Teeming Transit

The strain is showing underground

By Mark Fahey

Beneath the intersection of Lexington and East 51stStreet, rush-hour commuters waited shoulder-to-shoulder as three No. 6 subway trains stopped at the station with completely packed cars.

“I’ve never been on a line that’s so sardine-like,” said Mary Ann Fitzgerald, 52, as she waited after work on a rainy day. “People start to get frustrated and upset.”

Fitzgerald, an investment banker, said that on nice evenings she skips the ordeal entirely, walking from her Park Avenue office to Grand Central Station to catch her Metro North train to Westchester.

Plans to rezone Midtown East and build new skyscrapers there will only make things worse for commuters at East 51st Street. But the challenge is city-wide: as the population of New York City has expanded over the last six years, the boom in subway ridership has strained the system. In 2007, nearly one in three subway lines was already exceeding capacity during peak hours. Annual ridership has increased by more than 145 million rides since then, topping out at 1.71 billion last year – the highest ridership since 1949. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority predicts that the city will add another 1 million residents by 2035.

“The numbers are so big and daunting when it comes to the MTA,” said Gene Russianoff, staff attorney for the Straphangers Campaign, a public transportation advocacy group. “If you look at the history of transit in New York City, we’ve always been behind the curve.”

Russianoff said that the MTA is partially a victim of its own success, with some of the recent ridership increase coming from billions in investments in the system over the last three decades. Although the MTA declined to comment for this story, the agency is seriously considering solutions for future ridership increases, he said.

Overcrowded trains are a major factor in delays in the subway system. The No. 6 train is one of many lines whose on-time performance has deteriorated over the last few years, falling from nearly 90 percent on the MTA’s metric in 2009 to around 70 percent last year. All but four lines performed worse last year than in 2009, and some, including the No. 3, No. 4 and No. 5 lines, plummeted by more than 20 percentage points.


Performance has declined across most lines


The problem of congested subway lines is only going to get worse with time, said Adam Forman, research and communications associate at the Center for an Urban Future, which released a report on the city’s infrastructure woes in March (read more about infrastructure here). 

“All levels of government really need to step up to maintain a state of good repair,” said Forman. “It’s important for long-term health and competition. The MTA really is the lifeblood of New York City.”

Common recorded causes of train delays include overcrowded trains, work on the tracks and work stretching past planned hours. Ellyn Shannon, associate director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA, said on-time performance should improve as lines receive upgrades. The most promising targets for improving subway performance in the coming decades are the train signaling system and the subway stations themselves, said Forman.

Of the MTA’s 728 miles of signals, 26 percent are more than 70 years old. The antiquated signaling system divides the track into fixed blocks, automatically applying the brakes if a subway train attempts to enter a block that already contains a train. Newer systems, called Communications Based Train Control (CBTC), increase the number of trains that can run on a track by calculating safety zones based on each train’s speed and location on the track.

The MTA installed the new system on the L line in 2006, increasing the capacity from 15 to 26 trains per hour, and has replaced part of the signal system on the No. 7 line. Only half the overall system will be replaced by the end of 2035, and the upgrades will cost the MTA $16 billion, by far the largest item in the MTA’s $68 billion.


Explore ridership growth on the subway


Station capacity is also an issue. Many subway stations were never designed to hold as many passengers as now pass through them on a daily basis, and bottlenecks form at stairways and entrances. Installing new entrances and crowd control measures could alleviate congestion. Other changes, like train cars with mandatory standing room during commute hours, have been shot down by the public, said Forman.

“Even when the MTA has tried to do it, sometimes they’ve been too easily cowed by community objections,” said Forman. “These changes can really improve quality of life for the whole city.”

As officials and experts grapple with rising ridership, straphangers make do. At the East 51st Street station, Peter Banks, on his way home from work, watched patiently as another full train opened doors to the crowded platform. Another No. 6 train was waiting right behind the train in the tunnel.

It’s like this every night at rush hour, he said. “You just wait for the next train, or you just be an asshole and shove in.”

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Population Density (per acre) in NYC