New York as a Six-Minute City

What would it take to improve public transportation in New York so that all or nearly all routes would run at worst even six minutes during midday? Today, frequencies are tailored to individual routes; a bunch of subway lines are a 10-minute city (and the A branches are a 15-minute city), and in Brooklyn, the median midday bus headway is 12 minutes, with wide variations.

The bus origin of six minutes

Six minutes is not an arbitrary number. It comes from Eric’s and my Brooklyn bus redesign; speeding up routes through stop consolidation, dedicated lanes, and off-board fare collection, and pruning and recombining some routes, lets every bus run every six minutes from 6 am to 10 pm all day every day, with higher frequency on those routes that already have it today because they are too busy for just ten buses per hour. We didn’t study the other boroughs as deeply, but a quick doodle suggested the six-minute standard could be met in Manhattan and the Bronx as well, and a Bronx bus grid could even dip into a five-minute city.

Queens is a wildcard and I’m going to disappoint readers by not talking about it. It is clearly possible given the operational treatment we propose to make most of Queens a six-minute city, but at the price of long route spacing in Eastern Queens, and I don’t know what is optimal. It’s a hard question and I’m not going to tackle it unless I’m actually working on a longer-term project to do a Queens bus redesign.

Six minutes on the subway

The subway right now is a 10-minute city. A lettered or numbered route runs every 10 minutes off-peak, sometimes every 12 on Sundays and at night; the busier routes, especially the four that do not share tracks with other routes (1, 6, 7, L), run more frequently, but 10 minutes is the base frequency on large swaths of the network. The A branches in Ozone Park and the Rockaways even run every 15 minutes, but that’s unusual enough – evidently, nowhere else does one letter or number denote a route with its own branches – that it can be excluded.

For comparison, Berlin’s rail network is a 10-minute city, with some outer S-Bahn branches running every 20 minutes. Within the Ring, Berlin is a 5-minute city for the most part, excluding just a two-hour midday dip to 10 minutes on the Ring and 10-minute frequencies on the U1/U3 branches and the practically useless U4 route. Paris makes no effort to run different routes at the same intervals – French rapid transit planning has self-contained lines with their own fleets and schedules, so for example the RER A is on 10-minute off-peak takts and the RER B on 15-minute ones. So frequency there greatly depends on where in the region one lives and on what line. The Métro is a 5-minute city for the most part, as are the intramural RER trunks; intramural buses can be ignored. The suburbs are more or less a 15-minute city.

The reason New York is a 10-minute city on the subway is partly about interlining. The trunks in theory run every 5 minutes or better, but the trains do not come evenly because sometimes trains with different frequencies share the same trunk, and delays propagate easily. Interlining really doesn’t work unless all trains come at the same frequency; this is familiar in German planning, but not in American planning (or French planning, but there’s barely any interlining in Paris).

Putting every subway route on a 10-minute takt, with double service on the four non-interlined services, is possible but would lead to a lot of crowding on the busiest lines. About the worst possible frequency that works for everything is a train every 7.5 minutes; this lets the two A branches run on 15-minute takts, and everything else run on a 7.5-minute takt. But even then, New York has so many missed connections that it’s useful to do better. The six-minute city, matching buses, turns most of Manhattan and inner Brooklyn and Queens into a three-minute city.

Running all trains on the same takt also means timed connections. Trains that run every 5 or 6 minutes can routinely be timetabled to be at predictable places at predictable times, which facilitates local/express transfers on branches, for example in Southern Brooklyn. Even trunk transfers can be timed – 3-minute trains can still run on a timetable, and the most valuable transfers are local/express ones at 96th/Broadway, 125th/St. Nicholas, and 125th/Lex, all far enough north so as to not have the huge tidal crowds of Times Square or Grand Central.

What would it take?

On the buses, just good redesign, as long as the city is willing to exclude Staten Island from the six-minute city. In Queens, some increase in bus service is probably warranted.

On the subway, this requires on the order of 110-120 million revenue train-km a year, which is 1 billion car-km. The current figure is 560 million car-km/year. There is a lot of unnecessary expenditure on the subway, but fixing that requires something a lot deeper than a bus redesign. The cut in operating costs would be to levels that are well within first-world levels, and some of it would just come from better off-peak service making crew scheduling easier, without split shifts or wasted time. But it does require serious changes, especially in maintenance.

23 comments

  1. Hugh B

    Also: modernizing subway operations has the benefit of allowing for faster trips using the same cars for more service. For example, the J currently takes 53-56 minutes end-to-end (google maps journey time between termini). I’m not particularly familiar with the J, except for the fact that it has no bumper tracks and goes over the incredibly slow Williamsburg Bridge, but if I had to guess, I would say that there would be about 12 minutes of trip time that could be cut, about half of which would come from the bridge (currently 8-9 minutes) and the other half from accelerating faster, deinterlining, etc. Currently, a 6-minute frequency would require 20 trainsets (5-minute turn). However, with the timetable, there would only need to be 16 trainsets.

    • Tonami Playman

      The recently opened Tempo BRT in Oakland is currently offering a frequency of 10 minutes peak and 15 minutes off-peak. I remember the the initial plans called for 8 minutes peak frequency which was already too low for reasonable service on a major bus corridor. Such a waste of dedicated lane infrastructure.

  2. fjod

    Timed transfers on a subway? Interesting concept but harder than you think. I used to use the timed transfer between metro lines 53 and 50 (both every ten minutes) at Van der Madeweg in Amsterdam and it used to fail about a third of the time; you can’t hold a metro train more than a minute but signalling, crowds, drivers and passenger behaviour often cause delays this long or longer. It was still marginally handy but only because the trains arrived on different sides of the same platform; any other setup and you’ve got the added factors of walking speed and disembarkation points which make timing such a frequent takt futile.

    Side note: are there any other examples of timed transfers on metro systems? I’ve never encountered one.

    • Matthew Hutton

      Finchley Road and Wembley Park on the metropolitan line and jubilee line in London are a couple. I believe there are quite a few more where if you get off the train at the optimum point and walk fast that you can make very efficient interchanges.

    • Alon Levy

      Mehringdamm has a same-direction cross-platform timed transfer between U6 and U7 in the evening, when trains run every 10 minutes. In the daytime they run every 5 minutes and I think the transfer is still timed but maybe not perfectly. Wittenbergplatz has a four-way timed transfer between U2 and U1/U3, trains on each of the two lines running every 5 minutes, but it took a fair bit of optimization work to make it reasonable in all directions rather than just same-direction. In Vienna, Ländenfeldgasse has a same-direction cross-platform timed transfer between U4 and U6, both lines running every 5 minutes in the daytime, but I haven’t personally seen it, only heard it from a few other people, who did not directly address the reliability question.

      In the situation of New York, all reasonable timed transfers are same-direction cross-platform, especially between locals and expresses on the same line, but also Queensboro Plaza. The only non-cross-platform transfer that is useful to time is 53rd/7th, in which both useful transfers require passengers to go down a level; this can be timed more easily by having the uptown-bound trains arrive 1-2 minutes after the downtown-bound ones, since the only useful direction is downtown-to-uptown (i.e. UWS to Queens or Queens to UWS), which is looser than the exchange of passengers at a cross-platform transfer.

      • fjod

        Ah yes I’ve encountered the one in Vienna before.

        The one in Amsterdam is probably particularly bad due to the extensive interlining (meaning delays often propagate) and the ridiculous rolling stock situation: firstly frequent shortforming on the light metro units leading to crowding and long egress times, and secondly an eclectic mix of former trams, light metro and heavy metro vehicles operating the same routes, with the resultant differences in egress, acceleration etc. I imagine when you solve these problems it becomes a lot easier to get reliable connections as in Berlin.

        My worry for New York is that it also has the interlining and rolling stock mix that make the Amsterdam transfer bad. It combines this with lines that are in general longer than the other cities mentioned, such that there’s more opportunity for delay. I don’t know about it exactly but my feeling is that the core sections in New York are much busier than Vienna or Amsterdam; my memory of the timed transfer in Amsterdam is that it essentially didn’t work during the busiest times but was just reliable enough to plan journeys with outside the peak.

  3. Allan Rosen

    Your proposed Brooklyn Network may look nice on paper, but in actuality would be a huge disaster. Riders prefer trips with as few changes as possible, preferably a one vehicle trip, which of course is not possible for everyone.

    In 1978, I redesigned the current B1. In 2010, the MTA completed most of that redesign turning a four bus trip into a one bus trip from Bay Ridge to Kingsborough College. The B1 is now the seventh most utilized bus route in the borough.

    Your proposal turns that one bus trip back into a four bus trip. If the current headway is ten minutes and the average wait five minutes, compare that with your six minute headway proposal.

    Average wait of three minutes, but four times or a twelve minute wait compared to the current five minute wait. Only one example, but if you consider the longer walks due to greater route spacing and no overlap of bus routes, not to mention the inconvenience of multiple changes for the vast majority of possible trips, especially during inclement weather, Brooklyn will not be better served.

    Your plan would lead to further abandonment of the bus system. As far as increased reliability, that depends on the will of the MTA which currently is not there. This was proven during the early stages of the COVID 19 crisis. Ridership and traffic were a mere fraction of what they were before they crisis, but many buses continued to operate in a bunched fashion even at 20 minute headways.

    Here is the link to my proposed Brooklyn Bus Network Redesign.

    https://1drv.ms/b/s!AmiYAcY6ebQngUDLhOC-BonmAg19

    • Nilo

      Perhaps I’m an idiot, but how is the B1 converted into a 4 bus trip? I see a bus-rail-bus trip to the community college via the 86th bus-D-Oriental/Surf, while to the Hospital is two seat ride via Avenue Z/86th and Avenue U/86th.

      • Allan Rosen

        From Bay Ridge it’s a four bus trip or a bus-rail-bus trip which is currently a one bus trip. Coney Island Hospital is a two seat ride from Bay Ridge, but a three bus trip from Brighton Beach or Manhattan Beach when all three trips are currently one bus trips. How is that an improvement?

        • Nilo

          That’s not true either though? It’s a three bus trip from Bay Ridge to Kingsborough via 86th/Avenue U->Coney Island Ave -> Oriental/Surf. Brighton Beach/Manhattan Beach to the Hospital is a two bus trip via Oriental/Surf->Coney Island Ave finished off by a 600 m/.37 mile walk.

          Besides your claims about the network being wrong, any redesign ultimately makes some trips worse. The question is does the Levy/Goldwyn redesign make many more better?

          • Allan Rosen

            You are correct about the number of buses required if you add walks for trips that currently have door to door service. The Levy/Goodwin does not make more trips easier. That’s what I accomplished in my proposed Network I linked to. Currently, only one third of trips can be made directly. One third require a change of buses and another third require at least one subway. I estimate that the number of direct bus trips would be reduced to about ten percent of all trips with many more requiring multiple buses and trains under the Levy/Goodwin plan. What about those with baby carriages currently having a direct trip? Would they want a bus-train-bus trip instead and longer walks?

            Also, many of those trips would become double fare under the current fare structure, which would have to be addressed through a timed unlimited vehicle transfer. Converting one way streets into two way streets in a borough largely without expressways would wreak havoc on traffic and is also not addressed. Removing additional lanes or streets for bus lanes or busways, would further make the situation worse.

            Yes, buses carry more people than private cars, but people would have to be willing to ride those buses. They won’t with longer walks and many additional changes of vehicles, especially when it is very hot, very cold, very windy, very wet, or in a blizzard and when carrying cargo, pushing baby carriages, or have physical infirmities. Look at which trips are currently made by taxi, Uber, limousine, private car, etc. I am sure that many of them occur where it takes three or for buses to complete a trip. When I did my bus survey many years ago, I found that the only ones willing to tolerate three or more buses were college students.

  4. Tonami Playman

    Why do you ignore intramural Paris buses, are they that insignificant? They carry 3 million people daily compared to the metro’s 4.3 million.

  5. Jonah

    I’m curious why you’re adopting the “X minute city” to refer to headways, when the currently popular use of the term seems to refer to “everything” being in reach under X minutes. Realistic or not, Paris’ claim is that the “15 minute city” means you can get to things in fifteen minutes, not that transit shows up at that rate…

    • Allan Rosen

      Good point. Currently, it takes up to an hour and a quarter to get from one end of Brooklyn to the other, and that is by auto! By bus, it is two hours! The average trip takes 30 to 45 minutes by car and longer by bus. This would even increase under Eric’s bus redesign due the additional bus transfers required. Walking times also matter when calculating trip time which is why total trip time is what needs to be minimized, not wating time.

      • Alon Levy

        The idea is that long trips should be done by subway, and buses should whenever possible feed the accessible stations while NYCT dithers with systemwide accessibility.

        • Allan Rosen

          That assumes all long trips can conveniently be made mostly by subway which is not the case. There are no east west subways south of Eastern Parkway/New Lots Avenue. So any east west trip in the southern half of Brooklyn must be made completely by bus or a very indirect subway trip through Downtown Brooklyn or by the Brighton Line, the Franklin Shuttle, the C train and another bus, and possibly another bus to get to the Brighton line. That is also a 90 minute or more trip.

  6. adirondacker12800

    And screw the peons who have intraborough trips. Either parallel or perpendicular to the subway lines.

      • Allan Rosen

        A six minute frequency only matters when you can make your entire trip using one bus. Under your system, that would only apply to 10 percent of all bus trips, so you will actually be encouraging very few new trips. And when you consider the numbers of trips that currently can be made by one bus and will require, 2, 3, 4 or 5 buses under your system, you will be discouraging many more trips than you will be encouraging. My system reduces the number of buses required to make a trip.

        • Alon Levy

          Your system is literally a grid, which is what you do to encourage 2-seat rides. And frequency is important relative to the length of an unlinked trip; in Barcelona, the increase in frequency increased the percentage of transfers, because transfers stopped sucking when Barcelona went from a 12.5-minute city to a 6.5-minute one.

          • Allan Rosen

            Not true. Your system is more of a grid than mine with shorter routes and less overlap. Look at Coney Island, Brighton Beach and Manhattan Beach. There is only one route linking all three communities under your plan. Two buses are required just to get off the peninsula. A very tiny percentage of all trips travel between these three communities. Even two buses takes residents to an extremely small percentage of the borough. Many trips require three or four buses. Compare that to the percentage of the borough that the B1, B36, B49 and B68 goes on a one bus trip. Not a big percentage of the borough, but but at least ten times the area that your single route covers. Just getting across Sheepshead Bay is a three bus trip instead of a one bus trip.

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