Cap’n Transit is writing about how, given that the political system in the New York area is hostile to public transportation expansion, private taxi companies are filling the gap,
and this is fine (update: see the Cap’n’s comment below). This is not the first time I see people in the US claim that private shared-ride services are a substitute for public transportation; on Vox, Timothy Lee wrote that a ride-share service offered by Lyft is “the beginning of the end” for public transit. The tones are different – the Cap’n is hopeful that these services would get people out of cars, Timothy Lee is denigrating public transit and its supporters – but the message is the same: ride share is a substitute. I would like to explain why not only is this not happening, but also any hope of Uber, Lyft, and similar companies making the jump to conventional public transit is unlikely.
First, let us consider costs briefly. The biggest marginal cost of bus service is the driver, leading various futurists to fantasize about driverless taxis vastly reducing costs and competing with large buses. The only problem is, it costs too much to operate a car even without taking the driver’s wage into account. In the US, households spend 19% of their income on transportation; nearly all of this is private cars rather than plane travel or public transit. This works out to around $1.5 trillion a year, or about 30 cents per vehicle-km. Taxis have to pay this, and more, due to the cost of either the driver’s wage or the technology involved in automation. This is within the range of US urban public transportation‘s cost per passenger-km; the New York subway is 21 cents, and to be accessible to the masses it is subsidized. Of course, given automation, the subway would cost substantially less to operate.
This means that the only way taxi services can be affordable is if people share rides; Uber and Lyft are indeed moving in that direction. The problem is that sharing a car with a stranger ends the entire advantage of being in a car rather than on a train or bus. Slugging is not a popular mode of transportation; Wikipedia mentions a few thousand daily users in various US cities, whose subway systems get multiple hundreds of thousands of users. To offer even somewhat reasonable fares on their shared ride services, UberPool offers $5 promotional fares, and a maximum of two unrelated riders per car; sometimes, when the Uber system can’t find a second rider, there is just one rider, paying an express bus fare for private taxi service. It is not possible to make a profit in this manner.
Now, what the private sector can do, beyond taxis, is to scale up and offer vans and buses. It happens every day in the urban parts of New York beyond subway range: these are the dollar vans of various immigrant neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens, and the private services running in Hudson County. It’s possible that Uber and Lyft will eventually go that route. So far, tech startups involved in transportation have tried to reinvent the wheel, for example Leap’s failed attempt to provide premium buses within San Francisco, but it’s possible that a well-capitalized private company will instead try to offer more conventional bus service.
The problem is that the private sector has never in recent history scaled beyond that. This was not always the case: the London Underground, the New York els, and the Chicago L were built by private companies, often in competition with each other; in Japan, there are many private railroads, which built commuter lines by themselves in the prewar era. However, in recent years, rapid transit outside Japan has always been built publicly; when private companies exist, they either operate trains by contract, as in Singapore, or were initially public and only privatized after they were already running trains, as in Hong Kong. Japan belongs in the same category as Hong Kong, with one complication: the private railroads still build commuter lines in the suburbs, but, at least in Tokyo, they rely on the publicly-built subway for passenger distribution within the city core, as (due to prewar government regulations) the private lines do not enter Central Tokyo. Let us examine why it’s the case that the private sector no longer builds subway systems.
In the biggest cities of the world in 1900, the urban geography was simple: people worked in city center, or in their own neighborhood. This monocentric arrangement made it easy to build streetcars and rapid transit privately, since all a company needed was to build a line from the center to some suburb or outer-urban neighborhood. Network effects were weak, and transfers were not so important. The Manhattan els radiated north from South Ferry because there wasn’t much demand for east-west transportation; the Brooklyn els, the Chicago Ls, and the London Underground lines similarly radiated from the center in all directions.
Developing-world cities are in a similar situation. As they build their CBDs, they create situations in which people work in their home neighborhoods or in the CBD. For example, Nairobi’s matatu network is CBD-centric, with not much crosstown service, because the jobs that require commuting are concentrated in the CBD. Of course, there are many local jobs within neighborhoods, but usually people work in their own neighborhoods rather than commuting crosstown. However, construction costs in the third world are typically higher than they were in 1900 in what is now the developed world. When New York built the Dual Contracts – already at public expense – the cost was $366 million, which is (contrary the link to the cost figure) $8.6 billion today. This is around $50 million per km, about 42% underground. This cost is not unheard of today, but it is low; in China, $160 million per km is more typical of underground construction. See examples here, here, and here. Moreover, in the poorest countries considering transit expansion today, incomes are a fraction of the level of the US of 1913 ($6,500 in today’s dollars): Kenya’s GDP per capita is $3,000, Ethiopia’s is $1,500. Thus, rapid transit is less affordable. India, at $6,000, is more comparable to the US a hundred years ago, but it has high construction costs, and an urban geography that’s diverging from the monocentric layout I’m describing here.
In the developed world, construction costs, while higher than a hundred years ago, are more affordable, because the GDP per capita is not $6,000 but $30,000-$60,000. However, the cities are no longer monocentric; even relatively monocentric Stockholm has major secondary centers in the universities and in Kista, with high peak demand for subway service. In a polycentric city, a single line is no longer enough; the transit lines must work together as a network. The entire philosophy of Jarrett Walker‘s network restructures (i.e. the frequent grid) is based on this fact, taking bus networks that have not changed much from back when the cities were monocentric and updating them to reflect modern-day everywhere-to-everywhere travel reality.
With network effects so great, private startups can’t really step in and supplant the public sector. The barriers to entry are large, which is why the only companies doing so have a long history of corporate existence, either as private Japanese railroads or as recently-privatized companies, and are not startups. Of course, online social networks have large network effects as well, but they operate in a young industry, whereas transportation is a mature, conservative industry, without much opportunity to offer new service that does not yet exist. Advances come from engineering and network design and are slow and cumulative, unlike the situation in the tech sector.
Of course, the government could structure its regulations in a way that lets the private sector tap into public-sector network effects. For example, it could compel operators to cross-honor one another’s transfer tickets. But this is the exact opposite of how tech startups work, which is without such regulations. You can’t send a Facebook message to a Twitter account. It’s also not how European private ventures that run on public tracks and compete with public operators work: the Italian private high-speed rail service, NTV, does not cross-honor tickets from the public operator, Trenitalia, and vice versa. Once the government mandates free transfers between companies, and joint planning for network optimization, and schedules that are more cooperative than competitive, we’re back in the world of public planning, and the private companies just run service by contract, as they already do in such cities as Singapore and Stockholm.
Improving public transit, then, requires improving the public side of transit. Taxis are a niche; so are buses that can be run privately, to the CBD or to the public subway network. The core of transit ridership, in the cities where public transit usage is high, consists of a mesh of buses and rapid transit that cannot be grown spontaneously by the private sector. If the government can’t provide this, the city will be auto-oriented. Good transit advocates have to then work to make sure the government is more competent and can build this network, rather than hope successful private ventures will save them; there is no alternative.
The main street of Hudson County from Jersey City north is Bergenline Avenue. It passes through the densest cities in the US (denser than New York, which is weighed down by outer-urban areas), and hosts frequent jitney service. Last decade, New Jersey began to document jitney service in North Jersey, producing a report in 2011 that identified major corridors; Bergenline is the busiest, with a jitney almost every minute, and almost as frequent additional jitney and New Jersey Transit service on the northern part of the route running into Manhattan via the Lincoln Tunnel. This was discussed extensively on Cap’n Transit’s blog three years ago, and I thought (and still think) Bergenline should eventually get a subway line. I bring this up because of a critical tie-in to Bergenline’s transit service: new mainline Hudson tunnels. If the new tunnels are built to host regional rather than intercity trains, then they should also make a stop at Bergenline to allow for easier transfers from the buses to Manhattan.
Unfortunately, there are no estimates of ridership on the Bergenline buses. The 2011 report did rough counts of passengers per hour passing through a single point, but that is not directly comparable to the usual metrics of ridership per day or per year. Moreover, the report assumed there are 16 passengers per jitney, where, at least in Cap’n Transit’s experience, the jitneys on Bergenline are considerably larger, in the 20-30 passenger range. Either way, they’re smaller than full-size buses, which means we can’t just compare the frequency on Bergenline with that on busy New York bus corridors. However, a bus in that size range almost every minute, both peak and off-peak, is bound to have comparable ridership to the busiest buses in New York: the single busiest, the M15, runs articulated buses every 3 minutes at the peak and every 4 off-peak.
There are several corridors heading into Manhattan. According to the summary on the report’s PDF-page 51, Bergenline has jitneys heading into Port Authority every 2-4 minutes at the peak, and New Jersey Transit buses (routes 156 and 159) every 5 minutes. Paralleling Bergenline, JFK Boulevard East has a jitney every 4-5 minutes (with larger vehicles than on Bergenline), and a New Jersey Transit bus almost every minute at the peak (route 128). There is also very frequent New Jersey Transit bus service, more than once per minute between routes 156, 159, and 166, running nonstop to Port Authority at the peak; unlike the jitneys, New Jersey Transit bus service is extremely peaky, with the combined routes 156 and 159 dropping to a bus every 15 minutes, and the Boulevard East routes (165, 166, 168) dropping to a bus every 9 minutes.
From the New Jersey Transit schedules, peak-hour buses spend 18-19 minutes getting into Port Authority from Bergenline, and 14 minutes getting into Port Authority from Boulevard East. In contrast, a train station located under Bergenline would have service to Penn Station taking about 3 minutes. Trains go through the existing older tunnel at about 100 km/h, and the new tunnel could support at least the same speed, while a through-running service plan would simplify the Penn Station interlockings enough that trains could enter and leave the station at speed. Even allowing for transfer time and for additional wait times, which are very short at the peak anyway, this represents an improvement of more than 10 minutes.
It goes without saying that the service should be frequent and affordable. The fare should be the same as on the subway, with free transfers. There’s some precedent in that PATH charges similar fares to the subway, but free transfers, a basic amenity in regions with integrated transportation planning, would be new to New York. At the peak, all trains would stop at Bergenline, since there’s not enough capacity to mix stopping and nonstop trains on the same tracks given expected traffic. But even off-peak, all trains should continue stopping at Bergenline – as well as at Secaucus – in order to maintain adequate frequency. Given how dense and close to Manhattan the area is, 10 minutes is the maximum acceptable headway, which corresponds to the combined off-peak frequency of all New Jersey Transit trains into Penn Station today.
While the busiest trunk line does not even enter Manhattan, the presence of fast, frequent regional rail with competitive fares is likely to change travel patterns. This is not the same as transit-oriented development: I am not assuming a single new building on top of the Palisades. Instead, some people who live and work in northern Hudson County would shift over time to working in New York, thanks to improved transportation links. In parallel, people working in New York would move to cheaper housing in Hudson County. In the other direction, companies that want to attract reverse commuters might locate to the area around the new station. The overall effect would integrate northern Hudson County into the core better, turning it into more of a bedroom community, like Brooklyn and Queens, while simultaneously concentrating its employment around the station. The upshot is that this station would already come equipped with a huge installed base of feeder buses, which run the route already without a connection to Manhattan. A longer-range plan to build a subway under Bergenline, from Fort Lee to Journal Square, would further integrate the entire west bank of the lower Hudson into the city core.
This tilts the best traffic plan for new tunnels away from Amtrak’s Gateway plan and back toward New Jersey Transit’s various flavors of ARC. First, it’s easier to build the station while the tunnel is excavated than to build the station in the preexisting tunnel. At the same time, whichever tunnel has the station should be the one without intercity trains: all peak trains would have to stop at the station for capacity reasons (there’s no room for bypass tracks), and this would slow down intercity trains unacceptably. Put together, this means Amtrak should stay in the old tunnels and all traffic in the new tunnels should be regional.
Second and more importantly, a high-grade new tunnel pair from New Jersey to Penn Station should also continue onward to Grand Central, with trains running through to Metro-North territory. The importance of through-running and good service to multiple urban nodes is greatest for local service and smallest for long-distance service. In Paris, the RER involves through-service for shorter-range commuter trains; the Transiliens, which terminate at the traditional terminal stations, serve farther-away suburbs. And in Tokyo, the local lines of the JR East network run through whereas the express lines either don’t or have only started doing so recently. The reason is similar to a pattern I mentioned before about airports: at long range, people only travel to the city for functions that their region lacks, and those are usually centered on the CBD, whereas at short range, people travel in all directions. The upshot of this discussion is that a Bergenline stop is likely to add many local travelers to the system, and they should get the service that’s more useful for their needs.
Of course, a good service plan will involve through-running in both the old and new tunnels. However, through-running is more valuable in the new tunnel, going to Grand Central, than in the old tunnel, going to Long Island and the Northeast Corridor. As a judgment call, I believe that through-running to Grand Central, Harlem, and the South Bronx connects to more neighborhoods than through-running to Sunnyside, Flushing, and Jamaica. It also has better subway connections, to the 4/5/6 if to nothing else, and local riders are accustomed to two-seat rides and subway connections. Finally, under a fuller regional rail plan, including service to Lower Manhattan, Grand Central has connections to Lower Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn whereas Penn Station and Sunnyside don’t.
In contrast, Amtrak’s plan gets it exactly backward in proposing to use the Gateway tunnel for its own trains and some additional regional trains. The only advantage of this plan is that it would be possible for regional trains to maintain higher speed through the wider-diameter new tunnel (intercity trains could raise speeds more easily, since high-speed trains are pressurized to limit ear popping when they enter tunnels). But by hogging slots in the Penn Station-Grand Central tunnel, Amtrak would force many local and regional rail riders onto trains that do not serve their destination directly and do not have an easy transfer to it.
The only drawback of this plan is cost. The station would be located deep beneath the Palisades, complicating its construction. While the access shafts are not difficult – vertical bores for elevators are simply to build – the station itself would require blasting a cavern, or using a large-diameter bore. The cavern option is not cheap. I am not going to try coming up with a cost estimate, but I will note that the station caverns of Second Avenue Subway Phase 1, which are built cut-and-cover rather than blasted from inside, are around a billion dollars each. A large-diameter bore is more attractive, but is more expensive than twin small-diameter bores if there are no stations, and may well have difficulties emerging at the Manhattan end.
Without reliable estimates for either the incremental cost or the incremental ridership, I can’t say whether this is a cost-effective proposal. I suspect that it is, given the high ridership of the Bergenline buses and the high density of the region. Part of what makes an S-Bahn or RER system successful is its service to urban neighborhoods and not just suburbs and CBDs, and Bergenline could be a good addition to the system that the region should be building.
Last week, Bill de Blasio released a plan for New York’s future called OneNYC, whose section on subway expansion called for a subway under Utica Avenue in Brooklyn (PDF-pp. 45-46). The call was just a sentence, without mention of routing or cost or ridership projections, and no plan for funding. However, it remains a positive development; last year, I put the line at the top of a list of underrated subways in North America. Presumably the route would be a branch off the Eastern Parkway Line, carrying the 4, while the 3 continues to go to the current New Lots terminus.
The cost is up in the air, which means that people forming opinions about the idea don’t have the most important and variable number with which to make decisions. In this post, I am going to work out the range of cost figures that would make this a worthwhile project. This has two components: coming up with a quick-and-dirty ridership estimate, and arguing for a maximum acceptable cost per rider.
Before doing anything else, let us look at how much such a subway extension should cost, independently of ridership. Between Eastern Parkway and Kings Plaza, Utica is 6.8 km. The non-English-speaking first-world range is about $300 million to $3 billion, but around $1.4 billion, or $200 million/km, is average. Utica is a wide, relatively straight street, without difficult development alongside it. In fact, I’ve been convinced in comments that the line could be elevated nearly the entire way, south of Empire Boulevard, which would reduce costs even further. Normal cost should then be around $100 million per km (or $700 million), and even in New York, the JFK AirTrain came in at a $200 million/km. I doubt that an elevated solution could politically happen, but one should be investigated; nonetheless, a $1.4 billion subway would be of great benefit.
Now, let us look at ridership. Recall that Utica’s bus route, the B46, was New York’s third busiest in 2014, with 46,000 weekday riders. But two routes, Nostrand’s B44 and Flatbush’s B41, run parallel and provide similar service, and have 67,000 riders between them. Those numbers are all trending down, as residents gradually abandon slow bus service. A subway can realistically halt this decline and generate much more ridership, via higher speed: B46 limited buses average 13 km/h south of Eastern Parkway, but a new subway line could average around 35 km/h. Second Avenue Subway’s ridership projection is 500,000 per weekday, even though all north-south bus lines on Manhattan’s East Side combined, even ones on Fifth and Madison Avenues, total 156,000 daily riders.
Vancouver is considering replacing its busiest bus, the 99-B, with a subway. The 99-B itself has 54,000 weekday riders, the local buses on Broadway (the 9 and 14) have 43,000, and the 4th Avenue relief buses (the 4, 44, and 84) add another 27,000. Those are much faster buses than in New York: the 99-B averages 20 km/h, while the 44 and 84, running on less crowded 4th Avenue, average nearly 30 km/h west of Burrard. SkyTrain is faster than the New York subway since it makes fewer stops, so the overall effect would be similar, a doubling of travel speed, to about 40 km/h. The ridership projection is 250,000 per weekday in 2021, at opening, before rezoning (see PDF-p. 75 here). This represents a doubling of ridership over current bus ridership, even when the buses provide service SkyTrain won’t, including a one-seat ride from the Westside to Downtown and service along 4th Avenue.
In New York, as in Vancouver, the subway would provide service twice as fast as current buses. The distance between Nostrand and Utica Avenues is much greater than that between 4th Avenue and Broadway in Vancouver, so the analogy isn’t perfect (this is why I also support continuing Nostrand down to Sheepshead Bay). Conversely, the speed advantage of subways over buses is greater than in Vancouver. Moreover, Nostrand already has a subway, so actual demand in southeastern Brooklyn is more than what the B41, B44, and B46 represent. A doubling of ridership over bus ridership, to about 220,000, is reasonable.
For a quick sanity check, let us look at Nostrand Avenue Line ridership again. South of Franklin Avenue, the stations have a combined weekday ridership of 64,000 per weekday, as of 2014. But this is really closer to 128,000 daily riders, counting both boardings and alightings; presumably, few people ride internally to the Nostrand corridor. The Nostrand Avenue Line is 4.3 km long; scaled to length, we get 200,000 weekday riders on Utica.
Put together, a normal-cost Utica Line, with 200,000 weekday riders, would cost $7,000 per rider. This is quite low even by non-US standards, and is very low by US standards (Second Avenue Subway Phase 1 is about $23,000 according to projections, and is lower than most US rail lines).
As far as I’ve seen, from glancing at lines in large cities such as London, Paris, and Tokyo, the normal cost range for subways is $10,000-20,000 per rider. Paris is quite cheap, since its ridership per kilometer is so high while its cost per kilometer is not very high, keeping Metro extensions in the four figures (but Grand Paris Express, built in more suburban geography, is projected at $34 billion for 2 million daily passengers). Elsewhere in Europe, lines north of $20,000 are not outliers. If we set $25,000/rider as a reasonable limit – a limit which would eliminate all US rail lines other than Second Avenue Subway Phase 1, Houston’s light rail extensions, and Los Angeles’s Regional Connector – then Utica is worth $5 billion. A more generous limit, perhaps $40,000 per rider to allow for Second Avenue Subway Phase 2, would boost Utica to $8 billion, more than $1 billion per km. Even in the US, subways are rarely that expensive: the Bay Area’s lines are only about $500 million per km.
The importance of the above calculation is that it is quite possible that Utica will turn out to have a lower projected cost per rider than the next phase of Second Avenue Subway, a project for which there is nearly universal consensus in New York. The original cost projection for Second Avenue Subway’s second phase was $3.3 billion, but will have run over since (the projection for the first phase was $3.7 billion, but actual cost is nearly $5 billion); the ridership projection is 100,000 for each phase beyond the first, which is projected at 200,000. In such a situation, the line would be a great success for New York, purely on the strength of existing demand. I put Utica at the top of my list of underrated transit projects for a reason: the line’s worth is several times its cost assuming world-average per-km cost, and remains higher than the cost even at elevated American prices. The de Blasio administration is doing well to propose such a line, and it is nearly certain that costs will be such that good transit activists should support it.
Last post, I brought up the fact that the Cairo Metro is by a large margin the world’s busiest per unit of length, to explain why the government should prioritize investing in more subway lines. In comments, some people asked, or brought up information, about other systems’ comparable figures. Here is a table of some systems, including all the major ones. System length is given in kilometers, ridership is given in millions per year, and ridership per km is given in millions per km-year. I’ve tried to use as current data as possible, and to use official sources (or occasionally media sources) – in other words, the citations Wikipedia uses, and not Wikipedia itself.
Note that this not a complete table. I didn’t find annual data for many cities, such as Milan, Athens, and Vienna. For others I didn’t find data of any kind – Wikipedia sourced me to dead links. I also didn’t find any complete data – ridership and length – for any major commuter rail system, despite my desire to include the RER, S-Bahns, and Tokyo, Seoul, and London commuter rail networks. The North American data is lacking, which I blame on APTA’s use of unlinked trips as its main metric; in contrast, all ex-Soviet subways appear, since they’re in one consolidated source, which is why the smaller ones cluster at the bottom of the table, where they’d share room with many American and Western European systems I didn’t find information about. All subway systems down to half a billion annual riders are included.
|São Paulo Metro||74.8||895.6||11.97|
|Tokyo Metro + Toei||310.3||3255.7||10.49|
|Hong Kong MTR||174.7||1600 (122.7 Feb.)||9.16|
|Seoul subway lines 1-9||331.5||2619.5||7.9|
|Mexico City Metro||226.5||1684.9||7.44|
|Kolkata Metro||25.1||186.9 (140.2 Jan.-Sep.)||7.44|
|Osaka Municipal Subway||129.9||927.8 (2.542/day)||7.14|
|St. Petersburg Metro||113.5||758.6||6.68|
|Singapore MRT||148.9||921.6 (2.525/day)||6.19|
|Taipei Metro||129.2||684.8 (1.876/day)||5.3|
|Shanghai Metro||548||2712 (7.43/day)||4.95|
|Nagoya Municipal Subway||93.3||449 (1.23/day)||4.81|
|New York City Subway||373||1708||4.58|
|Barcelona Metro||102.6||373.5 (93.4 Jan.-Mar.)||3.64|
|Nizhny Novgorod Metro||18.8||40||2.13|
|Bilbao Metro||43.3||91.3 (22.8 Jan.-Mar.)||2.11|
|Madrid Metro||294||591.7 (147.9 Jan.-Mar.)||2.01|
Cairo is a dense megacity, without the infrastructure such cities require for high living standards. The city proper, according to Wikipedia, has 10 million people, living at a density approaching 20,000 per km^2, and the metro area has 20 million. With a subway system fit for a city a tenth its size, Cairo is heavily motorized for its income level, congested, and polluted. Despite high construction costs, urgent investment in public transportation is required. Ignoring this need, the current military government has just announced plans to build a new capital outside the city, eventually to house 7 million people, with all the public monuments of a planned city, at a cost of $300 billion (exchange rate dollars, not PPP), about the same as Egypt’s annual GDP. The first phase alone will be $45 billion.
Cairo itself is already suffering from neglect and disinvestment. There are 2 million cars in the city. This is enough to cause so much traffic congestion it costs Egypt 4% of its GDP. Cairo’s air pollution is legendary: pollution levels are akin to smoking a pack of cigarettes per day. At least as of 1997, lead pollution caused by cars using leaded gasoline reduced Cairene children’s IQ by 4 points. The poor transportation options have led to a housing crunch, forcing half a million people to live in a historic necropolis as squatters.
The Cairo Metro would be a solution to these problems to a large extent, but is very small relative to Cairo’s size: it has 3 lines, totaling 78 route-km. Other cities of comparable size have many hundreds of route-km of urban rail, with a handful of exceptions infamous for their sprawl (such as Los Angeles) or pollution (such as Sao Paulo). Despite its small size, the Cairo Metro gets about 1.6 billion passengers per year, by far the highest number of passengers per route-km in the world, nearly twice as high as on the legendarily overcrowded Tokyo subway. Cairo has high construction costs, but in exchange rate dollars they only amount to about $130 million per km; a fully underground expansion of the subway to 400 km, somewhat more than the length of New York’s subway lines and less than that of Beijing and Shanghai’s, would cost about $40 billion, less than the cost of the new capital’s first phase alone. This is on top of all other possible infrastructure investments Egypt should consider: sanitation, sewage, water treatment, electrification, hospitals, schools, the Suez Canal. I bring up the Metro since so many of Cairo’s pressing problems would be substantially reduced if it had the capacity to transport a large share of the city’s population.
The problem is that the Egyptian government’s first priority is not to serve the needs of the Egyptian population. It is an authoritarian military government; it is not accountable to the broad public. I bring this up, because it’s a necessary check on things I have said in the past, attacking local American governance as authoritarian. Andrew Cuomo and Chris Christie have the power to overrule useful spending bills and cause traffic jams in cities run by political opponents. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has the power to jail political opponents without trial, and execute them by the hundreds after show trials.
Autocrats love planned cities, for two reasons. First, planned cities are monuments to their greatness, lasting long into the future. The people the autocrats trample will be forgotten. Tourists visit the Taj Mahal, and not museums commemorating the churches and temples Shah Jahan destroyed. They visit the Great Wall of China, and not any commemoration of the million-odd people who died in its construction. They visit the Old City of Jerusalem, while nobody commemorates any of the locals Herod taxed to build its monuments – even Judaism only commemorates the destruction of the Temple and the beginning of the Diaspora, generations later. Autocrats know this. Even in antiquity, they knew monuments would make them more famous. And even in modern democratic regimes, politicians like signature initiatives that have their names on them; going back to Andrew Cuomo, his proposed Queens convention center is a typical example. But Cuomo still faces some democratic checks and balances. Sisi does not.
And second, planned cities can be built in ways that enhance social control. City Metric compares the new planned capital with Naypyidaw, Burma’s capital, built in the era of military rule to replace Yangon. Purpose-built capitals can be (and are) built around the needs of the national elite, keeping the poor out of sight. They have street and building design plans that make it easy to bring in the military to quell riots: wide streets, buildings that do not touch, no central square where protests could happen. They also disallow squatters, without going through the difficult and controversial move of evicting squatters from the preexisting city. One rhetorical question I have seen on Twitter is, where will this city’s Tahrir be? An article on Cairobserver doesn’t make this exact argument, but does note that this plan disinvests in what will still remain Egypt’s largest city, and could only come about as a result of Egypt’s complete lack of democracy.
One of the bigger influences on my views of democracy is Brad DeLong and Andrei Shleifer’s paper from 1993, Princes and Merchants. I do not fully agree with the point they make, but one of the key components of it, on the spending priorities of an absolute ruler, is crucial to understanding the benefits of democracy. Per DeLong and Shleifer, absolutism chokes economic growth, since the absolute ruler will overtax the economy to maximize revenue. One may ask if actually, hereditary rulers would want to stimulate more economic growth in order to bequeath a stronger kingdom to their heirs. DeLong and Shleifer answer that no: even with clear rules of inheritance, succession wars are so common that kings have to constantly be on the guard against rebellion to make sure their heirs get to inherit anything.
For Sisi, it is perfectly rational to spend so much money building a capital city that would make an uprising against him less likely. The money is not going to come from his pocket, but from the pockets of people he need not care about too much – the Egyptian people. The personal benefits to Sisi are invaluable: Sisi’s two predecessors, Mohamed Morsi and Hosni Mubarak, were both overthrown and immediately charged with crimes, for which they were guilty (under Sisi’s influence, Mubarak was exonerated from most). Why not remove himself and the apparatus of the Egyptian state from the city where they were overthrown?
When I talk of infrastructure democracy in democratic first-world countries, I complain about (much) smaller versions of this exercise. One could reason with a democratic Egyptian government that there are better uses of the money in Cairo itself. One cannot reason this way with a military government. The same is true of the soft authoritarianism found in governments with a democratic deficit, from the European Commission to local American governments. Their power is ultimately limited by other layers of government, which are more transparent, and they are incapable of killing off political opponents, but they still do not have to listen to the people they impact, leading to decisions that are at times obviously ridiculous. Egypt’s new capital is this autocracy, taken to its logical end. A dictator, of the kind who the infrastructurists might praise as someone who can cut through the red tape and gets things done, is spending the country’s annual GDP on a plan to disinvest in the capital and build a monument to himself and his regime from scratch.
Last month, New York’s Regional Plan Association published a report, Overlooked Boroughs, proposing various transit improvements in New York outside the Manhattan core to complement the existing Manhattan-centric subway network. I’ve been thinking for a while what to say about the report. I don’t want to mock too much, since the RPA clearly tries to improve things. But the report falls short in every way, and plays into fads about buses. The one point of light is a brief mention of subways under Utica and Nostrand Avenues, but it is vague and doesn’t even make any of the maps the RPA is producing for additional rail and bus service. Even the RPA’s positive past contribution to the region’s transit proposals, Triboro RX, is replaced by the inferior Crossboro system. All this is on top of wooden analysis of preexisting transportation options.
The technical report talks about low transit usage for travel within the Outer Boroughs, which for the study’s purposes include Upper Manhattan. Figure 3 on page 7 breaks down mode choice as transit versus other modes. This works in Queens, but in Upper Manhattan and the South Bronx, car ownership rates are so low that local transit is competing with walking (and biking). In the Bronx in general, the mode share for borough-internal commutes is 40% transit and 36% car; in Brooklyn, the corresponding numbers are 42% and 32%. Eyeballing figure 3, Upper Manhattan’s transit share looks like 35%, but the car share is almost certainly much lower, given very low car ownership. This means there’s a huge volume of non-mechanized transportation in those regions.
The study does mention expanding bike infrastructure, on pp. 50-51, with an emphasis on bike share. However, its conclusion is directly at odds with the fact that non-mechanized transportation is quite popular in Upper Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn. It calls for incremental enlargement of the current system’s coverage, which consists of Manhattan south of 59th Street and the innermost parts of Brooklyn. It specifically warns against rapid expansion, “so as not to spread the program too thin,” and says the next areas for coverage should be the bridge landings in Brooklyn and Queens and the Upper East and West Sides. Inexplicably, low-income Bedford-Stuyvesant, which is adjacent to the current coverage area, is explicitly listed as a future phase and not a current priority.
A better proposal would call for rapid expansion of bike share and bike lanes; this costs money, but so does transit. Moreover, since the neighborhoods that would gain the most are low-income, the city should give some thought to how to make its bike share system easier to use for low-income residents. The current system requires a debit or credit card and puts a $101 security hold per pass. A city-subsidized system allowing qualified low-income residents to ride without a security hold is required; for example, the city could allow EBT cards to be used in lieu of a security hold, even if their holders then need to put in cash or a MetroCard to pay, in case the federal government disallows using the cards for biking and not just food stamps.
Then, a few pages after the analysis of intra-borough commutes, the report makes another mistake: on table 2, it lists mode shares for commutes between city boroughs and suburban counties, as well as likely transit options. Where commuter rail exists, it lists it as an option: thus, the Manhattan, Queens, or Brooklyn to Essex County rows list “subway to New Jersey Transit” as an option, despite the fact that New Jersey Transit is expensive and infrequent in the reverse-peak direction. Most likely, transit commuters from New York to Essex County work in or near Downtown Newark and take PATH, or at the airport and take a bus.
Now, the report does talk about commuter rail’s deficiency in attracting urban riders, both in the discussion surrounding tables 2 and 3 and in the proposal to improve commuter rail on pp. 49-50. But it says little about frequency for reverse commuting. Even when it does acknowledge the LIRR’s one-way peak service, it pulls its punches and only says it “recommends this project” (three-tracking the LIRR Main Line); proposing to instead do away with peak express service in order to permit reverse-peak service on the other track – as is practiced on the two-track segments of the Chuo Line – is beyond its scope. The punch-pulling is significant; as we will see over and over, the report repeatedly lets itself be defined by current practices and low-level current proposals.
Finally, the analysis of buses leaves something to be desired. The report talks at length about issues regarding span, frequency, and speed, on the list of nine characteristics that determine the attractiveness of transit. There’s no attempt to look systematically at what the busiest bus corridors in the city are. At some places, the corridors proposed match those of busy bus routes, for example the main crosstown routes in Brooklyn, the B35 and B6. At others, they neglect them entirely: as Alexander Rapp noted in comments recently, Grand Concourse, hosting the Bx1/2, is one of the busiest bus corridors in the city, even though it parallels the subway – it’s busier than Nostrand, which is now a Select Bus Service (SBS) route. The third busiest Bronx route, the Bx19, running on Southern to 145th in Manhattan, is also neglected.
We Just Call It “The Bus”
I think it’s Zoltána who said that what Americans call bus rapid transit, Londoners call “the bus.” As she noted in the past, three-door buses with all-door boarding are ubiquitous in Italy. German-speaking cities tend toward all-door boarding as well, as does Paris, but the buses usually have just two doors. All of this is years-old discussion, here and on related blogs such as Human Transit.
The significance of this is that it throws a wrench in any and all attempts to plan surface transit in New York around SBS, which is a bundle of features: enforced off-board fare payment, longer stop spacing, dedicated (but not physically separated) bus lanes. Vancouver engages in similar bundling with the B-Lines, but at least gets it right by not enforcing off-board fare payment: there are no machines printing tickets at any B-Line bus stop, but instead passengers can pay the driver at the front, or board from any door if they have a monthly pass or a transfer slip, which most do. But even Vancouver makes a mistake by requiring everyone to board from the front and pay the driver on all but a handful of bus lines. Vancouver, at least, establishes B-Line routes to mark where it considers building SkyTrain extensions in the future. In New York, it’s not about subway extensions; the planners really do think these features are special, and should be combined.
The RPA could have pushed for citywide off-board fare collection. Instead, it chose to smother any such push:
Set up off-vehicle fare payment using a proof of payment system. Passengers will not only board faster, but they will also be able to board using either front or back doors. However, the high cost of this option makes it impractical for system-wide implementation. Alternatively, the MTA should shift to touch or vicinity passes, the successor to the MetroCard, which is fast becoming obsolete.
First, the invocation of high cost in any plan that includes subway extensions, as this report does, is laughable. One-word replies to this point include any city where all buses already use proof of payment (POP), such as Paris, Berlin, Zurich, or Singapore. This is especially true now that the front end of smartcard technology is so cheap that there are top-up consumer items sold for $30. The cost of putting a card reader at every bus stop and at every bus door is, in 2015, trivial; what is not trivial is the cost of paying drivers to idle while bus riders are dipping their MetroCards at the front one by one.
If we accept citywide POP and bus stop consolidation – again looking at practices in Europe (and in Singapore), bus stops here are spaced every 400 meters and not 200-250 as in the US – then the rationale for SBS breaks down completely. All that’s left is corridors that require bus lanes, and those do not need to be continuous, as a bus can run partly on dedicated lanes and partly in mixed traffic.
Planning for the best corridors for specially upgraded surface transit requires thinking in terms of key bus corridors; the report does this because it assumes SBS is special, and the discussion with Alexander Rapp about Grand Concourse was about light rail. But if this is really just about bus lanes, then planning should be in terms of street segments. Bus lanes are required whenever there are busy buses on congested streets, and feasible when the streets are wide enough to permit car lanes and parking lanes in addition to the bus lanes. The importance of congestion means that a citywide bus lane map would be much more Manhattan-centric: potentially all Manhattan avenues and most two-way streets should have bus lanes since Manhattan traffic is so slow, even if there are key corridors elsewhere in the city with higher ridership.
At this point it’s useful to step back and think about relative advantages of surface transit (in this case buses) and rapid transit. Surface transit will always be slower, more expensive to operate, and far cheaper to deploy than rapid transit. This is why bus maps look like dense grids or meshes in every major city whereas subway maps only do in a small number of megacities.
The upshot is that there’s less need to force buses into a few key corridors. If New York were to build a subway or even light rail on a corridor, it would have to choose the routing in a way that would replace multiple parallel buses. For example, light rail on Tremont would replace both the Bx40/42 and the Bx36, which run on or parallel to Tremont in different parts of the Bronx. There’s no need to do that with bus-based transit: the Bx40/42 and the Bx36 can stay where they are. Route consolidation is only beneficial insofar as it boosts frequency, which means it’s required on minor routes but optional on major ones – this is why there’s a bus on every Manhattan avenue except Park, with no consolidation of the various one-way avenue pairs. The Bx40/42 runs every 10 minutes in the midday off-peak, and the Bx36 runs every 7-8 minutes, so there’s no need for a combined corridor.
Another key difference, ignored in the report, is that surface transit needs to run on straight, continuous streets whenever possible. Turns slow the bus down much more than they slow the subway (although they do increase the subway’s construction costs, since the subway would need to go under private property). This is partly because the bus is already slower, so the extra travel distance is more onerous, and partly because turning from one street to another requires red-light cycles that may not be easily eliminated via signal priority.
One upshot of this is that the report’s proposed bus map has some routes that are completely insane. Figure 14, on page 40, has two proposed new SBS routes in the Bronx: one paralleling the Bx36 and Bx40/42 in a circuitous manner, and going north-south in the East Bronx with several jogs and turns larger than 180 degrees. Nobody needs such circuitous routes.
Another upshot is the situation in Brooklyn. Brooklyn has five of the city’s top ten routes: the crosstown B35 and B6, and the radial B41 (Flatbush), B44 (Nostrand), and B46 (Utica). The latter three follow their streets nearly the entire way. The first two do not, as Brooklyn does not have continuously important crosstown arterial streets the way it has Flatbush, Nostrand, and Utica. Now, to be fair, the B6 is as fast as the three radials, all averaging 11 km/h on local buses and 12-13 on limited ones, but the B35 is much slower, 8 km/h local and 9 km/h limited; all average speeds are computed departing eastbound or northbound at noon. Between this and the B6’s somewhat zigzaggy route, the circumferentials are slowed more than the radials, which means rapid transit becomes more useful.
Enter Triboro RX, which appears in modified form (see below) in the report. Although it doesn’t closely parallel the B35 or B6, it provides a similar kind of service, and could poach significant ridership from both. This means that the introduction of rapid transit service there would make it less important to upgrade the B35 and B6 beyond the upgrades all other buses receive; conversely, such service would get much more ridership than we see today on buses, since it would offer such a large speed benefit. Of course the same is true of subway extension on Nostrand and Utica, but the rail bias over the existing 12-13 km/h options is a bit less than over a 9 km/h option; it’s only the easy tie-in to the 2, 3, 4, and 5 trains and the very high ridership of three closely parallel bus routes that make two subway lines pencil out.
Unfortunately, there’s no attempt at combined planning in the report. There’s no attempt to tie upgraded bus routes in Brooklyn and Queens to new transfer points created by Triboro. At the city’s other end, in the Bronx, Second Avenue Subway Phase 2 would make an East 125th Street terminus desirable for some Bronx buses; this is again not shown. Figure 14 on page 40 doesn’t show subway extensions, and figure 15 on page 44 doesn’t show SBS routes.
Finally, one notable inclusion is that of North Shore Branch SBS. Everything I could say about this I said three and a half years ago; it’s a terrible plan, and the fact that the RPA is going through with it instead of explaining why a second Staten Island Railway line would be better speaks volumes to how little the RPA is willing to come up with its own ideas instead of following whatever fads the city and MTA engage in.
Rail: Even When It’s Right, It’s Wrong
The report’s proposals for subway and commuter rail expansion have good kernels, but manage to make big mistakes on top of them, producing projects of limited transportation value. Here the RPA’s mistake is less overrelying on bad government planning (there is none as far as rail is concerned) and more overrelying on its own hype and that of similar organizations.
The plan for Second Avenue Subway is still in place. However, one key proposal regarding phasing worries me:
There is a strong argument to move quickly to build the north segment first as far as 116th Street, which would be relatively inexpensive since much of the tunnel is in place from earlier work, leaving the more expensive last piece to 125th Street for later. This report supports this argument.
Although in East Harlem, 116th Street is the key throughfare, a connection to 125th Street is crucial, for the transfer to Metro-North and the 4, 5, and 6 trains. It’s not even too much more expensive than a Phase 1.5 to 116th Street, since the 106th and 116th Street stations would still need to be dug, and the stations are the dominant part of Second Avenue Subway’s cost, three quarters of Phase 1 if I remember correctly.
Moreover, the report suggests various tie-ins, all on page 43: going west across 125th, going north into the Bronx, going south to Brooklyn via a new tunnel and taking over the Atlantic Branch of the LIRR. The first one would be golden, but isn’t even depicted on the associated map, figure 15 on page 44. As with the Nostrand and Utica subways discussed on the same page, the best ideas in the report are presented as afterthoughts and not depicted on any map. The Bronx extensions are harmless, but the routes shown on figure 15 are at times circuitous. The Atlantic Branch plan, fortunately not shown either, is the worst: the Atlantic Branch should be part of a modernized commuter rail plan. Despite the fact that the report does talk about commuter rail upgrades, it still considers cannibalizing a key route for a Second Avenue Subway extension.
The second key piece of rail infrastructure proposed, Triboro RX, is the RPA’s key contribution, dating back to 1996. Michael Frumin worked on this project and, together with Jeff Zupan, one of this report’s two authors, estimated its ridership at 76,000 commuters, each taking a roundtrip per weekday, for about 150,000 weekday boardings. Unfortunately, this report scraps many of the useful features of Triboro, replacing the line with Penn Design’s inferior Crossboro, which runs alongside the Northeast Corridor in the Bronx instead of completing the semicircle around Manhattan.
Moreover, for reasons I do not understand, the report widens the interstations on Triboro. The original plan called for a station every 800 meters, excluding the Hell Gate Bridge; including it, there would be about a station every kilometer. The current version of the route has a station every 1.8 km; even excluding the Bronx and Hell Gate portions, this is a station every 1.6 km. Broadway Junction, a key transfer point with connections to the A, C, and J, is deleted; trains run nonstop from New Utrecht to the Brooklyn Army Terminal; successive spokes in Brooklyn get no stations between them, even when the distance between the radial lines is such that most subway networks would put in a station in the middle.
Finally, commuter rail modernization falls flat. The RPA correctly calls for lower fares and higher off-peak frequencies – but then fails to follow through with demanding reductions in marginal operating costs. A discussion of high off-peak frequency and subway-competitive fares is a waste of time if each train is staffed with five conductors. A more reasonable number of conductors, zero, is required for this to financially pencil out.
But even if we ignore the costs, the plan does not look like a plan with modernized commuter rail. There are no infill stations proposed. High frequencies and mode-neutral fares would make Astoria a desirable commuter rail stop; but the stations mentioned on pp. 49-50 for Penn Station Access service are only the ones currently proposed in the Bronx, omitting Astoria. Similarly, despite wild plans, not depicted on maps, to construct a commuter rail branch on Utica, there’s no mention of simply adding a Utica stop to Atlantic Branch trains. Nobody is going to use Utica or Astoria for today’s fares or on today’s schedules, but frequent, cheap commuter rail service to these areas would be very popular.
All of the ideas proposed for rail are good, in principle. I’m glad that Second Avenue Subway is receiving priority, that Triboro is on this map, and that there’s talk of commuter rail modernization. But every when the RPA gets it right, it wrecks things with bad details about phasing, station placement, and lack of consideration of what commuter rail modernization would do to demand patterns.
Where are the Forward-Thinking Proposals?
The report simply cobbles together various proposals by organizations and politicians, without trying to turn them into a coherent whole: some bus upgrades here, some subway and commuter rail expansions there, no real attempt to even make the various modes work together. Even within each tranche, the report often rehashes current city plans, no matter how inappropriate.
Is the RPA thinking forward here? I don’t see any evidence of forward thought in the report. Where Paris is beginning construction on 200 kilometers of driverless rapid transit, mostly underground, the RPA is proposing 10 km of subway in future Second Avenue Subway phases and 40 km of rapid transit on existing right-of-way in Triboro RX. If New York could build subways at Paris’s prices, about $250 million per kilometer, Ile-de-France’s budget for Grand Paris Express, about $35 billion, would build the entirety of Second Avenue Subway eleven times over. There would be money for multiple radial and crosstown subway extensions and commuter rail tunnels (at Parisian costs, my commuter rail through-running tunnels would together be $20 billion or somewhat less); bus upgrades, done right, would show as a rounding error in streetscaping, and actually save money since higher speeds would reduce operating costs.
The Third Regional Plan did talk about things that other people were not proposing at the time. It had more Second Avenue Subway tie-ins, for one. Here all the RPA is doing is slapping its logo on a bad bus upgrade plan and reminding people that there’s a Second Avenue Subway project waiting to be finished. What happened to the RPA?
Last week, Bill de Blasio proposed a citywide ferry system in his otherwise perfectly boilerplate State of the City speech. Ferries, as Ben Kabak notes, are a tried and failed solution in New York, with a $30 per passenger subsidy on the ferry to the Rockaways, one of the neighborhoods mentioned in de Blasio’s speech. At the same time, some ferry routes do attract large numbers of passengers, including the Staten Island Ferry and SeaBus; in addition, MBTA Boat attracts fewer passengers than SeaBus, but achieves better cost recovery than the MBTA’s land transportation services. The purpose of this post is to explain which urban geographies could be well-served by ferries, and why New York could not.
Until the invention of the railroad, the fastest, cheapest, and most reliable form of transportation was the boat. Inland transportation of goods was by canal whenever possible. Overland transportation was so expensive that, as noted by Andrew Odlyzko, the cost of coal would double twelve miles away from the mine (see p. 14). As a result, cities were founded on shorelines and in river estuaries, and shrank if their rivers silted.
Railroads inverted this equation. Even in the 1830s, trains achieved higher speeds than ferries do today: the London and Birmingham averaged 31 km/h at opening, whereas SeaBus, which uses fast catamarans, averages at most 20 km/h. They could climb grades without resorting to locks and derailed much less often than boats sank; and, with the world still in the tail end of the Little Ice Age, the railroads did not freeze in winter. In this situation, a seaside location is no longer an advantage. At coastal locations, railroads have to cross more rivers, as did roads before; the current route of the Northeast Corridor in Connecticut was not the first but the third rail connection to be built between New York and Boston, after the Long Island Railroad (with ferry connections at both ends) and the inland Hartford and New Haven Railroad route.
The 19th century was a period of fast population growth in the industrialized world, especially the US, and fast urbanization. The industrial cities were then sited based on the optimal locations of a railroad network and not that of a shipping network. Birmingham and Manchester were already the largest cities in the UK outside of London, but the first railroad was, not coincidentally, built precisely to give Manchester port access without relying on the Manchester Ship Canal. In the US, we can see this in action, especially in New England: Boston has always been New England’s largest city, but many other early-settled cities – Salem, Newport, Plymouth, Provincetown, Portsmouth – declined, and now New England’s second cities include not just coastal New Haven and Providence but also inland Hartford, Worcester, and Nashua-Manchester.
In some areas of Long Island and New England, we can see towns with dual centers: an older coastal center, and a newer inland center, near the train station or a highway interchange. As Long Island had extensive suburban growth in the postwar era, the inland centers there are usually the larger ones, whereas in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, the coastal centers are usually larger.
Boston’s ferries serve these coastal centers. The Greenbush Line is locally infamous for its low ridership, about 3,000 per weekday in each direction. And yet, the ferries serving Hingham are fairly well-patronized: about 3,500 weekday passengers in both directions. (Both figures are from the 2014 Blue Book.) Now, the trains still carry nearly twice as many passengers as the ferries, but, relatively speaking, the ferries are doing quite well, since that part of the South Shore was settled before the railroad came, so the ferry serves passengers better than the trains do.
The other issue is which mode of transportation offers the most direct route. On the South Shore, the ferries go in a straighter line than the trains, which have to detour to remain on land. The Staten Island Ferry goes in a straight line, whereas roads and trains take big detours, especially for passengers leaving from St. George and not from near the bridges to Brooklyn and New Jersey. SeaBus, likewise, takes a direct route.
The significant fact for the Staten Island Ferry and SeaBus is that there economic centers of Staten Island and North Vancouver are right next to the ferry docks, coming from the fact that those areas were settled as suburban regions connected to the center by ferry. Because constructing a road or rail link across the New York Harbor or Burrard Inlet is difficult, those ferries were never replaced by fixed links; this is in contrast with Jersey City, which was also connected to New York by multiple ferry lines, but had enough demand a hundred years ago to fill the Hudson Tubes and later the Holland Tunnel with commuters.
None of these histories and geographies applies to the routes proposed by de Blasio and other ferry supporters. A Rockaway ferry has to detour around all of Brooklyn to reach Manhattan. The various waterfront ferries between Manhattan and Queens don’t really serve neighborhood centers, which are located around subway stations. Subway stations, like railroads, dislike coastal locations, not because of construction difficulties but because half their walk sheds would be underwater. Even Red Hook, which is cut off from the rest of the city by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and has no subway service, is not centered around the waterfront: the projects are several blocks inland, and Ikea Dock is facing the wrong way, south instead of west.
New York’s commercial centers, likewise, are inland. Why would a Midtown office developer waste any time building a skyscraper on the East River when the easternmost subway stations in Midtown are at Lexington Avenue? Thus the high-rise towers that line First Avenue are more residential than commercial, making them poor candidates for ferry connections. Lower Manhattan is better-connected to the water, but it is served by a large number of subway lines in all directions, none of which is at capacity since Midtown is the bigger office cluster. It’s also far from the waterfront condo clusters de Blasio wants to serve with ferries.
Even service between Staten Island and Manhattan shouldn’t be a ferry. A rail tunnel would offer a large improvement in trip times: about 8 minutes or even less, compared with 25 by ferry, and one to two transfers less than today. The question is entirely whether the costs could be contained enough to be in line with a realistic demand projection. Of course this is best realized as part of a regionwide commuter rail modernization plan, but even without such a plan, a connection to the 1 train would substantially reduce Staten Island’s commute time, which, at least last decade, was the longest of all US counties.
And this is an origin-destination pair that, given current infrastructure, is actually well-served by ferry, unlike the routes that de Blasio proposed. Ben tried to propose a better way of running ferries in New York, but with no real anchors to connect to, Ben’s proposal is a polite way of what I would phrase as “just don’t.”
Unlike Cuomo, de Blasio is not inherently hostile to public transit. However, he does not particularly care about transit, either. In this view, what he says about ferries is of limited consequence; the amounts of money in question are trivial. He’s not like Bloomberg, who directed $2 billion of city money to the 7 extension ahead of more deserving subway investments. Perhaps it’s wiser to focus on his plan to deck over Sunnyside Yards, or, more specifically, his invocation of massive projects including Stuyvesant Town, Coop City, and Starrett City – precisely the models that a Sunnyside decking should avoid.
However, there’s a good reason to focus on this, unimportant as it is. Cuomo’s failings are characteristic of an autocrat who is hostile to transit. De Blasio’s are characteristic of an autocrat who is indifferent. Although there is a long-term transit plan in New York, centered around completing Second Avenue Subway, this is not what de Blasio talked about, at all. Instead, he went for projects that can be done during his first term: off-board fare collection on a few more bus routes (“Select Bus Service,” complete with the pretense that they are bus rapid transit), and ferries. He won’t just follow an agenda set by others a long time ago: he has to remind people he exists on this issue as on his signature issues, but, as he doesn’t actually care about it, he will propose distractions that would at best do little (Select Bus Service) and at worst would be complete wastes of money (the ferries).
In a democracy, good transit advocates can push themselves into key positions at the ministry of transport, or its equivalent, such as a parliamentary committee on transportation (including the Congressional one, even). The same is true for people who care about other aspects of government spending and policy: housing, health care, education, defense, social welfare, policing. In an autocracy, such as the strong mayor system, it boils down to asking the autocrat to care and to take the right position. But the autocrat is just one person, and cannot pay equal attention to everything. Hence, ferries and Select Bus Service, in lieu of real transit investment.
Transit lines branch. Core routes have more demand than outlying ones, so naturally trains and buses run on trunk lines in the core and then branch farther out, to match frequency to demand. I gave an overview of this years ago. This is both normal across nearly all significant transit systems, and good practice. In this post, I’d like to focus on the opposite kind of branching, which I am going to call reverse branching, when one outlying line splits into two core routes. This is much less common, but exists in multiple cities, and leads to problems including restrictions on capacity and disappointing ridership. Cities should avoid building new lines that reverse branch, and in one famous existing case, London’s Northern line, the city is working on changing the situation by building a new outlying branch.
London’s Northern line, as can be seen on the Underground map, has three branches to the north and two in the center, but just one to the south. The highest ridership demand is in the center, but because both branches feed into just one southern branch, there is less than full capacity on the central branches, about 20 trains per hour each, compared with 30 tph on the southern branch and 33 tph on the Victoria and Jubilee lines. As a result, Transport for London has made recurrent plans to split the line for good: one central branch (through the City of London) using the existing southern branch and two of the northern ones, and one (through Charing Cross) using one northern branch and terminating at Kennington, the junction with the southern branch. An under-construction extension of the line from Kennington to Battersea can then be tied to the Charing Cross branch. There is some NIMBY opposition from a member of Parliament representing a constituency on one of the northern branches, who would like her constituents to have one-seat rides to both branches, but most likely, Transport for London’s need for capacity will make the split inevitable once the Battersea extension opens, ending the reverse branching practice.
In New York, routes branch and recombine, and thus it is common to have trains of different colors (which only denote Manhattan trunks) running together on a branch in Brooklyn, Queens, or the Bronx. The single busiest entry point into the Manhattan core is via 53rd Street Tunnel (connecting to Queens Boulevard), technically a branch since it runs trains connecting to both the Eighth and Sixth Avenue Lines. This, again, causes capacity problems. It’s not so bad on the numbered lines, where four trunk tracks (the Manhattan express trunks, carrying the 2/3 and 4/5) recombine in a different way to four tracks in Brooklyn (pairing the 2/5), but the lettered lines’ reverse branching in Uptown Manhattan and Queens initially forced eight trunk tracks (the Sixth and Eighth Avenue services, the B/D/F and A/C/E) to converge to six branch tracks (the two Queens Boulevard express tracks via 53rd, and the four Central Park West tracks). New subway connections have replaced this situation with twelve trunk tracks (including the Broadway Line’s N/Q/R) splitting to ten, spreading the problem around but not dealing with the fundamental restriction on capacity. The under-construction Second Avenue Subway will connect to the Broadway Line and run Q trains, raising the number of lettered tracks Uptown and in Queens to twelve, but this will not be enough to disentangle the tracks and provide full capacity on each core track; see below for proposed examples.
In Delhi, the Green Line splits into short branches, to provide transfers to two different Metro trunk lines. As seen on the system map, the Green Line does not enter central Delhi, and the current setup allows passengers to travel to central Delhi via two different routes. However, the Phase 4 extension plan extends the one branch to go out of the city in a V-shaped direction (the light green Kirti Nagar-Dwarka Section 28 line on this map), and has an extension that may connect to the other branch (Inderlok-Indraprastha, colored ocher on the map) to connect it to central Delhi, which may cause a serious mismatch in demand on the outlying common segment.
Finally, in Tokyo, subway lines reverse branch in two locations. The Namboku and Mita Lines share their southernmost three stations and the tracks in between. Although most Tokyo subway lines, including Namboku and Mita, run through to commuter lines, which provide the normal kind of branching, the Mita and Namboku Lines only do so either to the north or via the shared segment, as seen on this map, constraining capacity. They run only 12 peak tph each, and have low ridership by Tokyo subway standards. The Fukutoshin and Yurakucho Lines are in a similar situation, but the Fukutoshin Line does run through to a commuter line, the Tobu Tojo Line, without going through the shared segment (it is not depicted on the map, which is a few years out of date). The Fukutoshin Line has low ridership (see last page here), but the Yurakucho Line does not.
In all examples I’ve listed so far, the two core branches serve very central areas (as in London, New York, and Tokyo), or neither of them does (as in Delhi). Tokyo is somewhat of an exception, since the Yurakucho and Mita Lines serve Central Tokyo and the Fukutoshin and Namboku Lines serve secondary centers, but those secondary centers are very dense themselves; the Mita and Namboku Lines in particular are quite close in ridership. I am more wary of proposals to split an outlying line in the core that have one branch serving the CBD and one branch avoiding it, as in Delhi, assuming I understand the proposal correctly.
Also of note, all the examples I’ve listed involve subways. This is because conventional branching, with a core trunk splitting into multiple outlying branches, is more limited on urban rail than on both buses and regional rail. Most subway lines do not have more than two branches feeding into a trunk. In New York, not counting the split in the A, which is inherited from the LIRR, there is exactly one place where three subway routes share tracks: the N, Q, and R from Manhattan to Queens. In Stockholm, with its highly branched subway network, only one line, in one direction, splits into three. This is because even a split into three branches requires limiting off-peak frequency on the branches to less than a train every ten minutes, which is undesirable in large subway systems. The result is that reverse branching can easily create a situation in which there are more tracks in the core than in the outlying areas, as it does in all four cities surveyed above, restricting capacity on each core track.
In contrast, regional rail tends to operate at lower frequency on the branches, and this permits conventional branching with more than two branches per trunk. In addition, there are often turnback facilities at through-stations, and substantial four-track segments on otherwise two-track lines. The result is that reverse branching is possible without any constraint on core track capacity. The Berlin S-Bahn is highly branched in both the conventional and reverse senses. The RER E is being extended to the west, including a takeover of an RER A branch. And the Tokyo commuter rail network has extensive reverse branching, coming from through-service between commuter lines and subway lines but also from the Shonan-Shinjuku Line’s split from the Tokaido and Tohoku commuter lines. In none of these cases is there a significant restriction on core capacity, simply because there’s enough slack in the branches that they can’t fill to track capacity unless the core has filled as well.
In the US, I am familiar with three proposals for new subway lines that involve reverse splits, in Boston, Washington, and New York.
In Boston, the proposal actually involves commuter rail rather than the subway: the Worcester Line would use the Grand Junction Railroad to go through Cambridge to reach North Station, bypassing South Station. See map on page 38 of the statewide transportation capital budget proposal. This would not reduce capacity, since the Worcester Line is nowhere near exhausting the capacity of a two-track railroad, and moreover, the Grand Junction line would terminate at West Station within Boston proper, where there’s a railyard. However, this is still bad transit, for other reasons. West Station serves a residential neighborhood, without enough density to justify a fork toward both North Station and South Station. On top of that, since North Station lies outside the Boston CBD, the proposal is essentially a mixture of a radial and a circumferential line, with all the problems that would bring – and despite running as a circumferential line through Cambridge, there is no transfer planned with the Red Line, although the Grand Junction passes close to the Kendall/MIT station.
It would be better to bag all plans to use the Grand Junction until such time that the state builds the North-South Rail Link, connecting North Station with South Station. Then, the Grand Junction would make an almost perfect alignment for a circular line, with its eastern leg connecting North and South Stations and its western end going through Cambridge, making several stops, including a transfer to Kendall/MIT. This would require high investment – besides being a single-track at-grade line, the Grand Junction would require a new junction to connect to the Worcester Line to go east toward South Station, whereas today it only connects to the west, toward Allston and Brighton – but still a fraction of the cost of the North-South Rail Link, which is getting some serious political support, including from former governors Michael Dukakis and William Weld.
In Washington, there already is some reverse branching: the Yellow and Blue Lines share tracks in Virginia, but run on two different trunk lines in Washington proper, each shared with other lines, so four central tracks become four tracks in Virginia. But now with the opening of the Silver Line, raising the number of Virginia tracks to six, WMATA would like to separate the Blue Line from the Orange Line, which it shares tracks with in Washington, in order to provide six tracks across the District as well. This can only lead to awkward service patterns and wasted core capacity, as Matt Johnson demonstrates on Greater Greater Washington: because the Orange and Silver Line will keep interlining under any plan, reckoned from their split east there are only four tracks in Virginia and not six. Moreover, the Yellow Line interlines with the Green Line in the District, which means that even if it’s separated from the Blue Line, it could not run at full capacity.
Washington built itself into a corner with its Metro route decisions. There’s no corridor in the city that really needs a subway line; unlike New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, Washington has no corridor with so much bus ridership that it should be a subway line. A fourth subway line would be useful for service to Georgetown, but that’s about it. So decisions about a fourth line in the District should be based on the capacity needs of the branches, not those of the core. On a list of possible changes that WMATA looked at, Greater Greater Washington included a separated Silver Line, including separation up to the junction with the Orange Line so that they share no tracks. I’ll add that if WMATA wants to go down that route, then it should give the Orange Line its own route through the District and keep the Silver and Blue Lines together; this is because the Orange Line is the busiest of the three, so that it should be the least branched, in this case not branched at all whereas the other two do branch.
Finally, New York. Second Avenue Subway is going to change the nature of the reverse branching used by the lettered lines, for the better. Because the plan for Phases 1 and 2 is to run only the Q train, the city will finally have matching numbers of lettered tracks in and north and east of the Manhattan core: twelve tracks in the core, and twelve in Uptown Manhattan and Queens. Unfortunately, it is impossible to match service, because that would sever too many connections. Second Avenue Subway only connects to the Broadway express line, so to match service there couldn’t be any other service using the Broadway express.
Recall the London NIMBYism mentioned at the beginning of this post: that was about a service change that would give commuters a
cross-platform (see comment with diagram) transfer between their branch of the Northern Line and the central segment of the other branch. In New York, the transfers in western Queens involve a lot of walking between platforms, if they even exist. Then all the Broadway locals (the N/R) would go to Queens through 60th Street Tunnel, and thence to the Astoria Line, severing the connection to the Queens Boulevard Line. The Queens Boulevard Line has two ways into Manhattan: 53rd Street, which connects to both Eighth and Sixth Avenues, and 63rd Street, which connects only to Sixth Avenue. Moreover, either all F trains (through 63rd) have to run express in Queens and all E trains local, or the reverse; mixing and matching would produce at-grade conflict at the junction, as seen on the Queens 1 track map on nycsubway.org. The transfer between the E and F would be located at 74th Street in Queens, several kilometers east of the split, which is located just to the east of the westernmost express/local station, Queens Plaza. Neither the E nor the F would have a transfer to the N/R near their respective intersection points. The Q would not have a transfer to the E (it would have one to the F, though). This puts many commuters in an impossible situation and the capacity gains from it are frankly not enough to be worth it.
Instead, the capacity gains would be limited to running some more express trains on the Broadway Line. Before the service cuts in 2010, the N ran express on the Broadway Line, the Q terminated at 57th Street at the north end of Midtown, and a fourth Broadway route, the W, ran local and served the Astoria Line. Once the Q is extended up Second Avenue, the restored W could beef up Broadway Line service. Second Avenue would only get a branch despite its high ridership, but it’s still only a segment of a line.
Then there are Phases 3 and 4 of Second Avenue Subway, serving Midtown and the Lower East Side, where the Q runs on Broadway. The official plan introduces another reverse branching: a new route, the T, is planned to run the entire length of Second Avenue: see map here. When both phases are complete, there will be fourteen lettered tracks in Midtown but only twelve Uptown and in Queens.
To resolve this, the MTA should activate a connection that is included in the Second Avenue Subway plan as a non-revenue connection: a connection from Second Avenue south of the Q/T split at 63rd Street to 63rd Street Tunnel; currently, 63rd Street is the least used connection from Manhattan to Queens, since the reverse branching limits capacity and 63rd Street is the least useful connection since it enters Manhattan north of Midtown. This implies there should be a Queens Boulevard-Second Avenue service, which I will call the U, one letter next to the T. The Queens Boulevard express tracks are filled to capacity and the local ones are not, so the T should run local, cutting the frequencies on the existing local R and M trains a bit to make room. It would still leave New York with twelve Uptown and Queens tracks diverging to fourteen Midtown tracks, but it would distribute the load better, in the same way the present system distributes the load better than the 1930s-era reverse branching from six to eight tracks did.
New York is in a somewhat special case, in that its subway system is based on heavy branching and reverse branching, and moreover it’s historically based on three different systems, with poor transfers between them. Fully untangling the lines after Second Avenue Subway’s Phases 1 and 2 are built is not possible because there are no transfers between the lines that would result, and the station placement is such that any new transfers would involve long walks between platforms.
Other cities, especially cities planning new systems from scratch, should not emulate this feature, and should instead design all lines to either not branch at all or only branch conventionally. A system designed from the ground up could have cross-platform transfers between lines, and even make sure they’re timed, reducing the cost to passengers of having to transfer in lieu of using a reverse branch. It could be coherent, in the sense of making it easy for an unfamiliar passenger to understand how to get from each station to each other station. And it could be built for maximum capacity in the most crowded segments, where it matters the most.
On Tuesday, Andrew Cuomo proposed a new signature initiative: a $450 million AirTrain to LaGuardia, connecting to the Mets’ stadium on both the 7 train and the LIRR. The proposal has practically no merit even as an airport connector: Ben Kabak and Yonah Freemark both note, with helpful graphics, that the connection is so circuitous it’d be slower than the existing bus-subway options to nearly every destination, including everywhere in Manhattan. Capital New York notes that in general, transit activist reactions to the plan were cold, precisely because it’s such bad transit.
The interesting aspect of this is about the counter-criticism, and the discussion it led to. (In contrast, Cuomo’s general hostility to transit and intercity rail is not news, and it’s unlikely someone with such a history could come up with cost-effective transit plans.) The main reaction to the criticism is not “where would you spend $450 million instead?”. That question has a few answers, all of which are boring: the general MTA capital plan, or, if the money is to go to expansion, Second Avenue Subway Phase 2, the next item on the city’s transit agenda now that Phase 1 is nearing completion.
Instead, the main reaction is “how would you connect to LaGuardia instead?”. That question, too, has a definite answer, which Ben talked about in his post, and which I pointed out in my post about airport connectors last year: an extension of the N to the east, with several stops (for example, at Steinway and Hazen) to serve more of Astoria and not just airport riders. The N takes a direct route to Manhattan, passing through or next to the top areas for LaGuardia passengers, as seen in the second map here. But even that is the wrong question. There are probably more cost-effective subway extensions in New York, having nothing to do with LaGuardia; I have to say probably, since at no point has the MTA proposed large enough a slate of possible extensions that we can compare projected costs per rider and say “this is the best.” There might even be better ways to extend the N eastward than to LaGuardia: an elevated line over Ditmars, a short segment of the Grand Central Parkway, and Astoria Boulevard would serve East Elmhurst, a dense, transit-deprived section of Queens, and would probably produce higher ridership than a swerve from the GCP to the airport.
Such is the power of a governor who’s accountable to nobody: he proposes a scheme, and even the criticism is on the governor’s own terms of providing service to LaGuardia. Yonah compares travel times to various destinations on various alignments for connecting LaGuardia to the subway. Nate Silver’s response has an infographic with travel times from the airport to city hall in various American cities – an infographic that is of little use to New York, where the main destination is far north of city hall, but is well within the general topic of LaGuardia’s airport connections. Even I, cognizant of this agenda-setting power, have to at least mention an alternative LaGuardia connector, knowing readers will want a plan.
The cheeky response to this is that in a democracy, this wouldn’t happen. Now, the US is a democracy. Cuomo has to stand for election every four years. The worst infrastructure disasters tend to be in countries that are authoritarian through and through: Russia’s elevated winter Olympics costs in Sochi and Qatar’s human rights abuses in the World Cup preparations are the two biggest recent examples. But democracies with insufficient checks on political power are susceptible to this as well. This is common in the third world, where corruption is more common – hence the abuses of the World Cup last summer, in a solidly democratic country – but can also happen in developed countries with democratic deficits.
Usually, the phrase democratic deficit refers to the EU, and by analogy other supranational organizations. But in the US, it’s a useful framework for thinking of local and state governments. Rick Scott, Scott Walker, and John Kasich needed nobody’s approval to reject federal funding for intercity rail. Chris Christie did not need anyone’s approval to cancel ARC, or to cause traffic jams in retribution against a mayor who refused to endorse him; in a recent article in New York YIMBY, defending the cancellation of ARC as originally proposed, I made sure to take multiple barbs at Christie, just to avoid playing into the agenda of canceling ARC to posture about government waste while diverting rail money to the New Jersey Turnpike.
Cuomo’s power is if anything even greater: the New York state government works by a three men in a room model, in which the governor, the speaker of the State Assembly (just indicted for corruption), and the majority leader in the State Senate (currently relatively powerless and dependent on Cuomo) wield all practical power. In such a system, Cuomo does not have the power to shoot protesters, thankfully, but does have the power to propose megaprojects that glorify him, without a broad discussion with stakeholders, in which the MTA’s long-term expansion plans and cost-benefit ratios would come into play.
Last year, in writing about elite infrastructure projects that are not about meeting a service need, I noted that talking about such projects in terms of cost-effectiveness is moot, because they were never intended to be about benefiting the wider public. We could discuss where to spend money on transit in New York in the way that would benefit the largest number of riders. We could even discuss what the optimal way of connecting to LaGuardia is, before comparing the best connection with non-airport projects to see where it should lie on the list of future expansions. But it would be pointless, because Cuomo is not interested in spending money on benefiting the largest number of riders; he frankly does not care about transit riders. When the time came to support transit riders, for example in signing a lockbox bill guaranteeing that money the state government had promised the MTA would indeed go to the MTA, he vetoed the bill instead.
In such a climate, as soon as we talk about tweaks to Cuomo’s plan, Cuomo’s already won; whatever happens, he will reap the credit, and use it to buy political capital to keep building unnecessary megaprojects. Even trying to make the best of a bad situation by making the airport connector better is of little use, since Cuomo will support the plan that maximizes his political capital and not the one that maximizes transit usage even within such constraints as “must serve LaGuardia.”
This is evident in his response to criticism among transit activists. After listing the many pundits and activists who oppose the plan, Capital New York included a response from the governor’s office, which said, in so many words, “our plan is better because it doesn’t go through populated neighborhoods, where there would be NIMBYs.” What those of us who want good transit view as a feature – connecting to underserved neighborhoods and not just to the airport – Cuomo regards as a bug. A plan that included additional stops in Astoria might well attract community support, while still offering much faster trip times to Manhattan because of the direct route, but would rely on non-airport ridership, which Cuomo doesn’t care about, to keep the cost per rider reasonable.
Because of this disconnect between what would work for transit users and what would work for Cuomo, the only reasonable answer to the plan is a simple no, which should be said as sharply as possible. No working with the proposal: it’s terrible, a true stone soup. No tweaks: Cuomo wouldn’t want any ingredients that would improve the soup, and would insist on keeping the stone in anyway. (He doesn’t have to eat it, he doesn’t use transit either way.) And, within the parameters of a transit conversation in which people are desperate to see expansions, no discussion that validates Cuomo’s original plan.
Update 7/28: in a joint announcement with Joe Biden, Cuomo has just announced $4 billion in airport improvements at LaGuardia, bundling the rail connector into the larger projects. I have nothing to add that I didn’t already cover in this post and in my older post about elite infrastructure investments.
Nearly all rapid transit lines belong to one of two categories: radial lines (a large majority), which connect city center with outlying neighborhoods or suburbs; and circumferential lines (a minority), which go around city center and often serve secondary centers and usually intersect all or nearly all radial lines perpendicularly, such as Paris’s Lines 2 and 6, Moscow’s Circle Line, Seoul’s Line 2, New York’s G train, and Shanghai’s Line 4. In this post, I’m going to discuss an uncommon third category, that of lines that combine circumferential and radial functions: they go toward city center, like a radial line, but then change direction and become circumferential. The G train in New York was like this until 2001, and Line 3 in Shanghai is like this today. This is apropos a proposal by a team Penn Design graduate students to build a variant of Triboro RX in New York that combines Triboro’s circumferential orientation with a radial commuter line. I believe such mixed lines are a recipe for low ridership and strained transfer points, and the Penn Design proposal is inferior to the original Triboro proposal.
First, some details about the mixed lines in question. The example most accessible to most readers is the historical G train in New York. When it first opened in the 1930s as part of the IND, it was designed to both connect Brooklyn and Queens without going through Manhattan and provide local service along radial lines, running alongside express trains that would serve Manhattan. Thus the northern half of the G ran under Queens Boulevard as a local, while the E and F trains provided express service and went to Manhattan. From the start, this arrangement was unstable. Demand for service to Manhattan was much greater than to Brooklyn, so people riding the G inbound changed to the E or F at the first express station after the one they boarded. With overcrowded express trains and undercrowded local ones, the Transit Authority was compelled to build a track connection in 1955 to add a Manhattan-bound local service, and to build a second track connection in 2001 to add another Manhattan-bound local train and remove the G from Queens Boulevard entirely.
In Shanghai, Line 3 was built as an (almost) entirely above-ground line, interlined for part of the way with the circular Line 4. The northern half of Line 3 is radial, running parallel to the overcrowded Line 1. However, where Line 1 enters the traditional center and serves People’s Square, Line 3 swerves west to go around it (missing Lujiazui, the new high-rise CBD to the east of People’s Square), interlining with Line 4, and leaving the loop southward to intersect Line 1 again at Shanghai South Railway Station. Its ridership disappoints not only by the standards of Line 1, but also by those of Line 4: 642,000 on 2014/4/30, the system’s busiest day, compared with 1,384,000 on Line 1 and 907,000 on Line 4. Line 6, which likewise combines a radial function at its northern end with a circumferential one at its center, serving Century Avenue but not Lujiazui or People’s Square, has even lower ridership, 376,000, although this is several times the original projection.
There’s a discussion on Human Transit, in which consensus is that the best circumferential lines connect secondary activity nodes that generate trips in their own right. Now, the G train connects Downtown Brooklyn (the largest business district in New York outside Manhattan) with Long Island City (one of the business districts of Queens), but it lacks the other positive feature of circumferential lines: transfers to the radial lines, to allow one-transfer trips from anywhere to those secondary nodes. The G has good transfers only to other IND lines, and at the Queens end, its transfer to the Queens Boulevard trains was cut in 2001 since, for operational reasons, it was cut not to its old junction with the E and F (Queens Plaza) but one station short (Court Square). Other G transfers are very recent and require a considerable amount of walking.
In contrast to the underperforming G, circumferential lines that both connect important activity nodes and have plenty of radial transfers are backbones of their cities’ transit systems. Shanghai’s Line 4 is fairly busy as noted above. Seoul’s Line 2 is according to a forum post the busiest in the system. Paris’s Lines 2 and 6 are only about average in ridership but combined would be the second busiest after Line 1 (and per route-km are third and fourth, only behind Lines 1 and 4, but are only narrowly ahead of many other lines). The juxtaposition of Shanghai’s Lines 3 and 4 in particular suggests that subway lines shouldn’t try to mix radial and circumferential functions.
Let us go back to the impetus for the post, Triboro RX. The proposal is to largely use existing freight rail lines, all of which are lightly used and could be turned over to the subway, to provide a semicircular line connecting nodes of activity in the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn. Because of the focus on using an existing right-of-way to reduce costs, the line misses the most important nodes in Brooklyn and Queens, which are served by the G in any case. However, it passes within half a kilometer of the Hub in the Bronx and, via a short greenfield tunnel, connects to Yankee Stadium, the Bronx’s busiest subway station; it also connects to Brooklyn College and 74th Street/Broadway in Queens, both busy stations if not as central as Downtown Brooklyn or Long Island City. Moreover, it provides direct Bronx-Queens service, which in the existing system requires circuitous routes through Manhattan with difficult transfers, and has reasonable transfers to nearly all subway lines. At the end, the lack of service to Downtown Brooklyn ensures it cannot be a very well-patronized line, but as the right-of-way is almost entirely in place, its cost per rider could be quite low.
In contrast, the Penn Design proposal, called Crossboro, severs the connection to the Hub and Yankee Stadium, and replaces it with service along the Northeast Corridor to Coop City, making sparse stops, at the same locations Metro-North plans to for Penn Station Access; this is 4 stops in 10 km in the Bronx, compared with stops spaced roughly every 800 meters in Queens and Brooklyn, as in the original proposal. The trains would be certified for mainline operation, on the model of the London Overground, rather than segregated from mainline traffic.
The problem with the Crossboro idea is essentially the same as that of the G train until 2001. Most riders at the four Bronx stops are interested in getting to Manhattan, and not to the neighborhoods served by Crossboro, so they’d look for transfer opportunities. The only such opportunity in the Bronx is at Hunts Point, to the 6, which unlike the E and F on Queens Boulevard runs local and provides slow service to Manhattan. With the extra transfer, there is no advantage to Bronx riders over continuing to walk or take the bus to the 2, 5, and 6 trains to Manhattan. Moreover, because of the poor transfers within the Bronx, it’s impossible to use the line to connect from Queens to anywhere in the western half of the Bronx, including Yankee Stadium and the Hub: there’s a connection only to the 6, and none to the 2, 4, 5, or B/D, or to Metro-North.
The principle in action here is that, especially when there are no compelling destinations, it’s critical to make sure the line provides connectivity between large regions. This means connecting to all or almost all radial lines in a region well-served by radial subways but poorly served by preexisting circumferential ones. Not including the 1, which no proposal connects to, the Bronx has five subway lines, all providing radial service to Manhattan; it is a feature of Triboro that it connects to all five (though the connection to the 2/5 requires a long walk), ensuring that people from nearly everywhere in the Bronx can use the line to get to its destinations in Queens and Brooklyn with one transfer. To get from anywhere to anywhere would require two transfers, but to get from a random station in the Bronx to one in Queens or Brooklyn often already requires two transfers, usually at busy Manhattan stations that are out of the way for the crosstown traveler.
Mixing radial and circumferential service interferes with this principle, since the radial component has to come at the expense of completing the circle (or semicircle in a geographically-constrained city like New York). Thus, it’s harder to use the line to get to a large enough variety of points of interest to make up for the fact that it misses the city’s most important destinations. Of course, such a line is also wanting as a radial line, since it misses the center. Thus, ridership underperforms, and the line usually fails to achieve its stated purpose.