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Six-Minute Transit Headways Would Increase Ridership 15%: Expert

Six-minute headways would reduce this kind of crowding yet also increase ridership, says Alon Levy.

Two years ago I wrote about how New York should aim to run every bus and subway service every six minutes off-peak. Buses would require a combination of aggressive bus redesign and speedup treatments for this to be viable. The subway already has very low variable operating costs off-peak and such a boost in frequency would naturally increase efficiency; New York City Transit gets around 550 service-hours annually per train driver, whereas the Berlin U-Bahn, with its flat all-day schedule, gets around 900. But now, the more mainstream New York-area transit advocacy group Riders Alliance has its own proposal for six-minute service, which it has aggressively marketed using the hashtag #6minuteservice.

This is a good campaign and I hope more people in the region take notice and push for it until the state implements it in full. The impact on passenger convenience is massive, not just in the form of shorter waits but also higher reliability coming from better timetabling, and hopefully also slightly more speed coming from said higher reliability. The proposal says that it would cost $250 million more per year to effect this system, and it’s plausible that it would increase ridership by enough to defray this cost entirely, even without any efficiency treatments to reduce unit costs.

What’s in the Riders Alliance proposal?

Between 5 a.m. and 9 p.m. on weekdays, and between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m. on weekends, all subway routes and the top 100 bus routes in the city should run at worst every six minutes. This echoes a report by the comptroller’s office from last year, recommending this as an alternative to rush hour-focused service by bringing up Covid-related ridership decreases.

Timetabling a consistent all-day service is much easier than timetabling bespoke service patterns. The Riders Alliance proposal aims to face the general public rather than planners and therefore omits this benefit, but this benefit reaches passengers as well, in non-obvious ways.

Here's what people are talking about when they talk about depressed transit use vs. increased car use post-pandemic.
Here's what people are talking about when they talk about depressed transit use vs. increased car use post-pandemic.
Here's what people are talking about when they talk about depressed transit use vs. increased car use post-pandemic.

First, if all trains and buses run every six minutes, then it’s possible to set up clockface timetables. These don’t matter very much if they run every six minutes, but they do if they run every 12, as I expect the two A branches to. The same is true of buses that branch: some outer ends may run every 12 minutes, in which case they can and should run on repeating clockface timetables that passengers can memorize. Passengers who can remember “my bus leaves at :01, :13, :25, :37, and :49” without having to consult timetables or trip planners all the time are likelier to take the trip; this was my commute for a year in Vancouver.

The A train today runs every 15 minutes on each branch but it’s not on a consistent clockface schedule, which depresses ridership. In effect, current practice is little different from what Swiss planners warn of: they say the best way to reduce ridership is to run service every 11, 13, or 17 minutes, rather than every 12 or 15 on a clockface pattern.

Second, if all trains run on the same frequency, then service planning on a complexly interlined system like New York’s becomes more tractable. Today, every train runs on a separate frequency, often different from the services it shares track with. The 2 and 3 trains share track most of the way, from Franklin Avenue to 135th Street, but the 2 is just a little more frequent, resulting in the following northbound timetable at Franklin:

10:03: 2 train
10:07: 3 train
10:12: 2
10:15: 3
10:21: 2
10:28: 3
10:32: 2
10:34: 3
10:37: 2
10:41: 3
10:43: 2
10:49: 2
10:51: 3
10:57: 3
11:01: 2
11:03: 3
11:09: 2
11:15: 3
11:17: 2
11:22: 3
11:24: 2
11:28: 3

This is irregular both on the trunk and on each individual service — the 2 on average runs every eight minutes but has a 12-minute gap, and the 3 runs on average every nine but also has a 12-minute gap. It’s an unavoidable consequence of the combination of extensive reverse-branching and subway frequency guidelines that run different services at different headways. The six-minute service proposal straightens this by aligning the trains to a single frequency, with regular alternation between successive trains on trunks.

And third, another benefit of a regular frequency to planning is that schedule planners can reliably avoid merge conflicts. This, in turn, speeds up service, which is full of planned delays and schedule padding at pain points. It’s not a full substitute for deinterlining, which would eliminate the merge conflicts at the worst junctions, but it makes it viable to no longer write impossible schedules with the planning department that New York City Transit has.

Service quality and demographics

Both Riders Alliance and the comptroller report point out demographic differences between peak and off-peak riders: rush-hour subway commuters have a median income of $50,783 a year, even higher (slightly) than drivers, but off-peak subway commuters have a median income of $37,048 and bus commuters have a median income of $30,374.

In both reports, this is taken to be indicative that off-peak service is mostly for poorer people, but it’s not the right analysis. The picture that emerges from the data is not that in general rush-hour commuters outearn off-peak commuters; for one, most off-peak commutes are done by car, not by public transportation. Rather, what’s going on is that off-peak public transit quality is bad and this suppresses ridership among those who can afford a car.

By the same token, we can look at the incomes of commuters in regions of the United States that have no public transit to speak of — maybe some buses or even a few trains but with rounding-error ridership and low single-digit modal split. In metro New York, public transit and car commuters have about the same median income, and in some secondary transit cities like Chicago public transit commuters actually outearn drivers, since service to non-CBD destinations is so bad it suppresses ridership below median income more than above it. But in places like Los Angeles, the median income of transit commuters is not much more than half that of car commuters, because service quality is so bad that anyone who can afford to drive does.

The upshot of this is that better off-peak transit service is going to increase the average income of off-peak transit users, by attracting people who currently drive. This is also going to lead to higher-socioeconomic status shifts: higher levels of degree attainment, a larger proportion of white riders, a larger proportion of native-born riders.

I bring this up because a rise in the relative average income of users as service quality improves means the improvement is working as intended. It doesn’t mean the subway is gentrifying or turns away poorer riders, it just means it no longer repels riders who can afford to drive. This is important, because too much American transit planning is based on market segmentation in which service is supposed to be for a specific class of rider, and if the demographics are changing, it means it’s being revamped for a different class. In reality, there’s just one transit system for one city and income differences are indicative of quality differences and not of inherent differences in the travel market.

How much does this cost? What is the ridership impact?

The Riders Alliance proposal says the additional cost of the program is $250 million a year in operating expenses. In 2019, NYCT spent $8.8 billion on operations and got $4.6 billion in fares, so this is in theory a 6-percent increase in subsidy, and in practice a little less as better service attracts more fare-paying riders. This is without any concurrent attempts to use the increase in service to increase efficiency (read: reduce unit staffing levels) and, I think, without bus speedups that permit much higher frequency for the same cost.

It’s unclear what the revenue impact should be; the ridership impact can be estimated from longstanding results in the literature about ridership-frequency elasticity, which in the case of NYCT should be about 0.4. The proposal increases off-peak service on the subway by around 50 percent in principle and a bit more in practice because of the reduced variability in frequency, say two-thirds: most lines would go from 10-minute headways to six-minute headways; the rest, which are mostly more frequent than this, get a smaller increase that we round up to two-thirds by taking the impact of higher reliability into account.

This means an increase in off-peak ridership of around 23 percent.

The bus impact is even larger — in Brooklyn the median bus headway is right between 12 and 15 minutes, and even taking into account that the busiest buses do much better, this is close to a doubling of the effective frequency.

In turn, most ridership is off-peak. In 2019, peak ridership between 7 and 10 a.m. into the Manhattan core was 923,000 per weekday, amounting to 44 percent of ridership entering the Manhattan core on a weekday, or around 33 percent of all inbound weekday ridership and 27 percent of all ridership. Even accounting for peak ridership that doesn’t enter Manhattan, only about one-third of subway ridership in New York was at the peak before Covid; the peak share has fallen since, but is slowly creeping back up as workers return to the office. Raising two-thirds of ridership by 23 percent is massive — it’s a 15-percent systemwide increase for a much smaller increase in operating costs, and a somewhat larger increase in bus ridership to boot.

Unfortunately, I can’t turn this into a revenue-impact estimate. While the demographics in the section above specify off-peak commuters, the studies that my ridership estimate is based on measure riders, including peak commuters who ride more often for non-work trips. Such riders already have monthly passes, so making it easier for them to ride is excellent for the city’s long-term health but doesn’t defray the added cost. Converted riders who are not already on the system as well as the odd peak rider who doesn’t already have a pass do generate more revenue, but I don’t know how many there are; these need to be a little more than a third of the overall increase in ridership to fully defray costs, which sounds plausible to me.

This piece originally appeared on Levy's website, Pedestrian Observations, and is presented here to broaden its readership to the Streetsblog universe.

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