Mixing Circumferential and Radial Transit

Nearly all rapid transit lines belong to one of two categories: radial lines (a large majority), which connect city center with outlying neighborhoods or suburbs; and circumferential lines (a minority), which go around city center and often serve secondary centers and usually intersect all or nearly all radial lines perpendicularly, such as Paris’s Lines 2 and 6, Moscow’s Circle Line, Seoul’s Line 2, New York’s G train, and Shanghai’s Line 4. In this post, I’m going to discuss an uncommon third category, that of lines that combine circumferential and radial functions: they go toward city center, like a radial line, but then change direction and become circumferential. The G train in New York was like this until 2001, and Line 3 in Shanghai is like this today. This is apropos a proposal by a team Penn Design graduate students to build a variant of Triboro RX in New York that combines Triboro’s circumferential orientation with a radial commuter line. I believe such mixed lines are a recipe for low ridership and strained transfer points, and the Penn Design proposal is inferior to the original Triboro proposal.

First, some details about the mixed lines in question. The example most accessible to most readers is the historical G train in New York. When it first opened in the 1930s as part of the IND, it was designed to both connect Brooklyn and Queens without going through Manhattan and provide local service along radial lines, running alongside express trains that would serve Manhattan. Thus the northern half of the G ran under Queens Boulevard as a local, while the E and F trains provided express service and went to Manhattan. From the start, this arrangement was unstable. Demand for service to Manhattan was much greater than to Brooklyn, so people riding the G inbound changed to the E or F at the first express station after the one they boarded. With overcrowded express trains and undercrowded local ones, the Transit Authority was compelled to build a track connection in 1955 to add a Manhattan-bound local service, and to build a second track connection in 2001 to add another Manhattan-bound local train and remove the G from Queens Boulevard entirely.

In Shanghai, Line 3 was built as an (almost) entirely above-ground line, interlined for part of the way with the circular Line 4. The northern half of Line 3 is radial, running parallel to the overcrowded Line 1. However, where Line 1 enters the traditional center and serves People’s Square, Line 3 swerves west to go around it (missing Lujiazui, the new high-rise CBD to the east of People’s Square), interlining with Line 4, and leaving the loop southward to intersect Line 1 again at Shanghai South Railway Station. Its ridership disappoints not only by the standards of Line 1, but also by those of Line 4: 642,000 on 2014/4/30, the system’s busiest day, compared with 1,384,000 on Line 1 and 907,000 on Line 4. Line 6, which likewise combines a radial function at its northern end with a circumferential one at its center, serving Century Avenue but not Lujiazui or People’s Square, has even lower ridership, 376,000, although this is several times the original projection.

There’s a discussion on Human Transit, in which consensus is that the best circumferential lines connect secondary activity nodes that generate trips in their own right. Now, the G train connects Downtown Brooklyn (the largest business district in New York outside Manhattan) with Long Island City (one of the business districts of Queens), but it lacks the other positive feature of circumferential lines: transfers to the radial lines, to allow one-transfer trips from anywhere to those secondary nodes. The G has good transfers only to other IND lines, and at the Queens end, its transfer to the Queens Boulevard trains was cut in 2001 since, for operational reasons, it was cut not to its old junction with the E and F (Queens Plaza) but one station short (Court Square). Other G transfers are very recent and require a considerable amount of walking.

In contrast to the underperforming G, circumferential lines that both connect important activity nodes and have plenty of radial transfers are backbones of their cities’ transit systems. Shanghai’s Line 4 is fairly busy as noted above. Seoul’s Line 2 is according to a forum post the busiest in the system. Paris’s Lines 2 and 6 are only about average in ridership but combined would be the second busiest after Line 1 (and per route-km are third and fourth, only behind Lines 1 and 4, but are only narrowly ahead of many other lines). The juxtaposition of Shanghai’s Lines 3 and 4 in particular suggests that subway lines shouldn’t try to mix radial and circumferential functions.

Let us go back to the impetus for the post, Triboro RX. The proposal is to largely use existing freight rail lines, all of which are lightly used and could be turned over to the subway, to provide a semicircular line connecting nodes of activity in the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn. Because of the focus on using an existing right-of-way to reduce costs, the line misses the most important nodes in Brooklyn and Queens, which are served by the G in any case. However, it passes within half a kilometer of the Hub in the Bronx and, via a short greenfield tunnel, connects to Yankee Stadium, the Bronx’s busiest subway station; it also connects to Brooklyn College and 74th Street/Broadway in Queens, both busy stations if not as central as Downtown Brooklyn or Long Island City. Moreover, it provides direct Bronx-Queens service, which in the existing system requires circuitous routes through Manhattan with difficult transfers, and has reasonable transfers to nearly all subway lines. At the end, the lack of service to Downtown Brooklyn ensures it cannot be a very well-patronized line, but as the right-of-way is almost entirely in place, its cost per rider could be quite low.

In contrast, the Penn Design proposal, called Crossboro, severs the connection to the Hub and Yankee Stadium, and replaces it with service along the Northeast Corridor to Coop City, making sparse stops, at the same locations Metro-North plans to for Penn Station Access; this is 4 stops in 10 km in the Bronx, compared with stops spaced roughly every 800 meters in Queens and Brooklyn, as in the original proposal. The trains would be certified for mainline operation, on the model of the London Overground, rather than segregated from mainline traffic.

The problem with the Crossboro idea is essentially the same as that of the G train until 2001. Most riders at the four Bronx stops are interested in getting to Manhattan, and not to the neighborhoods served by Crossboro, so they’d look for transfer opportunities. The only such opportunity in the Bronx is at Hunts Point, to the 6, which unlike the E and F on Queens Boulevard runs local and provides slow service to Manhattan. With the extra transfer, there is no advantage to Bronx riders over continuing to walk or take the bus to the 2, 5, and 6 trains to Manhattan. Moreover, because of the poor transfers within the Bronx, it’s impossible to use the line to connect from Queens to anywhere in the western half of the Bronx, including Yankee Stadium and the Hub: there’s a connection only to the 6, and none to the 2, 4, 5, or B/D, or to Metro-North.

The principle in action here is that, especially when there are no compelling destinations, it’s critical to make sure the line provides connectivity between large regions. This means connecting to all or almost all radial lines in a region well-served by radial subways but poorly served by preexisting circumferential ones. Not including the 1, which no proposal connects to, the Bronx has five subway lines, all providing radial service to Manhattan; it is a feature of Triboro that it connects to all five (though the connection to the 2/5 requires a long walk), ensuring that people from nearly everywhere in the Bronx can use the line to get to its destinations in Queens and Brooklyn with one transfer. To get from anywhere to anywhere would require two transfers, but to get from a random station in the Bronx to one in Queens or Brooklyn often already requires two transfers, usually at busy Manhattan stations that are out of the way for the crosstown traveler.

Mixing radial and circumferential service interferes with this principle, since the radial component has to come at the expense of completing the circle (or semicircle in a geographically-constrained city like New York). Thus, it’s harder to use the line to get to a large enough variety of points of interest to make up for the fact that it misses the city’s most important destinations. Of course, such a line is also wanting as a radial line, since it misses the center. Thus, ridership underperforms, and the line usually fails to achieve its stated purpose.


  1. Henry

    Is there any particular reason why using commuter rail loading gauge would be any worse than using subway-spec equipment? Commuter rail equipment is much faster, and if i’m not mistaken is slightly bigger, and redoing seating and door arrangements could lead to improved capacity (much like how the Overground trains are just regular mainline trains with longitudinal seating). There aren’t really track connections with the rest of the subway that would allow shuffling sets between yards, either.

    Also, for hypothetical purposes, would building a spur of the RX to go to Flushing via the PW Branch be considered circumferential or radial, since it’s parallel to the (7) but also connecting a fairly important business district?

    • Adirondacker12800

      I’m going to assume that it will be BMT/IND gauge. The Flushing line is IRT gauge. Running BMT/IND trains on the IRT doesn’t work out well. The train crashes into the first platform it gets to. The do occasionally run non revenue IRT trains on BMT/IND tracks. They don’t let passengers on them, the gap between the train and the platform is too big.
      There’s other problems too. That it will be a different gauge than the Flushing line is the major one.

      • threestationsquare

        He said via the PW branch, not via the Flushing line. Which would be more or less technically possible without too much construction, but seems like a bad idea for precisely the reasons outlined by Alon in this post.

        • Adirondacker12800

          That has the same secondary problem that using the Flushing Line has. I figured I’d head him off at the pass.

          • Alon Levy

            Well, if trains share the Flushing Line, then might as well do something crazy like swap the Flushing and Astoria Lines west of QBP, which also implies swapping their loading gauges. (It means there’s extra capacity for an entirely new IRT-size line in Queens, which 3stationsquare’s proposed to use for the Lower Montauk before.)

            Not that it’s a good idea operationally, but it’s possible.

          • Adirondacker12800

            The Flushing line would then suck up all the capacity in the 60th Street tunnel instead of sucking up all the capacity in the Steinway tunnel. People along Queens Blvd would not be amused. Neither would the people on the Flushing line who have a one seat ride to Grand Central.

          • threestationsquare

            @Adirondacker12800: The R could use 63rd St instead, so the inconvenience to people on Queens Blvd would be fairly minor.

            Rebuilding QBP for this is probably too difficult to be worth it though.

        • Henry

          I just brought it up because there seems to be actually demand for Ridgewood-Flushing; the Q58, which runs a parallel route to the RX and the PW (even running alongside the PW in Corona) is one of the busiest routes in Queens and is also the slowest bus in Queens due to the winding path it has to take, which wouldn’t be an issue with a rail line.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Just because it runs from Flushing to Ridgewood doesn’t mean people are using it to get from Ridgewood to Flushing. People in Flushing use to get to it to Corona because taking the bus to the train takes as long as just taking the bus. Same things with Corona-Elmhurst, Elmhurst-Maspeth and Maspeth-Ridgewood.

  2. Eric

    It seems to me the problem with Crossboro is not mixing radial and circumferential routes, but the lack of transfers which limit use of the radial segment. I think it would be perfectly reasonable for Triboro trains to continue onto the Hudson Line, even though that’s a radial segment, because there are transfers to all the Manhattan subway lines along the way. If we wanted to increase Hudson Line frequency and GCT had no room for more trains, this would be a great option.

    • Adirondacker12800

      People use the Hudson Line because driving into Manhattan can take a long time. Taking the train is faster. Not very many of them are taking the train to Grand Central to get to Queens.
      People using the Hudson line can change to the 1 at Marble Hill and the 4 and the D at Yankee Stadium. They don’t. If taking the train subway directly into Manhattan doesn’t work for them, taking the subway out to Queens so they can change to a subway that goes into Manhattan isn’t going to work for them either.

      • BenW

        One somewhat important question is how many “not very many” is, though (given that there’s actually a very nice Flushing Line connection, I wouldn’t assume there isn’t significant LIC-bound traffic on the Hudson and Harlem lines)—another, presumably, is how many would be taking the hypothetical train that it went to Queens and Brooklyn directly rather than forcing a transfer at one of the busiest subway stations in North America.

        • Adirondacker12800

          Metro North is predicting that when they are able to run service on the Hudson line to Penn Station they’ll be able to scare up 4 trains an hour during peak. How much demand is there in those suburbs for Queens?

          Few. In very very round generous numbers a million people live in Westchester County. 80.000 of them work in Manhattan. 8.000 work in Queens. It’s from a Census ACS that’s a few years old, it hasn’t changed much over the past few years. It’s not going to change much in the future. Westchester is fully developed. Some of them work at places that aren’t served by the fantasy line. Some of them live along the Harlem and New Haven lines. How many empty subway trains an hour should we send to Yonkers? All 8.000 of them live along the Hudson line and work along the Flushing Line, how many? Why do they change in Yonkers instead or wherever the Triboro connects to the Hudson Line in the Bronx to get to up the Hudson Line?

          In very very round numbers Metro North runs 40 trains an hour into Grand Central in the morning peak and 40 trains an hour in the evening peak. How many Metro North trains go up the Hudson Line. If Manhattan is generating 10 trains an hour on the Hudson Line from Westchester County and ten times as many people in Westchester work in Manhattan versus who work in Queens how many trains an hour do you want to send to Queens if they all lived on the Hudson Line and worked at a subway station that was easy to get to from a subway station in Queens? Two short ones? Queen residents whine endlessly about how there’s all sorts of place in Queens that don’t have subway service. Some of those people from Westchester who work in Queens work in those places. 500 an hour that might find it attractive because rush hour in Metro New York is execrable if you are driving? Or don’t want to change in Grand Central. Nah. 500 a day? Few. So few that it’s not worth it to run trains.

          • Joey

            Only 40? I thought it was closer to 56. If it were only 40 they wouldn’t need to do the whole 3+1 tracks thing…

          • Alon Levy

            Last I checked, a few years ago, it ran 48 inbound between 8 and 9 am: 20 New Haven, 16 Harlem, 12 Hudson. The 3-and-1 bit isn’t just raw tph counts but also the flat junction to the Hudson Line.

          • Adirondacker12800

            so instead of guesstimating 10, one quarter of the ridership, guesstimate 60 and come up with 15.

          • Joey

            I count 51 (22+15+14) between 7:58 and 8:58 – not as high as I thought, but still quite a lot. Maybe doable on 2 tracks given perfectly designed junctions, fairly advanced signaling, and good OTP.

          • Alon Levy

            Those trains all go through Harlem-125th Street, so 25 tph per track is hard with fixed-block signaling. (At Grand Central the trains fan onto an uncountably infinite number of tracks, so it’s not a problem.) To go to normal 2+2 operation, some traffic diversion to Penn Station is required.

          • Adirondacker12800

            They go to Grand Central and get parked for hours. Perfectly reasonable to do that because the tracks and station are fully amortized… no they can’t sell the air rights and get gobs of money by not letting trains loiter around in the center of the country’s biggest CBD. They sold them to pay off the station. Well the New York Central sold the air rights. 80, 90 years ago.

          • Alon Levy

            Well, yeah, but because Grand Central has the cardinality of the continuum many tracks, and Harlem only has 4, Harlem sets the capacity limit in the tunnel.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Only if ridership is the same ten years from when trains start running to Penn Station…..

  3. Eric

    A possible issue which you did not address is peak hours. Perhaps radial trips to the CBD are more peaked around normal commute hours than are circumferential trips to all sorts of places. If so, then the correct frequency on the radial part of the route may be inappropriate for the circumferential part.

  4. asdfsdf

    Also of note: their proposed line has very few connections to other lines. Even in its circumferential sections it misses a lot of connections, and the radial part is almost detached from the rest of the network at large. Very strange.

    • Henry

      For whatever reason the map they include in the first few pages has less stations than the actual maps of the line they propose near the middle and the end. You’d have to look deeper in the document to actually find all the stops they propose.

  5. threestationsquare

    What about lines that combine radial and circumferential functions the other way, serving the centre but then turning to become circumferential? Building the southern half of Triboro as a branch of the L and the northern half as an extension of the M would be examples. Existing lines somewhat fitting this description include parts of Paris’ RER C, the Singapore North-South Line, Munich U3, the Vancouver Millennium line, and the London Circle Line.

    Unrelatedly: It seems particularly strange that the Crossboro proposal uses the NEC route. Even accepting the idea of avoiding tunnelling on 161st St and serving a new radial line instead, following the St Mary’s Tunnel to the Park Ave corridor seems like a better choice, since density/demand there is higher and it would provide a connection to the 2/5.

    • Alon Levy

      Lines that go the other way, like the examples you give, tend to be circuitous, so the only reason to build them is if it’s necessary for some operational reason. The Millennium Line needed a track connection to the Expo Line to access the maintenance shop, and because it’s at such a different level from the Expo Line at Broadway/Commercial, it couldn’t have a track connection there and be an ordinary branch. I’m not sure why London was so keen on circles when it started to build the Underground, but the Circle Line was turned into a 6-shaped line because it had nowhere to lay over on the circle. Singapore’s North-South Line was built as a radial and was connected to a branch of the East-West Line.

      With the L and M extensions you propose, the issue (I think) is that you’re trying to keep Hell Gate Bridge clear of non-mainline trains, and this reduces Triboro’s value as a long-range circumferential, forcing it to rely more on short-range trips such as in southern Brooklyn or between Astoria and Jackson Heights; with only short-range trips, it’s less valuable to have the entire line, so it’s okay to chop it into pieces and avoid duplication of service along an underused segment of the L.

      • nei

        If I read plans correctly the Millennium line will lose most of its loop once the Evergreen line is built; the new Evergreen line will go from VCC-Clark on part of the old the Millennium route to the new Evergreen route while the Millennium line will end at Loughneed Centre without much of a loop. Then the new Evergreen line would be a spur line coming close but not quite to the CBD, forcing a transfer for any CBD riders.

        If/when the UBC line is built, it might be a continuation of the Evergreen line westward from VCC-Clark, skimming the CBD but not really entering it. Might the resulting line be neither a radial nor a circumferential line?

        • Alon Levy

          Good question!

          I hesitate to classify Evergreen-UBC in this scheme. The issue is that Broadway clearly skirts the primary CBD, but also serves the second biggest CBD in Vancouver and has more traffic demand than the north-south corridors to Downtown (before the Canada Line opened, the 99-B ran much more frequently than the 98-B). The outer end, from Commercial east, is clearly radial, and the need to transfer at Broadway/Commercial is problematic. West of Commercial Vancouver’s fairly gridlike, with a lot of density around and north of Broadway.

          The best analogy might be the L train in New York. It enters Manhattan, but not Midtown or the Financial District – it runs along 14th, which is the most important east-west corridor in Manhattan outside Midtown, and serves Union Square, which is the biggest destination outside Midtown and Lower Manhattan, but remains quite far from either of the actual CBDs. It has good transfers to four out of five north-south corridors to Midtown, though.

      • threestationsquare

        Where did trying to keep Hell Gate free of non-mainline trains come from? Couldn’t the M eventually be extended from Metropolitan Ave all the way to the Bronx? (With freight sharing with Amtrak/MNR and only running offpeak.)

        Of course people aren’t going to ride from the Bronx all the way to Manhattan that way, but some will ride to Manhattan from Utica on the extended-L and Grand on the extended-M, which overlap with some of the orbital trips on the line. Building it as subway extensions also saves some track/station construction costs between New Lots Ave and Metropolitan Ave, and permits shorter minimum operable segments.

    • Paul Barter

      Seoul’s Line 2 (mentioned in Alon’s post) is also such a line. In fact, it is even more interesting.

      Line 2 runs EW through the heart of Seoul’s old CBD area. This northern part of the loop functions mainly as a radial for the old CBD area.

      Line 2 loops south of the Han River where it passes through the heart of the Gangnam area. But this is another CBD! It is the second most important of Seoul’s multiple CBDs. So along its southern sections Line 2 AGAIN probably functions mainly as a radial through Gangnam CBD.

      It is only along the southwest part of the loop that the circumferential role of Line 2 seems likely to be most important. In that part of the loop Line 2 interchanges with various lines that offer more direct travel to the old CBD, as well as the major business district at Yeongdeungpo (on an island in the river), several important business districts in Yongsan between the old CBD and the Han River, and the CBD of the neighbouring city of Inchon to the southwest.

      • Adirondacker12800

        Sorta like how subway trains in New York come in from Queens, stop in Midtown and then Wall Street before heading out to Downtown Brooklyn? Like the D, M, Q or R? Or more like the 2 and 5 do between the Bronx and Brooklyn?

  6. snogglethorpe

    Maybe the Tokyo Oedo line also counts as one of these mixed lines, as it’s lasso-shaped, although the “loop” portion is relatively small.

    I find it very annoying, as a quick look at the map makes it seem a loop, but in actuality, you may need to transfer to actually continue around–and if you forget, you may find yourself going down the wrong track and end up having to backtrack. I don’t ride it regularly, so I tend to forget the details, and have screwed it up quite a few times….

    • Alon Levy

      I’m hesitant about including either Oedo or Yamanote in a discussion of circumferentials. Yamanote is operationally a loop but serves the main CBD and all the secondary CBDs. Oedo doesn’t really serve the main CBD, but comes pretty close to it, and also serves Shinjuku.

      • Anonymous

        What about those lines in JR East “Tokyo Mega Loop” (Musashino, Nambu, Yokohama, and Keiyo Lines), Tobu Noda “Urban Park” Line, and Nagoya Subway Meijo Line?

        • andrew in ezo

          I believe the line that comes closest to Alon’s criteria (which if I am not mistaken does not serve any large CBDs directly), is the Musashino Line, which was planned as a belt line for freight to bypass the city center, but now serves more as a passenger route. The Keiyo Line (itself a planned freight route) has trains that originate at Tokyo Station that then run through on the Musashino Line, thus combining radial and circumferential routing. As far as “success” I don’t know how to gauge it, but passenger numbers tend to be highest on certain portions of the loop, between two station points that intersect major radial lines. Few passengers ride over longer portions of the loop, and in fact back in the eighties it was a favored route for truant junior high school students to pass the time.

      • chris

        This has actually puzzled me for a while — where would you say the Tokyo CBD is? From my perspective, a bunch of the Yamanote’s service area qualifies, along with areas like Roppongi, and I’d be hard-pressed to describe one as primary.

        • Alon Levy

          I think it’s the core area within Chiyoda, Chuo, and Minato (Chiyoda has by far the lowest residential density in Tokyo): Otemachi, Marunouchi, Hibiya, etc. Shinjuku, Shibuya, and Ikebukuro are huge CBDs in their own right, but my understanding is they have far lower job density than Marunouchi et al.

  7. Steven H

    Seoul’s Line 2 is really more akin to the reverse radial-circumferential situation that threestationsquare mentions above. The northern segment goes right through the heart of downtown Seoul, and the southern segment is arguably the most central line in Gangnam. It’s kinda two radial lines on either side of the river that happen to be connected at both ends. There are definitely circumferential trips made on Line 2 (and VERY indirect trips between secondary–and primary–centers), but I would be a little surprised if most trips aren’t pretty radial.

    As for Shanghai, unlike the rest of the system, Line 3 was stitched together from legacy infrastructure. The central segment is an elevated viaduct that, back in the day, allowed intercity trains from Hangzhou to continue past South Station to what was then Shanghai’s main station (which is just north of the old city). Many of Line 3’s interchanges with other lines are out-of-system connections… and most are very long walks. Both Beijing and Shanghai went through a very short phase at the turn of the century when they (poorly) integrated legacy infrastructure into already woefully underpowered subways. About three or four years later, both focused on building brand new grids of subways from scratch. SH’s Line 4 is from this later period; it’s much better connected to other lines, and connects more directly with Shanghai new downtown in Pudong than does Line 3 to old Shanghai.

    As for Line 6… ugh. It’s what the Chinese call “light rail.” These “light rail” lines use short, narrow-bodied trains to feed into one (and only one ) “heavy rail” subway line, usually at what’s wrongfully conceived to be the periphery of the network. They’re obviously a bad idea; but once one Chinese city builds one, 37 more will need to copy it. At any rate, as every Chinese taxi driver has told me, China is 5000 years old, and will still be here long after I’m gone; there’s plenty of time to fix a few small mistakes.

    • Alon Levy

      For some reason, I thought it was a proper circumferential. But the way you and Paul Barter (in another thread farther up) describe it, it sounds similar to the Yamanote Line: a loop that is really several radial lines stitched together. I don’t know how comparable Gangnam and Shinjuku are exactly, but both seem like huge business districts on a par with the CBDs of cities with only 10 million people rather than 25 or 35 million.

      What you say about light rail in Shanghai describes Line 5 very well (and the lines in Beijing that have names rather than numbers), but Line 6 hits multiple other lines, and its primary transfer point is at least a reasonably central location, unlike Xinzhuang.

      This concept of terminating at an outlying subway station is very common in Stockholm, too, by the way: the mainline commuter rail system goes to city center, but all the other lines, which are called light rail but look like commuter rail or interurbans, terminate at their historic off-center terminals, where there are connections to the subway. Tokyo would have built the Stockholm red line narrow-gauge and made it connect to Roslagsbanan, or regauged Roslagsbanan, to allow through-service. But in Stockholm it’s a legacy that wasn’t fixed, whereas I think in Beijing and Shanghai those lines are new.

  8. nei

    Is it really a bad idea to have one of the local Queens Blvd lines be a Brooklyn bound line? I’d guess a large portion of the riders east of Jackson Heights switches to an express anyway, so it’s ok to have one of the locals go to a less popular destination. The current G connection in Queens is clumsy.

  9. Adirondacker12800

    If you want local service on the G to Forest Hills you can’t have local service to 8th, 6th and Bway in Manhattan.

    • Eric

      You are saying that the Queens Blvd local tracks do not have room for the M, R, *and* G. That is an overstatement. Every G train you add on Queens Blvd means one less M or R, but that’s not the same as eliminating the M or R entirely. Once the first segment of SAS opens, I would recommend sending half the R trains to Astoria (Astoria will be underserved without the Q), making room for the G on Queens Blvd.

      • Alon Levy

        The frequency of the QB locals is already not-great in the off-peak. Three services sharing would probably involve worse than 10-minute headways outside the peak.

        After SAS opens, the W should be restored.

        • Adirondacker12800

          M trains are longer than what ran on the G then. Or is it because the people who used it local to Jackson Heights had a one seat ride? Or because they have a two seat ride now? Or because the people who had a one seat ride between Jackson Heights to Forest Hills had a one seat ride? There were 4 IND/BMT tracks in each direction through Roosevelt Island. There’s 5 now. The W ran through 60 Street and up and down Broadway in Manhattan to Coney Island. The F ran ran through 53rd. The F runs through 63rd now. Which means the M, instead of going Downtown. runs Uptown and through 53rd. This makes my brain hurt.

          • Henry

            There is essentially capacity for only 4 1/2 tracks to Manhattan, though; 63rd can’t be used to its full potential until SAS Phase III is built, however far into the distant future that may be.

          • johndmuller

            I believe that each of the 3 tunnels beneath Roosevelt Island has only 2 tracks, 1 in each direction. The 59th St / Queensboro bridge once had 2 or maybe 4 tracks connected to an elevated line(s) in Manhattan [the Queensboro Plaza station could still connect to the bridge if one could figure what to do with the trains in Manhattan (no more els) and decide where to run them in Queens (Astoria and/or Flushing]. These three existing tunnels are now running 6 lines altogether, which would be normal for fully booked NYC subway track usage except that 3 of the lines are running in the 60th St. tunnel (the N, R, and Q) and only one in the 63rd St. tunnel (the F). This arrangement somewhat limits the combined N, R, Q capacity and this could be addressed right now by running the R through the 63rd St. tunnel with the F (this might also allow the G to be extended to Queens Plaza as well) with only seemingly minor changes in some trips. The main problems with bringing any more lines into Queens are not involved in waiting for the SAS, but waiting for additional capacity in Queens to send the trains to.

          • Henry

            @johndmuller: if memory serves me correctly, the Queensboro cannot handle standard subway cars, which is the main reason why no one has ever proposed to use it.

            Running the R through the 63 St tunnel is not a good idea. It would require switching from the local tracks to 63rd, from the IND to the BMT at Lex, and then from the Broadway express tracks to the local. I’m not sure if the switching setups at Queens Blvd or Lex/63 can handle that in regular service, but today the Broadway tracks do not handle switching between locals and expresses very well. Routing an R through 63 means that we have one local changing to the express, one express changing to the local to get to Astoria, one express going through (the Q post-2016) and probably another local going through (if they revive the W), which doesn’t sound like it can be done reliably during the peak.

          • threestationsquare

            @Henry: So run the Q to Queens Blvd local/Forest Hills and have the R replace it in Astoria, eliminating the need for any trains to shift between express and local on Broadway. Also I don’t see why the switch from QB local to 63rd should be a problem, the 63rd St tunnel connects directly to both the local and express tracks on QB.

          • Henry

            The Q has been an express train for about a decade now, so you’d need to still have an express switching to a local. Running the R to Astoria has been done before, but it was operationally difficult due to the lack of yard access on either end.

            The past decade has also established the notion that two services need to run to Astoria, since much of Astoria Line ridership is really 7 line riders looking for an easier way to get into Manhattan where every transfer doesn’t involve either a five-story escalator, a block-long passageway, or dangerously narrow, winding staircases. This has generally meant one local and one express, since the Broadway local can’t really have three locals and one express track. 60th St should’ve been a four-track tunnel.

          • lop


            The Queensboro bridge had two El tracks. I think it was supposed to have four but they cut back to two and made some modifications to the bridge after a similar style bridge in Quebec collapsed while the Queensboro was under construction.

        • nei

          So the issue isn’t capacity on the local tracks, but the not enough demand on the local lines for the existing two Manhattan bound locals and the G. And if the G’s route is lengthened, more four car trains would be necessary at the same frequency. And if the G substituted some Manhattan-bound locals, it would increase the transfer to the express services which are already at capacity?

      • Henry

        Cutbacks on the M and R are ill-advised since those lines see decent usage (to the point where crowding on the express was relieved, at least temporarily).

        Even if it were possibly to extend the G, the MTA currently does not have enough cars to make full-length trains along the shortened G, let alone a Forest Hills-Church Av G. Replacing a full-length local train with one that is 4 cars long sounds like a disaster.

  10. Railphilly

    Whether Triboro or Crossboro, it seems to me that it’s a slam dunk for Brooklyn and Queens and a challenge in the Bronx. Mainline rail equipment is a good solution for simplifying interactions with freight, and would allow use of the Hell’s Gate Bridge.

    But other than adding more stations to the NEC in the Bronx, connecting to Bronx subway stations is going to need new tunnel. The Port Morris branch doesn’t do it, even if a connection could be made from Hell’s Gate to there.

    If serving Yankee Stadium is a goal, it doesn’t really serve the outer stations in the same way as other boroughs. A new tunnel could probably serve Longwood Ave(6), Prospect Ave(2/5), Melrose(Harlem Line), and 161 St – Yankee Stadium(4/B/D), but it wouldn’t have quite the same impact as other boroughs

    • Henry

      The main issue regarding the Bronx is that the most valuable Bronx-Queens connection is much farther out than the most valuable Brooklyn-Queens connection. The Bronx and Queens are connected by the Triboro, the Whitestone, and the Throgs Neck, and only one of these currently has a heavily-used bus connection (the Triboro used to have a bus running from the Hub to Astoria, but this was cut for ridership reasons way back when). Brooklyn has three rail lines connecting it to Queens (the G, the Jamaica Line, and the Atlantic Branch) and has rights-of-way for two more connections (RX, Rockaway Beach). That being said, the most logical Bronx-Queens route is still the RX, mostly because building a rail line under or over the Long Island Sound isn’t about to happen anytime soon, and even light rail on the Whitestone may not even be possible.

  11. Purple City

    A big part of the problem with former G operations as you’ve described them is that it shared alignments with radial lines, which naturally lead everyone to pick the cross-platform transfer over the one that requires a few flights of stairs. A purer circumferential line, on the other hand, disperses downtown-bound traffic across multiple radials.

    Consider, for instance, what would happen if the G was extended southeast from Myrtle/Willoughby to Utica/Fulton, then continued under Utica Avenue to Kings Plaza. Utica riders bound for Lower Manhattan or Newark would split between the Eastern IRT and the Fulton IND. Still others would transfer to the L, while riders bound for Midtown might ride all the way to Court Square.

    Such a line wouldn’t be any less radial in an absolute sense; in fact, a Utica alignment is strictly speaking more radial than the current squiggles around Park Slope and Carroll Gardens. But by abolishing the “most favored nation” cross-platform transfer you get better system utilization.

    For a super-exciting crosstown/radial hybrid, connect the G tracks at Fulton/Lafayette to the inside platform at Dekalb/Flatbush, blow up the Calatrava PATH, connect the Montague Street tunnel into the Hudson tubes, and run a Newark-Lower Manhattan-Brooklyn service.

    • nei

      That would be neat. But fitting with the PATH’s lower stop spacing outside of Manhattan, an ideal would be an express on the Brooklyn

  12. nei

    One weird thing about the M and the R and in a number of other NYC subway lines is the way it branches. Not only do multiple lines run together in the center and then branch, which is a common setup, but different lines sometimes remerge on outer branch, branching in reverse. The M and the R run together on the Queens Blvd track till their end point in Forest Hills, then they separate and the M runs with the Sixth Avenue line while the R runs with the Broadway line. The two lines in Manhattan are within an avenue block from each other much of the time, for someone working in Manhattan outside of lower most portion but not too far off to the far west or east side, both lines are useful.

    This seems clumsier than necessary. It’s not providing much additional service since the destination is similar. Someone in the morning taking the Queens Blvd local might happy to jump on either the M or R to work rather than wait extra for the next train. But on the way back, he has to go to either a M or an R station, with half the frequency and doubling the average wait time. Situation isn’t too bad at rush hour when trains come very often, but at off hours it’s more irritating. Similarly, one has to choose between the B or C to go up Central Park West, one the way down both work almost equally well for many trips. In Brooklyn the 2/3 runs with the 4/5 for some part of their route, this might be more useful as the two lines are far apart in Manhattan, with the benefit of a one seat ride for more. Seems like in many cases it would be best to keep lines together and have an easy transfer to the other line rather than thorough running different services and reducing frequency. If there are two different services when the subway frequency is low, it would be convenient if trains could keep to a schedule instead of forcing passenger to wait.

    • vanshnookenraggen

      This comes from the piecemeal way the lines were connected. The only reason the M train runs to Forest Hills is because the M coming in from Williamsburg and up 6th Ave had to terminate somewhere. The optimal routing for Queens Blvd, addressing what you brought up, would be E (8th Ave), F (6th Ave), R (Broadway) and whichever train would run along 2nd Ave when Phase 3 gets built. That would more evenly balance the load. Unfortunately that is a long way off so the M train fits the bill for the time being.

    • Henry

      To be fair, the bus network today largely runs on the same roads (the only cross-borough connections noted on the map still exist today), and it’s very doubtful that streetcars ran all the way from Downtown Brooklyn to Flushing, or Long Island City to Bay Ridge, or anything like that. We can’t tell though, because the map only shows a couple blocks’ worth of Queens and the map itself does not give any indication as to where services terminate, or their frequency.

      Buses end where they do today largely to cut down on the reliability issues that came up once car travel became the dominant mode of street transportation. Theoretically, you could combine routes into massive bus superroutes, but this would come at the risk of unreliability and even more severe bunching than we have today. Particularly for Bronx-Queens crosstown travel, improvement for buses is difficult if not impossible, since there aren’t many wide, straight roads between the BQE and Woodhaven Blvd. The routes that travel this area today are thus winding and slow due to all the turns they have to make.

      • threestationsquare

        The only real counterexample I know of is that what is today the Q59 bus used to run from Williamsburg all the way to North Beach/LaGuardia airport when it was a the #59 streetcar line (until 1949). In the 1910s there were more Brooklyn-Queens lines (including streetcars running from the Brooklyn Bridge to Flushing, via approximately today’s B57 and Q58 routes) but these were fairly soon split into more manageable shorter lines very similar to today’s bus routes. Most streetcar tracks in Queens were owned by different companies from the tracks in Brooklyn and so few routes served both boroughs significantly.

        • Adirondacker12800

          Keep in mind that streetcar lines ran much faster than today’s buses. They didn’t go into the bus stop they just blocked traffic and then continued on their merry way. And there was less traffic to slow them down.

          • Purple City

            While you’re there, let’s also note that current US LRVs have standardized on an acceleration of 2.5-3.0 mphps, but PCCs regularly ran at a face-flattening 4.75 mphps and some of the older Brill cars were even peppier.

            Acceleration trumps top speed in frequent stopping services. We had a cultural preference for high-accel services, but this got thrown out when we let the existing manufacturers die off, at which point we simply absorbed then-contemporary German specs.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Gawd I’m getting old. PCCs are what I think of as streetcars because they ran PCCs on the Newark subway until 2002 or something like that. Gawd I’m getting old.

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  15. vanshnookenraggen

    The G train was poorly planned to such an extent that it would take a very expensive expansion plan to make it work to its full potential. If you think of the G as having 4 distinct sections then you can design new radial lines to piggyback the current layout so that at all times along the G you can catch a train crosstown or to Manhattan. The Smith St section (from Hoyt-Schermerhorn to Church Ave) is serviced by the F so no issue there, likewise the Queens Blvd side has service to Manhattan. It’s between Court Sq and Hoyt-Schermerhorn where you need to work things out.

    There were plans for a subway under Lafayette St in Bed-Stuy since when the original subway was extended into Brooklyn. Until the IND came along all the different routes ran into Manhattan. Not only did the IND build the Lafayette St section of the G with no service to Manhattan they built it without even a track connection to the Fulton St subway (!) The only way to run trains from Manhattan to Bedford-Nostrand Avs would be to blow up the end of the Hoyt-Schermerhorn station and connect the express tracks to the Crosstown tracks. This isn’t impossible but expensive and it would reduce capacity on the Fulton St subway. Even if the IND had really intended to extend the Crosstown line to Bushwick and beyond, forcing the new service to terminate at Church Av was unbelievably shortsighted. The IND really fucked up royally here; the one saving grace is that it’s a simple cross platform transfer.

    The section from Court Sq to Bedford-Nostrand was also taken from a previous subway plan to run a north-south line from Queensboro Plaza to Brighton Beach via the Franklin Ave line. As this was always planned as an elevated line communities along the route were always fighting it. The Crosstown line was built to bring needed service to northern Brooklyn but connecting it to the Lafayette St subway instead of the Franklin Ave line and the Brighton Beach line cut off potential transfers to the Fulton St, Eastern Parkway, and Brighton Beach lines. Imagine how much more useful the G would be if you could take it and transfer to the 2/3/4/5 and the Q/B!!

    I’ve written a lot about reviving the Franklin Ave connection and I think, while not cheap, it would have the most potential impact on Brooklyn by giving riders from the east and south access to Midtown via the L or 7/E/M at Court Sq. Yes, multiple transfers are a deterrent but it would reduce congestion in lower Manhattan. This could even act as a work around for a Utica Ave subway. The IND proposal of the S4th-Utica Ave subway is too grandiose and expensive today but the need for a subway south of Eastern Parkway remains. A Franklin Ave-Crosstown connection would get riders from Utica Ave to Williamsburg in a cheaper fashion via platform transfer then building a new subway along Broadway and Stuyvesant Ave (which would at least double the cost of the whole project and add redundant service where trains are below capacity today)

    Furthermore the MTA needs to seriously look at a free transfer between the J/M/Z and the G at Broadway and Hewes St. I would prefer the MTA consolidate the Hewes and Lorimer St stations since they both have low ridership; they could build an elevated-subway transfer like at Court Sq. Again this would be pricey so I don’t see this as a priority for them given the low ridership in the area.

    • Alon Levy

      A G/M transfer at Broadway and Union would be really useful, and help decongest the L. When I brought up the idea of consolidating Hewes and Lorimer into one stop at Union on SAS, someone (Andrew, maybe?) objected that there was a housing project near one of the existing stop; I’m not sure to what extent it’s a good reason to keep the stop spacing as tight as it is given the transfer opportunity.

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