Subways: “New York City is the demented spin-off of Settlers of Catan”

The New York subway system has some problems:

New York City subway service isn’t consistently bad. It isn’t consistently anything. It mixes days of normalcy with surprise disasters whose disruptive effect is something like an air-raid drill, leaving hundreds of thousands of people stranded underground, while their kids wait at schools, their office chairs sit empty, and their shifts begin. If, as former New Jersey Transportation Commissioner Jack Lettiere once put it, transportation is “the game board upon which the economy is played,” New York City is the demented spinoff of Settlers of Catan. The board changes every day, with a debilitating effect on businesses, birthday parties, and everything in between.

That delays have tripled in four years, that subway ridership is declining, that bus ridership is plummeting—these things should alarm Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who runs the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and bears ultimate responsibility for its failings, despite his protests otherwise….

Last Monday, the MTA announced a six-point plan to address delays. “Decades of underinvestment … has led to a system that is excessively vulnerable to failures,” the statement read. (Interestingly, New York has been governed by a Cuomo for 18 of the past 35 years.) The order includes some good news, like the imminent arrival of newer subway cars and deployments of teams to handle broken signals and sick passengers, two major causes of delays. It also appears to have been devised rather quickly—an MTA board member found out about it from the press—and as such, does not account for the subway’s two biggest problems: its ancient signal system and its insanely high construction costs.

Those two things are interrelated and together account for virtually every other problem with the subway. Signals break, hinder the deployment of countdown clocks and driverless trains, and prevent trains from running closer together. High costs impede the development of 20th-century signal technology and other capital improvements, including region-altering projects like the Triboro RX and low-hanging fruit like reopening closed subway entrances. (Read Alon Levy’s excellent coverage of the cost issue and weep.) As long as the MTA fails to address these issues, its troubles will continue.

Bonus points for working Settlers of Catan into a discussion of infrastructure. At the same time, the roads of Settlers might be crazy (particularly when they are blocked by other players) but wouldn’t a better analogy be to a transportation game, perhaps Ticket to Ride?

Seriously though, cities and other levels of government ignore infrastructure at their own peril. It may be easier in the short-term to push off the repairs and costs but the problems only continue to affect users and then are even more costly in terms of money and time down the road.

Building a new subway in a big city is difficult, Rio edition

A new subway line in Rio illustrates the issues of constructing subway lines in large cities:

Though it was barely completed in time for the opening ceremonies on August 5, the fact that Line 4 opened this year, let alone this decade, is undeniably because of the Olympics. The state government, which funded the $3.1-billion line, argues that the subway will vastly improve transportation options in the city. The state department of transportation said in an emailed statement that Line 4 will “provide locals and visitors a transportation alternative that’s fast, modern, efficient and sustainable.”

But many outside the government worry that Line 4 was built to primarily serve the Olympics and the upscale real estate developments that are planned in the event’s wake. Critics say Line 4 prioritizes access to the main event venues and wealthy neighborhoods, and disregards the transportation needs of the rest of the city. “This is to serve only the higher classes,” says Lucia Capanema Alvares, an urban planning professor at the Federal Fluminense University. “It’s not to serve the people.”…

This linear design leaves much of the area inside the arc—and the millions of people who live there and in the hinterlands beyond—with little access to rapid transit.

While there are likely unique issues at play in Rio, I suspect these issues would be present in any major city that undertook new subway construction:

  1. Huge costs. Building under a major city is expensive and costs often go beyond budget. The best way to fight this is to have foresight and build such lines sooner rather than later.
  2. Disruption. Again, a large city has all sorts of systems already in place and construction on this scale can take a long time.
  3. Charges of inequality. Who should mass transit serve? Do many major cities primarily have subway and rail service to wealthier areas? (And are these areas better off because they have had mass transit access?) And, why does it take so long to provide service for people who need it?

Such large infrastructure projects are not for the faint of heart but if done well could provide benefits for decades.

Why don’t American subways feature open gangway cars?

American subway cars differ in design in one crucial way that would help solve overcrowding issues:

Open gangways, as it happens, may be one of the more widely used elements of subway design. You will find trains like these on every subway system in China, India, Spain, and Germany, as well as in Dubai, Singapore, Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro, Paris, and Toronto. According to research by planner Yonah Freemark, open gangway trains run on 3 out of every 4 subway systems in the world. Mexico City hasn’t bought separate-car trains in two decades.

Yet open gangway trains are nowhere to be found in the United States. They will debut in Honolulu in 2018. New York City might request 10 of them—in an order of 950…

That American transportation authority leaders are reluctant to embrace the concept reflects a couple of facts about how they do business. First, they clearly don’t spend enough time using the systems they run. Second (and relatedly), they are conservative about change. They are willing to let culture, or their perceptions of it, dictate design—rather than the other way around.

The most convincing explanation for the absence of open gangways in the United States is that planners feel “amenity-conscious” (or “choice”) riders would find them unpleasant. The enhanced mobility open gangways grant to beggars, merchants, and buskers has been cited as a potential problem with the model. That shouldn’t be sufficient reason to keep riders stuffed in like sardines. New Yorkers don’t take the subway because it’s pleasant, but because it gets them to work on time. The MTA could aid that cause by ordering a hundred—or a thousand!—open gangway train cars.

Americans have different ideas about personal space as well as who they are willing to mingle with. This isn’t only about subways; planners have tried to figure out how to get more well-off Americans to ride the bus even as Americans seem pretty happy to drive solo in their cars unless it is quite difficult.

Here is a question: what would happen if an entire mass transit system did this without consulting riders? Would people in New York City really stop taking the subway and find other ways to get around? In some places, subways are the most efficient and I’m guessing that riders would adjust over time. When riders have more options, particularly in more sprawling cities, this might not be a good solution as people might actually stop using the subway.

Fight NYC inequality with more expansive subway options

One writer suggests Mayor DeBlasio could address inequality in New York City by improving the subway:

To see how that works in practice, de Blasio should spend a week commuting on the subway from various points in the city: taking the No. 7 train from Flushing, the L train from Greenpoint, the F train from Fort Hamilton Parkway.

Such an exercise may remind de Blasio that while a few rich people can bail out of mass transit by taking ever-cheaper black cars, most New Yorkers are stuck on a subway system that is creaking under record ridership.

The mayor should do some weekend, night and borough-to-borough commutes, too, so he can see how hard it is for lower-paid, off-hours workers to get around when the MTA cuts its service.

Then, the mayor should agree to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s request to put $3 billion into investments in subways and buses over the next five years, helping to pay for the next few stops on the Second Avenue Subway, plus better technology on existing subway lines.

The mayor should think seriously, too, about funding his own transit project. He mentioned a subway on Utica Avenue, and then never talked about it again. With China’s economy cratering, it’s a good time to build — steel and concrete are cheaper.

Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s extension of the 7 train to Manhattan’s Far West Side will open soon — and New Yorkers will remember that Bloomberg did it.

What will they remember about de Blasio?

Powerful politicians often like to enhance their legacy through the construction of massive buildings or public works projects. And mass transit can easily become an issue tied up with social class and race as mass transit in theory is supposed to be more democratic. But, how many would like their legacy to be underground subways in a city that already has an extensive system? Such projects often take billions of dollars, cause all sorts of disruptions, and can be lengthy. This might only work in New York City, a place so dependent on daily subway usage (particularly compared to other large American cities).

If pushed by the mayor, can a new line be called the de Blasio line? I can’t help but think of the “Rod Blagojevich, Governor” signs every time I pass through the open road tolling facilities on Chicago area tollways…

Why does US subway construction cost so much more than the rest of the world?

Gregg Easterbrook points out that constructing subways in the United States often costs much more than it does elsewhere:

A recent TMQ chronicled many cases of government-funded infrastructure projects costing way too much and taking way too long. Reader Matt Thier of San Francisco adds more: “How come it’s almost ten times less expensive to build an underground subway in Barcelona versus the United States? Barcelona: 30 miles of brand-new subway tunnels and track, 52 stations, in 10 years, for $8 billion, or $265 million per mile. New York City subway construction is costing $2.25 billion per mile. Here’s a list of major transit projects broken up by cost per kilometer. All three major U.S. projects on the list are in the top four.

“The huge price difference can’t be labor or union costs — there’s a higher unionization rate in Spain than here, and wages are in the same ballpark. Land acquisition costs are in the same ballpark — Barcelona land isn’t as expensive as NYC but is not cheap by any means. Both subways use the same equipment to dig: the massive tunnel boring machines (TBMs) are only produced by a handful of companies due to their complexity, and prices don’t vary much.

“So if labor, land, and equipment costs are roughly the same, what’s causing the U.S.-based subway to cost so much more than comparable overseas ones? This Bloomberg article notes byzantine contracting processes that hand over management authority to firms whose incentive is to maximize cost and minimize pace.”

Insane cost overruns aren’t limited to underground projects. The Purple Line trolley expected to be built a short drive from the White House is up to $153 million per mile for mostly surface construction. The projected cost has risen $80 million during 2014 though absolutely nothing has been built yet — a 3.4 percent cost overrun in a year when inflation has been 1.7 percent.

We generally need more large infrastructure projects completed more rapidly at lower cost. At the least, cutting the cost of each major project would free up more funds to spend on other needed projects.

For a quick look at the cost of a number of subway and rail projects in the US and elsewhere, see here.

New York MTA: don’t post signs showing subway passengers where it is best to board

A new underground group has been posting signs indicating where it is best to board a subway train but the MTA is not happy:

There is a body of knowledge that New Yorkers gradually accumulate through years of hardened subway travel. If a train car is mysteriously empty, don’t get in. Savor your cheese. Beware sharks. But the most prized wisdom is the understanding of where you need to board a train to make your transfer or exit most efficient. For example, when transferring to the L line from the A/C/E or F trains, some use the mnemonic “Down in Front,” meaning you want to be in the front of those downtown trains for the fastest transfer to the L. But what if you’re a novice who hasn’t yet acquired such deep insight? A group of rogue good Samaritans is here to help the newbs.

The Efficient Passenger Project is on a mission to put up signs throughout the subway system guiding commuters to the best spot to board a train in order to make the quickest exit or transfer. The anonymous participants have been placing “Efficient Passenger Project” stickers on and around the turnstiles in select subway stations, signaling the presence of a plaque on the platform that tells you exactly where to stand to make your commute most efficient.

So far the EPP has only rolled out the signage along the L line, but the website promises “more train lines in planning stages, proportional to demand.” The founder of the group tells Transportation Nation, “It’s a public, civic service. [The subways can be] a labyrinth of tunnels and transfers and stairways. The project is an attempt to kind of rationalize some of that environment, and just make a more enjoyable, faster commute.”

The MTA, however, has vowed to remove the unauthorized signs. “These signs have the potential to cause crowding conditions in certain platform areas and will create uneven loading in that some train cars will be overcrowded while others will be under-utilized,” says MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz. “And yes, regular customers don’t need these signs to know which car they should enter.”

The tone of this story as well as many of the commentors is that this sort of prized information shouldn’t be given away. Instead, it is insider information that should be hoarded by those who regularly use the system and can use it to their advantage over others, particularly tourists who just get in the way.

Contrast this approach with the approach in San Francisco. I remember seeing this for the first time and being shocked: people line up for the BART at particular markings on the platform. The train car doors open consistently at those spots and people file in. This is quite different from most cities where it is a mad dash to the open doors.

Perhaps all of this does indicate that urban culture in New York City in indeed more dog-eats-dog…

The most used subways in the world and American complaints about crowded mass transit

Check out this list of the subways with the most riders. This is the top 10: Tokyo, Seoul, Beijing/Moscow (tied), Shanghai, Guangzhou, New York City, Mexico City, Paris, and Hong Kong. Here is how the story describes these subways:

While vital to both big-city residents and visitors, subway systems can inspire a love-hate relationship, with overcrowding blamed for much of the frustration. While we may not love riding in sardine-like train cars, we do appreciate the efficiency and even beauty of many of the world’s most popular subway stations.

I’m not sure why there is consternation about the crowded nature of these subways: are there more efficient ways to move millions of people in some of the densest areas humans have every known? If everyone could have their personal space, like in cars which Americans prefer, it becomes really hard to have cities with densities like those in the top 10. If we operate with the assumption that all humans would prefer to be in less crowded spaces if they could afford to, then this might make sense.

I wonder if such complaints in the United States about crowded mass transit betrays American sensibilities for privacy and space. While people in other countries might choose mass transit over the costs of cars (and they are expensive to operate, in addition to the space, infrastructure, and resources they require), Americans work in the opposite direction: they would prefer a car until it becomes too difficult. For example, see this discussion about getting wealthier Americans to ride buses.