The Transit Tourist takes a look at other transit systems across the globe from the first person perspective of a visitor. What can Metro learn from how these other systems treat the uninitiated – and often bumbling – tourist?
I’ve had the opportunity to travel to New York City a number of times. It helps, after all, to have a brother in Brooklyn with a spare couch. But my latest trip eastwards was different for a couple reasons: 1) It was my first trip to the Big Apple since I became a transportation writer, and 2) I had yet to see a lot of the ground-level changes to the city’s transportation system, namely all the new bike lanes, bus lanes and pedestrian plazas.
The subway? It was pretty much the same one I rode during my last trip in 2009, but it was interesting to see how it works in a new, more critical light — that of a transportation planner-in-training.
Frankly, entire books have been written about public transit in New York; there’s a lot to say about a transit system that carries a full third of all the transit trips in the U.S. So I won’t try to cover that territory. Rather, I’ll try to hone in on how the system works in comparison to public transit in L.A. County as it is today and as it will be in the near future.
Last year, Fred Camino inaugurated The Transit Tourist series with an excellent post about his trip to London. To refresh, here are his thoughts on why the tourist perspective of another city’s transit system can be a valuable one for readers of The Source:
The tourist experience on transit is a unique but important one. Tourists generally have different needs than the daily commuter, but my feeling is that when a tourist’s needs are met a transit system is doing a good job at two things: providing an easy to use system that also serves many destinations. In other words, if a system works for an outsider, it’s probably going to work for local residents as well.
So without further ado, here are my thoughts on transit in New York City using Fred’s categories.
Next stop for The Transit Tourist – New York City
|New York, N.Y.|
|Population: 8,175,000||Transit Agency: New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority||Miles of Rail Track: 659|
|Density: 27,532/sq. mi.||Rail Lines: 24||Bus Routes: 217|
|Area: 304.8 sq. mile||Rail Stations: 468||Budget: $8.6 billion|
Two of the three major airports serving the New York area can be reached by train plus a people mover; the other airport, LaGuardia, is served by several bus lines.
My flight to New York arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport after 1 a.m. Typically, traveling into the city is not a problem even at that time, because most of the New York transit system runs 24 hours a day. There was a hitch, however: The AirTrain people mover that connects the airport terminals to the train system was shut down overnight for scheduled maintenance. Thankfully, a friend generously offered to pick me up in his car. Even in New York, sometimes you have to rely on a friend for a ride.
On my flight home, everything ran smoothly and as expected. The train ride from Brooklyn involved a trip on the L Train, a free transfer to the A Train and a hop onto the AirTrain people-mover. The whole trip took about 1 hour and 15 minutes, door-to-terminal, and cost $2.25 for the L and A trains and another $5 for the AirTrain. The most challenging part was the L-to-A transfer, which involved a bit of a hike — tricky with a suitcase — and a 10-minute wait on a sweltering platform. If you’re traveling to JFK from Manhattan, you can take the A train all the way. For comparison, a cab ride between JFK and Manhattan costs $45 or more.
Overall, my city-to-airport trip was pretty typical for the city as a whole — you can expect to take at least an hour to get to JFK from Manhattan or places near transit in the other New York boroughs.
For reference, a trip from the 7th Street/Metro Center Station to LAX is about the same distance as my brother’s Brooklyn couch to JFK. In Los Angeles, the trip from downtown L.A. to Aviation Station would take about 45 minutes on the Blue Line and Green Line. Even adding another 30 minutes for the free shuttle would get you to the airport in the same amount of time, covering roughly the same 15 miles for only $3. I’ll be the first to admit that transit to LAX isn’t ideal — although it’s better than it gets credit for. The coming Expo Line, Crenshaw/LAX Light Rail line and the LAX transit connection currently being studied should give more Angelenos fast and easy transit access to LAX. For many L.A. area neighborhoods, a bus such as the FlyAway may be the best option for the foreseeable future; the FlyAway bus from Union Station to LAX can take as little as 30 minutes when traffic is light.
Like many transit agencies across the country, New York’s MTA has had to raise fares recently to make up for recession-endued budget problems. Today, $2.25 will get you a trip on any city train or bus with “an automatic free transfer between subway and bus, or between buses,” when you use an automated MetroCard.
Transit riders can obtain MetroCards for free and add value to MetroCards at ticket vending machine. Another perk: riders get an extra $.70 bonus for every $10 added. Unlimited weekly and monthly passes cost $29 and $104 respectively in New York City, compared to L.A. County Metro’s, which cost $20 and $75 respectively.
That said, it’s difficult to make a useful apples-to-apples comparison on fares. L.A. County Metro’s are cheaper for a single ride, but there are no free transfers. To add another layer of complexity to the comparison, Angelenos have the option of buying an $84 monthly EZ Transit Pass that works on 24 different transit operators in the greater L.A. area. For reference, I spent about $50 on fares over the ten days I was in New York.
Frankly, there’s not a whole lot I can say about New York’s rail system that hasn’t already been said. It offers frequent service, 24-7, on lines and stations that blanket most of the city’s core. The trains are themselves mostly up-to-date, comfortable and — importantly in August — air conditioned. The one thing, however, that struck me on this visit is how much the system is showing its age.
I’m willing to overlook the dinginess and powerful smells of New York’s subway stations, in part because the wait times are typically pretty short. But I was surprised and dismayed to see how inaccessible the majority of stations are to individuals with limited mobility, i.e. the elderly and people with physical disabilities.
Most of the system’s construction predates 1990’s landmark law the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires all new public facilities to be accessible to disabled individuals. Consequently, only 50-some subway stations in New York have elevators. This map [PDF] from Just Urbanism shows how limited the system is if you aren’t able to spring up flights of stairs.
By contrast, the Metro Rail system is completely accessible to people using wheelchairs — every station has either a ramp or elevator to reach the station platform.
Another thing worth noting is that New York is still in the early process of adopting real-time arrival displays and automated station announcements. Both worked great where they were already in place.
Confession time: I didn’t ride a bus while in New York. I certainly didn’t try to avoid riding buses. At home I’m a frequent bus patron and try to nudge my friends to do the same — but I didn’t get around to it in New York because the rail system was particularly convenient where I was staying.
That said, there are a few noteworthy developments and observations. First, you can’t mention New York buses without noting that they carry more trips per day — 2.7 million — than any other entire transit system in the U.S. The system offers a variety of service levels, including local, limited stop and express service. But overall, speed and reliability remain issues: Thanks to the city’s gridlock, some lines average only four-to-five miles per hour — “barely faster than the average pedestrian” the New York, the MTA acknowledges.
But this progressive transportation city isn’t sitting on its hands. New York MTA has begun rolling out “Select Bus Service” lines. So far there’s one in Manhattan and one in the Bronx. Angelenos would probably recognize this type of bus rapid transit service as something like a cross between the Wilshire Rapid and Orange Line. SBS runs on city streets, but has its own lanes and off-board fare collection, i.e. you buy your ticket before getting on. Joel Epstein has a good breakdown on how they’ve panned out.
With respect to the city’s bus fleet, on the whole it looked more dated than L.A. County Metro’s, with more high-floor buses and more diesel buses still in service. New York’s bus fleet is roughly twice the size as Metro’s, so I imagine it’s just taking more time to switch over to cleaner-burning natural gas and hybrid buses.
While Fred had a particularly positive experience in this regard in London, I can’t say I had much interaction with customer service. The busier stations tended to have station attendants on hand, whereas the smallest ones often didn’t even have a ticket vending machine — a real pain if your MetroCard runs out of prepaid funds.
I will say that when I needed to lug my suitcase through a service gate en route to JFK, an attendant was on hand to buzz me through — without the horrible alarm going off.
- Vast rail and bus system with frequent service. No American city can compare with the mobility this transit system offers the average commuter.
- 24-7 service means fewer worries about how you’ll get home. In a pinch, there’s always a taxi close at hand.
- An airport rail connection that gets the job done, although many trips from JFK Airport to the city will require at least two transfers.
- The city’s leadership has embraced trying new things to get the most out of its existing system, in particular by turning over space formerly dedicated to cars to transit vehicles, bicyclists and pedestrians.
- What Fred experienced in London was certainly true in New York: “Good transit is crowded transit and during peak hours it gets VERY CROWDED.”
- The station facilities were in pretty rough shape — lots of trash, dirt and weird smells. During one rain shower, a G Train station was literally gushing water through the ceiling. To be fair, the upkeep on such a vast system must be hugely expensive. The poor state of affairs really reflects more on America’s general underinvestment on transit, than on New York MTA.
- The subway system fails to accommodate passengers with limited mobility in a meaningful way. As the Baby Boomers reach their golden years — and New Yorkers live longer than most Americans — this disparity will become even more glaring.
What Metro can learn:
- At the end of the day, New York transit shows that the value of a transit system is measured in how quickly you can get to your destination safely, comfortably and affordably. Metro does a good job on the latter three in my book, and the Measure R transit projects will expand the number of destinations within quick access.
- Frequency is key: In New York I never bothered to look at a transit schedule. I just get up and went, because I knew a train was likely to arrive soon enough.
- Keep up the good work on station design. Metro’s subway stations are practically palatial compared to many of New York’s dark, musty stations. Bringing that design emphasis to bear on existing and future stations will go a long way towards convincing more Angelenos to embrace public transit.
- Off-board fare payment for buses can really speed up travel times. Metro has implemented this on the Orange Line, but what about all the other Rapid Bus lines?