Archive for the ‘Transit’ Category

Tue 18 Nov 2008 8:50 am   //   Posted in: New York is different, Over!, Transit

MTA: R.I.P. W, Z?

This is how you get a headline: Let it slip that you’re planning to eliminate two entire subway lines!

The Daily News has a story today speculating that the MTA’s upcoming budget proposal will slash jobs and kill the W and Z trains.

As a reminder to those of you who don’t live in New York, subway lines here are not like subway lines in other cities. Most NYC Subway lines share track with other lines, and most stations are served by multiple trains. So when you eliminate a line, there’s always another train to pick up the slack. How would this work if the W and the Z go to the great rail yard in the sky? Time to play Fantasy Subway:

Let’s start with the Z train, since that’s easiest. It’s an express J. They could have called it the J Diamond. A lot of New Yorkers have never even seen a Z train. Kill it. Over!

The W is more complicated. It’s a daytime local on the Broadway line in Manhattan and then runs local up to Astoria in Queens. It stops running after 9 p.m. weekdays and doesn’t run at all on weekends, when the N runs local in Manhattan to haul tourists from Times Square to Ground Zero alleviate crowding. Eliminating the W without making other adjustments will mean the R will be the only local train on the Broadway line on weekdays. I have a hunch the MTA would just put the weekend schedule in effect all week for the Broadway line: No W, R local, N local, Q express. That makes a lot of sense, but they would have to run more Q trains, especially to pick up passengers riding over the Manhattan bridge to and from Brooklyn, and enough N trains for the rush hour riders in Astoria. An alternative would be to ramp up R service on the Broadway local line during rush hours, and stop the weird rush hour M service on the 4th Avenue line in Brooklyn (which has to share track with the R).*

Most likely scenario: Public outcry will pop this trial balloon. The state will cough up a few more bucks, the MTA will raise fairs fares, and the cuts will hit other things that still hurt the quality of the subway experience but that don’t sound so drastic.

* UPDATE: WCBS-TV reports that the MTA is considering cutting the M line in half, which I’m guessing means stop the 4th Avenue rush hour service. Same treatment may be in store for the hapless G train.

Tue 21 Oct 2008 7:29 am   //   Posted in: Transit

This ad will be running on the local track

Starting last week, I started noticing subway trains with long, horizontal ad stickers on the outside – The History Channel is the first advertiser. So far the ads are only on the IRT lines… I saw one adver-train on the 7 line last week, and on the 1 line yesterday.

Hey, why not? Until the 1980s, the New York City subway was the canvas of graffiti artists. These days, people think fondly of street art (and collect it in galleries!) but I understand that back then it wasn’t so. The vandalized subway was a symbol of the disorder and crime that plagued the city. The victory against subway graffiti – a war fought with manpower and chemistry, in the form of paint remover – is now considered a watershed moment. The city is safer now. The trains cruise unadorned, just cars of stainless steel with minimal decals on the outside (American flag, MTA logo, car number).

So why mess with a good thing? We need the money, that’s why. The subway system is already a commercial zone – there are ad posters in practically every station and inside every car. (Remy cognac just plastered the whole Broadway-Lafayette station with a particularly tasteless campaign.) The 42nd Street Shuttle (a short train that only makes 2 stops) has been getting occasional inside-out ad wraps for a couple of years.

Other railroads, including the Washington Metro and Amtrak, sell ad wraps on the outside of trains, and it seems like a logical step. The Times has a story about all the new ad techniques the MTA is trying to help make up for a budget shortfall.

Sat 27 Sep 2008 8:00 am   //   Posted in: Technology, Transit

I think I can beat Google Maps

This week Google Maps began providing mass transit directions for the New York City metro area. Woo hoo!

Other sites have tried to offer transit directions for the city, but not like this. Google stitched together all the various local transit services, including the ones operated by the MTA, the Port Authority and New Jersey Transit.

I decided to put it to the test with a hard problem: Getting from Newark Airport to my neighborhood. You’re dealing with two states that operate multiple rail and bus services, and there’s no obvious way to do it. But it’s an important route because anybody traveling from out of town via the airports will try to use this service.

I know from experience that the best way to get from EWR to 11215 is to ride the Airtrain monorail to the NJ Transit train, then pick up the subway at Penn Station: A to the F.

Google Maps can’t make up its mind. It offers all kinds of directions depending on the time of day, claiming it can save you a minute or two by sending you on a bus to the PATH train at Newark Penn Station. One scenario involves connecting with two New Jersey buses from the airport to Port Authority. The Google computers are programmed with the exact scheduled departure times of the buses and subways, which is a little goofy since things tend to run off schedule. There’s also information missing. Sure, you can take a C train to Jay Street Borough Hall, but if an A comes first, take the A! And if you’ve just arrived at the New Jersey airport, do you need to buy a fare card? Can you pay in cash on the bus? How much? Do you need exact change? In coins?

A computer might be able to beat a human in chess. But it still can’t beat a well-informed transit rider in navigating New York.

Sat 13 Sep 2008 9:08 pm   //   Posted in: Failure, Transit

We deserve a better rail system

Regarding the Metrolink crash near Los Angeles….

A grisly accident like this is an unfortunate blow to public transportation. It cost at least 25 lives, according to news reports, and will scare some riders away from trains. It should be a wake-up call that the West Coast badly needs to upgrade its passenger rail infrastructure.

The crash in California is being blamed on human error: An engineer failed to stop for a red signal. But this kind of wreck could only have occurred because of California’s clunky, obsolete train system. On this route, two trains in opposite directions were routinely running on the same stretch of track. Why the singletracking? Because a tunnel, dating to the early 1900s, was never made wide enough for two trains. Obviously it is possible to operate a railroad safely with this limitation. But it means slower trains and a greater risk of catastrophe due to human error.

In a first-class rail system – like the electrified passenger trains in most of Europe, or the Northeast Corridor in the U.S. – trains in opposite directions can be segregated to separate tracks. These modern rail lines are also engineered to avoid grade crossings, passing above or below the cars on the street. Some also have technologies to stop a train even if an engineer fails to heed a signal. But in the rest of the U.S., passenger trains have been on life support since the 1950s. Most passenger lines (including the Metrolink commuter trains) have to share track with freight trains and to contend with grade crossings. California, despite its good environmental record, is still a state totally ruled by the automobile. It deserves a substantial investment in improving its trains.

Wed 10 Sep 2008 8:35 am   //   Posted in: Bicycles, Transit, Travel

Viva Velib!

Last year when I went to Paris, the city had just installed the Velib bicycle sharing program. I was so amazed by this idea I couldn’t stop telling people about it. When I visited France last week, it was clear the system is still humming along, but some cracks in the infrastructure have started to appear. More about that in a minute. First, here’s the rundown on how it works.

In short: You walk up to a kiosk, tap a few buttons, and the computer unlocks a bike from an electronic rack. You can ride the bike as much as you want and return it to any one of hundreds of other racks just like it scattered around the city. The computer charges you a Euro or two (or nothing) depending on how long you use the bike, and charges you 150 Euro if you fail to return the bike at all. (The bikes are heavy, fat-tire cruisers with ugly fenders. You can buy a better bike for 150 Euro.)

Who pays for this? No, not taxes. Somebody had a great idea when the contract to manage Paris’s outdoor advertising came up for bid. To win this lucrative contract, companies were required to submit a proposal to create and operate a public bicycle program. Done!

In Paris I had a great time riding around on the Velib bikes. I also saw similar systems in action in Lyon (their Velo’v system was the model for the one in Paris) and Perpignan. These local bike-share programs have been so successful that they are rapidly spreading across Europe. Some U.S. cities have expressed interest. But before we deploy the bikes here, we need to avoid the pitfalls starting to crop up in Paris.

  • First, the system needs way more racks that bikes. Why? Because people tend to ride in the same direction at the same time of day. When I was zipping around Paris last Monday, I found that all of the bike stations near the center of the city were full. I spent about half an hour looking for a station that had an open hitch. The kiosks can display a map showing you where the nearest open bike rack is, but it’s confusing. This problem really gums up the works.
  • Second, the payment system in Paris and Lyon seems needlessly complicated. Most riders buy a special card online, which is mailed to them. Visitors can buy a temporary card right at the kiosk using a credit card. (But only the European kind with a built-in chip. Curiously, the only card in my wallet that worked was my American Express card, and it only worked in Paris.) Perpignan has a much more elegant system. You go online and use your credit card to register for an ID number, which you punch into the kiosk to unlock a bike. (Mine was a four-digit number less than 2,000.) Use it once or use it forever; there’s no card to carry. So simple. I also found the BIP bikes in Perpignan to be better to ride – smaller and lighter, but still sturdy.
  • Third, the system should let the users choose the bikes they want. That was my one gripe with the Perpignan bikes. Sometimes people return damaged bikes to the racks, or bikes with flat tires. The Paris and Lyon systems let you choose the best bike yourself, but the Perpignan system assigns a bike to you.
  • And finally, these bike systems just wouldn’t work in some American cities. Snow and ice – and road salt – would destroy these bikes. That rules out most of the East Coast and Midwest. It has to be a compact city, so forget places like Los Angeles and Miami. What’s left? I’m thinking Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, and mid-size southern cities like Austin and Savannah. Let’s make it happen!

(Photo shows a guy waiting for a space to open up at a Velib rack outside the Centre Georges-Pompidou in Paris.)

Mon 8 Sep 2008 9:41 pm   //   Posted in: Planet earth, Transit, Travel

Back from the future

Tram in Lyon, France

I have just returned from…


The future is powered by nuclear and wind. Public transportation is robust. Trains run everywhere, and glide at 200 miles per hour. Every city has a computerized bike-sharing system. Cars are small, lights go out automatically, and you can give a toilet half a flush if you want to. People savor fresh, locally grown foods.

Wait, did I say the future? I meant France.

More thoughts about my trip over the next few days.

Mon 25 Aug 2008 9:21 pm   //   Posted in: Failure, Transit

Forget something?

The great thing about trains is they never get lost. Or run out of gas. Oh wait.

Mon 25 Aug 2008 6:51 am   //   Posted in: In the news, Transit


Can you imagine being the poor slob who was responsible for London’s portion of the closing ceremony of the Beijing Olympics?

Beijing: We have 15,000 acrobats and $1 billion worth of fireworks. You?

London: We have a bus that turns into a hedge.

Thu 21 Aug 2008 10:25 pm   //   Posted in: Transit

Worst idea of the month

Daily News: NYC Transit planning to experiment with seatless subway cars at rush hour.

Subway cars with no seats? Sorry, I can’t get behind that.

Sat 16 Aug 2008 9:23 pm   //   Posted in: Bicycles, New York is different, Transit

Biking the Vanderbilt Parkway

Welcome to part II of my occasional series, “Weird stuff the Vanderbilts built.” (Previously: Atlantic Avenue Tunnel.)

Today I rode my bike to the abandoned Long Island Motor Parkway. It was built by William Vanderbilt II to connect Queens to Long Island; the first segment opened in 1908. (Hey, that was 100 years ago!) The Motor Parkway operated as a toll road until 1938, when it was unable to compete with the free parkway that Robert Moses built. As soon as it closed, Moses turned it into a bike path. And so it remains today, an overgrown strip of blacktop two lanes wide. It looks like any rails-to-trails bike path, though the hills leading up to the overpasses are steeper than a typical railroad grade. I was surprised by how narrow it is; the parkway was only two lanes wide.

The Parkway was one of the first roads to use elevated bridges (grade separation) to create an express highway. Some refer to it as the country’s “first superhighway,” but the Pennsylvania Turnpike, as a divided highway, has a stronger claim that title.

It never fails to amaze me how much abandoned infrastructure there is in Brooklyn and Queens. As I was riding today, I crossed at least three disused railroad rights-of-way. One is the impressive tunnel and open-cut track that runs beneath the elevated L train south of Broadway Junction. The next was the overgrown right-of-way that runs through Forest Park (identifiably by the abandoned utility poles that run beside where the track was). And finally there was the Central Railroad of Long Island Creedmore Branch, which ran through what is now Kissena Park. It operated from 1872 to 1879 – barely six years!

More info:
NYC Parks Vanderbilt Motor Parkway sign. Long Island Motor Parkway page.
Forgotten New York Kissena Park page.