I Gave a Pair of Talks in the Bay Area About Regional Rail

Thanks to the invitation of Adina Levin’s Friends of Caltrain, I came to the Bay Area for a few days, giving two talks about regional rail best industry practices in front of Friends of Caltrain, Seamless Bay Area, and SF Transit Riders. My schedule was packed, including a meeting with a world-leading expert in transportation systems in which I learned about the Barcelona bus service changes; a Q&A about both general and Bay Area-specific issues for Bay City Beacon subscribers; and several other meetings.

My two talks were in Mountain View and San Francisco, and used the same slides, with minor corrections. Here are the slides I used in San Francisco; I consolidated the pauses so that each page is a slide rather than a line in a slide. This was also covered in Streetsblog, which gives more background and gives some quotes from what I said during the presentation, not printed in the slides.

Unlike in my NYU presentation last year, I did not include a proposed map of service improvements. The reason is that in the Bay Area, there are more questions than answers about which service should use which piece of infrastructure. This makes fantasy maps dangerous, as they tend to fix people onto one particular service pattern, which may prove suboptimal based on decisions made elsewhere in the system. This is not a huge problem in New York or Boston, where the alignments naturally follow where the stub-end commuter lines are, with only a few questions; but in the Bay Area, the situation is more delicate, because big questions like “can/should Caltrain get a trans-Bay connection from San Francisco to Oakland and the East Bay?” can go either way.

The role of redevelopment in the area is especially important. Unlike New York, Paris, or other big transit cities, San Francisco does not have much density outside the city proper, Oakland, or Berkeley. Moreover, there is extensive job sprawl in Silicon Valley, which contributes to a last-mile problem for public transit; usually first-mile access is a bigger problem and high-end jobs tend to cluster near train stations. But conversely, the high incomes in the Bay Area and the growth of the tech industry mean that everywhere TOD is permitted in the core and the suburbs, it will be built. This impacts decisions about the total size of transit investment.

At present-day development patterns, San Francisco proper really doesn’t need more rail construction except Geary and the Downtown Extension, depending on construction costs. But general upzoning makes Geary worth it even at $1 billion per km and opens up the possibilities of four-tracking Caltrain within the city (which means expanding some tunnels), giving the N-Judah dedicated tracks and a dedicated tunnel under Mission, and extending the Central Subway to the north and northwest. The land use in the Richmond and Sunset Districts today supports a fair amount of transit, but not new subways if there’s no cost control.

Joe Lhota Admits Defrauding the Public About Costs

The Wall Street Journal is reporting a bombshell story about New York’s subway station renovation program. The MTA had a budget of $936 million for renovating 32 subway stations, but nearly the entire budget is exhausted after the MTA has spent it on only 19 stations. These renovations do not include accessibility, which New York is lagging on. I’m interviewing people in the disability rights community about New York’s problems in this area, but the smoking gun about Lhota is not that issue, on which he is no worse than anyone else. Rather, it’s that Lhota hid the fact of the cost overrun from the MTA board. Per the Journal:

On Monday, Carl Weisbrod, a commissioner who represents New York City, said the program was “ill-conceived,” and that he is glad it has come to an end.

“I don’t know when the MTA management realized that the program had run out of money but it would’ve been helpful to have informed the board when this matter was under discussion,” he said.

Mr. Lhota said he was aware of the increased costs last year, but he chose not to mention it until now. “I didn’t think it was relevant to the debate,” he said.

An alternative way to phrase Lhota’s own words is that he is concealing critical information from the public relevant to public spending priorities. In other words, he is defrauding the public when it comes to costs. Previously he had been merely making excuses for high construction costs (e.g. saying New York, founded in the 17th century, is old, and thus naturally has higher costs than cities founded in the Middle Ages or even in Antiquity). But now it turns out that he’s not only trying to deflect criticism, but is actively putting obstacles in front of board members, journalists, and ordinary citizens who want to discuss MTA capital expansion.

Absent democratic mechanisms for oversight of the state, the state will not engage in cost-effective projects. We know this, because the part of public policy most insulated from public criticism, the military and security in general, is the most bloated. The US is wasting a trillion and a half dollars on the F-35, and allies like Israel are wasting money buying this jet from the US military industry. It’s hard to question the costs when overconfident military commanders say “this is necessary for national security.” The intelligence community is even worse, with self-serving slogans like “our successes are private and our failures are public.”

Evidently, facing criticism over costs, domestic agencies portray their projects as necessary rather than useful, hence the weak claims that Gateway is required to avoid shutting down rail service across the Hudson. My specific criticism of the argument that Gateway is required is that the study recommending long-term shutdowns of the existing tunnels did not even attempt to provide a comparative cost of maintaining the tunnels on nights and weekends as is done today. An informed public can more easily demand an end to bad investments, and specific interest groups can highlight how they are harmed by bad spending: the Journal article mentions disability rights advocates demanding that the MTA instead spend money on putting elevators at stations to make them accessible to people in wheelchairs.

The station renovations are especially at risk of being canceled if an informed public finds their costs offensive. The benefits include better maintenance standards, but those are almost self-evidently useful but not necessary. Activists can complain about costs or demand that the money be spent elsewhere.

In Astoria, activists complain that the MTA is renovating stations at a cost of $40 million per station without even installing elevators for accessibility. In London, the cost of the Step-Free Access program is £200 million for 13 stations, or about $20 million per station, and in Paris, where only Metro Line 14 and the RER A and B are accessible, disability rights activists estimate the cost of making the remaining 300 stations accessible at €4-6 billion. This is profoundly different from the situation with tunneling costs, where London has a large premium over Paris and New York has a large premium over London. It is likely that New York can install elevators at the same cost of its top two European peers if it puts its mind to it.

However, such investments are not possible under the current leadership. If a hack like Lhota stays in charge of the MTA, there is not going to be transparency about contracting and about costs, which means that small overruns can blow out of proportion before anyone notices. In such an environment, high costs are not surprising. If New York State is interested in good, cost-effective transit, it will get rid of Lhota and replace him with an experienced transit manager with a good history regarding cost control and respect for the democratic process.

New York-Area Governments to Form a Coordinated Transportation Planning Agency

Governors Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) and Phil Murphy (D-NJ) announced that they would cooperate to form a Lower Hudson Transportation Association, or LHTA, to supersede what they described as antiquated 20th-century thinking and bring the region’s transportation into the 21st century. LHTA would absorb the transportation functions of Port Authority, which senior New York state officials speaking on condition of anonymity called “irredeemably corrupt,” and coordinate planning across the region. Negotiations with the state of Connecticut are ongoing; according to planners in New Jersey, the timing for the announcement was intended to reassure people that despite the lack of federal funding for Gateway, a lower-cost modified version of the project would go forward.

But the first order of business for LHTA is not Gateway. The governors’ announcement mentioned that LHTA would begin by integrating the schedules and fares throughout the region. By 2019, passengers will be able to transfer between the New York City Subway and PATH for free, and connect from the subway to the AirTrain JFK paying only incremental fare. Engineering studies for removing the false walls between PATH and F and M subway platforms are about to begin.

Commuter rail fare integration is also on the table. Currently, the fare on the subway is a flat $2.75. On commuter rail, it is higher even within New York City: a trip between Jamaica Station and New York Penn Station, both served by the E line of the subway, is $10.25 peak or $7.50 off-peak on the Long Island Railroad (LIRR). The governors announced that they would follow the lead of European transportation associations, such as Ile-de-France Mobilités in Paris, and eliminate this discrepancy under LHTA governance, which also includes revenue sharing across agencies. Detailed studies are ongoing, but in 2019, LHTA will cut commuter rail fares within New York City and several inner cities within New Jersey, including Newark, to be the same as the subway fare, with free transfers.

Simultaneously, LHTA will develop a plan for schedule integration, coordinating New Jersey Transit, the LIRR, Metro-North, and suburban bus agencies. In order to make it easier for suburban passengers to reach commuter rail stations, the suburban buses will be timed to just meet the commuter trains, with a single ticket valid for the entire journey. Today most passengers in the suburbs drive to the commuter rail stations, but the most desirable park-and-rides are full. Moreover, the states would like to redevelop some of the park-and-rides as transit-oriented development, building dense housing and retail right next to the stations in order to encourage more ridership.

Moreover, the LIRR and New Jersey Transit’s commuter trains currently stub-end at Penn Station in opposite directions. LHTA is studying French and German models for through-running, in which trains from one suburb run through to the other instead of terminating at city center. Planners within several agencies explain that the systems on the Long Island and New Jersey side are currently incompatible – for example, LIRR trains are electrified with a third rail whereas New Jersey Transit trains are electrified with high-voltage catenary – but reorganizing these systems for compatibility can be done in a few years, well before the Gateway project opens.

In response to a question about the cost of this reorganization, one of the planners cited the Swiss slogan, “electronics before concrete.” Per the planner, electronics include systems, electrification, and software, all of which are quite cheap to install, whereas pouring concrete on new tunnels and viaducts is costly. The planner gave the example of resignaling on the subway: the New York Times pegged the cost of modernizing subway signals at $20 billion, and this could increase capacity on most lines by 25 to 50 percent. But the cost of building the entire subway from scratch at today’s costs in New York is likely to run up to $200 billion.

But while the immediate priorities involve fare and schedule integration, LHTA’s main focus is the Gateway project. There are only two commuter rail tracks between New Jersey and Penn Station, and they are full, running a train every 2.5 minutes at rush hour. The Gateway project would add two more tracks, doubling capacity. The currently projected cost for the tunnel is $13 billion, but sources within New York said that this number can be brought down significantly through better coordination between the agencies involved. This way, it could be funded entirely out of local and state contributions, which add up to $5.5 billion. When pressed on this matter, officials and planners refused to say outright whether they expect $5.5 billion to be enough to cover the tunnel, but some made remarks suggesting it would be plausible.

Previous estimates for the costs of Gateway adding up to $30 billion include substantial extra scope that is not necessary. Sources on both sides of the Hudson report that the main impetus for the formation of LHTA was to coordinate schedules in a way that would make this extra scope no longer necessary. “With last decade’s ARC, there was a cavern under Penn Station to let trains reverse direction and go back to New Jersey,” explains one of the planners; ARC was a separate attempt to add tracks to the Hudson rail crossing to Penn Station, which Republican Governor Chris Christie canceled in 2010 shortly after his election. “With Gateway, there was the plan for Penn Station South, condemning an entire Manhattan block for the station for $7 billion. With the plans we’re developing with LHTA we don’t need either Penn South or a cavern to let trains run between stations.”

Moreover, some planners suggested reactivating plans to connect Penn Station and Grand Central as part of Gateway. They refused to name a cost estimate, but suggested that at the low end it could be funded out of already-committed state money. Under this plan, there would be through-running between not just New Jersey Transit and the LIRR but also Metro-North, serving the northern suburbs of New York and Connecticut. Sources at the Connecticut Department of Transportation said they are studying the plan and have reservations but are overall positive about it, matching the reports of sources within New York, who believe that Connecticut DOT will join LHTA within six months.

Officials are optimistic about the effects of LHTA on the region both privately and publicly. The joint press release referred to the metro area as “a single region, in which decisions made in far apart areas of New York nonetheless affect people in New Jersey and vice versa.” Planners in both states cited examples of friends and family in the other state who they would visit more often if transportation options were better. With better regional rail integration, they said, people would take more trips, improving regional connectivity, and take fewer trips by car, reducing traffic congestion and pollution.

Job Sprawl in the US vs. Europe

Both American and European cities have prominent central business districts with high job density. But when jobs sprawl beyond the CBDs, they do so in very different manners on the two sides of the Pond, which is both a cause and an effect of higher US automobile usage. Much of this job sprawl happens in places that people on the other side of the Pond would not recognize as part of The City. Besides the obvious misunderstandings, this can compromise the quality of analysis of urbanism and the transportation required to serve it. In short, the European model, for which my models are Stockholm and Paris, is that jobs sprawl contiguously from the CBD, enlarging its physical area, whereas the North American model, for which my models are New York and Washington, is that jobs leap large swaths of residential neighborhoods into auto-oriented suburbia.

CBDs and job density

Office towers are rare in European CBDs. Paris is largely built up to 6 to 9 stories, and the higher end is more common in residential areas like Nation than in the CBD, which stretches from Les Halles to Saint-Lazare and Etoile. Stockholm has a total of five towers in its center, none especially tall. Contrary to the common European belief that high-rises don’t add density, the mid-rise character of most European CBDs leads to a real limit on their ability to agglomerate. The job-densest arrondissement of Paris, the 2nd, has 60,000 jobs in a square kilometer (look for table EMP T6 here); Midtown Manhattan has about 800,000 jobs in 4 square kilometers.

Not all jobs are in the CBD. Some are local community facilities, such as schools, supermarkets, and hospitals. But even more exportable jobs are not all in the CBD. Some industries cluster in sections of the CBD (such as advertising on Madison Avenue in New York or, traditionally, the media on Fleet Street in London), and similarly some cluster in off-CBD locations, perhaps near one firm that located idiosyncratically. In the other direction, not even the job density of Midtown can contain every workplace that wants a central location, and this pushes out firms that can’t compete for CBD office rents. The difference between the North American and European models is where these firms are likely to locate.

Contiguous sprawl

In both Paris and Stockholm, the solution to the restricted job density of their city centers is, superficially, high-rise clusters in a particular suburban place: La Defense in Paris, Kista in Stockholm. The job density at the center of La Defense is actually higher than in the 2nd arrondissement, though it drops drastically outside the very center, whereas the Paris CBD maintains a density of about 50,000 jobs per km^2 over 4 or 5 square kilometers. In both cases, this leads to spatial inequality: in Paris, the richest suburbs are in the west and southwest, and La Defense is west of the city; in Stockholm, Kista itself is surrounded by working- and middle-class areas, and the favored quarter is separated from it by a lake, but the ill-favored quarter to the south is the farthest away.

However, there is much more to Paris employment than the CBD and suburban office towers. Paris has a total of 1.8 million jobs, with only around one eighth to one sixth of them in the CBD. There are corporate headquarters in La Defense and a number of other suburbs on the RER, but there are job clusters all over the city. My arrondissement, the 12th, has 120,000 jobs in a little more than 6 square kilometers, giving it the same job density as is average for the city. According to OnTheMap, Upper Manhattan, defined to be north of East 96th and West 110th Streets, has 150,000 jobs in 19 square kilometers, and the Upper East and West Sides, defined to be north of 62nd Street so as to exclude Columbus Circle jobs, have a total of 175,000 jobs in 9 square kilometers. While the Upper East and West Sides hold their own, in large part thanks to the hospital cluster around Weill-Cornell, Upper Manhattan does not.

These clusters in Paris are everywhere. In my arrondissement the cluster in question is Bercy, home to the Ministry of Finance; there’s also the university cluster in the Latin Quarter, an under-construction judicial cluster around Clichy-Batignolles, and high-end professional services spillover west of the CBD in the 16th and 17th arrondissements. In effect, office uses are sprawling into otherwise-residential neighborhoods.

In Stockholm, the same situation occurs. Spotify is headquartered two T-Bana stops north of T-Centralen, a short walk from where I used to live in Roslagstull (in fact, one of the people viewing my apartment as I was leaving it worked there). There’s also a prominent peak travel flow of students heading to KTH and the University on the trains from points south. In the south, Södermalm has its own secondary CBD around Slussen, the second busiest T-Bana station after T-Centralen.

Office park sprawl

North American cities do not have high overall job density in the core when one counts both the CBD and surrounding inner neighborhoods, which are typically entirely bedroom communities like Upper Manhattan. Instead, there is discontinuous job sprawl: jobs hop over residential areas into farther-away places, typically suburban office parks. The most famous in American urbanist discourse is Tysons Corner in Northern Virginia, but the Washington metropolitan area is generally replete with edge cities, including Reston, Bethesda, and Silver Spring, all located in the northern and western favored quarters of the region. Kista is really a high-rise version of these edge cities.

Washington is the purest example of office job sprawl. However, even there, there is a complication: there are some nearer job clusters like the Pentagon. New York and other large American cities are the same, with even more complications like this. In New York, the in-state side of the metro area has large suburban job clusters such as White Plains and Stamford, but the New Jersey side includes the formerly independent Downtown Newark, contiguous job sprawl in Jersey City directly facing Lower Manhattan, and very decentralized job sprawl in Middlesex County, contrasting with the centralized office sprawl of White Plains.

Robert Lang and Jennifer Lefurgy call Central Jersey edgeless cities and White Plains and Tysons edge cities. While edge cities exist in Europe, edgeless cities do not. Exurban retail in France resembles American exurban retail, with Carrefour inventing the hypermarket at the same time Wal-Mart did, but there is almost no equivalent of the small American office park. The closest I am aware of, Sophia-Antipolis, is an edge city with a large concentration of jobs, just built at automobile scale without any walkability.

New York is large enough to have an intermediate form: namely, a secondary CBD that’s not contiguous with the main city center. Downtown Brooklyn arose as such a CBD, serving Brooklyn, even though it’s contiguous with Lower Manhattan across the water. Jamaica is the best example, as it is quite far from Manhattan. La Defense should be put in this category as well – it is contiguous with the dense built-up area, if not with the CBD itself, and it is closer to Les Halles than Jamaica is to Midtown.

Favored quarters

There are multiple instances of large American firms moving their entire headquarters to be close to where the CEO lives. IBM moved to Armonk and General Electric moved to Fairfield, both leaving New York, to avoid making executives drive in Manhattan traffic. In Europe, too, the edge cities tend to be in rich areas. The corporate headquarters around Paris cluster in La Defense and to a lesser extent northwestern and southern suburbs, and not in Seine-Saint-Denis.

This is a straightforward consequence of the fact that rich Americans left city centers starting in the early 20th century, culminating in middle-class white flight in the 1950s, whereas Paris and Stockholm remain richer than their suburbs. The inhabitants of the 16th arrondissement of Paris are unlikely to be interested in job sprawl. Instead, the Paris CBD is slowly migrating westward, as retail and office rents at the western end (Etoile) are higher than in the center (the Opera) and eastern end (just west of Les Halles).

One would suspect that in American cities that are richer than their suburbs, the phenomenon of job sprawl would not occur. The problem is that there is no clean example today. Boston is still poorer than its suburbs; Cambridge is quite rich, but is functionally one favored-quarter wedge. San Francisco is overall richer than most of its suburbs, but really the entire strip of land from San Francisco down to San Jose is rich, and at any rate Silicon Valley formed in a then-independent metro region, rather than sprawling out of the center the way White Plains and Tysons Corner did.

However, as white flight is giving way to gentrification, and American cities are economically outgrowing their suburbs, this theory would predict that job sprawl should decrease, with more corporate jobs shifting back to the cities. This seems to indeed be happening: General Electric moved from Fairfield to Downtown Boston, and United-Continental moved its headquarters to the Sears Tower in the Chicago Loop; Aaron Renn periodically talks about the resorting of the American economy, in which the highest-end jobs are back to city centers whereas lower-end jobs are in the suburbs and smaller cities.

Is the US Europeanizing?

There is some evidence to suggest that American cities not only are reducing the extent of job sprawl in the highest pay categories, but also adopting the European pattern of contiguous CBD sprawl. This process is haphazard, and many urban boosters overrate the extent to which near-CBD locations like the West Loop in Chicago or the Seaport in Boston are attracting jobs, but these areas are nonetheless growing.

Boston is perhaps the best example of this trend. Locally, urban boosters anxiously talk about transportation connections to the Seaport, but the biggest action is happening in the other direction. Kendall Square is growing as the Cambridge CBD, with a cluster of tech firms, two stops out on the subway from the central transfer points. Boston is unique that Back Bay is a nearly-contiguous secondary CBD as well, based on extensive postwar urban renewal next to a rich residential neighborhood. This situation is especially notable given that both Cambridge and the Seaport are separated from the CBD by water, with unpleasant walking environments on the bridges, making the organic process of CBD extension more difficult.

Outside Boston, several more examples are notable. In San Francisco, tech jobs within the city cluster not in the Financial District but in the adjacent South of Market (“SoMa”) area. In Chicago, in addition to some growth in the West Loop, there is some job growth on the Near North Side. In New York, the tech jobs cluster in the Meatpacking District: the Google building, which I believe is the second largest Google office after the Googleplex, occupies the block between 8th and 9th Avenues and 15th and 16th Streets. But even before Google, there was growth in adjacent secondary CBDs across the water: Jersey City and Long Island City. Lang and Lefurgy’s writeup on edgeless cities classifies Jersey City as a secondary CBD rather than an edge city because “its context is old”: it’s built out of a near-CBD residential and industrial area, rather than developed from scratch near a road or rail intersection.

Starting last decade, urbanist writers in the United States noted that the US was Europeanizing in its pattern of rich cities and poor suburbs. Brookings was writing about suburbanization of poverty in 2010, describing a 2000-8 trend. The growth of near-CBD office clusters in Boston, New York, San Francisco, and Chicago suggests that the US is also Europeanizing in its pattern of how jobs spill over from the center. Instead of the traditional auto-oriented office park near the CEO’s residence, the highest-income, highest-prestige jobs in the US are decamping to the same near-CBD locations where they can be found in Paris or Stockholm, leaving the sprawl for the poor.

More on Weekend Service Changes and Redundancy

I’m visiting New York again, and the subway is noticeably deteriorating in speed and frequency. But it’s not the speed I’d like to discuss (it’s been covered in the media, both by me and by others) – it’s the weekend service changes. With its 24/7 subway service, New York relies on selective closures of line segments on nights and weekends for maintenance. Expressions like “the D is running on the F and the F is running on the D” are well-known to regular subway riders. However, I don’t think the way the MTA is choosing which lines to shut down every weekend is optimal. I wrote about how different subway lines can be used to substitute for each other in Boston last year; this year, I encountered a big change in New York that, while not as destructive as what I saw in Boston in November, was avoidable.

The trip itself was between Central Harlem and Inwood. I’m staying in Harlem near the 2 and 3 trains, and was visiting friends in Inwood near the A. The most direct path would have been to walk to 125th and St. Nicholas to take the A, but this was blocked because the A was not running north of 168th. The second best option would have been to ride the 2 or 3 to 96th and change wrong-way to the 1, but this was also blocked since the 2 and 3 were not running at all on their Harlem trunk line. The route I took was to walk to 125th and St. Nicholas to take the A up to the 1, changing at 168th Street, an inconvenient transfer involving an elevator (the 1 is deep and only elevator-accessible at 168th).

It was not an especially egregious change. The trip took around 45 minutes and was all-rail; without the changes, it would have been about half an hour. In Boston, the subway shutdowns forced me onto multiple buses in mixed traffic, and a trip that should have taken 40 minutes ended up taking maybe an hour and a half. However, the extra transfer penalty and the difficulty of finding a good all-rail route are real.

In the post about Boston, I argued that even in relatively sparse rail networks, like Boston’s, rail lines are redundant with one another. In New York, this needs no argument, judging by conversations with many New Yorkers, even ones who aren’t railfans, who recognize the extent of redundancy in the system. It would be useful to design weekend service changes to take advantage of this redundancy and not shut down multiple lines that could substitute for each other. In the case of last weekend, if a full shutdown of the 2 and 3 between 96th Street and the Bronx was unavoidable, then the other north-south lines through Upper Manhattan should not be shut down.

Thus, the first principle I’d like to propose for weekend shutdowns is, if one line is shut for repairs, then parallel lines should be fully open. This should cover shutdowns as well as one-way running, in which one direction is only served by express trains and passengers wishing to access local stations are told to ride an express trains and change to a local train going in the opposite direction.

In fact, given the extent of redundancy in the core, I would propose that if local service is shut down in one direction, then it should be shut down in the other direction as well. Backtracking is cumbersome and rarely worth it: stop spacing is often close enough that walking from the express stop is faster, and in Manhattan it’s usually easier to just go on a parallel line instead.

Then, to compensate for loss of service on a line that’s being closed for repairs, there should be more service on parallel lines. Subway service changes in New York, called general orders, or GOs, fall under a labor agreement in which train operators and conductors are still paid for the time they would’ve had to work if service had run normally. The MTA should negotiate a change in which those drivers and conductors can be redistributed to nearby subway lines without this counting as overtime. If express trains on a route are closed, then there should be more local service, and if a trunk line is closed, as the 2 and 3 were last weekend, then there should be more service on parallel lines (in this case, the 1, 4, 5, A, and D) to absorb the extra ridership. With reduced service, the trains can get quite busy, more so than the crowding guidelines indicate, if my weekend trips are any indication.

Finally, the MTA should build crossovers and switches to enable more efficient single-tracking. This is unlikely to work on four-track lines, since trains would have to cross three tracks to get around a work zone, but on two-track lines, including the L, the 7, and most tails outside the Manhattan core, it would be useful, especially on lines that use island platforms rather than side platforms. On the newest lines, which use bored tunnel, it’s easy to do maintenance on one track without disturbing the other track, as long as there are crossovers at regular locations. On the older lines the situation is the opposite: trains need to slow near work zones, unless some hard barriers are built between parallel tracks, but installing new crossovers is relatively easy. More shutdowns may be required to install such switches, but the subsequent benefits to making weekend trackwork easier are substantial.

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.

Construction Costs and Experience

The most persistent criticism I have heard of my writings on construction costs, coming from YIMBY Princeton, is the importance of gradual expertise and experience. Against my claim that Americans build subways for higher costs than the rest of the world due to poor management practices, regulations, and procurement, and scope creep, YIMBY Princeton says that high costs are a result and not a cause of the rarity of American subway investment. I believe that high US costs are endogenous and therefore the US is reluctant to fund rail transit; he believes that disinterest in transit is endogenous and if the US were willing to build more rail lines, then construction costs would naturally go down through economies of scale and steady accumulation of project management expertise. I promised last year that I would go over his argument more carefully, and am going to do so in this post.

The obvious difficulty with this debate is that we agree there is negative correlation between construction costs and the extent of construction, and disagree on causation. Wikipedia lists 55 countries with metro systems, with a handful more with under-construction metros, but this is not enough of a dataset for large-n studies. There are too many control variables – for example, it’s easier to build the first subway line than the tenth, which reduces the proper comparisons for New York to a handful of large cities. Instead, the only real way to figure out what causes what is to rely on a handful of natural experiments.

I can come up with a number of natural experiments. One is ambiguous about causation: the role of poor project management in the high construction costs in Boston and Paris. The others all suggest that high costs are endogenous to the US, rather than unwillingness to build subway tunnels. These include the history of construction costs in New York, London, and Paris in the 1930s; the construction costs in London today; and the history of construction costs in Seoul from the 1970s to the present.

Project management

I know of two overpriced rail extensions blamed explicitly on poor project management: the Green Line Extension in Boston, and Grand Paris Express. As I explained in CityLab a few months ago, the GLX was budgeted at $3 billion for just 7.5 km of light rail trench in preexisting open cuts, but the MBTA cut this to $1.1 billion in actual construction plus $1.2 billion in rolling stock and sunk costs through hiring a more experienced project manager. In Paris, one of the reasons the Cour des Comptes cited in its report about the cost overrun is lack of experience in managing such a large project; as a result, the 200 km system, with 160 km underground, is now up to €35 billion.

The problem is that even with better cost control, Boston’s construction remains pricey. At $150 million per km, GLX is expensive for a line in a preexisting right-of-way, and not far behind GPX’s $220 million per km for an 80% underground network. While both Boston and Paris can expect future construction to be cheaper if they apply the lessons of GLX and GPX cost overruns, their absolute costs remain different, with Boston spending more per unit than Paris. At best this is neutral between my explanation and that of YIMBY Princeton.

Construction costs, dieselpunk edition

New York’s subway construction costs have risen since the start. In 1900-4, the First Subway cost $32 million for 22 km of subway and 1 km of viaduct (namely, the 125th Street viaduct on today’s 1 train), and another $3 million for 9 km. In today’s money, this is $39 million per km underground and $9 million per km elevated. JRTR has some statistics for the Dual Contracts, built in the 1910s and early 20s, and the IND, built in the 1930s. The Dual Contracts cost $366 million, equivalent to around $8 billion today; the total route-length added was about 180 km, of which 70 km was underground, consistent with a cost of about $80 million per underground km. Then the IND cost $815 million, equivalent to about $14 billion today, for 97 route-km, practically all underground, or about $140 million per km.

The projected cost of Second Avenue Subway kept rising. In 1929 the projection was $86 million, or about $1.2 billion in today’s money, or $90 million per km; this was before the IND cost overruns materialized (at a time of general deflation). In 1939 it was up to $249 million, or $4.2 billion today, about $320 million per km; by 1949, it had crept up to $500 million, or $5 billion today and $390 million per km. Put another way, WW2-era America, a country that had just built massive public works in the Depression as well as the war, including the IND and Chicago’s two subway lines through the Loop, was already projecting a higher per km cost than is routine in nearly the entire world today. Moreover, the plan was to build Second Avenue Subway cut-and-cover, a technique that is cheaper today than the deep boring typical of comparable infill subways in the first world.

I have less data than I’d like for other cities’ construction costs in the interwar era, but where they exist, they are a fraction of New York’s. The London Underground extension to Cockfosters in the Depression cost £4m for 12 km, 60% underground, per Wikipedia. In today’s money it’s $45 million per underground km. In Paris, there was little growth in real costs between 1913 and 1930: according to a presentation by Pascal Désabres, construction costs in today’s money in both 1913 and 1930 were about €23 million per km, or about $29 million per km.

London’s mounting costs

In the 1930s, London built an Underground extension for $45 million per km. After the war, it could no longer do so. According to numbers in the Financial Times, the Victoria line cost £4.5 million per km in the 1960s, all underground, which is about $110 million per km in today’s money, while the Jubilee line, built in the 1970s, cost about $250 million per km.

The Victoria and Jubilee lines were more complex projects than the Cockfosters extension, going under older Underground lines. The Jubilee line also included the construction of a transfer station with the Northern and Bakerloo lines at Charing Cross, whereas previously they only connected at the next two stations, Embankment and Waterloo. However, the construction technique, the tunnel-boring machine, is one that is supposed to have a much smaller city-center premium over outlying construction, since there is no surface disruption.

But whereas the Victoria and Jubilee lines had excuses for their high costs, more recent Underground extensions do not. In the 1990s, the Jubilee line extension cost around $500 million per km in today’s money, going under a few older Underground lines and crossing the Thames four times (in an environment with not much underwater premium) but mostly extending the system to the east, to previously underserved areas like Canary Wharf. The under-construction Battersea extension, crossing under one older line and serving a relatively undeveloped area at Battersea Power Station, is about $550 million per km. The next Underground extension under discussion today, that of the Bakerloo line to Lewisham, is budgeted at £3.1 billion over 7 km, or about $620 million per km, crossing under no Underground lines and largely following a wide road.

Under YIMBY Princeton’s theory, London’s construction costs should be decreasing as it obtains more experience tunneling in a constrained urban area with millennium-era sensitivity to environmental impact like noise. But on the contrary, costs keep growing.

Seoul’s low costs

If London is the expensive city that should under YIMBY Princeton’s theory get cheaper but isn’t, Seoul is the cheap city that should have been expensive in the 1980s but wasn’t. JRTR has data from the 1970s to the 1990s: after an increase at the beginning, Seoul’s construction costs stabilized in the 1980s and 90s at about $80 million per km in constant dollars in today’s money. These costs seem to persist today, judging by the Sin-Bundang Line, which cost 1,169 billion won for 18 km, converting to about $90 million per km in PPP dollars.

Seoul is consistent with the theory that costs are endogenous to a city or country. There is high correlation between the construction costs of different lines within the same city: having set non-US records with the Jubilee line extension, London keeps building very expensive Underground extension of the Northern and Bakerloo lines; Paris is spending around $250 million per underground km on a number of Metro extensions; Seoul keeps building subways at just under $100 million per km.

Missed Connections

I’ve discussed before the topic of missed connections on subway systems, both here and on City Metric. I’ve for the most part taken it for granted that on a rapid transit network, it’s important to ensure that whenever two lines intersect, they offer a transfer. This seems like common sense. The point of this post is not to argue for this principle, but to distinguish two different kinds of missed connections: city center misses, and outlying misses. Both are bad; if I had to say which is worse I’d say it’s the city center miss, but city center misses and outlying misses are bad for distinct reasons.

A useful principle is that every pair of rapid transit lines should intersect, unless one is a shuttle, or both are circumferential. If the city is so large that it has multiple circular lines at different radii (Beijing has two, and London vaguely has two as well depending on how one counts the Overground), then they shouldn’t intersect, but rapid transit networks should be radial, and every radial line should connect to every other line, with all radial-radial transfers ideally located within the center. City center misses weaken the network by making some radials not connect, or perhaps connect at an inconvenient spot. Outlying misses often permit more central transfers, and their problem is that they make it harder to transfer to the better or less crowded radial on the way to the center. London supplies a wealth of examples of the latter without the former.

What counts as a missed connection?

Fundamentally, the following picture is a missed subway connection:

The red and blue lines intersect without a transfer. Even if a few stations later there is a transfer, this is a miss. In contrast, the following picture is not a missed connection:

It might be faster for riders to transfer between the southern and western leg if there were a station at the exact physical intersection point, but as long as the next station on the red line has a transfer to the blue line it counts, even if the blue line has one (or more) stations in the middle. Washington supplies an example of this non-miss: it frustrates riders that there’s no connection between Farragut West and Farragut North, but at the next station south from the intersection on the Red Line, Metro Center, there is a transfer to the Blue and Orange Lines. London supplies another pair of examples: the Northern line and the Waterloo and City line appear to intersect the District line without a transfer, but their next station north from the physical intersection point, Bank, has an in-system transfer to Monument on the District.

There are still a few judgment calls in this system. One is what to do at the end of the line. In this case, I rule it a missed connection if the terminal clearly has an intersection without a transfer; if the terminal is roughly between the two stations on the through-line, it doesn’t count. Another is what to do about two lines that intersect twice in close succession, such as the Bakerloo and Hammersmith and City lines in London, and Metro Lines 4 and 10 in Paris. In such cases, I rule that, if there’s just one station on the wrong side (Paddington on Bakerloo, Mabillon on M10) then I rule it a single intersection and allow transfers at the next station over, by which standard London has a missed connection (Edgware Road has no Bakerloo/H&C transfer) and Paris doesn’t (Odeon has an M4/M10 transfer).

How many missed connections are there?

In Paris, there are three missed connections on the Metro there is one missed connection on the Metro (update: see comments below): M9/M12, M5/M14, M9/M14. As I discuss on City Metric, it’s no coincidence that two of these misses involve this miss involves Line 14, which has wide stop spacing. Narrow stop spacing makes it easier to connect within line-dense city centers, and Paris famously has the densest stop spacing of any major metro system. M9/M12 and M9/M14 morally should connect at Saint-Augustin and Saint-Lazare, but in fact there is no in-system transfer. M5/M14 should connect at Gare de Lyon, but when M5 was built it was not possible to get the line to the station underground and then have it cross the Seine above-ground, so instead it meets M1 at Bastille, while M14 doesn’t serve since it expresses from Gare de Lyon to Chatelet. A fourth missed connection is under construction: the extension of M14 to the north misses M2 at Rome, prioritizing long stop spacing over the connection to the M2/M6 circumferential.

In Tokyo, there are many misses. I am not sure why this is, but judging by line layout, Tokyo Metro and Toei try to stick to major roads whenever possible, to avoid tunneling under private property, and this constrains the ability of newer lines to hit station locations on older lines. If I understand this map correctly, there are 19 missed connections: Ginza/Hibiya (Toranomon and Kasumigaseki should connect), Ginza/Mita, Ginza/Yurakucho, Ginza/Shinjuku, Marunouchi/Mita (Ginza and Hibiya should connect), Marunouchi/Yurakucho, Asakusa/Yurakucho, Asakusa/Hanzomon, Hibiya/Namboku, Hibiya/Yurakucho (Tsukiji and Shintomicho should connect), Hibiya/Hanzomon, Hibiya/Shinjuku, Hibiya/Oedo, Tozai/Oedo, Tozai/Fukutoshin, Mita/Oedo, Chiyoda/Oedo twice, and Oedo/Fukutoshin. Oedo is particularly notable for being a circumferential line that misses a large number of transfers.

In New York, there are even more misses. Here the culprit is clear: the two older layers of the subway, the IRT and BMT, have just two missed connections. One, 3/L at Junius Street and Livonia Avenue, is an outlying miss. The other is central: Bowling Green on the 4-5 and Whitehall on the R-W should connect. But the newer layer, the IND, was built to drive the IRT and BMT into bankruptcy through competition rather than to complement them, and has a brutal number of misses: ABCD/2-3, ACE/1-2-3, AC-F/2-3-4-5, AC-G/2-3-4-5-BQ-DNR, BD/NQRW, BDFM/NQRW, BD/JZ, E/1, E/F, M/NW, R/7, F/BD-NQ, F/NRW, F-Q/4-5-6, F/NW, G/7, G/JMZ. Counting individual track pairs, this is 46 misses, for a total of 48 including the two IRT/BMT misses; I’m excluding local-only transfers, such as Columbus Circle and 53rd/Lex, and counting the 42nd Street Shuttle as an express version of the 7, so it doesn’t miss the BDFM transfer.

Finally, London only has eight misses. In Central London there are three: the Metropolitan or Hammersmith and City line misses the Bakerloo line as discussed above, and also the Victoria line and Charing Cross branch of the Northern line at Euston. The other five are outlying: the Central line misses the Hammersmith and City line at Wood Lane/White City, and its branches miss the Piccadilly line’s Uxbridge branch three times; the fifth miss is Metropolitan/Bakerloo. But one more miss is under construction: the Battersea extension of the Northern line is going to intersect the Victoria line without a transfer.

The difference between the two kinds of miss

Many misses are located just a few stations away from a transfer. In New York, some misses are just a station away from a transfer, including the G/7 miss in Long Island City, the E/1 miss between 50th Street and 59th Street, and several more are a few stations away, such as the various BDFM/NQRW misses. In London, these include two of the three Central London transfers: there is an H&C/Bakerloo transfer at Baker Street and an H&C-Met/Victoria transfer at King’s Cross-St. Pancras. As a result, not counting the Waterloo and City line, only two trunk lines in the system do not have any transfer: the Charing Cross branch of the Northern line and the Metropolitan/H&C line.

On a radial network, if two lines don’t have any transfer, then the network is degraded, since passengers can’t easily connect. In New York, this is a huge problem: some station pairs even within the inner networks require two transfers, or even three counting a cross-platform local/express transfer. My interest in subway networks and how they function came about when I lived in Morningside Heights on the 1 and tried socializing with bloggers in Williamsburg near the JMZ.

In Paris the three misses are also a problem. Line 4 is the only with a transfer to every other main line. Line 9 intersects every other line, and Line 14 will when its northern extension opens, but both miss connections, requiring some passengers to take three-seat rides, in a city infamous for its labyrinthine transfer stations. Fundamentally, the problem is that the Paris Metro is less radial than it should be: some lines are laid out as grid routes, including Lines 3, 5, and 10; moreover, Lines 8, 9, 12, and 13 are radial but oriented toward a different center from Lines 1, 4, 7, and 11.

In London, in contrast, there is almost no pair of stations that require a three-seat ride. The Charing Cross branch of the Northern line doesn’t make any stop that passengers from the H&C or Met line can’t get to from another line with one interchange (Goodge Street is walking distance to Warren Street). A bigger problem is the lack of interchange to the Central line on the west, which makes the connections between the H&C stations on the west and some Central line stations awkward, but it’s still only a small number of stations on each line. So the problem in London is not network robustness.

Rather, the problem in London is severe capacity limitations on some lines. Without good outlying interchanges, passengers who want to get between two lines need to ride all the way to the center. Most likely, passengers between the Piccadilly and Central line branches to the west end up driving, as car ownership in West London is relatively high. Passengers without a car have to instead overload the Central line trunk.

The same problem applies to misses that are strictly speaking not missed connections because the two lines do not actually intersect. In Paris, this occurs on Line 7, which swings by the Opera but doesn’t go far enough west to meet Lines 12 and 13. In London, the best example is Hammersmith station: the H&C and District lines have separate stations without an interchange, but they do not intersect since it’s the terminus of the H&C line and therefore I don’t count it as a miss. But morally it’s an outlying miss, preventing District line riders from changing to the H&C line to reach key destinations like Euston, King’s Cross, and Moorgate without overloading the Victoria or Northern line.

In New York this problem is much less acute. The only outlying misses are the 3/L and the ABCD/2-3; the 3/L connects two very low-ridership tails, so the only serious miss is on the Upper West Side. There, passengers originating in Harlem can walk to either line, since the two trunks are two long blocks apart, and passengers originating in Washington Heights can transfer from the A-C to the 1 at 168th Street; at the other end, passengers bound for Midtown can transfer at Columbus Circle, using the underfull 1 rather than the overcrowded 2 and 3.

The role of circumferential lines

Outlying transfers are useful in distributing passengers better to avoid capacity crunches, but they are incidental. They occur when formerly competing suburban lines get shoehorned into the same subway network, or when two straight roads intersect, as in Queens. But the task of distributing passengers between radial lines remains important and requires good connections between as many pairs of radials as possible.

The usual solution to this is a circumferential line. In Moscow, there are several missed connections in the center (Lines 3/6, 3/7, 6/9) and one more planned (8/9), but the Circle Line helps tie in nearly all the radii together, with just one missed connection (to Line 10 to the north) and one more under construction (to Line 8 to the west). The point of the Circle Line is to allow riders to connect between two outlying legs without congesting the center. This is especially important in the context of Moscow, where there are only a handful of interchange stations in the center, most of which connect more than two lines.

In London, the Overground is supposed to play this role. However, the connections between the Underground and Overground are weak. From Highbury and Islington clockwise, the Overground misses connections to the Central line, the Victoria line, the main line of the District line, the Piccadilly line, the Hammersmith and City line, both branches of the Northern line, and the Piccadilly line (it also misses the Metropolitan line, but that’s on a four-track stretch where it is express and local service is provided by the Jubilee line, with which there is a transfer). Much of this is an unforced error, since the Underground lines are often above-ground this far out, and stations could be moved to be better located for transfers.

In New York, the only circumferential line is the G train, which has uniquely bad transfers, legacy of the IND’s unwillingness to build a system working together with the older subways. Triboro RX (in the original version, not the more recent version) would play this role better: with very little tunneling, it could connect to every subway line going counterclockwise from the R in Bay Ridge to the B-D and 4 at Yankee Stadium. On the way, it would connect to some major intermediate centers, including Brooklyn College and Jackson Heights, but the point is not just to connect to these destinations in the circumferential direction but also to facilitate transfers between different lines.

Going forward, cities with large metro network should aim to construct transfers where feasible. In New York there are perennial proposals to connect the 3 and L trains; these should be implemented. In London, the missed outlying transfers involve above-ground stations, which can be moved. The most important miss, White City/Wood Lane, is already indicated as an interchange on the map, but does not to my understanding have an in-system transfer; this should be fixed.

Moreover, it is especially important to have transfers from the radial lines to the circumferential ones. These improve network connectivity by allowing passengers to change direction (from radial to circumferential, e.g. from east-west to north-south within Queens), but also help passengers avoid congested city centers like outlying radial-radial transfers. Where circumferential lines don’t exist, they should be constructed, including Triboro in New York and Line 15 in Paris; where they do, it’s important to ensure they don’t miss connections the way the Overground does.

The MTA Genius Challenge is as Bad as Expected

A year ago, Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a competitive $2.5 million grant, to be disbursed by what he dubbed the Genius Challenge. I wrote about it at the time, expressing skepticism that it would lead to anything useful. The panel of eight judges had only one person with background in the transportation industry, a former FRA administrator. The word “genius” itself is a tech mainstay that to me mostly means “I don’t know any Fields Medalists.” And the topics within the scope of the grant seemed more about what the tech industry thought were the most pressing issues and not what the lowest-hanging actually were. I had very low expectations, and the announcement of the winning entries met them.

The grant has three topics: signaling, rolling stock (interpreted broadly), and underground mobile or wireless service. The last three is by far the least important; it also got only half a million dollars, whereas each of the other two got a full million. Each of the two main ideas shows how weak the very concept of the genius grant is, but they do so in dramatically different ways.

The rolling stock winners included a vendor asking for a grant for New York to use its rolling stock (CRRC); the problems with that idea are more akin to those of the signaling section, so I will cover them there. A second rolling stock winner was a proposal to use better data collection to facilitate preventive maintenance; this idea may or may not work, it’s hard to tell from layers of obfuscating business language. It’s the third idea that deserves the most attention, and the most scorn: lengthening trains but not platforms.

The crank Idea: lengthening trains

The genius competition gave a $330,000 grant for the idea of lengthening trains from 10 to 14 cars without lengthening the platforms. Trains would alternate between only berthing the first 10 cars and only berthing the last 10. Transit Twitter has already dumped on this idea, and for good reason: the proposal reads like a crank paper purporting to prove the Riemann hypothesis or another famous result, starting with a lot of trivial observations and then making a leap of logic buried somewhere in the middle.

The basic problem with running trains that are longer than the platforms is that passengers need to be able to move to the correct car, which takes time. The report says that this is done on the London Underground, which is true, but only at outlying stations – as is the case on the subway in New York. The conductor announcement “only the first five cars will open” is familiar to anyone riding the 3 train and was familiar to anyone riding the 1 train before the new South Ferry station opened. This is fine as long as the station in question is low-volume enough that the extra dwell time does not interfere with operations. Lengthening trains beyond the platforms at busier stations than Harlem-148th Street 145th Street or South Ferry would result in a shuffle forcing passengers to scramble within the train (if moving between cars is possible) or on the platform (if it isn’t). The dwell times would be brutal and would almost certainly reduce capacity measured in passengers per hour.

The proposal handwaves this critical flaw by saying that dwell times would decrease because crowding would decrease. This assumes that dwell times are a function exclusively of on-train crowding, rather than of the number of passengers getting on or off the train. The same number of passengers would have the same platform space, but would actually only be able to use a fraction of it: many would only be able to use the 6 cars that go to their chosen destination, and at those cars, the volume of passengers per unit of platform length would rise.

The second handwave is unlimited stations, with longer platforms. Acknowledging that the busiest stations should have all doors open, the proposal says,

[P. 20] Third, 18.5% of rides occur through just 10 stations in Manhattan. In the medium term, the platforms can, and should, be extended at these 10 stations to enable customers that embark and disembark at them to use any car at both ends of their trip. Accordingly, 9.25% of the customers that presently need to use the middle cars could instead use the end cars.

This is the equivalent of the logical leap from trivial to wrong in a crank paper. First, the number of central stations that would need to be lengthened is much more than 10, including some key origins (86th/Lex, Jamaica Center, etc.) and transfer points (West 4th, Canal, 96th/Broadway). And second and more importantly, the busiest stations are multilevel complexes, where just adding more pedestrian circulation is hard; London is spending a considerable amount of money on that at Bank. Lengthening platforms at these stations is prohibitively expensive. This problem is discussed in cities with constrained underground platforms in the CBD, such as Vancouver, where nearly all Expo Line stations are above-ground (thus, relatively easy to lengthen), but the most crowded in Downtown Vancouver are in a tunnel, where platform reconstruction costs too much to be economic.

The bigger question is why the judges did not catch the error. The proposal brings up London as an example, which serves to bring the magic of the foreign to people who are unfamiliar with best industry practices. Saying that New York does the same is equally true, and in a way more relevant to the proposal (since New York doesn’t let people move between cars, making this more challenging than in London), but would raise questions like “can the dwell times of relatively light stations like South Ferry or Harlem-145th be replicated at the top 40 stations?”. London is Anglophone and some reformist New Yorkers have used it as a source of foreign ideas the way they wouldn’t use non-Anglophone cities. But the judges didn’t do the basic due diligence of checking whether London really implements the idea as widely as the proposal implies, and if not, then why not.

The rent-seeking idea: CBTC by another name

New York State awarded four applicants $250,000 each for ideas about signaling. All four ideas boiled down to the same thing: introducing new technology for communication between trains permitting the functional equivalent of moving-block signaling, at a lower cost than preexisting communication-based train control (CBTC) installations.

The grantees all have experience in the transportation industry. Rail signaling vendors Thales and Ansaldo propose to use cameras to read automated signals; train sensor provider Metrom Rail and veteran rail manager and consultant Robert James propose ultra-wide broadband to improve train location precision. There’s nothing obviously wrong about their proposals. Nor is there anything outlandish, which is why each of the two technologies has two independent applicants behind it. Thales and Ansaldo in particular have experience in advanced signaling – Thales supplied CBTC to the L 7 train in New York and to Metro Line 13 in Paris, and Ansaldo supplied rail automation to Copenhagen and CBTC to a number of Paris Metro lines.

Even then, questions about cost remain. Robert James’ and Metrom’s proposals leave a bad taste in my mouth for their cost estimates. James has a systemwide cost estimate somewhat less than $200 million, not much more than $500,000 per km; Metrom says its system costs “$3 million per mile” and compares itself positively with legacy CBTC systems at $20 million per mile. Actual costs of CBTC without automation in Paris on Line 13 were about 5 million euros per km according to Wikipedia, and this includes modification of the railyards and not just the signaling system. So the Metrom system’s claimed figure is still cheaper, but not by quite as much. Metrom also complains that in Boston, CBTC would not improve capacity much because it would prohibit double-berthing, an issue that is only relevant to a subway-surface system and not to a full metro.

The broader problem with this part of the grant is that if the MTA put out an RFP about CBTC on the subway, it would get bids from Ansaldo, Thales, and Metrom, and James might well bid or consult for a bidder. It would be able to judge the technical merit of each proposal in much closer detail than given in the competition. Instead, the state is paying vendors to market their technology to the public, which would influence future procurement.

While the grant asks about whether the technology is proprietary, it makes no attempt at establishing a multi-vendor standards. Such standards exist: Thales and Ansaldo are both listed as ERTMS vendors. In France there’s already a discussion in the trade press about whether using ERTMS is better than using CBTC; the discussion specifically mentions New York’s uniqueness as a network with connected rather than isolated lines, and says CBTC is designed for isolated lines whereas ERTMS is designed for shared lines, such as the RER system. European experts might well recommend that New York use ERTMS for the subway, even though it’s a system originally designed for mainline rail.

New York’s highly-branched system means it must be more conservative with new technology – there’s nowhere to test it, now that the L and 7 already have CBTC. The shuttles might be useful test cases, or the 1 and 6 trains on weekdays, but without isolated lines, the cost of a mistake in procurement or technological failure is much higher. This suggests the MTA should try to reduce the complexity of branching (which is what I would’ve proposed if it had been within the grant’s scope), and until then concentrate on imitating proven technology rather than innovating. This is especially important given the potential for rent-seeking, in which the vendors use the grant to market themselves to the state over competitors selling similar product.

The judges don’t know any better

Would a panel of judges with more familiarity with metro operations around the first world have come to better decisions? Probably. Through blogs, railfan forums, and comments, I know people with great knowledge of existing operations in a number of cities in the first world, and for the most part they think highly enough of their local systems that they’d ask of any innovation, “why hasn’t it been implemented here already?”.

I wrote in 2011 that people in the US who make technical arguments in favor of public transit tend to be skeptical of many proposals, to the point of finding existing US agencies incompetent. This is US-specific: London Reconnections is a technical blog but it tends to support Transport for London’s process, Swiss and Japanese railfans seem to trust their local rail operators, and even Transport Paris is more positive about STIF’s capital investment than New York-based blogs are about the MTA’s. Experts (and not just bloggers like me) could point out innovations their cities have that can be imported into New York, as well as shoot down bad ideas for which “why doesn’t London/Paris/Tokyo do it?” is a useful sanity check.

Note that sometimes there is a legitimate reason to do something that nobody else has tried. New York’s highly branched network makes ERTMS a better deal there than on other metro systems, and an RFI would be prudent. But because the details of implementation matter more than the idea of innovative genius, it has to go through the regular procurement process.

Cuomo attempted to inject the inventions of the American tech industry into the subway. Instead, he created space for cranks to promulgate their ideas and for vendors to have a leg up over their competitors in any future bid. In effect, his attempt to improve the economic productivity of the public sector to be more in line with that of the American tech industry is going to make the public sector less productive, through weaker institutions (namely, a less robust CBTC bid) and distraction (namely, the useless train lengthening idea).

New Hudson Tunnels Are Canceled. Again.

Amtrak’s Gateway project, spending $30 billion on new tunnels from New Jersey to Penn Station, just got its federal funding yanked. Previously the agreement was to split funding as 25% New York, 25% New Jersey, 50% federal; the states had committed to $5.5 billion, which with a federal match would build the bare tunnels but not some of the ancillary infrastructure (some useful, some not).

When Chris Christie canceled ARC in 2010, then estimated at $10-13 billion, I cheered. I linked to a YouTube video of the song Celebration in Aaron Renn‘s comments. ARC was a bad project, and at the beginning Gateway seemed better, in the sense that it connected the new tunnels to the existing station tracks and not to a deep cavern. But some elements (namely, Penn Station South) were questionable from the start, and the cost estimate was even then higher than that of ARC, which I attributed to both Amtrak’s incompetence and likely cost overruns on ARC independent of who managed it.

But I’m of two minds about to what extent good transit advocates should cheer Gateway’s impending demise. The argument for cheering is a straightforward cost-benefit calculation. The extra ridership coming from Gateway absent regional rail modernization is probably around 170,000 per weekday, a first-order estimate based on doubling current New Jersey Transit ridership into Penn Station. At $40,000 per weekday rider, this justifies $7 billion in construction costs, maybe a little more if Gateway makes it cheaper to do maintenance on the old tunnels. Gateway is $30 billion, so the cost is too high and the tunnel should not be built.

Moreover, it’s difficult to raise the benefits of Gateway using regional rail modernization. On the New Jersey side, population density thins fast, so the benefits of regional rail that do not rely on through-running (high frequency, fare integration, etc.) are limited. The main benefits require through-running, to improve access on Newark-Queens and other through-Manhattan origin-destination pairs. Gateway doesn’t include provisions for through-running – Penn Station South involves demolishing a Manhattan block to add terminal tracks. Even within the existing Penn Station footprint, constructing a new tunnel eastward to allow through-running becomes much harder if the New Jersey Transit tracks have heavy terminating traffic, which means Gateway would make future through-running tunnels more expensive.

But on the other hand, the bare tunnels are not a bad project in the sense of building along the wrong alignment or using the wrong techniques. They’re just extremely expensive: counting minor shoring up on the old tunnels, they cost $13 billion for 5 km of tunnel. Moreover, sequencing Gateway to start with the tunnels alone allows dropping Penn South, and might make it possible to add a new tunnel for through-running mid-project. So it’s really a question of how to reduce costs.

The underground tunneling portion of Second Avenue Subway is $150 million per km, and that of East Side Access is $200 million (link, PDF-p. 7). Both figures exclude systems, which add $110 million per km on Second Avenue Subway, and overheads, which add 37%. These are all high figures – in Paris tunneling is $90 million per km, systems $35 million, and overhead a premium of 18% – but added up they remain affordable. A station-free tunnel should cost $350 million per km, which has implications to the cost of connecting Penn Station with Grand Central. Gateway is instead around $2 billion per km.

Is Gateway expensive because it’s underwater? The answer is probably negative. Gateway is only one third underwater. If its underwater character alone justifies a factor of six cost premium over Second Avenue Subway, then other underwater tunnels should also exhibit very high costs by local standards. There aren’t a lot of examples of urban rail tunnels going under a body of water as wide as the Hudson, but there are enough to know that there is not such a large cost premium.

In the 1960s, one source, giving construction costs per track-foot, finds that the Transbay Tube cost 40% more than the bored segments of BART; including systems and overheads, which the source excludes, BART’s history gives a cost of $180 million, equivalent to $1.38 billion today, or $230 million per km. The Transbay Tube is an immersed tube and not a bored tunnel, and immersed tubes are overall cheaper, but a report by Transport Scotland says on p. 12 that immersed tubes actually cost more per linear meter and are only overall cheaper because they require shorter approaches, which suggests their overall cost advantage is small.

Today, Stockholm is extending the T-bana outward in three direction. A cost breakdown per line extension is available: excluding the depot and rolling stock, the suburban tunnel to Barkarby is $100 million per km, the outer-urban tunnel to Arenastaden in Solna is $138 million per km, and the part-inner urban, part-suburban tunnel to Nacka is $150 million per km. The tunnel to Nacka is a total of 11.5 km, of which about 1 is underwater, broken down into chunks using Skeppsholmen, with the longest continuous underwater segment about 650 meters long. A 9% underwater line with 9% cost premium over an underground line is not by itself proof of much, but it does indicate that the underwater premium is most likely low.

Based on the suggestive evidence of BART and the T-bana, proposing that bare Hudson tunnels should cost about $2-2.5 billion is not preposterous. With an onward connection to Grand Central, the total cost should be $2.5-3 billion. Note that this cost figure does not assume that New York can build anything as cheaply as Stockholm, only that it can build Gateway for the same unit cost as Second Avenue Subway. The project management does not have to be good – it merely has to be as bad as that of Second Avenue Subway, rather than far worse, most likely due to the influence of Amtrak.

The best scenario coming out of canceling Gateway is to attempt a third tunnel project, this time under a government agency that is not poisoned by the existing problems of either Amtrak or Port Authority. The MTA could potentially do it; among the agencies building things in the New York area it seems by far the least incompetent.

If Gateway stays as is, just without federal funding, then the solution is for Amtrak to invest in its own project management capacity. The cost of the Green Line Extension in Boston was reduced from $3 billion to $2.3 billion, of which only $1.1 billion is actual construction and the rest is a combination of equipment and sunk cost on the botched start of the project; MBTA insiders attribute this to the hiring of a new, more experienced project manager. If Gateway can be built for even the same unit cost as Second Avenue Subway, then the existing state commitments are enough to build it to Grand Central and still have about half the budget left for additional tunnels.