Friday, April 3, 2009

Thoughts on NY subway transit relevance to smaller cities, Part 1

My brief adventure with Brooklyn and Manhattan transportation brings into sharp focus the key issues in any transit system's success, which the New York subways are largely successful in addressing, but which many other municipal transit systems struggle to meet:

Low cost
Few transfers

The New York subways feature huge trains and relatively high frequencies, and the system is capable of moving extremely large numbers of people almost anywhere they want to go in the city. Waits at transfer points complicate matters, but frequencies are high enough (and surface traffic is generally bad enough, with parking tight enough and expensive enough) to make subway travel attractive for most New Yorkers. The only real physical constraint to transit travel there is the system knowledge riders need in order to make timely and direct transfers. This is partially solved through use of a single subway map (helpfully named "The Map"), good signage, necessity, and exercised memories, though it doesn't seem to cover buses or the Long Island Railroad, which might've been a good option for me to get from the Brooklyn Bridge to JFK. Note that this solution doesn't necessarily transfer well to other cities, few of which are served so comprehensively by rail transit. In the past I have also used Port Authority buses between New York and its immediate New Jersey suburbs. Here in Seattle, by contrast, for the remainder of my lifetime there will never be more than a single T-shaped light rail line in the city, intended to be fed in the near future only by a (good) bus network. Its trains will be considerably smaller than New York's, also suffering from somewhat less frequent service.

By the way, on the bus I was riding to Tukwila last this week when I started writing this, a passenger was attempting to get the bus driver to help him locate the driver of the bus he'd been on a few weeks ago when he was assaulted by another passenger; punched in the face several times apparently because that passenger disagreed with some comments made ("out of context", according to the assaulted passenger) in a conversation directed to someone else. He wants that bus driver to act as a witness in case the assaulted passenger takes legal action against the man who attacked him. Obviously passenger safety in public transit won't be guaranteed in Seattle or New York or anywhere else, until such time as passengers get to choose who they ride with.

Another safety-related issue I noticed in driving and walking around New York was that it seemed like there was an NYPD patrol car parked on every other block. I wondered how this could be possible until I considered the high residential density there; of course police will seem so much more visible even when the ratio of police to civilians is the same as it is here in Seattle -- the greater density means that the police will also be closer together, and hence more visible.

All in all, the investment required to bring a medium-sized, medium-density city like Seattle the level of rail transit that serves such a large proportion of New Yorkers so well would be basically impossible with public money, and at some point we have to ask ourselves as taxpayers how much rail is enough, especially when a rail transit spine can be complemented effectively with more cost-effective alternatives. Which brings us back to where we started in this post: finding convenient, high-capacity, fast, cost-effective, flexible, safe, reliable, and congestion-proof public transit that minimizes transfers as well as the time spent waiting for them.

Yes, adding more buses can improve this, making the bus transit network more convenient and higher-capacity at a relatively low cost, but this would not really do anything for all of the other considerations: bus transit will still be slow, prone to getting caught in congestion, not particularly safe, and requiring transfers that might have long waits. Even a fully rail-networked Seattle would not feature very quick urban transit, with safety a continuing concern and transfers required, likely with longish wait times at transfer points, and of course the cost to build a grade-separated rail transit network throughout the Seattle metropolitan area would be astronomical.

So, with the economic and environmental unsustainability of private automobiles becoming increasingly obvious, what other choices do we have? More on that next time.

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