Home MTA Politics Drilling down on Bloomberg’s transit record

Drilling down on Bloomberg’s transit record

by Benjamin Kabak

BloombergHeadshot Unintentionally, it’s turned into Mayor Bloomberg Day here on SAS. This morning, I examined Bloomberg’s claims about the 7 line extension and questioned whether or not this project represents a needed expansion and a good use of dollars. This afternoon, let’s look at this overall transit record.

Yesterday, Graham Beck of the Gotham Gazette offered up his take on Bloomberg’s transportation record. Generally, says Beck, Bloomberg has a strong transportation record for pedestrians and bicyclists. His Department of Transportation under Janette Sadik-Kahn has reclaimed public spaces and streets for pedestrians, and he has put a strong emphasis on making New York City more bike-friendly. Although congestion pricing failed, non-auto modes account for all of the transportation growth in the city, and New York, a walker’s heaven, is far more friendly to pedestrians than it has been since the advent of the automobile.

Yet, Bloomberg’s record on the MTA is far from stellar. In fact, as Beck says, the MTA’s financial straits have come about “at least in part because of funding choices made by the mayor.” The most visible public transportation moment of Bloomberg’s first eight years came in 2005 when the city faced a transit workers strike. As Beck reports, “Fifty-one percent [of city residents] said his handling of the situation was not so good or poor, while 45 percent said it was great or good.”

Although Bloomberg controls just four of the 17 seats on the MTA Board and four of its 13 votes, his record on public transit is decided mixed. Beck’s overall analysis of Bloomberg’s direct contributions to the MTA bears repeating:

During [the] long-gone good years, Bloomberg cut the city’s contribution to the MTA. It is now about $60 million a year, or just 1 percent of the authority’s capital budget. Previously, the city’s contribution equaled about 10 percent of the MTA’s capital budget. The cut has inspired some advocates, like John Petro of the Drum Major Institute, to claim that Bloomberg is “shortchanging mass transit” and others like Veronica Vanterpool of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign to call for the city to increase its aid to the MTA.

Certainly, Bloomberg has campaigned as though the decrease hadn’t happened. In August he released Moving NYC, a populist, voter-friendly, MTA-dependant transit platform that suggests a slew of new proposals, like free cross-town buses, that are either inspired ideas or empty promises.

If the voters re-elect Bloomberg in November, we’ll have four more years to find out if he is really the MetroCard Mayor or merely another politician in a big black SUV.

Bloomberg is basing much of his campaign on that Moving NYC proposal, and I’ve already questioned the originality of his place. He is basically repacking ideas that are already out there and supported by transit advocates as a campaign proposal. Many of the ideas — such as the F express plan — are already on the MTA’s “to do” list, and others require something — money — with which the mayor has been seemingly loathe to provide the MTA.

That, as Beck notes, is the rub. If Bloomberg is serious about transit, if he wants to be that MetroCard Mayor, he will find a way to deliver the bucks to the MTA. If not, then he is all talk and little action, concerned more with a 7 line extension that benefits his real estate developer plans than any true overhaul that improves transit in New York City. Only time will tell.

Tomorrow, we’ll talk a look at William Thompson, currently comptroller and Democratic mayoral hopeful, and his plan for transit. Although it is not nearly as extensive as Bloomberg’s, he too is putting transportation reform on his agenda.

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Andrew October 28, 2009 - 9:46 pm

The F express is on the MTA’s “to study” list, not the “to do” list.

It’s not at all clear to me that it’s warranted. The average rush hour F train isn’t even close to overcrowded (that’s not to say that there aren’t some overcrowded trains, but they’re usually closely followed by a train or two with plenty of seats, at least at the Brooklyn end). How would NYCT justify expending valuable resources (crews, cars, money) to an extension of the V, especially when other lines have substantially more severe crowding problems? (To be fair, it may not be possible to increase service on many of those other lines. But why should riders on those lines see more of their fare dollars go towards increased service on a line that isn’t even as crowded as their own?)

AlexB October 29, 2009 - 8:27 am

I used the F daily for three years. It was crowded enough.

The Culver line in Brooklyn where the F runs has more than enough track capacity for additional trains, whereas most other crowded trains do not.

One of the main reasons a train gets delayed is passenger interference. The F has a very long route with many stops. If the F can skip 6+ stops in Brooklyn, that improves the line’s overall reliability and speed, meaning one will not have to wait for a full train to pass before you get on a less full one, as you described.

The amount of resources required to extend the V to Church Ave is not huge and by speeding up the F, that means it takes fewer trains to operate the route, saving money.

Andrew October 29, 2009 - 11:06 pm

“It was crowded enough” is hardly an impartial measure of crowding. It certainly doesn’t mean that the trains meet, or even approach, NYCT’s definition of overcrowded (in the case of the F, either 145 or 175 passengers per car, depending on the length of the car). See here.

The resources required to extend the V would actually be quite substantial. Figure a round-trip running time of about 50 minutes added on to the route. At a 6-minute headway, that requires about 8 or 9 additional trains – each with a crew of two. Subtract 2 from the F, assuming a round-trip savings of about 8 minutes due to the express run. For a line that currently only runs 15 trains, that’s quite huge.

For an agency that recently came very close to instituting service cuts due to insufficient operating funds, I hardly think adding that degree of service is prudent unless trains are severely overcrowded – which, in this case, they are not.

Reliability is a different matter entirely. There are many potential means to improve reliability (NYCT recently released a report touching on these very issues), and I think you’ve managed to pick out by far the most expensive. That is, if it even works – the additional complexity might make the resulting service even less reliable!

But it’s not up to me. NYCT promised to study the issue, and I’m sure NYCT will study the issue. NYCT never promised a particular conclusion.

Benjamin Kabak October 29, 2009 - 11:08 pm

I don’t have these numbers at my finger tips, but I think you’re using the wrong baseline for the comparison. You’re looking at the crowding on the F line across the board. If you’re going to institute express service only in Brooklyn, you have to look at the crowding from Midtown Manhattan-Church Ave. or so. You might find the line at that point warrants express service.

Andrew October 31, 2009 - 8:06 pm

Average crowding (“across the board”) is meaningless. Nobody measures such a thing. What’s relevant is crowding at the most crowded point during the most crowded period(s) of the day.

Fortunately, the exact numbers we’re looking for, along with a thorough discussion, are in NYCT’s recent Review of F Line Operations, Ridership, and Infrastructure. See pages 12-13.

AlexB October 30, 2009 - 9:57 am

Your numbers make sense. Running an net extra 6-7 trains would be a lot ($100 million in capital costs, more or less, if they use only new trains), but I still think it would be worth it. At the very least, 8 minutes for $100 million is a great deal. In comparison, they’ve spent over $300 million on the new signal system for the L. They are spending way more than $100 million to upgrade the Jay St station, which will only add riders to the F when R train users start transferring to it.

The F is crowded. Maybe it doesn’t meet the MTA’s definition, but that train is crowded. I don’t need an official report to know it’s not cool that I have to hold my coffee against my body in order to fit on the train. We shouldn’t have to accept the 4 train at 86th st as our standard before we do something about this. I’ve ridden all the Brooklyn trains during rush hour at various time and the F is the 2nd worst, after the L. The Q comes in 3rd, and they use the Q’s express tracks for the B, which has become increasingly popular and effective. I recently moved to Queens and I have all the room I want on the V every morning.

In terms of reliability, the F currently has to merge with the G at Smith and the V at 2nd Ave. If the F ran express, it would only have to merge with the V at Jay St. Running express to Church, it would have to pick up approximately 40,000 less people every day. That’s 40,000 fewer opportunities for someone to hold the doors open and 40,000 more reasons for the V to exist in the first place. Running the F express and the V local to Church definitely would reduce complexity and increase reliability.

Andrew October 31, 2009 - 8:24 pm

Subway cars don’t operate or maintain themselves – you’re completely ignoring the ongoing operating costs to actually run the extra service.

If you think NYCT rush hour loading guidelines (all seats filled and 3 square ft per standee – about 1400-1450 per train on the F) aren’t generous enough, then, by all means, please petition the MTA board to change them. (Note that decreasing guideline loads would trigger increased operating costs all over the system as service is increased across the board. I don’t know how that would be paid for – a premature fare increase? Perhaps it’s worth it.)

The rush hour 4 carries over-guideline loads, and there’s no way to increase service on the line. That’s why the SAS is so important. If the F in Brooklyn even approaches the crowding that’s seen on the 4, then of course additional service is in order. But if the average F train at the Brooklyn peak load point is at 75% of guideline capacity, there’s no need whatsoever for more service.

There still may be a need for better – more reliable and more consistent – service. But throwing more trains at the line doesn’t solve that problem. It may function as a (very expensive) band-aid – or it may just make things worse. The Church Avenue terminal may have trouble handling both the G and the V. The Bergen Street interlocking will be a lot busier than it is now. A signal problem at Jay Street will delay service to Queens on both the F and the V (and probably on the G as well!).

Anecdotal observations from riding trains aren’t a good way to gauge relative crowding. You may ride in a particularly crowded part of the train on one line but not on another. You may ride during the peak period, or past the peak load point, on one line but not on another. South Brooklyn got a big service boost when the Manhattan Bridge fully reopened in 2004, which relieved pressure even on lines that don’t themselves cross the bridge; at this point, the worst crowding on the subway is generally to the east (Queens) and north (the Bronx and upper Manhattan).

Alon Levy November 1, 2009 - 4:34 am

The MTA crowding guidelines are if anything too stringent. On subway systems in East Asia, I’ve regularly observed crowding levels higher than those on even the most crush-loaded subway train in New York, even on the L or the 6. In Shanghai, people have to push each other on the train to get room. In Tokyo, they have professional pushers. This suggests that higher levels of crowding than the MTA accepts should be considered normal.

Also, the F line report notes the uneven crowding levels on the train:

Brooklyn F trains tend to be more heavily loaded at the front and back, which reflects the location of platform stairs along the F in Brooklyn. Passenger volumes in the end cars are twice as likely to exceed guideline capacity, compared with the middle cars, during the morning peak period (6am to 10am) and three times as likely during the evening peak period (3pm to 7pm). The relatively uneven loading within trains may contribute to the perception of the line as overcrowded, since proportionately more riders are in the crowded sections of the train.

This suggests the cheapest way to reduce crowding is to build new openings or new waiting areas at stations.

Andrew November 1, 2009 - 10:46 am

Agreed. (I’m glad I’m not the only one who’s read the report – it’s pretty comprehensive.)

Or, if the localized crowding problem (in the end cars) isn’t causing other operational problems (e.g., delays due to door holding), then simply post signs suggesting that people who want a more comfortable ride can move toward the middle of the train.

Grrrumpy Miner October 29, 2009 - 11:44 am

Mayor Bloomberg and 99% of the people who ride the MTA couldn’t give a rats tail about those who get them from Point A to Point B and everywhere in between.

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