My Long Weekend in New York City

December 7, 2012 at 8:18 pm

I recently got back from a short-ish vacation in New York City. I’ve been to New York once before but I was younger and hadn’t yet studied cities, the urban environment, sociology, or urban planning, so it wasn’t as interesting then as it is now. I do remember remarking on how mind-bogglingly large and populated Manhattan is and the sheer amount of people that move about it every day.

While I was there I walked – a lot. I believe the most I walked in a day was around 15 miles. The only thing I brought home were blisters on my feet! I love walking around cities and exploring aimlessly, and New York’s dense neighborhoods, stellar parks, and architectural eye candy were perfect. In all my walking and exploring, I noticed a few things about transit and the different ways to get around in New York.After my plane landed in Newark I took the AirTrain to the rail station, which put me on a NJ Transit train to Penn Station. The total cost of the one-way ticket was $12, which is pretty pricy but probably the least expensive direct route into Manhattan. The NJ Transit train system is decent and fast (I only had a little bit of experience on it, though). It is also electrified which means the trains get up to speed a little faster than our Metra trains here in Chicago, and the underground terminal stations aren’t going to give you lung cancer because there’s no pollution from the trains. The ticket collection is still old-school with conductors that come around to punch and/or collect your ticket.

After I got in to Manhattan I took any subway train going anywhere and just got off. First, though, I noticed that there is no contactless payment system for the MTA New York City Subway – just the flimsy Metrocard. It’s not as slow as using the paper cards here in Chicago, though, because you just swipe the card to get in through the turnstiles. Nonetheless surprised that New York doesn’t have a contactless system or even a more seamless system between MTA, NJ Transit, and PATH trains. That’s probably caused more by legal/political difficulty than lack of desire, however.

Some of the stations do have displays outside the track that display the approaching trains:

Credit: Shaun Jacobsen.

The displays on some of the platforms themselves are pretty useful too:

Simple, always displaying the pertinent information, unlike some of the screens on the CTA. Credit: Shaun Jacobsen.

The interiors of the train cars vary, but the newest cars are nice. They felt roomier than the CTA (even the new 5000-series), but they’re in fact narrower. The R160 trains on the NYC Subway (used on lines J, L, M, Z, E, F, N, and Q) are 9.77 feet wide; The R142A trains (lines 4 and 6) are 8.6 feet wide; the 5000-series cars now rolling out on some CTA lines are 9.3 feet wide. Some of the trains, like those on the A and C lines – are wider (10 feet), but all of the trains felt roomier. The NYC trains are longer and have more doors because there’s no tight curves (like the Loop tracks) to worry about – but even the R160 trains in New York are only 12 feet longer than the CTA trains, yet have twice the amount of doors (thus twice the boarding/alighting capacity). The R142A trains have 6 doors (CTA has 4 on all trains) and are only 2 feet longer. Yet the NYC trains constantly felt larger and roomier, even when it was full of people.

Interior of an R160B train in New York. Credit: Shaun Jacobsen.

So the widths of many trains in New York are similar to those in Chicago – but for some reason the CTA just feels more crowded. I also can’t help but believe that this is the result of smarter pole/rail placement in the NYC cars that give standing passengers more places to grab on and less incentive to crowd near the doors. It also appears that the seats are smaller and don’t go out as far into the center of the train.

For the most part, the subway was fast, efficient, and never delayed. Because of Hurricane Sandy, though, some service was still suspended, especially on the weekends and later at night.

Something else I noticed while wandering around the “concrete jungle” was the bike infrastructure. Broadway was the first cycle track I saw, complete with its own bike signals that are programmed perfectly for traffic flow.

Bike signal on Broadway. Credit: Shaun Jacobsen.

Cycle track on Broadway. Credit: Shaun Jacobsen.

The cycle tracks are separated from traffic by parked cars and bollards. The green you see above is for pedestrians, who have more room to walk. This is great, and I would love to see this on more streets here in Chicago’s Loop. Some of the sidewalks in the busiest areas of downtown Chicago are narrow and can’t handle the high amounts of pedestrians. While I was walking in this area of Manhattan, it was around 11 AM on a Thursday, so the sidewalks felt wide because there weren’t a ton of people walking. If we did something like this on the already-wide Michigan Avenue, whose sidewalks are often too narrow when there are a lot of tourists and shoppers, we could create a bike lane, bus lane, and moving traffic lane while widening the sidewalk. And why not? There is no parking on Michigan Avenue, most of the shoppers probably don’t come via vehicle, and the “express” bus lines that operate via Michigan are hardly express on that stretch of the street. It’s worth considering – maybe I’ll blog about that soon.

The only weak points of the cycle tracks on some streets were the left-turns. Luckily, some of the intersections’ left-turn signals (these are all on one-way streets, going southbound) were timed to coincide with the bike lane’s signal: Red bike lane signal when left-turn arrow was green and vice-versa.

Cycle track on 2nd Avenue (I think). Credit: Shaun Jacobsen.

Here is a view looking southbound on what I think is 2nd Avenue. The cycle “track” is only separated by paint but it’s better than nothing.

Source of conflict on the 2nd Avenue bike lane. Credit: Shaun Jacobsen.

The bike lane above, on 2nd Avenue (again, I think), did not have its own signal. Therefore, the traffic trying to turn left onto 6th St faces a conflict with southbound bike traffic. The only real way to make this safer is to put signals in for the bike traffic, which is expensive.

I didn’t see a huge amount of people on bikes. A lot of the streets in Manhattan (where I spent the most of my time) have fast-moving traffic and biking still feels pretty dangerous. I believe the mode share for bicycles is about the same here in Chicago as it is in New York. We’ll see how that changes when both cities launch their bike share systems early next year (hopefully) – New York just delayed theirs. I think this would prove useful in New York, especially for crosstown transportation (most of the subway lines in Manhattan run uptown-downtown via the avenues and vice-versa, not east-west). Such a system might prove especially useful (and in high demand) the next time there’s a large, incapacitating natural disaster.

Speaking of natural disasters, Hurricane Sandy definitely left a mark on transportation in New York City – although, given the recency of the disaster, many of the transportation systems are back and running. The exception is PATH (Port Authority Trans-Hudson) trains to New Jersey, which still smell a little bit like a flooded basement and are running only between 5AM and 10PM (instead of the normal 24 hours), with bus service from the Port Authority Bus Terminal picking up the slack. A minor inconvenience for those of us that enjoy the nightlife in New York City and don’t feel like going home at 10 PM, but still remarkable that the service is back up and running at least for commuters so soon after the disaster. I can’t help but think that the speed with which transportation systems in New York were restored has to do with their importance and the sheer number of people that rely on this system every day.

I love New York and can’t wait to go back, especially once everything is back in full operation and I can explore more parts of the City. I enjoy visiting other cities both here in the U.S. and abroad in order to compare their geography/land use, demographics, and transportation systems (and of course… the food!). I strongly believe that the best way to innovate and create the best cities we can make is to put aside our pride in our own city and see what works (and what doesn’t) in other cities. Far too often I get the feeling that decision makers don’t care to explore how other places do things, when in fact that is one of the best ways to improve and succeed.