Thursday, April 17, 2014

Our overloaded subways

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, there are times when building new transit is not warranted. In particular, it is a waste of resources to build new radial capacity on the outskirts if it connects to a trunk line that can't absorb that capacity. I looked at the train crossings into Manhattan to see which could add trains in the peak. That information can suggest where to add branch lines. But what about extending existing lines or encouraging infill development?

The NYMTC's Hub Bound Travel Study has some useful data, but first it's important to give some context. They have an estimate for space per passenger, but it's only broken down by sector, not by line. They do have counts of train cars and passengers by line, so we can get passengers per car. The problem with that is that the cars are different sizes, so there is a lot more free space in an R train car with 341 people than a car with 308 people on the #4 train.

I don't know exactly which equipment was used on which lines in 2012, so I used the most recent train models I knew of. I couldn't find floor area figures, so I used the listed capacities. Please feel free to consult the spreadsheet and suggest revisions.

There are some additional questions that come to mind looking at the chart. If the demand for a line is low, is that always because it doesn't serve enough homes on the outskirts? Maybe, like the J train, it doesn't serve enough jobs. Maybe, like the R train, it's much slower than the alternative. Would extending these lines really get people out of their cars?

There is another question: yeah, an A train car with 713 people on it is really uncomfortable, but isn't a B train car with 429 people pretty uncomfortable too? This is why we need to continue to think about how we can offer comfortable alternatives to wasteful, dangerous individual car trips.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Carmageddon vs. Bridgegate

The New Jersey Department of Transportation will shut down two lanes of the Pulaski Skyway on Saturday, and recently Sarah Gonzalez was on WNYC with dire predictions of carmageddon.

My prediction is that these predictions, like most predictions of carmageddon, will not come true. There will hardly be any additional congestion. There is a simple reason: drivers are being warned in advance. In the recent Carmageddon episodes in Los Angeles and Seattle, not only were there dire warnings well in advance of the impending doom, but they were broadcast far and wide. When the time came, drivers took alternate routes or stayed at home, and the congestion failed to materialize.

The contrast with "Bridgegate" just a few miles up the river is particularly revealing. In Bridgegate, as with the Pulaski, there were two approach lanes taken out of service, but with Bridgegate there was absolutely no notice given. Drivers didn't know that the George Washington Bridge toll booths were closed until they got there, and many of them didn't even know then, until they got close enough to see. The element of surprise makes a huge difference.

There are other factors, in particular the availability of alternate routes, but that factor favors the Pulaski. As Larry Higgs tells us, there are many ways to get across the Meadowlands or the bay, and several of them don't even require driving.

The best outcome, in fact, would be for habitual drivers to take a transit option, realize that transit isn't so bad, and shift to transit permanently, as they seem to have done in Seattle. The bridge is a major contributor to crashes and pollution in Lower Manhattan. The best way to encourage transit use would be to turn the two remaining lanes of the Skyway into exclusive busways, but charging a well-advertised market-clearing price on the Holland Tunnel would work too. Unfortunately, nobody took up my suggestions, and drivers will have a nicely renovated bridge when it's all finished, making permanent shifts that much less likely. Thanks, Chris Christie!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Light rail in New York City?

Last week I talked about the practical differences between light rail, streetcars, subways and commuter rail. We have light rail right across the river in Hudson County, and there have been several proposals for streetcars and light rail here in New York City. I want to mention a few possibilities and discuss their technical and political feasibility.

As I pointed out last week, the lower construction cost of streetcars and light rail comes primarily from shorter, lighter trains and lack of grade separation. These in turn limit your capacity and speed, meaning that if you build the wrong system you can wind up with overcrowded trains and frustrated passengers, and not get as many people out of their cars as you could with a heavier system. The consequences of this in turn are that if you can afford light rail, don't build a streetcar. If you can afford a subway or an el, don't build light rail.

With that in mind, consider Raanan Geberer's suggestion, "How about light rail on the old Rockaway line?" Geberer is clearly a supporter of transit and he's trying to be helpful, but the old Rockaway Beach Branch is completely grade-separated. It should be returned to Long Island Rail Road trains, or connected to the subway, along the lines of Capt. Subway's proposal, to take full advantage of its potential.

Some of the supporters of rail on the Rockaway Beach Branch have mentioned the possibility of running light rail from Rockaway Park or Ozone Park onto the old "Lower Montauk" branch to Long Island City. The problem is that there are at least two freight trains a day that use those tracks. Because of the Federal Railroad Administration rules, the only way to run light rail would be to limit the freight trains to overnight hours. Unfortunately, I don't see enough potential ridership to justify that time separation. It might be more feasible to run a short diesel-multiple-unit shuttle, especially if it could be done without paying a lot of conductors.

So why do people like Geberer seem to think light rail would be so much better than subways or commuter rail? They are claimed to be quieter, but this is not really true. Yes, the heavier the train the more noise it makes, but that's a relatively minor factor. The noise is primarily a function of the supporting structure. The #7 train is elevated on reinforced concrete in Sunnyside and plain old steel everywhere else. You can have a conversation under the el in Sunnyside, but not in Woodside or Corona. This would not change significantly if you ran light rail trains on the same structures.

The main argument given by proponents of light rail on these lines is that it is somehow more modern than subways or commuter rail. This is nonsense: many of the tracks of the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail saw trains long before subways ran in New York City, and many of the cars in use on the New York subway and the Long Island Railroad are newer than the cars on the HBLR.

Sadly, this seems to be another case of what Ryan McGreal called "cargo cult urbanism": if it works in Jersey City and Phoenix and Seattle, it should be the hot new thing here in New York. (Cyclists who promote "BRT" as a panacea seem to have a similar shallowness of thinking.) In part, it's because many of the most ambitious new train lines are being built as light rail in places like Salt Lake City and Charlotte.

The thing is that those lines are being built as light rail for two reasons: (1) freight railroads have been abandoning their less-used lines all over the country, and (2) any new rail lines have faced such stiff competition from new highways that ridership projections haven't justified grade separation. Neither of those apply here in New York City. There is still a market for freight trains on the Bushwick, Bay Ridge and Montauk Branches and the Oak Point Link in the Bronx. None of these railroads are going to be abandoned any time soon. And there is such demand for transit that we could pack any new light rail trains that are run.

So I've pretty much ruled out mixed-traffic streetcars and legacy-freight light rail here in New York City. The one area where light rail or streetcars would make sense here is if we can dedicate lanes to them. If we can dedicate lanes to buses, we can dedicate them to streetcars or light rail. I looked at this issue almost six years ago, but it might be time for a re-look soon.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

If you're hub bound, there's room for you

Recently I posted that there seemed to be no room left in the subway tunnels and bridges leading into Manhattan. Threestationsquare, who had made the updated chart I used in that post, pointed me to the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council's Hub Bound Travel Study. And it turns out I was wrong. There is room - and the places where there is room have interesting potential.

The NYMTC is an arm of the New York State Department of Transportation that is responsible, among other things, for coming up with wildly inaccurate predictions of traffic volumes to justify bigger highways. But their underlying data is more sound, and a lot of it is online. The Hub Bound Travel Study is full of fascinating data for transportation nerds, and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

For our purposes, the relevant table is Appendix I, Table 6, "TOTAL RAIL TRAINS ENTERING AND LEAVING THE HUB ON A FALL BUSINESS DAY." Kind of poetic. (But it's trains going to the hub, not The Hub). If we look at the morning rush data for 2012, here's what we get:

There's a pretty wide spread between the #7 train, which manages to cram 23 trains per hour through the Steinway Tunnel, and the R train, which only sent eight trains an hour through the Montague Street Tunnel. In between we can see clusters in the low 20s, in the mid-teens, in the low teens, and then a few stragglers.

The busiest tunnels are the Lexington Avenue Express, the PATH, and the 60th and 53rd Street Tunnels to Queens. The uptown Broadway Express and the Cranberry Street Tunnel are also doing pretty well.

There is significant room on the Manhattan Bridge (as Threestationsquare mentioned) and the uptown #6 Local and Central Park West Express, and the Clark Street Tunnel to Brooklyn. Even the 14th Street Tunnel has capacity, despite promises that CBTC would improve things. We knew the Williamsburg Bridge had capacity, but it turns out, so do the locals on the Upper West Side.

The Montague Tunnel is currently closed to repair damage from Hurricane Sandy, but it's seen eight trains an hour since the M train was rerouted uptown in 2010. They ran 27 trains per hour in 2002, before the N was rerouted over the Manhattan Bridge. The R is just not a high-demand train in this area, because it crawls through Lower Manhattan. The two tunnels for the F (Rutgers Street and 63rd Street) see more trains, but they have plenty of room.

So there you have it! Looking forward to your fantasy maps...

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Light rail, streetcars and our goals

There's a lot to be said about light rail and streetcars; in this post I want to focus on how these two kinds of trolleys fit in with our goals (as articulated above), and particularly how they can get people out of their cars. If you're trying to decide which kind of train to push for, there are three major questions: (a) Can the train mix with cars and trucks? (b) Can the train mix with freight trains? (c) How long can the train be?

In contemporary usage, streetcars run for most of their length in mixed traffic. We don't have a good example here, but if you go to Girard Avenue in Philadelphia you can ride one. Light rail trains run for most of their length in their own right-of-way, but may cross many (or all) streets at grade. Good examples include the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail and Newark City Subway in New Jersey.

There are important differences between light rail, streetcars and other forms of rail. Elevated rail is raised above the street like the #7 train for most of its length, and subways go below the streets like the R train. Commuter rail can run elevated or in a cut like the LIRR Port Washington Line in Queens, but sometimes crosses streets and roads at grade like the LIRR Hempstead Branch in Garden City.

Commuter trains in the New York area typically share tracks with freight trains, which means that the Federal Railroad Administration requires them to be unnecessarily big and heavy. PATH trains run in subway tunnels in Manhattan, Jersey City and Hoboken, but they have a waiver from the FRA to run on shared track between Journal Square and Newark. Light rail and streetcar trains are typically not allowed on shared tracks, but the River Line between Trenton and Camden splits the time with the Chesapeake freight railroad: they run passenger service during days and evenings, and CSX runs freight overnight.

Because they mix with cars so much, streetcar trains are typically only one or two cars. Light rail trains sometimes have up to five or six cars. Subways and commuter trains can have ten or twelve cars.

Streetcars are often considered to be cheaper than light rail, and light rail to be cheaper than subways or commuter rail, but this is not magic. The cost comes primarily from grade separation and longer, heavier trains. This has important implications for transit, particularly in the New York area.

The first is that building the wrong system can limit your capacity. If you've got enough passengers to fill a four-car light rail train but you've only got a two-car streetcar, you're going to get crowding. Same if you've got enough passengers to fill a ten-car subway but they're trying to squeeze into a six-car light rail train.

The second is that building the wrong system can limit your speed. All other things being equal, a streetcar in mixed traffic is going to be slower than a light-rail or commuter train in a dedicated right-of-way with grade crossings, and a train with at-grade crossings is slower than one without them.

Both of these speed and capacity limitations have the effect of limiting how many passengers the line can carry, which can in turn limit revenue. They also decrease the value to passengers, which can drive them away. You may be able to pack those cars, but you'll have to keep the fare low to do it.

In a future post I'll discuss these factors in terms of specific projects here in the New York area.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Getting into Manhattan

I've got a whole bunch of ideas for subway and bus expansions in the boroughs, commuter rail and bus expansions in the suburbs, and even intercity rail and bus connections. They all wash up against one big problem: the capacity of crossings into and out of Manhattan is almost maxed out at peak commuting times, the few big expansions in the works are proceeding slowly, and there doesn't seem to be political will to do much more.

Of the subways that cross the East River and the PATH trains that cross the Hudson, almost all the bridges and tunnels are packed with trains at rush hour, and those trains packed with passengers. The one exception is the Williamsburg Bridge, which is constrained by technical challenges, by the depopulation of South Side Williamsburg, Bushwick and East New York, by zoning restrictions on building, and by the fact that the J and Z trains only go to lower Manhattan. Since the MTA rerouted the M train to Midtown, ridership has gone up, and so have rents in Ridgewood, but that is the only line that is not at full capacity.

The only new subway crossing that has been given serious consideration recently, the Subway to Secaucus, has been stuck on a shelf somewhere.

MTA Capital Construction has installed an improved signalling system (CBTC) on the L line, which has allowed them to run more trains through the Fourteenth Street Tunnel. This capacity has been rapidly filled by an increase in ridership. They are rolling out CBTC to other lines, as the Port Authority is doing with the PATH trains, but funding limitations have stretched the rollout over years. As with the L train, the increased capacity is not expected to be enough to handle an additional branch on any line, only to allow neighborhoods near the existing branches to add population and to give some breathing room to passengers.

With commuter rail, the constraints are the platforms at Penn Station and the Park Avenue Tunnel. Alon Levy pointed out years ago that the constraints at Penn Station are not technical, but due to the three government-run commuter rail agencies' insistence on terminating all trains there, and our politicians' inability to force them to implement through-running arrangements.

For years the MTA has been pouring billions of dollars into East Side Access, but that will not be finished until 2023 at the earliest. The ARC Tunnel from New Jersey and its successor, the Gateway Tunnel, are being blocked by Governor Christie, who has used ARC funding to pay for road expansions.

Bus capacity into Manhattan is similarly constrained. Buses crossing from New Jersey through the Lincoln Tunnel can terminate at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, but that is also full. Proposals to build garages with public funds have faltered, and no private company seems interested in building a garage or terminal. The Port Authority is renovating the George Washington Bridge terminal, but that is too far north, and connects to a downtown A train that is also very crowded.

Any buses that can't fit into the Port Authority use city streets to pick up and drop off, as do buses from the other crossings. A backlash from NIMBYs, mostly drivers and business owners but aided by misguided pedestrian advocates, has put a lid on any expansion of curbside bus access.

As with commuter trains, there is a potential for through-running with buses along 34th or 42nd streets or Church Street that could relieve some of these constraints, but the bus operators have shown little interest, and political leaders have been too busy pandering to the backlash.

One reason bus operators may be uninterested in through-running or building terminals or garages is that there are also capacity constraints for buses on the bridges and tunnels. Anyone who's tried to take the Q32 into Manhattan in the morning knows what happens to bus travel times when a bridge is free for any vehicle. Passengers on the inbound QM5 express bus know that things run a little smoother when there is a toll and a bus lane, and people who have ridden the Red and Tan number 20 know that congestion pricing makes it even better. But even those passengers say that the bus lanes are too short, and those crossings with lanes and tolls are at capacity as well.

So that's the dismal state of getting commuters to Manhattan. What should we do about it? I'll talk about that in future posts.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Strong towns don't have pension problems

Joe Nocera and Rana Foroohar were talking about municipal pension woes this morning. Or at least that's what Charlie Herman told them it was about. Really, it was about budgets and commitments. It's the same thing when Stephanie Miner talks about pensions, or Andrew Cuomo talks about taxes, or Steve Aquario talks about Medicaid, or Chris Carey talks about tolls on the Tappan Zee Bridge. It's not about pensions or taxes or tolls or Medicaid. It's about the fact that states, counties, cities and towns have committed to spend money, but the taxes and tolls coming in don't cover those commitments.

Politicians love to do this. In fact, the system is so set up for it that people thought I was nuts when I asked if governments ever save up for big infrastructure projects. And two former mayors of Huntington, West Virginia thought Chuck Marohn was nuts when he suggested that projects should even be judged on whether they can be expected to generate enough revenue to pay off their bonds. Everyone likes to make promises for the next generation, whether it's pensions, Medicaid, infrastructure, borrowing, low taxes or low inflation.

Eventually someone has to acknowledge that the previous generations overpromised and that at least one of these promises has to be broken. There's a smart way to do this, and a stupid way, and a dishonest way. The smart way to is to openly list the promises and prioritize them. The stupid way is to notice one or two promises that you'd like to break and focus on those while remaining blissfully oblivious to the fact that other commitments exist. The dishonest way is to pretend that you don't realize about the other commitments and hope nobody points them out.

Foroohar acknowledges this in the financial sector: in her Time column, she wrote, "My worry was always that, as in parts of Europe or Latin America or even California cities that have gone bankrupt, pensioners [in Detroit] would be left holding a disproportionate share of the burden of cuts, while other creditors took less of a haircut." But it's true beyond finance, in other promises made by these states, counties and cities.

The fact is that most American cities made a series of really stupid decisions in the late twentieth century. They relocated valuable infrastructure like canals and railroads out of their downtowns, so those downtowns were no longer "on the way." They built oppressive, noisy highways through those downtowns, allowing drivers to shoot through on their way to someplace else. They copied zoning codes that outlawed mixed-use neighborhoods, and gutted the mixed-use neighborhoods that existed with highways and "urban renewal." Then they built other highways to bypass the downtowns, and subsidized development in the suburbs. I happen to be particularly familiar with Syracuse's tragic flailings in this regard, but you can see the same pattern in Albany, Buffalo or Binghamton, and all over Rockland County.

The people who ran these municipal governments borrowed money to build these highways and other infrastructure. They promised to pay it back with interest (Nocera noted that this was missing from the pension discussions). They promised their residents that no matter how far they spread out, no matter how much they drove, they could still count on roads, bridges, power, water and sewers. They promised that the government would pay for all that indefinitely and somehow keep taxes and tolls low. Oh yeah, and they promised their city workers secure retirements, and their poor people healthcare.

Of all these promises, Cuomo focuses on taxes, Miner focuses on pensions, Aquario focuses on Medicaid and Carey focuses on tolls. We may actually wind up with cheap taxes and tolls while cutting pensions and Medicaid, and that may get these guys elected to powerful political offices for many years. But you and I know that it won't actually solve the real problem: we can't afford to maintain the sprawl that's sucking the revenues out of our hollowed-out cities and towns. And we can't afford to pay back the money our parents borrowed to build that sprawl.

These four are not handling these overpromises the smart way, so that means they're either handling them the stupid way or the dishonest way. Hanlon's razor says "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity," and I know of no evidence that Cuomo, Miner, Aquario and Carey are lying, power-hungry, heartless crooks. For now I have to assume that they're simply incompetent idiots with a particular blind spot for the ugly sprawl that is choking the life out of the many lovely towns of my home state.