As far as cities go, New York is *the* superlative. At once soaringly vertical and unfathomably broad. Dense and constrained, yet with an expansive commuter belt spread over three states. A place where local neighborhood hangouts sit a block away from global institutions.
I found New York to be a surprisingly homely and friendly place. The people are gracious and polite, helpful and personal in a way that belies a population counted in the tens of millions. Curiously I felt safer and more welcome in midtown Manhattan than I have in most other places. A real enigma of a city where the sense of wonder extends far beyond the garish lights of Times Square.
One could write volumes on transport and urbanism in New York, and indeed people have. There is a gift shop in Grand Central Station that stocks a library worth books on such topics. There are four current issues on the planning of Central Park alone. If you want a history of New York’s municipal reticulated steam supply there is a book on precisely that. If you are interested in the subway there are about a dozen. Nonetheless, I thought I would write this post as some observations on using the New York subway quite intensively for the best part of a week.
It is almost the oldest, almost the biggest, and almost the busiest metro system in the world. Like the old and great systems of London and Paris it is the complex product of over a hundred years of iterative development, grand schemes, failed ventures, mergers, reorganization, investment and neglect. Like the rest of the city, the subway is paradoxically superlative: equal parts brilliant and terrible.
To start with the good:
The subway system is both very extensive and very intensive. By extensive I mean that it extends right across the five boroughs of New York City, with many long lines stretching out to some of the farthest suburbs. By intensive I mean that it has many closely spaced stations, with stops located convenient to seemly everywhere. Together this means the system has great accessibility for travel all over the city, particularly because it also integrates very well with frequent buses on the surface. Yet again, the most metro intensive cities in the world also have very intensive bus systems. Remember that, and repeat it regularly.
Normally the combination of frequent stops and long lines would have the unfortunate result of slow speed and lengthly travel times. However in New York they have avoided this problem with one of the great and unique features of the subway. Most lines are actually configured as two pairs of tracks, either side by side or on two levels. This allows them to run two service patterns per line, a ‘local’ that stops at every station along the way, and an ‘express’ that skips all but the major destinations and interchanges. You can pick between the high accessibility or the high speed, and indeed the normal thing to do is to transfer from the local to the express at the first interchange, then back to the local again after skipping most of the intermediate stops. In this way you get the full accessibility and full speed, and most stations are set up with the local and express stops on either side of the same platform to make doing so very simple. While this is a great approach I doubt it is something we could ever do in Auckland, as it takes a city like New York to make it work. For a start you need to be able to afford four tracks and double sized stations, and also you need very long lines to make it worthwhile. But more than anything, you need the patronage to be able to sustain two parallel metro lines running at very high frequency on the same corridors all the time. There are only a few cities in world that can do that.
That brings me to the next point. The New York subway has exemplary service levels. Each service pattern, of which there are frequently two or three per line, runs at very high frequencies right across the day. Trains every three or four minutes is the norm, even outside of peak hours. And the kicker? The system operates twenty four hours a day, seven days a week for the most part. This underlines the sheer importance and value of the subway to the function of New York. It isn’t a system intended to get commuters to Manhattan on weekdays, it isn’t a system intended to take the edge off traffic congestion, and it isn’t a system intended to provide a last resort for the poor and unfortunate who have no other options. Rather, the subway is simply a system intended to transport people around New York, whatever the time, whatever the destination, whatever the reason and whoever the traveller. This is something we need to aim for in Auckland, not the metro system itself, but the transit system that works any time for any reason and any person.
So now the bad. As I suggested above the subway is a product of its history, which naturally has resulted in various foibles and problems.
Despite the abundant network connectivity, connecting between lines is usually a convoluted and lengthy process. Transfer stations are most commonly a collection of separate platforms of various ages and designs linked by labyrinthine passageways, staircases and occasional street level links. Many span multiple levels and even multiple city blocks, undoubtedly the result of fitting in new lines and tunnels over the years wherever they could be accommodated. Way finding within station complexes is difficult to say the least, and simple connections can become a frustrating claustrophobic experience.
Furthermore, because most of the stations were cut out of the street corridor and can have me than one level, the ceiling heights are universally low, little more an two meters in many cases. This adds to the claustrophobic feeling (as does the dank stuffy air from the lack of air conditioning), but more insidiously it means that there is little scope to hang much wayfinding signage in places where it can be easily seen. The labyrinthine station designs make it both impossible to intrinsically see the obvious path to the other platforms, yet simultaneously the low ceilings prevent fixing the problem with good signage.
Stairs are many and varied on the subway. This means the system is not accessible by wheelchair and difficult for those with prams, luggage and the like. Many stations are built only with access via four narrow staircases, each set on one corner of an intersection. This can mean a whole trainload of people trying to get up one little staircase against the flow of others trying to get on. Furthermore most stations don’t have a concourse level, so changing platforms can mean exiting up to street level to cross the road and head back down the other side.
The final thing, well the whole network is a bit scuzzy. Dirty, run down, crumbling, rusting and waterlogged. It’s in need of an almighty makeover it will probably never get. I’d hate to think of what the cost of simply painting the stations and patching up broken tiles would be, let alone rebuilding and renovating the hundreds of stations.
So in summary the New York Subway a paradox, at once decrepit and exemplary. Incredibly useful, valuable and effective, yet thoroughly unpleasant and confusing to use. Excellent service levels in a horrible environment, an ugly and awkward icon the city could not function without.