Archive for New York City Transit

Jun
16

A brief thought on the G train

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Last weekend, after spending the afternoon at Kara Walker’s Domino’s Sugar Factory installation and grabbing dinner at Paulie Gee’s in Greenpoint, I took the G train back to my end of Brooklyn. It was a pretty easy ride, made easier by the fact that we didn’t have to wait long at Greenpoint Avenue, but when we got off in Ft. Greene, I realized I had left my credit card at the restaurant. So I got to enjoy a bonus pair of G train rides.

The ride back to Greenpoint was frustrating. I was annoyed with myself for leaving my card at the restaurant, and to make matters worse, I caught the tail lights on the G departing Fulton St. as I made it to the platform. On schedule 12 minutes later, the next train showed up, and I had better luck on the way home. All told, it was a fine ride that could have been much, much worse.

The next day, G train service got a little bit more frequent. Based on increased off-peak and afternoon demand, the MTA decreased weekday headways from 10 minutes to eight minutes. This move will reduce wait times across the board and alleviate crowds during the P.M. rush. This measure came about after the MTA, at the urging of the Riders Alliance and Daniel Squadron, conducted a line review, and these folks were happy. “These improvements will help commutes on this important line,” Squadron said, “and hopefully make lives a little easier for the riders who depend on it.”

So the politicians like it. But if you thought this increased service would make G train riders happy, guess again. Based on the reaction on social media, G train riders used this news to complain even more about the early morning crowds and the so-called G train sprint. They demand full-length trains from the MTA — though full length trains for the size of those IND Crosstown platforms would be an utter waste of resources — and they bemoaned that the MTA still doesn’t care about G train riders.

On the one hand, as the G train is seemingly ignored throughout the city, its riders are the ones most vocal on Twitter and New York City blogs. It runs through some hip and hipster neighborhoods but also through some areas without density. It doesn’t have the ridership to warrant longer trains, and the concept of induced demand — for which I’ve argued in the past — does not have evidentiary backing strong enough to warrant the costs of added service.

On the other hand, people sometimes have to run for trains! I have to dash down a few staircases if my train is pulling in as I arrive at the station, and sometimes, I miss a train on the weekends that doesn’t run too frequently. It’s all part of not knowing where my train is at all times, but that’s an issue for B division lines without countdown clocks. What makes the G worse of course is the platform sprint, but unless the MTA starts closing extra entrances — such as India St. — the trains won’t line up with the nearest staircases. The crowding complaints are easier to ignore. Let’s see how G riders would handle a rush hour 6 train.

I’m tempted to say the rider complaints can thus be dismissed, but they should be heard out. In an ideal world, the MTA would have the money and resources to run full trains at peak hours to avoid sprints and placate costumers. But they can’t, and the demand isn’t there. When it is, though, riders should be front and center making their voices heard. Today, the added service — which generally runs on time and fairly regularly — will have to suffice.

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I am an ardent acolyte of the Q train. Although I sometimes have to wait a few minutes than I’d like on the way home, the Q offers a speedy ride through Manhattan and into Brooklyn. Mine is only the sixth stop, and despite a slow crawl over the bridge and through the De Kalb interlocking, on a good day, I’m off the train barely 20 minutes after stepping on.

For years, the Q trains have run express in Manhattan regardless of the hour, and the ride home is always fast. But for those who board at a local stop, the wait for an N train in the middle of the night can seem interminable. In December, to respond to changing travel patterns, all Q trains between the hours of midnight and 6:30 a.m. will run local, Transit announced this week. “We are constantly analyzing service and ridership trends in order to provide the best service possible to all of our customers at all hours,” New York City Transit President Carmen Bianco said in a statement. “As we saw increased ridership at local stations along the Broadway Line, it simply made sense to provide these customers with more service.”

According to the MTA, Transit’s Ops Planning Division looked at MetroCard swipes at local stations and found that overnight usage had increased by nearly 30 percent while express station usage had climbed by only 12 percent. Thus, Brooklyn-bound Q trains will switch from the express tracks to the local tracks south of 57th St., and the trains in both directions will stop at 49th, 28th, 23rd, 8th and Prince Sts.

For some riders, trips will be longer. The MTA alleges that customers at express stops will see average travel times increase by about one minute while customers at local stations will see average wait times cut in half and travel times reduced by six minutes. Overall, Transit estimates saving 6000 customer travel minutes per night. Though, I hope the local Q travels faster overnight than the local N train did at 6:30 yesterday. Even though dwell times weren’t extreme, the train seemed to crawl in between stations even with nothing in front of it.

According to the MTA, the service change does not require Board approval and will cost $73,000 a year. By December, only the D train and the 3 to Times Square will survive as Manhattan’s sole overnight express trains.

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When New York City’s subway system last witnessed 1.7 billion riders pass through its fare gates in one calendar year, it was 1949. Various elevated trains still rans, and the city ran at a different speed with the post-World War II boom only slowly ushering in the age of the automobile. Robert Moses’ infamous Cross-Bronx Expressway had only just begun, and the BQE would see a northern extension open the next year. The Lo-V’s still roamed the rails, and William O’Dwyer was the mayor.

Earlier this week, though, the MTA announced that in 2013, 1.708 billion people paid for their subway fares. As I’ve said in the past, if the trains seem more crowded than ever, that’s because they are. On an average weekday, 5.465 million people ride the subway, and on a typical Saturday, over 3.2 million swipe in. Sunday offers a respite with only 2.563 million rides.

Recent growth has been tremendous. Since 2007, weekend subway ridership has grown by nearly 10 percent while combined weekend ridership is up by approximately 13 percent. And after Hurricane Sandy knocked out the system late in 2012, ridership has come roaring back, even as service changes mount and the Montague St. Tunnel remains out of action.

In a release touting the figures, the MTA offered up some tidbits. Unsurprisingly, Brooklyn saw the city’s biggest increase with ridership up 2.4 percent last year, and the L, G and F trains all saw the biggest growth in the Borough of Kings. The 2 and 3 in Harlem also witnessed growth of around 4.6 percent.

Along with the figures, the MTA also announced ridership by station. The charts, with six years of data, are fun to browse. Of particular note was an increase in ridership on the Upper East Side. The Lexington Ave. IRT station at 86th St. witnessed a four percent growth in ridership, and over 20 million Upper East Siders crammed into this station last year. The area is simply screaming out for the Second Ave. Subway, and the impact it will have on overcrowding conditions on the Lexington line can’t be understated. In fact, five of the top ten busiest stations were along the 4, 5 and 6. Hopefully, the MTA will deliver on time.

The top ten stations remained predictable, with Times Squares’ 63 million passengers retaining its crown. Grand Central came in second, with Herald Square and Union Square a few million behind. The two Penn Station stops — counted separately — came in 5th and 6th; together, they’d be right behind Times Square. Columbus Circle, 59th and Lex, the aforementioned 86th St. and the Lexington-51st/53rd St. complex round out the top ten.

It’s easy to read the tea leaves. People feel safe riding the subway, and for all the legitimate griping about delays and fare hikes, dirty conditions and dingy stations, it remains the most reliable way around the town, and even more so for the price. If 1.7 billion riders recognize it, why can’t our city leaders and state politicians as well?

Ed. Note: I’m on vacation this week in Montreal where I’ll be using the Occasional card. I’ll post a few times this week, including on an engineering report on the East Side Access, but new content may be on the lighter side. Check out my Instagram account while I’m away. I’ll post some photos from up north.

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For a variety of reasons, none of them bad, I don’t have the time this evening to write a full post in advance of Monday morning. I’ll have something up later in the day, but in the meantime, I have two important items, one much more serious than the other.

We’ll start with the good: This Wednesday plays host to my Problem Solvers Q-and-A at the Transit Museum on the future of the MetroCard. I’ll be interviewing Michael DeVitto, Vice President and Program Executive for fare payment programs at NYC Transit, and we’ll be discussing what’s next for the 21-year-old card, what will replace it and when. I have a sneaking suspicion DeVitto will not reveal that we’re heading back to the age of the token, but you never know. The 6:30 p.m. event is free, but the Transit Museum requests you RSVP. I’m looking forward to this one.

And now the bad: I didn’t have a chance to give this story its due last week, but there was a major data breach concerning personal information of over 15,000 salaried Transit employees. As The Post reported, the information — including names and social security numbers of current and retired workers — was discovered on a CD-ROM that had been left instead a refurbished disk drive. The MTA is investigating the cause of the breach, and officials have noted that the existence of such an unencrypted disk is a breach of internal policies. So far, the data, as The Post notes, has not been used for “malicious purposes.”

Following the NTSB reports of an 82-mph speed just prior to derailment and a video of the crash’s aftermath, the MTA has released its own B-Roll of the recovery efforts. The agency had to re-rail the cars and move them out. Now, crews have to repair 800 feet of damaged rail before running test trains and restoring service.

In the meantime, bus service between Yonkers and the 1 line will continue on Tuesday. Metro-North service will operate between Poughkeepsie and Yonkers with shuttle buses to the Van Cortlandt Park-242nd St. station. Hudson Line tickets will again be cross-honored on the Harlem and New Haven Lines, and NJ Transit will take Harlem Line takes on the Port Jervis and Pascack Valley lines. There is still no word yet when full service will be restored.

Meanwhile, in Manhattan and Brooklyn, the last FASTRACK of the year hits the F line. Trains will be running on the A between West 4th and Jay St. with shuttle buses providing service between Jay and York Sts. in Brooklyn and between East Broadway and Broadway/Lafayette. This is the first FASTRACK along this stretch of the tunnels, and it’s the last FASTRACK of the year. We don’t yet know what next year’s treatments will be, but I assume this program will continue.

Due to a variety of circumstances yesterday, I had the opportunity to take five subway rides at various hours of the day. My peak-hour trains were packed to the gills, but I also rode an uptown A train in the early afternoon and another uptown E train 90 minutes later that were both tight on space. Everyone, it seemed, was on the subway.

Yet, November 20 paled in comparison with October 24, for that day, according to The Times, was the busiest since the MTA started keeping records in 1985. As Matt Flegenheimer reports, the MTA has determined that 5,985,311 people used the subway that day, a record high in MTA history. It was a perfect storm for record high ridership:

The feat was consistent with a pair of little-publicized trends: Ridership tends to peak on Thursdays, transit officials said, and the last two Octobers are responsible for the five busiest subway days on record — three Thursdays and two Fridays. Before the new high, the record was 5,938,726, set on Oct. 11, 2012.

“October is a month where you have school in session for a majority of the days,” said Kevin Ortiz, a spokesman for the authority, adding that Columbus Day was the only major holiday. “It’s also a month when a vast majority of the working public is at work.”

Thursdays, meanwhile, combine the high peak-period ridership of a midweek morning with an after-work slate of happy hours and late nights out, Mr. Ortiz said. Ridership on Thursdays in 2012 was 2.4 percent higher than the average weekday figure, the authority said. Wednesday was second busiest, Tuesday was third, and Friday — when high late-night numbers are often offset by sleepier rush hours — outpaced only Monday, the typical coda to a long weekend.

If the subways seem crowded, I’ve often said, that’s because they are. It’s hard to read too much into this trend other than as a clear indication that people are using mass transit, but it’s also easy to draw a lesson from increasing ridership. Investment in transit continues to be an important piece of the New York City puzzle. The MTA’s next five-year capital plan is going to be a huge ask, and it needs to come through.

Meanwhile, Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio is taking the reins of a city where, on one weekday shortly before Election Day, subway ridership was nearly three-quarters of the entire population of the city. That’s one very large constituency that deserves more than it’s getting.

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Nov
12

Poll: Are you not satisfied?

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In the month of August, 138.7 million New Yorkers rode the subway, with trains seeing 5.113 million riders per weekday and 5.717 million riders on Saturday and Sunday combined. That’s a lot of people. In fact, it’s a new 45-year record high for August for the MTA, and the initial figures for September are even higher.

For better or worse than, a lot of people are riding the subway. Tourists, residents, students, workers, business folk and retirees are all taking the train everywhere, and even as the fares went up in March, so too did ridership. Now, the MTA is planning to increase service across eight lines to better meet peak-hour demand, and ridership shows no signs of slowing down. It is, in other words, a far cry from the subway system of my youth.

New Yorkers ride the trains because they have to do, but complaints are always on the rise — which leads me to question just how much we’re enjoying the service. I marvel at the ability to get around relatively quickly, easily and cheaply, but sardine-like rush hour trains are no joy. The MTA too is interested in rider feedback, and today, they released the results of their rider survey. It ends up that we’re mostly satisfied, maybe.

I’ve always been skeptical of the MTA’s ridership survey. It’s a self-serving poll in which the threshold for “satisfaction” is a 6 out of 10. Batting .600 would make you the best baseball player in the world, but succeeding satisfactorily 60 percent of the time is hardly brag-worthy in other contexts. That said, 76 percent of riders are satisfied with subway service while 77 percent were satisfied with the station environment. Only 67 percent are satisfied with the overall value for the money. To me, those numbers are backwards as the value remains high but the quality of service and especially the station environments is generally closer to adequate.

In terms of security, riders feel safer during the day than at night with 83 percent saying personal security before 8 p.m. is A-OK while 71 percent say the same thing after 8 p.m. That’s up from 67 percent last year, though the bump is within the poll’s margin of error. Rush hour crowding is the biggest problem with only 43 percent of riders feeling good about the crush loads. On the other hand, satisfaction with information about unscheduled delays has hit a three-year high of 69 percent.

Now, based on complaints about the subway, these numbers have always struck me as high but perhaps they’re indicative of a perspective on the city’s transit network. We may complain about the problems, but generally, day in and day out, we get where we need to be on time and with relatively little hassle. (Or else the numbers are inflated. Both answers are quite likely.)

So here’s my question to you: Based upon your daily experiences, are you happy? Are you satisfied? I think I am, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of room for improvement. “Satisfied” is, after all, a fairly low bar to climb.

How satisfied are you with subway service?
View Results
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The MTA dropped their latest board committee materials this afternoon, and buried in the 281-page Transit Committee pdf is word of a service increase due to arrive in June. Already, the MTA has announced plans to increase G and M train service, and now we learn that the 2, 3, 4, 5, A, E, F and L lines will see modest bumps in service as well.

The details small, but the changes can reduce waiting times during specific time frames, particularly along the West Side IRT lines. The 2 and 3 trains will see three new weekday round trips each while A service will be increased by two round trips. The rest will see one additional round trip per weekday while Saturday and Sunday L service will be bumped up by four round trips each. In terms of wait times, the changes on the 2 and 3 will reduce average headways from 5.5 minutes to 4.6 during the 8 p.m. to 11 p.m window, and the weekend L train headways will drop from 6.3 and 7.1 minutes on Saturdays and Sundays between 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. to 5.2 and 5.7 minutes respectively. Those are significant reductions during high-volume times from an agency that has long since resisted adding service.

According to the board materials, the service increases are driven by customer demand and the need to meet “MTA Board-adopted loading guidelines.” The changes will cost $4.3 million annually and are in line with the 2014 projected operating budget. The Board need not take any action as this is an informational update, but straphangers will enjoy increased service come June.

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I’ve been mulling over the Straphangers’ report on the state of platforms during the past few days, and one thing in particular has jumped out at me. The MTA’s reaction seemed to flippant, and it’s bothered me.

“The items in the Straphangers report highlight elements that would be extremely costly to keep in perfect condition and would do little, if anything, to either improve service or make stations safer. We have to prioritize projects using available funds to address the most pressing needs first.”

Now, I don’t begrudge or envy the MTA the choices it has to make, and when push comes to shove, I’d rather have trains running regularly with the knowledge that the signal system won’t fail rather than luxury stations. But on the other hand, I question the belief that well-maintained stations would do “little, if anything, to…improve service.” Well-maintained stations may not make trains run more frequently or faster, but the overall experience would certainly be enhanced if stations weren’t, as the Straphangers put it, “grim” and “dirty.”

While musing on this topic over the weekend, I found myself running errands in Midtown, and my route home took me through the Herald Square subway station. After surveying the scene and spending a few minutes waiting for my Brooklyn-bound Q, I wondered if this station is one of the worst in the system. This is the third-busiest subway station in the city with over 37 million riders passing through the turnstiles last year. Just one block away from Penn Station, it is a main transfer point between the Sixth Ave. and Broadway lines, provides a connection to PATH and hosts millions of Macys-bound shoppers every year. It should be a nice station, but it’s not.

Renovated in the 1970s and updated again in the 1990s, the station is not in particularly great shape. Low ceilings create a cramped atmosphere, but that’s not a solvable problem. That the ceilings are dirty, that trash piles abound, that water damage mars support columns and station walls, that a not-insignificant number of homeless people count that station as a semi-permanent residence, that it generally just feels unkempt — those are solvable problems.

By presenting Herald Square as it is, the MTA gives off a dismissive aura regarding station environment, and if Herald Square is a dump, imagine how some stations along the Sea Beach line that barely crack a few thousand riders per weekday look. The image is one of neglect, and if people view their surroundings and see neglect, they are less likely to feel comfortable or at home. Rather, they are more likely to be just as dismissive, whether it’s with their trash or their willingness to embrace transit as a viable transportation alternative. It’s a lesser version of the “broken windows” theory and one focused around aesthetics and environmental cues.

So what’s the solution? I realize that the MTA’s money is limited, and I realize the challenges they face in keeping stations clean and well-maintained. It’s a Sisyphean task that requires patience and dollars, lacking on the part of New Yorkers and the MTA respectively. But the MTA need not dismiss station presentation so out of hand. It’s a problem in New York and one that isn’t replicated in similar subway stations. London and Paris, for instance, have figured out a solution, and maybe it’s time for the agency in charge to figure out a way to prioritize some modicum of station presentation so this isn’t a common sight.

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In discussing the MTA’s 20-year dream of having open gangways in its next generation of rolling stock yesterday, I mentioned the capacity constraints facing the system. These new trainsets are vital to increasing capacity because, as Toronto claims, they can bump up ridership by 8-10 percent with an investment that happens every few years due to normal wear and tear. The MTA doesn’t need to spend billions on the slow process of building subway lines when it can add space simply by redesigning its rolling stock.

According to the 20 Year Needs Assessment, the MTA is well aware of the capacity constraints the system faces and the problems the agency faces in attempting to address this issue. In a section toward the end of the document, the agency discusses solutions to capacity constraints, and it’s a point worth exploring here. Essentially, there are a series of key choke points in the system, including the Queens Boulevard Line, the West Side’s IRT line (and some switches in Brooklyn), the L train through Northern Brooklyn and the F and M in Downtown Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan. How can the MTA solve these problems?

Off the bat, the agency recognizes a simple but dismaying truth: Mega-projects are not a short-term answer. “In identifying solutions for these choke points in the subway system the MTA needs to be cognizant of the long time horizon that “megaproject”-type solutions require. For example, the currently under-construction Second Avenue Subway took nearly 10 years to go through planning, engineering and required environmental analyses, and will take nearly the same amount of time for construction of its first phase. This schedule makes it difficult for megaproject-sized strategies to address current or anticipated transportation needs in a timely manner.”

The answer is full of buzzwords and involves “additional strategic solutions that make the greatest possible use of existing bus and subway lines to meet the evolving needs of an ever more mobile population.” Here’s how the document puts it:

In addition to regular state of good repair maintenance and regular replacement of power, signals and track, there are needed upgrades to the existing subway system to support additional system capacity. Critical among these is expansion of Communications-Based Train Control. Currently available on the L line and being installed on the 7 line, CBTC will allow more frequent train service on crowded corridors such as the Queens Blvd. line.

Maximizing the benefits of CBTC, however, may require fleet expansion to provide more frequent train service, which in turn may require more yard space for train storage and maintenance, as well as increased power generation capacity for the busier subway lines.

Other strategies which may alleviate hotspots may include:

  • Corridor analysis studies to better analyze specific travel trends and identify cost- and time-effective capacity improvement efforts.
  • Rebuilding critical subway junctions where lines merge and separate (such as the Nostrand Junction on the 2/3/4/5 lines) to maximize train throughput and reduce delays.
  • Rebuilding constrained terminal stations (such as Brooklyn College/Flatbush Terminal) to address capacity choke points.
  • Restructuring existing service to maximize throughput.
  • Expanded Select Bus Service utilizing dedicated bus stop,s off-board fare collection and limited stops to provide alternative travel routes in congested corridors.

I worry about the inclusion of Select Bus Service on this list because it’s not really a substitute for improving and streamlining subway service. If anything, it’s a complementary to subway service and should be used to get people from underserved transit areas to subway stations. Without a massive increase in the number of buses on the road, Select Bus Service cannot be a substitute for improved subway service.

Still, we’re left with a list of unsexy but necessary investments. Without multi-billion-dollar expansion efforts that a decade and a half, at best, to go from proposal to reality, the MTA has to find incremental improvements somewhere, and CBTC and switch rebuilds are going to become a need rather than a luxury. We may dream about open gangways and reactivated rights-of-way, but it is here in these efforts that the needs of the 20-Year Needs Assessment come into focus.

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