To say the subways are crowded these days is to state the obvious. Average weekday ridership hit 5,650,610 last year, up by 9.5 percent since 2010, and despite constant service changes and complicated re-routes, combined weekend ridership is up by nearly 11 percent over the same time period. As daily rides where we all stand shoved against people and doors and poles trying to find some amount of space attest, the trains are bursting at the seams.
In today’s Times, Emma Fitzsimmons explores the overcrowded subway system. Her focus is generally on safety concerns, and although the overcrowding is a symptom of larger funding issues and lack of general support for transit investment, we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss safety concerns. After all, even if people aren’t falling off subway platforms, if riders feel unsafe, it will affect how they view and use the transit system. Thus, at key choke points — on the Lexington Ave. line, narrow platforms at Bleecker St. and Union Square and an overall lack of space at Grand Central come to mind, people worry about safety whether or not reality reflects those fears. (The numbers do not show any uptick in crowd-related injuries.)
In terms of solutions, Fitzsimmons offers up a glimpse at an agency struggling for more space:
But the subway infrastructure has not kept pace [with increasing ridership], and that has left the system with a litany of needs, many of them essential to maintaining current service or accommodating the increased ridership. The authority’s board recently approved $14.2 billion for the subways as part of a $29.5 billion, five-year capital spending plan.
On the busiest lines, like the 7, L and Q, officials say the agency is already running as many trains as it can during the morning rush. Crowds are appearing on nights and weekends, too, and the authority is adding more trains at those times. The long-awaited opening of the Second Avenue subway on the Upper East Side this year will ease congestion on the Lexington Avenue line. Installing a modern signal system, which would allow more trains to run, is many years away for most lines.
When the MTA’s timelines are put forward in terms of “years” and “decades” and even something as simple as a 2-mile subway extension takes 10 years to build, relief is not exactly on the horizon. Yet, from where I sit, there are at least three steps the MTA should take immediately to address capacity concerns.
1. Open Gangways. One of the biggest missed opportunities of the last 15 years involves the MTA’s rolling stock designs. Since 2000, the MTA has seen nearly 4000 new subway cars enter service, and none of them were designed with open gangways, a feature standard in subway rolling stock throughout the world. As I wrote last year, open gangways can lead to a 10 percent increase in capacity without adding a single extra trainset, and while the MTA in 2013 acknowledged the need for articulated trains, the upcoming R211 order includes just one ten-car prototype. It’s not clear if the MTA has the option to add more open gangway trainsets to the R211 order, but not doing so would be a costly mistake for decades to come. This generation of rolling stock is likely to be in service until the late 2060s or early 2070s, and missing the opportunity to expand capacity now will burn us for generations to come.
2. Speed up CBTC installation. This is of course easier said that done, but recent reports have shown how it will take the MTA decades to fully modernize the signal system. CBTC would allow for modest increases in capacity, and prioritizing these efforts — whether through full line shutdowns over concentrated periods of time or other initiatives — should be an agency priority.
3. Just run more trains. As Fitzsimmons detailed, the MTA says it can’t run more trains on perennially crowded lines. For some, that’s due to routing choices — the Q is chock full of choke-points — and for others, such as the L, terminal capacity constraints come into play. Part of the MTA’s capital plan should involve expanding capacity through investments such as tail tracks at 8th Ave. and other minor upgrades that can net big results. For lines that aren’t maxed out, the MTA should just run more trains. But there’s a catch: An aggressive rolling stock retirement plan and a delayed Bombardier order has left the agency tight on available trainsets. Thus, just running more trains, in the short term, isn’t a practical solution even if it is the more obvious answer. Meanwhile, trains are operating at slower speeds, especially along crowded routes, and that too limits the agency’s ability to run more trains and clear out crowds.
Where we go from here isn’t particularly clear. You’re not in danger of falling into the tracks due to crowded platforms, and the MTA doesn’t need to resort to temporary platform closures as London does or subway pushers as Tokyo does. But relief isn’t exactly around the corner. Crowded commutes with packed cars running later into the evening and earlier in the morning are just a way of life until the MTA has the funds available to engage in an aggressive push to increase capacity. For now, though, we ride as we always do: crammed into a subway car, hoping for the best.