To solve city’s overcrowded subway problem, think outside the train

A quick and effective fix for subway woes: more, better buses

As daily riders of the New York City subway system know, there simply is not very much space left underground. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has seen annual subway ridership increase by 158 million since 2010 and by 381 million since 2000. In the mid-1990s, average weekday ridership hovered around 3.6 million; today it’s 5.6 million, and the subways routinely see 6 million passengers in a day. Yet in that time, the MTA has opened just one new subway station.

From L trains that remain crowded well into late evening to E and F trains underneath Queens Boulevard packed with commuters until 9:30 or 10 every morning, the city is suffering from a subway capacity crisis. Straphangers have to let multiple trains go by before a sliver of space opens up.

To combat the great subway squeeze, the MTA has few tricks up its sleeve. Ongoing work to install communications-based train control on the No. 7 line should allow the MTA to run a few more trains from Queens in the morning, and power upgrades that accompany the looming L train shutdown will eventually add a handful of rush-hour trips to the perennially packed Brooklyn line. Once the Second Avenue subway opens later this year, passengers on a small stretch of the Lexington Avenue line will have new subway options to ease the crowding, but years behind schedule and at a prohibitive $2.7 billion a mile.

The list of problems facing the subway system is lengthy, and options for improvement are few and expensive.

That’s where buses come in. By investing in better bus routing and better bus infrastructure, the city could almost immediately move more people into and out of job centers without spending billions. By creating dedicated bus lanes over popular routes—even those that mirror subway lines—instituting more pre-boarding fare payment systems to reduce the time buses wait as riders slowly dip their MetroCards, and giving buses priority over single-occupancy vehicles, the MTA can make buses more appealing and give New Yorkers more transit options. Why not turn a pair of Manhattan avenues into dedicated bus-only thoroughfares?

New York City’s buses carry over 2 million riders per weekday, but they are often the invisible transit option, a slow-moving, hulking system of incomprehensible routes that do not always connect jobs with homes. If New York wants to expand transit capacity now—and not in 10 or 20 years—it is time to take buses seriously. They may not be sexy, but they work.

Benjamin Kabak, Second Ave. Sagas, Crains New York

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