Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Mind The Gap

Bit weird to be writing about New York City news from London, but this is fairly appropriate. I caught the following New York Times article about overcrowding on the subway. It's interesting, since it gives us an idea of which of the city's lines are most worth avoiding.

I have two doubts about the value of the story, though. My first issue is that, at least anecdotally, Brooklyn residents are living in bizarro-world, since the 4 and 5, widely detested by Manhattan residents, are just about bearable at rush hours, at least compared to the Q, which at rush hours can be hell on wheels. Your perspective may differ, naturally.

The second is a little more significant, and it's found in the following section:

Mr. Roberts said the data had particular significance in light of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s proposal for a congestion pricing system that would charge most drivers who enter Manhattan below 86th Street — with the intent of moving people out of their cars and onto mass transit.

Mr. Roberts said that on many subway lines, especially the heavily used numbered lines, there is little or no room to accommodate more riders.

“It’s bad news,” Mr. Roberts said. “There’s no room at the inn.”

If congestion pricing becomes a reality, planners will have to rely on additional bus service as a way to increase the transit system’s capacity.

This last short point shows how far New Yorkers have in getting their heads around congestion pricing. Congestion pricing, as it developed in London, though less so in Singapore, starts with the assumption that large and mature cities have very little room to expand their subway/rail/light rail systems.

This is a reasonable assumption, as any wizened student of the East side Subway line would tell you. Mass transit improvements under congestion pricing will have to be focused on buses, which are the cheapest and easiest assets to upgrade.

My support for this point is also anecdotal, but when I used to live in London, I took nearly all my trips by Underground, and only resorted to the bus when the Tube was no longer running (after midnight). Since the introduction of congestion pricing in London, buses run much more frequently, reliably and quickly. They're also much cheaper.

There will, it is true, have to be major improvements to the quality of New York's buses, and much better information about their routes and whereabouts. Probably more coherent service between the boroughs, too. It's unclear as yet how much of Bloomberg's plan involves funding these kinds of improvements, but they will be essential.

But the article has the link between the state of the subway and the introduction of congestion. The former doesn't complicate the latter, it makes it necessary.


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