan, the same could be achieved at Atlantic, and it would have synergies with other transit.

    • Michael K says:

      I would imagine a tremendous amount of ridership at times square c9me from the port authority bus terminal, the most heavily used commuter facility in the region.

  12. BrooklynBus says:

    All of Mr. Levy’s points are well taken. I would like to add two points he doesn’t mention. This is a perfect example why you should never believe a politician who says “there is no money for it” or “the numbers don’t justify the expense. “. Because they will always find the money for what they want to build and as Mr. Levy shws, they will find the numbers by distorting the statistics by double-counting or low counting as is the case by omitting transferring subway passengers.

    This is why there is money for the PATH Station that does not increase capacity, and Penn Station, but not money to reactivate the Rockaway Line, Staten Island Light Rail or the Tri-borough RX plan that would benefit countless city residents as well as boost the economy by greatly increase te number of places where people would be willing to travel to seek employment.

    The problem is that with those proposals is that the politicians can’t pay back their political favors to the architectural and engineering firms who benefit the most by these grandiose schemes that minimally improve transportation. Just think of all the subway extensions that coud have been built in the outer boroughs with the money that is allocated or would be allocated for Penn Station, PATH Station, and East Side Access that will benefit very few city residents.

    The name of the game is not to help city residents solve their transportation problems but putting money in the pockets of the big guys. And squandering scarce funds this way jeopardizes future transportation projects that are beneficial as well as plans such as congestion pricing or Sam Scwartz’s Fair Toll Plan.

    • Spendmore Wastemore says:

      “The name of the game is not to help city residents solve their transportation problems but putting money in the pockets of the big guys.”

      A point that needs to be repeated. Getting you where you to where you want to be is a grudgingly dispensed byproduct of the transit machine, thus the monumental waste of the new Path station, 25 person TBM crews etc.

      -BrooklynBus — you should mention the costs of giving full retirement after 23 years to every unionized MTA worker. Joe, Jose and Juanita Average don’t have any company funded retirement plan at all but they pay tax so the door-operator can retire early.

    • AG says:

      I agree with everything you said – except that East Side Access is an important project (regardless of what ppl might feel about it’s execution). It increases options for many in the region – and it enables Penn Station Access to happen – which will do the same for the whole region.

  13. Eric F says:

    “It speaks to the utter hatred most city leaders have of the people who live in what they consider their fief or perhaps their playground.”

    That’s an interesting take. That’s why people are exchanging drawings for an improved Penn Station?

    That view of leader’s prejudices is actually held, but usually on the conservative side. Politicians who want to “fundamentally transform” the population are viewed as not liking it very much. If you tell your significant other “I love you. I want to fundamentally transform you.” You’d be accurately accused of making two fundamentally contradictory statements, if your significant other was paying attention. But I would think that distaste reflects itself in imposing small sodas and bike lanes on the population, contrary to the opinion of the majority, and not in creating inspiring civic architecture.

    • BenW says:

      The claim that “the opinion of the majority” is against bike lanes is more or less unsupported by any evidence. The claim that the opinion of the majority is against the large-soda absurdity, on the other hand, is rock-solid—so why the gratuitous hippy-punch? It weakens your underlying point, which on its face seems like a pretty solid one.

      • Eric F says:

        I didn’t think that would be a controversial observation. People move in different circles, and in the ones I’m in I hear general opposition to the proliferation of these things on key connecting streets (no one seems to object about paths on teh Hudson and the like). But that said, the overwhelming majority of NYC’s 8-9 million people don’t use the things. Look, lots of people eat Cheeze Whiz, it’s popular. I don’t eat it, but they are doing fine in Cheeze Whiz land without me.

        • Bolwerk says:

          It’s not controversial, it’s just wrong. I guess you don’t move in NYC-centric circles. We generally like our bike lanes, though support dwindles as car dependency increases (e.g., outer parts of outer boroughs). The people who don’t like them may be louder and get more political attention, but they aren’t the majority – and I have trouble seeing how bike lanes negatively affect anyone at all, anecdotes aside.

          I don’t agree with the soda thing, but I really don’t see what the fuss is about either. Most of the people who complain about it don’t bat an eye about other food regulations, smoking regulations, 21 drinking ages, or the the drug war and its resultant police state. I think these policies all have different levels of merit, but they never cared about any of these things being banned until it became something they perceived they wanted. This tells me the opposition to soda size regulation isn’t anti-authoritarian, it’s just me-first thinking.

          If you want ungodly quantities of soda, do what I do with beer: homebrew it. It’s better anyway.

          • Eric F says:

            Not everyone lives in Manhattan.

            • Bolwerk says:

              I certainly don’t.

            • BenW says:

              This is also a true statement (for example, to the best of my knowledge neither Bolwerk nor I lives in Manhattan, though I only know one of those with 100% confidence), but it doesn’t really bolster your argument very much. Among people who live in New York City’s five boroughs, all polling that I’m aware of has shown support in the range of 65-80% for a bike-share program, though the only references I can find are to relatively old polls. I you are aware of other (hopefully more recent) polling on that topic, please share it—it’d be interesting to see if it’s changed over the past couple of months. In the absence of such polling, though, you should probably stop insisting that the set “people who support cycling infrastructure” is coextensive with “that small but irritating set of people who are always weaving around my car in traffic in lower Manhattan,” because as I said before, there is no evidence available for that conclusion.

              • Eric F says:

                I think the bike share program is a different issue. The only grounds I can think to object to that thing on is that it sounds more like a parks department initiative than something that should be run under the auspices of the DOT, who have better things to do, whether they realize it or not. What I hear objected to is the turning over of street space in interior areas to bike lanes, not to the existence or usage of bikes as a general matter.

                It seems to many people (yes, I have no polling data to cite here) that vast energy, outreach, space, etc. is being given over to very small segment of the population.

                • Bolwerk says:

                  There was a time when a much vaster amount of energy, space, and outreach went to a much smaller population – when we were first making space for cars. The amount of public money spent so far on bikes is probably a rounding error on a new subway line. The amount of space set aside thus far is hundreds of miles, on a street network measured in tens of thousands of miles. And all indications are that it’s working, popular, growing, and paying off. I was a skeptic too.

                  Anyway, why would Manhattan be the bike-centric borough? Smaller apartments and heavy traffic make it somewhat less practical than Brooklyn and Queens for biking. Bikeshare kind of fixes that, and is good for tourists.

          • llqbtt says:

            “If you want ungodly quantities of soda, do what I do with beer: homebrew it. It’s better anyway.”

            Ungodly quantities of soda can be found at nearly every street corner store in NYC.

            • Eric F says:

              On balance, given that civil liberties in NYC were dispensed with a generation ago or more, I really don’t care about the large soda ban. If it makes people lessn fat, ok by me. But I have never heard anyone actually support the thing outside of the NPR/NY Times news amalgamation and Bloomberg himslef.

              • Bolwerk says:

                I have trouble seeing it as a violation of civil liberties either way. It just regulates some retail establishments; it doesn’t even prevent access to gobs of soda. I just don’t think it will do much good.

                The constructive way to fight obesity is to improve access to healthier foods and recreation.

        • Nyland8 says:

          The overwhelming majority of NYC’s 8-9 million people don’t own cars or drive on it’s streets either – and that is certainly never going to change. Even if people could afford them, there’s simply no room for another 5 million cars to occupy.

          But the number of cyclists seems to be growing exponentially every year – perhaps as a direct result of having bike lanes to ride in. They’re safer.

          Apropos of which, I was annoyed one day by a cyclist who insisted on rolling her bike onto the crowded subway car I was in, only to exit with me at the end of the line, two stations away. On my way through the turnstiles, I asked her why she bothered going up and down the stairs and paying the fair when she had traveled only 20 blocks by train. It was a nice day and she could just as easily have ridden it.

          “No bike lane” was her terse response.

          • Eric F says:

            “the number of cyclists seems to be growing exponentially every year”

            I’m not seeing that at all. I’ll admit that I may be missing it, I don’t purport to be all-seeing, but I’m not seeing exponential growth, certainly not to the extent that it is anything more than an occasional option for a small segment of the population.

            • Bolwerk says:

              There was was exponential growth a few years ago, though I’d be surprised if it continues. It was easy back when nobody was doing it, of course.

          • paulb says:

            “Exponential” is a bit of an exaggeration, I think. But bike use is growing, anyone who rides a bike knows this. And I will not be surprised when a lot of outer borough residents who’ve complained about bike share start pointing to their watches and complaining that it’s too Manhattan-centric, when does it come to their block.

            • Nyland8 says:

              You think I’m overstating my case? I wasn’t being hyperbolic. From December ’06 to March ’10, I worked on a job site directly in front of a bike path and had an opportunity to watch it daily through the seasons. Granted, my “count” wasn’t scientific. It is merely anecdotal. But yes … exponential increases in bike traffic.

              On that path there were at least two, and possibly three, major downstream improvements connecting previously unconnected sections of bike path, which no doubt made both recreational and commuter cycling more attractive. There has also been some gentrification – but most of that has been in more recent years.

              Now whether or not this direct experience is being duplicated in all locations throughout the boroughs is something I cannot attest to. But building more safe riding lanes, and connecting previously unconnected segments in the process, certainly induces cycling.

              Can we agree on that?

              • paulb says:

                I thought “exponential” means powers of ten. I guess it could mean numbers squared or cubed, but isn’t it most commonly used with tens?

                There might be ten times as many bicyclers as a few years ago, but not 100 times as many. But to me it’s just a technicality; I’m a daily bike commuter and glad to see any increase in bikes and any improvement in infrastructure, of which there has been much. Like someone said, bike improvement costs are a rounding error compared to public transit work.

                • Nathanael says:

                  Exponential means that you can take this year’s ridership and *multiply* it by a number each year to predict the next year’s ridership accurately.

                  So, linear growth would be “5000 new riders each year”. Exponential growth would be “Number of riders doubles every year”.

                  Doubling every year becomes an enormous increase very quickly. It’s the reason we have a problem with world overpopulation — population growth is exponential.

      • AG says:

        Funny – the only ppl I heard complaining against the large soda ban were ppl who are relatively un-healthy. Most of the ppl who eat and live healthy that I know didn’t care less and couldn’t understand why ppl drink big sodas in the first place. I guess it depends on who are around.

  14. Hank says:

    Alon, excellent post. My only counter-argument is that we should not lose sight of the importance of civic monuments. While epic wastes such as the new PATH station should be avoided, we can, when the opportunity presents itself, take into account the desirability of building something truly great. Otherwise we descend into a brutalist functionalism that deadens us all.

  15. Owen says:

    I think there’s something here that Alon and most other bloggers have missed on the subject of Penn Station improvements.

    Can the platform level of Penn Station be significantly re-engineered with fewer, wider platforms, without completely demolishing Farley as well? The most complicated portions of the western approach tracks to Penn, and the westernmost ends of the platforms, are under Farley (not MSG) after all.

    If preservationists (and now, the general public) are STILL pissed about having lost the original Beaux Arts Penn Station in 1963, before preservationism really existed as a movement at all, wouldn’t they be exponentially MORE pissed at the thought of losing Farley, designed by the same architect in the same style using much the same architectural vocabulary today, 50 years later, when preservation is literally a way of life for so many?

    I suppose a facadectomy, elaborate underpinning of the most ornate lobby and public spaces, combined with architectural salvage and reuse of other elements, is probably possible and might actually win over about 2% of preservationists, but I still think it’s a tough row to hoe.

    • Alex B. says:

      When the architects talk about MSG’s support columns being the problem, they appear to be talking about a problem in creating an open, inviting space and not addressing the issue of widening platforms.

      Indeed, if you look at the historic column spacing, it’s hard to see how the track layout is going to change substantially without some serious structural alterations to the columns for MSG, Farley, as well as things like the 8th Ave Line subway station.

      Any attempt to widen the platforms would essentially be an effort in paving over existing tracks.

      • Alex B. says:

        Whoops – meant to include this link to the original Penn Station column layout:


        Indeed, lots of columns under Farley.

        • al says:

          Those columns, and columns added for MSG, are also an impediment to adding additional stairs and escalators.

          The old station’s layout had the skylights visible from the platforms. That can’t happen today with the passenger demand necessitating more floor space for waiting commuters. The West End Concourse expansion and a lengthened Central Corridor would be the the best use of money for now.

          • Owen says:

            If MSG is going to be removed, and somehow the Farley problem can be solved, having skylights on the platforms would be fantastic. Waiting areas are frankly overrated.

            IF the platforms could be reconfigured to be wider, the platforms themselves could be the waiting areas. I have basically zero experience with passenger rail in Europe but plenty of experience in Japan. There is basically zero dedicated waiting area in any Japanese train station, period.

            If you have time to kill, you are expected to spend it shopping/browsing/eating, or else just waiting on the platforms.

            At Shinjuku Station, JR alone handles 734,000 [i]boarding[/i] passengers per day, which by my calculations means it handles about 7 or 8 times as much traffic as Penn Station. Mind you the crowds are mind boggling and not suggesting that Penn should aim for an equivalent level of crowding, but the facilities at Penn Station have roughly the same footprint (if anything Shinjuku is smaller) so 1/8 the traffic, even 1/4 the traffic should not be a problem.

            How do they do what they do in Shinjuku? I’m sure there are lots of ways large and small that Shinjuku is optimized for efficiency, but what could be replicated with a redesign of Penn Station is the excellent platform access. There are lots of escalators and stairs, and lots of concourses so the platforms can clear quickly.

            No trains, or very nearly none anyway, are turned or originate in the station – it’s all through service. This would involve integration of LIRR and NJT and eventually Metro North operations (Also following the Japanese model, perhaps.)

            Another important aspect is predictable operations. Trains on particular lines to particular destinations depart from the same platform, so you generally don’t have to wait for anything to show up on departure boards. You can directly proceed from wherever you’re coming from to the platform for your train rather than diverting to a waiting area and staring at a departure board.

          • Nathanael says:

            “Can the platform level of Penn Station be significantly re-engineered with fewer, wider platforms, without completely demolishing Farley as well?”

            Yes. First, the columns added and enlarged for MSG are actually the biggest part of the problem, as they are bigger and wider than the original columns, and contribute greatly to the cramped passenger space on the platforms.

            Second, Farley mostly sits over the station throat. It is over the tail ends of platforms.though it is over some platforms which are longer than are needed for nearly all services. There is room for substantial realignment under Farley, as the diagram shows.

            Third, there are simply fewer columns in the way under Farley than there are between 8th and 7th Avenues. The diagram makes the column density clear. There are multiple columns obstructing the platforms *and* columns between the tracks under MSG; under Farley the columns are spaced a lot wider.

            However, you have raised an important point by providing the diagram: while the columns under Farley wouldn’t impede rearrangement much, the columns under 8th Avenue are a serious problem, and the road would certainly have to be ripped up and replaced.

    • AG says:

      very good point.

    • Alon Levy says:

      Can the platform level of Penn Station be significantly re-engineered with fewer, wider platforms, without completely demolishing Farley as well? The most complicated portions of the western approach tracks to Penn, and the westernmost ends of the platforms, are under Farley (not MSG) after all.

      The low-cost version – paving over alternate pairs of tracks to create super-wide platforms – clearly can, because it doesn’t change anything about the support columns.

      The interesting question is how much can be done beyond that. If the station is knocked down, then the columns should be moved to create an optimized 12-track station with approach tracks at the right locations. It’s possible that doing it step by step would allow keeping most columns where they are and just doing some underpinning work at certain location while moving the columns.

      • Nathanael says:

        “The low-cost version – paving over alternate pairs of tracks to create super-wide platforms – clearly can, because it doesn’t change anything about the support columns.”

        For reference, the problem with doing this on the MSG side is that exact column layout, which is exceptionally bad.

        Ideally, you’d want to pave over one of every two tracks, but that would put the platform on one side behind a long row of columns (the inter-track columns), and the platform on the other side would be as cramped next to the trains as it was before, with columns very close to the boarding edge.

        Paving over every other pair… is just as bad in this case, because it still leaves all of the platform faces with narrow gaps of a few feet between columns and train. The wide space in the middle isn’t so useful when you have to cram in front of columns to get onto the train.

        On the Farley side, the columns are currently not obstructing the platform faces to such an extreme degree, and the intertrack columns are not present on most of it. So on the Farley side the “low-cost version” would work just fine without demolishing anything, and the “better” version might involve only a few column relocations.

        But on the MSG side, a lot of columns need to be removed, so MSG really would need to go.

  16. John-2 says:

    Farley would likely be easier to shore up via repositioning of the posts because of it’s decreased usage/decreased importance to the U.S. Postal Service over the years. Basically, you could shut sections of it at a time down for safety reasons to relocate columns and platforms without inconveniencing all that many people.

    You can’t do that on the other side of Eighth Avenue, because as was the case during the 1963-68 period, you have to maintain a working train station underground. That doesn’t mean you couldn’t do the work in halves sometime in the future, remodeling the Seventh Avenue and Eighth Ave ends at different times (and some LIRR trains normally bound for Penn can be diverted to Grand Central once ESA opens). But the problem of renovation work within an area that has to remain open, as compared to an area where the public can be kept away, makes the east side of Eighth a much more complex task for widening platforms and realigning tracks.

  17. Anthony says:

    “… even transit commentators assume that it is more important for New York to have a great train station used by 200,000 suburban commuters than for it to have a great subway station used by (at least) 200,000 city residents.”

    Just to be nitpicky: you said 190k people use time square per day and assumed they were all city residents. That’s also where the PABT is, so nearly everyone who takes a bus to/from Manhattan uses this station, be they NJ commuters or regional travelers, and it’s also one of the most popular tourist destinations in the city.

    Though that’s no less reason the station should be upgraded; just being nitpicky about your accuracy 😉

  18. John Doe says:

    If money was no object, it would be lovely to knock down MSG, Port Authority Bus Terminal and that hideous Manhattan Mall. These monstrosities don’t add anything to the aesthetic of NYC. We used to have beautiful architecture but destroyed it in the name of “progress”.

  19. Jonathan says:

    I definitely have a lot of sympathy for this argument, especially in the case of New York, which has been starved of infrastructure investment for decades only to see scarce funds expended on projects that provide limited operational improvements. It’s interesting, though, how similar these arguments are to those of the modernists. They denounced the highly decorated buildings of earlier eras as bombastic monuments to their builders’ egos. They, by contrast, would design buildings that served the general public by favouring function over form. As it turned out, their spartan buildings were often just as expensive and functioned little better than the earlier, lavishly decorated structures; worse, the broader public they purported to serve often hated them, preferring the ego-monuments they denounced. Which brings us back at least part way to the pre-modernist era of elaborate structures (although ornamentation is still largely frowned upon). This isn’t really a very useful comment, just an idle musing that’s probably occurred to many readers.

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