While visiting Montreal last year — a city on the same landmass as ours — I had the opportunity to enjoy a few subway rides on the city’s rubber-tired Metro. The trains had a special sound to it, generally quieter than the screech of New York’s subways, and the trainsets were a revelation as well. The concept of open gangways — articulated subway cars with no doors or gaps between cars — has filtered through the United States, but it is alive and well in Montreal, lending more capacity to a modest Metro.
In New York City, where capacity problems are obvious every morning, every evening and every weekend, the MTA’s response has been halting and insufficient. As I wrote recently, the agency is ill prepared to deal with the crowds today and hasn’t adequate prepared for tomorrow. Even a fully funded 2015-2019 capital plan won’t do much to solve the subway’s capacity crunch, and although the first phase of the Second Ave. Subway is a start, by itself, it won’t be the answer.
There are incremental solutions though, and open gangways are an easy one. London, in fact, has found that open gangways could increase train capacity by ten percent alone. The MTA hasn’t really dabbled with open gangways but has acknowledged their existence. The 2013 Twenty-Year Needs Assessment identified open gangways as a potential innovation on the horizon, and transit advocates noted that the MTA is one of the largest system in the world without such cars. Could this be yet another case of New York exceptionalism? It certainly seems so.
Over at The Transport Politic, Yonah Freemark wonders why American transit agencies have ignored open gangways. Looking at available data, Freemark finds that nearly every transit agency except those in the United States have embraced this type of rolling stock, and he doesn’t understand why. He writes of global trends and New York, in particular:
Open gangways provide a number of advantages: One, they expand capacity by allowing riders to use the space that typically sits empty between cars. This added capacity means that a metro line can carry more people with trains of the same length. Two, it allows passengers to redistribute themselves throughout the train while the vehicle is moving, reducing problems associated with many people boarding in the same doorway, such as slow exiting times and poorly distributed standees. Three, it increases safety at times of low ridership by increasing the number of “eyes” in the train. There are no obvious downsides…
[The MTA], like others around the country, has the opportunity to address some of its problems through the purchase of these trains. On the congested Lexington Avenue Line…about 45.6 feet of each train’s 513.3-foot length is used up by the empty four feet between each car and the 10 feet reserved for the cabs at the center of the trains. That means that, if the Lexington Avenue Line were transitioned to trains with open gangways, the line could gain almost an entire car-length of capacity on every train. That’s practically as much relief as the Second Avenue Subway will provide—at the cost of trains that would be purchased anyway…
Open gangways are hardly the end-all be-all of transit operations. They won’t guarantee better service or necessarily attract more riders. And they may not be able to resolve some issues, such as the fact that Washington’s Metro runs trains of different car lengths on each line. But the fact that every U.S. transit agency—with the exception of Honolulu’s—has failed to adopt to this trend and has no plans to change, raises important questions. Just how much are the management of these transit agencies isolating themselves from world best practice? This is hardly an isolated case. The fact that transit agencies around the world are transitioning infrequent suburban rail operations into frequent regional rail services seems to be lost on most U.S. commuter rail agencies.
Freemark notes as well his own skepticism that “this technology is just ‘not possible’ on historic U.S. systems,” and his is a skepticism I share. That it has worked everywhere else is a clear sign that whatever barriers to implementation exist in the United States are those set up by our own agencies’ failures rather than by something unique to this country.
For its part, the MTA has claimed developing a new subway car would cost too much in design spending, but as we reach a capacity crisis, what’s the alternative? If it takes 10 years and billions of dollars just to build a new subway stop, the next rolling stock purchases should all have open gangways. At this point, though, we won’t see such designs in New York City for at least ten years, if at all, and that’s just a failure of problem solving at a time when we need executives to be thinking outside the (American) box.