Manhattan Without Subways?

Twenty-two subway lines enter downtown (south of 60th street) Manhattan. According to the Metropolitan Transportation Council (New York’s MPO), these subway lines carried some 400,000 people into downtown between 8 and 9 am on a typical day in 2007 (open the “rec sec” sheet of the Subway data sheet).

A blogger asks, “what would it take in terms of auto facilities to replace the morning rush hour carrying capacity of the NYC subway?” He concludes it would take a minimum of 167 new lanes of bridges, tunnels, or other highways into downtown Manhattan. But there are several alternative views of his calculations.

He assumes that the only alternative to subways is autos. But what about buses? Many 40-foot buses can carry 64 passengers (42 sitting, 22 standing, which means a higher proportion sitting than on a subway). Spaced five bus lengths apart, 11 buses per minute can cruise down a highway lane carrying more than 42,000 people per hour. That means fewer than 10 new lanes would be needed to carry the people now taking subways — and those 10 lanes would take up a lot less space than the 22 subway lines.

This can be further reduced by assuming that some people will time shift. During the 8 to 9 am hour, the average subway car carries 108 people, but in the afternoon peak hour the average subway car carries only 87 people. If some of the 108 people in that morning hour time shifted to the 7 or 9 am hour, then even fewer bus lanes would be needed to carry people into Manhattan.

Isn’t Manhattan lucky to have subways like this at 8:30 in the morning?
Flickr photo by Runs with Scissors.

Buses cost a lot less than subways. The National Transit Database reports that New York subways cost taxpayers $1.36 per passenger trip in 2007, which is lower than most U.S. transit services. But this doesn’t count the billions of dollars of maintenance that the subway needs. The Federal Transportation Administration’s analysis of maintenance needs in New York and five other cities found a $50 billion backlog — three-quarters of which was for heavy rail (subways & elevateds) and a large but unspecified portion of which was in New York.

MTA‘s public transit buses in New York City cost taxpayers an average of $1.76 per trip. But those buses are in the city. Many of the private commuter bus companies that bring people in from outside the city actually make money. Even New Jersey Transit collects more fares from bus riders than it spends operating its buses.

And then there is parking. The blogger presumes that all the autos that would replace subways would require parking lots. Hasn’t he ever heard of parking garages?

If there were no federal subsidies to New York City transit, it is possible that the subways would decline and not be entirely replaced by buses. If so, downtown Manhattan might lose some of its allure as a job center. Would that be so horrible? A lower-density Manhattan might have had less attraction as a terrorist target. It would save taxpayers money. And people would get to their work faster, as (thanks largely to its high proportion of transit commuters) New York has the longest average commuter times of any urban area in the nation.

It sounds to me like getting rid of the subway might benefit everyone except, of course, downtown property owners. And that is really what rail transit is all about: transferring wealth from millions of ordinary taxpayers to a few downtown property owners, rail contractors, and transit agency officials and employees.

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19 thoughts on “Manhattan Without Subways?

  1. the highwayman

    The Autoplanner: MTA’s public transit buses in New York City cost taxpayers an average of $1.76 per trip.

    The National Transit Database reports that New York subways cost taxpayers $1.36 per passenger trip.

    Buses cost a lot less than subways.

    THWM: ROTFLMAO!

  2. bennett

    “That means fewer than 10 new lanes would be needed to carry the people now taking subways — and those 10 lanes would take up a lot less space than the 22 subway lines… It sounds to me like getting rid of the subway might benefit everyone except, of course, downtown property owners. And that is really what rail transit is all about: transferring wealth from millions of ordinary taxpayers to a few downtown property owners, rail contractors, and transit agency officials and employees.”

    First off this is NYC. Where are you going to put 10 new lanes and what are you going to do with the subway. It’s post like this that make Mr. O’Toole look like an irrational “rail hater” just like the many he accuses of being “car haters.” Surly all of the antiplanners, rail haters, suburban champions, and true highwaymen can see the ridiculousness of this scenario. The day NYC gets rid of it’s subway is the day Portland gets rid of cars.

    As for “transferring wealth from millions of ordinary taxpayers to a few downtown property owners,” are you saying that between 60th and battery park that there are just a “few” property owners? Have you ever been to NYC? My guess is that there are more property owners in that area than any other comparable space in the rest of the US.

  3. msetty

    This post illustrates the how the anti-transit faction is blinkered. To handle every 25,000 passengers per hour, you’d need the equivalent of one Port Authority bus terminal–which handles just one route with considerably less than 42,000 passengers per hour. Just “10 new lanes” is meaningless unless you ALSO have the terminal capacity. Midtown would be one giant bus terminal except for the subways.

  4. Borealis

    I have to agree that this posting is over the top. That many buses couldn’t travel on the surface streets in Manhattan during rush hour. In addition, people in NYC have already shifted their work hours more than any other city in the U.S.

    It would be interesting to see a more realistic analysis of what the transportation system in NYC would be without any subsidies. I would think that the fare for the subway and buses could go up quite a bit without losing riders since the alternative costs for transportation are much more costly.

  5. Andy Stahl

    Antiplanner, et al.,

    Portions of NYC’s subway system are irregularly flooded by heavy rains, putting them temporarily out-of-commission. Can NYC’s subways adapt to projected sea level rises of a couple of feet this century, combined with more frequent and intense rainstorms? Probably, but it will take a substantial investment to do so.

    In 1968, I visited St. Petersburg (then called Leningrad) and rode its spotless and beautiful subway system. It is built under an underground river, requiring it to be the deepest subway system in the world (one station is 105 meters underground). St. Petersburg, like New Orleans, sits on a wetland and floods annually, occasionally closing some of the subway stations. St. Petersburg faces the imminent prospect of having to wall itself off from a rising ocean.

  6. Francis King

    Antiplanner wrote:

    “But what about buses? Many 40-foot bus can carry 64 passengers (42 sitting, 22 standing, which means a higher proportion sitting than on a subway). Spaced five bus lengths apart, 11 buses per minute can cruise down a highway lane carrying more than 42,000 people per hour. That means fewer than 10 new lanes would be needed to carry the people now taking subways — and those 10 lanes would take up a lot less space than the 22 subway lines.”

    This analysis is not correct. It may be possible to get high flows of buses through Lincoln Tunnel, but it requires a massive bus terminal at one end, and lots of disparate destinations at the other end. You can run one bus every 60 seconds on a bus route (e.g. BRT, Mexico City), but not one every 5 seconds – it takes longer than that to board a bus.

    There are many things that buses are no good at. This is one of them. I am not surprised that buses come in more expensive. Figure 2 of this web-site shows that for this level of traffic, you should be using rail.

    http://www.transportpolicy.org.uk/PublicTransport/AdvancedBuses/AdvancedBuses.htm

    Antiplanner wrote:

    “The National Transit Database reports that New York subways cost taxpayers $1.36 per passenger trip in 2007, which is lower than most U.S. transit services.”

    This is one reason, I suspect, why it isn’t solvent. Below is a link to London Underground fares, which are much higher, and even then the UK government has to pay money for upgrades.

    http://www.londontoolkit.com/briefing/underground.htm

    Antiplanner wrote:

    “It sounds to me like getting rid of the subway might benefit everyone except, of course, downtown property owners. And that is really what rail transit is all about: transferring wealth from millions of ordinary taxpayers to a few downtown property owners, rail contractors, and transit agency officials and employees.”

    This is an interesting admission, that rail can increase property values. 🙂 In the UK, this means that the property owners can be charged for some of the increase in their property values, which is then used to partially pay for the system. In the case of Crossrail, via the business rates.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/london/7024935.stm

  7. the highwayman

    msetty said: This post illustrates the how the anti-transit faction is blinkered. To handle every 25,000 passengers per hour, you’d need the equivalent of one Port Authority bus terminal–which handles just one route with considerably less than 42,000 passengers per hour. Just “10 new lanes” is meaningless unless you ALSO have the terminal capacity. Midtown would be one giant bus terminal except for the subways.

    THWM: Well, today Mr.O’Toole’s rail hating pseudo-science, has reached a complete new level of absolute absurd bullshit!

  8. Mike

    How can New York transit possibly need subsidies? NYC is the most optimal possible city for transit that will ever exist… it features extremely high central density, coupled with natural barriers that require conveyance to cross (mainly water). And yet somehow it does need subsidies. I wonder if this is an indictment of the inefficiency of transit itself or of the waste created by government projects where a private-sector solution might succeed.

  9. ws

    ROT:“Buses cost a lot less than subways. The National Transit Database reports that New York subways cost taxpayers $1.36 per passenger trip in 2007”

    ws:

    I see a cost of $1.27 per unlinked passenger trip for subway in NYC:

    http://204.68.195.57/ntdprogram/pubs/profiles/2007/agency_profiles/2008.pdf

    ROT:“The Federal Transportation Administration’s analysis of maintenance needs in New York and five other cities found a $50 billion backlog — three-quarters of which was for heavy rail (subways & elevateds) and a large but unspecified portion of which was in New York.”

    ws: NYC subways already covers about 70% of all operating costs through fare (we can’t even get roads to cover that much of costs). A simple doubling of the fare would definitely cover a good portion of costs as well as provide incentives to restructure some things in the system to be more efficient, etc. Certainly, costs can be made at administrative staff levels too.

    NYC subway had 2.3 billion trips in 2007. Even if extra costs reduced ridership numbers, their subway system is quite efficient.

    Furthermore, if we apply your whole backlog concept, US roads are in dire need or repair – in fact billions are needed annually and the backlogs are growing:

    http://www.asce.org/reportcard/2005/page.cfm?id=30

    “Total spending of $59.4 billion annually is well below the $94 billion needed annually to improve transportation infrastructure conditions nationally.”

  10. blacquejacqueshellac

    “Well, today Mr.O’Toole’s rail hating pseudo-science, has reached a complete new level of absolute absurd bullshit!”

    Antiplanner, you are a bad man, throwing your hooks into the water and constantly getting hostile fish to bite. Or perhaps you are in fact the highwayfellow, knowing that foul spoken and hostile arguments usually fail, even work in reverse.

    Are so full of guile? Just as the lefties constantly claim conservatives are clever and cunningly one moment and dumber than a hoe handle the next, neither can I decide.

    Well, so much for meta-analysis. On the subject, I fear it’s too late, even if your math works, which I don’t think it does.

    Argument pro: The saved space from abandoned subways might yield 10 lanes. You do not teed stations or terminals, just bus stops. The need for stations by mass transit like subways, airports or trains is a bug, not a feature.

    Argument con: Speed. Buses will never make the speed you need to do this. Traffic jams alone kill the idea.

  11. Frank

    blacquejacqueshellac: Wow. Interesting meta-analysis, indeed. It would explain much…

    “Traffic jams alone kill the idea.”

    Anyone who’s ever tried to go on a crosstown bus during rush hour would know that it’s faster to walk than take a bus in most parts of Manhattan. Perhaps if the roads were privatized and the toll to drive into Manhattan were raised enough to reduce demand, then buses might work.

    Maybe we should just pave a big chunk of the Hudson River. Stupid island.

  12. ws

    blacquejacqueshellac:“Antiplanner, you are a bad man, throwing your hooks into the water and constantly getting hostile fish to bite….The saved space from abandoned subways might yield 10 lanes. You do not teed stations or terminals, just bus stops. The need for stations by mass transit like subways, airports or trains is a bug, not a feature.”

    ws:ROT isn’t fishing with hooks, its with dynamite. Clearly the absurdity is ever present with this post.

    Saved space? You kidding me? 10 lanes are going to go where in NYC? Furthermore, 10 lanes of what length…10 lanes could mean 10 feet long or 200 miles long.

  13. blacquejacqueshellac

    “Saved space? You kidding me?” No, not really, I just don’t know New York that well. I did say ‘might’, y’know. So I’m out to lunch then, am I?

    It’s still an interesting concept. We know there are 400 k people moved in 1 hour. That’s not enough data. How far are they moved? On what lines? Where are start and stop points?

    I doubt buses work, but that’s just a feeling. The mathematics of covering large sparsely populated areas with space filling curves leading to a densely populated area are a trifle complex. So far as I know none of lefties, planners or Barbie dolls do math. So we may never have an answer and any answer is bound to be different for a retrofit than for an original install, financially at least.

    But I still think the Antiplanner is toying with the hostiles out there, yanking on their intellectual chains a bit.

  14. the highwayman

    blacquejacqueshellac said: I doubt buses work, but that’s just a feeling. The mathematics of covering large sparsely populated areas with space filling curves leading to a densely populated area are a trifle complex. So far as I know none of lefties, planners or Barbie dolls do math.

    THWM: Mr.O’Toole didn’t do any math. Every thing he does is planned in show transit in a bad light.

  15. Market Urbanism

    It sounds to me like getting rid of the subway might benefit everyone except, of course, downtown property owners. And that is really what rail transit is all about: transferring wealth from millions of ordinary taxpayers to a few downtown property owners, rail contractors, and transit agency officials and employees.

    In 2007, the MTA raked in $1.6 billion from real estate transaction taxes. This is the MTA’s 2nd largest source of revenue behind farebox revenue. I think the downtown property owners would be happy to get that off their back.

  16. Market Urbanism

    If there were no federal subsidies to New York City transit, it is possible that the subways would decline and not be entirely replaced by buses. If so, downtown Manhattan might lose some of its allure as a job center. Would that be so horrible? A lower-density Manhattan might have had less attraction as a terrorist target. It would save taxpayers money. And people would get to their work faster, as (thanks largely to its high proportion of transit commuters) New York has the longest average commuter times of any urban area in the nation.

    This is ignorant silliness.

    I ride both the subway and the buses. The subway is always packed and the buses are usually not very full. Why? The buses take too long. The express buses are good for getting into the city from the boroughs, but are slow once they get into the congested city. And they are often almost empty. So, I can’t see how people would get to work faster without the subways…

    The subway system would be somewhat viable if it were privatized, and fares were raised. That is, if the roads weren’t taxpayer funded….

    A lower density Manhattan is a good thing? Now you sound like an early day, car-loving, progressive-statist with no understanding of agglomeration. (or the degree of oppressive zoning in Manhattan that is holding back greater density)

    Hey, get rid of all the transportation subsidies and zoning and then a lower-tax, more affordable, yet denser Manhattan would have even more allure as a job center!

  17. ariof

    I made a recent comment here on a preposterous post (“since only 5% of Bay Area commuters take BART, a BART strike wouldn’t matter, since apparently BART commuters are evenly distributed and don’t all parallel the Bay Bridge”) but this one takes the cake many times over.

    Several points have been made here already but …

    1) Let’s take a look a express subways. Right now, you can get from 96th and Broadway to Park Place in 17 minutes (6.5 miles) and 125th and Park to City Hall in 20 minutes (7.5 miles). New York, with its express subways, has a speed factor which could only be matched if there was a similar means to separate buses on to private rights-of-way and run them at 50 mph between stations.

    And how much would that cost? Well, you couldn’t build elevated structures, as they’d blight the area (there’s a reason the old elevates were taken down). Tunneling would cost billions. Presumably, you could seize 10 lanes-worth of land for seven miles. The only problem here, aside from a couple of minor political issues is that you’d be paying market rate for some of the priciest land in the world. If Central Park is valued at $528 billion, every acre of land (Central Park is 800 acres) is worth $660 million. You’d need at a minimum 120 feet of right-of-way width, for seven miles, for a total of about 4.4 million square feet. Or about 100 acres. Or about $66 billion dollars worth of land. Not to mention construction costs. To get everyone on buses.

    This argument is just silly. (You could write a book debunking this in myriad ways.)

    Hey, if anyone is interested in starting a blog to debunk every post made on this site (not hard) I’d be interested in a group effort. Randall O’Toole needs someone to contest what he says because, for some strange reason, people actually listen to his baloney–leave a comment below to coordinate (let’s see if those comments get moderated in to oblivion).

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