RPA: Growing Outer Boroughs Need New Generation of Transit Investment

Subways, focused on service to and from the Manhattan core, have seen a 23 percent ridership boost since 2003. Over the same period, bus ridership, which forms the backbone of outer-borough transit, has fallen 6 percent. Image: RPA [PDF]
Subways, focused on service to and from the Manhattan core, have seen a 23 percent ridership boost since 2003. Over the same period, bus ridership, the backbone of outer-borough transit, has fallen 7 percent — even though population and jobs in the outer boroughs are growing at a faster rate than in Manhattan. Image: RPA
With the boroughs outside Manhattan adding people and jobs faster than the city core, New York needs to reorient its transit priorities, argues the Regional Plan Association in a new report. The authors warn that increasing travel in the other boroughs will strain the local bus system and lead more people to drive, causing more traffic congestion and imposing the burden of car ownership on more low- and middle-income New Yorkers.

This trend is already apparent. You could call it a tale of two trips.

Trips to and from the Manhattan core are shifting away from cars, with almost 90 percent of commuters to jobs below 60th Street arriving by transit. Subways, the backbone of the network into and out of Manhattan, have seen ridership increase 23 percent since 2003. Major projects are underway to extend subways and commuter rail serving the Manhattan central business district.

By comparison, transit trips that don’t begin or end in Manhattan are slower and less convenient, and they’re getting worse.

While the region may be centered around the Manhattan core, the lives of many New Yorkers are not: 61 percent of NYC workers who live outside Manhattan also work outside Manhattan. Over the last two decades, the number of jobs in the other boroughs has grown twice as fast as Manhattan-based jobs. At the same time, buses — the workhorse of outer-borough travel — have seen ridership fall 7 percent since 2003.

To avoid a future of even more sluggish transit and congested streets, RPA suggests new rail connections, more Bus Rapid Transit lines, and improving access to existing commuter rail service for city residents.

The report’s headline recommendation is the Triboro Rx, a circumferential rail line from the Bronx to Brooklyn first proposed by RPA in the 1990s. Connecting to subway service at 12 of its 22 stations, the service would use existing rail lines forming a “U” shape across southern and eastern Brooklyn before connecting through Queens and the Hell Gate Bridge. Instead of terminating in the South Bronx like previous Triboro Rx proposals, the latest iteration would use planned Metro-North stations along the Hell Gate Line to Co-Op City. RPA estimates the Triboro Rx would attract 100,000 riders daily.

RPA recommends making better use of outer-borough rail lines for passenger service.
RPA recommends making better use of outer-borough rail lines for passenger service.

A second opportunity for expanded rail service is along Atlantic Avenue. Once East Side Access diverts more trains to Manhattan, LIRR plans to use the line as a shuttle between Downtown Brooklyn and Jamaica. The report suggests combining the Atlantic Branch with improvements to the Rosedale section of the Montauk Branch to improve transit to eastern Queens. The report also calls for a third track on the LIRR main line to allow more reverse commute trains during peak hours, as well as reactivation of rail service on the Rockaway Beach Branch.

The report notes that much can also be done with existing commuter rail services to better meet the needs of outer-borough residents. Suburban trains often skip stations in Queens and the Bronx, and high fares dissuade many customers. RPA suggests more frequent service to outer-borough stations and expanding the half-price CityTicket program from weekends to weekdays, which it says will cost the MTA $30 million annually.

To improve bus service, RPA suggests fixing existing routes first. The organization identified 56 bus routes with infrequent service and another 36 that are overcrowded, and recommends adding service to these lines at an operating cost of $28 million a year.

RPA also mapped out nine routes for Select Bus Service and urged more robust transitways than the city has deployed on the current generation of SBS routes, with features like physically separated lanes. The work echoes proposals from the Pratt Center and the MTA itself, with lines traversing parts of the outer boroughs where subway connections are difficult or impossible.

One transit mode absent from RPA’s recommendations: ferries. “The City plans to identify additional ferry services that will all almost certainly require subsidies,” the authors write.

The report only backs ferry service to the Rockaways, because the area is so isolated, and is deeply skeptical that other routes are worth the cost. It singles out a ferry from Soundview in the Bronx, one of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposed routes, for criticism. “Its prospects are questionable without substantial subsidy,” the report says. “If it is initiated, it should be clear that it must meet the ‘use it or lose it’ demonstration criteria.”

  • AnoNYC

    A lot to read through,

    I would personally rather see the TRX continue into Upper Manhattan (WaHi) after entering the South Bronx, rather than continuing northeast into the East Bronx.

    There is a huge demand for efficient Bronx-Upper Manhattan transit (Huge!). Right now, overcrowding, slow travel times and boarding are big issues.

    Plus, that East Bronx extension omits virtually the entire West Bronx. If the line continued towards Washington Heights, East Bronxites could transfer.

    I also agree with every point within the technical report about the BX 5 in BX CB 9 and 2, suggesting an SBS route. Join the BX 5+6 for South Bronx/Upper Manhattan cross-town service.

    Bronx Crosstown.
    To address the problem of east-west transit dis-connectivity in the Bronx, one or more of three routes should be considered for SBS/BRT treatment. These include the BX6 along 165th Street (23,000 daily riders), the BX36 along West Tremont Avenue and 180th Street (31,000 riders), and the BX40/42 along East Tremont and Burnside Avenues (27,000 riders). The BX36 has the advantage since it extends into Washington Heights as far as the George Washington Bridge Bus Station for connections to west side subways and buses to New Jersey.”

    This please!

    BX 36 or a comparable route also needs SBS for mid-Bronx/Upper Manhattan cross-town service.

    And I also agree that spacing between some bus stops citywide is way too close. Sometimes with two stops on one block. Those should be eliminated.

    Passengers exit buses via the front door because they are often forced to. It makes no sense to push your way to the rear of a non-arriculated bus. The design of our buses needs to be modified. Bus stops should be elevated and payments should be handled off board until we get a tap and go solution. SBS needs physically protected bus lanes where applicable, even if it’s for a portion of the route. Traffic signal priority and queue jumping.

    Finally, extend the SAS into the Bronx eventually along the old Third Avenue El to close a densely populated transportation gap that could create a significant amount of new housing. This should be the first subway extension considered outside Manhattan. There’s enormous potential for construction along that corridor. Lots of underutilized property, from vacant lots and parking to single story commercial and industrial spaces.

    +more Citi Bike/infrastructure and new (lower priced) Metro North connections.

  • BBnet3000

    Major projects are underway to extend subways and commuter rail serving the Manhattan central business district.

    My only qualm here is this line. ESA is major for the LIRR but the 3 station 2nd Ave Subway and 1 station 7 train extension are really quite modest projects for the subway. Its only their costs that are major.

  • Bob

    I’m all for the outer-borough X line and I think it entirely worth the cost; that said, if the City would do it via BRT (akin to that newly-opened connecticut BRT line), I think it would be a worthwhile alternative. Let’s get ‘er done

  • HamTech87

    I’m all for BRT on roadways, but this is a rail line. Let’s keep it one, and have the benefits of the subway.

    And can’t the “shuttle” between Jamaica and Atlantic Ave be a subway instead of LIRR? Ditto for Rockaway Beach activation.

  • Kevin Love

    That’s a whole order of magnitude (or more) of higher cost.

  • Chris

    While I’d love to see Triboro RX… doesn’t it conflict with the Cross Harbor Freight proposal that PATH is actually moving ahead with? It seems odd to me that one agency isn’t paying attention to the other.

  • Joe R.

    The Triboro Rx is a great start towards getting more subway service where it’s currently lacking. Especially important would be the ability to travel from Queens or Brooklyn to the Bronx without going through Manhattan. The fact it would mostly use an existing ROW should help to keep costs down.

    That said, more subways are eventually needed, particularly in eastern Queens and Brooklyn. Transit hasn’t kept up with population growth in these areas. As a result, car ownership/use is high, with the resultant streets which are unpleasant for cycling or walking during much of the day. Better transit (both bus and subway) could help dramatically reduce car use out here. This would make the streets more amenable to biking, even without major bike infrastructure, encouraging biking for errands instead of driving, further reducing car use.

    So anyway, let’s fast track (pun intended) Triboro Rx while we work on getting BRT in eastern Queens/Brooklyn. BRT should fill the gap until more subways can be built out here. Hopefully we’ll figure out ways to reign in costs so we end up at $100 to $200 million per mile, not the ridiculous $1 billion plus per mile the SAS is costing. We could probably at a bare minimum use about 25 or 30 more route miles of subway. Extend the E, F, 7, J, and A to city limits for a start. Consider building a spur along the LIE or Jewel Avenue going at least to Springfield Blvd. to fill the big gap between the #7 and E/F. Also consider a north-south line maybe 5 miles from city limits similar in concept to the Triboro Rx. We really need more of a grid pattern than a radial pattern given how settlement and commuting patterns have changed since much of the subway was built. Many people just don’t need to go into Manhattan daily, yet that’s pretty much mostly what the current subway does best.

  • Groundhog

    What happened to light rail?

  • toasttoyou

    No it doesn’t conflict. There are ways of sharing freight and transit on the same line. And RPA isn’t an agency – it’s a nonprofit.

  • Bolwerk

    It’s also likely an order of magnitude higher benefit. TBX could vastly change travel patterns.

  • al

    You can go with chronosegregation, where passenger trains run during the day and freight run during the night. At night, when road congestion is nonexistent, a bus shuttle system could replace the passenger trains.

    Another possibility is to combine the Crass Harbor tunnel with Triboro RX to create a NY-NJ circumferential route. It would form an upside down semi-omega.


    It would have a west of Hudson component.


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