It shouldn’t have to snow for NYC transit agencies to cross-honor fares

It’s snowing in the New York City region, which means we’re seeing tweets like this:

Even on days without “significant weather events”, it’s common to see tweets like this:

Those of you outside the New York City area may be wondering, what is “cross-honoring”? Cross-honoring means that because of a significant service disruption on one transit system another transit system providing approximately parallel service will honor passengers’ tickets for the interrupted service. So, earlier today, when the New York City Subway’s 7 train was interrupted, passengers going from, say, Flushing, Queens—where the Flushing-Main St subway station is about a block away from the Long Island Rail Road’s Flushing-Main St station—to Manhattan could use their MetroCards to ride the LIRR instead.

That’s considerate of the agencies, right? I suppose that’s one way to look at it.

All these subway lines and the Long Island Rail Road are operated by the same agency—yet you have to have two separate tickets to ride them. (And why should the agency that operates it matter anyway?)
All these subway lines and the Long Island Rail Road are operated by the same agency—yet you have to have two separate tickets to ride them. (And why should the agency that operates it matter anyway?)

But here’s the thing: the New York City Subway and the LIRR are part of the same agency, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Over in New Jersey, mentioned in the tweet above, the rail, light-rail, and bus systems that are cross-honoring each other’s fares are all part of the same, statewide transit agency, New Jersey Transit.

So, my question is, why don’t they cross-honor each other fares to begin with? As in, all the time, regardless of the weather or service disruptions?

I know, I know: the various systems—the regional railroads, the subway, the light-rail lines, and buses—tend to serve different groups of users in different geographic locations, often with different socio-economic backgrounds and levels of income. It is arguable that a commuter from a wealthier community on Long Island should have to pay more for a trip through Queens than a lower-income New York City resident.

I know, too, that the systems were, at one time, completely separate companies, and that the political and financial deals that brought them together preserved various and separate streams of revenue for them.

What I’m saying is that maybe now is the time to have a conversation on whether that should end.

After all, the New York City Subway was once three separate companies, one owned by the City of New York, the other two in private hands. It gets even more complex when you consider that various sections of what is now the subway, particularly in Brooklyn, were once owned by separate, private railroads and only later absorbed into the IRT, BMT, or IND and then merged into the subway. And even after consolidation of the city’s rapid-transit systems, at one time riders to and from the Rockaways had to pay an additional, premium fare. But that was all eventually swept away and a single, unified fare structure adopted for the New York City Subway and local buses (which are still technically operated by three separate MTA entities: New York City Transit, the Manhattan and Bronx Surface Transit Operating Authority or MaBSTOA, and the MTA Bus Company).

More importantly, it’s increasingly how New York’s peer cities—and economic competitors—do things. Case in point: Paris. On my recent trip there I paid a visit to Versailles. To get to Versailles from my hotel near the Eiffel Tower, I took the RER’s line C (French) to one of its termini at Versailles Rive Gauche. My walk through the estate and back into town took me past Versailles Rive Droite, a terminus for the Transilien‘s line L (French). At La Défense, I transferred to RER line A. Eventually, I took the métro using the same ticket. It didn’t matter that RER C or Transilien L are operated by the national railway company, the SNCF, and that RER A and the métro are operated by the Paris region’s transit authority, the RATP. It also didn’t matter that the métro is a different mode from the RER or the Transilien; I could have taken a bus or a trolley using the same ticket.

This map shows the five fare zones into which the Paris region's transit network is divided. (A PDF of the map is available on the Transilien's website.)
This map shows the five fare zones into which the Paris region’s transit network is divided. (A PDF of the map is available on the Transilien’s website.)

See, the Paris region, called the Île-de-France, is divided into zones. Daily, weekly, and monthly passes are issued for a certain combination of zones; with some exceptions, such as airport and river services, a rider can use any public transit within the zones indicated on the pass. The operator or the mode doesn’t matter. As the website for Hourtoule, an operator of local buses in the city of Versailles, explains, “Comme tous les réseaux de transport publics d’Ile de France, Cars HOURTOULE appliquent la gamme tarifaire définie par le STIF.” In other words, “As all public transit networks in the Paris region, Hourtoule buses use the fare structure defined by the STIF.” (STIF stands for Syndicat des transports d’Île-de-France. It coordinates transportation throughout the Paris region as well as a unified fare structure. A brochure, available in PDF in French, explains how the fare structure works. A webpage in English explains the many ticket types available.)

Here in New York, I can’t even get from Brooklyn to Jersey City with a single fare (though I can use a pay-per-ride MetroCard the entire way) or from my corner of Long Island to the rest of Long Island using a single ticket.

The Paris region has figured out how to make riding transit across the Île-de-France virtually seamless. No matter the mode, no matter the operator, a single ticket will get you from Rambouillet in the southwest to Charles de Gaulle Airport in the northeast, or from Cergy in the northwest to Montereau in the southeast, and for a relatively low fare.

It’s time to make that happen in the New York City region as well.

If the MTA’s debt were a GDP …

One of the eye-popping financial figures being much talked about in the New York City media over the past few days is the Straphangers Campaign‘s report (PDF) that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority‘s debt, currently $34.1 billion, is greater than the national debt of 30 countries.

A sobering figure indeed.

But that got me to thinking: how many countries have GDPs smaller than the MTA’s debt? And I have an answer:

102

That’s right: 102 sovereign nations have an economic output smaller than the MTA’s current debt.

If we follow the Straphangers Campaign’s lead and exclude nations with a GDP smaller than U.S. $10 billion, that still leaves us with a lengthy list of 45 countries:

Country 2013 GDP
Billions of U.S. $
Jordan 33.7
Bahrain 32.8
Tanzania 32.7
Latvia 31.0
North Korea 30.7
Bolivia 30.2
Paraguay 29.0
Cameroon 28.0
Trinidad & Tobago 27.8
Côte d’Ivoire 27.2
Estonia 24.5
El Salvador 24.3
Uganda 23.5
Zambia 23.4
Cyprus 21.9
Democratic Republic of the Congo 21.3
Afghanistan 20.7
Bosnia and Herzegovina 19.4
Honduras 18.6
Nepal 18.2
Brunei Darussalam 17.0
Georgia 16.1
Equatorial Guinea 16.1
Senegal 15.6
Cambodia 15.5
Mozambique 15.3
Botswana 15.3
Papua New Guinea 14.8
Iceland 14.6
Jamaica 14.3
Albania 12.6
Namibia 12.4
Mauritius 12.0
Burkina Faso 11.9
Mongolia 11.5
Nicaragua 11.3
Chad 11.2
Gabon 11.1
Armenia 11.0
Palestinian Authority 11.0
Zimbabwe 10.9
Laos 10.9
Mali 10.8
Madagascar 10.6
Macedonia 10.2

Looking at the full list of 102, the MTA’s debt is greater than the combined GDP of the bottom 28 nations ($34.1 billion versus $32.1 billion).

The full spreadsheet with all the nations and GDP data can be found here.

These figures were reported in the June 2014 Metro Economies Report (PDF) issued by The United States Conference of Mayors. The report was prepared by IHS Global Insight. The original report included a few “nations” I have excluded here, including American Samoa, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, which I consider to be a part of the United States, and the French overseas departments of French Guiana, Martinique, and Réunion, which are a part of France.

Photo: Fulton Center, the stunning new subway station that opened in November 2014 in Lower Manhattan, cost $1.4 billion to construct—more than the GDP of 18 countries.

Grand plans for D.C.’s grand station

A rendering of what Union Station's train shed may look like someday if ambitious plans to redevelop the station and the surrounding neighborhood come to fruition.
A rendering of what Union Station’s train shed may look like someday if ambitious plans to redevelop the station and the surrounding neighborhood come to fruition.

In an extensive online piece with several interactive features, The Washington Post‘s Steven Pearlstein examines ambitious plans to remake and expand Washington Union Station and the surrounding neighborhood. The master plan calls for a new passenger experience on expanded tracks and platforms within a massive development project that stitches back together an urban fabric split by Union Station’s rail yard for more than a century—at a cost of $10 billion or more over 25 years or longer. There will undoubtedly be, as Mr. Pearlstein explains, significant financial and political hurdles to overcome.

Nobody thinks we’d be better off today if government had not borrowed the money to build the Beltway, or the subway system or Dulles International Airport. It would be yet another symptom of today’s cramped political vision—and our false notion of economy—if we fail to make a similarly bold investment in the expansion and redevelopment of Union Station.

While most of the piece is solid, I find Mr. Pearlstein’s repeated references to Grand Central Terminal here in New York to be a bit of a stretch. Can Union Station be to D.C. what Grand Central is to NYC? Better yet, would we want it to be? Clearly there are many similarities: a grand Beaux Arts station in the heart of one of America’s great cities, used not only by commuters but a tourist and shopping destination in its own right, saved from neglect and outright destruction in the 1970s.

But if Washingtonians are expecting to recreate Grand Central in their city, there are significant differences that shouldn’t be overlooked. First is the sheer number of travelers who pass through Grand Central each year: 82 million. It has even more passengers today than it had during the “golden age” of train travel, when travel through the terminal peaked at 65 million in 1947. Compare that to Union Station’s 14 million annual passengers currently, or even 30 years from now when ridership is expected to triple to 42 million (and Grand Central’s ridership has increased to 115 million or more with the coming of the Long Island Rail Road).

It speaks to the paucity of our civic imagination, and the small-mindedness of our politics, that simply to describe a project of such ambition is to invite the knowing smirks and raised eyebrows of those who will immediately recognize it as wholly incompatible with the current political and budgetary environment.

Second is the state of the development around each station. Grand Central’s predecessors, as Mr. Pearlstein notes, were built on the edge of what was then New York City, mostly open farmland and fields that were ripe for development. By the time the current iteration of Grand Central was completed in 1913, New York was on the cusp of a massive building boom of skyscrapers; one which was the tallest in the world for a short time, the Chrysler Building, was even constructed directly across Lexington Avenue from the terminal and connected to it by an underground passage. Today, New York City is working on a massive “upzoning” around the terminal, which will increase the amount of office space—and building heights—within walking distance of the station, to take advantage of the coming East Side Access and rising property values. The area surrounding Union Station, on the other hand, while ready for redevelopment, isn’t on the city’s edge: it’s a mere four blocks from the Capitol at the very heart of the city. And not only is it hemmed in on the sides, but thanks to the Height of Buildings Act it’s also hemmed in on the top, limiting the area’s potential.

While Mr. Pearlstein would have you believe that travelers at Grand Central have a superior passenger experience, I wouldn’t be so sure. While there are many shops and amenities for travelers, perhaps the key difference lies in the platforms themselves: all of Grand Central’s 44 platforms lie underground, sweltering and stuffy in the summer and unsightly all year round. Trains enter and leave the terminal through the Park Avenue tunnel that stretches nearly 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) all the way to 97th Street. Though I have taken the train to and from Grand Central on a number of occasions, I can’t imagine beginning and ending my commute this way on a daily basis. While Union Station’s current platforms are even worse—whoever came up with the idea of putting a low roof over tracks served by diesel locomotives clearly wasn’t thinking straight (probably the result of breathing in diesel exhaust)—the proposed atrium-like train shed, filled with natural light, will be an entirely different—and far superior—experience for those traveling through Union Station.

Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work.

Metro, the D.C. area’s subway system, has its own grand plans for Union Station. A “superstation” has been proposed at Union Station, connected to a larger “inner loop” of stations and tracks encircling central Washington and providing the Metro system with much-needed capacity at its core. Combined with Amtrak, Maryland’s MARC trains, Virginia’s VRE commuter rail, and the intercity bus depot that was recently relocated and consolidated at Union Station, D.C.’s grand station could provide multimodal access to the city, the region, and beyond that Grand Central just can’t accommodate. While the arrival of the much-delayed and over-budget East Side Access, which will bring Long Island Rail Road trains into Grand Central, will be a boon to the station and travelers in the region, there is little that can be done to expand subway service under the terminal, and those wishing to take the subway from Grand Central will find cramped underground stations for decades to come. (The planned Second Avenue subway, which should relieve the overcrowded 4/5/6 line that passes under Grand Central, will pass three blocks to the east. If it ever makes it to 42nd Street.)

But the real obstacles to any visionary plan for Union Station are financial and political. Mr. Pearlstein writes:

It speaks to the paucity of our civic imagination, and the small-mindedness of our politics, that simply to describe a project of such ambition is to invite the knowing smirks and raised eyebrows of those who will immediately recognize it as wholly incompatible with the current political and budgetary environment. It’s hard to imagine a project more likely to raise the tea party’s hackles than having federal and state taxpayers borrow billions of dollars to increase subsidized train service in and out of Washington.

In closing, Mr. Pearlstein admonishes: “Nobody thinks we’d be better off today if government had not borrowed the money to build the Beltway, or the subway system or Dulles International Airport. It would be yet another symptom of today’s cramped political vision—and our false notion of economy—if we fail to make a similarly bold investment in the expansion and redevelopment of Union Station.”

I’m reminded of the timeless advice of Daniel Burnham, one of America’s greatest city planners: “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work.”

America’s capital needs grand plans and the visionary leadership needed to make them happen. And we shouldn’t let money and ideology stand in the way.

Read more
Reimagining Union Station
by Steven Pearlstein
The Washington Post, 12 September 2014


I will note one small error Mr. Pearlstein made in his piece. He writes, “The majestic main concourse was 275 feet long and 120 feet wide, flanked on both ends by grand marble staircases, underneath a massive concave ceiling on which was painted the constellations of the stars.” The main concourse originally had only one marble staircase; the East Staircase, though part of the original plans, was completed in 1998.

I will also note my personal affection for and connection to Union Station: it was where my now wife and I went on our first date in 2007.

Train math

How do I know that I’ve already ridden 986.9 miles (1,588.3 kilometers), or 72%, of Greater New York’s rails? As it turns out, a better question is, how do I know that there are 1,379.9 miles (2,220.7 kilometers) of passenger rail routes in the New York City region in the first place? Because, as I searched for the number, I discovered that no one seemed to know.

So I added it up. Myself.

(And I have an awesome spreadsheet on Google Drive to prove it.)

It was not an easy task. The agencies that operate the rail systems are inconsistent, at best, on what data they provide themselves. From what I can find, both New Jersey Transit and the Port Authority don’t state anywhere on their websites how long their rail systems are.

Link opens in new tab/window
The MTA’s map of the Long Island Rail Road will help explain what I’m talking about in this paragraph.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is considerably better at providing this data online. For example, Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North station pages on MTA.info list how far each station is from Penn Station or Grand Central. With that information, determining the length of each LIRR branch and Metro-North line is a simple exercise in subtracting the distance or milepost of the near station, where each branch breaks off from another on the map, from that of the far station. For instance, I figured that the LIRR’s Port Jefferson Branch is 42.7 miles (68.7 kilometers) long by taking the distance the MTA says the Port Jefferson station is from Manhattan, 59.4 miles, and subtracting the milepost of the Floral Park station, 16.7 miles, where the Hempstead and Port Jefferson branches split. In turn, the Oyster Bay and Ronkonkoma branches split from the Port Jefferson Branch. (I’m very grateful for Google Sheets for helping me keep all this information straight.)

So using the MTA’s website to figure out how many route miles are covered by the LIRR and Metro-North was relatively easy. The length of the New York City Subway and the Staten Island Railway? Not so much.

The New York City Subway has 232 miles of routes, 656 miles of revenue trackage, and 842 total miles of tracks—enough to stretch from here to Chicago. But which number did I need for tracking my own goal?

The problem here is that there are multiple ways to calculate how long the tracks are, and it’s not always clear what method is being used or if that method is consistent with the how the region’s other rail systems are measured in a way that gives me an accurate number. Here’s what I mean. Statistical data available on the MTA’s website states that New York City Transit, with subway lines in four of New York City’s five boroughs, operates 659 miles (1,060.6 kilometers) of tracks. But is that route miles—the lines shown on the subway map—or total trackage? Much of the subway runs over four parallel tracks; in some spots as many as six or even eight. Is that counting the four tracks—two local and two express—that run approximately two miles under Queens Boulevard from the Grand Av-Newtown station to Forest Hills-71 Av as two miles, or as eight miles—two miles for each of the four tracks?

According to the final arbiter of all truth in today’s world, Wikipedia, 659 represents the latter. According to the online encyclopedia’s article on the New York City Subway, the system contains 656 miles (1,056 kilometers) of tracks in revenue service—tracks over which trains carrying fare-paying passengers run—and 842 miles (1,355 kilometers) of tracks if you include tracks in places such as railyards. The lines on the map represent 232 miles (373.4 kilometers) of routes. And that’s the number I’m looking for.

The same goes for the Staten Island Railway. That same statistical page at MTA.info states that it has 29 track miles (46.7 kilometers), but Wikipedia clarifies that the railway’s route from St. George to Tottenville covers 14 miles (22.5 kilometers).

For New Jersey Transit and the Port Authority, I relied upon data reported in the articles for each system on Wikipedia. That means, of course, that the data are subject to change if different, more reliable numbers come to light (or if, regrettably, I made an error in my math).

And even Wikipedia didn’t have all the numbers I was looking for. So a few questions remain, including:

  • What is the distance between Atlantic Terminal and Jamaica on the Long Island Rail Road? No mileage is listed on Atlantic Terminal’s station page. The Wikipedia article on the LIRR’s Atlantic Branch places Atlantic Terminal at 2.0 miles and Jamaica at 11.3—a different mileage than that indicated elsewhere for Jamaica, so I’m not sure what’s correct.
  • What is the length of the Raritan Valley Line? I can’t find a number anywhere, so I made an educated guess based on the fact that its western terminus, High Bridge, is in fare zone 21.
  • What is the length of the Atlantic City Line? I found two articles from The Press of Atlantic City that mentioned a length, but one said it was 64 miles (103 kilometers) and the other said it was 66 miles (106.2 kilometers). After making an arbitrary decision, I’m going with 66 unless someone tells me otherwise.
  • What is the distance between Secaucus Junction and Hoboken—3.5 or 5.0 miles (5.6 or 8.0 kilometers)? I saw both (I’m currently using 5.0 miles).

If anyone can help clarify any of these, I’d really appreciate it.

See the complete data and details on my Google Drive spreadsheet—and please send me additional information or corrections.


Photo
Newark Penn Station.
By Oleg Dulin via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Correcting my number

As it turns out, I had left out about 10 miles (16.1 kilometers) of routes covered by the Long Island Rail Road in my calculations of the total length of the New York City region’s rail network. It appears that the total route miles are 1,379.9 (2,220.7 kilometers). I’ll soon update the original blog post to reflect the more accurate number. And stay tuned for an explanation of how I came up with the aggregate number in the first place.

(Number still subject to change if I get more info, or realize I made another mistake.)