Southern Brooklyn

Bring On The Express

Source: Bill Sweeney / Flickr
Source: Bill Sweeney / Flickr

Allan Rosen is on vacation this week. Filling in for him is John Rozankowski, Ph.D., a long-time community activist with a keen interest in mass transit issues, who has contributed to Sheepshead Bites in the past.

THE COMMUTE: Frequently, when the subject of express service is discussed, MTA officials love to point out that other cities don’t have it. When the F train was re-routed to 63rd Street and the V train took over its original run via 53rd Street (2001), MTA spokesperson Paul Fleuranges indicated this and added that “New Yorkers are spoiled (by express service).”

The implication is that if other cities don’t have express service, New York City doesn’t need it either; that express service is something extra rather than an integral part of the subway system. It reveals a very casual, if not dismissive attitude to express service, which is discernible in MTA policies over the years:

Mayor Bloomberg’s congestion pricing proposal (2008) would have dramatically increased ridership. In response, the MTA offered more trains on the #1 line and longer trains on the C line but no extra express service. And if congestion pricing had been approved, the MTA didn’t suggest using revenues for enhanced express service anywhere.

In the early 1990s, the MTA made a strong effort to entirely eliminate the #7 express, the A express from 59th Street to 168th Street and the D Bronx express. The most devastating express eliminations with the widest impact, however, were at night, which will be the focus of this article.

Yet, express service is the feature that makes the New York City subway system the greatest in the world and a blessing for its riders. When the agency considers express service, it focuses on time savings. Subway riders, however, don’t follow the trains with a stop-watch. Reducing the number of station stops is what makes a world of difference.

Some riders read their iPads while others actually sleep, but the overwhelming majority travel with that blank subway stare so familiar to New Yorkers. For them, numerous station stops distort their perception of time. A trip of 30 minutes seems like an hour and 30 minutes. Doing this every night, five days a week and some 50 weeks out of the year becomes absolutely exhausting. In contrast, an express makes time go faster, the ride less monotonous and far more tolerable.

Nightmare At Night

When New York City ran its own subways, nighttime express service was initiated with enormous fanfare on May 16, 1946. The #2 (replacing #1 on February 6, 1959), #4, A, D, N, and Q (formerly QB) were express in Manhattan at night. Both E and F trains were express on Queens Boulevard. Today, all have been downgraded to local except the D and Q in Manhattan and the F in Queens.

The following list shows what a nighttime rider traveling (from…to) must endure:

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

Clearly, express service would markedly reduce the number of station stops and result in real time savings as well. There are no capacity issues or merging problems with nighttime hours offering full operational flexibility.

Each line must be looked at individually. The MTA will indicate that the Queens Boulevard line has the F express at night. The E train, however, originates from a different area of Manhattan and runs to a different terminal than the F. The F express offers no advantage to most E riders. Both are needed.

Furthermore, it’s not new services that are being discussed. It’s a restoration of services, depending on the line, which riders have enjoyed from 30 to 50 plus years. The big losers in the current arrangement are the long suffering outer borough riders, who regularly get the shaft from the MTA because their trips to or through Manhattan are generally longer. Why wouldn’t they use a car if given the chance?

Likewise, jobs are growing in the outer boroughs, including nighttime jobs, and the exhausting crawl hinders residents from Brooklyn and the Bronx traveling to jobs in each other’s boroughs. Originally, the MTA tried to justify its cuts by blaming low ridership. Today, ridership is surging dramatically.

In the past, people would go to a station and blindly wait for their train. With publication and easy access to subway schedules, more and more people are targeting their arrival at a station to the anticipated arrival of their desired train. Countdown clocks, available on the East Side IRT and West Side IRT, give them up-to-the-minute information so that they know when their train is about to come. As a result, subway schedulers have far more leeway in planning services. With a return of nighttime express service, riders would finally be given a choice. It’s a certainty that if someone wanted to catch a particular train, they would do everything in their power to do it.

Responding to criticism of its unwillingness to provide more express service, the MTA masks its aversion to express service by exhibiting a sudden care for riders waiting at local only stations. Looking at the Lexington Avenue line, for example, the current set-up means 10 minute waits for nighttime trains at every station. If the #4 express was restored, local only stations would get a train every 20 minutes.

First of all, this is nighttime and there is room for adding extra trains. In the above example, if three #4 trains went express, three #6 trains/hour could be added to fill the gap or two #6/ trains/hour, if the wait on local-only stations was extended by two minutes to 12 minutes. In either case, the resulting surge in ridership might more than offset the cost of the extra trains.

So why doesn’t the MTA restore express service at night? It’s simply that the agency, thinking that it “spoils” riders, doesn’t want to.

The Commute is a weekly feature highlighting news and information about the city’s mass transit system and transportation infrastructure. It is written by Allan Rosen, a Manhattan Beach resident and former Director of MTA / NYC Transit Bus Planning (1981).

Disclaimer: The above is an opinion column and may not represent the thoughts or position of Sheepshead Bites. Based upon their expertise in their respective fields, our columnists are responsible for fact-checking their own work, and their submissions are edited only for length, grammar and clarity. If you would like to submit an opinion piece or become a regularly featured contributor, please e-mail nberke [at] sheepsheadbites [dot] com.