Infrastructure for Mature Cities

A post by Aaron Renn just made me remember something I said in the Straphangers Campaign forum ten years ago. I complained that New York was building too little subway infrastructure – where were Second Avenue Subway, Utica, Nostrand, various outer extensions in Queens and the Bronx that we crayonistas liked? Shanghai, I told people in the forum, was building a lot of subway lines at once, so why couldn’t New York? The answer is not about construction costs. Ten years ago, China’s construction costs relative to local incomes were about the same as those of New York; even today, the difference is small. Rather, it is that China is a fast-growing economy that’s spending a lot of its resources on managing this growth, whereas the US is a mature economy without infrastructure problems as urgent as those of developing countries.

Aaron posits that American cities are too conservative, in the sense of being timid rather than in the sense of being on the political right. He gives examples of forward-looking infrastructure projects that New York engaged in from the early 19th century to the middle of the 20th century: the Manhattan grid, the Erie Canal, the Croton Aqueduct, the subway, the Robert Moses-era highways and parks. Today, nothing of the sort happens. Aaron of course recognizes that “New, rapidly growing cities need lots of new infrastructure and plans. Mature cities need less new infrastructure.” The difference is that for me, this is where this line of questioning ends. New York is a mature city, and doesn’t need grand plans; it needs to invest in infrastructure based on the assumption that it will never again grow quickly.

If not grand plans like building the Manhattan grid far beyond the city’s then-built up area, then what should a mature city do? Aaron talks about dreaming big, and there is something to that, but it would take a profoundly different approach from what New York did when its population grew by 50% every decade. I stress that, as with my last post critiquing another blog post, I agree with a substantial part of what Aaron says and imagine that Aaron will treat many of the solutions I posit here as positive examples of thinking big.

Rationalization of Government

Mature societies have accumulated a great deal of kludge at all levels, coming from social structures and government programs that served the needs of previous generations, often with political compromises that are hard to understand today. Welfare programs are usually a kludge of different social security programs (for the disabled, for retirees, for various classes of unemployed people, sometimes even for students), housing benefits, reduced tax rates for staple goods like food, child credit, and in the US food stamps. A good deal of the impetus for basic income is specifically about consolidating the kludge into a single cash benefit with a consistent effective marginal tax rate.

In transportation, bus networks have often evolved incrementally, with each change making sense in local context. When a new housing development opened, the nearest bus would be extended to serve it. In Israel, which grew late enough to grow around buses and not rail, this was also true of dedicated industrial zones. In cities that used to have streetcar networks, some buses just follow the old streetcar routes; the Washington bus system even today distinguishes between former streetcars (which have numbers) and routes that were never streetcars (which use letters). Jarrett Walker‘s bus network redesigns are partly about reorganizing such systems around modern needs, based on modern understanding of the principles behind transit ridership.

Governance often needs to be rationalized as well. In the early 20th century, it was important to connect outlying neighborhoods to city center, and connections between lines were less important. This led to excessively radial surface transit (rapid transit is always radial), but also to rail lines that don’t always connect to one another well. Sometimes due to historical contingency the lines are run by separate agencies and have uncoordinated schedules and different fare systems charging extra for transfers. Occasionally even the same agency charges for bus-rail transfers, often because of a history of separate private operators before the public takeover. In the US and Canada, the special status of commuter rail, with different unions, fares, schedules, and management is of particular concern, because several cities could use commuter rail to supplement the rest of the transit network.

In New York, this points toward the following agenda:

  • Modernization of commuter rail, with full fare integration with the subway and buses, proof-of-payment fare collection to reduce operating costs, high off-peak frequency on the local lines, and through-running where there is infrastructure for it (i.e. Penn Station).
  • Some bus service reorganization. New York already has extensive frequent buses, but some of its network is still questionable, for example some branches of the Third/Lexington and Madison/Fifth one-way pairs in Harlem.
  • Subway reorganization. The subway branches too much, and at several places it could have higher capacity if it reduced the extent of reverse-branching; see discussion here and in comments here. Some elevated lines could also see their stops change to support better transfers, including the J/M/Z at Broadway and Manhattan to transfer to the G, and maybe even the 7 at 108th Street to enable a transfer to a straightened Q23 bus.
  • Fare integration with PATH, and demolition of the false walls between the PATH and the F/M trains on Sixth Avenue, to enable cross-platform transfers.

Serve, Don’t Shape

There are two models for building new infrastructure: serve, and shape. Serve means focusing on present-day economic and demographic patterns. Shape means expecting the project to change these patterns, the “build it and they will come” approach. When New York built the 7 train to Flushing, Flushing already existed as a town center but much of the area between Long Island City and Flushing was open farmland. I’ve argued before that third-world cities should use the shape model. In contrast, mature cities, including the entire developed world except a few American Sunbelt cities and analogs in Canada and Australia, should use the serve model.

The serve model flies in the face of the belief that public transit can induce profound changes in urban layout. In reality, some local transit-oriented development is possible, but the main center of New York will remain Midtown; so far Hudson Yards seems like a flop. In the suburbs, more extensive redevelopment is possible, with apartment buildings and mixed uses near train stations. But these suburbs, built after WW2, are less mature than the city proper. In fast-growing cities in North America outside the traditional manufacturing belt the shape model still has validity – Vancouver, still a relatively new city region in the 1980s, got to shape itself using SkyTrain. But in New York, there is no chance.

This also has some ethnic implications. Jarrett likes to plan routes without much regard for social circumstances, except perhaps to give more bus service to a lower-income area with lower car ownership. But in reality, it is possible to see ethnic ties in origin-and-destination transit trips. This is why there are internal Chinatown buses connecting Chinatown, Flushing, and Sunset Park, and a bus connecting two different ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Brooklyn. In Washington, there is origin and destination data, and there are noticeable ties between black neighborhoods, such as Anacostia and Columbia Heights.

In a mature city with stable ethnic boundaries (Harlem has been black for ninety years), it is possible to plan infrastructure around ethnic travel patterns. This means that as New York disentangles subway lines to reduce branching, it should try choosing one-seat rides that facilitate known social ties, such as between Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant. While New York’s ethnic groups are generally integrated, this has special significance in areas with a mixture of linguistic or religious groups with very little intermarriage, such as Israel, which has two large unassimilated minorities (Arabs, and ultra-Orthodox Jews); Israeli transportation planning should whenever possible take into account special ultra-Orthodox travel needs (e.g. large families) and intra-ethnic connections such as between Bnei Brak and Jerusalem or between Jaffa and Nazareth.

Integrated Planning

A few years ago, I wrote a post I can no longer find talking about building the minimum rail infrastructure required for a given service plan. In comments, Keep Houston Houston replied that no, this makes it really difficult to add future capacity if demand grows. For example, a single-track line with meets optimized for half-hourly service requires total redesign if demand grows to justify 20-minute frequency. In a growing city, this means infrastructure should be planned for future-proofing, with double track everywhere, no reliance on timed overtakes, and so on. In a mature city, this isn’t a problem – growth is usually predictable.

It is relatively easy to integrate infrastructure planning and scheduling based on today’s travel patterns, and impossible to integrate them based on the future travel patterns of a fast-growing city such as Lagos or Nairobi. But in a slow-growing city like New York, future integration isn’t much harder than present-day integration. Alone among North American cities, New York has high transit mode share, making such integration even easier – transit usage could double with Herculean effort, but there is no chance that a real transit revival would quadruple it or more, unlike in cities that are relatively clean slates like Los Angeles.

Since the mature city does not need too much new infrastructure, it is useful to build infrastructure to primarily use existing infrastructure more efficiently. One example of this is S-Bahn tunnels connecting two stub-end lines; these are also useful in growing cities (Berlin built the Stadtbahn in the 1880s), but in mature cities their relative usefulness is higher, because they use preexisting infrastructure. This is not restricted to commuter rail: there is a perennial plan in New York to build a short tunnel between PATH at World Trade Center and the 6 train at City Hall and run through-service, using the fact that PATH’s loading gauge is similar to that of the numbered subway lines.

In New York, this suggests the following transit priorities:

  • Open commuter rail lines and stations based on the quality of transfers to the subway and the key bus routes. For example, Penn Station Access for Metro-North should include a stop at Pelham Parkway for easy transfer to the Bx12 bus, and a stop at Astoria for easy transfer to the subway.
  • Investigate whether a PATH-6 connection is feasible; it would require no new stations, but there would be construction difficulties since the existing World Trade Center PATH station platforms are in a loop.
  • Change subway construction priorities to emphasize lines that reduce rather than add branching. In particular, Nostrand may be a higher priority than Utica, and both may be higher priorities than phases 3 and 4 of Second Avenue Subway. A subway line under Northern Boulevard in Queens may not be feasible without an entirely new Manhattan trunk line.
  • Build commuter rail tunnels for through-running. The Gateway project should include a connection to Grand Central rather than Penn Station South, and should already bake in a choice of which commuter lines on each side match to which commuter lines on the other side. Plan for commuter rail lines through Lower Manhattan, connecting the LIRR in Brooklyn with New Jersey Transit’s Erie Lines, and, accordingly, do not connect any of the lines planned for this system to Penn Station (such as with the circuitous Secaucus Loop in the Gateway project).


New York still needs infrastructure investment, like every other city. Such investment requires thinking outside the box, and may look radical if it forces different agencies to cooperate or even amalgamate. But in reality the amount of construction required is not extensive. More deeply, New York will not look radically different in the future from how it looks today. Technological fantasies of driverless flying cars aside, New York’s future growth is necessarily slow and predictable, and cities in that situation need to invest in infrastructure accordingly.

In my post about third-world transit, I posited an epistemological principle that if the presence of a certain trait makes a certain solution more useful, then the absence of the trait should make the solution less useful. The shape vs. serve argument comes from this principle. The same is true of the emphasis on consolidating the kludge into a coherent whole and then building strategically to support this consolidation. A fast-growing city has no time to consolidate, and who’s to say that today’s consolidation won’t be a kludge in thirty years? A mature city has time, and has little to worry about rapid change obsoleting present-day methods.

But at the same time, the same epistemology means that these changes are less critical in a mature city. In the third world, everything is terrible; in the first world, most things are fine. New York’s transportation problems are painful for commuters, but ultimately, they will not paralyze the city. It will do well even if it doesn’t build a single kilometer of subway in the future. Nothing is indispensable; this means that, in the face of high costs, often the correct alternative may be No Build. This illustrates the importance of improving cost-effectiveness (equally important in the third world, but there the problem is the opposite – too many things are indispensable and there isn’t enough money for all of them).

I emphasize that this does not mean transportation is unimportant. That New York will not be destroyed if it stops building new infrastructure does not mean that new infrastructure is of no use for the city. The city needs to be able to facilitate future economic and demographic growth and solve lingering social problems, and better infrastructure, done right, can play a role in that. New York will most likely look similar in 2067 to how it looks in 2017, but it can still use better infrastructure to be a better and more developed city by then.


  1. Alon Levy

    The examples I give in the shape-don’t-serve section of destinations with special connections are ethnic. But there exist non-ethnic examples. Universities have relatively fixed locations in mature cities, megalomania about enterprise universities notwithstanding. Universities are also growing increasingly connected, which means that there’s value in transit that specifically connects different campuses, or universities and libraries. It’s not too relevant to New York, where there are already good connections between Columbia, the CUNY Grad Center, and NYU, but has implications for Paris.

    The unis here are mostly clustered on the Left Bank, around the Latin Quarter and nearby areas like Jussieu. But the connection from the unis to the national library (BNF) is really weak – you have to take the RER C, whereas the unis around Sorbonne are pretty far inland. This makes the proposed M10 extension more interesting than a radial-circumferential hybrid built out of the city’s least used line has any right to be. However, the extension should probably terminate at BNF, rather than go all the way to Ivry (without a connection to T3, a tramway with more ridership than M10 both in absolute numbers and per km).

  2. ckrueger99

    One of the past changes that’s often looked upon with nostalgic regret is that from streetcars to buses. Some want to go back but fail to note that the days of streetcars featured far fewer private cars than is now the case.

    • Alon Levy

      Yep. There are two big features of mature cities that I did not note in the post because it’s already tl;dr:

      1. Slow growth means difficult decisions about dividing a relatively stable cake among users. You can forget about widening urban roads – you have to make politically controversial decisions about bus lanes, bike lanes, etc.

      2. Mature cities need to worry about environmental quality more. The air quality in New York is pristine compared with Beijing, which in turn is clean compared with Delhi, but in a city like Delhi, the top priority is to industrialize and improve health outcomes through better nutrition and health care. Reducing coal use is useful in Delhi, but only because of very high density in the Indo-Gangetic Plain, not because of the income level. Mature cities are instead deindustrialized, and need to do large-scale cleanups of waterways (the waterfront is more useful as a scenic amenity than as an active port) and former industrial sites.

      • ckrueger99

        Rather than widening, we’re arguing about narrowing unnecessary “stroads” in Philly, even where bike/transit lanes aren’t an issue.

        • AlternativeTransport

          but fail to note that the days of streetcars featured far fewer private cars than is now the case.


          But in many mature cities the share of car traffic is going down. The space that then becomes available could be used to rebuild streetcar lines, or if a city was really bold, it could take the space and force a shift in the traffic share. So action instead of reaction. E.g. Vienna will have only about 18% car traffic by 2030.

          Modal Split Vienna

          A street car line costs a ~1/10th of a subway line per mile to build. The Second Avenue Subway (Phase 1) 2 mi (3.2 km) costed 14 times more per mile than the estimate for the Brooklyn-Queens Streetcar 16 mi (26 km). Imagine if NYC had just been bold enough and had taken the lanes on 2nd Ave necessary for a streetcar, then they could have built a streetcar the entire length of the avenue by now.

          • Eric

            There’s already BRT on Second Avenue. A streetcar wouldn’t provide much gain above that.

            Also, it’s incorrect to compare actual subway costs to estimated streetcar costs. The streetcar’s cost would most likely go much higher by the time it’s finished.

          • Alon Levy

            Do streetcars really cost 1/10 as much as subways? Maybe in New York they do, but I think the international average is a smaller spread. Flyvbjerg’s horrifically incomplete and out-of-date dataset says the ratio of subway : el : light rail is 6:2.5:1; the ratio in Paris looks about 5:1.

          • adirondacker12800

            The costs can be very slippery, I don’t remember where it was but they took the opportunity of the streetcar construction to rebuild the sewers, water and gas mains and put the electricity and telecom underground, that got quite pricey. And pops up in the cost figures for the line. It’s not uncommon to shift the overdue rebuild of the roadway itself to the budget of the streetcar. ,,,works both ways occassionally, when they were rebuilding the road surface of 6th Avenue back in the 90s they had to increase the budget to remove all the stuff that was left behind when the 6th Ave, El was torn down.

          • AlternativeTransport

            yes it is unfair to compare actual cost to estimated cost, I assume it will be somewhere by 1/10 and not 1/14th. However, the Brooklyn-Queens Streetcar will have 21 direction changes, it turns left and right way too often, making it complex, expensive and slow. The thing in my opinion is more of a tourist attraction/investor wooing ploy than an investment into public transportation. A 2nd Ave streetcar would drive in a straight line from 1st to 128th street, that would bring the construction complexity and costs down, and it would be fast.
            As to what can be gained compared to the existing buses. I am thinking about 60 meter long (200ft) segmented tram, that can seat 430 passengers, with 8 automatic doors that enable a fast enter and exit, with a low floor the entire length of the vehicle, which makes the enter and exit also faster and is easily accessible for wheelchairs / baby strollers / ect…, with no motor noise (electric) and a very quite brakes, gentle ride, no fumes, all driven by one driver. So compared to a bus, a big improvement. Now it is not a 180 meter long subway, it would drive on it’s own lane but still have to deal with the occasional disturbance. It would stop more often and thus be slower than a subway but remember, by a subway you have to walk along the platform underground, up the stairs and up the stairs again before you reach street level. The MTA could have built about a 1st-Ave-Streetcar, a 3rd-Ave-Streetcar and a Madison-Ave-Streetcar for the price they paid for Phase 1.

            1:10 is the average for Berlin, Munich and Vienna. Where as that depends if it is cut-and-cover, NÖT or TBM. But on average (there are also more complicated tram lines) it matches up. The 2nd Ave Subway and any new subway in Manhattan will be terribly expensive. It needed to go through rock and earth, and a sections where there was too much water the ground needed to be frozen. And Stations that are built to standard and not basically death traps waiting to happen (fire, panic, escape paths). Then there is already so much in the ground in Manhattan creating further headaches.

          • Alon Levy

            Second Avenue is a relatively easy place to tunnel under, though – it’s a straight wide road, with east-west subways so deep that SAS would go over them and not under them. Phases 2 and 3 should both be doable cut-and-cover, except the last few hundred meters under 125th going under the Lex. Phase 1 was built entirely by TBM and mining – even the stations were mined – but that was a mistake that doesn’t have to be repeated (it probably will, but it doesn’t have to be).

            The problem with a streetcar is that it’d just not fast enough. In Paris, T3, in a less dense environment than Second Avenue, averages about 17 or 18 km/h.

          • ckrueger99

            I agree, but we have a serious chicken/egg problem here in Philly.

          • AlternativeTransport

            A tram that drives an average 17 to 18km/h including stopping time is a good speed.

            Compare that to a Q Train from 96 Street to 72 Street takes 4min for 2km, which is 30km/h on the subway. But you need to add the ~1min it take to go down the steps and the ~1min it takes to go up again. So it actually takes 6min for 2km, = 20km/h. Now that distance has 3 stations, so roughly every 1km there is one station or every 12 blocks there is 1 station. So, if we only compare avenue walking distance, someone will walk a maximum of 0.5km on an avenue or 6 blocks and a minimum of 0km, and an average of 0.25km or 3 blocks. A tram would have every fourth block a stop, and the tram itself is 60 meters long so basically one block long. So the maximum avenue walking distance is 1.5 blocks plus a road or 0.13km and an average of 0.065km. People taking a subway would then be walking on average 0.185km longer than those walking to a tram stop. Calculating with an average walking speed of 5.0km/h, that would make an additional 2.2 minutes journey time to the subway station and an additional 2.2 minute from the subway station. (3min for the 0.25km)
            So for this short journey with average avenue walking distance, stairs down and up, plus subway travel time (not calculating platform wait time) would be 12min compared to a tram ride plus avenue walking time of 8 minute.

            Now this is an unfair comparison because hardly anyone drives only two subway stops or six tram stops but keeping the same 30km/h to 18km/h ratio, a tram line is faster than a subway line until a travel distance of 5km or 62 blocks.

            Traveling the entire length of the 2nd-Avenue-subway-line would take 75% of the time (with stairs and avenue walking time) it would take to travel it with a 2nd-Avenue-tram-line.

            (The Lexington/Park subway from 110 Street to 23 St takes 17 Min for 7.3 km or 25.7km/h.)

            The tram line would be for 64% of the line length slower, 36% of the length faster. Would have roughly 30% of the seating capacity (You could increase the frequency). It would not be worth the same as a subway line but my estimate is it would get 50% of the job done.

          • Alon Levy

            The busiest tram line I know of in the world, T3 here, gets 15,000 weekday riders per route-km. This is a circumferential line with short trips between radial legs (if you’re going all the way from Nation to the 15th, the Metro is faster). The eventual ridership projection for SAS phase 1 is 65,000/km, and so far it seems to be meeting projections. So no, you are absolutely not getting 50% of the benefit.

            The main thing your calculation misses is that the travel time benefit of staying on the surface disappears if you have to transfer to the subway. Most people would. SAS phases 1-2 aren’t just about Second Avenue, but also about a fast connection from the Upper East Side and East Harlem to the West Side. (And before you suggest more trams: first, needing to do multiple lines drives up costs, and second, east-west trams are going to be much slower because they encounter heavier traffic at intersections.)

            Second Avenue has bad connections to the subway. The east-west lines mostly stop at Lex; the only thing that stops near Second Avenue is the L, plus lines in Lower Manhattan, where you can forget about 18 km/h. A tram just on Second Avenue has no chance of getting the per-km ridership of T3, which functions as an incomplete second ring, outside the first ring of M2/M6 and inside the eventual third ring of M15. People would not take it for any long trip, and there’s no big demand for short trips connecting to the subway because there are no connections to the subway north of 14th. It’s easier for the subway to get away with it by putting a block-long underground connection, like Times Square-Port Authority or 14th/7th-6th; but even that I don’t think would be a huge ridership generator, since the Q has a shorter connection to the L at Union Square than the T could at 14th/2nd-3rd. A tram would require a lot of walking on the surface.

          • AlternativeTransport

            So no, you are absolutely not getting 50% of the benefit.
            I get your points. I will partially concede and try a route km with a higher ridership.

            And before you suggest more trams: first, needing to do multiple lines drives up costs, and second, east-west trams are going to be much slower because they encounter heavier traffic at intersections.
            That is exactly what I would suggest, Manhattan already has a large subway network. Do you get the biggest bang for your buck by building another line, is that necessary? Instead of building a 13.7km long subway line it could build a about ~137km streetcar network. My original point was that by mature cities the share of car traffic is going down, which will free up space for surface public transportation, or if cities take surface space for public transportation then the car traffic share will go down. East-west trams would have less traffic to deal with at a intersection than today. What will the car traffic share in Manhattan be in ~2040 when Phase 3 opens?

          • Alon Levy

            The 17-18 km/h figure is already with dedicated lanes, priority at intersections, a wide road, etc. You can’t achieve subway-like speeds on the surface in a dense city, no matter how much priority you give transit. It’s up from the current north-south M15 SBS speed already, which is about 11-12 km/h. But the east-west buses are 5-6 km/h. You might be able to push up to 10 km/h with better priority (current signal priority in Manhattan favors north-south traffic over east-west traffic, so transit signal priority has higher impact on the east-west routes), but 15 seems wildly implausible and 20 is a pipedream.

            I’ll revisit this in another post, but I’m skeptical about phases 3-4 of SAS in part because of the same problem with subway connections. Second Avenue in Midtown is a residential area, rather than a compelling commercial destination like Times Square or Grand Central. Maybe if SAS had opened in the 1930s the Midtown office cluster would’ve extended up to Second, but it didn’t. The connection to the L is of limited value (the Q is as good, despite being circuitous), and Grand Street is okay for UES-Brooklyn service but that too can be provided by the Q. So the main value of phases 3-4 is service to Lower Manhattan; evidently the new ridership projections for phase 3 (which is 63-72 new blocks) and phase 4 (which is equivalent to about 32 new blocks) are the same, 100,000 each. But Lower Manhattan is just about the weakest possible market for surface transit. The streets are too narrow.

            The problem with a 137-km streetcar network (look here – this is 217) is that the 137th km isn’t as strong as the first.

          • newtonmarunner

            @Alon — You don’t think UES/Harlem/Wash. Heights/East Village/LES/etc. (particularly those living east of 2nd Ave.) would take SAS to avoid the overcrowded Lex Lines for CBD jobs east of 6th Ave? M14 and M15 have 70-90K riders combined. [Fwiw, Sutton Place is east of 1st Ave. in Midtown.]

            The problem is that w/o SAS being an independent line (instead of using the 7th/Broadway or 6th Ave lines for SAS), is (1) a 125th St. subway makes that zigzag line too circuitous, and (2) it makes it almost impossible to hook Northern into a lettered line going through Midtown West.

            Anyhow, thanks much for this. I see your Boston future subway map is consistent with what you’ve written about mature cities — more emphasis making transit more efficient and usable than coverage.

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  4. johndmuller

    I’m interested in a lot of stuff from this post:
    1) Commuter Rail fare (and other) integration]
    also incorporating better rail-subway connections (i.e. Pelham Pkwy.).
    2) Subway reorganization, particularly re: reverse branching.
    also prioritizing new construction along similar principals.
    3) PATH integration into subway – both fare and track (i.e. WTC IRT6 @ City Hall.
    4) Rail connections in Manhattan – i.e. NYP GCT and
    JC/Hoboken WallSt. Brooklyn.
    5) Staten Island: Rail or Subway to Manhattan; Rail or Subway to Brooklyn;
    Rail or Light Rail to NJ (this wasn’t in the post, but seems to be a good fit with it.

    Doubt that I’ll get to all of this in one post, but perhaps I’ll just start at the top and see where it goes; I can always pick up with where I leave off in another post.

    1) Commuter Rail. Quite a few once-upon-a-time commuter rail lines have been repurposed into subway lines. Currently, the somewhat active LIRR line along Atlantic Ave. from Jamaica to Atlantic Terminal is often lusted after by fantasy subway designers; also the abandoned Rockaway line parallel to Woodhaven Blvd (in competition with those who would return it to LIRR service and those who want to turn it into a sorry impersonation of the High Line linear park) – the part closest to Rockaway itself has already been occupied by the A train; an assortment of little used and a-lot used other RR property has also been eye-balled for sharing or repurposing under the “Tri-Boro” rubric (unless someone makes them change it to “RFK”).

    Anyway, another idea along these lines is to adjust the fare structure of the unassimilated commuter lines so that trips within the areas of overlapping service (namely within the City) would cost the same. giving in-city commuters an alternative service (and slightly faster to boot) at the same price. (One can already do this sort of thing on LIRR or MN with a “City Ticket” at about a 50% premium over a subway fare on Saturday & Sunday.)

    The notion, of course, is that this fare integration will take some of the load off the overcrowded regular subway lines. It is also considered to be more egalitarian by proponents and by local residents, who may resent the “elite” suburbanites with their “private” (and perhaps noisy) railroad. The suburbanites, naturally, would find it inequitable that the hoi polloi are getting this discount and at the same time increasing the discomfort viz z viz making it harder to get a seat on the way home and at the extreme bumping people off a train or two. Add in the fact that NY State runs both operations and a political/social dilemma pops up.

    Conceivably, short-run trains could be used to provide this local service, were it decided to go this way, without inconvenience to the suburban riders, but for the most part, the system is maxed out, capacity wise during the peak periods (during which time the suburban riders are already paying a rush-hour premium fare, making the proposed discount even larger), so that adding additional trains would be very difficult. So, short of adding additional cars to the trains at the city line, this plan probably needs to wait until there is additional capacity, say after the Pen Station and East Side Access projects are done and maybe not until some capacity upgrade is done along the Park Avenue corridor of Metro North.

    • Alon Levy

      Off-peak, serving the in-city stops is free. There is already a fair amount of off-peak frequency on the LIRR – just look at Penn-Jamaica schedules. The problem is that those trains don’t run local, so the intermediate stops only get hourly service. But replacing express trains with local trains is actually free on the LIRR, because the current mixture of local and express trains on the Main Line complicates timetables and forces the LIRR to pad the schedule more than it would otherwise need to. See analysis here. On Metro-North it’s more complicated, because some express trains do have value, and the lines branch earlier, so extra local service would be needed to destinations like (early on) Yonkers, Wakefield, and New Rochelle, or (later) Croton-Harmon, White Plains, and Stamford. That’s fine, these are mostly dense suburbs, if you give them a train that comes every 10 minutes off-peak and is fare-integrated with local transit at both ends, they’ll ride it.

      At the peak, capacity is indeed a problem. But there’s standing room in the vestibules, and people riding inbound at rush hour would just stand in the vestibule for 10-15 minutes. It’s fine – the alternative is standing on a much more crowded subway train for a longer time.

      • johndmuller

        No doubt people would ride the extra trains, those in the suburbs because it would be nicer to have more frequent trains than not, and those in the city because it would be the same price as the subway and at least for some, more convenient. Assuming that the marginal costs were low – that train crews would otherwise be sitting around or deadheading and that the extra electricity costs were covered by the extra fares, and that extra wear and tear was not a big deal, then one only has to wonder why they haven’t been doing this all along. But that just covers the off peak part of the day which is about 6 hours in the middle of the day and a few hours in the later part of the evening or a bit over half of the operating hours.

        During peak hours there are capacity constraints that are not easily overcome – needing both more rolling stock and in some locations more ROW capacity – and also political constraints viz a viz whether or not the two constituencies are getting equitable deals. If the physical capacity were there and extra locals could be run for these services, then fine, but way so much easier said than done.

        I another post I talked about what I thought would be necessary for this on the MN side. That was building a new Manhattan ROW from the Bronx down/under Madison or 5th (which could continue further south after the GCT-area to do other good things) and maybe an extra track on the Hudson line between Mott Haven and Spuyten Duyvil and of course a new complicated junction in Mott Haven and maybe extra tracks at the stations along the Bronx River. On Long Island, those extra tracks they keep talking about would have to go beyond talk and some station work would probably need to be done too. An expensive project in Astoria adding station tracks and platforms to the Hell Gate Line would a lot of this more worthwhile as well.

        No doubt it would not really be free, so someone like you needs to show exactly how very very close to free it could be under whatever politically plausible assumptions you’d need to make for this to ever actually happen.

    • adirondacker12800

      Substituting 6 car PATH trains for 10 car 6line trains is not a viable option. Not even when they start running 8 car PATH trains on the Newark – World Trade Center line. Assuming the civil engineering was possible. Rational people except for one zealot with multiple websites don’t think it is. But then rational people don’t examine it too closely because it would be a reallllllly stupid idea to run 6 car trains on the Lexington Avenue line. Realllllly realllllly stupid.
      We aren’t building East Side Access to run less trains. We are doing to run more trains. Lots more trains. Any cockamamie plan with perhaps a minor exception here or there, you can come up with, to repurpose an existing ROW is too congested to do it. Until you get far out side of Manhattan.

      • Ralfff

        Can IRT trains fit in PATH tunnels or not? It seems to me that PATH trains are shorter vertically and PATH tunnels have less clearance in general.

        • adirondacker12800

          It doesn’t matter, there is too much demand on the Lexington Ave. line to be swapping ten car trains for six car trains.

          • johndmuller

            I thought that PATH was thinking-about/planning/going-to be using 10 car trains? It certainly gets talked about as if it might happen – I think even by someone going by adirondacker12800, when he talks about the reasons why PATH might need to go to Newark airport so they could build a place to park the extra rolling stock due to increased train length.

            to be fair, I don’t know for sure if you were talking about 10 car trains or 8 car trains, but I think it was 10. In any case, train size may not be the show stopper. I’m pretty sure that train dimensions and other hardware are not a show stoppers either – that PATH and the IRT are compatible (barring whatever FRA stuff might be required or MTA specific stuff.

            There are plenty of possible show stoppers though, like the politics, the money (as in won’t there be some lost revenue [rider savings] if the fares are integrated – not to mention the extra long trip from Pelham to Newark, or the cost of threading the needle in lower Manhattan to get to the City Hall station. The benefits are not really that great either, saving a transfer for people, and both that and the rider savings would tend to accrue to the NJ-ites, while the construction costs would be in NYC.

            Seems like a really tough sell all around, but you never know – the Port Authority might want to get out of that business and be willing to pay an ongoing subsidy to the Subway people, and there would presumably be some economic efficiencies to point to (whether or not they would actually be realized).

          • adirondacker12800

            Trains go to Hoboken too. Ten an hour at peak. Where the platforms have not been lengthened. It is a not a viable option.

          • Joey

            Lengthening the remaing PATH platforms is going to be simple relative to making the actual connection between the tracks

          • adirondacker12800

            which is why doing grove street, the last short one on the Newark-World Trade Center line, is proving to be so easy

      • Ian Mitchell

        10 car PATH seems like a good plan. There aren’t enough Hudson crossings, and platforms are *much* cheaper than another tunnel under the river.

        As far as going to EWR- I thought of it as kind of a dumb plan (there’s already mainline rail, but not all of the trains stop, unlike at BWI, where there’s roughly 5x the ridership as a result), but if it’s to gain the storage necessary for 10 car trains; fine, whatever.

    • BikeGuyEmoji

      You imply that if the (X) /Triboro RX line were to to be built, it would go up the RFK suspension bridge. What kind of engineering would go into that job? This or in a tunnel adjacent to the bridge mirroring the Queensboro bridge setup seems to be the only realistic way to get the line to the Bronx. In a more organized world, the rest of the line would have been built out and the operating agency would have signed a 10 year agreement to use the two Hell Gate tracks, timed to end at the opening of Penn Access. The ridership from the whole line would be used to justify a realignment on Randall’s Island. In a mature city it seems smart to actively remove lanes from cars when adding transit; might as well make it heavy rail.

      • johndmuller

        Sorry if I sowed any confusion re the Triboro Rx; I was just making an insipid joke on how since they renamed the Triboro Bridge into the RFK and thus might do the same with the Triboro Rx leading to the RFK Rx. The Rx plans have traditionally been to use the Hell Gate Bridge – mainly because it is there and could be said to have some spare capacity and does already connect with some of the various other RR fragments which would comprise the Rx route. Urban legend has it that Robert Moses designed his bridges to be transit proof, so the highway bridge might not work for the subway.

        I’m not a big fan of that myself for several reasons: one, that should the Subway get a foothold on this route, it might be difficult to dislodge (like rails to trails) should increased freight or intercity traffic materialize; and two, it might not be that great a route anyway, without a station in Astoria connecting with the BMT lines and depending on where it goes in the Bronx.

        A better connection between the subways near the Hub in the Bronx and Queens could occur if the 2nd Ave line were extended up through the Hub, and if there were another East River tube lining up with Astoria Blvd (that would be about 90th St. in Manhattan) — pretty iffy all of that, but… On the other side, if the Whitestone Bridge isn’t really transit proof, it might be a better choice for the Rx, connecting some unserved parts of Queens and the Bronx and creating a partial outer loop if it continued to connect with some of the IRT lines up there in the Bronx. Other routes could link the Rx to LaGuardia and (if Rikers Island is to lose its prisons and get redeveloped) with the support of the Real Estate Moguls, Rikers Island and on over to the various connections in the Bronx presumably via tunnel.

        • BikeGuyEmoji

          Ah I see. Well I think your measure of the Hell Gate alignment is on the money. My crayola has the (X) skirting the Hell Gate up to the Grand Central Parkway and then cutting over to the Astoria Blvd (N) (W) Station. It takes a tunnel alignment up Brook Ave in the Bronx to reconnect with whats left of the unused row; a row that seems to keep getting built upon.

          Honestly, I think any alignment in the Bronx that hits most of the lines/branches AND connects with a Triboro line in Queens & Brooklyn will get the job done. I like the idea of sending it to LGA if the Bronx route is abandoned. Alon has put out a map sending an Airtrain or some other subway/tram down Junction Blvd. The Triboro branching onto the Port Washington branch can work for that.

          Of course, any tunneling alignments make it less likely to get built. The heaviest construction (even with keeping two separate tracks for freight, which should stay) on the whole line would arguably still be in Queens–naturally–but compared to major interstate highway projects the (X) really is straightforward. It is routine for highway engineers to set up temporary viaducts, etc when doing ‘road improvements projects’. Mass transit doesn’t generally get that kind of accommodation.

          I’m not an engineer but I’m of the mind that most of the big bridges in NYC could be optimized and upgraded for rail cheaper than a new build option if the State wanted them to be. The ramps leading to most of them were rebuilt for the interstate system (and after removing the rail on the Brooklyn and Queensboro bridges). The opposite can be done. Per wikipedia the Whitestone was modified right after it opened, cables and trusses added in response to the Tacoma Narrows disaster AND to add more road lanes. A lot of big heavy science is conducted when these bridges get major overhauls. The problem is the engineers are optimizing for autos. Change the goal, and they’ll figure it out.

  5. jmanaker

    Ethinicity-based transit planning sounds really scary to me. One of major the social benefits of public transit is that, to quote Jarret Walker, it is “one of the last few places in the city where a millionaire might sit next to the guy who washes dishes in her favorite restaurant” (see In an ideal world, ethnicity is unconnected to social status, so planning trips around ethnicity becomes the benign and banal reality of expanding transit capacity in accordance with ridership patterns. But we don’t live in an ideal world; ethnicity in Israel and America is highly correlated with social class. In NYC, the system may already mix ethnicities plenty via legacy lines that do cross ethnic boundaries, but in developing novel systems like in Israel, such planning is a recipe for an even more rigid segregation. And given who gets to vote in Israel, the “Israeli” lines are going to see a lot more investment than the “Palestinian” ones…

    • Alon Levy

      On the narrow issue of TNCs and private buses marketed to tech people, there is no stability. First, there are other reasons to prohibit private city buses from competing with public buses (link).

      Second, gentrification is an ongoing process. Where I have reasonable certainty that Harlem and Bed-Stuy will remain predominantly black and Hispanic in the next generation, I have no idea where gentrification will happen. It might nibble at the edges of both neighborhoods; Harlem already has had the rent hikes, just not much white influx. If L service improves after the shutdown, it might continue outward along the L, or it might move to other lines because of the shutdown. Long Island City seems primed for hyper-gentrification.

      At the same time, I don’t know where gentrifier jobs will grow. Obviously Midtown and Lower Manhattan will stay the top two business districts, but the top industry in New York, finance, has a culture that prefers staying in rich neighborhoods to gentrifying poor or middle-class ones. This is partly why San Francisco’s gentrification is mostly associated with programmers and not bankers or doctors or lawyers or politicians. And that itself is harder to predict – which industries will spur gentrification and which will spur a return to historically rich areas, and where each will build offices.

      • adirondacker12800

        A way to determine what neighborhood will gentrify next, that I read about being used, it to take the subway until there are almost no hipsters and yuppies left. then go one more stop. That is the next one. It has worked consistently, in NY anyway, for a long time. …SoHo is an invented name that real estate agents cooked up when the Village got too expensive. They cooked up TriBeCa, when SoHo got too expensive. I think using the capital letters has faded.

        Times Square’s …reinvention?… started when the theaters were running porn and there were streetwalkers soliciting. Financial firms locate where the top executives can get to the suburbs easily. Which is why it appeared that Wall Street was about to decamp to Midtown in the 60s and 70s. The World Trade Center and state workers filling the streets help to stem that. Independence Plaza, filled with lower middle class schmoes who qualified for Mitchell-Lama helped create Tribeca.

  6. Robert Jackel

    How does a city like Philadelphia fit into a shape vs. serve spectrum? On the one hand, we’ve been around a long time and have a legacy transit system that is pretty good. On the other, not only is that system skeletal, the city has lost 25% of its peak population but is starting to turn around and could easily be as big as it was. How much should new transit try to reshape the city in anticipation of a population increase of that size?

    The same could be said to some extent to a place like Boston, and definitely to some rust belt cities that have the potential to rebound.

    • Alon Levy

      Philadelphia is probably the #1 example of a city in North America that needs to serve and not shape, precisely for the two reasons you cite. Like Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco, Philadelphia does have public transit, especially if you stay in the city or commute from the suburbs to the city. This means that there is no point in trying to build something from scratch as in Rust Belt cities without public transit, like Cleveland or Detroit or Baltimore. But unlike Boston, New York, Washington, and San Francisco, Philadelphia does not have massive suppressed housing demand. This means that extensions like Roosevelt and the Navy Yard have to rely on current demand for traffic and can’t at all expect to induce redevelopment.

        • Alon Levy

          Los Angeles has a subway! It’s still small enough the city doesn’t really have public transit. Cleveland has even less transit mode share than LA.

          • newtonmarunner

            But LA’s bus ridership is 1,000,000+/day (which is still bupkiss for a city that big). Don’t know how you consolidate buses in LA, though. I also don’t see the transit mode share getting past 25-30 percent in the City of Angels.

            [Fwiw, my brother lived in LA for 10 years.]

            Cleveland, iirc, used to have a lot greater transit ridership because the city population was a lot higher. I don’t see transit mode share in the city proper getting past 20-25 percent.

          • Alon Levy

            Well, right now LA is at 6%, and that’s without the Inland Empire, just LA and Orange Counties. Ile-de-France is at 42%.

          • adirondacker12800

            Cleveland ain’t Paris. It is difficult to get congestion with so few people. Fuel is lot cheaper than in France and parking a lot easier than in Paris. Los Angeles ain’t Paris either.

    • kclo3

      Which is why the meager shape-planning efforts that have focused on King of Prussia or Navy Yard extensions (really only KoP) are a huge disservice to the city, which pays for the majority of planning dollars. When the city is at a crossroads on whether office expansion will be happening in University City or the suburbs, SEPTA has adamantly chosen to cater to the latter, even when developers have not shown serious desire to accommodate transit. There are no serious calls for even an MTA-style bus turnaround from any influential voice , and recent service additions like Route 49 are a token distraction.
      Northeast Philly is the sole reason why the 25% citywide population loss wasn’t closer to 35-40%. But SEPTA’s new BRT-lite-lite plan that is the official replacement for the scrapped subway is literally $15 million mostly spent on rebranding buses. Ridership is taking by more than 5%, Regional Rail more than 8% and management is sitting on their hands in denial.

  7. Pingback: Weekly Links & Thoughts #137 |

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