Southern Brooklyn

The Commute: Why Is Transit Planning For Large-Scale Events So Difficult?

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It's all your fault, California Chrome. Bad horsey! Source: Wikipedia
It’s all your fault, California Chrome. Bad horsey! Source: Wikipedia

THE COMMUTE: Last winter, thousands of people waited three hours for New Jersey Transit trains at the Meadowlands to go home from the Super Bowl. That was mentioned last February in our discussion about how transit riders continually get screwed. Now, history has repeated itself at the Belmont Stakes: a three- to four-hour wait just to get out of the Belmont Racetrack parking lot or onto a Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) train. The New York Times reported on the transit aspect.

Everyone expects delays when large numbers of people have to be moved from a confined area. Taking 30 to 45 minutes or even an hour to get out of the parking lot is to be expected as is having to miss several trains. However, a three and a half-hour wait for a train is unacceptable. So why should this happen?

Poor planning and the lack of caring by those responsible is the answer. The MTA isn’t the only one at fault. Belmont Racetrack is mostly to blame. Transit riders always get screwed. However, in this case, the same was true for motorists as well. So what happened, why, and how could the situation have been made better? Also, why does it not always happen at large events? The LIRR provided 18 extra trains to take riders to the track. But these riders also had to go home, all leaving within about 90 minutes. The excuse provided by the railroad was that they planned for 20,000 additional riders when 36,000 actually showed up and they scrambled to find extra trains after the race.

This was no ordinary Belmont Stakes, but a race for the Triple Crown, which attracted record crowds under excellent weather conditions. Didn’t anyone realize that? Also, is 36,000 such a large, unmanageable number for mass transit commuters when about that number of people leave baseball games without major problems? Well, there are some crucial differences.

Commuter trains are not designed to handle such large crowds boarding at the same time. Unlike subway cars, which have three or four doors per car, commuter trains only have doors at the ends of the cars (usually two). Longer loading times limit the number of trains that a single platform could serve each hour, so without building additional platforms — which, of course, is not feasible for an event occurring once a year — capacity is constrained even if trains constantly left the station one after another.

So what else could the LIRR have done? Not much except operating as many buses as possible from the track to Jamaica and Flushing where commuters could have caught the subway as well as the LIRR. However, where would the buses come from? They would have to have made prior arrangements with New York City Transit, the MTA Bus Company, both operating under the same parent agency, or the Nassau Inter-County Express (NICE) buses and reimbursing them for the expense. Still, it would have made a minimal amount of difference reducing the wait by a half hour perhaps. The LIRR stated that if the trains ran like clockwork, which they obviously did not, another 30 minutes or so could have been saved. So those measures together could have reduced the delay by about a third — not insignificant, but still far from acceptable. Poor LIRR communication and inexperienced riders were also cited as problems.

What Else Could Have Been Done?

Clearly, the MTA by itself could not have done much more especially if trains were arriving and leaving as fast as the platforms could load the passengers. However, Belmont Park could have helped somewhat. The Belmont Stakes was the 11th out of 13 races held that day. If it had been moved up to be the ninth race instead, held two hours earlier, that would have staggered out the exiting crowds over a three-hour period instead of 90 minutes.

Clearly, Belmont had little regard for its 100,000 patrons. This was evidenced by the fact that few if any personnel or police were on duty to direct traffic out of the parking lots, causing traffic chaos according to some accounts on Twitter. Also, there were no lights in the parking lots, making it difficult to find your car, with some searching two hours in order to locate their automobile.

Some History

Although, the MTA does a competent job handling large crowds at Yankee Stadium and at Citi Field by providing extra trains, their record for handling large crowds was not always stellar. Prior to regularly measuring bus patronage through what they call “traffic checks,” begun in 1984 by then New York City Transit Authority head David Gunn, the MTA had no handle at all regarding non-rush hour bus usage. Schools and beaches were grossly underserved. Schools were only provided with two extra buses each at arrival and dismissal times. Regular buses were so overloaded that, what I frequently complain about, buses not stopping in Manhattan Beach due to the Kingsborough Community College traffic, was the case all over the city.

The same was true with providing enough service to beaches on hot summer weekends. There was never enough. The excuses were either a shortage of buses or a shortage of operators. I remember in the 1960s when, on a nice beach day, buses were so filled with beachgoers that other riders were forced to wait hours for a bus. The B49 and B68 buses would only stop to let riders off, and that was your only chance to get on. Waiting passengers at other stops were just out of luck. The B49 buses would usually only stop at transfer points between Farragut Road and Emmons Avenue on a hot summer weekend.

When I was in NYCT Operations Planning in 1982, I had a half dozen employees assist me, performing beach counts on those routes to document what I had been witnessing for 15 years. However, making schedule changes were not easy since the scheduling function was not part of Operations Planning back then. In 1981, on a hot night in August, about 500 beachgoers were stranded overnight in Orchard Beach in The Bronx and Riis Park in Gateway National Recreation Area because there were not enough buses to take everyone home before service ceased operation for the night.

Conclusion

Fewer people go to the beach today than in years past and there are more buses to serve them. Also, many schools now get 20 extra buses to handle the crowds when they used to get only two. The MTA routinely handles large crowds much better than it used to. However, unusual events, such as what happened at Belmont, still pose problems. A concerted effort on the part of Belmont Racetrack and the MTA could have resulted in lessening those problems. The MTA by itself could not have improved the situation very much.

All this leads to another interesting question: Given what happened at the Super Bowl and at Belmont, why did New York City believe that it was capable of handling a 2012 Olympics? And could this region handle the Olympics in the future? One thing is clear: California Chrome was not the only loser at the Belmont Stakes. Everyone who attended, whether you took the LIRR or drove, got screwed when it came to getting out of the park.

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.

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