The Many Flavors of Transit

Public policy for mass transit in the United States is largely focused on a few modes of travel: commuter rail, urban rail, urban bus, and paratransit requirements. These few modes certainly carry most of the transit riders in the country, but do not represent a full understanding of the breadth of options that are required to make a truly transit-oriented city. New York is the most transit-oriented city in North America, and it is likely that when most people not from New York think about transit in New York they think about the subway system, or perhaps they include iconic yellow cabs or remember that there are a lot of buses. If you ask most New Yorkers, they will probably add many other modes, but even then there will likely be many modes left out.

An underappreciated reason why New York functions so well as a transit-oriented city—and can grow transit ridership without new expansion of core services (yet)—is that there are oodles of transit options available. Mode choices for travelers is not a binary choice between driving and transit, even though this has been the general attitude toward transit policy over the past few decades. Observing travel in New York suggests just how complex the required systems are to actually provide meaningful alternatives to automobility.

Below are 33 different categories of mass transit offering regular service in New York City (I have reviewed this list with native New Yorkers but I am sure others will have constructive comments about my categories). This is what it takes to create transit-orientation for a city, and I suspect many of these exist in cities everywhere but planners and scholars are not aware of them. In New York lots and lots of operators offer many different services to many different types of people. Not all technologies work for all places, so transit technologies should reflect the problems to be solved.

  1. MTA subways
  2. PATH subways
  3. MTA buses
  4. New Jersey Transit buses
  5. Metro-North Rail Road
  6. Long Island Rail Road
  7. New Jersey Transit trains
  8. Staten Island Ferry
  9. Staten Island Rail Road
  10. Water taxis
  11. Commuter ferries (Five licensed operators)
  12. Access-a-Ride (MTA and other transit provider contracts)
  13. Yellow taxicabs (Medallion cabs)
  14. Green taxicabs (Boro cabs)
  15. Liveries for Hire (Uber, Lyft, Carmel, etc.)
  16. Executive Limousines
  17. Liveries (informal)
  18. Commuter vans (licensed and pre-arranged fares; e.g. Mario’s Transportation)
  19. Dollar vans and local jitneys (informal immigrant services)
  20. Chinatown buses (intercity)
  21. Low cost intercity buses (Bolt Bus, Mega Bus)
  22. Conventional intercity buses (Greyhound, Peter Pan)
  23. Apartment shuttles (CoSo, etc.)
  24. Company/corporate shuttles
  25. University shuttles (Columbia University, New York University)
  26. New Jersey commuter jitneys
  27. Long Island commuter jitneys
  28. Roosevelt Island Tram (Gondola)
  29. Roosevelt Island Red Bus (Publicly owned development corporation)
  30. CitiBike bike share (public access for a fee)
  31. University bike share programs (free access for a designated group)
  32. Amtrak
  33. Executive helicopters

When planning local transportation systems we now commonly say that multiple modes are required. We underestimate how many modes this is and how challenging it is to accommodate everything. Each of these 33 categories represents different customers, fare policies, public/private ownership, terminal capacity, vehicles, road access, curbside access, infrastructure needs, etc. Most of these different types of transit are regulated under municipal or state laws, too, and require the allocation of public space (roads and waterways) more than large-scale capital investment. I outlined some of these challenges in a recent CityLab piece.

The main takeaway from this is that for transit to be useful it must reflect the many ways people need to get around the city. Multi-modal transport doesn’t mean cars-transit-bikes-pedestrians. There are multiple modes of transit, too.

Seven hours in New York City

I was briefly in New York yesterday. By briefly I mean I left Minneapolis when it was daylight, and returned and it was still daylight. This is of course much easier to accomplish when you are near the summer solstice, but still it suggests the technical feasibility, though definitely not the desirability, of cross-continental commutes.

On the Minneapolis side, things went very smoothly. I left my house at 5:45 AM, caught the bus at 5:53, was at the LRT by 6:00, caught the ~6:03 LRT to the airport and was there by 6:20. Security was quick, the weather was good, the 8:05 flight was on-time.

Some comments on transportation in America’s largest city.

For a city with so many airline passengers, and presumably airline profits, some of the airport terminals (JFK Terminal 2) are still quite dumpy (Yes there is a plan to fix this). One would think that if there were competitive owners of each different airport (and each terminal), they would have to compete for customers (both passengers and airlines) by differentiating quality (presumably upwards). Though there has been some terminal modernization, New York is far behind the rest of western (and eastern) civilization in this arena.

Second, there is not good transit access from the airports to the City. New York, with the US’s largest subway system has had more than 50 years since the dawn of the jet age to connect its airports to its transit system successfully, and seems to have failed to avail itself. (I am aware of JFK’s AirTrain, it seems to require a separate charge from the transit system and a transfer, surely someone could figure out how to bundle that. It also required taking the subway with 33 stops to my Midtown destination). This is not an unknown problem, and solutions are proposed for LaGuardia (via Bus, apparently the train proposal was shelved) and JFK (at about $10B, which seems excessive, but this is NYC).

At any rate, someone else was paying for my surface transportation, so I was in a car. (Which I realize makes me part of the problem, not the solution, but also gives me the perspective of enlightened commentators such as Dorothy Rabinowitz. Yet I did not notice any problems with CitiBikes on my brief stay. There were some bicycles darting in and out of traffic, but that was because cars were not moving and bikes could). On the way in I also got to hear the political philosophy of my driver (a well-educated Russian immigrant from over 30 years ago), who is probably best described as a Peter King Republican, which probably would not have happened on a subway train. The driver seemed to be of the belief that bus lanes were a bad idea because they delayed cars, and in general was opposed to the Bloomberg administration. He also thought most of the works were badly managed and timed poorly (this I agree with) so the Unions could flex their power, and that trucks should only enter the city at night. Of course where you stand depend on where you sit.

Third, New York has far more street traffic congestion than it should. Of course it is crowded, and it probably shouldn’t build more highways, but it doesn’t manage scarce roadspace the way a well-managed city would.

  • On the way in to the city, one of the lanes on the Queens Midtown Expressway was blocked so someone (1 person) could sweep the shoulder, with a broom, in the middle of the day. To be charitable, maybe there was recent broken glass that required cleaning, but this seemed far more substantial cleaning than the debris from a fender-bender. The queues formed by the lane closure were several miles in length.
  • Why is on-street parking permitted in the middle of the day on both sides of the street on major congested streets (37th Street)? This seems to be more than loading/unloading and more than temporary construction crews.
  • And why is don’t block the box not enforced. This would seem a perfect opportunity to use red light running cameras to ticket people who block cross-traffic on the red light.

This is even before considering what economists normally think about when they say pricing, some form of congestion charge, which has been proposed and not implemented because the winners could not bring themselves to pay off the losers.

Fourth, why is there congestion at the airport on a clear day with as perfect weather as one could ask for? Leaving LaGuardia, we boarded the plane on-time and the plane was 17th for take-off with about 40 minutes of ground wait. We landed “on time”, meaning the airline (Delta) built in 45 minutes of ground delay into the schedule to ensure “on time” arrivals. If the schedule is such that the same flights are repeated daily (an approximation), then our plane would take off at the same time every day regardless (unless it was worse due to weather). Which means, we could have been scheduled a half-hour later and not waited in the plane on the ground. This is a simple coordination problem that could be solved with reservation pricing. I suspect this is a problem because there are competing airlines which want to offer the same departure time (~6:45 pm), but a monopoly airport. In a different airport a dominant (hub) airline might internalize the delay costs. See Daniel (1995) on Congestion Pricing and Capacity of Large Hub Airports: A Bottleneck Model with Stochastic Queues.

Citi Bike Launches In NYC, But Will It Reach New Yorkers Who Aren’t Rich And White?

I am interviewed by Roxanne Palmer in the International Business Times: Citi Bike Launches In NYC, But Will It Reach New Yorkers Who Aren’t Rich And White?. My words of wisdom:

“‘I would say you have to walk before you can run,’ University of Minnesota civil engineer David Levinson says. ‘You have to get something operational before you can expand.’ “


The system is also quite flexible. As data pours in on usage patterns and as interest grows, the city can respond accordingly.

“You can pick up a bike-share station and move it somewhere else,” Levinson says. “It’s much easier to do that than to build a subway system.”

Also quoted are Kevin Krizek and David King, so you know it’s a good article.

The Argument for Platform Barriers

Alex Newmark at Transportation Nation reports NY MTA Tepidly Explores Platform Barriers After Subway Track Deaths … Again :

“Though the MTA would not cite a cost figure for installation, some proposals place barriers at over a million dollars per station. There are 468 stations.”

Okay, lets use $468 million as our back-of-the-envelope price. The article also says:

“In 2012, 54 people have died on the tracks, either through falls, shoves or suicide.”

Lets use $6 million as the value of a statistical life, consistent with US DOT. Let’s assume there is a lifetime of 10 years, when the technology needs to be replaced. Let’s assume no discounting. Let’s assume it is 100% effective. The system will save 54*10=540 people for a value of $3,240,000,000 ($3.2 B), or a Benefit/Cost ratio of 6.9. I wish more transportation projects would get that.
We can make other assumptions, discounting, less than 100% effectiveness, higher prices fewer deaths per year and so on, which diminish this. There are additional benefits though (confidence in the system, fewer injuries, longer capital life, and so on) which would also need to be accounted for.
In the end, it sure seems like the B/C ratio would be well above 1.
The systems I have been in (like Kyoto below) that had them worked well. Of course retrofit is a more difficult issue, and this is New York, so the cost will inevitably be higher.

The Genius of Dirt Roads

In City Journal, Brandon Fuller writes: The Genius of Dirt Roads :

“Angel writes that governments in the developing world, whose financial capacity is often limited, should focus on what may sound unglamorous: establishing an arterial grid of dirt roads throughout each city’s future territory, much as the commissioners did in Manhattan. The grid should connect to the city’s existing network of roads, of course, and it should cover an area that the city expects its future population growth to require. These arteries will one day carry public transportation and private traffic, and such infrastructure as water mains, sewers, storm drains, and telecommunications networks will follow their routes.”

The grid has advantages and drawbacks. In Planning for Place and Plexus we write:

The morphology and queuing properties of the plexus (its supply and demand) ultimately determine both the efficiency of the network in moving people and the efficiency of the land use. Radial (hub-and-spoke) networks allow easy access to the center but create inconvenient sharply angled parcels. In contrast, 90-degree grids maximize travel times (for anyone traveling in a diagonal direction) but create efficient parcels. A major issue with network topology is the interconnectedness of the network. Interconnected networks, be they grid or radial in nature, enable and even encourage through traffic, while a tree-like network discourages that problem. The topology of the network, grid, radial, organic (curvilinear) or otherwise, affects its performance.
The regular grid (with occasional interruptions) is arguably the most common topology for cities. It has been employed in cities for millennia. In the United States, the most influential legislation affecting the morphology of roads was the Land Ordinance of 1785. In many respects, it laid the foundation for future land use-transportation policy by adopting the Public Land Survey System, creating townships and subdividing them into 36 sections of one square mile (259 hectares) and 144 quarter-sections of 0.25 square mile (65 hectares) each. Roads delineating each of the sections were referred to as “section roads.” Subsequently, many urbanizing areas continued to use the centerlines of those roads as the location of present day arterials; the arterial networks are often further broken down into a finer grid of blocks.
A key point that has not been generally considered is the flexibility that the uniform and undifferentiated mesh networks (termed “grids” here) provide to changes in land use. A uniform grid allows alternative spacing between activities, spacing that can change with economies of scale. For instance, consider retailing. As described in Chapter 9, many stores—especially grocery stores—have been getting larger, while their numbers have dropped. Many New Urbanists, who advocate small-scale neighborhood retail, bemoan this phenomenon. Suppose that economies of scale indicate that it is efficient for the average retail store of a certain kind to increase in size from 1,000 to 2,000 ft2 (93 to 186 m2). Previously there may have been one such store every 10 blocks (one for every 100 square blocks); now there can be one every 14 blocks (one for every 200 square blocks). A grid allows the flexibility for re- spacing while keeping nearly optimal size stores. …
A tree network, in contrast, fails to provide such flexibility; a store can locate either at the neighborhood center, at the community center, or at the regional center; it can serve perhaps 5,000 people, 15,000 people, or 60,000 people. A store optimally sized to serve 10,000 people cannot be located at a consistent node level—or, if it is, it cannot be efficient. A firm may need to locate stores in some neighborhood centers and not others, causing people to go into other neighborhoods in some places.
Recognizing that grid-based road networks might not lend themselves to locations that were not situated on flat, featureless plains, designers introduced several variations. To conform to the contours of the land, Frederick Law Olmstead employed curving streets in many of his designs (e.g. Roland Park, Maryland). Permutations continued to evolve over the years, and the “loop” and “lollipop” designs became the standard in suburban settings

I think the idea of a particular network topology (grid vs. tree) depends a lot on the topography. Getting this right is important. The idea of laying something out in advance (Angel’s main point), so that property rights and development can occur on that lattice, seems a very good one.

Linklist: November 12, 2012 Sandy Special Edition

Some Sandy links:
(1) Subway Recovery:
In general I am really impressed with the speed of the subway recovery. If periodic flooding does not destroy the network, maybe New York does not need to relocate or build really expensive defenses, just take a 1 or 2 week vacation every hurricane.
From WNYC: Subway Network Recovery animation

From NYT: New York Subways Find Magic in Speedy Hurricane Recovery
(2) Gas Rationing:

From NYT: In New York Gas Shortage, Missed Opportunities and Miscalculations

From NYT: Odd-Even License Plate Rules Have a History

We really need to invent/deploy gasoline-powered gas stations and refineries. It seems many stations had gas they could not pump for lack of electricity. Obviously lots of other problems as well, and I am sure there are risks of sparking near lots of gasoline, but this should be a solvable problem.

HOV3 and Casual Carpooling

MSNBC: ‘Pure mayhem’ as New York City tries to get back to work :

“That led some people to try to hitchhike their way into Manhattan, with drivers eager to pick them up to make the three-person-per-car quota.
‘Some folks offered me a ride,’ said Melanie Bower, 30, who lives in Fort Greene. ‘I was touched by their kindness at first. But then I realized they just needed me so they could have three in their car.’ 
Bower walked into Manhattan instead, and then caught a bus uptown.”

It seems casual carpooling is running into some moralizing. The gain from trade (I give you a ride, we both save time) appears wrong to at least some travelers. People in other parts of the country have gotten over this, I am surprised New Yorkers, living in the home of capitalism, are having trouble.

Bloomberg Announces Carpool Rule for Manhattan-Bound Drivers

Streetsblog on the HOV-only bridges and tunnels in NYC will really help buses: Bloomberg Announces Carpool Rule for Manhattan-Bound Drivers : “After a morning and afternoon when car traffic completely clogged NYC streets and river crossings, Mayor Bloomberg announced new restrictions for drivers entering Manhattan via bridges and tunnels on Thursday and Friday. On most crossings, only cars with three or more people will be allowed to enter Manhattan.”

I hope Casual Carpooling takes off.

New New York and New New Jersey

Does the US have an obligation to rebuild New York’s subway? Does New York have this obligation?
Randal O’Toole (The Antiplanner) goes there: Should New York Rebuild the Subways? :

“As long as New York already had a subway, it probably made sense to maintain it. But building new subways, such as the Second Avenue subway which is costing more than $2 billion a mile, makes no sense. Will it make sense to perform costly repairs of the subways heavily damaged by Sandy?
There are those who argue that density has a great economic value and that all cities would be denser if it weren’t for barriers put in the way of density. On the other hand, if densities were lower, the damage from storms such as Sandy or other events such as earthquakes would be a lot lower.
Operating and maintaining New York’s transit system costs than $10 billion a year more than fare collections. While increasing fares by an average of $2.50 per ride could cover those costs, this wouldn’t be enough as the system isn’t being maintained to a state of good repair. Most of the subsidies come from auto users, out of either federal gas taxes or bridge tolls that are diverted to transit.
There are two alternatives to rebuilding the subways. The drastic alternative is to simply let the city fend for itself without subways. A more realistic alternative would be to convert the subways into underground busways. Electric buses could move just about as many people as the subways do with far less infrastructure.

Does the US have an obligation to bail out coastal regions which built where they shouldn’t have? Matt Kahn goes there: Rebuilding New Jersey and Coastal Moral Hazard

I predict that in the “no FEMA” equilibrium, that the state’s residents and leaders would invest in taking many more precautions to reduce their exposure to flood and hurricane risk. Zoning laws would change to discourage construction in the riskiest areas and to reduce population density in those areas. Coastal home owners would be incentivized by the state to take much greater precautions to reduce ex-post damage. “

Comment: Just as there are positive externalities to density, there are negative externalities which are subsidized by others, and there is moral hazard there – overbuilding due to social insurance. Moralizing and “must”-ing as politicians are wont to do does not get us to the right answer, it just reaffirms the status quo of existing built form and real estate markets. There may be better solutions which we fail to seek in the rush to rebuild just as we were.