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The Case Against The Second Avenue Subway

by Dick Netzer

Building the Second Avenue subway is a bad idea whose time may have come. Proponents advocate the Second Avenue subway:

  • to reduce crowding at peak-hours on the Lexington Avenue subway;
  • to accommodate the riders who will be added to Lex trains between Grand Central and Lower Manhattan, when and if Long Island Railroad trains are brought to Grand Central by the planned new connection; and
  • to provide rapid transit service to the residents of Manhattan who live well east of Lexington Avenue, Park Avenue South and Lafayette Street.
They offer apocalyptic scenarios of injured passengers and the decline of the Manhattan economy if the Second Avenue subway is not built. But any benefits that the Second Avenue subway would afford can be provided far more cheaply and far more quickly by other measures taken by the MTA, if it had a mind to.

More trains for less money

Subway systems the world over run 30 trains an hour on each track at peak hours (2-minute headways) and some, like those in Paris and Moscow, run 40 trains an hour (90-second headways). New York City Transit ran 30 trains an hour, or more, on all the major lines until the late 1960s, and even today runs that many on the E and F line from Queens and the Number 7 line. But when much of the signal system was rebuilt in the 1960s, the capacity of the Lexington Avenue line was reduced to 23 trains an hour on each track. The MTA runs that many trains on each of the tracks between 9 and 10 AM., but only 10 trains an hour on the local tracks at other times, like 8 to 9 AM and 10 to 11 AM. All of which goes a long way to explain the crowding on the Lexington locals for much of the day.

Without adding any capital costs or more than a small amount in operating costs, the MTA could increase service during the 8-9 and 10-11 hours from 33 to 46 trains an hour, a 39% increase. This could be done within a few weeks. By changing the signaling back to what is standard in the rest of the world, and thus running 30 trains an hour on each of the two tracks, the MTA would increase service at what is now the peak hour, 9-10 AM, by 14 trains, or 30 percent. This would cost several million dollars and, given the slow nature of public construction in New York, could take as much as three years. But, then, between 8 and 9 AM, service could be increased from 33 to 60 trains, a near-doubling. That spells a pretty fair reduction in overcrowding, without waiting a generation and spending many billions of dollars. It also would reduce waiting time for Bronx residents who now use the Lex, here and now. Or doesn't that count?

LIRR to Grand Central

The specter of a huge increase in Grand Central to downtown subway traffic resulting from the LIRR connection is just that: a fantasy. The reason LIRR commuters want direct service to Grand Central is because many of them work in East Midtown, and could walk from Grand Central. If an LIRR commuter works in Lower Manhattan, the right way to get there is to take the Number 2 or Number 3 lines from Penn Station, a good fast service with no overcrowding.

Light Rail on Second Ave.

As for providing rapid transit service to the far east of Manhattan, it is hard to see why this should take priority over providing subway service to the many more City residents who live in eastern Queens and southeastern Brooklyn, much further away from subway stations than is the case for those oppressed citizens of the Upper East Side. And even if Manhattan is to be given priority (as usual), there is a cheaper and quicker way to do so than the Second Avenue subway. Second Avenue (and First Avenue, too) is a very wide street. A modern light-rail system running on the street's surface could be installed in Second Avenue at a fraction of the cost in both money and time, and that system would provide high-quality transit service to residents. Modern light-rail systems are being installed elsewhere in North America and operate throughout Europe; passengers actually like them. Or doesn't that count, either?

The drawback is that the proprietors of retail establishments along Second Avenue will decry this as the End of Western Civilization, much as they did when Second Avenue was made into a one-way street years ago. The street will have to be two-way (as would First Avenue, presumably), and will no longer be able to serve as a taxi and private auto speedway for many hours of the week. That may be the fatal flaw. We all know that in this city, the only one in North America in which most households do not own autos, being nice to motorists is the highest of political priorities.

So the political solution is to bay for the moon: Rather than discomfit anyone, propose a multi-billion dollar subway line that everyone knows will never be built.

Dick Netzer is a Professor of Economics and Public Administration at the Wagner Graduate School of Public Service New York University.

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