A few rail proposals have happened in the last few months that begin with the concept of improving transit access in the suburbs, and end in a bad direction. These center on airport-oriented rail extension, which in the case of New York means building transit to Newark, JFK, and LaGuardia, as a high priority; consider Chris Christie’s proposal for a PATH link to Newark Airport, and proposals on PDF-pp. 17-18 of Next New York for airport service. Instead of this, let me expound a bit on what the most promising travel markets for regional rail are:
1. The through-running aspect is useful for people whose commute requires them to cross the CBD or go around it. In New York, this means people who live in New Jersey and work in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, or Long Island, or vice versa; and people who live in Westchester and points north, including Connecticut, and work in Brooklyn, Staten Island, possibly Queens or Long Island, or Newark and points south, and again vice versa. None of these travel markets is by itself very large, but some, especially those involving people working in Brooklyn and Queens, are of moderate size and together they’re about 150,000 commuters, about as many as use each of New York’s three commuter rail system at two trips per person. (All numbers are as of 2000 and come from the census.)
2. Additional lines allow travel even on markets that are not really through-running. A Staten Island-Manhattan tunnel is likely to be used primarily by people from Staten Island working in Manhattan or Downtown Brooklyn rather than by suburb-to-suburb commuters. Staten Island itself produces about 80,000 commuters bound toward Manhattan and Brooklyn, and electrification of the Erie Lines and a connection to Lower Manhattan opens up rail service to about 70,000 Manhattan-bound commuters from Bergen and Passaic Counties.
3. As a continuation of point 2, lines laid out in a way that serves secondary CBDs on the way from the suburbs to the primary CBD can produce additional ridership. For example, the LIRR already has some Brooklyn-bound commuters, and New Jersey Transit some Newark-bound ones; the Erie Lines could produce Jersey City-bound commuters, and one of the reasons to build the Lower Manhattan tunnel via Pavonia or Exchange Place rather than Hoboken is to serve the larger secondary CBDs there. Hudson County has about 30,000 workers commuting in from Bergen and Passaic Counties and 50,000 from Essex County and points west and south.
4. High all-day frequency of local trains together with fare integration with local transit allows people living and working within each inner-suburban region to use regional rail to get to work. The urban analog is that Brooklynites who work in Brooklyn often use the subway, and drive mainly if their commute is orthogonal to the Manhattan-bound orientation of the subway lines. Residents of Newark, Yonkers, Elizabeth, Paterson, Mount Vernon, New Rochelle, and Hempstead drive at higher rates than residents of the Outer Boroughs even when the poverty rates are comparable: a transit trip from Elizabeth to Newark today is either a bus that gets stuck in traffic or an expensive train that comes twice every hour off-peak and only stops at Downtown Elizabeth, the airport, and Downtown Newark. In 2000, only 26% of people working in Downtown Newark got there on public transit (see PDF-p. 13 of this report).
Airports are not very significant traffic generators. The AirTrain JFK has 5.5 million annual riders; the average ratio of annual to weekday ridership on the subway is 300 (on commuter rail, which has a more pronounced peak, it’s about 270), so that’s equivalent to about 18,000 weekday riders. The Newark version has 2 million annual riders. Regional rail is a way to build low-cost rapid transit in areas where there already are mainline railroads that can be used for local and regional service. Deviations need very high ridership to be justified. The tunnels through the CBD, such as the central RER and S-Bahn tunnels or the tunnels under Manhattan that I propose, bring in commuters from many suburbs into the primary CBD and also connect multiple secondary CBDs. Greenfield lines used for some airport extensions, such as in Zurich, are justified by their short length, connections to trains from all over Switzerland, and very high traffic (with nearly 50% mode share) coming from the use of the airport’s landside concessions as a shopping destination.
In contrast, an examination of the four above main travel markets suggests specific ways regional rail must be built and operated to maximize its usefulness. Brooklyn is the largest destination in the region outside Manhattan, and this means that tunnels serving it from more directions than just that of Long Island should be a higher priority. Queens is the second largest destination, and this means that commuter trains using the Northeast Corridor should stop there, with easy transfers to Jamaica, Flushing, and Long Island City for trains not serving those destinations; Sunnyside Junction would especially useful for this.
Moreover, travel market #4 is the most underrated. The potential traffic volume dwarfs all others. Newark has about 4,000 workers who live in areas who would be served by through-running, such as Brooklyn and the Bronx. It has 36,000 workers who live in the city itself, 30,000 who live in the rest of Essex County, 17,000 who live in Union County, and another 17,000 who live in points farther south. The Northeast Corridor, North Jersey Coast, and Morris and Essex Lines already exist, but provide expensive, infrequent service, with stations spaced too far apart for walking to the station. Christie’s PATH extension tellingly does not include a stop at South Street, but instead goes nonstop from Newark Penn Station to the Newark Airport train station. It’s of paramount importance to raise the transit mode share on these internal inner-suburban travel markets.
Tokyo’s CBD has about 2 million workers, the same as Downtown and Midtown Manhattan. The reason Tokyo has so much more rail ridership than New York is not a bigger downtown, or better airport service, but better rail service to secondary job centers, which themselves grow around train stations more closely than in New York. But Downtown Brooklyn, parts of Queens, and Downtown Newark at least already have the transit access, both by subway/PATH and by commuter rail. Present-day commuter rail just doesn’t provide good enough service to compete with parking rates and traffic jams outside Manhattan.