How to Improve Travel Times and Transit Capacity?


Earlier this week, I received a request  in writing from Gary Altman, the Legislative Counsel of the City Council to testify at a hearing on March 1st. The topic of this oversight hearing is: How do we achieve the PlanNYC2030’s Sustainability Goal to Improve Travel Times by Adding Transit Capacity for Millions More Residents, Visitors and Workers? For reference here is the presentation on congestion (warning pdf) put out by the PlanNYC2030 folks.

As I am learning in the process of making Upper Green Side an official 501c3 non-profit, there are limits to how much legislative lobbying that is allowed, but when asked in writing to testify at a legislative hearing, that is not considered lobbying but rather responding to a question asked by the legislative body.

So now that I know this is totally kosher for Upper Green Side to make an appearance, I thought I would pose this question to the esteemed readers of Streetsblog to write in here their top three answers to that question. And please consider the gamut of public policy alternatives that might help achieve this goal.

Photo: Sixth Avenue and 43rd Street at 1pm on Tuesday, February 20th – Blocked box, pedestrian crosswalk blocked.

  • someguy

    I think only one fundamental thing is really necessary: focusing on the efficiency of streets. Measure the success of our transportation and transit system in terms of people moved – that simple. Not vehicles moved, people moved. When we do that we will see what the most efficient outcomes really are – and the answers will follow. My bet is that they would include 1) light rail on highest-demand corridors; 2) physically separated bus/bike lanes on next-highest demand corridors, and 3) some kind of road pricing, whether a CBD cordon or just HOT lanes on highways, bridges & tunnels within the city.

    (Glenn – I think you meant “decrease travel times”, not increase)

  • Thanks someguy – it should read “Improve” not increase, I will fix it.

  • jeremy hunsinger

    light rail is great for distance, but what the city really needs is to get rid of at least one north south avenue and make it pedestrian/slow bicycle only except perhaps for emergencies, 4th ave or 5th would be excellent for this. combined that with some east west walking, and a congestion charge for entering the city. the secret is to get cars off the streets, and that can only be done by giving people better options. similarly raising the parking fees at meters would be good, it’s a vice tax.

  • Anne

    1. Bus Rapid Transit.
    no more studies, just DO it. We already have the buses and the lanes, just separate them and enforce it. Many more people would ride our buses if they weren’t slower than walking. Biggest bang for buck.

    2. Safe, separated bicycle infrastructure.
    the only way to shift significant numbers of commuters to using bicycles (30% or more as in Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Munich etc.) is to make it safe enough for kids and grandmas.

    3. Congestion pricing accompanied by big improvements in far outer borough transit options.
    Provide a real option for those who can truthfully claim that driving takes much less time.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Glenn said that this hearing focuses on “adding more transit capacity.” Here are my top three ways to do it.

    1. More subways. The #7 extension is not aimed at improving travel times, except to the Javits Center. The Second Avenue Subway is, but we should look past that and think about other worthy transit projects we’d like to see built by 2030, like the South Fourth Street Tunnel, and the lines that would extend from it. CBTC will help improve travel times, but it seems to be currently seen by NYC Transit as a way to stop paying for conductors.

    2. Bring back trolleys. I don’t know why Jeremy thinks light rail is more appropriate for distance, but maybe he’s thinking of grade-separated light rail like most of the Hudson-Bergen line. Streetcar-type trolleys used to provide a way of getting around the city that was faster than buses, but didn’t require going up or down flights of stairs. Bus rapid transit is too often a red herring to get people away from thinking about streetcars, and is probably best presented as individual improvements such as signal priority or dedicated right-of-way.

    3. Commuter rail linkage. The three commuter rail systems in the region (four if you count Shore Line East) have three different fare systems (all incompatible with Metrocard), three different schedules, and four different propulsion systems (catenary, diesel and two incompatible third-rail systems). Both the THE tunnel and the LIRR/Grand Central link started with ambitious goals of linking the three networks, but then scaled back. If we spend the next ten years converting some of the LIRR and Metro-North lines to catenary and integrating fare and schedule systems, then in the following thirteen years it will be easier to work on connecting the tunnels and providing through-running trains.

    I hope this helps.

  • crzwdjk

    1) Improvement program to existing subway infrastructure. The subway right now is pathetically slow, and trains could be running both faster and more frequently than they are right now. Improvements range from simple things like making doors close faster to reduce delays due to door-holding, to systemwide upgrades such as installing a cab signal system, preferably with the sort of proven technology that has been in service on the LIRR for about 50 years, rather than unproven and unworkable CBTC.

    2) Massive upgrades to surface transit. Subways are expensive to build, and while their capacity is large, it is still finite. Surface transit can take a significant share of the load, but the current bus system is rather slow and inefficient. Light rail lines need to be built in the busiest corridors, especially in Manhattan, and bus rapid transit implemented on major outer-borough bus lines. Electrification should be considered as well.

    3) Subway expansion. Madrid can build subways with an order of magnitude less per-mile cost than New York. There is clearly something not right here. Whatever it is, it needs to be found and fixed, and New York needs to start expanding its rapid transit network, something which has not been done in any major way since the 1940s. And NYC should start looking outside its boundaries as well: the real destination of the 7 train should be not the Javits Center but New Jersey via the Lincoln Tunnel.

    4) And finally, a general principle for all the above: integrated planning. Make sure to look at the transportation system as a whole when planning, including rapid transit, surface transit, pedestrians, bikes and the rest of it, and design each mode to complement the others and provide as coherent a network as possible.

  • crzwdjk

    Angus: you make good points. I propose that an integrated fare system be the first step, with some kind of common fare media and more stations with subway-style faregates, rather than large fleets of assistant conductors on the trains.

    Oh and thanks for the link to the CBTC site: you’ll notice that the NYCT project hasn’t been updated since 2005 and the BART one since 2003. This isn’t because of a lazy webmaster, but rather because the projects were basically abandoned after they failed to work. And yet dozens of systems around the world, including all three NYC-area commuter railroads, operate just fine with fixed block coded track circuit speed control. I guess there isn’t enough fancy technology in it, and no cushy consulting jobs for transit agency officials.

  • rlb

    1) Improve public transit across bridges. A light rail line across the broolyn bridge would increase person capacity while decreasing car capacity.

    2) Promote other CBDs with subways. A 125th street subway (that could also go to astoria and laguardia and randalls Island) combined with extending the 2nd ave subway into the bronx via the old 3rd Ave El route would create a relatively dense subway network uptown. That kind of density promotes business development which would draw future congestion away from midtown.

    3) Houston, 1st ave, 6th ave and many more have too many lanes. They should widen the sidewalks and install buffered bike lanes.

  • From a real estate value perspective, you could never it sell it, but if an argument could be made (and I’m not sure one can) for a non-car avenue (not because I don’t like the idea, but in the context of the hearing, how would you quantify improved transit times without any real data) it would be Broadway.

    I think the best points have been made. Some addtions/qualifications:

    1. Trolleys for east/west thoroughfares (travel times are worse for the transverse bus routes)

    2. Reverse the toll structure on the Verrazano Narrows

    Focus on policy adjustments for cycling, not street modifications (keeps the car lobby at bay, increases safety — if more people rode to work, it would inevtiably change the nature of car use).

    A. Introduce indoor bicycle parking incentives or zoning regulations for new commerical construction, similar to parking space requirements for residential.

    B. Create specialized enforcement units (similar to the seat belt nannies that stand at dense inflow/outflow intersections) for bike lane and pedestrian infractions (failure to yield). If people are educated via tickets about the importance of bike lanes, they will respect cyclists more.

    Oh, and if legislative redress come up:

    Wrest control of surface street management from the state DOT. New York should be allowed to manage it’s own streets. I’m not convinced that maximizing surface street speeds reduces congestion, since all the trasfer nodes (bridges, tunnels, etc.) aren’t going to be relieved any time soon. Levelling (even if it means lowering) surface street speed will be safer and reduce congestion.

  • Implement congestion pricing and use the revenues to improve transit and street safety.

    I agree with most of the comments about improving transit, but congestion pricing is also a key part of the package – to generate revenue to fund that improved transit, and to shift people from their cars into that improved transit.

  • brent

    This is fun.
    1) Free, no fare subway/ bus service for NYC residents.
    2) Parking infrastructure overhaul incuding:
    – market rate street parking
    – elimination of several parking spaces on most blocks to be converted to bike parking, delivery truck parking, and taxi pick up.
    3) Road infrastructure overhaul incuding:
    – general traffic calming iniative
    – red light cameras at all dangerous, chronically gridlocked intersections
    – elimination of vehicle lanes to be converted to bicylce lanes and sidewalk widening.

  • some dude

    I agree with miss representation. One of the big issues is the East/West thoroughfares. I believe many people opt to drive when they are confronted with little choice to get to a crosstown destination from a public transportation hub. Think LIRR riders who work in Midtown East.

    I also agree that subway capacity needs to be increased substantially. The antiquated (and flammable) switching system just has to go…I don’t care if this might affect some union jobs. We need to be able to run more trains more frequently, and from what I understand the minimum allowed distance between moving trains is laughable by most modern standards.

  • Spud Spudly

    Lots of good ideas, but large expansion of bicycle lanes isn’t one of them. In a perfect world it’s nice to think that people would abandon their cars and whatever to ride a bike to work. It certainly would provide a lot of benefits. But in reality very few people would do that on a regular basis.

    For the average person (which probably rules out anyone reading this site), the climate in NYC simply is not conducive to bicycling for most of the year. Cold, snow, rain, darkness, wind, heat waves…people aren’t going to do it. It might be effective in good weather for younger people with short commutes (who would in many cases have to be willing to pack their work clothes along for the ride). But for most of the year those bike lanes would sit virtually unused taking up valuable street space that might be more effectively utilized for trolleys, bus routes, etc.

  • ddartley

    ON topic–only two:

    1. I LOUDLY second RLB’s call for a 125th St. subway!! When I lived in Astoria, I used to fantasize about this. Imagine this Moses-scale, anti-Moses project: a 125th St. crosstown train that connected in Harlem to the 1, A, B, C, D, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6; then stopped on Randall’s Island (or not); then on into Astoria to connect with the N and W, then on into under-served Northern Queens, where it could make one more connection, to the 7 train, and then finally terminate all the way out at neglected Bayside, or curl up to Whitestone, and connect with the LIRR. Don’t the people in those neighborhoods and Corona and Jackson Heights deserve a subway?

    2. **Crosstown** rapid transit!! (bus, trolley, or anything)! This timid approach of just trying BRT on two Manhattan avenues is pitifully too little, very late. And the slow speed of crosstown buses and the paucity of crosstown subway lines are even bigger embarrassments that do great, real harm to the City in a number of ways.

    And off topic, for the heck of it:

    How about a bike/ped-only bridge between Williamsburg and the E. Village/LES? Good one, I know.

  • brent

    Disagree Spud. If biking was safer and more convenient it would be a major boon to the city. New York is one few places in America where many people live reasonably close to their jobs, shopping, and activities. The comfortable climate IS conductive for most of the year- last week was one of the few times when I personally couldn’t battle the weather. Other regions with more soggy or damp weather pull it off just fine- ie Northern Europe. I where my business casual attire during my commute in most case without any problem. If we can’t get a significant number of people biking here, it can’t happen anywhere.

  • Thanks to everyone for all the great ideas of what to suggest. I especially like some of the ideas on create a truly regional transportation system linking Long Island to New Jersey with one fare system and creating more crosstown mass transit options.

    What about land use and development policy to create more jobs, residents and shopping around existing mass transit hubs?

    I think one major problem that NYC has is that everyone wants to arrive in midtown or downtown between 8-9am.

  • Spud Spudly

    Brent, if last week was one of the few times when you couldn’t battle the weather then it’s probably true that you are much more hearty most NYers (probably younger too). Bless you for it, but it’s true. I still believe that that street space could be put to better use for a form of transportation available to everyone year-round. People won’t bike in the winter, won’t bike in the dark, and would leave their bikes home if there was even the slightest chance of rain — and there’s no amount of engineering that can change that unless we cover, light and heat bike lanes. If the street space wasn’t so valuable I might think diffently.

  • ddartley

    Glenn, actually there are lots of people who commute every day to places other than Midtown and Downtown Manhattan (teachers, cops, fire, etc.) but they have to rely on a transit system that was designed only with those two CBDs in mind as destinations. Happily, another point in favor of rlb’s brilliant 125th St. subway idea! Such a subway would serve both those non-CBD employees, *and* CBD employees, and would also help out car-heavy neighborhoods.

  • brent

    Spud- Perhaps it would be futile to suggest cycling to people who have an aversion. Right now, however, there isn’t any infrastructure in place for those of us who would at least like the option. By the way- I would highly recommend biking in the rain over any of New York’s great bridges for a great aesthetic experience. Wear a poncho- you’ll stay pretty dry.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    The 125th Street Subway is a great idea; a stop at La Guardia would make it even better. But first you’d have to figure out what was driving the NIMBY opposition to the N train extension to La Guardia (looks like the fact that it was planned as an el, not a subway, but was that an excuse?) and overcome that.

  • ddartley – I agree, that’s why I think there needs to be more development around existing hubs and creating new hubs with commerical, retail and residential mixed together.

  • Anne

    i too disagree with spud, and agree with the northern europe example. people of all ages and abilities ride bicycles there all year ’round, in worse weather than ours.

    if the bicycle is treated not like an oddity but like a valid and practical form of transportation, people will respond by using it. the result will be cleaner air, a healthier population, and less crowded subways.

  • Incidentally, I attended the PlaNYC2030 forum for Manhattan downtown community leaders last month. We broke into discussion groups that brainstormed lists of suggestions for each of the 10 focus points of PlaNYC2030.

    Regarding this point, and several of the environmental points, EVERY sub-group included congestion pricing and a new emphasis on support for bicycling. Repeated frequently were light rail/streetcars, BRT, integrated regional rail, pedestrian and cycling boulevards, and free/very inexpensive public transit options.

    While these people were downtowners, so perhaps less apt to be car-centric, these weren’t really people who eat-and-sleep-StreetsBlog. The ideas that we rant about here ARE filtering down to the general public, and that public is looking for change.

    That message is going into the Mayor’s Office – it remains to be seen what comes out. But don’t be worried about sounding like you’re “out there” when advocating for any of these suggestions.

  • momos

    Glenn: This is great. Please report back on how the hearing goes.

    Tremendous efficiency gains to NYC’s commuter rail systems could be realized by connecting Penn Station to Grand Central.

    See these smart PDFs for more:

    Also, something has to be done about bike parking in order to truly make bicycles a viable, major transport mode. New office buildings should have bike parking; major transit hub rehabs like Fulton St, Moynihan Stn, etc should have underground bike parking garages. Basel, Switzerland has an incredible bike parking facility underneath its central train station. Bikes are securely locked; a guard keeps watch from a booth; there are showers and lockers to store changes of clothing; there is a bike shop and repair facilities; there is enough capacity for 1,000+ bikes.

  • crzwdjk

    I’ve kept hearing about secure bike parking at Penn Station, and somehow it keeps not happening. It could be a very successful facility.

    And those trains of thought folks are definitely on to something with their regional rail ideas, and I especially like the idea of a single unified fare system. Actually unifying all the systems will be a much bigger challenge, and require either re-electifying some of the lines, or running dual mode trains. Another huge obstacle is ridiculous FRA collision-strength regulations which make it practically impossible to build a normal MU train. Systems like LIRR and Metro North, should have an exemption, on account of their cab signal systems, which can be very effective in preventing collisions in the first place, and thus greatly reducing the importance of having very heavy but indestructible trains.

  • moocow

    Spud, I rode in that snow storm last week, and it was stupid and difficult. But the worst part of the commute was the disrespect from cabbies and other drivers, buzzing my ‘odd’ self. I know I am an exception, but I rode to prove it is not impossible. And that was one of the worst ice storms in how long? 20 years the DOS said? This winter has been totally bikeable, for light weights and beginners. People don’t realize how easy, and untaxing it is to ride in freezing weather, in rain, and it makes riding on those perfect spring days, all the more orgasmic. The human body is alot tougher than any car company wants you to think.

    Oh, and to topic, anything the city does to make driving in NYC more difficult, the better.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    I keep hearing people complain about the FRA collision-strength requirements, but there doesn’t seem to be any move to do anything about it. Is it based in law, or just executive orders? Is there any organization that could lead such a campaign – NARP? APTA? STPP?

  • press2

    FRA collision standards are a federal regulation, so they could be changed by writing a new regulation, but that’s almost certainly not going to happen. The problem is not that the commuter trains don’t have cab signals, but that the freight trains that might crash into them don’t have cab signals. But Metro North and LIRR have bought FRA-compliant MUs (maybe they’re more expensive, but they do exist). The real problem is not being able to easily mix light rail and FRA-compliant rail (like running Hudson-Bergen light rail along a freight line). They do it in South Jersey, but it’s really complicated (and the freight trains only run at night).

  • show me the money

    Has anyone looked at the MTA budget projections for 2008 and beyond? The alarm bells are ringing. A fare hike is for sure, plus it’s going to be tough to complete 2nd Ave and the East Side Connector, let alone dig new subways on 125 St. or light rail lines. In the unlikely event Manhattan CBD congestion pricing is approved soon, much of the money would have to go for the existing MTA capital plan.(Assume a chunk would go for things other than public transit.)This is why people stuck in the real world have focused so much on BRT — which can actually be done and requires more political will than scarce capital dollars. The MTA is not going to build light rail, nor is City Hall. Who is left?

    But hey, don’t let reality intrude on the reverie.

  • ddartley

    Money, I think we all realize all that. But a society has to dream, doesn’t it? I mean, they did once build a subway, didn’t they?

  • Sproule Love

    Buzzkill Spud:

    As a regular bike commuter, I have to weigh in on your “the average person would never bike” arguments. A big reason people don’t think of biking around New York is that cycling is marginalized, unsafe, and not perceived as a viable means of transportation, not because of the weather. I avoid rain and snow and still ride to work (from Harlem to Wall Street) 3-4 days a week. And except for February, the last six months have been pretty nice riding weather. Even if you have people riding only on nice days, but not in their cars, NYC would be a MUCH more pleasant city.

    The street space is valuable – too valuable to be used solely for automobiles, which have obviously proven to be an ineffective mode of transportation in dense urban areas. Taking two lanes out of each major avenue and one out of each cross-town artery for BRT and bikes would be a much more effective use for such valuable space, even if the bike lanes are underutilized. Build it and the cars will come…restrict it and they will leave. And when people see such lanes and recognize that cycling is safer, more accepted, and more common, then we will have more riders.

    Sure, you may get tired of us StreetsBlog whackos going on and on about how cycling is an urban panacea, but it’s hard to completely deny the benefits of having a commuter on a bike rather than in a car or even on the subway. More people on bikes means improved travel times (both because cycling is usually faster than either the subway or driving and fewer cars mean less traffic) and increased transit capacity (fewer subway riders mean faster rides).

    Glenn, improved bike infrastructure has to be on your list.


Pricing Round Up: Sticking Points, Horse Trading, Hearings

The congestion pricing deadline is little more than a week (or two) away, and news is coming fast and furious about the last wave of legislative wrangling. Two reports published in the last 16 hours give a sense of how compromises may be hashed out to gain passage for the measure. First, the Daily Politics […]

City Council Candidates on the Issues: Mel Wymore, District 6

We continue our series on City Council candidates with a Q&A with former Community Board 7 chair Mel Wymore, who’s running to represent District 6 on the Upper West Side. Earlier this week, we ran responses from real estate executive Ken Biberaj, Democratic Party District Leader Marc Landis, former Community Board 7 chair Helen Rosenthal, and Green Party candidate Tom […]

Quick Hits From Today’s City Council Hearing on Bike Policy

The line to testify at today’s Transportation Committee hearing on New York City bike policy was snaking outside into the biting cold well before the 10:00 a.m. start time. More than 70 people signed up to speak, filling up two hearing rooms at 250 Broadway. The first few hours of the hearing, however, belonged to […]