The Subway in New York is not at Capacity

It seems to be common wisdom that the subway in New York is at capacity. Last year, the New York Times ran an article that repeated the MTA’s claims that growing delays come from overcrowding (which they don’t). A few weeks ago the NY Times quoted Riders Alliance campaign manager Rebecca Bailin saying “Our system is at capacity” and “subways are delayed when people can’t fit in them.” So far so good: some parts of the subway have serious capacity issues, which require investment in organization and electronics (but not concrete) to fix. But then some people make a stronger claim saying that the entire system is at capacity and not just parts of it, and that’s just wrong.

A few days ago there was an argument on Twitter involving the Manhattan Institute’s Nicole Gelinas and Alex Armlovich on one side and Stephen Smith on the other. Stephen made the usual YIMBY point that New York can expect more population growth in the near future. Nicole argued instead that no, there’s no room for population growth, because the subway is at capacity. Alex chimed in,

People are not going to be willing to pay market rents for places they can’t commute from. A large number of folks underestimate the self-regulation of NYC housing–it just can’t get that bad, because people can always just move to Philly

Like, if upzone Williamsburg, people who move into new housing aren’t going to try to ride the L–they’ll only come if they can walk/bike or ride in off-peak direction. Just like people are leaving in response to the shutdown. Neighborhoods and cities are in spatial equilibrium!

I responded by talking about rents, but in a way my response conceded too much, by focusing on Williamsburg. The L train has serious crowding problems, coming from lack of electrical capacity to run more than 20 trains per hour per direction (the tracks and signals can handle 26 trains, and could handle more if the L train had tail tracks at its 8th Avenue terminal). However, the L train is atypical of New York. The Hub Bound Report has data on peak crowding into the Manhattan core, on table 20 in appendix II. The three most crowded lines entering the Manhattan core, measured in passengers per floor area of train, are the 2/3, 4/5, and L. Those have 3.6-3.8 square feet per passenger, or about 3 passengers per m^2, counting both seated and standing passengers; actual crowding among standees is higher, around 4 passengers per m^2. Using a study of seating and standing capacity (update 2020-2-25: this is a non-link-rotted version of the study), we can get exact figures for average space per standee, assuming all seats are occupied:

Line Peak tph Seats Standee area Passengers Passengers/m^2
1 18 7,920 3,312 13,424 1.66
2/3 Uptown 23 9,200 4,393 28,427 4.38
A/D 17 9,792 3,980 23,246 3.38
B/C 13 6,994 2,899 12,614 1.94
4/5 Uptown 24 8,640 4,752 28,230 4.12
6 21 9,240 3,864 21,033 3.03
F Queens 13 5,967 3,560 17,816 3.33
N/Q/R 23 10,908 6,179 29,005 2.93
E/M 22 8,568 5,856 22,491 2.38
7 24 9,504 5,227 20,895 2.18
L 19 6,080 4,321 23,987 4.14
J/M/Z 19 6,384 4,363 16,657 2.68
F Brooklyn 14 6,426 3,834 14,280 2.05
B/D/N/Q (4 tracks) 38 18,612 10,008 43,550 2.49
A/C 20 10,112 4,504 21,721 2.58
2/3 Brooklyn 16 6,400 3,056 13,536 2.34
R 8 4,608 1,873 5,595 0.53
4/5 Brooklyn 20 7,200 3,960 16,504 2.35

Three additional snags are notable: crowding in 53rd Street Tunnel looks low, but it averages high crowding levels on the E with low crowding levels on the M (see review), and the 1 and 7 achieve peak crowding well outside Midtown (the 1 at 96th at the transfer to the 2/3 and the 7 at Jackson Heights at the transfer to the E/F) whereas the table above only counts crowding entering Manhattan south of 59th Street. But even with these snags in mind, there is a lot of spare capacity on the Upper West Side away from 72nd and Broadway, and in Queens in Long Island City, where passengers can take the undercrowded 7 or M. Crowding in Brooklyn is also low, except on the L. In both Brooklyn and on the West Side locals there’s also track capacity for more trains if they are needed, but New York City Transit doesn’t run more trains since peak crowding levels are well below design guidelines.

This isn’t a small deal. Williamsburg is where there is the most gentrification pressure, but the Upper West Side is hardly a slum – it’s practically a byword for a rich urban neighborhood. The trains serving Brooklyn pass through some tony areas (Park Slope) and gentrified ones (South Brooklyn), as well as more affordable middle-class areas further south. From NYCT’s perspective, developing South Brooklyn and Southern Brooklyn is especially desirable, since these areas are served by trains that run through to Queens, Uptown Manhattan, and the Bronx, and with the exception of the B are all much more crowded at the other end; in effect, lower subway demand in Brooklyn means that NYCT is dragging unused capacity because of how its through-service is set up.

Actual perceived crowding is always higher than the average. The reason is that if there is any variation in crowding, then more passengers see the crowded trains. For example, if half the trains have 120 passengers and half have 40, then the average number of passengers per train is 80 but the average perceived number is 100, since passengers are three times likelier to be on a 120-person train than on a 40-person train.

Subway in New York has high variation in crowding, probably unusually high by international standards, on account of the extensive branching among the lines. The E/M example is instructive: not only are the E trains more crowded than the M trains, but also they come more often, so instead of a perfect E-M alternation through 53rd Street, there are many instances of E-E-M, in which an E train following the M is more crowded than an E train following another E train. I criticized NYCT’s planning guidelines on this account in 2015, and believe it contributes to higher crowding levels on some lettered lines than the table shows. However, the difference cannot be huge. Evidently, in the extreme example of trains with 40 or 120 passengers, the perceived crowding is only 25% higher than the actual average, and even the maximum crowding is only 50% higher. Add 50% to the crowding level of every branching train in Brooklyn and you will still be below the 2/3 and 4/5 in Uptown Manhattan.

So on the Upper West Side and in Long Island City and most of Brooklyn, there is spare capacity. But there’s more: since the report was released, Second Avenue Subway opened, reducing crowding levels on the Upper East Side. Second Avenue Subway itself only has the Q, and could squeeze additional trains per hour by shuffling them around from other parts of the system. In addition, the 4/5 and 6 have reportedly become much more tolerable in the last year, which suggests there is spare capacity not only on the Upper East Side but also in the Bronx.

Moreover, because the local trains on Queens Boulevard aren’t crowded, additional development between Jackson Heights and Queens Plaza wouldn’t crowd the E or F trains, but the underfull M and R trains. This creates a swath of the borough, starting from Long Island City, in which new commuters would not have a reason to use the parts of the system that are near capacity. It’s especially valuable since Long Island City has a lot of new development, which could plausibly spill over to the east as the neighborhood fills; in contrast, new development on the Upper West Side runs into NIMBY problems.

Finally, the residential neighborhoods within the Manhattan core, like the Village, are extremely desirable. They also have active NIMBY groups, fighting tall buildings in the guise of preservation. But nowhere else is it guaranteed that new residential development wouldn’t crowd peak trains: inbound trains from Brooklyn except the 4/5 are at their peak crowding entering Lower Manhattan rather than Midtown, so picking up passengers in between is free, and of course inbound trains from Uptown and Queens drop off most of their peak morning load in Midtown.

It’s not just a handful of city neighborhoods where the infrastructure has room. It’s the most desirable residential parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn, and large swaths of middle-class areas in Brooklyn and parts of Queens. In those areas, the subway is not at capacity or even close to it, and there is room to accommodate new commuters at all hours of day. To the extent there isn’t new development there, the reason is, in one word, NIMBYism.


      • Alon Levy

        No, you shouldn’t. Maximum capacity on SkyTrain is around 500 passengers per train and 48 tph; maximum capacity in New York is around 24 tph and 1,200-1,600 passengers per train depending on train length, so unless the lines are close to capacity they’re only about as busy as SkyTrain’s theoretical maximum.

        • Brendan Samuel Dawe

          They fit 530 on the 68 m long Mark III (out of a possible 80 m platform) suggesting that they could fit 600+ filling out the platforms. But I believe the practical capacity of the skytrain is only 40 trains per hour so the overall number is about the same.

      • adirondacker12800

        This isn’t upgrading your residential service from 100 amps to 200 amps. Things that can handle megawatts aren’t cheap.

          • adirondacker12800

            2 minutes of Googling around the Swiss pay $200,000 per megawatt, delivered, it’s unclear if that includes training etc. Or connecting them. And a ten car subway train uses 3 megawatts for traction. $600,000 per train. Silly silly passengers want light and HVAC. $800,000 per train? 26 trains an hour there’s going to 30 of them out on the tracks during the peak? 24 million to buy the equipment. at low low prices the Swiss pay. Things that are discussed in terms of megawatts aren’t cheap.

          • adirondacker12800

            You have to replace the parts the trains already running use. Or the new stuff won’t fit in the vault it’s going in. Probably a good thing because the stuff in the vault is likely past it’s expected lifetime. It’s gonna be 25 million at the low low prices the Swiss pay just to have that equipment sitting on a freight siding in Brooklyn.

          • Alon Levy

            Why do you need to replace parts? The problem isn’t the trains themselves, it’s substation capacity as far as I understand.

          • adirondacker12800

            Because slapping another one willy nilly next to an old one can have really peculiar effects. Assuming there is space for it. And the feeder cables supplying it are up to. And it’s not past it’s end of life anyway. And that doing that won’t melt the third rail.

          • Al

            2 factors exacerbate power draw:
            1) Overweight equipment: MTA still uses buff strength for transit and commuter railcar as a primary crash worthiness metric, instead of lighter crash energy management designs.
            2) No onboard or offboard battery buffer to capture extra regenerative braking, and limit 3rd rail and/or substation current draw during acceleration.

            Back in the day, the NYCTA ran 36 tph max on the Flushing Line, and did high volume short turns at Myrtle-Wyckoff on the Canarsie Line. The changes to emergency braking performance and signals, as well as organization capacity, have had a large detrimental effect on subway capacity.

    • James Robinson

      I was very interested by this tidbit around electrical capacity constraints limiting the L. Can anyone point me to an article/other source discussing this?

  1. Matthew Cooley (@cooleymatthew)

    “People are not going to be willing to pay market rents for places they can’t commute from.”

    If the rent is higher than people are willing to pay, then they are not market rents and they will come down or stay empty.

    Not only does this “spatial equilibrium” stuff make no sense, it’s also viewed as if northwest Brooklyn is only home to people doing weekday morning commutes to Manhattan. While the L train is mainly about shuttling people in Brooklyn to jobs in Manhattan, upzoning places like Williamsburg has benefits for the many, many people in the area who do not work or go to school in Manhattan. The many people who do not commute to Manhattan aren’t going to move to Philly if the L train sucks, they are going to move to East New York because the rent is too high.

    Making the Manhattan commuter trains better and the housing (and commercial properties that support local jobs!) more restricted will have the predictable result of ever-rising rent.

  2. Aaron M. Renn

    I ride the 1 train daily. It’s decently crowded but rarely overloaded in the mornings except when there are service delays. But I can tell you at evening peak, trains frequently leave Times Square totally full, with all waiting passengers unable to board at 50th, 59th, and even 66th. (I exit at 66th and watch the train pull away with folks still standing). The same sometimes happens at 96th as you allude to. I believe the MTA can run more trains on the 1, and probably should at PM peak.

    The C/B lines on the UWS are very underutilized. But half the potential catchment are is park. The frequencies are lousy. And for those commuting to Midtown, you probably don’t want to be on 8th Ave. If the B ran as frequently the 1, more people might use it. As it is, it’s faster for me to take the 1 and transfer to the Shuttle than it is to take the B to Rock Center or 42nd and walk, even though I am essentially equidistant between the two stations.

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    Living on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, I used to take the Lexington Avenue 6 local train every day to and from work. When the 2nd Avenue Subway opened, I started commuting with that subway line. The difference was night and day, and the time savings significant. On those now rare occasions when I take the 6, I always notice that nothing about the lousy service on the 6 has changed. Just as packed as before, at all times of day, and as slow and unpleasant an experience as before. If some people – like me – switched to the 2nd Avenue Subway and thus lightened the passenger load somewhat, why is the service on the 6 still so bad?

  6. yorksranter

    Electrical power issues aren’t trivial. When the Southern Railway electrified in the 1930s, it built the whole system from the motors in the trains to the three electrical control rooms with the same company (English Electric) because it was a whole system.

    This worked well until the 2000s when a new batch of heavier, airconditioned, and faster accelerating trains (IIRC the power requirement for acceleration scales as the fourth power) of completely new origin stressed it in an unforeseen way. Sure it could provide the power, but the trackside transformers heated up, and with the Southern’s globally short headways it was possible that the transformer wouldn’t cool between trains. On a hot enough day, it would trip and trains would queue behind the stalled section. If it got really bad there would be a cascade failure and as much as one of the (I think three) electrical zones would be offline.

    Answer? Expensive electrical upgrade.

    • Alon Levy

      The power requirement for acceleration equals acceleration times speed times mass. Initial acceleration isn’t as relevant (which is why it frustrates me that the LIRR reduced its train’s initial acceleration but not their power rating), but acceleration at medium speed is incredibly power-hungry on a decent train. I don’t think the UK has anything especially high-performance, because of all the low-voltage third-rail DC lines around London, but those DC lines also limit power drawn, so even at the not-great power consumption of the Juniper there might be problems.

      In New York it’s possible to get around a lot of this by using lighter trains. The subway trains are unusually heavy – the 18-meter R143 weighs 37.5 t, whereas the 2009 Stock weighs 24.5 t per 16.5-meter car and the MP 05 here weighs 23.8 t per 15-meter car.

      • adirondacker12800

        Power ratings are power ratings. Run a 100 watt incandescent bulb at 50 watts it’s still a 100 watt bulb. Usually by manipulating the voltage. There are many ways to skin that cat. Electric tea kettles in Europe boil water reasonably fast. They are 2000 watt-ish. A newer kitchen in North America shouldn’t have a problem with that but not all kitchens are new. So electric kettles are 1000 watt-ish. And take forever to boil a liter of water. Takes the same number watts, it’s just spread out over a longer time.

        Derate the the train it’s going to take more TIME to get up to speed. Increase the TIME you have to decrease something else. …the amps… Which means the circuit breakers don’t trip. And it’s much happier in the middle of rush hour when the voltage is lower. Which will increase your amps if you don’t do something. Like cut back on the watts. Which cuts back on the amps. Which means the circuit breakers don’t trip.

        Then there is apparent power versus real power in inductive loads. I’m the guy who sticks a multimeter on the misbehaving motor not the guy who figures out if the whole building needs power factor correction. Not that I’ve stuck a multimeter in a motor in decades. There’s all sorts of fun interactions between the motors and the power supply whether it’s DC or AC and the the substation and other trains and the utility grid. And the fluorescent lighting. And the HVAC in the winter versus the HVAC in the summer, spring and fall. On a local versus an express.. .. where is that 480 volt 3 phase coming from if the supply is 750 volts DC… what’s the power factor of that magic box, as seen from the utility grid. Probably not that bad because they designed some power factor correction into it. And at the converter station. I’d hazard a guess that the lighting on the car is 277 volt divided roughly into thirds. 277 volt lighting is very very common in the U.S. It’s trivial to get single phase 277 volts out of a 480 volt three phase supply. Using a transformer, I’m not that sure what happens when it’s an inverter with a 750 volt DC supply. It could be 480. Or even 750 volt DC and the magic happens in each fixture. I suspect 277 volt single phase.

        There’s fun stuff that a motor behaves more like a resistive load or even a short circuit until it starts to move. And does odd things until it’s into it’s operating range. Which if it’s polyphase connected through a new fangled variable frequency drive is gonna do other peculiar things. Or not if it’s very well designed.

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