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New York’s Subway Frequency Guidelines Are the Wrong Approach (pedestrianobservations.wordpress.com)
77 points by another on Jan 26, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 43 comments

I don't think the MTA is aiming for optimal scheduling. Peak demand depends on two things: the number of trainsets available, and the track capacity. I recently read their in-depth analysis of the A/C lines. A/C capacity is strictly limited by the interlocking between Hoyt-Schermerhorn and Jay St - Metrotech. It can handle 28 trains per hour if everything runs perfectly, and they have approximately that many scheduled. Similarly, people complain about the C being 8 cars instead of 10 (actually 480' vs. 600'). Unfortunately, the MTA doesn't own enough railcars to be able to run the C with 10 cars.

Off-peak service is a disaster and the only thing that explains their scheduling is that they can't afford to pay the conductors and train operators. Their guidelines are definitely shaped by "how can we keep the system running with the atrociously-limited amount of money we get from the state", rather than "there's no possible way to run 28 trains per hour 24/7".

Waiting 20 minutes for a train is still better than systems that shut down at 11pm and reopen at 6am, though.

Edit: here's the analysis that explains all of this better than I can: http://web.mta.info/nyct/service/pdf/AC_LineReview.pdf

Great document.

The problem isn't money in - it's the high costs that the MTA inflicts on itself.

In terms of cost, consider construction. Cities like Singapore, Hong Kong, Delhi, Dubai and Budapest build subways at $100-500M/km. In NYC the cost is $2,000M/km.


I'll talk a bit about the Delhi metro since my wallet currently contains a NYC metro card and a Delhi travel card. The Delhi metro cost 10,800 crore for phase 1 and 19,131 crore for phase 2. That's about $5 billion.



Here is a time lapse of the Delhi metro being built:


For approximately $5 billion, Delhi got 132 miles of track (mixed subway, at-grade and elevated) and 160 stations.

In NYC, we spent $2.4 billion on the 7 line extension. We got 1 mile of subway and 1 station.

The MTA wastes virtually every dollar we give them. Giving them more money is not the solution; putting them in jail and paying Singapore to administer our transit is.

There's many differences to consider before calling it 'waste', however that's capital expenditure and not operational which is completely different.

There are easy examples of operational waste to be found; e.g. trains are overstaffed (relative to any international trains) with highly paid conductors, and we still have token booth employees who grumpily point you to the metrocard machine if you interrupt their candy crush.


Unlike construction, it's harder to find concrete operational numbers to compare to other more functional systems.

But here is an obvious one: Singapore (pop 5.4M) gives their MOT $2.3B for operational costs and and $4.6B for construction costs (the plan is to double the length of the MRT).


NYC (pop 8.4M) has operational costs of $13B, and no particularly ambitious construction plans.


What are fatal accident rates like for construction of the Delhi and NY system? Workers' wages and benefits? Land prices?

> Giving them more money is not the solution; putting them in jail and paying Singapore to administer our transit is.

Do you think that's practicable? I thought you were a big supporter of of the rule of law rather than arbitrary politically motivated jailings.

Evidently a lot has gone wrong with NY transport, but "just stop giving the MTA money" is not going to result in better transport, and "the MTA is incompetent" reasoning seems to mostly lead to adding yet another layer of procurement/management rules that makes them less flexible and more wasteful. What would be an incremental, politically acceptable change that we could make to improve matters?

If you don't like the Delhi comparison, I linked to lots more. Land prices, wages and benefits are pretty high in Singapore, Spain, Japan and Hong Kong.

An incremental change would be to start replacing MTA employees with Spanish, Indian or Hong Kongian contractors who can get the job done without featherbedding. Probably nothing but more money for the people currently robbing us will be "politically acceptable".

And yes, actually putting them in jail would be something I oppose - if you couldn't tell, that was a bit of hyperbole.

> An incremental change would be to start replacing MTA employees with Spanish, Indian or Hong Kongian contractors who can get the job done without featherbedding. Probably nothing but more money for the people currently robbing us will be "politically acceptable".

If we believe that employers should be responsible for things like health coverage then it 100% should be the government's responsibility to lead the way when it's acting as an employer. If contractors are so much cheaper than employees then either we're putting too high a burden on employers or we're allowing those who hire contractors to shirk their social responsibilities (possibly both); either way while the MTA could probably save some money in the short term by using the loopholes I think that would encourage dysfunctional lawmaking in the long term. I'm not sure where nationality comes into it; it's not like there's some featherbedding gene that Americans carry and Spaniards don't, and a fair share of the contractors for overbudget American public works projects have been foreign (e.g. bay bridge). Far more likely that the American bidding process or some other aspect of the political/legal environment encourages such things to happen.

You must realize this is an apples/oranges comparison. The cost of labour alone is vastly different between NYC and Delhi.

If you scroll up, you'll see a less detailed comparison to Singapore, Hong Kong and Hungary. The former two are about as wealthy as the US, so if we pay more for labor that's only because the MTA wastefully funnels money to it's workers.

I discussed Delhi mainly because I know it well.

That said, if we can hire Indian workers and have them build our subways at lower cost, we should absolutely do this. I'm sure this helped keep Dubai's cost down. Then again, it doesn't seem necessary; Barcelona built a subway at $39M/km.

They could do all kinds of things to cut costs and expedite projects, if business people and engineers were running the show.

But alas red tape, political croneyism, union labor and entrenched supply contracts are in the driver's seat in the USA, and doubly so for the Northeastern US.

Not to mention the system is made of a complicated fragile mess of legacy infrastructure, tracing the entire historical evolution of mass transit from it's inception, acquired from several different transportation companies over the course of the 20th century.

The extensive rail transit infrastructure that we do have today, was largely built in an era 100+ years ago when there was much public optimism around rail projects coupled with rampant private investment in transportation. Plus the entrenched political speed bumps we see now were still in their infancy.

In the last century NYC took all the punches of learning the ropes of operating a subway system, and had a big hand in contributing that knowledge to the rest of the world. Rapid transit in the USA also suffered from public backlash and overall negative public sentiment after decades of missteps and outright sabotage by the automotive industry. This opened up the doors to decades of mismanagement and low ridership.

For new projects in other countries, they really have their wind at their backs in many many ways in comparison to NYC. Far more at play in their favor than simply labor cost

Its not news that labor is much cheaper in many countries than the US, but I think people are going to get pretty mad if you call paying transit workers a decent professional wage[1] "wastefully funneling money." There are good reasons we don't outsource all our work to less-well-off regions with lower costs- and standards-of-living.

[1] https://www.glassdoor.com/Salary/New-York-City-Transit-Autho...

I'm sure the transit worker making $50k/year to sit in a booth and say "go use the metrocard machine" will get mad if I suggest firing her. That doesn't mean it wouldn't be the right thing to do for the taxpayer and the MTA customer.

I'm also pretty sure you are deliberately misreading me since you ignored the fact that I cited several countries where wage levels are comparable to the US (e.g., Singapore). Singapore's just uses "modern" technology and replaces two $75k/year conductors and a $150k/year driver with a robot train.

("Modern" = technology that Paris has used in production for 18 years.)

The productivity of labor is also vastly different.

The reason that mass transit is so profitable in those countries is because they can capture the externalities of their benefit through owning capital near stations.


In NYC, some rich landowners get all the benefit of public spending.

That's why mass transit is so much cheaper in every single country in the world? You've checked, and you are sure that Bangalore, Cairo, Barcelona, Singapore and Stockholm all follow this model?

Incidentally, the MTA also does this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_Side_Yard

The West Side Yard doesn't look at all like the huge shopping malls that are owned by the MTR in Hong Kong...in fact, there's basically no commercial activity there.

The area surrounding the Delhi metro, the Istanbul metro and the Paris metro don't look like those either.

Picking out a Hong Kong specific feature and using it to explain why NY has vastly higher costs than, well, everywhere, doesn't really make sense.

how can we keep the system running with the atrociously-limited amount of money we get from the state

I've been saying for a while that NYC should cecede from New York State. We send more money Upstate than they send down, and in return we still aren't allowed to run the socialist utopia most city residents actually want. Make the mayor a governor, and we'll have a noble experiment on our hands.

Go ahead. Leave. Take control of your subway. The people upstate will take this. Better get started on that desalination plant.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rondout_Reservoir (75 miles upstate)

From Vancouver to Ancient Rome, every city in the world thinks it is somehow better managed than its hinterlands. City dwellers forget their urban lifestyle relies on a constant stream of resources from elsewhere. New York sends money upstate. Upstate sends water. You cannot drink money. If the economic and political ties were cut I know where I'd rather be.

The Cannonsville and Pepacton reservoirs (on the west and east branches of the Delaware River) also provide water for New York City. The land is owned by the city of New York, although not technically part of the city.

Interstate commerce is a thing. We'll happily pay you for the water you send us.

Until NJ decides it is willing to pay more. Having both the city and the hinterlands under the same political structure ensures the hinterlands aren't going to go find a better city willing to pay a higher price. If you look at the old maps, that seems to be how the eastern states were laid out. Each of the large port cities were given their own hinterland to form a state.

I'd imagine any deal to separate the city from the state (and it would have to be a deal, there would be no forcible exit) would include the city's purchase of that reservoir.

Again, this is not about thinking we're better managed, it's about the fact that Albany won't allow us to meet our own needs.

The city already owns those reservoirs, as well as the water tunnels that deliver the water into the city (which require little maintenance, as they run on gravity rather than pumps).

I'll admit to ignorance here. A poster above suggested NYC does not own the Rondout reservoir, another one said they do own two other reservoirs. If the city owns all of them, great. If there are some needed for the water supply, then they would have to be purchased.

Of course, all of this is on the level of fantasy, because it's not going to happen.

When it comes to natural resources, ownership /= control.

The city may have ownership, but the local/state/national governments still have say on things like environmental protection. Owning a forest doesn't give you the right to clearcut every tree. Owning a reservoir does not give you control over where that water comes from (the watershed) nor any of the environmental or safety rules governing water.

That will never happen. We should carefully look at where our tax dollars are going; city resident taxes should be enough to run NYCT, and the city tax paid for non-residents that work in NYC (I think this exists, paid by the employer?) should ensure that the other MTA railroads are funded.

Ultimately, the idea of democracy is to provide equal protection for all, and so NYC's relative prosperity should be funding some upstate initiatives. That said, administrative control of the subway should be entirely in NYC, and if we don't collect enough tax to run it to the standards we desire, we should be able to affect that change locally.

Yes, of course I know it will never happen (or rather, because never is a long time, it won't happen while the current political system is in place).

I'd be perfectly fine with subsidizing upstate if they let us fund our own infrastructure. The fact that we give our tax dollars to them and then they tell us we can't raise enough money to pay for our subway, public housing, etc., is what makes me want to effect massive change.

> I've been saying for a while that NYC should cecede from New York State. We send more money Upstate than they send down,

Much as I'd love for key NYC infrastructure (namely the MTA) to be free from the grips of Albany, this would never work. New York City is so intrinsically dependent on infrastructure from the surrounding areas that it would be a nightmare to try and negotiate that across state lines. Negotiating water rights alone would be an absolute mess.

> we still aren't allowed to run the socialist utopia most city residents actually want

Uh, no, "most" residents of New York City don't want a socialist utopia.

Just because four of the five boroughs voted for Obama in 2008 doesn't mean NYC is some bastion of radical left-wing thought. Let's not forget that the city voted Bloomberg in three times.

(If you really want a deeper analysis, you might want to note that New York City politics is also influenced by people of color to a degree that no other major city in the US is. While they tend to vote reliably for Democratic candidates, black and Latino voters are empirically far less liberal[0] than their white counterparts in the Democratic party).

[0] Ignore the op-ed itself; the graph halfway down the page illustrates the data very well: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/09/upshot/what-the-hispanic-v...

Sorry, "socialist utopia" in this case is reclaimed from the Republican insanity of the last 8 years, where any government program is "socialism" and ergo synonymous with evil. I'm not suggesting the majority of New Yorkers want a dictatorship of the proletariat, I just mean most of us want to have the public infrastructure necessary to live in the city, and would probably be ok with better social programs. And would you deny that the city is more "liberal" than Upstate?

> New York City politics is also influenced by people of color to a degree that no other major city in the US is

Washington, DC?

> Washington, DC?

Okay, though I guess it depends on your definition of 'major city'. D.C. proper doesn't even have 1/10th the population of NYC; it's smaller than even El Paso, TX and Charlotte, NC. It doesn't even break the top 20 largest cities in the country.

Though more importantly, D.C. is unique politically because it's not awarded the rights of a state, and therefore not protected from the federal government the way literally every other city in the US is. (Even San Juan, Puerto Rico, has more autonomy from the federal government in some ways than D.C. does)

That last part is key for this particular tidbit. "People of color" influence DC politics only to the extent that the old white men in the Capitol tolerate it. Case in point, recent efforts to legalize marijuana locally have run into a lot of trouble because certain Congressmen make it their mission to oppose such things.

> "People of color" influence DC politics only to the extent that the old white men in the Capitol tolerate it.

Exactly. D.C is the only city whose local politics are directly subject to the whims of Congress.

> Case in point, recent efforts to legalize marijuana locally have run into a lot of trouble

Yes, and not just recent efforts - D.C. legalized medical marijuana in 1998 by popular vote, but the Barr amendment overruled it.

(Yes, Bob Barr, who later ran for president on the Libertarian Party ticket, blocked D.C. from being able to legalize medical marijuana)

Not a new idea. Here's a call for it from 1905:

"The time is comm' and though I'm no youngster, I may see it, when New York City will break away from the State and become a state itself. It's got to come. The feelin' between this city and the hayseeds that make a livin' by plunderin' it is every bit as bitter as the feelin' between the North and South before the war. And, let me tell you, if there ain't a peaceful separation before long, we may have the horrors of civil war right here in New York State. Why, I know a lot of men in my district who would like nothin' better today than to go out gunnin' for hayseeds!

New York City has got a bigger population than most of the states in the Union. It's got more wealth than any dozen of them. Yet the people here, as I explained before, are nothin' but slaves of the Albany gang. We have stood the slavery a long, long time, but the uprisin' is near at hand. It will be a fight for liberty, just like the American Revolution. We'll get liberty peacefully if we can; by cruel war if we must.

Just think how lovely things would be here if we had a Tammany Governor and Legislature meetin', say in the neighborhood of Fifty-ninth Street, and a Tammany Mayor and Board of Aldermen doin' business in City Hall! How sweet and peaceful everything would go on!

The people wouldn't have to bother about nothin'. Tammany would take care of everything for them in its nice quiet way. You wouldn't hear of any conflicts between the state and city authorities. They would settle everything pleasant and comfortable at Tammany Hall, and every bill introduced in the Legislature by Tammany would be sure to go through. The Republicans wouldn't count.

Imagine how the city would be built up in a short time! At present we can't make a public improvement of any consequence without goin' to Albany for permission, and most of the time we get turned down when we go there. But, with a Tammany Governor and Legislature up at Fifty-ninth Street, how public works would hum here! The Mayor and Aldermen could decide on an improvement, telephone the Capitol, have a bill put through in a jiffy and—there you are. We could have a state constitution, too, which would extend the debt limit so that we could issue a whole lot more bonds. As things are now, all the money spent for docks, for instance, is charged against the city in calculatin' the debt limit, although the Dock Department provides immense revenues. It's the same with some other departments. This humbug would be dropped if Tammany ruled at the Capitol and the City Hall, and the city would have money to burn." -- George Washington Plunkett [1]

[1] http://www.gutenberg.org/files/2810/2810-h/2810-h.htm

What if off peak trains were only five cars long but ran twice as much? And each train only had one driver.

My understanding is that the union wouldn't allow one-person train operation, but apparently the G and M are one-person only on weekends now, so maybe that's changing: http://web.mta.info/nyct/service/opto.htm

It also costs time (and money) to split up trains every day (10 cars into 5 cars, or 8 into 4), and so the MTA probably wouldn't do that.

Finally, if all the railcars are being used 24/7, there is no time to do routine maintenance on them.

Well, we can start firing the drivers at some point. The Canarsie line runs all the same rolling stock, put up the platform screen doors already and go full CBTC like Paris.

A better example is the AirTrain JFK, which is in New York and is driverless.

I don't know much about the Paris system, but has unattended operation scaled to the ridership volume of the NYC subway during rush hour? The problem I foresee is people holding the doors of the train; already a major cause of delays with two staff members in every train.

I'm only familiar with AirTrain, which handles "people getting stuck in the doors" by stopping for an insanely long time at each station, and the Yurikamome in Tokyo, which is tiny compared to the real routes there.

Line 1 of the Paris metro runs every two minutes during the day; each train can carry about 700 people. When people block the doors, there's an automated message. If the doors still stay open, the control room can use the CCTV and intercoms.

In Paris, there are 2 sets of doors.

The doors of the train of course and some doors on the platform itself. This is to ensure that people don't jump in front of the train of course, but I think it also has to do with improving the flow.

Synchronised frequencies sounds bad. You want non-synchronised to avoid amplification and ensure error correction, surely?

If you have just one temporary bottle neck screwing up the relative distance, causing a capacity shortage down the line you will have that pattern repeating if things are synced, whereas if they aren't, you will error correct naturally.

Terrific analysis. What is interesting to me is all of the items could be explained by a single factor: distributed planning architecture, such as a planning system that calculates each line frequency independently. Essentially each train is its own functional agent.

This could cause the kind of data in the article, while also having a legitimate reason for use. Independent units can be better for fault tolerance, emergency recovery, and streamlined risk management, if anything goes awry.

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