Penn Station is in the news again: the Municipal Art Society ran a public competition for a rebuilt station house, involving proposals by four different architectural firms. This does not include any track-level improvements at all: only the concourses and above-ground infrastructure are to be rebuilt, at a cost of $9.5 billion according to one of the four firms. The quotes from the architects and other backers of rebuilding use language like “great train station” and “gateway to the city,” and this is where the subtle hate of the city’s actual residents lies: why the focus on Penn Station? Why not a subway station?
The headline figure for the ridership at Penn Station is 600,000-650,000 a day, but this is a wild exaggeration. First, this includes both entries and exits, so the real number is half that. Second, about half of the number comes from subway riders, who these discussions always ignore. And third, there is a large number of passengers transferring between commuter rail and the subway who are doubled-counted; at subway stations, passengers transferring between lines are not even single-counted, since the subway counts entries at the turnstiles. Taking an average of boardings and alightings when both numbers are given or just boardings otherwise, Penn Station has 100,000 weekday LIRR riders, 80,000 weekday New Jersey Transit riders, and 170,000 weekday subway riders between the two stations. However, people transferring between the subway and commuter rail are double-counted.
In contrast, not counting any connecting passengers, there are 195,000 weekday Times Square subway riders. Without detailed data about transfer volumes at each station we can’t compare the two, but since the proposals for a better Penn Station focus only on the mainline station, the number of passengers served is certainly less than that of Times Square passengers.
Indeed, every single problem that the architects are trying to fix with Penn Station exists at Times Square. Times Square has low ceilings. The corridors between different lines and between the platforms and the exits are as labyrinthine as at Penn Station. In my experience rush hour passenger crowding levels within the station itself are comparable. Most platforms are wider, but nobody is proposing to widen platforms at Penn Station, and the 42nd Street Shuttle platforms are narrow and curvy and have been this way since 1918. The tickets are all integrated because the trains are all run by one operator, but again nobody who proposes to replace Penn Station is talking about the separate LIRR, NJ Transit, and Amtrak fiefs.
There are some legitimate changes that could be done if Penn Station is knocked down and rebuilt: instead of a hack involving paving over platforms to increase their width, the platform level could be rebuilt, two tracks at a time, with six approach tracks in each direction each splitting into two platform tracks, giving twelve tracks on six platforms; the train box appears about 140 meters wide, enough for 15-meter-wide platforms (compare 10 meters on the Chuo Line platform at Tokyo Station, where 28 trains per hour turn on two tracks).
However, the technical issues here are a lot less important than the fact that city leaders, architects, and even transit commentators assume that it is more important for New York to have a great train station used by 200,000 suburban commuters than for it to have a great subway station used by (at least) 200,000 city residents. It speaks to the utter hatred most city leaders have of the people who live in what they consider their fief or perhaps their playground. For most people in the city, there are more important transportation facilities, and even on a metro area level Penn Station isn’t unusually important.
This leaves the argument that Penn Station is a gateway to the city. But if the point is to impress a few thousand tourists, why not spend the same money on improving tourist amenities at Times Square, building more hotels? Or maybe building free housing for tens of thousands of homeless people (both the ones at Penn Station and the ones in the rest of the city) so that they stop being homeless and disturbing the rest of the population? If the point is to have great art, why not spend the money on employing artists to produce more work or to improve the aesthetics of the city’s ordinary spaces?
Of course, none of those options involves city leaders getting together and building important edifices with plaques with their names on them. So at the end the idea is to tax actual city inhabitants $10 billion to build a monument to the vision of city leaders. Large corporations pay their executives hundreds of millions a year in stock options and bonuses; governments cannot pay top political power brokers this way, so instead they spend large quantities of money on monuments that glorify them.