Off-Peak Subway Service in New York

New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer has a new report out about the poor state of off-peak subway service. It’s a topic I’ve talked about a lot here (e.g. here), but there’s a big difference in focus: I normally talk about midday service for efficiency reasons, and as far as I remember this is the bulk of what I discussed with report author Adam Forman, but the report itself highlights non-traditional commutes in the early morning and evening:

Traditional commuters
(depart 7-9 am)
Early morning commuters
(depart 5-7 am)
Median Income $42,300 $35,000
Bachelor’s Degree or Higher (Age 25+) 52% 31%
Foreign Born 47% 56%
Person of Color 64% 78%
Work in Healthcare, Hospitality, Retail, Food Services, or Cultural industries 36% 40%
Growth in the Last Quarter Century 17% 39%

Citywide, there are 1,888,000 commuters leaving to go to work between 7 and 9 am, and 711,000 leaving between 5 and 7. The latter group has to contend with much worse subway frequencies: the report has a table (chart 8) detailing the reduction in frequency, which is typically about half. The report does not say so, but an additional hurdle facing early-morning commuters is that some express trains run local: for example, the northbound A train only starts running express at 6 in the morning, forcing a substantial minority of early morning commuters to ride what’s effectively the C train.

The one saving grace in the early morning, not mentioned in the report, is that buses aren’t as slow. For example,  the B6 limited takes 1:11 end-to-end at 6 am, compared with 1:26 at rush hour. However, this is a 16 km route, so even the faster speed at 6 am corresponds to an average speed of 13.7 km/h, which is not competitive with a bicycle. Moreover, in practice, slow circumferentials like the B6 are used in situations where transferring between subway lines is not viable or convenient, such as early in the morning, when subway frequencies are low; this means that far from a substitute for slower rush hour buses, early morning buses have to substitute for much faster subway lines.

The report has charts about subway and bus service by the time the route begins operation. As expected, there’s a prominent morning peak, and a slightly less prominent afternoon peak. In the evening there’s a dropoff: 350 subway runs begin around 9 pm compared with just under 600 subway runs in the morning peak, a reduction of 40%. For buses, the dropoff is larger: about 1,700 versus 3,700, a 54% reduction. The most worrying trend is that the buses peak at the same time as the subway in the afternoon, starting at 4:30 or so; in reality, buses are often a first-mile rather than a last-mile connector, which means that people returning from work typically ride the subway and then the bus, so we should expect buses to peak slightly later than trains, and drop off in the evening at a slower rate. Instead, what we see is the same peak time and a faster dropoff.

Some of this can be attributed to operating costs. Buses have lower fixed costs than trains and higher marginal costs, so the economics of running them at less busy times are weaker than those of running trains. However, in reality buses and trains in New York run as a combined system; running just the subway in the evening but not the buses means that people can’t come home from work if they live in neighborhoods not connected to the subway.

Evening frequencies on many routes are low enough that they are almost certainly negatively impacting ridership. Some individual subway routes run every 11-12 minutes in the evening, including the B, C, D, W, and 5; in the every 9-10 minutes category are the 2, 3, A, F, J, N, and R. Other than the J, these are all branches sharing track with other lines, but they branch off the trunks and recombine. A Bronx-bound rider on the 2 and 3 can only ride the 2, and a Flatbush-bound rider can choose between the 2 and a 3-to-5 transfer, both of which are infrequent. Without timed transfers, the effective frequency as experienced by the rider remains low, about every 10 minutes.

This isn’t how other top metro systems work – in Paris the trains on Metro Line 9, not one of the top lines in the system, come every 7 minutes at 10 or 11 at night. The RER is less frequent on individual branches, but the individual branch points are all outside the city except on the RER C, sometimes well outside it. Other than on the RER C heading west, the branch points are at worst 6 km outside the center (at Vincennes), more typically 10 km (such as Nanterre and Bourg-la-Reine), and at best 16-18 km out (Aulnay and Villeneuve-Saint-Georges). In New York, the R and W branch at Lexington and 60th, a little more than 2 km outside Times Square, and the Q and N branch even earlier; the A-B-C-D branch and recombine at Columbus Circle, and branch again at 145th Street, 8.5 km out of Port Authority. This branching affects a majority of bedroom communities in the city, including almost the entire Bronx, much of Upper Manhattan, all of Queens except the 7, and Central and Southern Brooklyn.

To my knowledge, there is no public study of the effect of frequency on ridership. Occasionally there are ridership screens that incorporate it, but the examples I know are designed around the needs of specific project studies. There can be rules of thumb about frequency at different scales (the smaller the scale, the higher the minimum frequency is), but without more careful analysis, I can only bring up some best industry practices. It does not seem common to run metro trains every 10 minutes in the evening. On the Piccadilly line, there are 22 northbound trains departing Leicester Square between 9 and 10 in the evening, of which 19 go all the way to Cockfosters. On the Central line, 24 trains depart Oxford Circus eastbound, 9 going to Epping (in Essex, 31 km from Oxford Circus and 27 km from Bank), and another 13 serving Newbury Park, in outer East London.

Evening service also has one more complication: it serves several distinct markets. There are commuters working non-traditional hours, themselves split into shift workers and professionals who work late (I spoke to several Manhattan lawyers who told me that they work from 10 in the morning to 8 in the evening). There are tourists and local leisure travelers, some coming late from work after dinner and some coming from a non-work destination. Non-work trips don’t always have the same centers as work trips: in London, non-work trips are dominated by the West End, with little contribution from the City, whereas in New York, presumably Lower Manhattan punches below its weight while Union Square punches above its weight. New York already takes care of non-work trips in the evening, with high frequencies on the 1, L, and 42nd Street Shuttle (“GS” in chart 8), but its frequency guidelines are unfriendly to commuters who are working late.


  1. Bjorn

    New Yorkers, in general, go to work the latest on average out of all US cities that aren’t built around Casinos. NYCT advertises that a full service day for them means that a route runs from 7 am to 10 pm at a minimum. In the rest of the country, a minimum full service day is more like 5 am to 8 pm or thereabouts.

    Early morning service tends to be more on-time as it has not had the entire day for service delays to peculate.

    • Connor Harris

      I’m not convinced of this. I checked Census Bureau statistics for the time that workers who live in the 10 biggest metropolitan areas’ core cities leave to go to work. NYC ranks eighth out of ten for the share of workers who leave for work between midnight and 7:00 am – later than average, but still within the standard range. Here’s the full list; sampling and rounding errors are about a percentage point. I’ve included the figures for departures between midnight and 7:30 am as well; the rank order is identical except for Boston and Miami.

      City % leaving for work before 7 am …before 7:30 am
      Houston 33.6 49.8
      Dallas 30.0 45.3
      Chicago 28.4 43.0
      Philadelphia 27.5 41.9
      Los Angeles 27.4 41.8
      Boston 22.5 35.9
      Miami 21.6 37.6
      New York 21.0 35.4
      Atlanta 19.8 32.7
      Washington 17.3 29.2

      • Connor Harris

        Ugh, it looks like WordPress ate all the whitespace I was using for table formatting. Alon, feel free to fix the formatting or make a proper HTML table if you can.

      • bahntemps

        If I’m reading this right, then I don’t think these numbers are inconsistent with the notion that New Yorkers leave for work relatively late.

        I’m not sure why Atlantans get to work so late, but DC has a relatively high percentage of workers who don’t need to be in before 10 (I’m one of them). We’re also a bit of an imperial city: there’s no need to leave work until the sun sets on California. (The trade-off is that Washingtonians don’t have lives outside of work) So I’m not sure we’re a good comparison.

        It looks like nearly 84% of Houstonians are off to work before 7:30. That’s true of only 56% of New Yorkers (and less than 47% of Washingtonians)

        • Connor Harris

          The rightmost column is midnight-7:30, not 7:00-7:30. I’m sorry I left this unclear.

    • adirondacker12800

      When you live in the city that never sleeps, people go to work at all sorts of hours.

      Back offices in the Central Time Zone operate on Eastern Time? They work 8-4 not 9-5? Two thirds of the population lives in the Eastern and Central time zones, if you are working in a call center that answers calls nationally, call volume is going to start increase on Eastern Time. And decrease on Central Time. Even if you are in Phoenix and your personal life runs on Mountain Standard Time.

  2. adirondacker12800

    Try getting a Metro train in Paris at 4:48… Or London. Berlin would be wakened from it’s overnight slumber by then. . . .

    • Michael James

      adirondacker12800 2018/03/24 – 17:55

      Try getting a Metro train in Paris at 4:48… Or London. Berlin would be wakened from it’s overnight slumber by then. . . .

      And maybe that is one (big) reason why those cities have overall much better service. Running overnight is a killer (on the wage-bill, need for drivers, maintenance etc, notwithstanding NYC’s multitracks). I’ve used the NYC subway very late at night and it doesn’t warrant keeping it open (as much as I hate buses …). And who wants to get transit at 04:48? Not all those poorer New Yorkers who are forced to …

      • adirondacker12800

        Or they waste money sending almost empty trains around. But only 20 or so hours a day.

        • RichardB

          I have to say you are mistaken. London Underground is really busy throughout for the 20 odd hours it operates. Certainly they are not empty and also the frequency is normally greater than 20 trains per hour. We even now have 24 hour working on Friday and Saturday nights on a number of lines (the Night Tube) which will be extended eventually to the sub surface lines and the Docklands Light Railway. The normal frequency for this service is 6 trains per hour between 12 and 5 at a 10 minute interval. We also have an extensive night bus service as well.

          • Michael James

            RichardB 2018/03/25 – 05:06

            I am not quite sure what adirondacker was saying, as he surely knows the Underground is not sending empty trains around (except perhaps early am on Fri-Sat?). Sometimes his SOH is a bit too outré for mere plebs to comprehend …

            Those Friday and Saturday night services are an attempt to make London “cool” again (probably could make a baseball cap with a slogan …). Whether they are necessary or are justified by the pax load, I have my doubts. Just as I doubt it as a branding exercise.

            In Paris I did occasionally get caught out by the Metro & RER closing (though I see they now run much later on Saturdays, to 02:15). The Noctilien bus service is very extensive (ie. in coverage of Ile de France; intramuros you are probably better off walking) and other than frequency, at such hours buses travel almost as efficiently as Metros.
            I don’t use taxis (and in Paris I’d rather walk or use Velib/Smoovengo) but I assume that for those masters of the universe types or those too hip to use a bus, today there is Uber etc. Running an entire ≈400km rail network overnight for perhaps 0.01% of its total pax load, doesn’t make sense.

    • Herbert

      Berlin only runs night metros on weekends, however the lines are replaced by buses and many trams and buses keep running at night. Once I had to get an early flight at SXF from Friedrichshain. Not a problem even though the route involved three transfers.

  3. Herbert

    Why is it that of the major full subway networks virtually all shut down on weekends while on above ground rail networks of some size there is usually night service all days of the week? (e.g. Dresden Tramway)

    • Alon Levy

      I don’t know. Is it normal for German light rail to run all night? The American light rail systems don’t, and neither do the Paris tramways (not even on weekends).

    • anonymouse

      Because it’s much easier to do maintenance on trams while service keeps running, because there’s almost always room to lay out all the materials and tools out of the way of the trains, which isn’t exactly possible in tight, narrow metro tunnels. Later NYC subways construction is actually pretty good in this respect, with a walkway at train floor level where workers can safely and easily be out of the way of the trains.

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