Archive for View from Underground
With Bill de Blasio’s inauguration less than a week away, a bunch of news outlets are offering up their wishlists for New York’s first new mayor since 2001. Shortly after the election, I put forward a transit “To Do” list for de Blasio, and a few others have set out their ideas for improving transportation in and around the city. One, in particular, deserves some attention as it focuses outside the traditional realms of subways and buses.
As part of its package of articles previewing de Blasio’s administration, Crain’s New York polled a group of experts on a variety of topics and tried to propose innovative approaches to city problems. The transportation list is an intriguing one as it barely touches upon subways and buses. It seemingly recognizes that the MTA, a state agency, is somewhat immune to the charms and whims of Gracie Mansion and instead answers to higher powers in Albany. Rather it looks as approaches a new mayor could explore with the resources of the city at his hands.
The problem with this approach though is that subways and, to a lesser extent, buses are the backbones of city transit. The subways provide the best and fastest way to move a lot of people over greater distances in relatively short amount of times, and no amount of attention paid to or money spent on, say, ferries can change the fact that waterfront access is limited to people with relatively good transit options. Nothing can revolutionize transit in New York City quite like new subway lines.
That said, the Crain’s list touches upon ideas that should happen. Transportation Alternatives has proposed redesigning Queens Boulevard, Atlantic Ave., Grand Concourses and Manhattan thoroughfares with pedestrian plazas, bike lanes and extended curbs. I’d add dedicated and physically separated bus lanes to some of these routes as well. Residential parking permits is an idea whose time should have come years ago as well, and Dan Doctoroff found another outlet to spread his light rail gospel.
But one idea has me raising an eyebrow. Crain’s wants to see the mayor “Reopen trackless old subway tunnels for electric express buses.” This isn’t the first time Crain’s has beaten their drum, and it’s hard to say which expert is pushing this plan. The problem is that there are no trackless old subway tunnels just lying about. In their coverage, Crain’s links to this list of permanently closed subway stations, but despite repeated inquiries, no one has identified trackless subway tunnels that could support bus infrastructure (or any that couldn’t, for that matter).
As now, the only potential unused sections of tracked subway tunnel are on the BMT Nassau St. Line and consist of part of the Brooklyn Loops that weren’t intersected by the Chrystie St. Cut in the late 1960s. The second platforms at Bowery and Canal St. are currently unused, and of course, the Essex St. Trolley Terminal is unused. No one will be ripping out unused subway tracks, and it’s unclear if the Essex St. space could support bus infrastructure. It’s certainly nothing a new mayor should focus on at the expense of real solutions to the city’s transit problems.
Ultimately, it’s odd to see a wishlist that doesn’t focus on bus rapid transit or even more city-funded subways. Everything else seems more futuristic or “21st Century,” but the truth is that for New York to grow, it’s current high-capacity transit infrastructure needs to grow. Enough about ferries or seemingly out-of-the-box ideas that aren’t even possible. Let’s talk instead about real expansion and investment.
From an MTA statement, here’s what happened this morning at 125th Street on the 8th Ave. line. It’s a crazy story:
At approximately 9:30am this morning, customers on the northbound platform at 125 St alerted subway personnel that a blind customer and his service dog had fallen onto the northbound express tracks at the station.
A construction flagger at the station observed the customer on the roadbed and instructed the customer to stay down in the trough between the rails and not attempt to climb back up onto the platform.
Other customers attempted to alert the train operator of an approaching northbound A train to stop. Contrary to initial reports, the train operator was unable to stop in time and 1 ½ cars did pass over the customer. The train did not come in contact with the customer and he was removed with minor lacerations to his head to St. Luke’s Hospital. There were no noticeable injuries to the dog.
Pete Donohue was on the scene and spoke with witnesses. No one was quite sure how the man and his dog fell or how they survived, but, needless to say, everyone was relieved.
This headline-grabbing incident comes toward the end of a year that saw increased attention to passenger/train collisions and platform jumpers. Yet, according to Donohue, the 2013 numbers so far — 144 riders hit, 52 deaths — isn’t too far out of line with the averages of 134 and 49, respectively. Still, the MTA is planning to test, at one unnamed station, track intrusion technology. It’s hard to know how successful the test will be as there are no real hot spots for customers entering the tracks, but it is at least a nod to passenger safety.
For its part, the TWU is still advocating for a slowdown that would be costly and disruptive to subway riders. And so it goes.
The day job’s kept me busy lately, and I haven’t had an opportunity to do a proper post. The tabs are piling up though so let’s dive in.
Quieting the Q Train
While the BMT Astoria Line has snaked through Queens since 1917, residents have become to grumble about the noise. Reportedly, the brakes on the new rolling stock in use on the N and Q trains are louder than previous generations even as the rides overall are quieter. After determining that the brakes added 10 decibels to the area’s sound levels, the MTA will install sound dampeners on Astoria-bound trains.
City Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. was the pol behind the push. “This deafening noise has been scaring little kids, startling our senior citizens and damaging our eardrums for far too long,” Vallone said last week, seemingly without a hint of irony.
A Jackson Heights pizza shop opens, finally
It’s been two years since Famous Famiglia won the bidding to operate a pizza parlor in the 3000-square foot space available in the Jackson Heights subway station, and now the slices are ready to go. After years of stops and starts due to construction designs and various requirements imposed by law and the MTA, Famous Famiglia opened this week with a ribbon cutting. The space had been empty for years, and Famiglia will pay the MTA at least $2.6 million over the next 20 years.
The NYPD is cracking down on subway panhandling…Despite eying a costly PATH extension to Newark Airport, the Port Authority isn’t very interested in a one-seat ride to JFK right now…Speaking of Port Authority, it’s a real mess there right now…Federal commuter benefits are set to decrease to $130 per month at the end of the year while parking subsidies are going up to $250…More later.
I had to run a few errands in Lower Manhattan yesterday and found myself with just enough time to kill to check out the South Ferry station. The new two-track terminal on the 1 train — lost to Sandy — are walled off to the world as some sort of recovery effort continues, but the old station and the loop are back. It’s the closet we can get in New York to taking a ride back in time.
Of course, it hardly seems like it was that long ago that we had to ride the South Ferry loop, and that’s because it wasn’t. The one-track loop with its old gap-extenders and in which only the first five cars of every train can fit was decommissioned in 2009 only to be recommissioned in 2013 when the $600 million station was lost in the flood. The old station survived relatively unscathed because it’s not as far underground as the new station and because much of the sensitive infrastructure had been removed.
As I walked the curve, I was struck by the station design. On the one hand, it’s not a particularly memorable station aesthetically. As it was out of service for four years and hastily returned to use, the platforms are looking a little shoddy, and the platform extender barriers have always had a makeshift quality about them. But look up and you’ll see mosaics — like the one atop this post — that may make you smile. The old South Ferry ships line the small, curved platform, and they add character.
Throughout the subway system, these mosaics pop up with some regularity. They were a hallmark of the early IRT stations and can still be seen at Chambers St. and Astor Place, among others. They’re far more intriguing than the IND’s station tiling scheme and put the newer stations to shame. In fact, I couldn’t help but compare the old South Ferry to the new.
When the South Ferry terminal opened and I had a chance to tour it, I was struck by how sterile it appeared. The walls were infinitely white with no unique signifiers, and while the station features some of my favorite Arts of Transit installations, those hardly redeem the platforms.
This design — white on white on white — will be the norm for the foreseeable future. When the 7 line extension opens in six or seven months, the station will look quite similar to the South Ferry stop, and renderings of the Second Ave. Subway show a similar design. Anything noteworthy or specific to that particular station won’t be a part of the design.
As much as I scoff at faux-nostalgia surrounding New York’s good old days, the early teams that built the IRT had a much more aesthetically pleasing environment for the subways than the one we enjoy today. They wanted to tie each subway stop into its community and not just present something monolithically dirty. Interestingly, though, the IRT came of age when construction costs weren’t astronomical and design could be entertained. Today, costs are so high to preclude creativity, and stations will all resemble one another. Where did we go wrong?
Outside of industrial-strength behemoths that dispense Metrocards, vending machines in the subway are a relic of another era. Where once they could found underground, decades of neglect and an increase in crime eventually lead to their ousters. Today, they may be on the way back — at least for some high-end retailers.
As Stuart Elliott detailed in The Times today, one company has placed vending machines in the subway in an effort to drum up some business. That company is L’Oreal and the vending machines are a bit more high-tech than a Pepsi dispenser. The vending machines will be in the Bryant Park subway station through December 30, and they will appear — as the Uniqlo pop-up shop is — in a vacant space.
The Times has more:
Passers-by will see screens and a mirror that use cameras and sensors to recommend women’s cosmetics bearing the L’Oréal Paris brand name, which can then be purchased. The project, called the L’Oréal Paris Intelligent Color Experience, is being described by the participants as an entry in the realm of interactive shopping outside of traditional stores. It is another example of a trend known as experiential marketing, which seeks to give brands more tangible form beyond retail shelves.
…The project, with a budget estimated at $700,000 to $1 million, was developed by the R/GA Lab unit of R/GA in New York, part of the Interpublic Group of Companies; R/GA is the digital agency of record for the L’Oréal Paris brand. Also involved in the project are CBS Outdoor, which sells advertising space in the subway system, and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
“What we’re trying to find out is whether there is an appetite for something between e-tailing and brick-and-mortar retail,” said Paul Fleuranges, senior director for corporate and internal communications at the M.T.A. “We hope to do some market research while this is up and running, [and] we may be willing to do other pilots. We have a lot of retail space that is not currently under lease…If we can find ways to generate revenue from those assets, that’s a good thing for us. If we can add to the passenger experience, that’s a good thing for us. If we can bring new technology into the system, that’s a good thing for us.”
According to statements for L’Oreal, the cosmetics company considered 20 other stations in addition to Bryant Park but determined that the passageway underneath the library and the winter holiday market offered “the right audience for L’Oréal Paris” and “the best visibility.” I’ve asked the MTA how much they’re making off of this pop-up vending machine but have yet to receive a figure. As with the Uniqlo shop, it’s certainly worth the revenue for the MTA to find temporary uses for empty spaces.
As the subway system has rebounded from the dark days of the Bernhard Goetz era, the MTA has sometimes struggled to fill its empty retail spots. Newsstands with their arrays of candy bars fill some spaces while discount clothing stores line some corridors. The Record Mart remains the best place to build up your back catalog of Fania releases. But otherwise, retail has yet to embrace the subway.
Lately, though, as part of an aggressive push to maximize empty space and draw in more dollars, the agency has pushed for new commercials opportunities, and this week, they announced a pop-up shop initiative that will bring retailers underground. These stores will receive month-to-month leases to operate in what the MTA is calling temporarily vacant spaces as the agency works to find takers for long-term leases. The Newsstand at Lorimer/Metropolitan in Williamsburg piloted the concept, and now Uniqlo has opened a store within fare control at the Union Square station.
In a press release, MTA officials spoke about orienting these spaces toward the ever-popular Millennials. “The younger generations are gravitating to the subway system as never before,” MTA Real Estate Director Jeffrey Rosen said. “They are savvy about shopping online. Retailers want to reach them where they are, which is our subway system. We are glad to be able to offer space in our stations to facilitate this new business niche.”
As to the mechanics of the deal, anyone who rents out the space — from small entrepreneurs to established corporations — are taking a lease “as-is,” and stores may appear more temporary than normal. The MTA notes that high-traffic areas can serve to increase exposure “where the emphasis is on displaying merchandise as much as actually conducting on-site transactions.” In other words, it’s another advertisement in a system working to maximize incoming revenue from ancillary avenues. (I have an inquiry into the MTA concerning Uniqlo’s rent but have not yet received a figure.)
“Pop-up stores will provide a fresh and beneficial element to our stations while also improving the image and desirability of retail space in the subway,” MTA Chairman and CEO Thomas F. Prendergast said. “This is another example of the MTA working to make better use of its real estate portfolio and improving the subway environment for customers at the same time.”
At a certain point earlier this year, the media hullabaloo over passenger/train collisions reached a crescendo. The TWU began to agitate for a costly slowdown; politicians began to wonder about platform edge doors; and the MTA had to defend itself on an issue that isn’t actually a problem as 48 of over 1.6 billion rides ended in an accidental death. These incidents are tragedies with ramifications for families and train operators alike, but the outcry seemed to overshadow the problems.
Today, Adam Martin at New York Magazine takes a closer look at the MTA’s deadly year, and while the numbers show a slight uptick in train deaths this year, overall the picture shouldn’t worry New York’s subway riders. In pure numbers, this year has not been a kind one for the MTA as, through August, the agency reported 65 deaths caused by subway, LIRR or Metro-North trains. If this pace continues throughout the year, the 98 projected deaths would blow past last year’s record total of 84.
But in a sense, the tide has turned a bit. While the incidents earlier this year focused around homicides, the number of non-suicides has dropped significantly. Of the 65 deaths, 40 of them were suicides and only 25 were accidental or other. Last year, those numbers were flipped with nearly 60 percent of subway deaths not suicides. The numbers are fairly de minimus considering overall MTA ridership, but maybe the aggressive public awareness campaign warning of the dangers of subways and other trains has paid off.
Why, then, have suicide numbers spiked? Martin offers up some theories:
One possibility is that the increase has been driven by intense media attention given to two incidents late last year in which people were pushed onto subway tracks and died. The New York Post splashed a dramatic photo of one victim seconds before death across its front page. A 2008 Columbia study found decreasing media coverage was an effective way to bring down the number of subway suicides. If the reverse is also true, then a barrage of coverage might spur them.
In the end, it’s hard to read much into these numbers. As an MTA spokesman said to New York Magazine, “So far, this year seems to be falling within the range of normal year-to-year variability. I would hesitate to call it a trend.” On a day-to-day basis then, the rails are safe.
Over the years, I’ve often returned to the idea of parking permits for New York City. From reducing congestion to generating revenue that can be invested into numerous projects, the benefits are obvious, and the rationale for not charging is not immediately evident. Considering how much people are willing to pay for private space in New York, why should the city simply hand over public space for free so that idle cars have a place to sleep?
A good number of cities have figured out how to solve the parking problem through a residential permit system. Washington, DC, charges a modest fee and requires DC plates which allows them to capture registration fees and local insurance dollars. Philadelphia and Boston, where transit is worse and parking is even tighter than in New York, have instituted permit systems as well. In exchange for a better chance to find a nearby on-street space, residents have to pay. It’s not a bad deal.
In an upcoming issue of Transport Policy, transport researchers Zhan Guo of New York University and Simon McDonnell of the City University of New York report that roughly 53 percent of New Yorkers are willing to pay something for residential street spaces — and this something averaged about $400 a year:” The greater-than-50% approval rate and the high price tag both indicate that pricing curb parking for residents is feasible, at least in our sample.”
Guo and McDonnell asked households outside the Manhattan core how much they were willing to pay for a residential street permit. Keep in mind that New York is the only major U.S. city that doesn’t issue them, so the respondents were coming from a baseline parking cost of zero. Many of the 244 people who responded said they weren’t willing to pay, but more than half said they were, and the mean contribution of this willing group was roughly $34 a month.
Over the course of a year that comes to $408 — almost four times more than the top U.S. permit rate, in San Francisco.
Jaffe runs down some of the granular findings: People who struggle finding spots a block or two from home are willing to pay double what those who have ample street parking would pay, and from a corresponding map, it appears that people who live in denser areas closer to Manhattan are more willing to pay than those in, say, Canarsie or Cambria Heights where parking is less scarce. Meanwhile, what the survey did not do was tie parking permit fees into improvements — road, transit or otherwise — which would likely impact respondents’ answers.
Now, parking permits aren’t something New York City seems to be considering. An attempt at bringing them to the Brooklyn neighborhoods surrounding the Barclays Center failed, and now that area suffers through idling limos during concerts and games. I do like Cap’n Transit’s 2012 idea to use parking permit revenue to fix sidewalks as that fiscal obligation currently rests, for some reason, with the city’s property owners and not DOT. Plus, as I walk around Brownstone Brooklyn, it’s obvious which transplants haven’t re-registered their cars in New York, and a permit system could solve that problem.
But even as opposition is always loudest from those with the most to lose, I wonder if entrenched opinions have changed enough to make a go of it. With the right messaging and the right trade-offs, the city could turn precious public space into a potential net gain with drivers enjoying easier access to parking spaces and the city finding some resources to fix up the streets and sidewalks. If anything, there’s no reason to simply give the land away.
On a daily basis, I get to experience the sheer joy of the Times Square subway station at the heights of both the morning and evening rush hours. This isn’t something I’d ever recommend to anyone else as it is truly a mass of disorganized humanity. People are angling to get from the Shuttle to another train and from the 1, 2 or 3 trains to the Shuttle while others just want to get out of the station and still others want in. Combine that with the tourists who have no idea where they’re going, and it is amazing more fights don’t break out amidst the brushed elbows and shoved shoulders.
One of the problems with the space — and Times Square isn’t alone in this regard — is that it’s cramped and from an age before passenger flow was a thing studied at graduate schools and in engineering classes. It’s also a mish-mash of various systems with the Shuttle track system fairly inefficient and the integration between the BMT and IRT awkward at best.
History, though, doesn’t excuse the elements that have always been within the MTA’s control. Take, for instance, the way people enter and exit train stations. If you happen to have the misfortune of trying to get into a station — Times Square, Grand Army Plaza, 7th Ave. on the Brighton Line near me in Brooklyn — as a rush-hour train empties, good luck to you. All incoming turnstiles are temporarily flooded with people exiting, and those entering can either shove through the maddening crowd or wait. Even turnstiles that say “no exit” are useless as the bar spins with no resistance (or corresponding check to the gut).
Fixing these problems could go a long way toward solving the rat race feel of the subway system, and a few weeks ago, the Daily News published a short but intriguing article on an upcoming effort to streamline passenger flow. Today, The Times issues its follow-up, and although the specific details are still a bit vague, the MTA seems to be serious about experimenting with moving people through congested choke points.
Matt Flegenheimer writes about the MTA’s decision to “shuffle station furniture”:
The changes, part of a roughly $900,000 project, have drawn on observations of riders’ entering and exiting behaviors, bolstered by data on which specific turnstiles are used most at particular stations…
The authority has responded with a series of proposed tweaks culled from the Disneyland playbook of pedestrian funneling, using the location of turnstiles as cues to create a desired traffic flow. At a No. 1 train entrance at Rector Street in Manhattan — where a turnstile and emergency gate previously appeared at platform level, occasionally stranding riders on board as lines backed up into the first car — equipment was moved upstairs. The emergency gate has been exiled out of the typical walking path, perched diagonally from the top of the steps.
…So far, fare areas in three stations have been adjusted: at Rector Street, and at Marcy Avenue and Nassau Avenue in Brooklyn. Ten more hubs have been flagged for the next round of renovations. After that, the authority plans to continue modifying fare areas at an average of 10 stations each year. Jackie Kuhls, the authority’s chief budget officer for subways, said that much of the work involved tweaking past station layout plans that placed major entrances and exits near token booths, which receive far less traffic than they once did.
Without accompanying diagrams or overarching plans, it’s still tough to get a sense of what the MTA is doing on the whole. Are they solving choke-point problems or moving them upstairs? What Flegenheimer does reveal though is that some of those HEETs — the iron maiden-like high entrance-exit turnstiles — are on the decline while low turnstiles are on the raise. Even at unstaffed entry points where fare evasion are a concern, the MTA may decide that smooth entry trumps the limited revenue lost to those who hop the turnstile. (The ease of slipping through an emergency exit negates the benefits of the HEETs anyway.)
It sounds like a start though. Solving the mess at Times Square would be the gold standard in station redesign, and easy fixes such as truly dedicated exit and entry turnstiles at peak hours would be a big help. But should we expect anything revolutionary or are we stuck with the chaos that makes the subway system so uniquely New York?
That pad arrived in the mail last night from the Transit Museum, and I unabashedly love it. It’s a small blank slate for your very own Planned Service Changes. The pad contains 25 sheets of 4 x 6 stickies and is available right here for purchase. One day I should profile the hilariously specific subway merch available for sale at the Transit Museum shop.
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