De Blasio Versus Good Transit

In New York, the de Blasio administration has been spending considerable political capital pushing for a $2.5 billion light rail line connecting Astoria and the Brooklyn waterfront south to Sunset Park. There has been a lot of criticism from good transit advocates about implementation – namely, it’s unclear there will be free transfers to the subway and buses, in order to avoid having to share turf with the state-owned MTA – but also of the basic concept, which is not the biggest transit priority in the region, or for matter the twentieth. In comments and on social media, I’ve seen a few wrong arguments made in support of waterfront light rail and similar bad investments over and over, and I’d like to go in some detail into where cities should and should not build such lines.

The principles below are based on various oppositions: first world versus third world, fast versus slow growth, subway versus no subway. I think a good meta-principle is that if the presence of a certain factor is an argument in favor of a specific solution, then its absence should be an argument against that solution. For instance, if high wages are an argument in favor of rail and against bus rapid transit, then low wages should be an argument in favor of bus rapid transit; this principle makes me wonder what Addis Ababa was thinking when it built light rail instead of BRT, while at the same time thinking very little of American cities that make the decision that Addis Ababa should have made. The upshot of the meta-principle is that many of the guidelines that work in New York could work in very different cities, in reverse.

1. New York is a mature first-world city with low population growth; it should build transit exclusively or almost exclusively based on current population and transportation patterns, and not attempt to engage in development-oriented transit. The upzoning the city engages in is too small compared to current population, and cannot justify anything of the magnitude of Vancouver’s Expo Line, which was built simultaneously with Metrotown and the New Westminster offices around the train stations. And even Vancouver cannot reasonably expect the growth rates of various third-world cities with annual population growth rates in the vicinity of 5% and even higher per capita income growth rates.

2. Rail bias is approximately the same on all routes. Routes with many turns and narrow roads have unusually slow buses, but they’ll also have unusually slow surface rail. Rapid transit does have the ability to avoid the extra traffic jams coming from such alignments, and this is especially important in cities where the main street is not the same as the nearby wide boulevard, but this is not what’s under discussion in New York. Yes, de Blasio’s proposed light rail line would get more riders than the buses on segments of the route in question are getting now; the same would be true of any number of light rail routes paralleling the busiest buses in the city.

3. In a city with a subway, the best light rail routes are the ones that don’t make sense as subway extensions. Of the three busiest buses in New York, two make sense as subway lines, so there’s no point building light rail and only later a subway: the M15, on First and Second Avenues, and the B46, on Utica. In contrast, the third route, the Bx12 on Fordham, is crosstown, and cannot reasonably be an extension of any subway line, so it would be a strong light rail corridor. The same can be said of Main Street in Queens, between Flushing and Jamaica; and 14th and 86th Streets in Manhattan, where the M14 and M86 are the busiest surface routes in the US in terms of riders per kilometer, well ahead of the Boston Green Line (they both have about 8,000, and the Green Line 6,000). Of note, 14th Street already hosts the L, but a branch going on Avenue D is far from the subway, and the street is so well-trafficked that despite slower-than-walking bus speeds, that arguably light rail makes sense there even with the subway.

4. As soon as a project is judged as not a top priority, it’s best to think of how useful it is once the top priorities are built. In the case of New York, let us zoom in on Brooklyn’s top two circumferential buses, the B4 B6 and B35. Triboro RX is a higher priority than turning these routes into light rail, and once it’s in place, how much demand is there really going to be for them? It would be faster to take the subway and connect to Triboro, except at very short distances, where speeding up surface traffic is less useful.

In New York, excluding the somewhat special cases of 14th and 86th Streets, I’d say there are three light rail networks that make sense: one in the Bronx, one in Brooklyn, and one in Queens. The Bronx network involves taking the borough’s most frequent buses and turning them into light rail routes: the Bx12 on Fordham as noted above, but also the Bx1/2 on Grand Concourse (like 14th Street, hosting both a subway and a very busy bus route), the Bx19 on Southern and 145th, the Bx15 on Third, and a route on Tremont combining the Bx36 and the Bx40/42. These routes roughly form a grid, each has at least 30,000 weekday riders, and none is SBS except the Bx12. In this case, light rail should really be thought of as the next step after publishing a frequent grid map based on these routes and equipping the entire city bus fleet with off-board fare collection.

In Queens, there’s less room for a grid – the borough has street grids, but it really is based on several old centers, with major roads connecting them. The strongest routes are the ones that cannot reasonably be subway extensions, because they’re too circumferential; in turn, the strongest subway extension, i.e. Northern, is not a major bus route, because it’s close enough to the Queens Boulevard subway that people instead take the subway, which is overcrowded. Of the strong surface transit routes, the corridor with the highest ridership takes in several bus routes between Flushing and Jamaica; Main Street is the most important route, but potentially there’s room both there and on the second route, Kissena-Parsons. Other potential light rail routes radiate from Flushing and Jamaica, in directions not well-served by the subway and the LIRR, or even west on Queens Boulevard to help serve the gap in subway coverage between the 7 and the Queens Boulevard Line and relieve the subway lines.

Brooklyn is the most interesting. The main missing pieces in subway coverage in Brooklyn are good subway extensions: Triboro, Utica, Nostrand. With those in place, the only real gaps are Flatbush, and some route serving Red Hook. Possibly service to the Navy Yard may be desirable, but the area is not very well-developed right now, and the buses serving it have low ridership. Those are two or three routes radiating out of the same center in Downtown Brooklyn, which makes it tempting to not only build light rail on them, but also send it over the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall. This would be like the subway-surface lines in Boston and San Francisco, where one underground trunk splits into several at-grade branches, except that in this case the trunk would be elevated rather than underground. It’s not worth building by itself, but the possibility of leveraging Brooklyn Bridge lanes for several light rail lines may make the ridership per unit of cost pencil out.

The common factor to all of these possibilities is that they are not meant for signature development areas that the city is targeting. Maybe there’s some new development there, but the focus is on improving public transit services to existing residents, who either are riding very slow buses or have given up on public transit because of the inconvenience. It can be marketed as an improvement in transit, but cannot really be sold as part of a plan to revitalize the Brooklyn waterfront. It’s about day-to-day governing, whereas the administration is interested in urban renewal schemes, which are rarely good transit.


  1. walkableprinceton

    ” New York is a mature first-world city with low population growth; it should build transit exclusively or almost exclusively based on current population and transportation patterns, and not attempt to engage in development-oriented transit”

    Or, alternatively, New York could aim for sustainable growth by engaging in development-oriented transit.

      • walkableprinceton

        I understand ‘development-oriented transit’ to mean planning transit to support future redevelopment in under-used areas. I think that is an entirely reasonable goal for new transit, especially if the city wants to foster growth, which, again, seems like a reasonable goal.

    • Alon Levy

      The problem with this line is that this growth has to come from somewhere. Targeted high-intensity upzoning won’t do it – New York is already big and dense enough that trying to grow like Vancouver and Burnaby do around Expo Line stations will quickly lead to high-cost supertall towers. If zoning were abolished citywide, there would be more supertalls in East Midtown, and a lot of teardowns of single-family houses beyond subway range replacing them with low- and mid-rise apartment buildings. I guess this makes it TOD if you’re planning to extend the 7, E, and F farther east, but that’s not on the agenda, nor should it be in the short run.

      The comparison should be various third-world cities. Nairobi has 3% annual population growth, and Kenya is projected to have 6% per capita economic growth in the next few years. If it builds a subway, then whatever alignment it builds it along will fill with high-density formal housing very quickly. New York, with sub-1% annual population growth and GDP per capita growth, cannot expect this.

      • Eric

        What if you abolished zoning in Brooklyn only, for example? Brooklyn is vast, and most of it is underdeveloped even adjacent to subway stops (and those subway lines are relatively empty).

  2. Henry

    The Bx12 could actually be a subway corridor; it ends at the (A) at Inwood-207 St, and the (A) is already connected to the riverfront via the tunnel to the 207 St Yard. The concern there is that the (A) would be too long.

    As far as light rail goes, certain areas would do well to have a Stadtbahn-type system with tunnels bypassing congested areas where many routes converge. North-south routes through Jamaica and Flushing would be a good candidate for this, as would 181 St and Fordham Road.

    I think that the B4 and B35 are too far south and north, respectively, to be much impacted by Triboro RX. Triboro RX would be good for long-distance travel, or travel within its immediate corridor, but the B4 and B35 serve different markets. If anything the RX will probably decimate B6, B8, and B9 ridership.

    • Alon Levy

      Not important enough a corridor, frankly. Besides, Avenue C ends way south of 34th… but 14th-C could work (but 14th-D, where the bus runs, could work even better).

      • Eric

        I would think 34th is more important than 14th, plus it doesn’t currently have a subway line, plus it gives the Avenue C people one-seat access to Midtown.

        To connect 34th to C you’d have to run for a bit parallel to FDR Drive.

        • Alon Levy

          Subway or not, 34th has 16,000 weekday bus riders and 14th has 34,000.

          Similarly, with recent ridership growth, Grand Concourse has 40,000 weekday bus riders, so that now the Bx1/2 is the city’s #5 bus route.

        • Henry

          34th is not that important. There currently isn’t anything super important west of 8th Avenue, or east of 5th. Hudson Yards might change that, but it also might not, given that the entrances to the Lincoln Tunnel form a pretty big barrier with the rest of the corridor (and would be something a light rail line would have to contend with.)

          34th is much more important as a corridor for express bus services; as such it should be designed as a bus transitway, not a light-rail.

      • Nathanael

        How about light rail on 42nd diving into the Lincoln Tunnel and becoming HBLR? Oh, but that would require cooperation with New Jersey. Impossible!

        • Alon Levy

          The Lincoln Tunnel is optimized for feeding Port Authority, not 42nd Street. If you want a rail tunnel across the Hudson, there already is one; if you want another for capacity, having it run on-street on 42nd Street is stupid because of the capacity limits it would impose.

  3. Jason Calderon

    Actually the BX 12 can be an excellent subway line. Those busses are always packed all day long, but most people avoid it if they can because of that fact, and because its a bus, that shares the bus lane with like 5 other routes on Fordham, the most congested part. It also pisses people off when the regular lanes are backed up and the bus lane is free, but the bus drivers don’t use the bus lane most times when they could just bypass the traffic on the bus lane.

    Also, the BX 12 begins at the last stop of the A, and passes the 1 train on nagle, on Fordham, it passes stations on the Hudson branch of MNRR, the 4, B, and D trains. On Pelham parkway, it passes the 2 train on white plains rd, the 5 train on Williamsbridge, and ends at the last stop of the 6 train in Pelham Bay! If a subway, it probably would be crowded too.

    As for light rail, thats for desert towns and small cities, BROOKLYN IS A WONDERFUL PLACE, but unlike the Bronx, it doesn’t have the luxury of even one high speed rail like metro North takes me into Manhattan in about 8-12 munutes..and so on. Its something like 55 stops from coney island to Jackson heights, and 1.75 hours from bay ridge to norwood on subway. The triboro route would get from the Bronx to Jackson heights in like 12 minutes, then on to east new York in another 10, and on to bay ridge another 15 minutes.. It was one of the original rail roads built in bk, and its right of way mainly serves sporadic freight now but at least it already exist!!

  4. Ryan

    86 St in Manhattan isn’t a special case at all. It only doesn’t make sense as a subway extension because no subway currently exists for it to be extended out of; that doesn’t mean there isn’t a legitimate route there. Just the opposite, in fact: it’s a straight shot in a short tunnel under the East River from 86 to 30 Av in Queens and from there either down Newtown to Northern Boulevard or up and along Astoria Boulevard. You mentioned Northern’s value as a subway line already, Astoria’s is slightly less obvious but very high all the same.

    On the other side, there’s a terminal shortage of cross-Hudson capacity, the kind that no single tunnel will address no matter where that single tunnel gets built. Besides the new regional rail tunnel under Fulton, the L ought to be extended into Jersey, the 7 should’ve been extended into Jersey, and an 86 St Subway ought to end somewhere in Jersey. (Stop it in North Bergen with connections to the light rail extension and whatever gets built under Bergenline Av, or if there’s demand for it, turn it north or south and send it farther into Jersey from there.)

    Uptown isn’t as important as downtown, but it does have tremendous value and the fact that there’s only two crosstown subways shouldn’t be an argument against building or converting more of them.

    • Alon Levy

      The value of Northern is specifically as a connection to 63rd Street. It served Midtown and would balance the load on QB better than now, when the only options for using 63rd to full capacity rather than half capacity as today involve eliminating the connection to 60th Street.

      One of my crayonista maps did in fact include a subway under 86th going east on Astoria. But I think that an N/W extension to LGA is better, and frankly, once Northern and LGA exist, Astoria loses value. Going to the west, that line terminates at Broadway, and notably does not go to Jersey. Neither does my still-extant-on-virtually-every-crayonista-map 125th Street subway. The reason is that, again, once the biggest priorities for adding trans-Hudson rail capacity are resolved, there just isn’t the demand to go to every major Uptown Manhattan street. I do think there should be a C extension across the bridge to Fort Lee and eventually Paterson, but that’s nearly 100% elevated, and provides service to Midtown from an area that’s far from any plausible commuter rail connection.

      • Ryan

        I don’t think you need a tunnel under every major Uptown street, but you do need to be serving at least one – in addition to serving GWB, and in addition to the new regional rail services under 34 and Fulton. Whether that one additional tunnel goes under 86 or 125 is an open question; I don’t believe that turning Second Avenue services away from the Bronx is a good idea and I also don’t believe that an extension of the NW to LGA precludes an Astoria Boulevard service, especially if the NW only goes to LGA as a cheap extension elevated via GCP and doesn’t proceed east to Flushing afterward.

        Speaking of the NW, Northern Boulevard’s value as permitting full service into the 63 St tunnel is somewhat of a false value considering that you’ve traded half capacity in a tunnel already built for half capacity in a much longer tunnel that doesn’t exist yet – half of Northern’s service would come from Second Avenue and the other half would come from nowhere since 60 St is over capacity, 53 St is at capacity, and between the existing Queens Boulevard services and the existing Astoria services, you’re left with half a tunnel’s worth of capacity on the table and no way to service it: 60 St goes to Astoria (the R/Queens Boulevard is pushing it over capacity and should really be scaled back), 53 St goes half to QBL and half to QBX, 63 St goes half to QBX and half to Northern, half of Northern is unserved. Or 53 and 63 both go half to QBL and half to QBX, Northern ends up entirely unserved. If you argue that the over-capacity chunk of 60 combines with a restored G and that becomes the QBL service, you can send half of 53 up Northern and get full capacity utilization that way – but that’s a nightmare of interlining and over-leveraged tunnel services.

      • Adirondacker12800

        Bergen County has underutlized or abandoned railroad ROW. That points at midtown instead of the Bronx,

          • Adirondacker12800

            The existing ROW that doesn’t point at the Bronx exists too.

          • Eric

            Let’s spell this out in more detail:

            A C extension would cross the Hudson on the George Washington Bridge, then follow I-80 or rail ROW. All the ROW for this route exists already so construction would be relatively cheap.

            Whatever you build to Midtown would need a brand new underwater Hudson crossing. That would cost billions. The savings on rail ROW within New Jersey are insignificant compared to the Hudson crossing cost.

          • Adirondacker12800

            There is no railroad ROW to the George Washington Bridge. I-80 has a median that is a Jersey Barrier, it would be very expensive to built a railroad on it.
            There’s going to be lovely tunnel going to Midtown, where people want to go.


            That’s going to connect to existing or abandoned train stations.

          • Eric

            “The small 174th Street Yard lies under Broadway, with two tracks exiting to the south under that roadway. When the George Washington Bridge was designed in the 1920s, provisions were made for a lower deck that would carry these two tracks north from the yard and across the bridge”

            The Gateway Project is going to be full of commuter and intercity trains. No room for subway trains.

          • Joey

            Converting those lanes to subway tracks would be technically easy, though perhaps politically difficult. Maybe if you convince people that it would double the capacity of the bridge…

          • jasoncalderon203

            Its the original plan, the Infrastructure is ready for it. In my opinion, driving is always gonna be a burden, too many ppl have cars, the only way its gonna improve is if ppl take trains instead. Therefore put the trains on the lower level. And reduce I-95 to 2 lanes each way so the tracks can be extended from the south wall left and over the bridge, close the entrance from west side hwy, redirect traffic on 175 to new another entrance past Broadway either new or existing. Let traffic be traffic, so when aggravated drivers see the trains pop out from behind the wall and zoom right past them over and over, from there to patterson , and all points they will choose the train.

          • Adirondacker12800

            There aren’t that many people in Fort Lee. If the train goes anyplace other than Fort Lee it gets very very expensive. To go places that already have train service to Midtown. Or could.

          • Alon Levy

            It’s not very very expensive. It involves an el over Route 4, which generally hits town centers and shopping malls better than I-80; the el over the Van Wyck, a.k.a. the JFK AirTrain, cost $180 million per kilometer.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Running more train through the existing station, that already has service is much cheaper than building new ROW and new stations. To deliver people 125 blocks from where they want to go.

          • Joey

            Adirondacker: and why would the GWB trains terminate at 168th St?

          • Adirondacker12800

            They wouldn’t. But if you are going to use the time space continuum machine to get them and their train to Midtown instantaneously just put the remote end of the machine in their suburb.

          • Joey

            Well I’d imagine many would transfer to the A, yes. Or the 2nd Ave Subway at 125th St in 2085. Or do what happens at the other end of the 8th AVE line, where the C terminates and the A splits. But that’s a difficult operating pattern.

          • Eric

            So what if it’s an inferior way to get to Midtown? It’s still *a* way to get to Midtown. If one of the Hudson tubes ends up closed in a couple years, it would be very welcome.

          • Adirondacker12800

            There’s 6 of them now and will be 8 of them any decade now. The two new ones will connect to existing ROW.

          • Matthew

            Route 4 has bus stops without sidewalks to reach them. People walk on the grass instead. The road is a crumbling mess, and a miserable place to walk. Also, rich and influential residents of Teaneck won’t allow the state to extend the third eastbound lane on Route 4 through their town, creating a highway bottleneck that has lasted decades. And that’s despite the effect on private car owners! How do you think an El would be received? West of Fort Lee, there is simply not enough population to justify an elevated metro train. Hackensack already has commuter train service that could stand to be improved. And Paterson is 15 miles away from the bridge — that’s too much to ask, especially in the corrupt NY/NJ nexus of cost overruns and failure. The 178/182 runs along this corridor at pretty low frequency, splitting into branches at the bridge plaza. There’s good frequency if you’re at the Fort Lee bridge plaza and want to get across the river. But west of Fort Lee… we’re not talking overflowing buses here. It’s just cruddy economics all around for transit, and a nasty suburban landscape.

          • threestationsquare

            @Matthew, there are reportedly (see pdf p51) profitable private jitney buses running every two minutes between the GWB and Paterson, which suggests a pretty high level of transit demand, in spite of the built environment.

            (If you’re actually at the Fort Lee bridge plaza and trying to get across the river, it’s hard to beat a free casual carpool; there are usually cars waiting.)

          • Adirondacker12800

            30 25 passenger buses an hour is 750 passengers. or one subway train. 30 50 passenger buses an hour is 1500 passengers or two subway trains.
            The people running the jitney’s aren’t idiots. Why they don’t run bigger buses every four minutes – half as many drivers and half as many buses – is a good question.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Or walk a block and half to the subway. Just like the people in Paterson could walk to the existing railroad station. Or take the jitney.

  5. threestationsquare

    In the context of crayonista proposals for light rail across the Brooklyn Bridge, would it make sense to tie it into the unused Nassau St subway tracks at Chambers St BMT and continue on to at least Canal St (if not Essex/Delancey) for easier subway connections, rather than building an above-ground terminal?

  6. Eric

    “1. New York is a mature first-world city with low population growth”

    A lot of the reason for that low population growth is NYC’s extremely high real estate prices, which only get lower if you go far enough out that commutes are extremely long. Lower the real estate prices by massive upzoning, and the population will increase very significantly.

    It’s the same reason why Texas has much higher population growth than California.

    • devin

      I think Alon is probably right here. Houston grew by 7.5% in the 00s; NYC by 2.1%. Conversely NYC grew by double digits every single decade from the revolution until 1940. It’s expensive to build in built-up areas even with huge upzonings!

      At the metro level, with huge upzonings everywhere, ~20% growth might be possible for a while longer. But then it’s probably a question of new regional rail with tunnels through the center–not like, a 10th Ave line.

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