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Ryan Russo on DOT’s “Mobility Report” and the Need for Better Bus Service

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Using vehicle location data from MTA Bus Time, DOT is able to analyze where bus routes need a speed boost with a greater level of specificity. Graphic: NYC DOT

DOT’s “New York City Mobility Report” [PDF], released earlier this week, is the agency’s first overview of NYC transportation trends in three years. As the number of people and jobs in the city has grown prodigiously in the past five years, DOT reports, the subway system and, increasingly, the bike network have allowed more New Yorkers to get where they need to go. But there are signs of strain — bus ridership is declining and bus speeds are slowing, and traffic congestion in the Manhattan core is rising.

Streetsblog spoke with DOT Deputy Commissioner for Transportation Management & Planning Ryan Russo, who oversees the agency’s long-term strategy and the projects that bring that strategy to fruition, about the report and its implications.

DOT Deputy Commissioner Ryan Russo

DOT Deputy Commissioner Ryan Russo.

Russo told us what he sees as the big takeaways from the report, why it lends more urgency to the agency’s efforts to improve bus service and bicycling, and how DOT is applying the information it contains. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

What are the key themes that come out in this report? Were any of the findings surprising or unexpected?

We think of New York as a built-out place, right? I don’t think people think of it as changing so quickly. And just this half-a-decade is kind of astounding in terms of 500,000 new jobs. You know, many states don’t even have 500,000 jobs, and those are our new jobs. You know, 370,000 new people. And the number of new tourists we have are all the tourists who go to the city of New Orleans in a year.

So that jumped out, that this city’s changed a lot. While we did have the slow down on the streets, all of those new residents, new jobs, new tourists, they all have to move around the city. We did it really on the backs of some wise decisions we made recently, but also decisions that were made a generation ago to reinvest in the transit system.

The subway system has clearly been the workhorse here in serving that growth. We think we’ve been smart and wise in terms of emphasizing the pedestrian environment which helps support transit, building out a bike network, adding bike-share, trying to keep buses moving with the Select Bus Service program and our partnership with New York City Transit. We think DOT has been a pretty big part of this, but it’s really kind of an amazing story that we did all this growth without — you know, we didn’t develop on greenfields in the suburbs, we didn’t build a boatload of parking, and we didn’t add a lot of traffic trips particularly in the core.

I think that’s really the main theme there, but there are these harbingers or challenges that this frames. We all know that the subway system is pretty strapped. And seeing the data now — seeing bus ridership going down, seeing congestion go up — we’re starting to become victims of the success, so we all have to decide together how we’re going to keep this going.

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DOT Mobility Report: As NYC Grows, So Are Transit and Bicycling

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More people and jobs, more subway and bike trips. Note that the subway and bus ridership numbers are annual figures. Graphic adapted from NYC DOT’s Mobility Report.

With New York City’s population swelling to a record size, subways and bikes now account for about 700,000 more trips each day than 16 years ago, according to a new report from NYC DOT [PDF]. Car trips into the Manhattan core, meanwhile, are declining, but so is citywide bus ridership.

DOT’s “New York City Mobility Report” follows in the footsteps of the Bloomberg-era “Sustainable Streets Index” — an annual update on city transportation trends. After skipping two years, DOT is out with its first edition of the report under Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, adding some interesting data.

The stats are a testament to the importance of transit and bicycling to New York’s ability to welcome more people and sustain more economic activity. They’re also sobering. What happens if the subways and streets can no longer keep up with the city’s growth? And why are New Yorkers abandoning the bus?

Ridership is straining the limits of several subway lines, with crowding a frequent source of delays. But capital improvements to increase subway capacity take too long to complete, cost too much, and are backed by a mountain of debt. (Don’t worry, Governor Cuomo’s got this — Wi-Fi and USB ports are on the way.)

The subways are, by and large, beyond the city’s control. But NYC DOT does control the streets, and while the Mobility Report isn’t prescriptive, if you read between the lines the implications are pretty clear.

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MTA Service Bump Next June Won’t Keep Up With Growth in Subway Trips

Subway-ridership-graph-for-Komanoff-post-_-26-Oct-2015

Talk about running in place: At current growth rates in subway ridership, the service increases that NYC Transit is promising to roll out next June will probably be used up by April.

That doesn’t mean the increases are a bad idea, of course. Rather, it underscores the need for transformational increases in subway capacity, rather than incremental moves like the bump announced by the MTA last Friday.

Here’s the deal: Annual subway ridership increased every year from 2009 to 2014. (Data for 2015 aren’t in yet.) The 11 percent rise, to 1.75 billion trips last year from 1.58 billion in 2009, works out to an annual average increase of 2.1 percent. There are now 6 million subway trips on a good weekday, with some 90 percent of those trips, or 5.4 million, happening between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m. Just a single year’s growth, at 2.1 percent, amounts to 113,000 rides during that 15-hour peak.

By comparison, the 36 additional trains that NYC Transit intends to run on weekdays — 10 on the 1/2 line, six on the A/C/E, six on the J/M/Z, and 14 on the 4/5/6 — will add room for 45,900 additional passengers (multiplying 36 trains by 10 cars per train by 127.5 riders per car). Throw in 5,000 to 10,000 more spaces for the greater frequency promised on the 42nd Street Shuttle, and the total gain in capacity reaches 55,000 — enough to handle a mere six months’ worth of ridership growth.

The takeaway is that enhanced service commitments like last Friday’s will be needed much more frequently. The only way that will happen is through transformational change, like implementing Communications-Based Train Control (CBTC) on every line.

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Subway Ridership Hits 65-Year High. Does Cuomo Care?

Subway ridership hit a 65-year high in 2014, serving 1.75 billion trips last year, the most since the New York City Transit Authority was formed in 1953. That’s an increase of 2.6 percent over 2013 and 12 percent since 2007, according to the MTA. The subway now serves 5.6 million passenger trips on an average weekday, and 6 million on an average two-day weekend.

"Andrew, we can barely keep up with this ridership." Photo: MTA/Flickr

“Andrew, we can barely keep up with this ridership.” Photo: MTA/Flickr

The new figures don’t include bus ridership, which has stagnated since a round of service cuts in 2010. However, the growth in subway ridership is a good indication that the transit system continues to absorb the vast majority of additional travel in the city, a trend that goes back to the 1990s. Meanwhile, Governor Andrew Cuomo still hasn’t put forward any ideas to close the $15 billion gap in the MTA’s five-year capital program, which keeps the system from falling apart, adds capacity, and modernizes signals and stations.

Weekday subway ridership grew 2.7 percent in Brooklyn, 2.5 percent in Manhattan, 2.1 percent in the Bronx, and 1.9 percent in Queens. Here are some more highlights from the numbers:

  • Weekday ridership on the L train increased 4.7 percent, with every station on the line seeing an increase in passengers. Stations in Bushwick saw the largest increases, with weekday ridership at Bushwick Avenue-Aberdeen Street  jumping 11.5 percent over the year before.
  • M train stations in Williamsburg, Bushwick, Ridgewood, and Middle Village saw ridership grow 6.2 percent last year, and are up 23.6 percent since the M was rerouted to serve Midtown in 2009.
  • Long Island City also saw big gains, with weekday ridership up 9.7 percent at Court Square and 12 percent the Vernon Boulevard-Jackson Avenue 7 station, where ridership has more than doubled since 2000.
  • The fastest growth in the Bronx was along the 2 and 5 trains, up 3.7 percent. In Manhattan, ridership grew fastest for the 2 and 3 trains on Lenox Avenue, up 3.7 percent over last year.
  • Stations in the Rockaways, which rank among the system’s quietest, saw the highest percentage increase in subway ridership, with many nearly doubling the number of passengers served, as the area continues to recover from Hurricane Sandy.

The subway is hitting record ridership during off-peak hours, which is when most maintenance work is performed. That maintenance is more necessary than ever: The subway also had a dramatic increase in delays last year.

Advocates pressed Governor Cuomo and the state legislature to take action before it’s too late.

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Are the Subways Getting Worse? Depends on How You Measure It

Yesterday the Straphangers Campaign released a report that shows the number of subway incidents that result in a significant delay in 2013 rose 35 percent from 2011. “The increase in alerts is a troubling sign that subway service is deteriorating,” said Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign.

The MTA responded that despite the report’s findings, the reliability of service has remained steady over recent years. “Since 2011, the amount of time customers have had to wait for a train throughout the system has remained flat,” the authority said in a statement.

Why the discrepancy, and who is right? They both are, but they each used a different metric to reach their conclusions.

The Straphangers report used a novel metric to come to its conclusions: It tracked the number of alerts the MTA sent out via text message and email warning customers of delays.

According to the MTA, “Email alerts are issued for any incidents reported… that will result in a significant service impact expected to last 8 to 10 minutes or more.”

The Straphangers Campaign documented each actual incident of delay over eight minutes that was caused by events such as signal or mechanical problems. The report distinguished between “uncontrollable” delays, those involving a sick passenger or police activity, and “controllable” delays.

The MTA, on the other hand, uses “wait assessments” to track the level of service. Wait assessments measure headways, or the time between trains, and track whether the next train arrives within a certain time period after the previous train departed — in this case the delay cannot be more than 25 percent longer than the scheduled headway. In other words, a train with an expected headway of eight minutes is considered on time if it arrives within ten minutes.

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Costs of Subway Slowdown Would Add Up Fast

Following the recent deaths of two subway passengers who were pushed onto tracks, TWU Local 100 is urging operators to slash train speeds as they enter stations, the New York Times reported yesterday. A TWU flier, which you can view here, advises operators that “Preventing a [run-over], and saving yourself the emotional trauma and potential loss of income that go with it, is worth a few extra minutes on your trip.”

There’s no question that watching death unfold through the train windshield and being powerless to avert it can result in trauma and guilt. But the proposed remedy in the TWU flier could be surprisingly costly. Based on calculations from my Balanced Transportation Analyzer spreadsheet model [PDF], if those “extra few minutes” were actually applied as a preventive measure to every subway trip, the lost time could aggregate to millions of hours per year for straphangers, not to mention more street and highway gridlock as the slowdown leads some commuters to drive instead of taking the train.

The city’s subways account for 1.6-1.7 billion passenger-trips a year. Here’s a rough sketch of the leading consequences from slowing all of them by an average of five percent:

  • A 2.4 percent drop in subway ridership, as slower service discourages “marginal” train trips
  • A nearly 4 percent rise in private auto trips into the Manhattan Central Business District, causing a 4 percent drop in average vehicle speeds there
  • 1 percent fewer people coming to the CBD — a net decrease of 34,000 each day
  • 55 million hours a year sacrificed to slower travel (35 million for transit users, 20 million for vehicle users), collectively costing them $1 billion a year, based on values of travel time
  • A $60 million a year revenue hit to NYC Transit, or a $35 million net loss for the MTA after factoring in higher throughput on tolled bridges and tunnels

These figures do not reflect higher personnel and equipment costs to run additional trains to make up for the slowdown. Nor do they capture macro-economic effects of reduced business from the decline in CBD activity. Even so, they’re not chicken-feed.

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MTA Partially Restores Transit Service and Adds Some New Bus Routes

Riders on the Q42 bus will have midday service restored under a package of service improvements released by the MTA today. Photo: Deishawn Ashley via Flickr

The MTA is starting to repair some of the damage done by 2010’s devastating round of service cuts. The transit agency has announced a new set of transit service improvements worth $29 million a year, making up roughly a third of what was cut in 2010. Riders will also get a two-month reprieve from next year’s planned fare hike, with the higher prices now set to kick in on March 1.

In New York City, the new spending is focused on the bus system, not the subway. The five-stop G train extension in Brooklyn will be made permanent, but that’s the only enhancement to the subway system. The W and V trains aren’t coming back, and the MTA is sticking to revised rules that tolerate more crowding and less service. Subway ridership, in stark contrast to bus ridership, has continued to reach record levels despite the service cuts.

In all five boroughs, service will be restored to some of the bus routes that were scaled back. Riders on 24 bus routes will benefit. One of the lines — the B39 — has been revived after being eliminated entirely in 2010. The other restorations will lengthen routes, add more frequent bus runs, or bring back off-peak service. The full list of improvements is available on the MTA’s website.

Though many of the 2010 bus cuts will remain, brand-new bus service is being added to fast-growing areas like the Williamsburg waterfront and Manhattan’s West Side, or to under-served areas like Hunts Point and Queensborough Community College in Bayside. It appears that the MTA has at least used the budget crisis to reallocate resources to where they are most needed in the bus network.

Commuter railroad riders will also see better service, especially on Metro-North, which will add 230 trains a week to its schedule, reports the New York Times. It’s the largest service expansion in the agency’s history. The new service will mostly run off-peak in response to the growing popularity of the railroad for non-commute trips.

The restoration of transit service is incomplete and the fiscal situation underlying these limited improvements remains extremely fragile. Lawmakers in Albany could continue to raid dedicated transit funds, or fail to make the MTA whole for after cutting the payroll mobility tax, or saddle riders with even more debt to pay off unless they fund the upcoming MTA capital plan. Advocates and riders will need to hold Governor Andrew Cuomo and the legislature accountable to make sure New York sees more transit restored, rather than another round of cuts.

Today, though, it’s worth enjoying the good news about transit when you can.

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Straphangers: Ancient Train Signals a Prime Culprit of Subway Delays

Signal failures cause more significant delays than anything else on the subway system. The MTA plans to prioritize signal upgrades in its next capital plan, if Albany provides the money. Photo: Librado Romero/New York Times

Has your subway been delayed recently? Blame New York City’s aging transit infrastructure, especially its outdated signal system. Then start fighting to make sure Albany fully funds the MTA’s next capital plan.

A new report from the Straphangers Campaign shows just how prevalent signals failures are on the subway system. In 2011, the MTA sent out 4,580 e-mail and text message alerts informing riders of significant delays on the subway system (in general, these are delays of ten minutes or more; see the whole methodology in this PDF). Straphangers deemed around 3,000 of those under the MTA’s control, letting the agency off the hook for things like police investigations or water main breaks. Over a third, 1,062, were related to signals.

It’s perhaps no surprise that signals, which tell train operators when to stop and when to go, are causing delays across the system. They’re ancient. As of two years ago, a quarter of the system’s signals were more than 70 years old, according to New York City Transit chief engineer Fredrick Smith.

The good news is that the MTA has identified upgrading the subway system’s signals as a top priority. “It’s about signals,” MTA chief Joe Lhota told City And State last month. “If we’re going to have more throughput, we’re going to put more trains on the same track, and we’re going to have to have more modernized signals.”

The bad news is that upgrading signals is expensive work — the MTA is spending over $3 billion on New York City Transit signals and communications work in its current capital program — and there’s no plan yet for how to fund the next capital plan. The debt-saddled authority can’t afford to borrow billions, like Governor Cuomo did for the current round of spending, and put the next five years of upgrades and repairs on a credit card.

Some revenue stream, whether Sam Schwartz’s toll plan, James Brennan’s transportation bond issue, or Lhota’s own suggestion of a sales tax, will be needed. Otherwise, those signals are just going to get worse and the delays more frequent.

This is the first year that Straphangers has collected this data, which is also broken down by line and borough, but in the future it will also allow riders to measure changes in the reliability of the subway system over time.

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New Tech Promises Less Subway Crowding, If Albany Doesn’t Beggar the MTA

Last week’s news that NYC Transit is planning to boost L train service isn’t just good for residents of Williamsburg. It points to a new era of faster and more reliable service throughout the subway system as the new signal technology known as Communications Based Train Control (CBTC) begins to take hold.

Communications-Based Train Control can relieve crowding throughout the subway system, Albany permitting. Photo: ianqui/Flickr

As the Times and Second Avenue Sagas reported, L train riders will start benefiting from more frequent service next summer, when the MTA adds trains on the weekends, which have seen an 84 percent jump in ridership since 2005. But the major advance in service, which promises to relieve crowding on some of the most jam-packed rush-hour trains in the system, will come at the end of 2012, when the new CBTC signaling system is slated to be completed.

Like most transit improvements here, the implementation will be slow and will come with some service disruptions. But the short-term pains will be well worth this major upgrade to NYCT’s antiquated signal technology. Whereas the century-old system now in use relies on block signals with colored lights alongside the track to tell operators if they’re too close to the train ahead, CBTC uses radio signals to locate all of the trains on the line. With this information, on-board computers can calculate the distance between trains precisely and in real time, letting operators run trains closer together without compromising safety.

With more trains per hour, wait times will diminish and trains should be less crowded — allowing for increased ridership as the experience of riding the subway becomes more convenient and pleasant. Adding just one train per hour adds space to move another 2,640 people. That translates to fewer times waiting while a packed train goes by, and fewer elbows in your ear when you board.

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Here They Are: The Best and Worst City Transit Scenes

Photo: Sabrina Porter

The Straphangers Campaign and Transportation Alternatives have chosen the winners for their best and worst of New York City Transit photo contest. The top “Good Transit Scene” was “Break of Day ” by Sabrina Porter, while John Wehmeyer took the prize for best “Bad Transit Scene” with “”Reassuring? Not so much!”

Photo: John Wehmeyer

Porter and Wehmeyer will each receive a 30-day MetroCard. Check out honorable mentions here.

“These photos show our transit system at its best — and its worst,” said TA Executive Director Paul Steely White. “It’s time we had more of the former and less of the latter. The winning photos shine a spotlight on the real-world consequences of transit funding cuts and remind us what we stand to lose if nothing is done.”

Not to diminish Wehmeyer’s victory, but White reminds us of another transit tableau that is sure to go down in history as one of the most repulsive of all time:

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