Cleveland Doesn’t Need Any More Open Space

Screenshot 2016-05-25 at 5.02.07 PM
Downtown Cleveland’s parks, plazas, and other assorted “open space”. Note the excess along Lakeside and the relative paucity along Euclid.

There. Did I grab your attention?

Cleveland is one of the Midwest’s overlooked gems. For much of the 19th century, Cleveland was one of the Lower Lakes’ most dominant cities, located where several inland routes, via the Cuyahoga valley, met Lake Erie. Unlike Toledo, which Detroit’s meteoric early 20th century rise clearly took away from, Cleveland held its own, reaching the country’s 6th largest city in the 1920s. Unfortunately, the Great Depression was particularly unkind to it, and Cleveland was one of the first major American cities to sink into long-term decline.

A typical Lower Lakes city, Cleveland has the same urban vernacular as its peers: detached wooden dwellings, brick commercial construction. This vernacular seems to have developed in the Mohawk Valley in the 1820s, as every other antecedent urban vernacular in the region clearly shows a preference for brick dwellings — something that the Mohawk Valley vernacular and its derivatives (such as the New England triple-decker, a Victorian creation, and the Lower Lakes vernacular and its Interior Western derivatives) eschews.

But what makes Cleveland special is its downtown parks system. Unlike Philadelphia’s or Savannah’s, these parks (other than Public Square) are not part of the original plat; rather, the bulk of the system — the Cleveland Mall, and Willard and Fort Huntington parks — were developed by the Olmsted firm in the early 20th century, near the city’s apogee. Combined with Public Square and the somewhat later Peck Plaza at 12th and Chester, these parks provide excellent open space for much of the city’s downtown.

The problem is, the core of the system is all but ignored. Lakeside Ave passes through the Mall and by both Willard and Fort Huntington parks, but is lined by plazas and interstitial green space. Willard Park, in particular, deserves a prize for the complete and utter disrespect done to it: its primary corner, 9th and Lakeside, is surrounded on all sides by office building plazas that totally duplicate the park’s function, without adding any value — or worse, as interstitial space — actively take away from the area’s ability to function as urban space.

Fort Huntington Park has a similar fate across Lakeside: Cleveland’s mammoth main courthouse and jail is set back on a lawn. A. Lawn. A lawn right across the street from an Olmsted park.

So I propose a new policy. Clearly, downtown Cleveland doesn’t need more green spaces. In fact, until they can figure out how to stop disrespecting the green spaces they already have, they could do with less! There is no reason for any Cleveland project, going forward, to build a plaza — particularly if it lies along Lakeside, a street with enough public investment into greenspaces that there is no driving need whatsoever for any private plazas. At all.

In fact, the opposite needs to happen: the edges around Willard and Fort Huntington parks need to fill in until they become proper squares in the city, instead of being treated as … mere afterthoughts.


Regional Rail for New York: Frequencies

Screenshot 2016-05-20 at 1.45.55 PM
A frequency map for Scenario B. Thicker lines mean more trains in a given hour. The system’s service profile is determined by an hourly clockface scehdule: this means that the minimum available service is hourly.

Commuter rail networks are designed to do one thing and one thing only: move commuters into the city core to go to work in the mornings, and take them back home in the evenings. Commuter rail systems thus have very peak-heavy schedules; in the most extreme cases, such as the LIRR’s, this results in a one-way mainline at peak, precluding any anti-peak scheduling. It is for this reason that the LIRR is fundamentally useless for someone who lives in Jamaica but works in Garden City, despite the two being along the same line — their commute is against the grain, so to speak, and no service is offered in that direction.

A different approach is to provide all-day service: that is, a service backbone that results in guaranteed headways, with peak services added as an extra layer. Philadelphia’s Regional Rail network does this, with most routes having a minimum of hourly service at all times of the day. Scenario B is designed around having the same service profile: hourly services at the extremities converge into more frequent services in the trunk.

Clockface and Takt

There are two terms that one can come across in modern scheduling that can be very confusing: clockface and takt. This is because the concepts are applied in a similar manner. The essential distinction is: clockface refers to the practice of scheduling to a clock, i.e., if you have four trains per direction per hour, you can schedule to a :00 :15 :30 :45 clockface. Takt, on the other hand, comes from a Japanese phrase, takuto taimu, which was partially translated into German Taktzeit — from which the English takt (and not takuto) is derived — and means something akin to “measure time”. Think of musical measure, or a metronome. Takt refers to the measure of time allotted to do a task. So, for example, if you have four trains per direction per hour, the takt time allotted to each train would be 1/4 an hour, i.e. fifteen minutes and then the next train comes. Finally, headway refers to the time separation between individual runs (i.e. buses or trains or whatever) on a given route, and is related to these terms. That is: a :15 clockface equals a fifteen-minute headway equals a 4 tph per direction takt.

Building Up Frequencies

I’m not going to develop a detailed Scenario B schedule at the moment. But I do want to show the theoretical underpinnings of the schedule — the off-peak frequencies the trains operate at.

As a reminder, the system runs the following hourly services:

  1. L1: Trenton – Greenpoint
  2. L1: Trenton – Ronkonkoma
  3. L1: Sandy Hook – Far Rockaway
  4. L1: South Plainfield – Hempstead
  5. L2: East Stroudsburg – Hartford via Montclair and New Haven
  6. L2: Washington – Hartford via Morristown and Waterbury
  7. L2: Greenwood Lake – New Milford
  8. L2: Gladstone – New London
  9. L3: Allentown – Poughkeepsie
  10. L3: Lambertville – Hopewell Jct.
  11. L3: West Trenton – Newtown
  12. L3: Branchburg – Hawthorne
  13. L4: Amenia – Montauk
  14. L4: Vassar – West Hempstead
  15. L4: New Canaan – Long Beach
  16. L4: New Canaan – Babylon
  17. L5: Port Jervis – Wading River via Paterson
  18. L5: Suffern – Oyster Bay via the Bergen County Line
  19. L5: Mt. Ivy – Babylon
  20. L5: Paterson – Huntington
  21. L6: Kingston – Burlington
  22. L6: Sparta – Toms River
  23. L6: Nyack – Bay Head
  24. L6: Cornwall-on-Hudson – Long Branch

as well as the half-hourly service

  1. L1: Yonkers – Port Washington.

From this, we can see that we have “derived” half-hourly services, built around takt, along these segments:

  1. L1: Trenton – Rahway
  2. L1: Garden City – Ronkonkoma
  3. L2: Summit – Newark
  4. L2: Wayne – Newark
  5. L2: Milford – New Haven
  6. L3: Manville – Bound Brook
  7. L3: Beacon – Yonkers
  8. L3: Spuyten Duyvil – Marble Hill
  9. L3: Marble Hill – Hawthorne
  10. L4: Brewster – Mt. Vernon
  11. L4: Stamford – New Canaan
  12. L4: New Rochelle – Mt. Vernon
  13. L4: Lynbrook – Babylon
  14. L5: Paterson – Secaucus
  15. L5: Rutherford – Secaucus
  16. L5: Hicksville – Huntington
  17. L6: Cornwall-on-Hudson – Sparkill
  18. L6: Matawan – Perth Amboy

as well as two trains an hour, but not necessarily on a half-hour clockface, at

  1. L2: Lake Hoptacong – Denville
  2. L2: Newington – Hartford
  3. L2/L3: Danbury
  4. L1/L4: Jamaica – Rochdale – Valley Stream
  5. L5: Suffern – Glen Rock

Similarly, these derived half-hourly schedules lead to derived quarter-hourly schedules. Some of these have all four slots filled, such as

  1. L1: Newark Penn
  2. L1: Elmhurst – Jamaica
  3. L2: Newark Broad
  4. L2: Stamford – Norwalk
  5. L2: Sunnyside Jct. – New Rochelle
  6. L3: Bound Brook – Old Place
  7. L3: Marble Hill – Yankees Stadium
  8. L4: Mt. Vernon – Yankees Stadium
  9. L4: Valley Stream
  10. L5: Secaucus
  11. L5: Floral Park – Mineola
  12. L6: North Bergen – Secaucus
  13. L6: Old Place – Perth Amboy,

while others have a null slot, such as

  1. L1: Rahway – Newark Penn
  2. L1: Floral Park – Garden City
  3. L2: Milford – Norwalk
  4. L4: Jamaica – St. Albans – Valley Stream
  5. L4: Valley Stream – Lynbrook
  6. L5: Mineola – Hicksville
  7. L6: Sparkill – North Bergen,

and one has half-hour headways and a floating third service (L4/L5 Babylon), one has 4 tph and a second half-hour service “floating” with its own headway (L1 Sunnyside – Elmhurst), and one has 4 tph, but with a null slot and a floating fourth service (L1/L6 South Amboy – Matawan).

From these, we can see that the major trunklines have 8 tph per direction

  1. L1/L2: Kearny – NY Penn
  2. L3/L4: Yankees Stadium – Fulton Street
  3. L3/L6: Downtown Brooklyn – Old Place
  4. L4/L5: Downtown Brooklyn – Jamaica
  5. L5/L6: Secaucus – Fulton Street,

while one (L1/L2 NY Penn – Sunnyside) has 8 + 2 tph, the 2 tph floating with their own headways, and one (L3/L4/L5/L6 Fulton Street – Downtown Brooklyn) has 16 tph per direction, a new Old Fulton Street tunnel under the East River.

This also means that the inner-core combined-line trunks all have service frequencies, at all times, of 7:30 or better. And, as a rule, all service on the network is doubled during rush hour. This plan — the off-peak services outlined above, and peak services being these services all x2, will, when combined with the throughput standard signalling allows, determine how many tracks the network needs.

Next up: We will take a look at core infrastructure.

Regional Rail for New York: The Lines

Screenshot 2016-05-20 at 4.30.02 AM

A little over a year ago, I mapped out a couple of scenarios for a New York regional rail system. This one, “Scenario B“, was developed from the first with some input and critique from Pedestrian Observations‘ Alon Levy. Like any good regional rail system patterned after Germany’s S-Bahnen and Paris’ RER, Scenario B is designed around a core concept of through-running — that is, any given service originates in one suburb and runs through the core to some other suburb. I have also attempted to balance passenger loads on either side of a given line, although in Scenario B this is based more on my intuition from when it was made. I have in mind, however, a “Scenario C” modification that better balances the system based on ridership information I came across much more recently.

Usually, when I develop regional rail systems, I pair individual lines. This is because such one-on-one pairings allow for a high degree of finesse: when designing an S-Bahn-type network, the holy grail is to perfectly balance routes with similar ridership and opposing direction, routes that are sort of inverse vectors to one another.

However, New York has a lot of active and inactive commuter rail alignments. A quick count of NJ Transit, MNRR, LIRR, and and SLE services suggests there are ~28 distinct services and ~31 distinct lines (MNRR’s New Haven Line incorporates extensive branching). And commuter rail maps dating to the 1950s suggest there may have been twice as many services run by some nine or ten different railroads. As a simplification measure, therefore, my New York Regional Rail system utilizes trunks and branches.

Trunks and Branches

Because there are so many individual routes in the New York region, a useful simplifying measure is to consolidate several commuter routes into a smaller handful of trunklines, with each individual trunk connecting to another one through the urban core. Each of these mini-networks then becomes one side of a regional rail “line” — it is no exaggeration to suggest that a single New York regional rail line corresponds to entire potential commuter rail networks elsewhere in the country! Breaking out and individually mapping every service in Scenario B would yield a map that would make Vignelli proud. Such a map would show every line and frequency pairing implicit in Scenario B’s six Lines, and it may be useful to break that down and analyze it, line by line.

For now, however, let us take a look at the system’s six Lines.

Line 1 (red)

Screenshot 2016-05-20 at 4.29.06 AM

Scenario B’s Line 1 pairs together the Northeast Corridor and Greenpoint-Ronkonkoma trunks, creating an end-to-end corridor that runs from Trenton to Greenpoint via Penn Station. Its major components include:

  • The Northeast Corridor, from Trenton to Penn Station;
  • The Princeton Branch, serviced by  a dinky timed to make transfers;
  • A Sandy Hook branch via Perth Amboy;
  • A South Plainfield Branch via the Lehigh Valley line;
  • A West Side Branch, running from Yonkers to Penn Station;
  • A new LIRR Main Line, utilizing the current Main Line with a bypass through Levittown along the Central Branch;
  • The Port Washington Branch;
  • The Far Rockaway Branch; and
  • The Hempstead Branch

It would cross the Hudson via the Gateway Tunnels and North River Tubes, and the East via the East River Tubes. The primary (all-day) service patterns would be

  • Trenton, NJ – Greenpoint, NY — hourly
  • Trenton, NJ – Ronkonkoma, NY — hourly
  • Sandy Hook, NJ – Far Rockaway, NY — hourly
  • South Plainfield, NJ – Hempstead, NY — hourly
  • Yonkers, NY – Port Jefferson, NY — half-hourly
  • Princeton, NJ – Princeton Jct., NJ — timed transfer dinky

where shuttles help fill service gaps.

Line 2 (blue)

Screenshot 2016-05-19 at 10.34.47 AM

Line 2 pairs together the Old Lackawanna and New Haven trunk networks. Like Line 1, it’s built to be heavy-duty with a high traffic volume; it’s also the line with the greatest east-west extent. The network so created is vast, and includes

  • The Morrisville Line, from Washington to Newark (where it connects with the NEC) via Summit;
  • The Gladstone Branch;
  • The Lackawanna Cutoff, connected with
  • The Montclair-Boonton Line, from Denville to Newark via its eponymous boroughs;
  • The Greenwood Lake Branch;
  • The Northeast Corridor, from Kearny Jct. to New Rochelle via the Hell Gate;
  • The New Haven Line from New Rochelle to New Haven;
  • The Danbury Branch to New Milford;
  • The Waterbury Branch to Hartford via Waterbury and Bristol;
  • a Hartford branch via the old New Haven route; and
  • The Shore Line east to New London

This route would interline with Line 1 between Kearny Jct. and Sunnyside Yards, with Penn Station as its core station. Its major service pattern is

  • Washington, NJ – Summit – Waterbury – Hartford, CT — hourly
  • East Stroudsburg, PA – Montclair – New Haven – Hartford, CT — hourly
  • Gladstone, NJ – New Milford, CT — hourly
  • Greenwood Lake, NJ – New London, CT — hourly

Taken together, this yields a 15-minute service pattern from Newark Broad Street to Norwalk, CT.

Line 3 (brown)

Screenshot 2016-05-19 at 10.37.42 AM

The most river-oriented of the lines, Line 3 links together the Hudson, Raritan, and Lehigh valleys, via the Raritan Valley and Hudson River trunklines. It doesn’t have quite the traffic volume of Lines 1, 2, or 4, but it isn’t sparsely-utilized, either. It uses

  • the former Lehigh Valley mainline from Allentown to Phillipsburg;
  • the former CNJ mainline from Phillipsburg to Roselle Park;
  • the former Reading line from Bound Brook to West Trenton;
  • the former PRR and LV Flemington branches joined end-to-end;
  • Staten Island’s North Shore Line;
  • The Hudson Line;
  • the Putnam Line, extended to Newtown, CT, via Danbury;
  • the old NH Beacon Branch, with a new connection to the Hudson Line; and
  • the new Lower Core linking Grand Central with Staten Island

This route interlines with Line 4 between Yankee Stadium and Downtown Brooklyn, Line 5 between Lower Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn, and Line 6 between Lower Manhattan and Staten Island. Its principal services include

  • Allentown, PA – Poughkeepsie, NY — hourly
  • Lambertville, NJ – Hopewell Jct., NY — hourly
  • West Trenton, NJ – Newtown, CT — hourly
  • Branchburg, NJ – Hawthorne, NY — hourly

Line 4 (green)

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Composed of the Harlem and Montauk trunks, Line 4 is the only one of the six major trunklines to cross the Hudson at all. Line Lines 1 and 2, it is one of the three more heavily-used routes. It can be nicknamed the “Mountain and Sea Line” because its extremities have it extending from the Taconic Mountains down Long Island’s south coast. It is composed of

  • The Harlem Line;
  • the Vassar branch to Poughkeepsie;
  • the New Canaan branch via the Mt. Vernon route;
  • The Atlantic Branch;
  • The Montauk Branch;
  • The West Hempstead Branch;
  • The Long Beach Branch; and
  • The Lower Core linking Grand Central and Atlantic terminals

This line interlines with Line 3 from Yankee Stadium to Downtown Brooklyn, with Line 5 from Lower Manhattan to Jamaica, and with Line 6 from Lower Manhattan to Downtown Brooklyn. Its core services are

  • Amenia, NY – Shirley, NY — hourly
  • Upper Poughkeepsie, NY – Long Beach, NY — hourly
  • New Canaan, CT – West Hempstead, NY — hourly
  • New Canaan, CT – Babylon, NY — hourly

Line 5 (black)

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This line is the shortest in appearance of the entire network, being composed of the Erie and Stony Brook trunks. It also services some of the less populous parts of the region: the Lower Catskills and Long Island’s North Shore. Parts of it include

  • the former Erie main line, now the Port Jervis and Main lines;
  • the Bergen County Line;
  • the Pascack Valley Line;
  • the Atlantic Branch;
  • the LIRR main line from Floral Park to Farmingdale;
  • the Oyster Bay Branch;
  • the Port Jefferson Branch, extended to Wading River;
  • the Central Branch from Bethpage Jct. to Babylon;
  • a new tunnel under the East River at Fulton Street;
  • a new tunnel under the Hudson River; and
  • the Bergen Arches

Line 5 is also the most heavily interlined of the entire network, interlining with every line except for Line 2. It interlines with Line 1 from Jamaica to Floral Park, Line 3 from Lower Manhattan to Downtown Brooklyn, Line 4 from Lower Manhattan to Jamaica, and Line 6 from the Bergen Arches to Downtown Brooklyn. Its core services are:

  • Port Jervis, NY – Paterson, NJ – Wading River, NY — hourly
  • Suffern, NY – Garfield, NJ – Babylon, NY — hourly
  • Mt. Ivy, NY – Oyster Bay, NY — hourly
  • Paterson, NJ – Huntington, NY — hourly

Line 6 (orange)

Screenshot 2016-05-20 at 6.45.38 AM

The last line of the network, Line 6, is unique in that it crosses the Hudson twice. Comprised of the West Shore and North Jersey Coast trunks, it also has a greater north-south extent than any other line, being almost completely north-south in orientation. Major routes include

  • The West Shore Line from Kingston to Sparkill;
  • The Northern Branch;
  • The New York, Susquehanna, & Western mainline to Sparta;
  • The North Jersey Coast Line from Perth Amboy south;
  • The former Camden & Amboy mainline to Burlington;
  • The former Central of New Jersey branch to Freehold;
  • The former Pennsylvania Railroad route between Freehold and Farmingdale, NJ;
  • The former Central of New Jersey’s Southern Division between Farmingdale and Lakehurst;
  • The former CNJ Toms River branch;
  • The Bergen Arches and a new tunnel under Jersey City and the Hudson to Fulton Street;
  • A new Fulton Street tunnel under the East River;
  • A new rail line along 3rd Avenue in Brooklyn;
  • Staten Island’s North Shore Line;
  • The Chemical Coast Line between Perth Amboy and Carteret; and
  • A new Arthur Kill bridge at Pralls Island

Line 6 interlines with Line 3 in the Lower Manhattan Trunk between Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn. In addition, it interlines with Line 4 from Lower Manhattan to Old Place on Staten Island and Line 5 from the Bergen Arches to downtown Brooklyn. Its principal services include

  • Kingston, NY – Burlington, NJ — hourly
  • Sparta, NJ – Toms River, NJ — hourly
  • Nyack, NY – Bay Head, NJ — hourly
  • Cornwall-on-Hudson, NY – Long Branch, NJ — hourly

Final Words

This post is an overview of the basic lines and services in the Scenario B system. In future posts, I intend to talk about the way I have constructed my trunk network, particular elements of the investment program, and why the Staten Island Railroad isn’t included in this network.

Triboro Rx-ing

Let us consider Triboro Rx. Transit pundits have been floating it for quite a long time — it was already around when I first started chatting about transportation stuff that was over my head, the better part of a decade ago — and the Regional Plan Association returns to it on occasion.

It is an excellent idea, on paper. It uses the underutilized LIRR Bay Ridge Branch and the Hell Gate Bridge to provide service between Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx (hence Triboro Regional express). While the Bronx end isn’t set in stone — I’ve seen maps terminating it at Hunts Point, Co-Op City, and Yankee Stadium — it’s generally agreed that it would be at a transfer point with another line.

Similar services exist on many other mass transit systems around the world — perhaps the best-known examples are London’s Circle Line and Moscow’s Koltsevaya. These types of lines are collector/distributor lines, bypassing the city center in favor of transfers to other services that reach it. In cities with high uniform density — like New York’s outer boroughs — such services can achieve high ridership, given adequate service. (Indeed, the lack of adequate service is often considered the G Train’s Achilles heel.)

However, that said, Triboro Rx suffers a strange and tricksy flaw: It may not be adequately futureproofed.

A Reaction to Present Conditions


Triboro RX is one of those only-in-New-York kinds of proposals. It takes an old, disused freight spur and part of an underutilized rail bridge and converts it into heavy rail. Every Bronx alignment uses rail easements exclusively: the Yankee Stadium route follows an old freight spur connecting the Harlem Line with Hunts Point; the Hunts Point and Co-Op City routes would have the subway run parallel to the Northeast Corridor.

This is feasible because existing traffic is light: most Bay Ridge traffic (if it exists) would connect to the carfloat to the Oak Island yard, and while the Hell Gate bridge is the only fixed-link freight rail access to Long Island, there is just not that much freight traffic to and from the island. It’s actually analogous to South Jersey and the Delmarva Peninsula in this way — a quiet network of old spurs; only on Long Island, most of them are still maintained for commuter service.

The heaviest current user is Amtrak across the Hell Gate. Amtrak is currently the only passenger operator across Hell Gate, but it does not need much in the way of slots, and curvature related to the approaches limits Acela speed. So, from the perspective of the current network, Triboro Rx is an all-around win-win — intercity trains do not amount to that many tph, allowing Hell Gate to have a 2-2 heavy rail-intercity rail split, and freight traffic is so light it amounts to night movements across the bridge and leaving a single free track for carfloat services along the Bay Ridge branch, which may not even need to directly connect into the Hell Gate approach Triboro Rx intends to use. From this perspective, then, Triboro Rx offers an excellent reuse of obsolescent railroad facilities.

But What about the Future?

Things, however, are not so simple. There are two major plans — already in motion — that affect the Triboro Rx ROW. The MTA has proposed running New Haven trains down the Hell Gate Line into Penn Station, and at the other end of the line, the Port Authority is advancing a plan to bore a trans-Hudson tunnel between the Greenville Yard and Bay Ridge. While both, in isolation, may be able to co-exist with Triboro Rx, my contention is that there may not be enough capacity across the Hell Gate Bridge proper to support both Triboro Rx and future service paradigms these other proposals will engender.

Penn Station Access


The MTA’s Penn Station Access plan has two arms: an extension of the Hudson Line into Penn Station from the west, and one of the New Haven Line from the east. Combined with the LIRR’s East Side Access project connecting directly to Grand Central, PSA will allow most commuter rail lines heading into Midtown to terminate at either of the main commuter rail terminals. It also provides new commuter rail stops in Bronx and on the Upper West Side.

The upshot of PSA is that more slots will be needed across Hell Gate. Unlike Amtrak, which we can see from this timetable currently runs 4 tph across Hell Gate (i.e. hourly Acela and Northeast Regional runs), the New Haven Line currently runs ~25 tph into Grand Central at its AM peak. This demand is also asymmetrically loaded; 4/5 (80%) of the runs are inbound during this peak.

From these characteristics, we can extrapolate how much capacity PSA needs on the Hell Gate Line, given an assumption of service provided. For example, if PSA were to perfectly duplicate the Grand Central schedule, 22 inbound slots across Hell Gate in the 8 AM hour are needed — this translates to a train just under once every 3 minutes!

As it is, however, it is likely PSA will result not in perfect duplication, but a major percentage of Grand Central service. At approximately 75% of Grand Central service, PSA would run 15 inbound and 3 outbound trains during the AM peak hour; this translates into demand for 17 inbound and 5 outbound slots across Hell Gate.*

The question then becomes how much capacity the signalling system can handle. If it can handle 20 tph (i.e. block clearance in 3 minutes) per track, then this service paradigm is just able to be handled on two tracks; if, on the other hand, it can only handle 15 tph (i.e. block clearance in 4 minutes) per track, then three tracks are required across Hell Gate to handle this service, as outbound services are very much frequent enough to demand a dedicated track.

That leaves space for just one track for Triboro Rx, immediately creating a chokepoint that cripples the line’s ability to provide adequate service to the Bronx. And this, in its turn, shows us what the key razor is: Triboro Rx must have two tracks across Hell Gate to be viable past Astoria. If it can’t, then it’s really just a “Duoboro Rx”.

…And the Freight


The other major Triboro Rx obstacle is the Cross-Harbor Rail Tunnel, which is intended to relieve trucking congestion across the Hudson’s other crossings, as well as provide a solution to the circuitous nature of freight rail within the New York metro. Cross-Harbor depends on the Bay Ridge branch, using it to access the Lower Montauk Branch at Bushwick Junction and continue to a transshipment facility at West Maspeth.

Generally, a minimum three tracks will be needed all the way down Bay Ridge from Sunnyside Junction: two for Triboro Rx and one for freight. As Hell Gate is the only freight fixed link between Long Island and the outside world, this is a design constraint that must be built around. Brief interlining segments are, however, available with the Canarsie Line (L) between New Lots and Wilson avenues, and with the Sea Beach Line (N) west of New Utrecht Avenue — these interlines suggest that Triboro Rx needs to be built to B Division standards.

However, Cross-Harbor provides an excellent opportunity for restructuring freight traffic patterns in the New York area. A long-term result of the connection made may well be that traffic to Providence & Worcester destinations in southwestern Connecticut originates in Greenville Yard, rather than the connection with CSX’s Boston & Albany line the railroad currently uses. This, in its turn, suggests a need for freight slots across Hell Gate.

Underutilized Today, Overutilized Tomorrow?


In our investigation of Triboro Rx’s viability from a network perspective, we’ve discovered something interesting about the Hell Gate Bridge: while it is a quiet and underutilized span today — seeing about 4 Amtrak tph and whatever interchange turns the New York & Atlantic, Long Island’s sole freight operator, deems necessary — plans for its tracks pull it in four directions, of which three are mutually incompatible.

This is, in a way, prefigured by prewar service patterns. The New Haven Railroad had electrified the entire line from Hell Gate to Bay Ridge because the carfloat there was its primary interchange with the Pennsylvania Railroad — as well as between the Pennsylvania and Long Island railroads. Even though the New Haven had always run its commuter trains into Grand Central (its intercity trains went to Penn Station), the Hell Gate line would have been consistently busy with freight traffic.

And this is the biggest rub for Triboro Rx. Under conditions where the PSA and Cross-Harbor connections are built out, all four tracks would be claimed: three for Amtrak and Metro-North, and one for the freight railroads, making use of Conrail’s Greenville Yard as an origin point for traffic throughout the region. There isn’t enough space space for Triboro Rx, not unless an addition to the span were built … or a bypass tunnel. Neither of which does wonders for the cost-effectiveness of Triboro Rx.

So — in conclusion, I would venture to say that Bay Ridge = Good, but Hell Gate = Bad for Triboro Rx. Relying on capacity for Hell Gate to be there, when there are enough asks embedded within existing proposals to suggest it, well, won’t is perhaps the plan’s biggest downfall. Without connecting to the Bronx, Triboro Rx looks rather like a further-afield version of the G Train. However, there is a solution to this.

Futureproofing Triboro Rx: Using M8’s?


I’ve been analyzing Triboro Rx so far as a B Division subway line. This means it can interline with other B Division routes, but not with mainline rail. But we can clearly see that Hell Gate’s other future capacity demands are all caused by mainline rail. And we can also see that every Triboro Rx proposal has it running in or alongside active mainline railroads. It then follows that the solution to the potential capacity issues I’ve brought up so far is to make it, well, a mainline railroad itself.

While building to mainline standard rather than heavy rail standard is, well, heavier and more expensive, it’s worth noting that this corridor will be a freight railroad end-to-end should Cross-Harbor come to fruition, and that two all-purpose tracks with off-peak freight use is a much more efficient distribution of service. It’s also worth pointing out that this alignment was historically electrified under the old Northeastern catenary standard the Pennsylvania developed (12.5 kV 25 Hz AC).

While the downside of this approach is that it is impossible to extend Triboro Rx via the subway system, the upside — Triboro Rx is essentially inserted among other improvements slated in the mainline network — is hard to ignore. And M8 stock is able to pick up every type of traction power (12 kV 60 Hz AC; 25 kV 60 Hz AC; 750 V DC) in use on the island — something the MNRR and LIRR M7’s can’t.

This is not a perfect solution, however: one issue that needs to be explored is whether double-stacks and high-level platforms under wire can be made to be compatible. That does not mean that Triboro Rx is not worth looking at, and tinkering with, in order to coexist with the rest of the city and region’s transportation network and help handle their various needs.

NOTE: I was made aware of the Regional Plan Association’s Triboro Rx policy brief via Second Avenue Sagas the same day this post originally ran. In it, the RPA also points out the freight issue I brought up — although not the Hell Gate issue. In any event, using MNRR/LIRR equipment for Triboro Rx seems to be the optimal solution. The policy brief also suggests extending Triboro Rx to Staten Island — further extending it down the SIR would be a match made in heaven.


* Note that another way of looking at this is that PSA will siphon off a significant percentage of New Haven Line runs currently into Grand Central, whose main approach is very much overcrowded. Were PSA to siphon off 1/3 of the NH’s service, this would approximate to an 8/2 split, leading to 14 trains across Hell Gate during the peak hour with a 10/4 split. It is fair to point out that a 2-track railroad should be able to support this service paradigm, and it is also fair to point out that the whole point of PSA is to alleviate overcrowding in Grand Central’s throat by diverting some percentage of Hudson and New Haven line trains to Penn Station instead.

However, my sense is that the end result of ESA and PSA is that the system will rebalance to the point where every available throat will, once again, be congested.


Screenshot 2016-05-13 at 12.00.36 AMA quick sketch of a Boise rail network.

Boise isn’t a particularly rail-friendly city. It isn’t really big enough to command a true light-rail network. Nor does it have an extensive rail base to build a commuter network from. Frankly, Boise is about as perfectly laid out for BRT as an American city can possibly get.

If they wanted to go with rail, they do have a few good streetcar corridors, however. And that’s this map.

Plus ça change…

Curbed has this interesting little article up, documenting Philly’s poverty problem.

It is absolutely true that Philadelphia has the highest deep poverty rate of America’s 1o largest cities. This is a problem in several directions — first, that other major deep-poverty cities, such as Detroit and St. Louis, have dropped out of the Top 10, some long ago, while Philadelphia should remain in the rankings in perpetuity; and second, that Philadelphia is increasingly developing Chicago-like lines of segregation. Chicago’s South Side may as well not exist for wealthy Chicagoans, as Corner Side Yard’s Pete Saunders points out, and North Philly is developing the same affliction as the gap between it and South Philly continues to widen.

All of these are major issues. Philadelphia is purportedly one of country’s strongest, economically — yet the problem of persistent poverty remains. Indeed, in the analysis Curbed published, we can see trends such as flat population change yet an increase in poverty, or population decline coupled with an increase in poverty:

And a recent report by City Observatory reveals that concentrated poverty in Philly and across the country is spreading. Neighborhoods with a poverty rate double the national average in 1970 stayed poor 75 percent of the time through 2010.

A map highlighting poverty-stricken areas in Philadelphia.
This map reveals poverty pockets in Philadelphia. Purple signifies chronic high poverty areas.
City Observatory

Consider these numbers in North Philly, which was identified as a chronic high poverty area. In 1970, 39 percent lived in poverty. In 2010, population did increase, but poverty rates jumped to 57 percent.

Poverty and population rates in North Philly
City Observatory

Point Breeze is another poverty-stricken area. Only there, numbers revealed that from 1970 to 2010, population decreased, while poverty rates increased by nearly 20 percent.

The Philly numbers are stark, but concentrated poverty is a problem across the country. What’s worse, the report found that the likelihood of a poor neighborhood coming out of poverty is just one in 20.

That is a canary in the coal mine. If population is decreasing but poverty is increasing, that means people who can move are moving, and that in its turn decreases economic access. In short, the reason why America’s poorest places stay poor is because they’re bypassed places; recall the defining characteristic of such places is that they are persistently unable to connect to the broader economic order, and as such become increasingly poor over the long term (cf. Cities and the Wealth of Nations). A bypassed microeconomy within a city or city region with a high degree of economic activity also implies either that (a) the denizens of the bypassed place are experiencing economic lockout — i.e. segregation — or (b) that the economic activity may be more illusory than what appears on the surface.

For places like North Philly, the South Side, and Oakland, it’s fairly evident that the existence of the bypassed microeconomy is an effect of segregation. That is, the people who live within these communities are being systematically deprived of access to the broader economy, largely due to lingering effects of America’s race relations issues.

This leads us to the next issue. A cursory look at some of these bypassed Census tracts reveals that they’re in neighborhoods that have seen intense gentrification recently: Point Breeze, Francisville, Brewerytown. This is where we have to be looking most closely both for potential markers of displacement, and for whether existing residents are being included in redevelopment. Gentrification, in Philadelphia, is being driven by migratory pressure (moving to Point Breeze because you’ve been priced out of Grad Hospital because you’ve been priced out of Fitler Square because you’ve been priced out of Rittenhouse Square is a very small-scale migration and can reveal a lot about how migratory pressures work) and can thus be seen as a wave of succession — and that implies the prior group has become a substrate.

This is a mixed issue. When we don’t cry “displacement!”, we often see this as a blessing — the idea is that the previously-bypassed substrate is connected to the economic milieu — but this also gets wrapped up in thorny realities. There are clear ethnic distinctions between the substrate and successor groups in places like Francisville and Point Breeze, and even in putatively-mixed neighborhoods such as Mt. Airy, these differences often inform social interactions in rather unpleasant ways.

So then what? Calling gentrification the solution goes just as overboard as being afraid of it. It is clearly an important part of the solution, as a middle-class city is able to afford middle-class schools (rather than the other way around), and gentrification does make the city more middle class. Yet at the same time racism is persistent in America, and it’s impossible to ignore the fact that nearly every community that has been locked out of participating in the broader economic milieu is of a very specific ethnic group. Simply relying on a successor group being able to offer opportunities to this substrate is not going to work …

This is a question I can’t even begin to answer, because it’s the core problem of America’s urban woes. And yet, unlocking it is almost certainly the only long-term solution to our persistent poverty problem.

On Flags

Don’t be the flag of Provo. Nobody wants to be the flag of Provo.

Some of my readers are well aware I don’t care much for vexillology. While they do make some valid points (like “putting words on flags is stupid” or “there are too many US flags that just have their state seals on a blue background”), the movement originated out of visual design, and flags aren’t just about visual design. They’re also about symbology, and using a banner to create a sense of shared identity.

Take, for example, this City Lab article, and what they say about Bhutan’s flag:

Kaye’s first principle of flag design is to keep it simple—so simple that a child could recreate it from memory. “The idea of a flag is that it’s a piece of fabric to be seen at a distance, on both sides, while it’s flapping,” he says. “By making a flag complex, it’s more expensive, and that expense is wasted because you can’t see [the detail] at a distance.”

But flags that stray from that principle aren’t all bad. Kaye points to the flag of Bhutan, which falls under the “impossible” category in the infographic. It features a highly detailed dragon against a yellow and orange background. “It’s a very simple field division between the yellow and orange, and very distinctive; no other flag is yellow and orange,” he says. “And you can see that it’s a dragon in the middle.”

One of the vexillologist’s precepts is that a flag must be simple enough that a child can draw it from memory. They go on to use this to slam flags with seals in them, as seals are almost always complex and intricate to draw. But here’s the flag of Bhutan, with a fucking dragon on a background of red and gold. Do you know how many flags have fucking dragons on them? As far as I’m aware, there’s just one other. Pretty memorable, no?

And this brings me to the heart of my biggest critique about putative mainstream vexillology — it has deeply conflicted goals at its heart. They want to create flags that are both simple and memorable. But often enough, elements that make flags memorable — elements that cut to a national identity’s quick — elements like Y Ddraig Goch or an eagle eating a snake on a cactus — are not simple. Simple to draw, that is.

But that’s exactly the point. A good national symbol packs a lot of mental complexity into a short saying, or a mental image. An eagle eating a snake on a cactus is resonant with the founding myth of the Aztec, and how they came to found the city of Tenochtitlán, and cuts to the quick of Mexican identity, because, in a sense, Mexico is a post-Spanish continuance of the Aztec national tradition. Is it easy to draw? No. But it is easy to visualize, and the visualization is shared across every member of the culture, and that is exactly the point.

It’s the same thing with our Stars and Stripes. When we ask a five-year-old to draw our own flag, are they going to produce exactly fifty stars and thirteen stripes? No? Yet, when we think about patriotic identity — whether it’s in the testosterone-poisoned America Fuck Yeah mode or even somebody flying the flag of a country they’re proud of from their house, what do we think of? The Stars and Stripes are the most potent national symbol of America — and notice, again, how the phrase we use to refer to the flag, our shared visualization of the flag, is more important than the flag itself.

The flag of Mexico is a masterpiece. It’s a perfect balance of simplicity and complexity, and its central element is the most powerful symbol of Mexican national identity there is. In short, it has an enormous amount of symbolic value packed into a convenient banner-shaped form.

We can see this in other flags that have a lot of national identity tied to them: the Union Jack, le tricolore, the Maple Leaf and Nordic cross and Y Ddraig Goch and so on. Heck, the Japanese flag is potent precisely because it’s a reference to the rising sun. And you will quickly notice that this — let’s call it the symbolic value of a flag — is not at all tied to the raw complexity of the flag itself.

This is why the graphic design-approach of conventional vexillology ultimately fails. Sure, the idea that a flag “ought to be” simple enough that a five-year-old can reproduce it sounds great … until you realize that isn’t at all what flags are about. It also means that the usual vexillological critique of U.S. state flags completely misses the mark. State flags fail because they do not say anything meaningful about state identities. In this sense, kvetching about the flag being difficult to draw is complaining about the wrong thing. The right thing to do would be to ask: what is a meaningful symbol of identity?

Whether or not it’s easy to draw is utterly irrelevant. The Aztec eagle will never be easy to draw, or the Habsburg double-headed eagle, or the Ojibwe bird totem, yet in each case, the image communicates tremendous and enduring symbolic value. We can see that what is important is that it takes up shared mental space, that it’s the symbol that the citizens of the nation or state want to project to the outside world. In that sense, then, quibbling about the ease or difficulty of drawing a flag misses the point completely, because the point of the flag is saying something about the nation that produced it.

And that’s why Bhutan has an excellent flag while the Central African Republic’s — despite being exactly the sort of flag that vexillologists would love — is quite literally entirely forgettable.