Industrial Sprawl

Back in September, I went on the podcast Well There’s Your Problem to talk about the relationship between freight transportation and industrial sprawl. Ever since, I have been meaning to follow up with some more extended written thoughts on the subject; this post is my much-belated attempt at that.

Of late, there has been much discussion about e-commerce, warehousing, essential work, and the future of cities. Whether it be retail space becoming pop-up warehouses, or the general uptick in demand for urban industrial space, these shifts would suggest that warehousing and distribution are likely to become ever more visible presences in the cores of America’s cities in the coming years.

What makes this trend remarkable, of course, is the degree to which it constitutes a dramatic movement against the past century’s currents in the geography of American goods. As is true for much else in America through those hundred years, the story of freight, warehousing, and industry has been one of dramatic (and destructive) sprawl — both within and between metropolitan areas. Take Chicago, for example. In 1947, about 75% of manufacturing employment in the region was located within the city limits of Chicago. Fifty years later, in 1997, that proportion had almost flipped — all while the Chicago region had lost more than half of its total manufacturing employment.

Though certainly not without nuance (I think, for example, most would agree that moving more noxious industries away from people is a good thing), this transition has been a damaging one; industrial sprawl has done great damage to equity and the environment. This dramatic locative shift is one which thus should be central to our understanding of the postwar American city, and is one that I see as being an essential framing for discussions about freight movement. For though industrial sprawl was driven by a number of factors, its extent and form was fundamentally shaped by a regime change in transportation. Much as automobility enabled modern suburbia, trucking defined industrial sprawl.

A Short History of American Industrial Geography

As the proliferation of the steam engine (and cheap coal) freed manufacturing from the constraints of water power during the mid-18th century, industrial enterprises began to centralize. Whereas businesses requiring any significant mechanical power were once forced to locate along streams or rivers with adequate size and elevation change to rotate a water wheel with some given energetic output, the portability of fossil fuels allowed enterprises to cluster around larger markets — permitting them to deliver goods to those markets cheaply, while placing themselves within walking (or streetcar, or subway) distance of a massively expanded pool of labor.

Reinforcing this industrial centralization were changes in transportation geography associated with the coming of railroads. On the most basic level, the US’s rail network was, roughly, a radial construction, designed to link various sorts of hinterlands with urban markets. Urban industry thus enjoyed radically improved market access, reinforcing urbanization, and, by all accounts, railroads’ radiality. Rail service quality was also extremely context-dependent. Because trains in that era almost always carried traffic for multiple customers, proximity to aggregation points (rail classification yards) translated into reduced shipment travel times and increased service reliability and reduced costs; your car of stuffs would have to brave fewer intermediate handlings before being placed on a long distance train if your factory was clustered with others near the origin of a long distance train.

Finally, even if you did choose to place your factory in ‘the sticks,’ the nature of railroads simply never allowed real industrial sprawl. The American rail network peaked at an impressive, and likely excessive, 250,000 route miles around 1915 — but even in this time of abundance, constraints remained. A boxcar cannot sprout tires and drive; to access rail service, one needed to be served by a spur off a rail line, and to achieve that access economically, all but the largest manufacturing concerns (which could justify their own branches) essentially needed to be within sight of — if not actually next to — a rail line. The resulting patterns of linear industrial location are visible even without leaving central cities: the blocks of industry abutting the Northeast Corridor in Philadelphia and the Bay Ridge Branch in Brooklyn are illustrative of this dynamic.

What evolved, then, were urbanized industrial metropoles. Though certainly not without a degree of polycentricity — Paterson, Newark, Elizabeth and Jersey City all once were dense industrial hubs of their own right, complementing New York — production was relatively concentrated. We see this in the data presented in the first chart, showing relative center-city dominance of metropolitan in 1947, or in the incredible statistic that, in 1910, about sixty-seven percent of manufacturing employment in New York City was located in Manhattan below Fourteenth Street. We see its transportational dimension in a survey of New York-area manufacturers which found that fully seventy-one percent of structures in Northern New Jersey built before 1920 had rail spurs. And we see its manifestation in the multistory and densely packed physicality of older industrial buildings — a reflection of contemporary technical constraints, to be sure, but also of the simple economics of urban land.

Industrial Sprawl

This order was not to last. Much as the postwar decades saw a fundamental reorganization of urban America’s human geography (to the suburbs and the Sunbelt), they, too, saw a transformation of industrial geography. The transformation which took place did so on two axes: one between metropolitan regions, and one inside them. On the former, the postwar decades saw a marked shift of industry to the South and West, as well as to non-metropolitan areas of the nation. On the latter, the same decades saw a shift of manufacturing out of cities into their suburbs. Though both ‘halves’ of this story are critically important to understanding the fates of industrial cities in the postwar years, it is the latter on which we will focus. For one, it seems to have been the dominant effect: even in metropolitan areas whose manufacturing employment grew, center city employment declined in both percentage and absolute terms (see below). For another, in contemporary discussions about those left behind by capital flight, city dwellers are remarkably absent. Understanding the discontents of the white working class is indubitably an important subject, but to tell deindustrialization’s story without regard to urban cores is to, bluntly, tell it incompletely: after all, from peak to present, New York City has lost more manufacturing jobs than the entire state of Ohio.

Sprawl Before Trucks: Space, Labor, Policy

Industrial sprawl began well before industrial employment in cities peaked. among these was the simple scarcity of urban space. As cities built up and out, expanding industries rapidly found themselves without open or lightly used land on which to build their factories. Though redevelopment of built-up land could be — and was — pursued, the difficulties of assembling lots large enough for modern industrial facilities at reasonable costs and in a reasonable time frame were sufficiently great to discourage industrial redevelopment and expansion in the city. This search for industrial space was made all the more urgent by contemporary technological shifts. As machinery came to be powered electrically, rather than by intricately linked belts and shafts, industrial engineers were afforded massively increased flexibility in the organization of a production line. No longer did processes have to be spatially clustered close to a source of mechanical power; long, continuous-flow production lines (some thousands of feet long) became possible. The ramifications of this should be obvious: in a built-up city, it is rare for there to be hundreds — let alone thousands — of feet of unbroken space where one could erect such a line. Even manufacturers which had an established building in a city, then, had an incentive to look outwards.

The search for space was made all the more difficult by the politics of land use in an inhabited city. As the 20th Century wore on and the dangers of living next to especially more polluting industries became more known, those around urban industry became increasingly loath to allow its expansion. Through zoning codes and other means of regulation, it became the project of many to rein in urban industrial growth, to keep factories away from residences. This was a worthy quest in many cases, but it nevertheless contributed the dynamic of decentralization; hostile cities made for constrained plants, and an outwards orientation for growth.

Labor politics are also central to understanding sprawl. As union strength grew in the first four decades of the 20th Century, it increasingly became the strategy of industrial America to pursue decentralization in order to move production into more ‘business-friendly’ climates (read: those with weaker unions and lower prevailing wages), to atomize the workforce, and to provide duplication of facilities. Perhaps the most famous examples of this behavior come from the auto industry. Starting in the 1920s, the ‘big three’ and their suppliers began to spin small, usually skilled parts manufacturing operations off from their large urban plants into Detroit’s hinterland. In the 1930s, larger operations followed; after a 1935 strike at a parts plant in Toledo which shut every single Chevrolet assembly in North America, General Motors rapidly began duplicating ‘bottleneck’ facilities, taking care to locate new plants in suburban or rural centers with weak union movements.

These ‘runaway shops’ were aided in their flight by contemporary policies. Postwar defense largesse was overwhelmingly one directed outwards from urban centers: for example, per Sugrue’s The Origins of The Urban Crisis (which is fantastic, and which, along with Prof. Sugrue’s other writings, heavily informed this post), over ninety percent of federal investment in the Detroit region was allocated to areas outside the core. Though some of this disparity was likely a manifestation of the other, preexisting anti-urban biases in industrial location, there equally were more active federal interventions. As concerns about a Soviet attack grew through the late 1940s and 1950s, the DoD began to actively encourage the duplication and decentralization of production to reduce the potential productive risk associated with any single nuclear strike. This policy, known as the “parallel plant” policy, led to the scattering of production across metropolitan regions, and indeed across the country.

Less directly, but perhaps more importantly, the government subsidized industrial sprawl through its housing policies. The subsidization of white suburban homeownership and automobility, and the subsequent decentralization of a large portion of the American workforce, drew employers outwards. This was done not just to increase their proximity to suburbanites, but also to provide space for those suburbanites’ cars: as commutes shifted from transit to cars, parking needs only increased the pressure to find more space.

There is finally the question of taxation. Legacy urban centers tended (at that time) to have higher local tax rates than the suburban municipalities of their hinterlands; in some metro areas which bridged state lines, this difference was additionally accentuated by state-level tax disparities. The dominant industrial-geographic impact of tax differences was likely some minor hastening in the interstate movement of industry (especially to the South and West), but it did have some impact on intra-metropolitan location decisions as well, aiding this process of suburbanization.

It is incontrovertible that the above set of economic and political forces would have reshaped American industrial geography even within a rail-centric model of freight transportation. Indeed, GM’s policy of decentralization and duplication began before trucks became such a powerful force in transportation, creating a peculiarly rail-centric variety of sprawl around Detroit. However, it seems unlikely that industrial sprawl would have taken place to the degree that it did, and in the form that it did, had it not been for the rise of American roads. Though these forces added to the logic of sprawl, their ability to shape geography was fundamentally limited by structurally centripetal rail networks; highways (and especially the trucks they carried) removed that final barrier.

Much like a car, a truck is a largely ‘atomic’ mode of transportation. In contrast with trains, whose operating paradigm is either primarily (through the existence of sufficient traffic on a corridor to fill an entire train) or secondarily (through the assembly of individual freight cars with similar origins and destinations into a train) reliant on traffic density, trucks need not rely on aggregation; they generally move a single load on a point to point route. This allows them to serve light-density markets and decentralized industrial geographies without much of an efficiency loss.

The other important parallel between cars and trucks is their incompatibility with dense urban environments. Long, unwieldy, and without efficient and generally dedicated infrastructure like trains, trucks have long had a difficult time navigating narrow and crowded urban streets — something becoming only more true as truck lengths have increased. Though the desire of trucking and industrial interests to improve access to urban manufacturing hubs became a key force behind several early urban highway projects (for example, New York’s Holland Tunnel and Gowanus Expressway), this was a necessarily Sisyphean task. Beyond the operational issues that come with large trucks on small streets, trucks simply take up more space than their steel-wheeled counterparts. Truck-centric industrial design (with its loading docks, parking, and maneuvering space) made the dense, street-fronting industrial buildings necessary for urban location all but impossible; the factories of today overwhelmingly lie in fields of parking in areas where such expansive plots may be found — in the hinterland.

The final piece of the puzzle here is the systematic subsidization of truck transportation in the United States. We have already touched on some such mechanisms, whose subsidies to trucks existed insofar as they subsidized truck-friendly decentralization, but there, too, existed a vast amount of direct subsidy to the mode. This is most obviously evident in the creation of a federally funded network of highways. Though user fees initially recouped a large fraction of highway operating and maintenance costs, recent evidence on the allocation of costs between road users would suggest that truckers underpay significantly relative to their impact on road maintenance. Before partial transportation deregulation in the 1970s and early 1980s, this subsidy asymmetry was also compounded by government rate policies. And these elements of subsidy are to say nothing of the divergence between highway costs and revenues seen since the 1960s, or the manifold other unpriced (and perhaps unpriceable) impacts trucks and highway-centricity have had on us.

From this convergence of industrial and transportation policy evolved a new industrial landscape, centered around trucks, and in the suburbs. Boston’s Route 128 beltway is illustrative. The years following its completion saw an explosion in investment. Through the mid-1950s, about forty percent of all spending on new industrial facilities in the Boston region was directed to facilities along this corridor. Defined in more than their location by this highway, these new plants had about eight-tenths of a parking space per employee, overwhelmingly generated car commutes, negligibly prioritized access to freight rail, and were overwhelmingly larger and flatter than their predecessors. Though some of these businesses were new to the region, or were ones which grew in moving, a large proportion of corridor activity was nevertheless attributable to relocations, and fully seventy-five percent of those relocated businesses had previously resided in Boston’s urban core. Route 128 assuredly built on a preexisting set of industrial instincts towards flight, but its construction is nevertheless what unlocked and shaped them. With the access provided by its belt, Boston’s manufacturers need not renovate their (rail-centric) urban facilities to accommodate growth; they could discard them for a new, more accessible, seemingly more modern truck-oriented facility on the burgeoning urban periphery.

The relationship between freight transportation and these outwards movements is emphasized even further by evidence from the New York region. Before 1920, about seventy percent of industrial properties in northern New Jersey were built with rail spurs. These plants were those of an earlier generation of decentralization; they were the mills of Paterson, the refineries of Elizabeth, the sprawling factories of Kearny. By the 1950s, New Jersey’s industrial growth had turned outwards, to the industrial parks along the New Jersey Turnpike and other arterials. Towns like South Brunswick and Edison became home to an endless sprawl of single story industrial parks, providing expansive suburban locations for industry, and thus contributing to the precipitous decline in New York’s industrial employment over that time. Unsurprisingly, this highway-led industrial development had deep ramifications for manufacturers’ choice of shipping mode: by the mid 1950s, the share of new industrial construction in Northern New Jersey which was built with rail spurs had dropped below forty percent. Forty percent is by no means an insignificant figure, but it is nevertheless a far cry from the seventy percent of mere decades before — and is indicative of how here, too, highways and trucks increasingly shaped sprawl.

Patterns like these are visible everywhere in America. It would seem no accident that, on the above charts of industrial employment patterns, the steepest declines in the urban share of regional industrial employment followed the buildout of highway systems through the 1940s, 50s and 60s. As Chicago (to take another example) built out its highways and beltways, industrial growth in the periphery exploded; today, the highest concentrations of industrial employment in the region lie in industrial parks in the urban periphery, near highway interchanges and along arterials. Similar stories can be told in Atlanta, San Francisco, and beyond: the modern industrial landscape is indelibly tied to the geography of our roads — roads which now carry the plurality of American freight.

Consequences

This new, truck-oriented industrial geographic regime has, of course, had ramifications which go far beyond simple matters of placement in space. In the world of transportation, industrial decentralization hastened rail traffic declines; reliant as they are on traffic density and aggregation, the dispersed goods movement patterns and lower traffic densities that came with sprawling industrial geographies reduced traffic beyond the basic shift wrought by the appearance of the truck and its subsidies. Railroads have attempted with some success to adopt to this new regime with the introduction of intermodal services, which combine the last-mile flexibility of trucks with the long-haul efficiencies of rail. However (and I will delve into this more in the future) this marriage has been somewhat of a Faustian bargain; sprawl has made rail structurally less competitive.

More important than these matters of network bias have been sprawl’s socioeconomic ramifications. American industrial history is riven with racism and racial disparity; the story of sprawl is no different. As Sugrue has discussed at length, the outward migration of high-paying industrial jobs after World War II worked in conjunction with rampant, institutionalized racism in the housing market, discrimination within the labor market, and anemic investment in high-quality public transit to interdict Black access to new factories at the metropolitan edge. Without mobility, seniority, or access to more skilled job classifications, capital flight (and the concomitant rise of factory automation) translated into economic disenfranchisement for Black communities in many industrial cities. In 1960, the unemployment rate for white autoworkers in Detroit was 5.8%. For their Black counterparts? 19.7%. Deindustrialization was obviously only one of many interlinked factors working against urban prosperity in the postwar years. However, insofar as (unionized) production jobs were the route into the American middle class for many, this set of institutional discriminations implicated in industrial migration away from cities is difficult to read as anything but a great denial of opportunity — one whose ramifications for urban economies in post-industrial metropoles are visible to this day.

The impacts of sprawl-induced urban deindustrialization has left long shadows. So, too, has the infrastructure that supported it. Americas urban highways were violently constructed, and ever since, have been perpetrating another, slower violence of pollution against the communities alongside them. Though the coalitions supporting urban highway plans generally problematized automotive access more so than they did trucking, the latter use did, too, play a role in supporting these constructions. Once built, the trucks using these roads have disproportionately contributed to the pollutants which emanate from them. The average heavy-duty diesel truck emits about nineteen times more PM2.5s per vehicle-mile than the average gas powered car — PM2.5 being a pollutant which has been linked to, among other things, increased COVID-19 morbidity. Railroads are by no means corporate exemplars of good environmental stewardship, but even with their current fleet of diesel locomotives, they offer radically reduced emissions relative to trucks. This is to say that, on top of all else, sprawl has radically increased the environmental footprint of freight in this country, especially in vulnerable communities. I think it’s critically important to note, here, that keeping certain types of industry in densely populated areas is also bad environmental policy, given the very real pollution risks associated therewith, but to banish all to the suburban fringe does not seem altogether wise, either. A nuanced, justice-oriented approach to these questions is what was and is required, and is anything but what has been provided.

Conclusion

America clearly needs improved surface transportation policy. This is perhaps most apparent to the average person in our country’s passenger transportation systems, but freight needs attention too. As we enter the 2020s and fitfully seek to to confront issues of climate, economy, and justice, assembling the sorts of policies that may begin to right these failures of planning and incentives seems critical. Next time, we shall discuss what a ‘new freight policy’ could and should be.

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Inefficient Success

Before COVID among the — if not the — hottest topic in New York area transit infrastructure was the Gateway project. With dire (if questionable) predictions of massive capacity cuts from an impending Hudson River Tunnel closure and a constant drumbeat about the centrality of the tunnels to New York-New Jersey commutation, you would be forgiven for thinking that the tunnels leading into Penn Station comprise the busiest transit crossing of the Hudson River. I say “forgiven” because, of course, they are not.

Carrying over 35,000 bus riders under the Hudson River and (mostly) into the Port Authority Bus Terminal during the AM peak hour, the bores of the Lincoln Tunnel hold the crown of busiest Hudson River transit crossing, trouncing the NJT Rail tunnels to their south by a healthy margin of 11,000 peak-hour riders. Indeed, the Lincoln Tunnel is among the busiest of any Manhattan transit entry points; only the Manhattan Bridge’s four subway tracks carry more people. But their story isn’t one of success. The buses that travel through the Lincoln are a testament to our transit planning failures, and threaten to cost our region untold billions in the years to come.

Origins

In New Jersey, buses using the Lincoln Tunnel arrive from across the northeastern quadrant of the state, feeding from a dense transit grid in the inner suburbs and from tendrils reaching far into the the state’s interior. These routes are enormously significant to NJ Transit’s network. Trips serving the Port Authority Bus Terminal (PABT herein) consume thirty four percent of all weekday bus service-hours operated by NJT, and in many North Jersey counties, are the majority of bus trips available to residents.

If you slice and dice the data a bit differently, we can begin to gain an even clearer picture of these buses’ catchment. About half of all PABT bus trips stop in Hudson and/or Bergen Counties, with Passaic and Middlesex holding distant third and fourth places. This pattern is repeated if you look at route level data — a map of the top ten routes (by number of weekday trips) serving the PABT shows a dense cluster of routes in Hudson and Bergen, and the 139 bus reaching down into Monmouth.

Unsurprisingly, these service allocations track with the geography of bus use in North Jersey. While transit use in the region is strong overall, it is locally fragmented by mode. Rail is strongest in wealthy suburbs along electrified (read: faster) commuter rail corridors and along PATH. Bus use is most common in northern Hudson County and in Bergen (PABT-land) where rail options are either limited or slow, giving buses a time advantage.

I should note: not all of these bus use clusters are driven by the relative speeds of radial transit. Buses’ large share in the Oranges, for example, is likely driven by high rail ticket prices and low frequencies making it less accessible and useful to lower income transit riders. However, the split between places with electrified rail and those without holds in general.

Finally, it’s worth remarking on the density of the areas served by these buses. Manhattan’s economic gravity means that it’s possible to generate relatively strong transit use in areas with low intensity land use patterns, but, with the exception of some of park-and-ride routes, most Lincoln Tunnel bus ridership seems to be generated by riders from dense inner ring suburbs and secondary cities (I say “seems to be” because I am not aware of any public route-level NJT bus ridership statistics, so must infer rider origins from relative service levels). Indeed, the first, second and third densest municipalities in the United States all lie within the PABT catchment zone — those three being Gutenberg, Union City and West New York.

Failures

The PABT and associated NJT bus routes are an unquestionably successful pieces of transit infrastructure. By providing fast service from North Jersey to Manhattan, they likely divert thousands of car trips, and help support Manhattan’s (transit-friendly) regional economic preeminence. But I am here to tell you that while successful and beneficial, the network is, in fact, a massively underrated transit problem.

I see three motivating dynamics here: operating efficiency, service efficiency and capital efficiency. Let’s dissect them.

Operating Efficiency

Transit modes can be roughly stratified into capacity buckets. If you need a little bit of capacity, you use a van. If you need more, an infrequent (and perhaps small) bus. More, and you enter the province of frequent and/or articulated buses. Even more, and you’d probably want to look at light rail or light metro. Beyond that, you want subways, or regional rail. The way these buckets work is simple: in absolute terms, it costs more to operate a subway train than a bus, which costs more to operate than a van. However, it costs less to operate two buses than five vans (or five trains instead of thirty buses, and so on), so as your ridership increases, larger vehicles with more involved infrastructure become more economical by providing more capacity at a lower unit cost. These basic principles are generally borne out in US per passenger-mile transit cost data, despite the US’s issues with underutilized and poorly planned rail.

Lincoln Tunnel buses fall squarely in the capacity range best served by rail. Average loads per bus lie in the 40-50 passenger range that normally defines the upper limit of bus capacity, and their aggregate daily demand profile resembles that of a four track subway line. Yet the way we deal with these riders is by squeezing nearly one thousand buses per hour through the Lincoln Tunnel during peaks. Even at American (read: high) operating costs, commuter rail can deliver these passengers to Manhattan for less money, as NJT bus service costs $0.78 per passenger-mile to run, but rail costs only $0.47. Those savings could, in turn, be reinvested in service expansions across the NJT network.

Service Efficiency

That final point, about reinvestment, is key here. Setting aside the above-identified potential monetary redistribution, some future rail-based Lincoln Tunnel bus network replacement would free up a large number of bus service hours for use elsewhere — recall that thirty four percent of NJT bus service is spent on PABT routes. Instead of running routes oriented towards radial travel, we could give Northern New Jersey a strong BRT network, or a dense, frequent, Toronto-esque grid of local routes for little additional money. These (re)investments could (coupled with land use changes) begin chipping away at auto-dependence in intra-suburban travel, advancing environmental and equity goals. Getting Northern New Jersey even to Canadian levels of transit use in suburb-suburb travel would be a big win.

Spending service hours on a strong local grid is also a necessary complementary investment to rail. Part of what makes it difficult to work our way out of this bus problem is that Lincoln Tunnel buses cover Hudson and Bergen Counties quite comprehensively; you can get a PABT bus almost anywhere, at least during peaks (see earlier maps). Bergen County is not in any way lacking in rail corridors, but these lines are not nearly dense enough to put most places in the county within walking distance of a train; you need (frequent) local buses meeting (frequent) trains at timed and fare-neutral transfers wherever possible to extend the reach of the rails.

Capital Efficiency

By far the most important facet of the Lincoln Tunnel bus issue is its impact on regional transit capital planning, for the PABT is coming due for replacement. The Port Authority is contemplating a number of project alternatives, the best of which do little more than incrementally improve rider experience and transit utility, and the worst of which move parts or all of the (already peripheral) bus terminal further away from Midtown job density and transit connectivity to the Javits Center area. These replacements also come at a massive cost; the Port Authority is projecting PABT replacement to cost somewhere between $7.5 and $10 billion.

The project’s price tag is more a testament to New York’s cost disease than any inherent issues with buses, but, as denizens of ‘Transit Twitter’ have been doing for years, we should ask why we are planning to spend this much on a project that is fundamentally about preserving an inefficient transportation system. Precious few global cities with high transit ridership and job densities are currently building large bus terminals to serve them; for the efficiency reasons illustrated above, buses are simply not a best practice here. Indeed, some cities (for example, Ottawa) are even converting former bus infrastructure to rail on high-ridership corridors in order to realize more capacity for less money. While it’s likely unrealistic to expect a full replacement of the PABT, lower bus volumes would be more conducive to a much less costly transitway based replacement. So to the extent we can, we should be following the lead of other cities, spending on better, higher functioning transit infrastructure rather than preservation.

Ways Forward

What planners must task themselves with, then, is finding ways to better serve the PABT/Lincoln Tunnel catchment area with rail transit. Any such conversation should start with low-hanging fare and operating reforms. It should not, for example, be more expensive to take a train to New York from Paterson than a bus, nor should our regional fare structure penalize people for transfers transfer between, say, NJT and PATH. Especially in light of the pandemic’s impact on rail ridership, now may also be the time to begin working towards (long overdue) commuter rail reform; to whatever extent possible given the limitations of existing infrastructure and equipment, we should seek to rectify NJT’s low service levels, complicated service patterns and high operating costs.

Fundamentally, however, reforming travel patterns will require us to redirect the billions planned for PABT replacement towards investments in rail speed, capacity and coverage in Northern New Jersey. For existing rail corridors (which mostly serve Bergen County) the infrastructure prescriptions to these ends are simple, and have been discussed at length and in more detail by others: New Jersey Transit should electrify its existing lines through northwestern New Jersey to support higher speed, lower cost operations with less environmental impact, and convert stations along them to high platforms to reduce dwell times and staffing requirements. In tandem with those improvements, NJT should begin the construction of the dense local/feeder bus grid so critical to rail’s success, and should likely contemplate expanding rail service onto currently freight-only corridors, for example CSX’s formerly quad-track River Line. Further, we need to invest in more, better designed core network capacity, whether that be some sort of Hoboken-Atlantic Terminal tunnel, a Penn-Grand Central connection in conjunction with Gateway, or an investment in higher performance signaling and equipment so we can run 30+ tph on the tracks under the Hudson as is done in Paris.

For Hudson County, things are more complicated. Unlike Bergen, its bus-dense towns do not have rail rights of way on which one may incrementally improve service. A fix for the area will likely require some combination of subway extensions from Manhattan, improvements to and realignments of the HBLR network (which is currently somewhat underutilized relative to population density north of Jersey City, and can provide a two-seat ride to Manhattan with PATH), and preservation of Manhattan-bound bus service. Yet perhaps more than anywhere else in the New York metro area, transit investments in Hudson County can self-justify with growth: Hudson County has the among the most pro-housing policies of any part of the region.

New York’s truly exceptional construction costs force us to make decisions that we simply should not have to make, and to suffer the climatic and economic disbenefits of glacial transit expansion. While agencies should always be cognizant of opportunities to spend money in ways that will increase operating efficiency, New York’s cost bloat (and operating cost efficiency issues) means this focus should only be stronger; the ethos of doing more with less should dominate transit discussions in this region. Rail replacement of the PABT is perhaps the greatest such opportunity in New York today, one which could positively transform transportation for millions in New Jersey. Let us not pass it up for another half-century of inefficient transit.

Subway Operating Efficiency and the MTA Budget Crisis

As most of you are likely aware, the MTA is currently facing a large deficit. Thanks to the ridership and cost impacts of the COVID pandemic, the agency needs $12 billion to cover operating losses through the end of 2021. It is hoped that the federal government will cover the shortfall, lest New York face a massive round of service cuts.

Given the magnitude of this budget shortfall, it is likely unrealistic to expect the MTA to recover fully without federal aid. However, whether to mitigate the impacts of a no-funding situation or to cover a shortfall in provided funds (for example, if Congress grants, say, $10.5 rather than $12 billion), it is important for the MTA to have identified ways of extracting efficiencies from its operations that do not involve the broad-based service cuts, layoffs and wage freezes threatened.

The path to ‘better’ savings isn’t especially murky. Patrick O’Hara laid out ways to save on the operation of LIRR service in this post of a few weeks ago, and I have tweeted a good bit on NYCT’s operating cost issues in the past. That said, given current events, it’s worth discussing the issue in depth. To be clear: I do not mean for this post to be an all-encompassing list of potential ways to save; my aim here is to present a few frameworks/cost centers of interest when discussing a financial path forwards.

The 80/20: Facility Maintenance

As should immediately stand out on the chart above, NYCT’s operating cost issues are driven by maintenance, specifically facility maintenance (think: track, tunnels, signals, yards, stations). If you look at cost-efficiency numbers on a per track-mile basis, the picture becomes even more dismal: NYCT is spending about three times as much per unit of maintenance as domestic peers. (NOTE: to get a comparison to true best practices, NYCT should benchmark to the likes of Paris or London, but I have not been able to obtain granular cost data for those systems)

There are some caveats here, of which it is important to be aware:

  • Facility maintenance expenditures are somewhat correlated with use intensity (as measured by car-miles per track-mile), even after you exclude the outliers of NYCT and PATH (these analyses include light rail system data to increase sample size beyond 14). However, even when including PATH and NYCT in the regression, NYCT’s maintenance costs are about $800,000 more than predicted.
  • Most US agencies classify some maintenance-like items as capital expenditures; for example, NYCT put spending on switch replacements in the capital budget. While it is possible to access regularized capital spending data through the National Transit Database, the NTD data do not offer sufficient detail to distinguish, say, an ADA upgrade from a laundry list of deferred maintenance items being treated as a capital project. The upshot: operating budget expenditures may not reflect the full extent of maintenance spending, but including capital spending may end up overstating costs.

With that said, let’s break down the issue. Maintenance cost structures across all US systems are dominated by labor. NYCT is no different in this regard; its cost disease seems to be driven almost entirely by a serious maintainer productivity deficit. NYCT’s labor cost per facility maintainer-hour (including salary and fringe benefits) is actually about average for US systems at $65; its issue is that it uses about four times more maintainer hours per track mile than peers.

The obvious question here is “why.” I am, honestly, not entirely sure. I have long thought that some combination of the agency’s complex track access and roadway worker protection (“flagging”) protocols and work rules may be what is driving up costs and labor expenditures, but I cannot present evidence beyond anecdote and my own observations. Nevertheless, this area holds massive potential for further investigation: bringing NYCT’s facility maintenance costs down to the national average could save $1.3 billion dollars per year, or about twenty percent of the projected 2021 deficit.

Other Ways to Save: OPTO and Hidden Time

One of the more commonly proposed ideas for cost reduction at NYCT is movement to one-person train operation, or OPTO. OPTO is, unequivocally, an international best practice in rapid transit, even on systems (ex: Thameslink) with long, crowded trains and curvy platforms. While NYCT’s overall vehicle operations spending isn’t extreme compared with those of other US systems — most of which use OPTO — OPTO would indeed be a significant saving, and would more importantly reduce the incremental cost of subway service, thus making cuts less and expansions more attractive. However, outside the G and L lines, any OPTO expansion would require significant investments in CCTV infrastructure and crew training. This would be money well spent, but the need for investment introduces a relatively inflexible minimum time-to-savings. And, of course, this is all assuming that the TWU would even concede OPTO, which seems unlikely (and honestly, who can blame them?)

Making a unit of service cheaper is only one of the two broad levers transit managers have at their disposal right now. They can also cut service. Even with COVID ridership levels, service frequency/span/coverage cuts should, as a general rule, be avoided (for reasons ranging from equity to the difficulty of re-hiring and re-training operations staff, to the downwards pressure this would have on ridership’s recovery), but there are ways to trim service with small impacts relative to their returns. These savings are all about ‘hidden time,’ which in my mind comes in two varieties: excess scheduled runtime and non-revenue train movement.

Most costs associated with train operation scale with the time it takes to run the length of a line. The longer the round trip runtime, the more trains and crews you will need to run a service at a given frequency. The corollary here is that when you shorten scheduled running times, you can make a service (hours) cut without actually impacting frequencies or coverage: crews and trains are doing the same work in less time. One cannot wake up one morning and magically speed up trains, but NYCT’s incremental speed efforts have borne fruit and COVID ridership losses are making trains run faster; if the agency expects these gains to hold, it may be worth adjusting schedules to reflect them. There are also likely savings to be had in schedules for diversions, though those savings would be more likely to accrue to the capital budget, which pays their cost.

The issue of non-revenue time is more straightforwards. In the course of operating a transit system, you inevitably end up with vehicles running without passengers — for example, on trips to and from train yards. For its size and complexity, NYCT’s non-revenue proportion benchmarks well compared to other US heavy rail systems, but savings likely exist. We could ask, for example, whether every AM rush D train need originate from Stillwell Avenue; on the N, some enter service at 86 St which minimizes time from yard departure to entry into northbound service (this may require slightly rearranging yard patterns in the Coney Island complex).

Hidden time cuts likely will not add to much in the grand scheme of the transit budget. It is not even possible to say for certain whether, after accounting for the resources that would have to be invested in rewriting schedules, they would net much financial benefit in the short run. However, cuts like these have return beyond finances: a faster, more tightly scheduled system is better for riders and operations, and I moreover think we would be remiss not to look at low impact savings before reducing mobility in a crisis.

Difficult Decisions

What New York and its transit system face today is unprecedented and unpredictable there is no certain way out of this mess. I want to be clear in saying that the immediacy of this potential crisis may make the systemic work I suggest too time-intensive to be helpful. But we need to be cognizant of our actions’ long term ramifications for the agency and for New York. Indiscriminate cuts and wage freezes will likely erode the MTA’s knowledge bases, internal networks and organizational capacity, whereas targeting specific cost centers reduces institutional risk while enhancing process reform capabilities. And every transit service cut made threatens climate, equity and the mere survival of the transit-dependent urban landscape that is New York. So, if funding does not come through, it is imperative that we try pursuing more targeted approaches to the budget.

Home Signal

Ever since I (Uday Schultz, or @a320lga) stumbled into the reeds of ‘Transit Twitter,’ I have been planning a blog. Amazed by the content on Alon Levy’s Pedestrian Observations, Sandy Johnston’s Itinerant Urbanist, Michael Noda’s Sic Transit Philadelphia and Clem Tillier’s Caltrain HSR Compatibility Blog (to name just a few) and so frequently frustrated by Twitter’s character limits, it seemed but a natural progression. So, finally, after 18 months of procrastination, I am…getting a blog!

Much like my Twitter account, the focus here will be on transportation, urbanism and industrial history. More so than on my Twitter, I plan to make an active effort to write on a mix of detail-heavy operations/operations planning subjects, and more high level planning, history and background subjects. Given the geography of my knowledge, posts will likely tie back to issues in the Northeast or Industrial Midwest, but I hope to bring in material from the world beyond.

I should note that this blog will be as much a space for experimentation as for exposition: this is a new format for me, and I generally count many of my ideas as works in progress. I will hopefully have a ‘real’ post ready sometime later this week — see you all then!