Home View from Underground With no relief plan in sight, the subways are too crowded, too old, and too broke

With no relief plan in sight, the subways are too crowded, too old, and too broke

by Benjamin Kabak

A sight more common than New Yorkers would like to admit.

For years, civic-minded transit-watchers in New York City have warned of the legacy of deferred maintenance. As the story goes, the systemwide collapse the subway system suffered from the mid-1970s and mid-1980s was a result of defered maintenance brought about by a lack of revenue from fares kept artificially low throughout the early part of the Twentieth Century. It was supposed to be a cautionary tale that ended in 1981 when Richard Ravitch launched the MTA’s capital spending plans. By investing heavily in the system, the MTA could attempt to clear out a backlog of repairs while eying modernization and expansion projects that had lingered in purgatory. It’s a nice story, but the only problem is that, 35 years later, we’re still not out of the woods.

Today, the MTA suffers from a problem vastly different from the one it confronted in the 1970s and 1980s. The subway system is essentially too crowded. Average weekday ridership throughout 2015 reached 5,650,000, the subway system’s highest total since 1948, and a full 48 workdays saw ridership top 6 million. Those figures represent around a 1 percent increase over 2014’s totals, and if we see another jump in ridership this year, it’s not entirely clear where all those people will fit. Because the agency hasn’t caught up to current technological trends, because the MTA can’t really run more trains without a massively expensive and time-consuming investment in upgrading nearly every facet of its operations, subway service is going to continue to sag from overcrowding. The MTA is a victim of its own success and a victim of years of poor management and investment practices.

The latest deep dive into the MTA’s problems comes to us from Robert Kolker. He explored the MTA’s delay crisis through the lens of Friday, October 16, 2015, the day the gap fillers on the downtown local tracks at Union Square decided to take a vacation that threw off service along both the East and West Side IRT routes. The resulting article is a narrative tour de force that sums up the MTA’s nearly intractable problems. The subways are too crowded and too old while the MTA is too broke and too institutionally conservative to solve capacity constraints and technological innovation in a way that keeps up with ridership.

Kolker’s piece is a treasure trove of information on delays. As we learn, the MTA is pushing around 500,000 delayed trains per year, and the agency’s on-time performance numbers are abysmal. Even if wait assessment is a better indicator of reliable service, only 70 percent of trains are arriving at their terminals within five minutes of their scheduled times, and last year, just 43 percent of 4 trains, 39 percent of 5 trains and 46 percent of 6 trains were considered on time under the MTA’s loose definition.

As Kolker reports it, the MTA, in part, blames its crowds. There are too many people trying to shove themselves into trains that don’t run frequently enough to catch up with demand, and delays stem from everything from sick customers (which one MTA official blames on riders who skip breakfast) to extended dwell times. Here’s Kolker on these delays:

MTA executives are naturally defensive about the criticism. They argue that, unlike in the ’70s, the current problems are a result of their own success — the subways are more popular than ever and therefore more crowded. Six million people use the subways on a busy day now; since 2010 the system has added nearly half a million daily users. The 6 line alone is up by 200,000 daily riders compared to a few years ago. “It’s like the sponge is soaked and we’re adding more water,” says Calandrella. Rush-hour crowds can start at six; the evening rush extends past nine.

Fifteen of the subway system’s 21 lines (not including the shuttles) have maxed out the number of trains that can ride safely on the routes, and ten of those 15 lines are at peak riding capacity, which means when something goes wrong, the dispatchers have no wiggle room. The MTA has blamed some 40 percent of delays on the system’s high ridership numbers, and the agency has few good options for tempering the crowds, including converting the train-car stock to “open gangway” cars, which annex the dead space between cars and convert it into usable space for passengers, increasing capacity by perhaps as much as 10 percent. Other cities have taken to rationing access to crowded stations or jamming passengers into cars Tokyo style.

Throughout the article, Kolker traces budget issues, the slow pace of CBTC rollout, and the challenges the MTA has in bringing system expansion on line. The three and a half new stations that Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway promises to deliver sometime later this year or early next hardly seem sufficient considering crowds throughout the rest of the city. Despite all these real-life challenges that we know exist, I am struck by Kolker’s kicker. He writes:

There’s another argument that the real problem behind the increase in delays isn’t the culture of subway ridership or even a budget shortfall but the culture of the MTA. When the agency lowered its on-time goals, was it being realistic or accepting defeat? I’m reminded of the recent comptroller’s report and its condemnation of the MTA’s dysfunction. “Transit officials,” the report concluded, “had no formal corrective action plans or programs to minimize the chronic underlying problems that caused delays.” Instead, the delay problem is being picked apart by more than a dozen task forces, studies, and initiatives. It’s like they say in track-safety school: There’s no such thing as a simple shortcut. Only quicksand.

So where do we go from here? Based on the need to line up funding and conduct environmental studies and figure out why everything in New York City has to cost so damn much, the MTA’s 20-year needs look laughably out of reach, and yet, New York City needs the MTA to realize its 20-year needs tomorrow and its 40-year needs by the time 2020 rolls around. That ain’t happening, and as we’ve seen, even modest service increases that have to be planned six or eight months in advance can’t keep pace with ridership growth.

Is the answer open gangways, an idea the MTA is barely embracing in an order of 790 new subway car that are supposed to last throughout most of the rest of your life and mine? Is the answer a stagnant New York that can’t grow because the subways have room for marginal growth? Is the answer a city-run network that starts with a questionably-motivated streetcar that won’t see service for eight more years? Is the answer sighing in frustration while Paris and London engage in massive transit expansion projects while New York spins its wheels? It’s hard to be optimistic when the answers seems frustratingly insufficient and ineffective, but it’s hard to see where else we are right now other than stuck in a rut too deep to escape.

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Bigbellymon4 February 24, 2016 - 12:43 am

Not only is the MTA stuck in a rut too deep, but the only way for the technological advances the subway needs and the funding for the repair work to bring the system to a SOGR is by money, politicians who are willing to figure out why things cost so damn much and dont care if their reputation gets hurt in the process, and a universal agreement with the MTA that reform is necessary in order to not only improve the quality of the subway, but to be able to expand at a much more rapid pace. These goals are not going to happen any time soon.

Chris February 24, 2016 - 4:56 am

Maybe cuts in nighttime service combined with massive improvements on nighttime buses should be considered to make repairs easier…

Christopher February 24, 2016 - 6:30 am

That should perhaps come with surface traffic demand management. We’re already facing a problem with surface congestion where we need to time shift more deliveries and commercial traffic to the evening hours in order to free up space during the day.

Not sure why, the Straphangers representative in the NY Mag article was so aghast at the idea of crowd control. Large transit systems in cities around the globe already do this. Heck, any organization that deals with large crowds — sports and entertainment, ,for instance — already invests in crowd control. It’s a sensible thing to do.

Larry Littlefield February 24, 2016 - 9:12 am

What does the Straphangers stand for? Much lower fares.

Twenty years ago.

They won, along with the anti-tax and spend on other things people who ran up the debt, the TWU which got the big pension increase in 2000 (though not 20/50), and the LIRR “unions.”

Have those who won retired and moved away yet?

Bolwerk February 24, 2016 - 11:07 am

Might work under some conditions.

With the L Train, buses leaving nearly minutely hardly suffice to carry people between Lorimer and Myrtle during closures. That’s late at night, when demand is low-ish and at least some people have been scared away by the closure.

Larry Littlefield February 24, 2016 - 7:49 am

The issue is generational equity. The money is going to the generations born before 1958. The tax cut generation. All of it. Unfunded pensions. Debts. Deferred maintenance. In NYC, and everywhere else in the country. Federal, state and local.

The private sector hasn’t invested in the future either — business investment and dividends are down, executive pay is up. People haven’t saved for retirement. And the federal government doesn’t have the money for the senior benefits it has promised.

This has been building up for 35 years, and I’m very upset about it. You can’t undo those 35 years. This blog and others just look at once slice of it. And unless somebody is willing to be honest about our situation, it will continue to get worse, and the younger you are, the worse off it will be for you.

People in NYC have no idea how much worse it is elsewhere. Younger people from elsewhere are fleeing here, and a few other cities. And the political/union class and the real estate industry are exploiting their desperation. Squeezed not the subway? What is happening in housing? In the workplace?

Larry Littlefield February 24, 2016 - 7:52 am

By the way. Let no one say “federal money.” Because there isn’t going to be more of that. And NYC is going to get less and less of what there is.


Bolwerk February 24, 2016 - 11:00 am

Why the hell would you be so sure of that or anything? Might be there is a big political realignment on the horizon. I don’t know who will win, but the Reagan-Thatcherite neoliberals in this election only have one credible hope for continued occupation of the White House: Hillary Clinton. It’s a pretty strong if not unassailable hope, but this is already rather unprecedented in post-1980 politics. Otherwise, Rubio might be a fool’s hope, and Bloomberg could only be a spoiler.

And if Hillary does prevail, it also could play right into the hands of an even more drastic political realignment: four more years of Obama-esque capitulations to an increasingly nutty GOP only means four more years for mushy “centrist” Democratic voters to realize they’ve been had by the good cop.

Larry Littlefield February 24, 2016 - 11:54 am

I have written some posts about the federal campaign, but otherwise try not to think about the federal government. It’s too depressing.

You have completely forgotten about the Congress, as does everyone else, which is why it’s pretty much as good for ordinary people in general, and younger generations in particular, as the NY State Legislature (or NJ state legislature or Illinois state legislature, etc).

And then you get our Presidential candidates. “Vote for Hillary because she will use effective management to string out or national collapse over a long time rather than plunging the country into a full-on short term catastrophe!” I think that’s about it.

Bolwerk February 24, 2016 - 1:06 pm

I would never completely forget Congress unless I had them trapped in an underwater cage that was flooding. I know a lot of people think they’re extra-discerning for pointing out the importance of Congressional elections, and they’re right about the importance anyway, but the the best barometer for what issues people want to see addressed is still POTUS, not Congress. That may be a bad thing, but it’s how it is.

However, Congress is also more malleable than people think. Both parties have fairly authoritarian-submissive rank ‘n file members, especially the Republikans. If Trump wins and is capable of setting an agenda, they’ll fall in line as they did for Reagan and, to a lesser extent, GWB. This includes many, maybe most, Democrats.

Democrats are a bit less malleable. The main concern for Democrats is getting reelected. They’ll support or oppose a president based almost entirely on that.

SEAN February 24, 2016 - 1:29 pm

A modified post from yesterday & a little more.

Part of the problem you speak of relates to the psychodynamics of 9/11 & the revenge factor that grew from it. Each presidential election since 2004 has shown elements of this with the current crop of candidates really showing the worst psychological damage outside of maybe Sanders.

The interesting dynamic of this election cycle is not witch candidate You like, rather it’s the one you hate the least. This is most evident among the republicans who are trying to prove how conservative they can be in front of the voters no matter how ridiculous or damaging it becomes.

Nathanael February 24, 2016 - 2:43 pm

Mild correction: the Republicans are trying to prove how *right-wing* they can be.

Nothing they have done in the last 40 years qualifies as “conservative”. I like to conserve things and I dislike change — and Republican elected officials are radical “burn down the world” extremists.

Larry Littlefield February 24, 2016 - 3:17 pm

Not the whole world, just other people’s worlds. And now they are horrified to be getting Trumped.

SEAN February 24, 2016 - 3:32 pm


Mild correction: the Republicans are trying to prove how *right-wing* they can be.

Nothing they have done in the last 40 years qualifies as “conservative”. I like to conserve things and I dislike change — and Republican elected officials are radical “burn down the world” extremists.

Well said.

Larry Littlefield

Not the whole world, just other people’s worlds. And now they are horrified to be getting Trumped.

Getting trumped – best description of the republican field & it’s getting worse for everyone.

LLQBTT February 26, 2016 - 10:12 am

Of the current candidates, only Bernie Sanders would fight to improve the transit infrastructure

Chris February 28, 2016 - 5:04 pm

And how about The Donald?

Larry Greenfield February 24, 2016 - 9:58 am

The subway system is overwhelmed with ridership increases and needs money to address it. Sure there are changes, such as open gangway cars, that would chip away at the problem and there are unanswered questions about the high cost of construction in the city, but the underlying cause of the situation is a lack of funding.
In addition, there is a regional lack of coordinated transportation planning which results in multi-billion dollar projects (the WTC PATH station and the East Side Access project are two that come to mind) serving small numbers of people.
There are solutions to the funding problems such as the MoveNY plan and there may be others but what we need the most is political leadership to make something happen. The same leaders must also address the region’s uncoordinated planning problems.
The future health and growth of the region is at stake.

anon_coward February 24, 2016 - 10:00 am

the problem isn’t the ridership, the subway can transport a lot more people daily. the problem is that 99% of the people are all going into the same few dozen square miles in the morning which is the cause of the crowding

Larry Littlefield February 24, 2016 - 10:02 am

So impose congestion pricing on transit riders, but not motor vehicles?

anon_coward February 24, 2016 - 10:17 am

no, you build office buildings in places not called Manhattan and connect them so you can take a train and not have to travel through Manhattan.

Larry Littlefield February 24, 2016 - 10:36 am

A train from the Bronx to Nassau County, or Brooklyn to Bergen County? That sounds expensive too.

anon_coward February 24, 2016 - 1:20 pm

start with a train from Yankee Stadium or the Grand Concourse to Astoria, to Junction blvd or Willets 7 stops and end it at Jamaica for starters

make our subway like london where you have something like concentric rings and don’t need to go through the center of the city to get to the other side

pete February 24, 2016 - 2:43 pm

Yesterday I had to go from Auburndale LIRR in NE Queens to Downtown Brooklyn. Take the Q16 to the slow as hell Q44 Limited to LIRR Jamaica, or 3 LIRR trains (Auburndale->Woodside->Jamaica->Atlantic Terminal), or Auburndale->Penn->2 to Borough Hall, just 2 trains, less than an hour. The J and G trains are for fools. You have to go through Manhattan to get from Queens to Brooklyn. With 3 BUSES PER HOUR Q76, it is a joke to take that bus.

anon_coward February 24, 2016 - 3:59 pm

virtually every time i go from queens to brooklyn on the weekends i drive. only time i take the subway is if i’m going from manhattan to brooklyn and then back to queens on weekdays. then it’s faster by train since it takes like an hour or more to sit in traffic to brooklyn.

Eric Brasure February 24, 2016 - 11:45 am

Like it or not, there is a reason why people continue to work in Manhattan. Well, many reasons, really, but Manhattan is always going to be largest center of employment in New York, there are too many reasons to locate your office there and not in, say, Long Island City.

What we really need is a comprehensive transit plan for the entire metropolitan area, including a massive investment in new subway lines.

Larry Littlefield February 24, 2016 - 12:26 pm

Moreover, the regional centers that are growing, such as Long Island City, Downtown Brooklyn, and Jersey City, are also in the center, with direct transit access to one third of the metro area if not the whole thing. Not the exurban fringe.

Nathanael February 24, 2016 - 2:46 pm

Yonkers and Newark are doing OK, and you *could* call them exurban. But I think that just reinforces the same principle: they may be further from New York City, but it’s their own *downtowns* which are doing well, with direct rail access to Manhattan, not their suburban areas.

SEAN February 24, 2016 - 3:41 pm

Yonkers and Newark are doing OK, and you *could* call them exurban.

Not really. Yonkers & Newark are urban in a suburban landscape just like White Plains & Stamford. Poughkeepsie & Trenton are the textbook definition of exurban.

Bolwerk February 24, 2016 - 5:40 pm

I usually understand exurbs as being at the low-density outer reach of a conurubation’s suburbs. As outskirts are to the core city exurbs are to the conurbation.

Yonkers and Newark are more satellite cities. They’d be seen as medium-small metropolitan cities if they weren’t overshadowed by a much larger nearby city.

orangeonyx February 24, 2016 - 11:34 am

It’s called beefing up some central business districts and creating new transit corridors to them. LIC is already in motion, but suffers/benefits from being along a pre-existing transit corridor. We need new corridors. Places like downtown Flatbush, downtown Jamaica, Flushing, Rego Park/Queens Center. Maybe even around Liberty Avenue and Crossbay Blvd. These are all places where it’s plausible to add new, shorter transit corridors and become larger hubs than they are now. They could create traffic flows in the opposite direction of current peak time ones, leveraging some of that slack moving in opposite directions.

John-2 February 24, 2016 - 12:48 pm

You do sort of have congestion pricing on other systems, in the forms of distance-based fares that rise during rush hour. WMATA’s had that since its inception, but the problem in New York would be that would give a financial break to the people who most likely could afford to pay the higher fares, living in Manhattan south of 96th Street, while those up in Wakefield or out in Far Rockaway would bear the brunt of the ‘congestion pricing’ increases. The only politician who’d support that would be one planning to retire in a year or two and move to another state.

pete February 24, 2016 - 2:52 pm

If you spend more on the subway to get to work, than you earn at work, you will just apply for food stamps and benefits and not goto work. Corporate businesses leave California for the South or Sunbelt due to taxes and living expenses of their employees. Businesses will leave midtown if they can’t attract employees. The MTA already does stealth congestion pricing. They are called express buses and LIRR and MNRR. I want fare parity between the local buses and subway, vs express buses and commuter rail. Same distance, same price.

At Jamaica, do I walk up the stairs to the Atlantic Branch because I am white and privileged, or since down the stairs to the J because I am black and poor?

Eric February 24, 2016 - 11:37 am

“the problem is that 99% of the people are all going into the same few dozen square miles in the morning which is the cause of the crowding”

Yeah, that’s one of the inconveniences which come with being the world’s greatest commercial city. If you spread the people out, you reduce the network effects, and make the city less desirable and successful.

Bolwerk February 24, 2016 - 5:56 pm

I think seeing some smaller CBDs in each borough would be great. It even happened a little with LIC and Flushing. Downtown BK too, but that’s actually longstanding. Williamsburg and Jamaica show some signs.

And both northern SI and the South Bronx could theoretically be prime spots for more economic diversity.

Douglas John Bowen February 24, 2016 - 10:12 am

A very legitimate and thoughtful post. And yet I would rather have the current situation than the very real hole the system was in during the 1970s and early 1980s — when we weren’t only “not out of the woods,” but hopelessly without any kind of direction.

Mr. Littlefield is correct to caution against any guarantee of sufficient fed funds to address the problems. But that’s true of many a U.S. locality struggling with public transit, and not just those far away, as Mr. Littlefield also notes by saying, “People in NYC have no idea how much worse it is elsewhere.”

New Jersey, for one, is clearly more clueless and leaderless than New York (City and State) is/are when it comes to system expansion. So while “squeeze” may be anything but desirable, it still beats “zero.” Even the empty posturing by Gov. Cuomo at least acknowledges the issue, however sophmoric or non-existent the “solutions” offered may be. Folks are at least talking east of the Hudson. West of it? Automania dreams live on.

Larry Littlefield February 24, 2016 - 10:39 am


Imagine we had our problems with entire generations of young people moving in and expecting to use transit. And the inflated cost for new investment, debts, and pension increases and scams.

WITHOUT the transit reinvestment of 1982 to 2014?

That’s what they have. But they got the Big Dig.

Nathanael February 24, 2016 - 3:03 pm

Boston, however, has
(a) managed to implement one person train operation
(b) made nearly its entire system wheelchair-accessible
(c ) gotten the station agents out of their booths

Sooooo there’s something uniquely difficult about getting New York to use best practices.

Larry Littlefield February 24, 2016 - 3:19 pm

They still have two employees on the light rail Green Line trains, however.

SEAN February 24, 2016 - 3:48 pm

Boston has implemented smartcard payment as most larger systems except for Philadelphia did in the past few years. But SEPTA is on it’s way there & the MTA… lost in space.

Roger February 24, 2016 - 10:20 am

New York subway trains are not crowded enough. Some people just assume that they should have their sacred personal space on a crowded subway train. I almost went into a fight with another rider because I try to squeeze into the middle of the train (where there were plenty of space) instead of blocking the doors.

Bolwerk February 24, 2016 - 11:12 am

I might have at least concurred with your comment a decade ago. Nowadays, try riding at rush hour. There are times when SRO doesn’t even exist. At other times, crowded trains with adequate standing room are generally acceptable, I guess, and the important thing is to maintain reasonable frequency.

But there are issues besides passenger comfort to consider. Slow boardings and alightings mean longer dwell times, which leads to slower service, longer waits, and probably limits the trains per hour that can be run.

Larry Littlefield February 24, 2016 - 11:56 am

“There are times when SRO doesn’t even exist.”

Back in the 1980s, when trains were being taken out of service or not leaving the yard all the time, I often had to wait for three to go by before getting on one.

Nothing like that had happened since — until the last year or two.

Bolwerk February 24, 2016 - 4:56 pm

Hmm, yes, that fits with my experience. Luckily I escaped regular rush hour commuting by 2013, but it seems miserable now compared even to then.

LLQBTT February 26, 2016 - 10:15 am

How many full trains do you have to let pass you by before your criterion is met?

lawhawk February 24, 2016 - 10:52 am

The answer might include pegging capital construction costs for new segments of subway to within 10% of the average cost of the Paris, London, and Rome subway expansion projects.

These are the most expensive projects per km outside the US, and they’re less than half the cost, despite underground infrastructure at least as complicated as NYC (archeological, utilities, etc.).

Yet, NYC pays more for a km of new tunnel than any of those other locations. Part of the problem stems from construction firms that use the US to generate profits that are otherwise limited in Europe. Some of that is the result of privatizing capital construction. Some of that is union work rules.

The fix requires tackling all of the above. There’s no political will to do any of that, and the MTA will limp along.

Fool February 24, 2016 - 11:24 am

Bankrupt and privatize…

The root of the problem of the MTA is likely derived from the confluence of a political entity, with a large amount of employees, and a large amount of money to spend.

orangeonyx February 24, 2016 - 11:40 am

Privatizing the MTA is not an acceptable option.

Unless you mean you want them to be privatized so that when the inevitable bankruptcy occurs because investors chasing a high return try to take their balls and go home, the city can swoop in to grab a system flushed at least once with private capital? So that eventually when the city fails to keep up with capital expenditures, the state can take possession?

The cycle of life, I guess.

Eric February 24, 2016 - 11:42 am

What about all the cheap things that could be done to improve MTA capacity, like fare-equalizing the LIRR within city limits, using POP fare collection in every bus, and adding separate bus lanes on many more routes?

Eric Brasure February 24, 2016 - 11:51 am

There’s a lot that could be done, but there’s no political will to do it. NYC voter turnout has been dropping for a long time–voter turnout in the 2013 mayoral election and the 2014 gubernatorial election that reelected Cuomo set records for lowest voter turnout. This matters.

Nathanael February 24, 2016 - 2:48 pm

This isn’t a long-term trend; this is a response to sucktastic candidates.

Cuomo is widely considered horrible by Democrats, so you wouldn’t really expect high turnout for his re-election. De Blasio inspired some turnout, but people were skeptical that he was all talk and no action, and rightly so as it turns out.

RH February 25, 2016 - 8:01 am

I think equating Cuomo with solely with his relatively lousy transit record is myopic. To many NY Ds, Cuomo is the guy who took a stand for gay marriage rights before it was a the obvious move politically. Moreover, after the craziness of Spitzer and Paterson years, he seemingly brings stability to the office. While I agree that he could be much better with the MTA, the cries of anyone-but-Cuomo we often see on this site ignore the fact that he has been relatively popular, and it’s not like there are a ton of NY D’s with transit expertise who could easily slide into Albany and govern effectively on all the other issues NYers care about.

Bolwerk February 25, 2016 - 11:23 am

Besides gay marriage, I can’t really think of any particularly good thing Cuomo has done for Democrats or the state at large. His policies overall have been a retrogression toward the 1950s. And he shits on Upstate every bit as much as he shits on the city. He even screwed over the Democrats (and the state in general, really) by protecting the Republikan majority in the senate. It is only because Democratic Party officials are unprincipled members of a bumblefuck anti-democratic junta, which by definition exists only to win elections and dole out patronage, that Cuomo is popular with them at all.

Bgriff February 24, 2016 - 12:50 pm

The funny thing is, even the dreamers aren’t really talking about fixing the problem at hand. If there is simply no more capacity for access to Midtown on most train lines, then the full 4-phase 2nd Avenue Subway won’t help (by a tiny amount via 57/2 and 42/2 maybe, but only barely), and the Utica Avenue Subway and Triboro RX definitely won’t help. Never mind the Brooklyn-Queens Streetcar. We need something radical, like a 4-track local/express 5th Avenue subway line that adds meaningful capacity along the lines of what the 5 main trunk lines already have.

No one is talking about that, in part because I don’t even want to imagine what it would cost in the MTA’s current construction-cost environment.

mister February 24, 2016 - 1:28 pm

That’s the thing: there is capacity on most existing lines. There are only three segments of track that have reached absolute capacity: The Lexington Avenue express tracks from 149th street to Bowling Green, the Queens Boulevard express tracks from just east of 71st-Forest Hills to the 63rd st connector, and the short stretch of track local track south of Franklin Avenue shared by 2, 3 and 5 trains. You could also argue that the CPW express tracks are at capacity in the reverse peak direction. Aside from that, every piece of track in midtown has capacity to handle additional trains.

Nathanael February 24, 2016 - 2:50 pm

The Franklin Avenue situation could probably be sorted out by rescheduling, branch separation, maybe a switch or two.

The Lex overcrowding absolutely requires the Second Avenue Subway Phase II, *minimum*.

The Queens Boulevard overcrowding really demands a new line across Queens on a different route. But equalizing LIRR fares with the subway and fixing the LIRR stations in Queens would give short-term relief.

Eric February 26, 2016 - 3:33 am

Equalizing+integrating fares and running more trains would *entirely* fix the problem. Currently trains from Jamaica to Manhattan run at best every 3 minutes or so in rush hour. That is not even enough to fill one track pair, and the LIRR has two track pairs to Manhattan. Using all the spare capacity would more than double the capacity of the Queens Blvd express line, on tracks that are only a few blocks away. Once ESA finishes there will be no issue of terminal capacity either (there will also be more long-distance trains than now, but there will still be plenty of room for the quasi-subway to Jamaica).

Bolwerk February 24, 2016 - 5:50 pm

Think there are other (what could be regarded as) rather expensive to fix bottlenecks. Can’t squeeze a lot more out of the 7 or the L. The C could be boosted from its paltry service level, except it would compromise A service because both share a bottleneck between Hoyt and Chambers.

Some Queens-Manhattan light rail would make more sense than Queens-Brooklyn light rail too.

mister February 25, 2016 - 3:44 pm

The 7 is a problem, but CBTC is should fix it. The L could absolutely handle more traffic than it presently does, even if we say that it must include tail tracks at 14th/8th, which is substantially cheaper than a new line. The C trains could be lengthened, and potentially some A trains could become C trains, since neither line is approaching guideline loads during peak periods (see the A and C line report).

Bolwerk February 25, 2016 - 4:48 pm

I was thinking mostly in terms of TPF. I’m aware of the marginal boost that can be squeezed out on the 7 and L, but that seems to at most be a few more peak trains. Further meteoric growth is out of the question.

Eric February 26, 2016 - 3:39 am

The L runs every 4 minutes in rush hour. With proper tail tracks that could become every 2 minutes. That’s an increase from 15 to 30 trains per hour – rather dramatic.

Bolwerk February 26, 2016 - 10:37 pm

I don’t have numbers in front of me, but my understanding is it’s already running in the low 20s per hour at its peak and might be squeezed into the high 20s with current operating procedures and tail tracks.

Again, helpful, but not dramatic.

Eric February 26, 2016 - 3:45 am

You need to go on a vacation sometime to Moscow and see the subway there. Not only are the stations beautiful (and the pedestrian flow in them very thoughtfully done), but the trains run every 90 seconds despite not having advanced signalling. As a result, their system carries 50% more riders than the NYC subway, despite having less track and stations, with probably less crowding. It’s a lesson for the ages in how frequency is insanely important, and improving headways by a few seconds can result in massive capacity gains.

Bolwerk February 26, 2016 - 10:39 pm

I’m familiar with it. Actually, I sometimes wonder if smaller more frequent trains would help in NYC.

mister February 24, 2016 - 1:21 pm

A couple of thoughts about this…

I read Kolker’s article, and he points out that there are more delays now than there were in the dark days of the 70s/80s… Can we acknowledge that this is likely due to reporting being better/more accurate today than the system actually being “bad”? In the 70s, Mean Distance Between Failure rates were abysmal, and there are stories of trains being purposefully discharged just before entering the under river tubes because they were knowingly put into service with dead motors and wouldn’t be able to make the grade with the weight of all the passengers. We’re well past that.

Another pet peeve of mine is the concept that the system is bursting at the seams and has no room for additional growth. For sure, there are portions of the system that are overcrowded. The Lexington Avenue Line is swamped with peak hour ridership and is probably best addressed through the construction of the Second Avenue Subway. We’ll have to see just how much relief Phase 1 brings. Hopefully, Phase 2 can be started before the decade is out and Phase 3 can start design in the next Capital Program (2020-24). Aside from that, there isn’t another place where crowding is not manageable. The West Side IRT is above peak loading guidelines, but its tracks can accommodate additional trains. Many other lines operate at an average crowding level significantly below guideline loads, and could accommodate additional passengers. In addition, much of the growth in ridership has occurred outside the traditional peak hour: either on the shoulders of the peak hour, or on middays, weekends and even late at night. What is needed is not additional built capacity, but funding to add more service.

Funding is one of the biggest problems, but it is not the only one. CBTC installation needs more money to be accelerated, for sure, but just as big a problem is the fact that you just can’t shut down huge portions of the system all at once. CBTC is currently being installed on the Flushing line, and it is highly disruptive. Alternative service is provided not only by shuttle buses, but also by the nearby Queens Boulevard line. Next up will be the Queens Boulevard line, which will divert some of its ridership to the Flushing line during shutdowns. The next two lines due for CBTC will be the Sixth and Eighth avenue trunk lines in Manhattan. These lines have signal systems dating back to their original construction in the 1930s, and are in need of replacement. But both lines cannot be upgraded at once, so it will necessarily result in one line following the other.

So ultimately, what needs to happen? For one, the Capital program needs to get a steady stream of revenue. Currently, capital needs are something like $6B/year. If you can count on Federal contributions of around $1.5B/year, that leaves $4.5B annually that needs to be made up. The city is making a large contribution from their general budget for the current capital plan, and this should probably continue to be the case going forward. However, the MTA is going to fund the bulk of the plan with bonds, currently to the tune of over $8 billion over the 5 year plan. This has to stop. They are mortgaging the future of the system in order to pay for today. Eventually, the MTA is going to run out of ability to issue new bonds, especially as their debt continues to grow. Instead, they need to generate the revenue they need TODAY. How can this be done? Congestion pricing, Dedicated tax revenue for the capital program (as the operating budget currently receives) and even user fees need to be considered. In addition, expansion projects need to be financed separately: Through value capture, TIF or leasing of available property along the route of the project. The MTA needs to find a way to use these new projects to generate funds to pay for themselves. If a streetcar line could do it, then certainly a new heavy rail line like SAS or TRX could do so as well.

But as mentioned above, funding is not the only problem. The MTA has to embrace new, creative solutions to solve its problems. CBTC is great, but last I saw we weren’t going to have it in place system wide until 2050, and not on the most critical portions of the system until the early 2030s at best. IF CBTC cannot be built quickly, then it needs to be supplemented with something else in the meantime that can address the ills of the current signal system at a fraction of the cost. Similar approaches need to be adopted for railcar purchases, station rehabs and systems replacements.

Well this comment was certainly too long; it should probably be its own blog post somewhere. But the point is MTA’s problems are certainly solvable, the remaining question is: will there ever be enough political will to actually do it?

Benjamin Kabak February 24, 2016 - 3:15 pm

CBTC installation needs more money to be accelerated, for sure, but just as big a problem is the fact that you just can’t shut down huge portions of the system all at once.

I hear what you’re saying, but at some point, if we need to make these upgrades quickly, we may need to consider shutting down huge portions of the system all at once. It might be better than limping along, but that’s a cost-benefit analysis that requires more than a two-sentence comment here.

SEAN February 24, 2016 - 3:51 pm

Maybe three?


mister February 24, 2016 - 5:29 pm

Sure, it needs a fully fleshed out discussion, and we could talk about the merits of, say, shutting down a single line totally at once (or even taking a single track completely out of service) but shutting down multiple trunk lines in close proximity during the weekend for years at a time is going to be a real tough sell.

NattyB February 24, 2016 - 5:56 pm

Well that’s why they need to build the protected bikeway super highways first.

Kgurus February 24, 2016 - 1:58 pm

Running more service is important. Rider etiquette is also really important. Passengers waiting for a train need to allow space for riders to exit the train first. All too often, people want to board before people exit, and that really slows down trains, even if the crowding isn’t that bad. Once the trains start getting delayed by problematic boarding, pretty soon the train will become super crowded. Real time signs for all lines also could help, if a really crowded train was going to be followed by a nearly empty one in 1 minute, some people would pick the less crowded train, and the crowded train would slowly get less crowded, and would hopefully pick up fewer delays.

TimK February 24, 2016 - 6:33 pm

All too often, people want to board before people exit, and that really slows down trains, even if the crowding isn’t that bad.

That definitely slows down trains, but I posit that this behavior is due to the all-too-frequent practice of conductors beginning to close the doors before intending passengers have had a chance to board. It’s not that unusual for me to see conductors attempt to close the doors before all passengers have had a chance to exit, to say nothing of letting people board.

If you teach people that they may not be able to board, they’ll push to do so before people have a chance to get off. That’s just human nature.

22r February 24, 2016 - 2:34 pm

Just like worsening traffic in LA has started a movement of people who prefer to work and hang out in the same neighborhoods where they live, I wonder if the worsening condition of the NYC subway will cause more people to choose to live within walking distance of their workplace and to frequent shops/restaurants/etc in their own neighborhood more than they otherwise would have. Of course not everyone can live within walking distance of work (due to expense, changing jobs, etc), but many more people could than currently do, if they were to prioritize it. I for one am so annoyed at the NYC subway that I’ve chosen to live within an easy walk of my workplace and I also try to avoid the subway on weekends.

Rob February 24, 2016 - 2:37 pm

‘Rush-hour crowds can start at six; the evening rush extends past nine.’– sounds like a lot of urban highways. But MTA disagrees — service at 6 am is quite sparse in most cases. And in most cases they claim trains are below loading guidelines.

I doubt that fifteen of the 21 lines have maxed out the number of trains. Some that are, are for periods as short as 15 minutes, which is hardly cataclysmic. Others, such as the C [limited by the A], could be lengthened.

Washington’s system is less than 40 yrs old, and it has lots of problems, so age is not necessarily the problem. And, as noted, NY carried more riders pre 1948, so crowds aren’t the problem either.

And it seems a contradiction to pine after the wonderful foreign cities, yet say ‘Other cities have taken to rationing access to crowded stations or jamming passengers into cars Tokyo style.’

PS – a question: I understand L has a capacity problem. Could its platforms be lengthened to solve the problem, much as most IRT & BMT platforms were, as late as the 1950s and 60s?

VLM February 24, 2016 - 3:08 pm

And, as noted, NY carried more riders pre 1948, so crowds aren’t the problem either.

Kinda, sorta. The New York City subway pre-1948 included numerous elevated routes that are no longer in service or standing. The comparison would be between the routes that have been in service both now and then which doesn’t, as far as I know, exist.

Rob February 25, 2016 - 10:22 am

Yes, Kinda, sorta. We have also had some capacity increases since then, such as the 6 Av Exp tracks, at De Kalb, and Chrystie connection.

I think the biggest difference was the 6 day work week.

Caelestor February 24, 2016 - 3:25 pm

The L isn’t actually at maximum capacity – CBTC allows for at least 26 tph. The main obstacles to implementing that level of service are the number of train cars, the number of electrical substations powering more train cars, and the lack of tail tracks at 8th Ave.

The only real overcrowding on the system occurs on the IRT lines, which have smaller cars than the B Division, and the Queens Blvd line due to lack of alternative routes. The solutions are the 2nd Ave subway and either a super express along the LIRR, or subway level fares from the Queens LIRR stops.

Rob February 25, 2016 - 10:19 am

Queens Blvd used to operate 11 [60 ft] car trains. You could do that again with an E from 179 St [and move the F to Jamaica].

And so was cbtc a waste of $, given the constraints you cite?

Eric February 26, 2016 - 3:54 am

CBTC is not *yet* being used to its full capacity, but that doesn’t mean it’s a waste.

Miles Bader February 25, 2016 - 3:35 am

And it seems a contradiction to pine after the wonderful foreign cities, yet say ‘Other cities have taken to rationing access to crowded stations or jamming passengers into cars Tokyo style.’

Tokyo has some very crowded trains at times, but in general its mass-transit system is very good, palpably better than NYC’s. It actually does a good job of getting you almost anywhere in the city—and far outside the city as well, surrounding suburbs and cities are seamlessly integrated into the same transit network—conveniently.

And where there are problems like crowding, Tokyo is constantly taking real action to improve things, building new lines, and making non-trivial improvements to existing ones. NYC seems preserved in aspic by comparison.
So yeah, other cities are hardly perfect, but there are good reasons why people in the U.S. look longingly abroad….

Eric February 26, 2016 - 4:03 am

I’m not sure Tokyo is the best example. The packed trains (see video below) must be horribly uncomfortable, and they contribute to a severe groping problem. I’m not even sure they increase capacity very much, due to drastically increased dwell times as people are being packed into the train. And while there has been some new construction in recent years, Tokyo has been drastically outpaced by other Asian cities (Seoul, Delhi, Singapore, anywhere in China) in this regard.

Cassian February 24, 2016 - 3:09 pm

This seems like a good problem to have!
More riders = more income, so why can’t upgrades be made?

Also, instead of adding more trains, why not just add more cars to each train? Or are they already at maximum length?

Larry Littlefield February 24, 2016 - 3:20 pm

“More riders = more income, so why can’t upgrades be made?”

More debt, richer pensions that were not fully funded even without the enrichments.

22r February 24, 2016 - 4:53 pm

Because each fare does not cover the cost of each ride.

Ronald February 24, 2016 - 8:19 pm

Yes, not much can be done in rush hour. But just 6 years ago the MTA actually changed the loading guidelines so that they run less frequently during the midday and weekends. They are NOT maxed out off peak. This can easily be fixed with the restoration of the 2010 service cuts, bringing back the 100% seated load guideline (i.e. Everyone should get a seat). They are currently operating at a 125% seated load (i.e. A quarter of the people have to stand)

Tower18 February 25, 2016 - 12:09 am


Rush-hour crowds can start at six; the evening rush extends past nine.

And yet, the MTA dramatically reduces service on most all lines beginning as early as 6:00pm. So yes crowing remains until past 9 but the MTA could fix that tomorrow if they wanted to.

And they know this, it’s even mentioned in their recent A/C line report.

R2 February 25, 2016 - 8:47 am

For the first time ever, I saw a Transit employee enforce the “up-only” (yes, there is a sign but, logically, 99% of people ignore it) staircase at Grand Central leading to the downtown platform.

So the idea of “bouncers” is not too far off in the future

Eric February 26, 2016 - 4:06 am

They should install doors at the top of the staircase, that can be pushed but not pulled open.


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