How easily can New York absorb 50,000 delegates, dignitaries and press representatives for the Republican National Convention being held from August 30 to September 2 in Madison Square Garden?
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the Democrat-turned-Republican who enticed the Republicans to hold their national political convention in this Democratic stronghold, says, "The disruption will be a little bit annoying, but minimal." The mayor declared that, "If you don't live or work in the garment district, you won't even know that there's a convention in town."
Clearly, the mayor has a good point. My own experience during the 1992 Democratic National Convention was that from working on 42 Street, the only difference was the bright lights barely visible eight blocks to the south. Nevertheless, a lot of people do in fact work or live near Madison Square Garden, including 600,000 people who use Penn Station every day.
Perhaps the most visible disruption will occur for commuters exiting and entering Penn Station, which is buried under the Garden, during rush hour. Only two exits at the station, which serves Long Island Railroad, New Jersey Transit, Amtrak and several subway lines, will remain open. These are the main entrance on Seventh Avenue and the LIRR entrance on 34 Street. Station and subway entrances that are midblock between Seventh and Eighth Avenues and on Eighth Avenue will be closed for security reasons.
Penn Station exit closures mean that commuters will have to squeeze into two exits that are already jam packed at rush hour. The New York Times reported that railroad officials counted current passenger flows and found that two-thirds of Penn Station users already use the Seventh Avenue and 34 Street exits and the rest used the six exits that will be closed. Since ridership is normally down 10 percent in August, this means that the two exits will have to accommodate about 33 percent more commuters than normal. Given the normal level of crowding, that will be a challenge.
New Yorkers are famously adaptable and perhaps there will be less of a problem than these numbers suggest. Already, some commuters are planning their vacations to coincide with the convention. Others may avoid Penn Station by deboarding the LIRR in Queens and taking the subway into Manhattan. NJ Transit passenger flows will be lessened since Midtown Direct rail lines will be diverted to Hoboken during the convention, affecting 11,000 weekday rush hour commuters.
Subway and bus riders will also be affected. Bus lines on Seventh and Eighth Avenues will be diverted for the 13 hours that the convention is in session, primarily in the evening. Effects on subway service remain to be seen. Preliminary plans call for police officers accompanied by bomb-sniffing dogs and hand-held chemical detection devices to sweep subways and trains one stop before they reach Penn Station during the hours of the convention. The police will be checking for suspicious packages and terror suspects, according to Newsday. Thorough checks could substantially delay train service on both the subway and commuter trains, which perform a delicate and carefully timed dance to get into and out of Penn Station as quickly as possible.
And finally, what about transportation for convention delegates and the press? They will have more choices than the typical New Yorker. The Republicans plan to use 200 buses to shuttle delegates, dignitaries and reporters to and from Manhattan hotels. Buses will be whisked into Penn Station on specially coned-off lanes. But the bus is not the only option. Corporate sponsors are donating MetroCards to be given to each delegate. In addition, most of the hotels are in Midtown, within walking distance of the convention. Delegates' choice of bus, subway and walking is much like the choice locals make every day. How Republicans choose will depend partly on how much of a New York experience they want to have during their stay in the city.
Bruce Schaller is head of Schaller Consulting, which provides research and analysis about transportation, and is also a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University.Â