Bloomberg’s expressed support for the now $10-billion proposal to send the subway to Secaucus is generating buzz and speculation about the ability to secure funds. Missing from this discussion is any concern for whether more people would actually transfer at Secaucus than do today. The instinct is to say that this provides a better connection to most of Midtown, but the transfer penalty literature suggests otherwise.
One important thing to note, writes Reinhard Clever, is that for commuter rail, downtown-side transfers are much more inconvenient than suburb-side transfers. Suburban commuters will drive to a park-and-ride, but balk at a transfer at the city end. Clever’s example is Toronto, where commuter rail riders tend not to transfer to the subway at Union Station but only take transit to jobs that can be reached from the station by walking. This problem is what doomed the Austin Red Line. For all its flaws, ARC offered a one-seat ride from the Erie lines to Penn Station.
Another thing to note is that suburban commuters routinely change trains at Jamaica today, but not at Secaucus. I’m not aware of a study on the transfer experience, but I am fairly certain that the difference is that at Jamaica the transfers are timed and cross-platform whereas at Secaucus they are not. Transferring at Secaucus today involves going up steps, passing through faregates, and going down steps, with no guarantee of a connecting train. The literature is unanimous that passengers will spend more than one minute of in-vehicle time to avoid a minute of transfer or waiting time: the MTA uses a factor of 1.75, the MBTA 2.25, Houston METRO 3.5-4 (last two from pp. 31-2 of Clever’s thesis). None of this is going to change if people are instead made to transfer from a commuter train to the subway, except perhaps that the subway train is going to be less crowded because it won’t be carrying commuters from the Northeast Corridor and Morris and Essex Lines.
Both issues boil down to the same fundamental: not all transfers are created equal. Within urban rail, people transfer all the time. Perhaps the disutility of getting up while changing trains is not an issue when passengers do not expect to find a seat in the first place. Regional rail riders transfer as well, when the transfers are easy and there’s no additional waiting time – in fact, setting up a timed transfer on a highly branched regional line increases the frequency on each branch, so any disutility from transferring is swamped by the more convenient schedule. What people don’t normally do is ride a regional line that gets them almost to their job, and then take urban transit for the last mile.
Commuters on the Erie lines can already make an uncoordinated transfer involving passing through faregates at two locations: Secaucus, and Hoboken. Some, but not many, already take advantage of this to get to jobs near Penn Station or in Lower Manhattan. The contribution of the 7 to Secaucus would then be to create a third opportunity for a transfer to 42nd Street. While 42nd is closer to most Midtown jobs than Penn Station, the heart of Midtown is in the 50s. At Queensboro Plaza more inbound riders transfer from the 7 to the N/Q than the reverse, emptying the 7 by the time it gets to Manhattan: the MTA’s crowding estimate as reported by the Straphangers Campaign, has the taken at the entrance to the Manhattan core, ranks the 7 the least crowded subway line at rush hour. Thus, although the 7 to Secaucus would add to the number of jobs served by a two-seat ride, many Midtown jobs would require a three-seat ride, no different from transferring to the E at Penn Station.
Therefore, good transit activists should reject the 7 to Secaucus as they did ARC, and I’m dismayed to see NJ-ARP‘s Douglas John Bowen throw in his support behind it as an ARC alternative. Before anything else is done, the Secaucus faregates should be removed, and the platforms should be remodeled to let passengers go directly from the Erie platforms to the NEC platforms. Here are better candidate projects for adding a pair of tracks under the Hudson:
1. ARC Alt G. Despite the ARC cancellation, it remains the best option.
2. Hoboken-Lower Manhattan. This doesn’t give Erie commuters a one-seat ride to Penn Station, but compensates with a one-seat ride to Lower Manhattan, and a two-seat ride from the Morris and Essex Lines to Lower Manhattan. The Manhattan terminal should not be more than a two-track stub-end with short tail tracks and the potential for a connection to the LIRR Atlantic Division. With about 50 meters of tail tracks and a platform with many escalators, the Chuo Line turns nearly 30 tph on two tracks at Tokyo Station. It’s an outlier, but given the extreme cost of building larger stations in Manhattan, the response should not be “They’re different, our special circumstances won’t let this happen,” but “how can we have what they have?”. Modern signaling and punctuality are critical, but, as the Germans say, organization before electronics before concrete.
2b. Jersey City-Lower Manhattan. The same as option 2, but with somewhat less tunneling in Manhattan and a lot more tunneling in Jersey. The main advantage is that new underground stations at Journal Square and Exchange Place would serve more jobs and residents than a station in Hoboken. It may be cheaper due to reduced Manhattan tunneling, or more expensive due to less maneuvering room coming into Lower Manhattan. It also forces the Manhattan platform to be east-west rather than north-south for a far-future cross-platform transfer with Grand Central and Staten Island.
3. The L to Secaucus, or to Hoboken. This has all the problems of the 7 to Secaucus plus more – 14th Street is at best a secondary CBD – but it conveniently replaces the L’s current low-throughput terminal with another. Ideally the L should only be extended a few hundred meters west, to the Meatpacking District, but if such an extension has large fixed costs, the incremental cost of extending the L all the way could be low enough to be justified by the benefits of a Secaucus extension, which are low but nonzero.