The New York City Subway Is Beyond Repair
Last weekend, Peter Wayner advocated for a radical overhaul of the city’s current subway system, proposing, instead, a network of subterranean highways filled with hoverboards, scooters, and autonomous vehicles.
After reading “The New York City Subway Is Beyond Repair,” I felt compelled to respond to what I see as basic inaccuracies that undermine the piece as a whole.
I have a degree in infrastructure engineering and am an engineer-in-training in the field, but the inaccuracies in question are not nearly so arcane as to require such credentials.
The respective capacities of free-flowing vehicular lanes and subway transit are well established. Generously, a freeway lane might carry 2,000 vehicles per hour, which—again, generously—might each carry somewhere between one and two travelers, on average. This gives us a high-end estimate of moving 2,000 to 4,000 people per hour in a single direction.
An MTA subway track, such as Mr. Wayner effectively proposes to replace with a single lane of traffic, is capable of carrying in excess of 30,000 people per hour. This is not a small difference and makes one wonder whether the author has considered it.
This is the simplest critique, as it relies on simple math, but the challenges with Mr. Wayner’s proposal are legion. For the geometry alone, there are a number of difficulties with using passenger vehicles rather than trains.
Vastly larger stations would be required to accommodate all the spaces for cars picking up and dropping off pedestrians. In order to prevent delays for vehicles not stopping, additional bypass tunnels would need to be excavated at every station. To permit safe operation, much of the signaling equipment that Mr. Wayner wanted to rip out would instead need to be replaced with much more sophisticated and expensive Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) to coordinate a far larger number of vehicles.
These are all massive challenges, with huge price tags, that would, again, result in a tremendous decrease in capacity for the system as a whole. It’s a pleasant fantasy to believe that innovation and a Silicon Valley mindset are all that’s necessary to solve one of America’s most intractable infrastructure challenges. The truth, much less attractive, is that it requires massive and consistent funding, collaboration across a range of stakeholders, and time.