Mission-Focused Management and Transit

Followers on Twitter may know that I’m a big Chicago Cubs fan, the type whose heart races at every mention of baseball until the beginning of spring training. One of the best things about following the Cubs in recent years has been the proliferation of high-quality baseball coverage from nontraditional media, both team-specific and sport-wide. Since there have been blogs, there have always been bad Cubs blogs, but now there are several very good ones too. One of the best newcomers is Baseball Prospectus’ (yes, I have a subscription) Cubs-centric offshoot BP Wrigleyville, launched just last season.

What does this have to do with the usual topic of this blog, planning and transit? Well, today BP Wrigleyville’s Matthew Trueblood posted a challenging article  that apparently got a solid segment of Cubs Twitter enormously pissed off. His sin? Arguing that perhaps, mostly in the name of innovation, the Cubs should not extend genius-GM-of-the-moment Theo Epstein. Drawing on a Harvard Business Review article about DARPA, Trueblood argues that management and project leaders should be brought on for a set period of time, for a specific task, and not expected to stay indefinitely.

Leaders who leave when projects end. Altering a portfolio of projects faster. A sense of urgency. A willingness to challenge convention. In addition to being effective, this is an extremely exciting way to do business. Admittedly, of course, the Cubs aren’t DARPA, and baseball simply isn’t as ripe for innovation as many other fields. More to the point, a single business review article does not an academic case make. Still, a lot of the major principles here bear considering. After all, the primary project Epstein took on—not only rebuilding the Cubs, but making them both dominant and sustainable—is complete. He’s even put in place a codified Cubs Way, providing a degree of stability to the ongoing project of team-building.

In short, the DARPA model may indicate that innovation–and a sense of urgency–is best created by an in-and-out, project-based style of leadership and organization, rather than an institutionalized, up-through-the-ranks one.

Got an idea of where I’m going with this yet?

It just so happens that as I was reading Trueblood’s article I was also following Ben Kabak‘s (quite justified) Twitter rant about the conservatism of MTA board and management when it comes to innovations as simple as the introduction of open-gangway subway cars.

Now, granted, a lot of the problems with conservatism in the MTA could be fixed by simply having more dynamic, creative leadership under any structure–a fault that can mostly be fixed on the political echelon. But it got me wondering. Is (American) transit a field that in some ways may particularly benefit from a fixed-term, project-based style of management?

I’m not confident of it myself–in many ways, American transit just needs to get the basics right, because in too many cases we’re not even doing that. But here’s the case.

  1. Transit is a field inherently vulnerable to the revolving door problem. Staff and management move back and forth between the public and private sectors, often leaving projects hanging, or leaving agencies without sufficient institutional knowledge. Close ties between public sector and consultant/contractor staff may also play a role in abnormally high construction costs for infrastructure. But there’s not really a feasible way to end this dynamic within, say, a generation. So let’s turn it into a strength! Assigning project management on a per-project basis would acknowledge the revolving door dynamic and hopefully turn it into an advantage by allowing the hiring of staff with specialized knowledge and a drive to succeed within a short time frame.
  2. Transit agencies could benefit from application of more specialized knowledge, rather than do-it-all “project managers.” That transit agencies are known to struggle with management of major projects might be the understatement of the century. James Somers’ recent Atlantic piece about the slow progress of countdown clocks on the New York City subway details some terrific examples of that. But it also contains a potentially valuable counter-example: “In the spring of 2010…(MTA) hired a small team of software-savvy MIT grads to come in-house and manage the bus project. Instead of procuring a single contractor, they defined the specifications for the project themselves, broke it into pieces, and brought contractors on to build each one…Having full-time software experts running the show turned out to be crucial. Previous incarnations of the project didn’t have a technical leader at the MTA—just old-school senior managers who would try to wrangle the contractors by force of will. The new in-house team, by contrast, was qualified to define exactly what they wanted from software providers in terms those providers could understand. They were qualified to evaluate progress. They could sniff out problems early.” Project management is a skill, yes, but so is having valuable specialized knowledge.
  3. Sometimes you just need leadership for a defined task or period of time. Sometimes an agency finds itself in crisis. Sometimes, like the MTA today, it finds itself burdened by success, with ridership straining the system’s capacity at the seams and challenging a slow-adapting institution to find solutions it may not be equipped to implement quickly. Might it be valuable to have a leader, or leaders, whose job it was to dedicate themselves to modernizing the MTA–to cope with an era of rapidly rising subway ridership, especially at off-peak times, but strangely falling bus ridership–for a brief period of time, and then get out of the way? Would MBTA have benefited from a time-limited project manager whose only job was to get the already-years-delayed, but legally mandated Green Line extension into service with minimal delays and cost escalation? Maybe. Maybe not. But it’s worth thinking about.

Look, I’m a millennial. Though the stereotype of a job-hopping generation may be exaggerated, I certainly expect to change jobs more frequently than a transit planner might have in previous generations. And if you read this blog, you know I’ve moved around a lot and value the variety of experience that can give. So maybe I’m just unusually sympathetic to the idea that mobility can give fresh perspective and motivation (note to future employers: I am, at this point in life, looking to settle down for a while!). Certainly, many of my political compatriots on the Left still see job mobility as a vulnerability for workers–and in a society where the safety net fails too frequently, it can be.

But I’m not making the argument that Matthew Trueblood is right, that DARPA’s management style can be applied anywhere outside of DARPA itself. But maybe–just maybe–mobility is the key to unlocking innovation, or even more basically, competence. Maybe even geniuses–maybe even Theo Epstein, who I firmly believe will go down in the minds of Cubs fans as the team’s Messiah (Moshiach if you live in Crown Heights)–have an expiration date.

The Sixth Borough Subway

When I was in college I used to walk over to Riverside Park, or down to the built-but-as-far-as-I-know-never-used ferry docks at 125th Street and enjoy the view across the Hudson River to New Jersey.  Until the new store on 72nd Street opened, Google Maps would taunt me by telling me about how the Trader Joe’s (yeah, yeah) in Edgewater was the closest geographically to my dorm on 120th between Amsterdam and Morningside Drive. And yet, I didn’t make it over there a single time during college. Why? Because the Hudson River is a pretty damn formidable barrier to decent transit that could integrate northern New Jersey more fully into New York City.

And that’s a shame, because northern New Jersey, and especially Hudson and Bergen counties, is getting increasing attention as one of NYC’s numerous proposed Sixth Boroughs. There’s a reason for that; it’s close (at least as the crow flies), more affordable than most of the city (with certain exceptions), and, like NYC, an extreme outlier from the national norm in terms of density. According to Wikipedia, Hudson County’s overall population density (including uninhabited areas) checks in at 13,495/sq mile, and Union City and tiny little Guttenberg have claims to be among the densest places in the entire country.

wikipedia hudson county table

Wikipedia’s table of densities in individual Hudson County municipalities. 

Bergen County is considerably less dense, but still has significant high-rise development, and other high-density built environments, clustered along the river.

Existing transportation options into New York City are limited. Southern Hudson County has decent access to PATH trains, and buses run into the Port Authority Bus Terminal and the George Washington Bridge bus terminal. PABT-bound buses enjoy use of the Exclusive Bus Lane in the morning but not for the return, a rather intolerable situation. Within New Jersey, the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail provides north-south travel, but its routing is kind of loopy. More north-south riders use the very frequent combination of jitneys and NJT buses along Bergenline Avenue. As such, Alon Levy has proposed that Bergenline should eventually get a subway, perhaps in combination with a new regional rail station on the Gateway project or the existing Hudson tunnels.

All that is well and good. But–and to be clear, this is purely me indulging my crayonista side on a lazy Sunday–if New Jersey is going to be the 6th Borough, it needs a subway system, right? After all, even Staten Island–less dense than Hudson County–has a semi-subway (well, it runs subway cars). That ties in with a question that Tod Newcombe asked in Governing magazine just about exactly three years ago, and that Daniel Hertz tweeted out semi-recently: when will the US build its next subway? The article is a little out of date–construction on Los Angeles’ Subway to the Sea, probably the single strongest subway project remaining in the entire country, is now underway–but it’s still an interesting and provocative question. So my answer is: why not the “Sixth Borough”?

So here’s my suggestion.

sixth borough subways_final draft

I also recommend looking at the PDF version: sixth borough subways final .

I drew the new lines in Google My Maps before importing them to GIS, and you can view them here:

The system is built around the Bergenline Subway, which connects along its length with several extensions of the existing NYC subway system, as well as HBLR and PATH. We’ll run through each line in some kind of order.

Bergenline Subway

I’ve broken the full-length Bergenline subway into three sections.

bergenline subway

Phase I is from Journal Square in Jersey City–a key transfer to PATH–north to Fairview, where the line would connect with an extension of the city system coming across from 125th Street. I’ve placed the line under JFK Boulevard and Summit Avenue south of the Union City transfer to the Midtown line, but it could just as easily be under Bergenline proper (for part of the distance at least) or Central Avenue.

Phase 2 is from Fairview north to Fort Lee at the foot of the George Washington Bridge, and a connection with the decades-overdue (due to no one really caring) extension of the C train across the bridge.

Phase 3 extends the line south from Journal Square through some dense areas of Jersey City to a transfer with the HBLR near Liberty State Park (once upon a time, a railroad terminal). Phase 3 could take a slightly different routing; there seems to be one available just to the east along railroad ROW that would presumably be much cheaper, but isn’t as close to some residential neighborhoods.

C to Fort Lee

It’s semi-common knowledge in railfan and transit circles that the George Washington Bridge was originally supposed to carry trains on the lower deck, and that provision exists within the subway system for the C train to be extended across it.


From’s track maps. The C currently terminates at 168th St. and turns in 174th St. Yard; as is clear from the map, the two easternmost yard tracks have potential to turn into through tracks onto the GWB.

Given that two subway tracks can carry far more volume than two road lanes, it’s well past time to retrofit the bridge, but there are no plans on the horizon (God Forbid planning focus on moving people rather than cars!). My plan assumes that the line will be a short stub terminating in Fort Lee, where it would meet the northern end of the Bergenline line:

C to Fort Lee.JPG

It could, however, (and eventually should) go further west, as Alon points out.

The obvious target for a rapid transit extension from Fort Lee would be Paterson, which can be reached via I-80 and is dense and poor.

125th to Edgewater

This is the one that would have been useful to college-student Sandy. Yonah Freemark and others have made the case that when (if?) Phase II of the Second Avenue Subway is completed to 125th Street, the logical next step is to turn it west along 125th rather than continuing north to the Bronx, since funding for the huge network originally intended to sprout from the new trunk is unlikely to be forthcoming. As such, I’ve colored this line teal to correspond to future SAS services. But why stop there? 125th Street lines up relatively nicely with the abandoned NYS&W tunnel under the Palisades to Edgewater. The tunnel would need to be fundamentally rebuilt for subway service (it doesn’t seem large enough for double track, for example) but it’s better than having no starting point at all. In my scenario, there would be the further incentive of a north-south Bergenline subway to interchange with. And once you’re under the Palisades, it would be easy to extend to a massive Park’n’Ride (yes, I’m for them under some circumstances) at the Vince Lombardi rest stop.

125th to vince lombardi

Theoretically, the line could also be extended east across the Hell Gate to LaGuardia.

59th Street-Weehawken Line

The BMT line under 59th Street in Manhattan lines up almost perfectly with the Weehawken Tunnel, a former steam railroad facility now used by HBLR. In this vision, the tunnel would be converted to subway use, with HBLR ending at a transfer point at Port Imperial. A branch off of the BMT could make a quick stop at a new lowest level of Columbus Circle before heading under the Hudson to an interchange with the Bergenline line and then a terminus at Tonnelle Avenue. Really, this branch could come off of any of the numerous subway lines in the area just south of Central Park, but the  59th Street line should have extra capacity with the Q shifting over to SAS in a few years.

59th street weehawken.JPG

7 to Hoboken

Sending the 7 train to Secaucus to meet commuter rail passengers has been a hot topic of discussion for a few years. It’s not really that great an idea, but here’s a different (which, full disclosure, I’m not sure is any better): send the 7 down to Hoboken. The tail tracks already extend to 26th Street, so there’s a little less tunneling to do. The new branch could make a stop or two in the lower part of Hoboken before terminating at Hoboken Terminal, or–since the IRT and PATH loading gauges are thisclose–someone could figure out a way to continue service onto existing PATH tracks and create a Flushing-Newark service. (I’d pay money to read a profile of someone who would ride that whole line)

7 to Hoboken

A 7 extension would be somewhat redundant with PATH’s existing 33rd Street branch, but they do serve different areas of Midtown, and the 7 is probably better for most people, since it would open up part of the East Side.

L to Secaucus

Alon offered a tepid evaluation of this route in his post on the 7, but, while low-priority (like, honestly, most of what’s proposed here), it seems to make more sense than the 7. I also think the presence of a Bergenline subway makes either extension more attractive in this scenario. The extension would traverse some fairly dense areas of Hoboken and offer a transfer to the Bergenline subway (and possibly also to the 7 near the campus of Stevens Institute of Technology) before ending at Secaucus Transfer; it could, theoretically, be extended across the Meadowlands on an existing ROW through Kearny into northern Newark. Alon suggested on Twitter combining the 7 and L alignments through Hoboken. That’s potentially doable but would require either four tracks or some fancy work with platform edges, since the loading gauges don’t match.

L to secaucus.JPG


This is all, of course, extremely speculative, and while obviously I’d love to see it happen in a fantasy world–and I think it would be excellent for both New York and New Jersey to have the Palisades towns better incorporated into NYC’s transit sphere–I don’t expect much if any of this to come about. The Bergenline subway from Journal Square to Fort Lee, and the C extension across the GWB, is almost certainly the strongest part of this vision. The areas along the Palisades are already dense enough to support high-order, expensive transit, and the C extension would offer a capacity upgrade over the existing all-road format on the GWB.

The other trans-Hudson crossings would likely be beneficial, but the need for them could be ameliorated somewhat by better incorporation of PATH into the NYC network. I’m particularly fond of the 59th Street and 125th Street plans and more lukewarm on the 7 and L personally, but hey, this is about vision and dreaming. And that’s something that I think many of us feel is sorely lacking in the NYC-area planning world at this moment.


Social Stratification in American Transit

It’s been a while since I’ve gotten anything up here. Sorry!

The idea that public transit comes with class and racial connotations in the American imagination is hardly new or surprising. That the desire to avoid “those people” has long driven aspects of US transportation policy is hardly a new suggestion; many people who drive to work cite the desire to be alone or to avoid “crowded” or “smelly” transit vehicles as driving (pun intended) their decision-making. Fights over supporting transit with class and racial overtones are common. As Cap’n Transit points out, the driver/transit rider divide is the fundamental stratification of American transportation policy–and it’s clear who’s on top.

But there’s also stratification within our transit system. And we don’t talk about it enough.

It’s been that way for a long time. I recently found this 1975 article by Paul Barrett in the Business History Review, titled “Public Policy and Private Choice: Mass Transit and the Automobile in Chicago between the Wars.” It contains a particularly striking passage about the social stratification of transit in Chicago:

But here is another reason why the status connotations of mass transit per se should not be overemphasized. Chicago’s mass transit system had long provided ample opportunity for skittish riders to choose the character of their fellow travelers. As early as the 1880s one South Side woman, complaining of the lack of “heating” straw on the floors of streetcars, observed to the Tribune that “the rich have their [Illinois Central commuter] trains to ride.” And early streetcar routings took class into account, as Northwest Side community leader Tomaz Deuther discovered when he asked Chicago Railways president John Roach to send cars directly down State Street from Deuther’s working class neighborhood. “You can’t mix silk stockings with picks and shovels,” Roach replied. Deuther was satisfied and marked Roach down as an honest man. As late as 1947 patrons in many districts could choose among streetcar, elevated, interurban, boulevard bus, and commuter railroad service for a trip to the CBD. Each line had its own fare structure and routing and, we may assume, its distinctive clientele. In short, the argument that aversion to class mixing helped to kill mass transportation must be considered in the context of the unique transit system each city developed for itself by means of local policy decisions.

Barrett’s point is that analysts should not assume mass transit declined in the postwar years mainly because of social mixing, since it was frequently already stratified. I think he is, to some extent, wrong–the explosion of suburbanization and sprawl in the postwar era created (indeed, was premised on) new forms of exclusion–but the point that we shouldn’t idealize the egalitarian nature of some prewar transit systems stands.

And here’s the thing: it’s still like that in a lot of places. The Los Angeles Bus Riders’ Union has long been vocal that LA Metro’s expansion of the rail network prioritizes a small cadre of white riders over the system’s much more numerous bus ridership, which is heavily composed of people of color. The point that capital spending on rail expansion ignores or even hurts the majority of a transit system’s riders has a lot of validity (arguably more in non-LA contexts, actually), but also lacks significant nuance–Metro’s last biannual onboard survey found that while twice as many white people ride trains as buses, the respective percentages are only 9% and 18%.

But there are other examples. I was in Philadelphia over the weekend, and took the opportunity to ride one of the nation’s most interesting transit operations, the Norristown High Speed Line. The High Speed Line is interesting not just for its unique combination of technology, but because it parallels and complements other SEPTA routes, in particular the Regional Rail Paoli/Thorndale Line (the former Pennsylvania Railroad Main Line, which has lent its name to the corridor of wealthy suburbs along it) and the ex-Reading Norristown/Manayunk Line. Norristown, a struggling collar city, is served both by the High Speed Line and the Regional Rail route–and the social stratification of the services is clear.  As I rode the NHSL, Stephen Smith educated me about the line’s social aspects:

Because of a suspicious object under the NHSL viaduct, we ended up taking Regional Rail rather than the NHSL back to Center City. Midday, Regional Rail runs at hourly headways, while the High Speed Line runs every twenty minutes. NHSL is a premium service relative to other SEPTA rapid transit services, with a base fare of $2.75–but a Regional Rail fare from Norristown, which is in Zone 3, is $5.75, and $7.00 if purchased on the train. And the Regional Rail ticket office is only open until 12:45 weekdays, and not at all on weekends, meaning you have to pay the higher fare at those times, period.


NHSL trains and a SEPTA bus at Norristown Transit Center. Regional Rail station to the left. 


A Regional Rail train approaches Norristown Transit Center

Indeed, though diverse, the (small) crowd that ended up on our Regional Rail train was clearly better-dressed and more professional-looking than the NHSL clientele.

Indeed, what Americans call commuter rail is, arguably, a fundamentally inequitable mode reliant on social exclusion.  It’s a high-cost service whose fares are frequently unintegrated with other forms of transit and that runs only frequently enough to be useful to those who have significant flexibility in their schedule, or the privilege to define their own time management. But it has a powerful constituency that keeps it going–and just functional enough to suit their needs.

For example, there’s been a ton of talk in the Boston area about cuts to the MBTA–but, while expansion may be slowed some, there’s been little talk of cuts to commuter rail, even though it’s by far the most highly subsidized of the agency’s modes on a per-ride basis:

In a nutshell, this is why my senior paper research focuses on making commuter rail more egalitarian. The fundamental inequity of American transportation policy is the privileging of automobile use and abuse over everything else, but too much of the inegalitarian stratification that defined transit before World War II still persists. Indeed, in some ways it may have gotten worse. And that’s something planners and transit advocates need to address.