Archive for U.S. Transit Systems
Thirty five years ago, Washington DC’s Metro opened. It’s hard to believe the system is still so new, but basically, in New York terms, the Nation’s Capitol is where our system was in 1939. Of course, by the time 1939 had rolled around, New York had added on part of a Second System and had an ambitious plan for a huge expansion plan. Now it’s DC’s turn.
In an excellent piece for Greater Greater Washington, Matt Johnson highlighted a series of plans under discussion by WMATA planners that could be incorporated into a Metro Second System. These include a circumferential route, spurs off of the blue, yellow and red lines that would better cover Washington DC proper and a variety of better connections into the suburbs. Even if just some of these plans are realized over the next few decades, DC will be far better off for it.
While I’m giving Matt’s piece short shrift, I wanted to pose a discussion question: If New York could start all over again with its Second System plans, where should they build a subway in currently underserved areas? We talked earlier this week about a rail connection to LaGuardia, and the Utica Ave./South 4th St. line remains a great unrealized part of subway history. Would a Triboro RX circumferential line remain a priority? Better expansion past Jamaica in Queens? Crosstown connections from Upper Manhattan into the Bronx? New York hasn’t seen significant subway expansion since the 1930s, and I envy DC the opportunity to grow its system over the coming decades.
While folks within the MTA are working off of the B63 pilot to deliver real-time bus tracking to Staten Island (and eventually, the entire city), Philadelphia has, after ten years of work, finally flipped the switch on its on GPS-based real-time bus tracker. The project — called TransitView — follows 116 bus routes, 3 trackless trolley and 8 trolley lines, and the data is updated every three minutes throughout the day. The service also includes SMS notifications for bus arrivals. For more information, check out Technically Philly and the TransitView website. It’s certainly fun to poke around on the live map as well.
Ideally by the end of this year, Staten Islanders will enjoy this feature, and the rest of the city’s buses will follow suit as well. It should help revolutionize bus travel within the city too. As buses become less reliable and more prone to delays, ridership has dropped over the past two years. If riders know when the bus is coming, how far away it is and how long their rides should take, they can better plan their bus trips. It’s all about customer convenience in an age of technology.
When I lived in DC way back in 2005, my nearest subway stop had, by any account, a ludicrous name. I lived a five- or six-minute walk away from the Woodley Park/Zoo-Adams Morgan station and always had a hard time coming to grips with its name. It was far longer than anything we have in New York, and it’s not particularly accurate. The Zoo is equidistant from the Cleveland Park station, and the walk from there is all downhill. Meanwhile, the red line services Adams Morgan in name only as that neighborhood is a good ten minutes away from the Metro stop.
This ungainly naming convention wasn’t unique to my station. The U Street/African-Amer Civil War Memorial/Cardozo stop leads the system, and others such as Archives-Navy Memorial-Penn Quarter or Mt Vernon Sq 7th St-Convention Center try to cram in as much as they can in 19 characters. It certainly makes “23rd Street” on the West Side IRT seem runty in comparison, and if our worst station name is Sutphin Boulevard/Archer Ave./JFK Airport, we’re probably doing OK.
Over the years, those concerned with the usability of the Metro have raised the issue now and then. Back in 2009, Dan Malouff on Greater Greater Washington called for an overhaul of WMATA names. “Do we really need to know,” he asked, “that students attending George Mason University sometimes use the Vienna station? GMU’s campus is over 5 miles from Vienna. The station does not directly serve the university. The name doesn’t have to be there.”
Now, the WMATA is gearing up to redesign the map, and I have to wonder if they should take a gander at station names as well. The impetus behind the redesigned map is a simple one: With new routes coming online over the next few days, the WMATA has to better represent its service patterns. Here’s how Dr. Gridlock explained it in March:
To plan for the proposed split in the Blue Line and the later addition of the Dulles rail extension, Metro is studying how people pick up visual clues about which train to take. Barbara Richardson, Metro’s assistant general manager for customer service, communication and marketing, announced last Thursday that the transit authority also is bringing back its original mapmaker, Lance Wyman, to revise the well-known map.
How often do riders use the map, and what do they use it for? On the trains, there are big maps at the ends of the cars and smaller ones near the center doors. In a crowded car, some riders will stand on tiptoes and peer at it. Others need to get real close and study the text. Most commuters are taking the same trip every day, and they ignore it, unless a tourist asks for directions. There’s likely to be a lot of map-gazing during the upcoming Cherry Blossom Festival.
Meanwhile, Greater Greater Washington has been hosting a contest this spring. They asked readers and cartographers to redesign the map, and a panel of judges selected the best. Readers have now been asked to vote on their favorites. The new maps had to show upcoming system expansions — an idea my readers have proposed for New York’s map — and must delineate between off-peak and peak service offerings, a key description now missing from our map.
For now, those in DC aren’t concerned with the station names, but they have recognized in the past that it makes maps particularly tough to design. With lengthy station names, squeezing in that much typography leads to areas of the map that are tough to read and station names that do not adequately pinpoint their location.
Should transit authorities label their maps based on the station location or the areas and neighborhoods within walking distance from that station? That seems to be the question with which DC must grapple, and the WMATA is leaning toward a new philosophy: The shorter, the better, says Barbara Richardson, the agency’s customer service officer. A map that’s easier to read may trump information overload. After all, it’s not too hard to tell someone to get off at Woodley Park to get to Adams Morgan. The station name needn’t be so inclusive and spare words may soon be getting the axe.
The MTA has frequently come under fire for its real estate holdings. Politicians and advocates believe that the authority doesn’t make proper use of the space it both rents and owns, and underground, commercial opportunities are decidedly low rent. It is a problem the MTA is trying to solve in order to generate more money.
A few weeks ago, news broke that the authority may try to offload some real estate holdings as part of the overall overhaul of the way the MTA works. Meanwhile, back in November, MTA CEO and Chairman Jay Walder spoke to me about the need to find a more diverse and appealing group of businesses willing to take out space underground. It’s a process.
In Chicago, the CTA is engaged in a similar process, and the Windy City’s Tribune profiled that authority’s real estate overhaul. Jon Hilkevitch reports:
The Chicago Transit Authority, which has its hands full running trains and buses, concedes it has no business managing the retail concessions on its properties. Sixty-six of the 137 concession spaces at CTA rail stations are vacant, according to the transit agency. Commuters aren’t exactly missing their trains to buy the snacks and refreshments available at the open concession stands either.
The grimy appearance of CTA subway tunnels extends up the escalators to many of the vendor stalls, which haven’t been overhauled in decades. A campaign is beginning to upgrade the selection of offerings to commuters and boost CTA rental income by attracting new retail tenants, including national chains that would operate rail station stores in multiple CTA stations, officials said…
Commuters may soon be able to drop off their dry cleaning, conduct other business or just buy a cup of coffee right inside or next door to their “L” stop. The two newest leases are with Maui Wowi Hawaiian, a coffee and smoothie shop that will open at the CTA Belmont station serving the Red, Brown and Purple/Evanston Express lines; and Lupito’s juice bar at the Damen station on the Pink Line, officials said. Both businesses are scheduled to open this spring.
Upscale merchandise could become part of the mix too. Vending machines that feature iPods and digital cameras are deployed at increasing numbers of airports, and they may turn up at CTA rail stations as well. The CTA is considering vending machines that dispense DVDs and electronics at select rail stations, CTA President Richard Rodriguez has said.
There’s more than a little amount of common sense involved in the CTA’s thinking. While many of their stations have a more visible ground-level component than New York’s do, the simple idea of placing vending machines in stations could be one that tips. Why shouldn’t I be able to grab a DVD from a Redbox machine at Grand Army Plaza? If the MTA can maintain its MetroCard Vending Machines and if my local Key Food can keep in better working order than its credit card readers, convenience would demand one in the subway.
Of course, the idea that the subway is for anything other than commuting is tough sell. Other than concession stands, businesses aren’t drawn to the subways because of its negative connotations. It’s dirty; it’s dark; it’s delayed. I prefer my dry cleaners to inhabit a clean building with some modicum of proper venting instead of the dirt- and rat-infested subway system.
Still, money is tight. Transit agencies have to get creative with their rent-seeking efforts, and perhaps Chicago is on to something. As New York searches for a similar solution, they could do far worse than to take a cue from our neighbors to the west.
Our subway system’s familiar plastic seats may not be kind on either the rear or the eyes. The bucket seats were designed for people far skinnier than even the thinnest of New Yorkers, and the blue benches in the new rolling stock tend to grow more uncomfortable as the subway ride stretches ever on.
That said, after reading this article on BART seats in The Times this weekend, I have vowed never to complain about New York’s hard plastic again. Zusha Elinson of the Bay Citizen journalism project writes of the various…things…found in the cushions of the Bay Area’s metro cars:
The Bay Citizen commissioned Darleen Franklin, a supervisor at San Francisco State University’s biology lab, to analyze the bacterial content of a random BART seat. The results may make you want to stand during your trip.
Fecal and skin-borne bacteria resistant to antibiotics were found in a seat on a train headed from Daly City to Dublin/Pleasanton. Further testing on the skin-borne bacteria showed characteristics of methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, the drug-resistant bacterium that causes potentially lethal infections, although Ms. Franklin cautioned that the MRSA findings were preliminary.
High concentrations of at least nine bacteria strains and several types of mold were found on the seat. Even after Ms. Franklin cleaned the cushion with an alcohol wipe, potentially harmful bacteria were found growing in the fabric.
Dr. John Swartzberg, a clinical professor at the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley, played down the threat of infection from harmful bacteria on a BART seat. “I suspect it’s not a very big problem,” Dr. Swartzberg said. “That said, if there’s another way to do it, where you can clean it better, then you should do it.”
A spokesman for BART called the results of the test “not surprising.” Yummy.
The article explores how much BART spends on cleaning, what their procedures are for tackling the dirtiest of the dirty and plans to replace the cushions in 2017 with something else. A similar test of hard plastic seats on MUNI found only “benign bacteria colonies” instead of the “veritable forest of mold and colorful bacteria” swiped from the seats.
For their parts, riders who are anticipating new rolling stock are rooting for the plastic. “I would seriously sacrifice my comfort for a more sanitary surrounding,” Carrie Nee said. “Granted, you’re going to be comfortable with the seats they have now, but I think your health is much more important than having your butt hurt for half an hour.” I too would take fewer germs and bacteria over a cushion or two on the ride home.
Every few months, the benches in the subway system — those sometimes-convenient, often-dirty wooden slabs that provide a few minutes’ respite while the subway comes — sneak their way into a news story. Sometimes, we hear about bedbugs in the wood; sometimes, we hear about plans to do away with the unhygienic wood. Still, the wood lingers, attracting gum, spills and other less-than-appealing discolorations.
Out of Philadelphia, though, we hear today of a project a few years in the making. In late 2009, with the support of a federal grant, design shop Veyko unveiled a stainless steel bench that doubled as an Arts for Transit installation. It’s functional, comfortable and, most importantly clean.
Jennifer K. Grosche from the Architect’s Newspaper A/N Blog profiled the bench and its makers recently. She spoke with the team behind the bench. “As a fabricator, you often see these blob forms, but my particular interest was taking that form and putting it in the most caustic situation, which is a major urban transit system,” Richard Goloveyko said. “We wanted to see that form built well enough to exist the wear and tear of a subway station.”
As Grosche notes, the benches have been proven to last:
The benches have resiliency thanks to their bent wire design. The idea for the shape came from the way subway travelers wait in the station: they sit or they lean. By modeling these positions in Rhinoceros and Solidworks, the team created a map between the two postures, and the curved, skeleton-like form took shape. Bench frames were cut using a five-axis water jet machine, while CNC wire forming bent 5/6-inch stainless steel strands to meet exact parameters set forth in the computer model. Wires are spaced at 1-1/8 inches on-center to create a comfortable, structurally sound design that also allows water and small debris to pass through.
The ten, 20-foot-long benches fabricated by Veyko were bolted to station walls using Hilti epoxy anchors, giving cleaning crews easy access to clean the floor beneath. As another sanitary measure, the stainless steel is electro-polished, resulting in a mirror-like finish that resists dirt and bacterial buildup, similar to finishes used on sanitary hospital equipment.
The design of the benches discourages anyone from lying on them, a parameter in the competition guidelines, but “virtually everyone uses them differently,” said Goloveyko. Kids tend to nestle into the seat, some people sit on the area for leaning, and some gather in the small alcoves formed by the arched seat. Now, about a year after installation, the benches show no signs of damage—no small feat for a station that sees tens of thousands of travelers a day.
Goloveyko says the prototype installed in Philadelphia is too expensive to mass market to transit agencies around the country, but he’s working on developing a lower-cost solution to transportation seating woes. Instead, the complex design is viewed as a potential one-off installation for those looking to add style and interesting architecture to otherwise-drab transportation surroundings.
In New York, we’ll continue onward with our wooden benches. They’re cheap to manufacture and seem to absorb everything that gets tossed their way. Maybe when our new subway routes open in a few years, shiny benches will come with them, but for now, we’ll just admire them from afar.
As New York’s MTA struggles to make sure it has enough money to avoid future service cuts and fare hikes, the WMATA is considering changes to America’s Subway in Washington, D.C. As Greater Greater Washington reported earlier on Thursday, to save money and add, in essence, 45 days to its maintenance schedule, the authority may end weekend service at midnight instead of 3 a.m. As the vast majority of District residents and some WMATA Board members are incensed by the idea, it is one to which the WMATA Board often turns in times of fiscal crisis.
The hours of the D.C. Metro and the way the system is run has always been a bit perplexing to me. It’s full of contradictions and highlights a tension between those who live in the District and those who live in the suburbs. Anyone from New York would probably find it infuriating as I often did when I lived in D.C. a few years ago.
Generally, the Metro’s peak-hour trains arrive very frequently as workers — many of them federal employees — shuttle back to Virginia or Maryland. Much like with New York, D.C.’s roads aren’t extensive enough to — and should not — support the auto traffic the thousands of people who work in the District would generate, and so the Metro is a prime necessity during peak hours.
During off-peak hours, though, the service becomes this hybrid mix of a subway and a commuter rale. During rush hour, the red line trains would roll in quite frequently, but as soon as 7 p.m. hit, the headways slowed to 10 minutes. By 9:30, the wait grew to 15 minutes, and the last red line trains passed through Dupont Circle and Metro Center at midnight or shortly thereafter. On other routes, headways can reach 20 minutes as early as 9:30 p.m., and people coming back from Kennedy Center shows, late nights at work or after-dinner movies often grumble about the poor service.
In July of 2008, Matt Johnson at Track Twenty-Nine tackled the issue of the Metro’s hours. The DC subway system, he noted, is one of the first in the nation to close entirely and the first to begin the closing process during the week. It creates, Johnson says, some tension in the area. He wrote:
It would seem on the surface to be essential for the subway to stay open late in Our Nation’s Captial. While it is true that Washington has long held the distinction of being known as an early-to-bed, early-to-rise sort of town, they don’t exactly roll up the sidewalks at 11:30. They do start rolling up the Metro, though. They start shutting it down at 11:24 every evening Sunday through Thursday.
And while the party-goers and clubbers have the benefit of an extra 3 hours of service on Fridays and Saturdays, this strategy leaves out the idea of equity. After all, it’s not just clubbers who are out after midnight. All of those service workers have to get home somehow, and many of them don’t get off until late. Besides, do we really want to be known as the city that has the first subway to retire each night? Even Baltimore’s Metro starts to close later than WMATA.
In its coverage of yesterday’s WMATA Board Meeting, Greater Greater Washington’s David Alpert pondered the same conflict. The debate over closing times, he says, “risks pitting rush-hour only riders, more often those who drive to stations and don’t live in walkable areas with ready transit access, against people for whom transit is a 24-7 mobility tool.”
As this debate unfolds in D.C., it certainly allows me to appreciate New York’s system, warts and all. Ours might not look as nice as the Metro’s vaults. It certainly isn’t as clean as D.C.’s system with its draconian enforcement of food and beverage limits. But it keeps running late. Most routes are covered by more than one train so even as, say, B train headways reach 10 or 12 minutes after the evening rush, that a D will show up makes the wait shorter. Even the R train with limited off-peak headways is still supposed to arrive every 12 minutes.
In New York — as in D.C. — too many people work off hours for the subway to shut down. The City that Never Sleeps can’t afford to see its transportation lifeline cut off. That does mean more inconvenient changes for necessary maintenance and a less clean system, but ultimately, that’s a trade-off I’m willing to make.
Over the past few months, as transit agencies have tried to eke dollars out of everything under the sun, I’ve become fascinated by the drive to secure naming rights deals. Some transit executives speak of these as the Holy Grail of alternate revenue streams while others, including the MTA’s own Jay Walder, are wary of overstating their impact. Today’s story comes out of Austin where the Capital Metro board is looking to sell system naming rights.
For the last few years, Cap Metro has seen its revenue streams dry up. It’s in the transit-unfriendly state of Texas and has had to slash service to keep itself afloat. Now its CEO and President thinks she knows the answer. “The reason to do it is revenue for the system,” Lisa Watson said. “You can have a multiyear revenue stream. It can help you plug holes in budget gaps. That’s what a lot of systems across the country are doing instead of cutting service. They’re doing naming rights to cover their operating funds. If we were to do this with our commuter rail line, we could possibly use revenue to cover the subsidy for the system.”
Of course, talk is cheap, and naming rights deals aren’t. As I wrote just two weeks ago, while transit agencies around the nation have tried to find corporate partners and sponsorships, the money just isn’t there. Transit agencies talk about selling the names of their properties, but deals are few and far between. When I have a bit more time, I hope to explore the economics of this fascinating area a bit more, but for now, we can keep an eye on Austin as we are Boston to see which, if any, transit agency can sell these rights for any appreciable amount of money.
When I lived in Washington, D.C, my primary Metro stop was over 200 feet deep. When I would enter or exit at Woodley Park, I usually relied on the escalators to exit the station because the climb was just too long, and at least one of the station’s three escalators would invariably be out of service. The DC escalators, in fact, have a reputation for unreliability, and a recent report from the WMATA does nothing to dispel that stigma. As the Washington Examiner reports, the Metro’s escalators are breaking down more frequently, and repairs are taking longer and longer to complete.
The details themselves are actually pretty sad. Metro’s escalators average just 153 revenue hours of service — or a little over a week — between breakdowns, and it now takes the WMATA crews an average of 14 hours to repair the machines. Age isn’t the only culprit as some of the oldest escalators are the most reliable and some of the newest the least, and the elements are to blame as well. A systemwide plan to install canopies covering all outside escalators fell short of its goals when the authority ran out of money.
The real problems seem to stem from overuse and poor maintenance procedures. The WMATA simply isn’t equipped to handle the wear and tear on their escalators, and as I shift my gaze north, I see similar problems in New York. At those stations that have escalators, oftentimes, they’re out of service. For instance, Transit currently reports 18 out-of-service escalators, including two that have been offline for repairs since November.
For deep-cavern stations similar to those in Washington, escalators make sense, but elsewhere, they’re just inconvenient. They don’t increase accessibility enough to make an elevator unnecessary, and they cost a lot to maintain. The new Second Ave. Subway stations will likely have escalators, but maybe, they shouldn’t. At the very least, the MTA and the WMATA should remember Mitch Hedberg: An escalator can never break; it can only become stairs.
Every few months, as budget news trickles in and transit executives start talking about alternative sources of money and revenue streams, naming rights are dragged up by activists and enthusiasts. The idea is that resourceful authorities looking to generate free money can sell naming rights to private companies who stand to benefit from brand recognition. Disney owns Times Square above ground so why not sell the name of the Times Square subway station to the company?
On paper, it’s a great idea, and yet, in reality, it is one that has gained very little traction. In Philadephia, AT&T purchased the naming rights to the former Pattison Ave. complex at the end of the Broad St. line. They’re paying $3 million over five years. In New York, Barclays will append its name to the Atlantic Ave./Pacific St. complex with the Nets’ new arena opens, and they’re paying $200,000 a year for 20 years for that privilege. Finally, Chicago’s CTA worked out a deal with Apple for a station renovation sponsorship that includes the right of first refusal for subsequent naming rights deals. Only in Dubai, which managed to sell naming rights on 21 of its 23 stations before the emirate’s economy went bust, has seen prolonged marketing success.
This uphill battle isn’t stopping others from trying. Up in Boston, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is desperately seeking sponsors. Donna Goodison wrote of the effort in The Boston Herald this weekend:
The MBTA is considering selling naming rights for everything from the lines and stations of its subway, bus and commuter systems to its Web site, smart phone apps and Charlie Cards.
“We want to do it tastefully and not over-commercialize the MBTA,” said general manager Richard Davey. “I would probably be reluctant to rename Park Street the Anheuser-Busch Park Street Station. But, at the same time … we’re very open to hearing proposals.”
The MBTA is trying to close a projected $126 million budget gap for the fiscal year that begins in July. T officials are seeking a consultant to determine the feasibility of putting sponsors’ names on its assets and the revenue it could generate for the nation’s oldest subway system. “We’ve been pushing the last few months on a whole host of initiatives to try to capture non-fare revenue, from cracking down on parking scofflaws to possible naming rights,” Davey said.
More visual sponsorships are a possibility. If the Red Sox [team stats] wanted to sponsor the Fenway Station stop near its ballpark, the lettering could be redone in the team’s signature font. High usage and accessibility make the T a “compelling medium,” according to its pitch to consultants, but a smaller naming-rights effort went bust in 2001.
As Goodison notes, then-Transportation Security Kevin Sullivan tried to generate $22 million in revenue by offering up four popular subway stops — Back Bay, Downtown Crossing, South Station and Sullivan Square — for sale. The MBTA, however, received no offers even after extended the contract deadline and lowering the bid requirements. It’s beginning to sound like a familiar refrain.
Meanwhile, as MBTA officials claim that the advertising market has since changed, the WMATA board in Washington is heading down the naming rights route as well. As AFP recently reported, DC’s Metro is facing a $72 million, and it too will look toward naming rights to offset its gap. “We’re looking for creative ways to try to close that deficit,” Steven Taubenkibel, a WMATA spokesman, said.
In response to the news out of DC, Infrastructurist asks whether or not we should sell the naming rights to urban infrastructure, but I’m beginning to wonder if that’s the right question. Rather, is it at all reasonable to expect revenue from naming rights deals? Our limited experiences tell us that companies aren’t interested in shelling out big bucks, and many aren’t interested in shelling out any bucks. Citi, going through some tough financial times, declined to pay the MTA to slap its ballpark’s sponsorship on the Mets/Willets Point station in early 2009.
It seems that, for one reason or another, private companies just aren’t interested. Maybe they don’t want to be associated with something we view as dirty and unsafe. Maybe they don’t want their corporate image tarnished by association with beleaguered transit authorities. Maybe they don’t find the branding efforts to be worth it. Whatever the reason, municipalities aren’t earning much from naming rights deals, and the attempts to brand seem to be going nowhere fast. Until the money starts flowing in, perhaps it’s time to put this idea to bed.