Transit and Place

There is a large class of transit supporters who think that every right-of-way that can be used for transit should be preserved for this purpose, even if it is not very useful. A few overzealous railfans on the message boards opposed the opening of the High Line park and wanted the viaducts to be used for an extension of the 7 train. This is extreme and nowadays the transit activists I know support the High Line while opposing schemes to recreate it in an inferior context. But even serious bloggers like Cap’n Transit, Ben Kabak, and John Morris are opposing plans to create a Low Line out of the abandoned trolley terminal at the Essex/Delancey subway stop, on the grounds that it could be useful for transit one day.

Now, it’s possible that the Low Line idea is bad because people would not want to go to an underground park. But it’s not a problem for transit; the Williamsburg Bridge doesn’t need trolleys since it has a subway running on (and because the bridge is high there is no way a bus could cross it without passing within two blocks of Marcy, the subway stop at the Brooklyn end of the bridge). The lines running on it are in fact underused: as can be seen on PDF-pages 65-73 of the latest Hub Bound Travel Data report, peak-hour traffic on the J/M/Z entering the Manhattan core was one of the lower in the system as of 2010 – higher than the bottom two track pairs (8th Avenue local and Montague) but in a near-tie for third lowest with several others. So there’s not much use for the trolley terminal as a modern Williamsburg Bridge bus (or trolley) terminal.

But what is more important than just the Low Line is place. To succeed, transit needs not only to exist, which it already does in the area in question, but also to have places to connect to. If for some reason the trolley terminal would need to be demolished to build room for foundations for several skyscrapers, it would be an unambiguous win for transit, since it would create more destinations for people to take the existing J/M/Z and F trains to. The surrounding neighborhood might disagree regarding the implications for urbanism, though I’d argue that Midtown-like skyscrapers would be better-integrated into the streetscape than the projects east and south of the station. If the Low Line succeeds as a park, it will be similar: not in the sense of providing jobs for tens of thousands of people, but in the sense of creating a place for people to go to. (In fact, a park has less peaky demand than offices, so it could be better for subway finances even at relatively low levels of usage.)

Last year, I brought up the question of the infrastructure’s highest value mainly as a way of deciding which kind of service (regional, intercity, etc.) should get first priority on any given rail line, but the same is true about transit versus place. In an area with enough transit and not enough place, it’s more important to create more development, for both good urbanism and more successful transit.

This does not mean every proposal to turn a rail right-of-way into a park is good. Despite my skepticism that the Rockaway Cutoff can be a successful rail line, I’m even more skeptical about its value as a park; it’s not in an area that can ever draw many people, since the density (of both residences and jobs) is not high by New York standards and it is far from other destinations that could draw people from outside the nearby neighborhoods. However, in areas that are lacking in good parks, or could use new development, it is better to concentrate on creating place.

For examples of this elsewhere, consider the railyards in Long Island City, Hoboken, and Sunnyside. Two of my earliest posts proposed to build a regional rail station in Sunnyside and then develop the area around it with air rights over the railyard; this is what should be done in an area that needs both transit and place. But in Hoboken and Long Island City, there’s ample transit, and the only use of the railyards is to park trains that can’t do to Manhattan because of lack of electrification or lack of capacity in the approach tunnels. Since parking trains is an inefficient use of space, and both areas have good connections to Manhattan by subway or PATH, there should be plans to remove the railyards and redevelop them to create more place, leaving just enough rail infrastructure to run through-trains, to be parked in lower-value areas. This development can be either parkland or buildings, depending on what is in demand in the area. Based purely on Google Earth tourism, I believe Hoboken does not need additional parks and so development there should be just a new secondary CBD on top of the PATH station, while Sunnyside and Long Island do, and so development there should include parks as well as high-density office and residential construction.

Instead of worrying about turning unused and for the most part unusable transit infrastructure into place, good transit activists should focus on preserving infrastructure that could potentially be used. In the New York area, probably the most useful piece of infrastructure that isn’t currently used is the Bergen Arches, allowing the Erie lines to enter Jersey City at Pavonia/Newport, a more central location than Hoboken; this is one of four options for a location for a new regional rail tunnel from New Jersey to Lower Manhattan, and is arguably the best option for an integrated regional rail network.

In the 1990s there were plans to reuse the Bergen Arches for a roadway, since modified to include both a road option and a rail option, and in 2011 the Christie administration allocated some money to further studies; an analysis from 2004 scored various road and transit options, not including a regional rail network, and gave the highest score to a roadway with a single high-occupancy vehicle and bus lane per direction. (A trail got the second lowest score, after no-build.) Since Jersey City (and the entire region) needs more transit from the north and west, while further formation of place will and should cluster around the waterfront, it’s important to fight any plan to give the Bergen Arches to a non-railroad use unless and until a regional rail plan is formulated that places the New Jersy-Lower Manhattan tunnel at another location.

In contrast, the Low Line should not be a priority. On the contrary, if the park plan is even partially sound, or the place could be reused as another place if the park idea fails, then good transit advocates should support the idea, since it’d be good urbanism. With a few exceptions, good transit requires good urbanism and vice versa.


  1. Amanda Clark

    Okay, sorry to derail (haha) but I have a local (Santa Clara County) example of this. What about the remainder of the Vasona Line? The quarry in Cupertino isn’t going to continue to ship by rail forever (or will go out of business). Should the VTA grab the ROW and extend light rail to Cupertino, and lay the groundwork to reclaim the old railroad to Palo Alto in the future? Or is this just an example of railfanning gone amok?

    • anonymouse

      I’ve thought about that particular example a bit, and I’m honestly not sure. I know that there won’t be a huge demand for transit from Los Gatos to Cupertino, and any transit line would do poorly since it has to compete with an adjacent freeway. I also know that the VTA used to run a bus, the 24, on Foothill Expressway from Cupertino to Palo Alto, but this bus was discontinued sometime in the early 2000s. This line, if it’s to have any useful function at all, would probably be best used to bring people to jobs in Palo Alto, probably by extending the line along El Camino to Downtown PA, so any use of it would probably have to start from the PA end. On the other hand, if there’s already an existing line, hanging an overhead wire and running light rail trains shouldn’t be very expensive, which might increase the priority a bit. And of course if the (completely implausible and imaginary) plan to build light rail to Santa Cruz goes anywhere, the line would have a much more compelling connection at its Los Gatos end, which would help as well.

      In general, though, I think the things that need to be considered in these ROW debates are how useful the ROW is for transit (in this case, it’s a good ROW, but transit demand is low), how compelling the alternative use is (housing? Not very compelling), and how hard the ROW would be to replace (or provide an equivalent transit function) if it’s lost (in this case, probably fairly hard, though the 85 freeway provides a possible alternative). So overall, I think it makes sense to keep the ROW and use it as a bike trail, just in case they want to reuse the rail line as light rail later.

      • Ryan

        So overall, I think it makes sense to keep the ROW and use it as a bike trail, just in case they want to reuse the rail line as light rail later.

        What? No way! If you ever, ever, ever, ever, ever want to reactivate a rail line, the second-worst thing you can ever possibly do (only turning it into a park / rail trail is worse) is making it into a bike path

        You’re just asking for a NIMBY coalition of ‘cyclists’ and ‘concerned citizens’ to make sure that the rails don’t come back. Sure, you can probably chase them off with hostage concessions or legal battles, but do you really want to salt the earth in that way?

        Once you rip those rails up for anything, it’s going to make your job ten times harder when you decide you want to use those rails.

        • Anon256

          What? Obviously selling off bits of the ROW to build houses (as has been done with most old ROWs in Britain, or e.g. the old Culver Shuttle or Whitestone Branch) is much worse. A bike path keeps the whole line as a unified parcel in public hands.

          • Ryan

            Building on top of the ROW and/or allowing abutters right up to the edge of the tracks are, respectively, the third and fourth worst things you can ever possibly do to a ROW you might ever want to use for transit. The fifth is turning it into a freeway.

            I’ll admit that all these things are so close to equal in terms of relative badness that ranking them is probably an exercise in futility, or a matter of personal preference.

          • Ryan

            Alon: Is there any chance the Boonton Branch could ever be made whole again by an elevated rail ROW passing over the interstate (or vice versa)? Otherwise, is there room to restore it next to the Interstate, such as how tracks run next to I-95 for a time north of Providence?

            I ask because I’m not at all familiar with the landscape of New Jersey.

          • Alon Levy

            I’m not sure how feasible it is, but when they built I-80, they offered the Erie-Lackawanna room for a single track. The Erie-Lackawanna wasn’t interested. Nowadays it’s not such a great freight line anymore. Probably if the Boonton Branch hadn’t been ripped up then it would’ve been heavily downgraded later, since anthracite coal went into terminal decline subsequently, and the quality of the entire line is not as good as that of the mainlines used by CSX and NS today. Adirondacker can fill you in on more details – apparently there have been huge arguments about what-if-the-Boonton-Branch-had-survived alternative history on

            For passenger rail, it’s also not terribly useful; the Erie lines of today dump you in Hoboken or require you to execute a difficult transfer at Secaucus, and ridership on the Main Line south of Paterson is lower than ridership on the Montclair-Boonton Line south of Mountain View. In a future in which the Erie lines are electrified and feed into a tunnel to Manhattan you get the opposite problem, too much branching even with just existing lines, so you wouldn’t want to tack another branch. There’s also not too much development near potential train station sites between Paterson and Wayne; the development between the two cities does not follow the ROW, since the Boonton Branch was never an important commuter line, but instead follows Paterson. A station in e.g. Totowa would be park-and-ride hell, and that’s no better than what Wayne-Route 23 already offers.

            The only use I can of for it is a circumferential line, bridging the Erie lines and the Morris and Essex Lines. But that’s many decades in the future, since it requires extensive CBD formation in Paterson, commercial TOD in Montclair, and a large population of car-free residents along the Montclair-Boonton Line and in Dover.

          • Adirondacker12800

            From what I’ve read on over the years there’s only a small piece of the former DL&W ROW missing, most of it it in Little Falls. ( I-80-ish west of Paterson )
            Little Falls and through Montclair was the Erie’s Greenwood Lake branch line. What’s now the “Main Line” through Paterson and Clifton is what was the DL&W’s Boonton branch. The Erie Main through Paterson and Clifton was at grade, with crossings, is mostly abandoned. You’d have to dig up a USGS map from sometime before 1960 to disentangle what used to be what. Or a Sanborn map.

            Garrett Mountain is what every thing is avoiding. Big thing with cliffs ( Hence Clfiton )

            What’s been abandoned is abandoned. Unless cars are banned it’s not coming back.

          • David Alexander

            This certainly caters to the railfan in me, but I’ve argued for that old Erie line to be turned into the ROW for a Newark-Paterson light rail line…

      • Amanda Clark

        I think that honestly, for it to be really successful, you’d need to rip up Foothill Expressway and run light rail up to Palo Alto. Nothing like undoing 50 years of work.

  2. Pingback: Today’s Headlines | Streetsblog Capitol Hill
  3. Jordan Hare

    Great post. A few thoughts, specifically on the LIC terminus and Sunnyside Yards.

    1. The Montauk Line between LIC and Jamaica could present a significant development opportunity. Stations that were shuttered 20+ years ago (Penny Bridge, Fresh Pond, Glendale) could be reopened as part of a larger program of focused TOD development. The surrounding neighborhoods are underserved by rail service, and an improved service would bring more passenger traffic to the terminus.

    2. The LIC terminus does not have particularly good connections to the East River Ferry. If this were done, this would present an interesting commuter option for the reopened stations on the Montauk line. However given low ridership on the East River Ferry as it is run today (admittedly the station in LIC is quite poor and distant) it’s not clear if there would be demand.

    3. North Greenpoint is likely to proceed with a large-scale redevelopment that would include a pedestrian bridge from Franklin St / Commercial St / Manhattan Av to LIC. This would encourage Greenpoint residents to walk to the LIC terminus as a convenient way to travel to Woodside, Citi Park, JFK Airport, Flushing, and the Rockaways. Conversely, a revitalized Montauk Line would bring recreation traffic to the LIC area and thus across the new bridge to Franklin St – whose development will continue apace.

    4. Not sure about the eminent domain costs, but it would seem that sidings in the Rust St / Maspeth Creek area could be built to handle the diesel train off-service parking requirements. Fully agree that using the terminus for this in its current state is a big waste.

    5. As much as I would love a conversion of the Sunnyside yards, my understanding is that the land prices are extraordinarily high (putting off developers) and that no projects can/will be considered until after the ESA/Harold projects complete … sometime after 2020. But one can always dream.

  4. Pingback: Virginia DOT Using Flawed Data to Justify Charlottesville Bypass |
  5. Steven Vance

    The City of Chicago is in the process of converting an abandoned, linear, elevated freight rail line that passes through several neighborhoods into a park and trail known as the Bloomingdale Trail.

    In October 2011, there was a healthy discussion about retaining the line for future rapid transit, but the supporters of doing that were outnumbered and out-discussed.

    (If the page doesn’t jump to that comment, search for “ROW” within the page.)

    • Steve S.

      Insofar as I understand it, the Low Line terminal counterproposal isn’t so much about local buses as it is about providing a secondary facility to complement nearly-saturated Port Authority, as well as offer a more direct terminal for intercity routes into New England, while Port Authority would handle traffic from the west. That I would support, largely since I am highly skeptical of the Low Line proposal and do not think any other viable strategies are available for repurposing the Williamsburg trolley terminal.

        • Henry

          Delancey is quite far from the center of the Chinatown bus pickup areas, and it’s a pain to get to – the pedestrian environment is not particularly friendly.

        • David Alexander

          Then they wouldn’t be “discount” buses anymore. Part of their low cost implementation requires cutting corners by using curb space in lieu of leased terminal slots…

          • Anon256

            They use leased terminal slots at Boston South Station. Fares went up by about $5 when they were forced to move there.

      • Alon Levy

        The problem with this is that that part of Chinatown/LES is not the primary destination of intercity travelers, and as a result the curbside pickups don’t go anywhere near it. Port Authority makes Penn Station look nice and has very awkward highway connections to the east (as if the Williamsburg Bridge has very easy connections), but it’s at least at a central location.

        If they want a place for intercity buses, this is a much more promising location.

        • Anon256

          Both the Queensborough Bridge and Williamsburg Bridge trolley terminals are tiny compared to something like the Port Authority. There’s barely room for an intercity bus to turn around; they’re not going to get a significant number of buses off the street.

          Anybody who has experienced the smell and climate of a New York subway station should be able to realise what a ridiculous idea an “underground park” is. People walk on the High Line for the view! The best the Low Line’s promoters could realistically hope for is a somewhat cramped underground shopping area, but even that sort of use would suffer from the noise of passing trains and the engineering/regulatory issues that come with trying to build inside an old pre-existing structure.

          What’s most ridiculous about this whole discussion, both on the “park” side and the bus terminal side, is that there are three full blocks of nothing but surface parking immediately southeast of Essex/Delancey station Whether you want a park or a bus terminal, that above-ground site is superior in essentially every way, and is probably even large enough to build both.

          The former Williamsburg Bridge trolley terminal is useless, a solution in search of a problem. Why not leave it alone?

    • david vartanoff

      a connection to the Blue Line is easy. plenty of undeveloped land right where they cross. BTW the Bloomingdale line HAD local passenger service in the early 20th century.

  6. Henry

    The problem with redeveloping that part of the LES is that there’s still quite a lot of land left to redevelop – most of the housing stock there is old, tenement style housing or public housing. Specifically, there have been parking lots in the immediate vicinity that were supposed to be developed as NYCHA units, but were never able to get off the ground. The community has been trying to find a way to redevelop it for years, and I believe they’ve got a plan off the ground.

    Delancey’s biggest drawback as a potential redevelopment site is its awkward position in the transit network – there is no easy way to get crosstown. There aren’t any frequent bus services south of 14th St, and the J/Z connection to Fulton only operates on weekdays. As it stands now, Williamsburg is convenient to more of the city than the LES, and until that changes, there won’t be as much development.

  7. Fix'n to die rag

    Being a person that needs to read it a few times through, before I give a more concrete ideas, but what I do know, hang on to it for a barging chip, as the old saying goes “when it gone, its gone.” I once live in Marin County California, and way back then there was the North Pacific Coast Rail Road, became the North Shore, and later the North Western Pacific, which from the 40’s went from a major freight and commuter hauler to and abandon rail road. Looking at it now in retrospect, had it been abandon at a later time, it would have made a dandy bicycle/walking path, rather that what is happen today. Have live through the so called gas crisis of the 1973, and know what could happen if Israel and Iran lock horns, let put this way the Dutch are light year ahead of us for alternate transportation. This just food for thought

    • Nathanael

      The trouble which we will have to go to, at some point in the future, to reestablish Ithaca-Cortland and Ithaca-Binghamton railroad service, is going to be nightmarish.

      • Adirondacker12800

        When the population of New York state is 75 million they can worry about it.

        • Nathanael

          We’ll have to worry about it well before then. Population trends in upstate NY are complicated, but Ithaca’s developing a lot of intercity commuters.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Until there’s enough of them to make it worthwhile to build tunnels and viaducts a bus will be faster.

          • David Alexander

            I’m still surprised that NYSDPW/DOT never bothered to build an improved roadway between I-81 or NY 17 to Ithaca. Most other states probably would have done so years ago…

          • Henry

            Ithaca’s a fairly walkable town with a large amount of “captive” riders at its universities (they all take the bus to get to Ithaca), has no real highway connections, and a booming downtown core, so it’s not like there’s no market to serve there.

          • Alon Levy

            The flip side with Ithaca is that there’s a large elevation difference between the university and the center of the city, one that on a map looks much larger than in Providence.

          • Nathanael

            Ithaca didn’t want an expressway; our expressway revolts started earlier than most places. We do have one short gash of expressway wrecking part of the town, but nobody ever allowed it to be extended. Remember Ithaca politics. 🙂

            The elevation differences are LARGE. If you’ve ever visited here you’d know. Think San Francisco. Houses overlook others from the top of cliffs on some of the hills. The most popular local bus route doesn’t go very far, and it goes extremely slowly, but it’s looping up and down the hill between “downtown” (which is DOWN) and the Cornell campus (which is UP). The second-most-popular bus route is going between downtown and the Ithaca College Campus (which is UP on a different hill). Both routes would be better if they were trolleybuses because they absolutely crawl going uphill.

            But I was talking intercity transportation.

            We apparently have 14,000 daily commuters crossing the county line to commute into Ithaca. I don’t have exact numbers on where they’re coming from, but I’d guess that something like half of those are coming from Cortland; the other roads coming into town get busy, but that one actually gets congested for very long periods during rush “hour”.

            I have a nice new piece of evidence: the census shows that Ithaca is dense, on a population-weighted density basis. Dense enough for mass transportation.


            We’ve got a lot of people *and they’re clustered*; rather than simply spreading suburbs across the landscape, when Ithaca started ‘filling up’ people started living in the next city over.

            We’re going to want rail from Ithaca to Cortland sooner or later. Not an expressway — the farmers would scream, and it would get no local support. A railway with grade crossings of rural roads could be reinstated with minimal screaming.

          • Alon Levy

            Ithaca is also the metro area with the second lowest percentage of people driving to work, if I remember correctly. (New York is of course the lowest.)

          • Henry

            Is the grade to the universities too steep for trams/light rail? It looks like two routes from Cornell to downtown and Ithaca College to downtown would get a lot of ridership.

  8. Adirondacker12800

    Technical consideration about any redevelopment. If they put the through station in Hoboken it’s going to be deep underground or far far west where the station is now. Anything at the waterfront will have to as deep as the Exchange Place Station on the PATH system. So if they have all of the trains serving Hoboken run through to Manhattan ( and then onto Brooklyn ) there won’t be anything at ground level other than the escalators and elevators. That could be integrated into the existing station and the lobbies of the buildings that will be where the platforms are now.

  9. Nathanael

    You’re almost certainly correct about the Low Line; but remember that this is a terminal.

    The High Line? It should have been mass transit. I actually visited it when I was in NYC in August. It’s pretty and all, and it’s quite busy.

    *But I had to go there by taxi*. (I was actually going somewhere else which happened to be right next to one of the entrances.)

    Why? Well, my fiancee can’t walk very far, and the nearest subway line is quite far to the east. The gap between the High Line location and the nearest decent public transit (buses in Manhattan *really* don’t count as decent) is large enough that transit service is needed right along the High Line.

    It’s too late now. Perhaps someone will manage to get bus lanes installed along 9th Avenue or something, which would help.

    But anyway, the distinction is that the High Line was a transportation *corridor*, a right-of-way. Those are *hard* to assemble and *easy* to lose. And extremely valuable. ‘

    The “Low Line” is just a terminal. Terminals are relatively easy to replace.

    • Adirondacker12800

      Yet they managed to assemble it in the 30s. Up until then the trains ran down the middle of 11th Avenue.
      The area around the high line was decrepit warehouse space until the 90s. Just like today, it didn’t connect to much of anything.

      • Nathanael

        I suppose the problem is actually that the area is not decrepit warehouse space any more! A transit line wasn’t needed until after the High Line park was already well underway. Chicken. Egg…. heh.

        Assembling that route in the 30s was a very expensive and involved project, FYI.

        • Adirondacker12800

          It going upscale still doesn’t make it connect to much of anything else. It was there to get freight from the Bronx to the docks along the river and vice versa. Not much shipping going on along the banks of the Hudson anymore.

        • Henry

          The problem with using the High Line is that it can’t be integrated with the subway due to its high elevation, and using it for standalone passenger service wouldn’t have made much sense due to the fact that the West Side already has two subway lines. Plus, I believe the railroad would be particularly noisy – NIMBYs would raise hell to block a revival.

          • david vartanoff

            not impossible merely expensive. The best plan would have been to extend the L with a ramp to the High Line and extending at least to the west of Penn Station.

    • Matthew

      Funny, I actually used the High Line one time to “transit” from Chelsea to Penn Station. It’s only two blocks away. To be fair, they are NYC avenue blocks.

      The 7 train extension will meet the northern end of the High Line, especially after they finish the High Line portion around Hudson Yards.

      • Nathanael

        As I look at it, I realize that 11th Avenue & 22rd St. (my destination) is almost pessimal in terms of access. It would be just outside my fiancee’s walking range (three avenue blocks plus a bit) if the nearest subway station were actually accessible without stairs.

        But of course it isn’t, because NYC is doing its level best to ignore the spirit of the ADA. She’s lucky she’s not in a wheelchair permanently (yet) because if she were, even the taxis wouldn’t work (thank you Mayor Lawbreaker Bloomberg) and we’d just stay away from NYC entirely. Goddamn ADA-hostile city.

        • Adirondacker12800

          Click to access m023cur.pdf

          The MTA renumbered the bus routes years ago and it’s really easy to figure out what the crosstown bus number is. The one going across 14th Street is the M14 and the one going across 23rd Street is the M23 and the one going across 34th Street is the M34….

          • Adirondacker12800

            Yet people still ride on them. Since the subway can’t go everywhere, an alternative to a cab to 11th and 22nd…

        • Nathanael

          Our hotel was in midtown. According to Google Transit the all-bus route would have involved nearly as much walking as the subway and taken well over an hour. Not. Plausible.

        • Anon256

          The 7 extension’s tail tracks end at about 24th and 11th. In the fantasy-map world where the lines we are discussing are relevant, it would not be too difficult to build a subway station (and perhaps ferry terminal) at 23rd and 11th.

          • Henry

            It’s feasible, but the MTA should build 41st/10th before considering building any extensions to the south.

  10. Andre Lot

    Preserving railway ROWs is an interesting proposition compared to any alternative that involves its dismemberment, even if with the only purpose of guaranteeing a new utilities’ shared way.

    BIke-to-trail conversions are not that bad, since it can be reconverted.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.