New York City Zoning and Subway Capacity

I got a bunch of accolades and a bunch of flaming replies over a tweetstorm imagining a bigger, better New York. Some people complained about my claim that subway trains in Brooklyn are underfull; I urge everyone to read my analysis of data from 2016 – it’s still relevant today, as the only big change is that Second Avenue Subway has reduced Upper East Side crowding. The point of this post is to demonstrate where zoning should definitely focus on adding more apartments, to fill trains that are not yet full.

The map

Instead of using the current subway map, let us start with a deinterlined map:

The reason for using this map is that it’s cleaner than the real map, since there is no track-sharing between routes of different colors, and not much route-sharing (one color local, one express). Getting from here to this map is cheap but not free, as it requires certain junction rebuilds, especially on the 2/3. I ask that my commenters resist the temptation to argue over the details of this map, since the point about zoned capacity does not really depend on questions like whether the E runs local in Queens and the F runs express or the reverse.

Where there is capacity

In 2016, three directions on the subway were truly at capacity, surpassing 4 standees per square meter: the 2/3 and 4/5 coming into Midtown from Uptown, and the L. The analysis looks at crowding on trains entering the Manhattan core, so it lumps lines from Queens based on which tunnel they enter from, which underestimates crowding on the E, since it shares tracks with the under-capacity M. Counted properly, the express Queens Boulevard trains should be viewed as near or at capacity as well, the F having 3.33 standees per square meter and the E having somewhat more.

Additional lines with capacity crunches, with about 3 standees per square meter or more, include the A/D coming in from Uptown, the 6, and the Astoria Line (then the N/Q, now the N/W). The 1 and 7 trains have capacity crunches as well in outlying areas: the 7 is overcrowded until it hits the transfer points to the E/F and N/W but has plenty of space in Long Island City, and the 1 is fairly crowded north of the junction with the express trains and then unloads passengers onto the overcrowded 2/3. These areas should not be deemed to have much spare capacity until such time as operations on the subway improve, permitting higher frequency and eventually more lines.

In contrast, the remaining lines have space, often plenty of space. Everything in Brooklyn except the L and to some extent the J/M/Z is underfull: these trains have high frequency as determined by crowding guidelines at the Uptown or Queens end, but in Brooklyn there are fewer people today so the ridership is weaker. The local lines on the Upper West Side both have plenty of space on the trains as well as space on the tracks for more trains if need be. The 7 downstream of Queensboro Plaza has plenty of space, and the local Queens Boulevard trains downstream of Jackson Heights have nowhere for passengers to transfer to an overcrowded express service.

Since I’m relying on data from 2016, there’s no accounting for Second Avenue Subway. Even then, the 4/5 was only the third most overcrowded trunk line entering the Manhattan core, and it’s likely that there’s additional capacity coming from the new line. There’s certainly space on the tracks for more trains on Second Avenue, and one of the goals of deinterlining specifically is to make it feasible to run more service on this line, which currently only runs a train every 6-8 minutes at rush hour.

The map of where New York could add housing

The map excludes parts of Lower and Midtown Manhattan where the highest and best use is commercial rather than residential. But the boundaries there are deliberately crude: Downtown Brooklyn, NYU, and the Meatpacking District are drawn, to avoid excessive fragmentation of the drawn area, while Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen are excluded as too close to Midtown.

The map also does not look at considerations other than capacity. Some of the highlit areas on the Upper East and West Sides and Lower East Side are already built to very high density, at least on the avenues and major streets; these areas should be the template of how the rest of the city should look. At the other end, East New York has too weak demand for massive construction, especially if everything to its west is upzoned.

However, large swaths of desirable, close-in areas with relatively short buildings are highlit. Rich inner Brooklyn neighborhoods like Park Slope and South Brooklyn are currently built to missing middle density, with a floor area ratio of about 1.5 away from corner lots. A more appropriate floor area ratio in these neighborhoods is 12, corresponding to tapering buildings in the 20-30 story range, as on the avenues on the Upper East and West Sides. Park Slope is half an hour from Midtown by subway, and less than that from Lower Manhattan. The population of these neighborhoods is perhaps 150,000, and should be more than a million given their proximity to job centers.

Subway deserts and future additions

The map is designed to work with more or less the same service as today, maybe with slightly more frequency on lines that could handle it easily (that is, Second Avenue Subway). But what about future service? The L train is overcrowded, but only runs 19 trains per hour at the peak due to electrical limitations, and could go up to 26 with better electrical capacity, or for that matter lighter trains drawing less power during acceleration. Further extensions of Second Avenue Subway could more effectively relieve pressure off the 4/5, to the point of creating more capacity in the Bronx, which remains well below peak population. Commuter rail modernization opens up large swaths of Queens. Decades in the making extensions on Nostrand and Utica fill in the transit desert in southeast Brooklyn, currently served by buses that nominally come every 2 minutes and in practice comes in platoons of 4 every 8 minutes.

As with the map above, a hypothetical map of development sites assuming reasonable subway expansion includes areas that would be unlikely to actually see new development. Williamsburg and Greenpoint may turn into forests of towers given the opportunity, but in neighborhoods like Sheepshead Bay and East Flatbush developers might well stick to the occasional 6-to-10-story mid-rise building that would not look out of place in Paris. In Eastern Queens, the desired density is probably spiky, with clusters of tall buildings around LIRR stations surrounded by single-family houses and missing middle, much like the structure of density in Toronto and Vancouver.

41 comments

  1. SCC

    Your analysis from 2016 has a major flaw, which propagates to your analysis here: you ignore Downtown Brooklyn’s impact as a major destination and employment center. This matters, since it causes the lines coming in from southern Brooklyn to appear under-capacity; a significant proportion of the ridership/crowds from these southern Brooklyn trains gets off at Downtown Brooklyn, which leaves trains half-empty as they cross underneath your East River cordon. This is how your “tweetstorm” (not a tweetstorm if there are less than a thousand replies) can be correct that trains from Southern Brooklyn are crowded, yet at the same time, they aren’t: these trains are at capacity in the inner Brooklyn neighborhoods (Park Slope, Prospect Heights, etc.) but thin out at Downtown Brooklyn once riders headed to offices, schools, and outbound transfers debark the trains.

    • Alon Levy

      At least in the sources I’ve seen for peak crowding on northbound trains, it is not in Brooklyn, but in Manhattan, sometimes even well into Manhattan. In the morning, the northbound 4/5 peak leaving Union Square for Grand Central.

      Ultimately, Downtown Brooklyn is a moderate employment center, probably about the same size as Long Island City nowadays. It’s a fraction of the size of Lower Manhattan, which is itself a fraction of Midtown.

      • Eric

        Also, many of the Brooklyn lines are run at much lower than the maximum possible frequency.

          • Eric

            Maybe 30tph?

            Also, the F has only half the frequency of the F/M, so its frequency could be automatically doubled, bringing many more people to Midtown.

          • Herbert

            Easily more than that. Nuremberg subway has 100 second nominal headways on its busiest stretch. That’s 36 tph.

          • adirondacker12800

            The people whose M train or E train was canceled to run more F trains would be a bit peeved. That is a frequent problem when it more complicated than a Red, Blue and Green line. Send more trains one way somebody else loses service. Or it creates bulges someplace else.
            It’s a bit hazy what they were planning a century ago but it was probably meant to be paired up with a Second Avenue express. Give them East Side and West Side like the IRT. ….send the Second Ave trains out there using the underutilized capacity along the Nassau Street line, today’s J/Z. It connects to the Montague Street tunnel and Brooklyn.

          • Eric

            Paris and Moscow have >40tph. But we all know that NYC competes in the Special Olympics of infrastructure management, and 30tph is a reasonable stretch goal for them.

          • adirondacker12800

            The 7/Flushing line runs more than 30 an hour now. With local and express service in the peak direction.

      • JD

        To support SCC’s post, when I used to take the R train to Manhattan, the train became significantly less crowded after Dekalb Avenue and Jay Street Metrotech, before recrowding at Whitehall Street (presumably due to ferry commuters boarding). On the other hand, on my present commute on N or D, a lot of people do get off at Atlantic Avenue, but not nearly as many who get off in stops in Manhattan.

  2. Eric

    “The map excludes parts of Lower and Midtown Manhattan where the highest and best use is commercial rather than residential.”

    Is this really a logical consideration? It seems to me that a mix of residential and commercial towers in these neighborhoods really the ideal situation, if that’s what the market chooses. There should be no real issue of residential crowding out commercial, because you can always build further upwards. And everyone who lives in walking distance of their Midtown employer is one less person to create congestion on the subway (or worse, drive a car if they live out in some suburb).

    • Alon Levy

      It’s hard to say – there clearly is intense demand for residential development in Midtown, but there’s even more demand for commercial development there, and an office job there means one more person riding trains rather than driving to an office park.

      • Matthew da Silva

        Why not use the European model of having multiple “live-work” CBDs? A significant percentage of Midtown’s workforce should be able to live in and around Midtown. Likewise, a higher percentage of Brooklynites should be able to find employment in downtown Brooklyn, and same with Queens and centers such as Long Island City, Jamaica etc. A series of CBD-to-CBD transit corridors is much more efficient along the whole line than a hub and spoke model. Shouldn’t we be using zoning to encourage job concentration at underfull transit nodes such as Newark, Jersey City/Hoboken, LIC, Downtown Brooklyn, Jamaica etc.? Alongside that shouldn’t we be encouraging higher residential densities in Lower Manhattan and Midtown?

        • Alon Levy

          Is the European model really about live-work CBDs? Berlin is actually recentralizing around the southwestern parts of Mitte (like Potsdamer Platz), replacing the Cold War centers of the Zoo and Alexanderplatz. Stockholm is generally monocentric, and for all of Kista’s model of suburban high-rises, new firms like Spotify go in city center. Paris has a very strong city center, one that has much lower peak density than high-rise ones like New York and Tokyo’s but is spread over several contiguous square kilometers running from west of Les Halles to Champs-Élysées, with largely commercial land use and the lowest residential densities in the city.

          The problem with encouraging commercial construction in Newark and Brooklyn is threefold. First, people don’t really want to build there. At LIC, sure, Amazon wanted to build a campus, but local NIMBYs with the support of the entire ideological left decided they don’t like jobs. Second, these areas are horrendously served by transit from the other side of the region; through-running would fix that, but the point of this post is to figure where existing infrastructure can take more development and not where desirable future investments could. And third, same-side bedroom communities are close enough by car that people drive; I can try digging up a study from 10+ years ago that I brought up in a thread with Adirondacker re Downtown Newark, but IIRC only about 30% of people who work there take transit and the rest mostly drive.

          • ComradeFrana

            “Amazon wanted to build a campus, but local NIMBYs with the support of the entire ideological left decided they don’t like jobs.”

            I also remember there being something about opposing unprecedented corporate handouts.

          • Alon Levy

            They weren’t unprecedented, New York had a longstanding program of subsidizing businesses that relocated to the city at a fixed amount per worker (one that’s much lower than the subsidy per worker for Buy America schemes), and it was uncontroversial until a big corporation made use of it. Conclusion: New York is incapable of following its own laws, and capital and other resources should deploy away from the city and toward places that have stronger rule of law, like Paris or Munich (not Berlin).

          • ComradeFrana

            “New York had a longstanding program of subsidizing businesses that relocated to the city at a fixed amount per worker”

            I didn’t know that, thanks.

            “and it was uncontroversial until a big corporation made use of it.”

            Uncontroversial or tolerated? Anyway, Amazon by virtue of it’s economic power, being able to pit cities against one another in a bidding war for tax money certainly did make things more controversial.

            “Conclusion: New York is incapable of following its own laws”

            Hyperbole? AFAIK, Amazon bailed before it had created any jobs ergo New York wasn’t on the hook for any subsidy money.

            “capital and other resources should deploy away from the city and toward places that have stronger rule of law, like Paris or Munich (not Berlin).”

            Capital usually dis-invests from places that do (or are expected to do) policy that is not in its favor. I don’t see that as a ‘rule of law’ issue, just capitalism.

          • Alon Levy

            Capital is perfectly fine investing in the Nordic countries, France, etc., even with their taxes and income redistribution. Turns out that rule of law is actually important.

            And the New York business subsidy program was uncontroversial, yes. Nobody was turning it into a big political issue before Amazon, and far from pitting cities against each other, Amazon chose to come to New York without any additional kickbacks except rezoning a near-CBD campus for high commercial density.

          • Alon Levy

            That money came from the preexisting program: $100,000 for a new job created in the city. By the standards of generally lauded Buy America deals that cost upward of $1 million per job created this is not a big deal.

          • adirondacker12800

            Silly me I thought “no additional kickbacks except for rezoning” meant no kickbacks. SIlly me.

          • ComradeFrana

            “Capital is perfectly fine investing in the Nordic countries, France, etc., even with their taxes and income redistribution.”

            I don’t know what’s your definition of ‘perfectly fine’ is so *shrug*.

            “Turns out that rule of law is actually important.”

            So, which law was broken in the Amazon case?

            “and far from pitting cities against each other, Amazon chose to come to New York without any additional kickbacks except rezoning a near-CBD campus for high commercial density,.and far from pitting cities against each other, Amazon chose to come to New York without any additional kickbacks except rezoning a near-CBD campus for high commercial density.”

            In the end the bidding was was mostly a charade yes, but it was a successful show of power. And the result was opposition to giving kickbacks to such a powerful corporate entity.

          • Alon Levy

            Except that there were no kickbacks in New York, the program preexisted. The issue isn’t even about formally breaking the law – technically no law was broken, New York just changed the rules without warning in a direction that was adverse to Amazon. Whatever message the anti-Amazon minority in the city wanted to send, the message businesses heard was “spend more money buying politicians to make sure this doesn’t happen to you.”

          • adirondacker12800

            So, which law was broken in the Amazon case?

            That when they announced that they were selecting Long Island City that didn’t mean decking over railroad yards in Sunnyside? Which is in Sunnyside not Long Island City?

          • adirondacker12800

            New York just changed the rules

            Pesky democracy. Why do you keep finding it so offensive?

            without warning in a direction that was adverse to Amazon.

            Why would New York warn a corporation, especially one in another state? And there was plenty of warning. People objected, their representatives responded, the people responded to their representatives. It was all over the news. For days and days. And that Amazon gave up so easily tells me that they were expecting it all along, it was just part of their plan to squeeze more money out of someone else.

          • Alon Levy

            The problem with the “pesky democracy” line is that in polls, most people in New York approved of the Amazon deal. So what we have here is socialism that’s neither representative-democratic (since the governor and at the time the mayor loved the deal) nor direct-democratic (since the deal was popular in the polls). Just the usual vanguardism that made the USSR the world’s biggest exporter of lies, death, and mass poverty while it existed. Why would anyone want to invest in such a place?

          • Alon Levy

            Wait, I’m confused, did Amazon never want to be in New York and that’s why it left when the state yanked the building permit, or did it want to expand into the city anyway regardless of permits and subsidies? (I’ve seen people make the latter argument in response to Amazon’s non-HQ2 expansion of city employment by a couple thousand, i.e. maybe a quarter as many jobs as in the HQ2 plan.)

          • adirondacker12800

            Yes you are easily confused. You said earlier they left when the incentives were yanked not the zoning. They hadn’t finalized building plans so pulling building permits that haven’t been filed wouldn’t have happened. What kind of employment expansion? Gobbling up another start up isn’t a net gain, it just changes the company name on the paychecks. Or schmoes delivering Prime packages without the help of UPS/FedEx/USPS. After years of strum and drang and being blandished they announce Long Island City and they walk away with barely a protest. And announce NOVA almost in the same breath. Either they had their hearts set on LIC or they were playing other locations for more tasty blandishments.
            Big corporations have offices out in the hinterlands where they can groom the next set of junior fodder for the gaping maw of corporate.

          • Herbert

            Munich has insanely high rents which means companies need to pay a premium over Berlin wages

          • ComradeFrana

            Sorry for the late reply. Work stuff.

            “The issue isn’t even about formally breaking the law – technically no law was broken, New York just changed the rules without warning in a direction that was adverse to Amazon.”

            Well then I wouldn’t call it a ‘rule of law’ issue. But semantics I guess.

            “Whatever message the anti-Amazon minority in the city wanted to send, the message businesses heard was ‘spend more money buying politicians to make sure this doesn’t happen to you.'”

            I mean yeah. But that doesn’t say much about the legitimacy of the action. The would also spend more money on politicians if ‘threatened’ with a minimum wage hike.

            “Just the usual vanguardism that made the USSR the world’s biggest exporter of lies, death, and mass poverty while it existed.”

            Ok, so is your problem is that you fear that the DSA will start putting people into gulags? That sounds farfetched to me, but I digress.

        • Nilo

          Atomizing the labor market never works. South Korea tried to do this in Seoul recently. Result: new secondary center has the vast majority of people commute in and vast majority of residents commute out.

          • David Edmondson

            This is how suburban jobs usually function. Frederick, MD, and Marin County, CA, are both net destinations but the vast majority of residents commute in the direction of the CBD. In Frederick’s case, most end up taking jobs in the inner suburbs while inner suburbanites commute to the core itself.

          • Herbert

            Erlangen has more people commuting in than out, even tho it’s right next to Nuremberg which is five times the size

      • Eric

        At the very least, I think peripheral areas of Midtown like Hell’s Kitchen are appropriate for residential. Too far from the main rail lines to be convenient for offices, but close enough to Midtown that they are very attractive places to live.

      • colinvparker

        Also, any development there is going to have a pretty high areal cost due to the extreme height, I would guess. As opposed to building 10-30 stories over existing missing middle, which based on your European comparisons sounds like it could be quite affordable?

  3. SB

    Unless the city allows construction in Central Park 8th Ave local (A/D) will remain less crowded. The non-park part is already very dense.
    Looking at density map of NYC https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/planning/download/pdf/data-maps/nyc-population/historical-population/pop_density_1950_2010.pdf it would seem that UWS and UES is most densest part of NYC.
    I couldn’t find a map of floor area ratio but I would assume that apartments in UWS and UES would have decent floor area ratios.
    pzoning Brooklyn, double so around subway stations makes sense to me.

  4. Herbert

    Any word on the mayor elect of Bogotà? Global media focus on her gender and sexual orientation a lot, but she seems to have interesting proposals for transportation, some of them inherited from Peñalosa, others clearly a new direction

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