For a few years, I’ve noted that the MTA suffers from something we could call “Didn’t Think Of It Ourselves-itis.” If someone at the MTA didn’t think of it — or if someone from the outside the MTA isn’t funding — the agency not only doesn’t embrace the idea but usually finds a way to dismiss any proposal out of hand with the variety of usual suspects. It’s too expensive; it’s too impractical; it’s too timely; it sets a bad precedent. The list goes on and on.

In recent weeks, we’ve seen this drama unfold in response to two different proposals. First, in mid-November, when politicians began to clamor for rationalized commuter rail fares to alleviate the stress of certain transit deserts within the city, the MTA dismissed its $70 million out of hand. “We just can’t agree to accept that kind of loss especially since we already lose so much money on other services,” Adam Lisberg said at the time.

A few weeks later, when the Riders Alliance proposed a free bus to Laguardia, a Transit spokesman issued a similar statement. “At the end of the day,” Kevin Ortiz said, “there is simply zero evidence that making it a free shuttle would increase ridership on subways to the point it would make the shuttle self-sustaining.”

These two statements seemed to embody Didn’t-Think-Of-It-Ourselves-itis. As I noted last month, when it comes to multi-billion-dollar expenses — and some projects that could rightfully be called boondoggles — the MTA doesn’t bat an eye, but when it comes to incremental operating costs for customer-friendly initiatives, the MTA suddenly cares deeply about efficient spending. It’s quite the paradox and one that MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast apparently wants addressed.

As the Daily News reported earlier this week, Prendergast has asked his staffers to listen to ideas for service improvements rather than simply dismissing them out of hand. It may seem like an obvious point to anyone watching from the outside, but it’s an important culture shift within the MTA. Dan Rivoli explains:

The MTA boss told agency staff to stop trashing ideas to give riders a break on fares and improve service “out-of-hand,” according to an emailed memo obtained by the Daily News. MTA officials’ response to some recent ideas — such as cheaper commuter fares for trips within the city or extra subway and bus service — “seemed to indicate that we were rejecting these proposals out-of-hand, mostly on the grounds that they were too costly,” MTA chief Tom Prendergast wrote in a message emailed to board members Nov. 29.

The quick criticism and cries of poverty had some MTA board members feeling sidelined from the decision-making process, transit officials said. “We must not and we will not give the appearance that this Board does not play a very thoughtful and active role in these decisions,” wrote Prendergast, who holds the dual role of the top MTA executive and chairman of the board…

Prendergast wrote that he told MTA staff to be “far less strident” when responding to proposals that affect fares and service…Board members have picked up on the dismissive remarks from the MTA about policy proposals aimed at helping passengers at a time of cramped rides and spotty, unreliable operations. “We need to operate essentially on the margin, doing some jerry rigging … to be able to provide some relief to our customers,” said MTA board member Allen Cappelli. “Yes, it will take money and time to do these things, but (riders) want us as an institution to think outside the box and not just go along with the way things are.”

How this will eventually manifest itself is still an open question, and the MTA is still likely to suffer from other symptoms of Didn’t-Think-Of-It-Ourselves-itis. But a time when service is suffering due to a system that’s too popular for its own good, an organization that can be as insular as the MTA should do all it can to attempt to improve the customer experience. If that means listening and implementing a few good ideas thought up by outsiders, so be it. It’s better, after all, than yet another cranky conductor yelling at riders trying to board a crush-loaded peak-hour train to “use all available doors” as though that will magically fix all of the system’s problems.

Categories : MTA Absurdity
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As ridership peaks, a typical morning ride on the Q train involves lots of hair and armpits and very little space. (Photo: Benjamin Kabak)

Could subway service be improved if the MTA adopted better operations practices? (Photo: Benjamin Kabak)

Today’s post comes to us from long-time SAS reader and commenter Alon Levy. Alon originally published this on his own site this past weekend and has graciously allowed me to run it in its entirety here. With subway service trending toward unreliability and uneven headways becoming more pronounced, Levy has tackled the interrelated issues of the MTA’s load guidelines, service frequency, interlining and general frustration with NYC’s increasingly crowded subway system. You can read more of Levy’s work on his site Pedestrian Observations and follow him on Twitter.

In New York, the MTA has consistent guidelines for how frequently to run each subway route, based on crowding levels. The standards are based on crowding levels at the point of maximum crowding on each numbered or lettered route. Each line is designed to have the same maximum crowding, with different systemwide levels for peak and off-peak crowding. While this approach is fair, and on the surface reasonable, it is a poor fit for New York’s highly branched system, and in my view contributes to some of the common failings of the subway.

Today, the off-peak guidelines call for matching frequency to demand, so that at the most crowded, the average train on each route has 25% more passengers than seats. Before the 2010 service cuts, the guidelines had the average train occupied to exact seating capacity. At the peak, the peak crowding guidelines are denser: 110 passengers on cars on the numbered lines, 145 on shorter (60’/18 m) cars on the lettered lines, 175 on longer (75’/23 m) cars on the lettered lines. There’s a minimum frequency of a train every 10 minutes during the day, and a maximum frequency at the peak depending on track capacity. When the MTA says certain lines, such as the 4/5/6, are operating above capacity, what it means is that at maximum track capacity, trains are still more crowded than the guideline.

In reality, guideline loads are frequently exceeded. Before the 2010 service cuts, many off-peak trains still had standees, often many standees. Today, some off-peak trains are considerably fuller than 25% above seated capacity. In this post, I’d like to give an explanation, and tie this into a common hazard of riding the subway in New York: trains sitting in the tunnels, as the conductor plays the announcement, “we are delayed because of train traffic ahead of us.”

The key takeaway from the system is that frequency at each time of day is calculated separately for each numbered or lettered route. Even when routes spend extensive distance interlined, as the 2/3 and 4/5 do, their frequencies are calculated separately. As of December 2014, we have the following headways, in minutes:

Line AM peak Noon off-peak PM peak
1 3 6 4
2 6:30 7:30 6:45
3 6 8:30 6:45
4 4:30 7:30 4:24
5 5 8:30 5:45
6 2:30 4 3:18
7 2:30 5 2:30
A 4:45 10 4:45
B 8:45 10 9:15
C 9:15 10 10
D 6:15 10 6:45
E 4 7:30 4
F 4:45 7:30 5
G 6:30 10 10
J/Z 5 10 5
L 4:30 6 4
M 8:45 10 9:25
N 7:15 10 7:30
Q 7:15 10 7:45
R 7:30 10 7:30

Consider now the shared segments between the various lines. The 4 comes every 4.5 minutes in the morning peak, and the 5 every 5 minutes. There is no way to maintain even spacing on both lines with these headways: they share tracks for an extensive portion of their trip. Instead, the dispatchers move trains around to make sure that headways are as even as possible on both the shared trunk segments and the branches, but something has to give. In 45 minutes, there are ten 4s and nine 5s. Usually, on trunk lines with two branches, trains alternate, but here, it’s not possible to have a perfect alternation in which each 4 is followed by a 5 and each 5 is followed by a 4. There is bound to be a succession of two 4s: the second 4 is going to be less crowded than the guideline, and the following 5 is going to be more crowded.

It gets worse when we consider the extensive reverse-branching, especially on the lettered lines. For example, on its northbound journey, the Q initially does not share tracks with any line; then it shares tracks with the B, into Downtown Brooklyn; then it crosses into Manhattan sharing tracks with the N; then it again shares tracks with no other route, running express in Manhattan while the N runs local; then it shares tracks with the N and R into Queens; and then finally it shares tracks with the N in Queens. It is difficult to impossible to plan a schedule that ensures smooth operations like this, even off-peak, especially when the frequency is so variable.

Concretely, consider what happens when the Q enters Manhattan behind an N. Adequate separation between trains is usually 2 minutes – occasionally less, but the schedule is not robust to even slight changes then. To be able to go to Queens ahead of the N, the Q has to gain 4 minutes running express in Manhattan while the N runs local. Unfortunately, the Q’s express jaunt only skips 4 stations in Manhattan, and usually the off-peak stop penalty is only about 45 seconds, so the Q only gains 3 minutes on the N. Thus, the N has to be delayed at Herald Square for a minute, possibly delaying an R behind it, or the Q has to be delayed 3 minutes to stay behind the N.

In practice, it’s possible to schedule around this problem when schedules are robust. Off-peak, the N, Q, and R all come every 10 minutes, which makes it possible to schedule the northbound Q to always enter Manhattan ahead of the N rather than right behind it. Off-peak, the services they share tracks with – the B, D, and M – all come every 10 minutes as well. The extensive reverse branching still makes the schedule less robust than it can be, but it is at least possible to schedule non-conflicting moves. (That said, the M shares tracks with the much more frequent F.) At the peak, things are much harder: while the N, Q, and R have very similar headways, the D is considerably more frequent, and the B and M considerably less frequent.

I believe that this system is one of the factors contributing to uneven frequency in New York, with all of the problems it entails: crowding levels in excess of guidelines, trains held in the tunnel, unpredictable wait times at stations. Although the principle underlying the crowding guidelines is sound, and I would recommend it in cities without much subway branching, in New York it fails to maintain predictable crowding levels, and introduces unnecessary problems elsewhere.

Instead of planning schedules around consistent maximum crowding, the MTA should consider planning schedules around predictable alternation of services on shared trunk lines. This means that, as far as practical, all lettered lines except the J/Z and the L should have the same frequency, and in addition the 2/3/4/5 should also have the same frequency. The 7 and L, which do not share their track or route with anything else, would maintain the present system. The J/Z, which have limited track sharing with other lines (only the M), could do so as well. The 1 and 6 do not share tracks with other lines, but run local alongside the express 2/3 and 4/5. Potentially, they could run at exactly twice the frequency of the 2/3/4/5, with scheduled timed local/express transfers; however, while this may work for the 6, it would give the 1 too much service, as there is much more demand for express than local service on the line.

To deal with demand mismatches, for example between the E/F and the other lettered lines, there are several approaches, each with its own positives and negatives:

– When the mismatch in demand is not large, the frequencies could be made the same, without too much trouble. The N/Q/R could all run the same frequency. More controversially, so could the 2/3/4/5: there would be more peak crowding on the East Side than on the West Side, but, to be honest, at the peak the 4 and 5 are beyond capacity anyway, so they already are more crowded.

– Some services could run at exactly twice the frequency of other services. This leads to uneven headways on the trunks, but maintains even headways on branches. For example, the A’s peak frequency is very close to exactly twice that of the C, so as they share tracks through Lower Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn, they could alternate A-C-A-empty slot.

– Services that share tracks extensively could have drastic changes in frequency to each route, preserving trunk frequency. This should be investigated for the E/F on Queens Boulevard: current off-peak frequency is 8 trains per hour each, so cutting the E to 6 and beefing the F to 12 is a possibility.

– Service patterns could be changed, starting from the assumption that every lettered service runs every 10 minutes off-peak and (say) 6-7 minutes at the peak. If some corridors are underserved with just two services with such frequency, then those corridors could be beefed with a third route: for example, the Queens Boulevard express tracks could be supplanted with a service that runs the F route in Jamaica but then enters Manhattan via 53rd Street, like the E, and then continues either via 8th Avenue like the E or 6th Avenue like the M. Already, some peak E trains originate at Jamaica-179th like the F, rather than the usual terminus of Jamaica Center, which is limited to a capacity of 12 trains per hour.

– The service patterns could be drastically redrawn to remove reverse branching. I worked this out with Threestationsquare in comments on this post, leading to a more elegant local/express pattern but eliminating or complicating several important transfers. In particular, the Broadway Line’s N/Q/R trains could be made independent of the Sixth Avenue trains in both Queens and Brooklyn, allowing their frequencies to be tailored to demand without holding trains in tunnels to make frequencies even.

For the lettered lines, I have some affinity for the fourth solution, which at least in principle is based on a service plan from start to finish, rather than on first drawing a map and then figuring out frequency. But it has two glaring drawbacks: it involves more branching than is practiced today, since busy lines would get three services rather than two, making the schedule less robust to delays; and it is so intertwined with crowding levels that every major service change is likely to lead to complete overhaul of the subway map, as entire routes are added and removed based on demand. The second drawback has a silver lining; the first one does not.

I emphasize that this is more a problem of reverse branching than of conventional branching. The peak crowding on all lines in New York, with the exception of the non-branched 7 and 1, occurs in the Manhattan core. Thus, if routes with different colors never shared tracks, it would not be hard to designate a frequency for each trunk route at each time of day, without leading to large mismatches between service and demand. In contrast, reverse branching imposes schedule dependencies between many routes, to the point that all lettered routes except the L have to have the same frequency, up to integer multiples, to avoid conflicts between trains.

The highly branched service pattern in New York leads to a situation in which there is no perfect solution to train scheduling. But the MTA’s current approach is the wrong one, certainly on the details but probably also in its core. It comes from a good place, but it does not work for the system New York has, and the planners should at least consider alternatives, and discuss them publicly. If the right way turns out to add or remove routes in a way that makes it easier to schedule trains, then this should involve extensive public discussion of proposed service maps and plans, with costs and benefits to each community openly acknowledged. It is not good transit to maintain the current scheduling system just because it’s how things have always worked.

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The MTA will have to hit these critical milestones to open Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway by the end of 2016. (Source: MTA)

The MTA will have to hit these critical milestones to open Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway by the end of 2016. (Source: MTA)

No matter the scope of the project, the MTA is not known for wrapping up construction on time. We’ve all seen staircases to subway stations closed for months longer than announced as work drags on, and the MTA’s 20-month delay in opening the 7 line extension seemed to evolve from exasperating to the butt of a joke and back. Now as December’s end draws near and 2016 lurks on the horizon, the MTA’s most public deadline yet — the completion of Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway — looms large, and the agency will have to race against time to open this northern extension of the Q train on time.

The MTA’s struggles with opening the Second Ave. Subway are well documented. Setting aside the 80-year history of this project, since 2005, the MTA has, at certain points, projected completion in each of 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015. Amidst a rash of bad publicity and serious doubts over Capital Construction’s project management skills — doubts that still linger today — the agency vowed to open the first phase by the end of 2016, and even though the federal government has projected an early 2018 opening date, the MTA has not moved off of its promise to deliver a Second Ave. Subway before 2017.

With one year left, the MTA’s endgame is finally coming into view, and the agency is going to need to have a lot of things go right to meet that December 2016 promise. It hasn’t yet moved off its deadline, but in MTA Board materials released this weekend [pdf], the agency offered a glimpse at challenges that remain. Furthermore, the MTA’s Independent Engineering Consultant noted that the current schedule has “a moderate risk of delay” that would push completion beyond December 2016, but the MTA has “obtained high-level commitments from its contractors that support a December 2016 Revenue Service Date.” In other words, it’s all hands on deck from here on out.

So what are the big obstacles? The MTA and IEC acknowledge plenty. Currently, the IEC lists four key activities behind schedule. The first concerns permanent power at the 86th St. station which will delay the start of systems testing. The second involves construction of the entrances to the 72nd St. station, a problem obvious in its description. The third involves installation of communication and traction power equipment, and the fourth is track installation at 72nd St., another element problematic by its very existence. Try as they might, the MTA simply can’t run a subway without tracks.

The MTA currently has a proposed timeline for achieving each of these key activities, but the timeline is losing its flexibility (or contingency). Track installation, for instance, is 67 percent complete, and the contractor has vowed to finish on time. Permanent power energization for 86th St. is on target for a late April date, and the contractor at 72nd St. has promised to complete the station entrances so training can begin on September 1.

In addition to key activities already behind schedule, the IEC identified areas of risk that could lead to delays over the next year. These include design and scope changes, fire alarm system testing (which you may recall was one of the reasons for the delay of 7 line extension), installation of certain power and communications systems, and personnel availability. With three new stations scheduled to go online within 8-10 weeks of each other, the IEC is concerned that Transit will not make available enough staff to ensure training and testing can be completed to accommodate a revenue service date of December. As the MTA hasn’t activated this many new stations at once in a generation, the agency is on unsure ground here, but Capital Construction says it will work with Transit to ensure staff is made available for necessary training.

Other than noting these issues, the IEC’s solution involved speeding up work and spending faster. It’s not exactly a ground-breaking suggestion, but at this point, the MTA’s wiggle room is disappearing. Things are moving forward, but it’s going to be a sprint to get to next December. The next quarterly update on the Second Ave. Subway will be published in March. If these scheduling obstacles remain, wrapping by December will be questionable at best, and history, as we all know too well, isn’t on the MTA’s side. If I were a betting man, I’d probably take the “over” on December 2016. How about you?

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The weather says “spring,” but the relatively small slate of weekend service changes says “December.” Enjoy it while lasts and don’t forget about the Nostalgia Train rides around 6th Ave. on Sunday.

From 11:45 p.m. Friday, December 11 to 6:00 a.m. Saturday, December 12, and from 11:45 p.m. Saturday, December 12 to 8:00 a.m. Sunday, December 13, and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, December 13, to 5:00 a.m. Monday, December 14, Crown Hts-Utica Av bound 4 trains run express from 125 St to Grand Central-42 St.

From 11:45 p.m. Friday, December 11 to 6:00 a.m. Saturday, December 12, and from 11:45 p.m. Saturday, December 12 to 8:00 a.m. Sunday, December 13, and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, December 13, to 5:00 a.m. Monday, December 14, Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall bound 6 trains run express from 125 St to Grand Central-42 St.

From 11:45 p.m. Friday, December 11 to 6:30 a.m. Saturday, December 12, and from 11:45 p.m. Saturday, December 12 to 8:00 a.m. Sunday, December 13, and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, December 13, to 5:00 a.m. Monday, December 14, Inwood-207 St bound A trains run express from Canal St to 145 St.

From 6:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Saturday, December 12 and Sunday, December 13, 168 St-bound C trains run express from Canal St to 145 St.

From 11:45 p.m. Friday, December 11 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, December 14, Norwood-205 St bound D trains are rerouted via the C line from W4 St-Wash Sq to 145 St.

From 11:45 p.m. Friday, December 11 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, December 14, F trains are suspended in both directions between Coney Island-Stillwell Av and Kings Hwy.

From 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Saturday, December 12 and from 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Sunday, December 13, additional F service is provided between Jamaica-179 St and 2 Av.

From 11:45 p.m. Friday, December 11 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, December 14, Jamaica-179 St bound F trains skip 169 St.

From 11:30 p.m. Friday, December 11 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, December 14, L trains are suspended in both directions between Canarsie-Rockaway Pkwy and Myrtle-Wyckoff Avs. Take free express and local shuttle buses and AC or J trains.

  • Free local shuttle buses provide alternate service between Rockaway Pkwy and Myrtle-Wyckoff Avs, stopping at East 105 St, New Lots Av, Livonia Av, Sutter Av, Atlantic Av, Broadway Junction, Bushwick Av, Wilson Av, and Halsey St.
  • Free express shuttle buses serve Rockaway Pkwy, Broadway Junction, and Myrtle-Wyckoff Avs only.
  • Transfer between free shuttle buses and L trains at Myrtle-Wyckoff Avs. To/from Manhattan, consider the AC or J via transfers between trains and shuttle buses at Broadway Junction.

From 11:45 p.m. Friday, December 11 to 6:00 a.m. Saturday, December 12, and from 11:45 p.m. Saturday, December 12 to 6:00 a.m. Sunday, December 13, and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, December 13, to 5:00 a.m. Monday, December 14, Astoria-bound Q trains are rerouted via the Q line from DeKalb Av to Canal St.

From 6:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, December 12 and December 13, 71 Av-bound Q trains are rerouted via the Q line from DeKalb Av to Canal St.

Categories : Service Advisories
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As ridership peaks, a typical morning ride on the Q train involves lots of hair and armpits and very little space. (Photo: Benjamin Kabak)

As ridership peaks, a typical morning ride on the Q train involves lots of hair and armpits and very little space. (Photo: Benjamin Kabak)

It’s become an annual ritual for the MTA. Every year as October rolls around, subway ridership spikes, and a few weeks later, the agency announces a new one-day record high. This time around, the lucky date was Thursday, October 29 when Transit recorded 6,217,621 subway entries. It’s a modern record and likely the highest single-day total since the mid-1940s. It’s also an increase of around 50,000 riders over the previous high, set in 2014, and over 300,000 more than the 2013 record. I can’t help but wonder where these riders fit and how we’ll deal with even more over the next few years.

The raw numbers are staggering. When the MTA first started keeping daily ridership totals in the mid-1980s, the first high-water mark checked in at 3,761,759 on a day in December of 1985. As recently as 2003, the highest daily recorded ridership total was still under 5 million, but in the last decade, the subway system has seen unparalleled growth considering the MTA has added just one new station in recent years.

That Thursday in October wasn’t an isolated incident either. The MTA announced that 15 weekdays in October saw ridership top 6 million, and the final day of the month — Halloween with a World Series game — saw 3,730,881 customers. The MTA offered this summary of the crowds:

October 2015’s average weekday subway ridership of 5.974 million was the highest of any month in over 45 years, and was 1.4% higher than October 2014. Approximately 80,000 more customers rode the subway on an average October 2015 weekday than just a year earlier – enough to fill more than 50 fully-loaded subway trains…

Between 2010 and 2014, the subway system has added 440,638 daily customers, roughly the equivalent of the entire population of mid-sized cities like Miami, Fla. or Raleigh, N.C. More customers have led to additional crowding on some lines, creating conditions in which trains are more likely to be delayed, and delayed trains in turn affect more customers than in the past.

Those 50 fully-loaded subway trains the MTA notes, by the way, would each have around 150-200 passengers per car depending upon the rolling stock. The agency isn’t kidding when they claim these trains are fully loaded. You can’t fit too many more people than that on one subway car.

The agency seems to recognize the challenges this high ridership totals bring, which was reflected in a statement by MTA Chairman and CEO Thomas Prendergast. “The relentless growth in subway ridership shows how this century-old network is critical to New York’s future,” he said. “Our challenge is to maintain and improve the subways even as growing ridership puts more demands on the system. We are doing it thanks to the MTA Capital Program, which will allow us to bring meaningful improvements to our customers, such as real time arrival information on the lettered subway lines, cleaner and brighter stations with new technology like Help Points, modern signal systems, and almost 1,000 new subway cars.”

Notice though that none of Prendergast’s “meaningful improvements” involve expanding system capacity or increasing frequency to help with overcrowding. Rather, Prendergast has urged New Yorkers to adjust their working hours — a luxury many people don’t have. Off-peak service too has been more crowded and isn’t nearly as reliable as necessary to achieve significant travel time-shifts, but more on that later.

In its press release, the MTA touts the Second Ave. Subway, CBTC efforts and positioning personnel on platforms to wave people into and out of trains with flashlights, the effectiveness of which I’ve questioned. Service will increase in June, but as Charles Komanoff recently detailed, those service increases won’t keep pace with growing ridership. There is, unfortunately, no good answer, and that leaves those of us who have to take the subway every day, twice a day during peak hours, with no relief in sight.

No matter where you’re riding to or from, subway rides, especially during the morning rush, have become miserably crowded, with passengers forced to let multiple trains pass until even enough room to cram another body into a packed car emerges. Forget about getting a seat unless you board near a terminal. In other words, the subways are crowded, and it shows.

The problem is relief. The MTA did not anticipated annual ridership growing by 70 percent since 1995, and while the agency is happy to have added the equivalent of a small city to its daily ridership since 2010, the daily riders aren’t quite as thrilled. As now, the only core capacity increases are Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway, due to open next year, and Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway, due to open in a decade if we’re lucky. Beyond that, we have no Crossrail (let alone a Crossrail 2) or Grand Paris Express on the horizon. We have a 20-year needs assessment from late 2013 and constant fights over dedicated bus lanes and short-term band aids for long-term problems.

I don’t have the magic bullet or the one great answer. We know now that the MTA should have been aggressive in its ridership projections two decades ago, but who knew grow would be so extreme in the intervening 20 years? It’s time now though to plan for 2035, and as we sit here today, the subways are close to maxing out. It costs too much and takes too long to build anything that can be a short-term fix, and as New York continues to grow, we are facing a transit capacity crisis without an easy answer.

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  • Dept. of Subways head Leader to retire as Transit leadership shake-up continues · In a few weeks, Veronique Hakim will assume the position as President of New York City Transit, and her first task will be a big one as Joseph Leader, the senior vice president in charge of the Department of Subways, is retiring this Friday. Leader was appointed in 2013, and the Daily News broke word of his departure yesterday afternoon.

    As the News notes, Leader’s departure comes at a time of increased ridership but also increased frustration as crowding is at historic highs and subway rides seem slower and less pleasant than ever. Leader was a major proponent of the current FASTRACK maintenance program, and The News notes that Leader’s “last major initiative was an attempt to get trains moving more smoothly through the overcrowded and problem-plagued system” that involved using “subway station platform workers to move riders in and out of trains faster and boost[ing] maintenance and inspections.” Whether the latter has been a success is hard to say. Without boosting frequency and overall system capacity, these efforts strike me as the proverbial lipstick on a pig.

    So as Hakim arrives, she’ll be able to appoint her own right-hand aide to head up the largest subway system in America at a time of ever-increasing crowds and capacity concerns. Due to work shift rules, the MTA’s lead time for increasing service can run anywhere from six to nine months — which means, based on recent trends, that gains from increased capacity will be wiped out by the interim increase in ridership. Shortening this lag should be one of Hakim and her next SVP of subways’ top priorities. For now, Wynton Habersham, Transit’s Vice President and Chief Officer of Service Delivery, will serve as the interim SVP of subways. · (6)
An alternate universe NYC subway train arriving at Columbus Circle on Tuesday night. (Photo: Benjamin Kabak)

An alternate universe NYC subway train arriving at Columbus Circle on Tuesday night. (Photo: Benjamin Kabak)

After work last night, I took a trip to my old stomping ground on the Upper West Side to catch Mike LeDonne’s Hammond B3 organ quartet at the jazz club Smoke near 106th and Broadway. It’s been a Tuesday night tradition for over a decade now, and I’d highly recommend it. Usually, I’d take the 1 train from Midtown, but the MTA had a different idea. When the West Side IRT local pulled into Columbus Circle, the train proclaimed itself, oddly enough, a green 10.

A few passengers waiting for the train did a double-take, similar to the surprised looks that fill unsuspecting subway riders’ faces when the Nostalgia Train rolls up, and then, everyone got on. For the transit literati among us, it’s always a treat when a train with an improperly set rollsign shows up because it provides a window to a subway route that never was (and likely never will be). The 10 is just one of those routes.

As is evident from the green 10 bullet, at one point in developing the rollsigns on the R62 and R62A cars, the MTA reserved this route designation for the Lexington Ave. line. The agency never assigned the 10 to a route, but it’s safe to assume it would have served to differentiate today’s 5 trains. Perhaps the 10 could have been used for Nereid Ave.-bound East Side IRT trains.

The 10 isn’t alone as an unused route bullet. The 11 train was reserved for the 7 line. It could have indicated express service, but the MTA went with a diamond 7 instead. Other rollsigns have been known to offer a glimpse at a green 8 or 12, also indicating potential route designations for Lexington Ave. service. There’s a red 13 out there and, of course, the dearly departed 9 train should the West Side need extra route numbers as well.

Ultimately, though, these are a dying breed. When the R62 and R62A rolling stock sets are completely phased out by the end of the 2020s, the IRT rollsigns will go with them. Instead, colored bullets on train cars will go the way of the dodo, and we’ll have what we have today on new cars: bright red lights that don’t allow you to see what train is arriving until it’s nearly in the station. Of course, the IRT’s countdown clocks obviate the need for such a distinction, but I’ve always found something endearingly comforting about the subway bullets. They match the colors of the route lines on the subway map and system signage, and they otherwise give cohesion and character to otherwise anonymous subway cars. An N is a Q at the touch of a button, but the 10 train I rode in is a quirk of human error.

All good things must come to an end, though, and much like the rail fan window, the rollsigns — which look pretty cool when unfurled — will join transit history. As long as we get those open gangway trains sooner rather than later, though, I’ll bid the 10 train, and the 13 and 11 and 8 and 12, a fond farewell.

Categories : Rolling Stock
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The MTA has asked for ideas for an adaptive reuse of Long Island City's Montauk Cutoff.

The MTA has asked for ideas for an adaptive reuse of Long Island City’s Montauk Cutoff.

It’s been a while, at least on the site, since I’ve delved into the ongoing fight over the LIRR’s unused Rockaway Beach Branch right of way. I’ve kept abreast of goings-on via Twitter, and it has devolved into a bitter fight between and amongst groups that would otherwise be allies. The debate has spilled over into the discussion over nearby Woodhaven Boulevard, and it implicates not only the immediate area and its residents but also disparate neighborhoods and parts of the city that do not have a seat at the immediate table. It threatens to be Queens’ own response to the debacle that was the 34th St. Transitway, and that’s a future and history we shouldn’t want to repeat.

We could get into the nitty gritty later, but in broad strokes, this story pits a few interests against one another. One group — consisting largely of DOT, the MTA and a loose coalition of transit advocates — wants to turn Woodhaven Boulevard into an approximation of NYC’s first bus rapid transit line with dedicated lanes and fewer conveniences for drivers. It’s not a perfect plan as it lacks physical separation, and we could debate center-running lanes over side-running lanes for days. But it’s out there, and it’s a creative and proper allocation of street space on an important north-south corridor that isn’t served by transit.

Opposing the Woodhaven BRT plan are your usual array of Queens residents with assists from some Brooklynites who believe in the primacy of the automobile and cannot suffer the elimination of lanes for cars, left turns or prioritizing transit riders. Some of these opponents are knee-jerk NIMBYs, but others have decided that the better solution is to turn the Rockaway Beach Branch line into an elevated and dedicated busway. Despite the fact that the right of way is in shambles and work to shore up the structure would be both costly and timely, these proponents — who have found voices in local community papers — argue that the right of way is perfect for a bus. Never mind the fact that it’ll take years, if not decades, for that plan to become a reality, and DOT and the MTA want an immediate solution.

Then, in yet another corner are the QueensWay proponents. These folks, led by the Trust for Public Land, have pushed hard to get funding and community support before too many politicians wake up to the reality that turning the ROW into a park without a proper assessment of reactivation would be a future folly. They had some momentum from some loud voices in neighborhoods along the park, but pushback by Assembly representative Phil Goldfeder has slowed this effort and given a neighborhood that stands to benefit a voice in the wilderness. Some of the park advocates have lined up behind the Woodhaven SBS plan, in part, because they recognize that QueensWay won’t actually solve Queens’ mobility issues. SBS then is also a pro-park, quasi-NIMBY solution for a group that has dismissed rail seemingly out of hand.

So it’s NIMBYs vs. transit advocates vs. park advocates vs. bus advocates vs. NYC DOT. All I’ve asked for is a truly independent engineering and cost assessment of the various proposals, but it’s hard to escape the bitter name-calling of the disputes. And that’s the mess we’re in. (For a flavor of it on the local level, check out this recent piece and this other recent piece from the Queens Chronicle.)

So now, 500 words later, you might be wondering what this has to do with the Montauk Cutoff. Or you might be wondering just what the *%^$ the Montauk Cutoff is. I’m so glad you asked. The Montauk Cutoff is a 1/3 of a mile LIRR right of way that runs through Long Island City, connecting the Lower Montauk Branch to the Sunnyside Yards, and the MTA has decommissioned it. The agency anticipates no near-term use for it, but they are actively preserving the right-of-way should a future use emerge. It is, writ large, the single biggest lesson to take from the Rockaway Beach Branch Line debate: Keep and preserve what can be used for rail while considering adaptive reuse with the understanding that any potential reuse may be only temporary.

So far, the MTA has issued a Request for Expressions of Interest [pdf] which could lead to a future RFP. In discussing the RFEI with Curbed a few months ago, an MTA spokesman explained the agency’s guiding philosophy: “Specifically, the MTA is seeking expressions of interest from businesses, nonprofits, community groups, and individuals with innovative adaptive reuse concepts, and detailed implementation and operating plans for those concepts. These concepts can include, but are not limited to, public open space, urban farming, or museum or sculpture garden space.”

The RFEI echoes this sentiment. “It is conceivable that the Montauk Cutoff may be required for future transportation needs,” the document notes. “A sale or permanent disposition of the Montauk Cutoff may disadvantage. MTA in the future, and leaving it vacant may invite encroachments and blight. As a result, the MTA wishes to investigate adaptive reuse concepts to preserve the right-of-way for potential future use.

Already, the usual suspects are jockeying for position. Some linear park proponents and rails-to-trails group have discussed a mini-High Line-style park through Long Island City and a variety of community groups are actively exploring ways to incorporate this right of way into the surrounding neighborhood. Community visioning groups have seemingly made this a more inconclusive project than that surrounding the Rockaway Beach Branch, but that is, in part, because the MTA is exerting its control and ownership of the ROW while clearly expressing its desire to preserve the ROW.

It’s not clear yet what happens with the Montauk Cutoff. The MTA could assess the responses to the RFEI and decide to hold back an RFP. They could just let it sit there for a while before a rail use returns. But, for now at least, it’s a project with far fewer people fighting over its future, and that alone should tell you everything about the importance of both the Rockaway Beach Branch Line and the Montauk Cutoff to efforts to improve mobility around an area in need of transit capacity.

Categories : LIRR, Queens
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Good luck. Do you plan to ride the subways this weekend? Well, to that I say good luck. Hopefully, you’ll have a better experience than I did at 11:45 on Friday night when I had to wait 30 minutes for a downtown Q train at Herald Square. During that half an hour, I saw three uptown Q trains pass — two bound for 57th St. and one for Astoria. I saw three downtown N trains pass (and, yes, should have taken one). No downtown Q and no announcement.

When eventually the Q showed up, it was as crowded as a morning train and running local. Three stops later, an empty train deadheading back to Coney Island went zooming by on the express tracks. Via Twitter, Transit claimed this massive gap was the result of an earlier incident, but that didn’t pass the smell test. The MTA never sent out a text alert about an earlier incident and made no announcements. Plus, trains were running uptown but just not back downtown. Pure and simple, I was a victim of poor operations planning and an attempt to make excuses. It doesn’t fly in 2015.

But I digress. Let’s instead focus on something more fun. Take the Nostalgia Train this weekend and throughout the month. Every Sunday, from 2nd Ave. to Queens Plaza on the 6th Ave. line, the old cars will run from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. It’s a lot of fun to hop a quick ride on cars that ran decades ago. And if that’s not your style, just take the C train instead for instant nostalgia. The Transit Museum will also be hosting a pop-up museum shop at 2nd Ave. during Sundays in December.

Meanwhile, there are some service changes this weekend. None involve a 30-minute wait for the Q though (or the Q train at all) so oh well for me.

From 11:45 p.m. Friday, December 4 to 6 a.m. Saturday, December 5; from 11:45 p.m.
Saturday, December 5 to 8 a.m. Sunday, December 6; and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, December 6 to 5 a.m. Monday, December 7, downtown 4 trains run express from 125 St to Grand Central-42 St.

From 11:45 p.m. Friday, December 4 to 6 a.m. Saturday, December 5; from 11:45 p.m. Saturday, December 5 to 8 a.m. Sunday, December 6; and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, December 6 to 5 a.m. Monday, December 7, downtown 6 trains run express from 125 St-Union Sq to Grand Central-42 St.

  • To 116 St, 110 St, 103 St, 96 St, 77 St, 68 St and 51 St, take a downtown 4 or 6 train to 86 St, 59 St, or Grand Central-42 St and transfer to an uptown 4 local or 6.
  • From these stations, take an uptown 4 or 6 to 59 St, 86 St or 125 St and transfer to a downtown 4 or 6.
  • Transfers at 86 St require an Unlimited Ride MetroCard.

From 11:45 p.m. Friday, December 4 to 8 p.m. Saturday, December 5, Coney Island-bound trains run express from Jay St-MetroTech to 4 Av-9 St.

  • To Bergen St, Carroll St, and Smith-9 Sts, take the F to 4 Av-9 St and transfer to a Jamaica-bound F.
  • From these stations, take a Jamaica-bound F to Jay St-MetroTech and transfer to a Coney Island-bound F.
  • G trains do not operate between Church Av and Hoyt-Schermerhorn Sts.

From 11:45 p.m. Friday, December 4 to 8 p.m. Saturday, December 5, Jamaica-bound trains skip 169 St.

  • To this station, take a Jamaica-bound F to 179 St and transfer to a Coney Island-bound F.
  • From this station, use the Q2, Q3 or Q17 bus.

From 11:30 p.m. Friday, December 4 to 8 p.m. Saturday, December 5, service is suspended between Church Av and Hoyt-Schermerhorn Sts. A and F trains provide alternate service. G service operates in two sections:

  • Between Court Sq and Bedford-Nostrand Avs
  • Between Bedford-Nostrand Avs and Hoyt-Schermerhorn Sts, every 20 minutes
  • For continuous service, transfer at Bedford-Nostrand Avs
  • For Church Av, take an uptown A at Hoyt-Schermerhorn St to Jay St-MetroTech St and transfer to a Coney Island-bound F.
  • Coney Island-bound F trains skip Bergen St, Carroll St and Smith-9 Sts.

From 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday, December 5, service operates in two sections:

  • Between 8 Av and Broadway Junction
  • Between Broadway Junction and Rockaway Pkwy, every 24 minutes
  • For continuous service, transfer at Broadway Junction.

From 11:45 p.m. Friday, December 4 to 6 a.m. Saturday, December 5, Astoria-bound trains are rerouted via the Q from DeKalb Av to Canal St.

  • No Astoria-bound trains at Jay St-MetroTech, Court St, Whitehall St, Rector St, Cortlandt St, and City Hall. Use the 4 at nearby stations.
  • Transfer between trains at Atlantic Av-Barclays Ctr, Canal St, or 14 St-Union Sq.

From 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday, December 5, 71 Av-bound trains are rerouted via the Q from DeKalb Av to Canal St.

  • No Astoria-bound trains at Jay St-MetroTech, Court St, Whitehall St, Rector St, Cortlandt St, and City Hall. Use the 4 at nearby stations.
  • Transfer between trains at Atlantic Av-Barclays Ctr, Canal St, or 14 St-Union Sq.
Categories : Service Advisories
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When Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced $8 billion in state funding for the MTA’s capital plan a few months ago, the proclamation came with absolutely no details, and a follow-up agreement between the city and state to end their feud and fund the capital plan similarly contained no details. We had no idea how the state would generate the $8 billion in new funding Cuomo had pledged to the MTA, and in the intervening months, no additional details have emerged.

Will the money come from congestion pricing? (Unlikely.) Dedicated revenue sources? (I wouldn’t count on it.) Bonding? (Probably.) Either way, without tying the money into a source, Cuomo seemed to be promising a lot of dollars for downstate interests, and that, despite the economic realities of New York State, did not sit well with everyone else. Now the upstaters want their share. Is it a fair share or is just a money grab?

Here’s the story from Binghamton’s Press & Sun Bulletin:

New York will pay $8 billion over the next five years to fund the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, but upstate should have its own funding stream to fix roads and bridges, leaders testified Thursday.

Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks and county leaders urged lawmakers to create a similar fund that would put the rest of the state on par with the downstate region for infrastructure upgrades. “Upstate residents deserve parity to this downstate investment so that all New Yorkers benefit equitably,” Brooks told the Assembly Transportation Committee headed by Assemblyman David Gantt, D-Rochester.

Brooks, who is president of the state Association of Counties, said the state Department of Transportation has yet to release its five-year capital plan for road and bridge repair, leaving municipalities unsure what projects will get funded…For his part, Cuomo has vowed to get more infrastructure funding for upstate after the MTA deal was crafted between New York City and the state on Oct. 10.

The MTA, which provides transit services to the city and its suburbs, including the Hudson Valley, had a $9.8 billion funding gap for its five-year, $32 billion capital plan. The state will pick up the bulk of the tab, with the city and MTA funding the rest. Cuomo agreed that more infrastructure spending is needed in upstate. The concerns from Brooks and other leaders follow similar calls in recent months from upstate officials over the need to infuse cash into the upstate infrastructure. “They’re right,” Cuomo told reporters Nov. 18 in Rochester. “We always fund transportation needs all around the state. We need to fund them downstate, and we need to fund them upstate. There’s no doubt about that.”

This is a prime example of what happens when you promise money without identifying a funding source: Everyone wants a piece of the bottomless pie. With a rationalized transit funding policy, tied into revenue-generating schemes that promote transit and sensible transportation policies, it’s harder for everyone else to stick their hands in the state-sponsored cookie jar. That’s on Cuomo.

Anyway, here’s the question I pose to you: We can’t be surprised by the upstate request, but what does it mean to give them “parity,” as Brooks has requested? An $8 billion expenditure on upstate infrastructure would equate to something along the lines of $30 billion within NYC based on economic strength and impact on the state on the whole. (Tangentially, should we also consider the new Tappan Bridge an upstate project?) A policy of investing heavily in roads may be good in the short-term for upstate’s struggling economy but where does that leave New York on the whole? Ultimately, it should drive Cuomo to come up with a rational transit spending and funding program. But I wouldn’t hold my breath.

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