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How Can the New York Transit Problem Be Solved (1922)

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Electric Railway Journal · Vol. 59, No. 7 · February 18, 1922 · pp 281-284.

By Daniel L. Turner, Consulting Engineer to the Transit Commission of New York City

Transit Facilities in New York City Have Lagged Behind Its Needs — Only the Municipality Can Afford to Extend Transportation to Any Extent Into Undeveloped Territory — Operation Should Be Under Private Direction — Universal Transfer Privileges Are Desirable. Abstract of paper read before the New York section of the American Society of Civil Engineers on Feb. 15, 1922.

In the early part of the nineteenth century, foot and horse locomotion was the only means at hand. The distance that the people would live away from the business center was a matter of the time they were willing to spend in travel to their occupations in the morning and to their homes at night. In the past, this time limit has appeared to be about one hour in and one hour out. This meant 3 or 4 miles out for the foot travelers, and 6 or s miles for the horse travelers. The workers would walk and the employers would ride. Such old towns, therefore, would contain as large a population as could be cared for within an area circumscribed by a radius of from 6 to 8 miles.

With the coming of the steam railroad, the population of the towns soon increased and congestion was felt within the 3 to 4-mile limit. Then cheap horse transit became necessary. The bus first, and then the horse-car were evolved. The New York & Harlem Railroad, a horse car line operated in Fourth Avenue in New York City in 1832, was the first street railway in the world. The buses and horse cars brought the then existing suburbs within the one-hour ride. London now took the lead and the first urban rapid transit line in the world, an underground railroad, was built in London in 1853. New York in 1868 operated the first elevated railroad, built along Greenwich Street from the Battery to Dey Street. In San Francisco, in 1873, the first cable surface road was placed in service. Then, a few years later, near Berlin in 1881, the first electric operation came.

The electric roads quickly superseded all other forms of surface travel and extended the city transit limit from 10 to 12 miles from the business center. In 1904 the first rapid transit express line was placed in operation in New York.

Fifty years ago our transit problem was just the same as it is now. It only differed in intensity. Then the population in the area now included vrithin the city was about 1,500,000. Now it is nearly 6,000,000 — four times as great. At that time the total fare passengers only amounted to about 150,000,000. The fare passengers have now increased to nearly 3,500,000,000. That is to say, the passenger traffic has multiplied nearly seventeen times. But before each added transit line has been ready for use the traffic growth has more than ancitipated it. When conditions have become unendurable, some effort has been made to meet the situation. But each time, with few exceptions (a notable exception was the dual contracts) the aim seems to have been to secure immediate relief rather than lasting benefit, and then to shift the problem on to those who were to come afterward.

Our cities are planned today very nearly as 100 years ago. The old man-and-horse towns of a century ago needed for circulating purposes only roadways along which men and horses could travel, and these roadways criss-crossed the town in all directions. When street railway transit superseded foot transit, the street railway system rather than the street system should have been accepted as the principal circulating medium of the town, and the town should have been planned and constructed accordingly. But this was never done and is not being done even now. The town planner in the old days failed to recognize this principle — and even today, in our time, those responsible for the planning and development of our cities have not grasped the full significance of this principle and its importance with respect to comfort, health, happiness and economic welfare of the community.


How Private Ownership Delayed Development

Private ownership and operation of city transit facilities because of the principles underlying it has retarded the proper development of our modern cities. To understand the reason for this, let us begin at the beginning once more. When the 3 or 4-mile town limit was passed, the essential thing was not done. The town authorities left the construction of the street car system to private interests. The natural course for a business man is to develop his property so as to produce as quick a return as possible, and these old horse car owners selected the route which seemed to them to oflfer the best prospect of early revenue on the investment. Of course, as many residents as could moved their residences so as to be near the route. They were attracted, just as a magnet attracts. What was the result? Congestion of course! Rush-hour congestion! Then housing congestion!

What happened next?

Other lines were constructed, of course. Did their owners seek another part of the city for a route and endeavor to develop more of the city? Why should they? Why take the time to develop new territory when good business was immediately in sight? Tha next line was located as near the first one as practicable. And so history repeated itself from those old days until now. Meanwhile, there was plenty of vacant space available for development and plenty of population to fill it comfortably. But instead of spreading out, ths population started to spread up. Instead of living and working in one plane, we are now doing so in forty planes, and the limit is not yet.

Transit facilities should be based on the area of the city served — not on the traffic immediately in sight. Only by utilizing this principle as the guiding policy of future transit development can the existing transit conditions be cured.

Expanding the transit system in this manner, of course, does not mean that there should be street railway lines in every street. But it does mean that a new lattice-like transit system should be superimposed upon all of the old and new street systems on an enlarged scale. Instead of through every street, the railway tracks should be located a number of streets apart in each direction, depending upon the character of the transit being considered.

If the area basis of developing city transit had been followed from the beginning, many of the most objectionable features of city life would not exist today. Everybody would be more comfortable, healthier and happier. Our people would not be living so much in layers. Instead, most people would be in their own homes spread out through the open country, thus making living conditions more ideal. The rush-hour congestion — our greatest transit problem — would not exist as we now experience it. There would be heavy movements of traffic in all directions to and from the business center, but they would not be concentrated movements along a few lines of travel. Therefore, the rush hours, as we now know them, would not exist at all. The commission proposes to expand the application of this principle to include surface facilities as well as rapid transit lines. Of course this means municipal ownership with proper planning.

The great trunk rapid transit lines are the chief arteries of travel. The surface lines first, then the buses, then the streets, in the order of their relative importance, are only the lesser arteries of the system. All of these traffic agencies must be utilized, and to be utilized most effectively they must be regulated and controlled by the community, just as the streets are now regulated and controlled by the community.

In preparing for the extension of a city, the streets are laid out, graded, sewered, water supplied, and paved beforehand in order to induce the population to follow. It is even more important that we should not wait for the population to accumulate before constructing the necessary transit lines. Yet, this is the policy the operating companies would have us adopt in the case of transit lines when they own and control them. They are averse to developing new territory. The traffic returns from such territory would be too lean. They are after the fat only. They contend that municipal transportation should not be furnished to a community until there is a population ready to be served. They insist that it is better to follow old lines of travel than to create new ones. They would parallel already congested lines by new facilities, instead of deflecting the new facilities into undeveloped territory.

From the viewpoint of the operating companies', and considered as a business proposition, the correctness of all of these principles cannot be disputed. Such principles have served as the guiding policy in the past, and have produced the conditions which now prevail. If the same principles are to control in the future, then strap-hanger service will be the public's portion for all time. The rapid transit line, therefore, at the outset would have a larger traffic return. There would be fewer lean years to wait for the territory to develop.

In journeying from home to work, one must utilize at least two, and frequently three means of travel. First, of course, he must use the street. He may then use a rapid transit line or surface line or bus to his destination, or he may use a combination of two or more. Of course he pays no fare for the use of the street. He ought to pay only one fare for the service on such part of the transit system that he is required to use, whether bus, surface line, or rapid transit line, separately or in combination. This end can only be attained under a system of universal transfer, and under a system which utilizes all of the facilities coordinated under a general plan. A single operating company can best perform this service. Therefore, monopoly of operation is desirable.

As between municipal operation and private operation, there can only be one answer, as I can see it. The public cannot perform any function as cheaply as a private company can do so. Public employees cannot be held under the same strict discipline that can be exercised over private employees. Under present political conditions, it would be impossible to keep municipal operation free from political dictation and domination. At the present state of civic development, municipal operation to me is unthinkable. The only alternative is private operation under public control, a control aimed to secure a convenient, adequate, and safe service for all. In so far as supplying the facilities is concerned, municipal ownership would in- sure their construction and extension in the manner which would best serve the community.

The different boroughs of the city are not all equally desirable climatically, physically, or socially; so that everything else being equal, they cannot be expected to develop exactly alike. But the city's transit facilities should furnish the same standard of service to them all. At least there should be no discrimination in this respect. Every borough should be permitted and assured the full measure of development which its own particular circumstances make possible.

In developing a plan of municipal ownership and private operation, at first several operators of the transit lines may be necessary, but ultimately a single company should exercise all of the operating functions. An operating monopoly by a private company under public control will insure the same character of service to the whole city at a uniform rate of fare, will make possible universal transfers, will provide every citizen with transportation from his home to his work for the same fare, will enable the passenger to traverse the city from the circumference to the center for one fare, and will reduce operating costs to the minimum and therefore will permit the least fare.

Increases in New York Traffic AND Need for New Lines

The traffic on the surface and rapid transit lines of New York City has nearly doubled in the past fifteen years. In 1906, the revenue passenger traffic on all lines was 1,251,000,000. In 1921, it had increased to nearly 2i billion passengers, or had nearly doubled. In 1870, fifty years ago, there were 103 revenue passenger rides per capita per year. In 1921, there were 437. In fifty years the riding per capita has increased four and a quarter times.

Considering rapid transit traffic alone, in 1913, the year the dual contracts were signed, the rapid transit lines in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx, subway and elevated lines together, exclusive of the Hudson & Manhattan, carried 810,000,000 fare passengers. In 1921, these same rapid transit lines, together with the new lines which had been placed in operation, carried about 1,418,000,000 passengers during the year. This means that the increase in rapid transit traffic alone has been 75 per cent in nine years. The foregoing figures are sufficient to indicate the enormity of the increase for which municipal transportation must be provided if the development and the prosperity of the city are not to be held back.

A continuous subway building program is necessary if the city is to catch up with and keep up with its tremendous transit needs. The city has been building subways for twenty-one years, but intermittently. Up to the present time, the Interborough company, the first operating company to begin to operate city-owned subways, haa expended $178,000,000 for construction and equipment. The Brooklyn company, which came into the plan later, has expended $78,000,000 for the same purposes. The city alone has spent for construction $295,000,000. This makes a total expenditure during the past twenty-one years of $551,000,000. Before the dual system is finished, approximately another $50,000,000 will have to be spent by the city and companies, so that before the dual system is finished, the city and the companies must spend over $600,000,000. This vast sum would almost construct and equip three two-track steam railroads across the continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

The dual system contracts were nine years too late in getting started. The war has delayed their completion, so that now the construction program is fully ten years behind the transit requirements. The time has now arrived when we must look ahead again. A comprehensive plan for the enlargement of the rapid transit system must be developed. The work of carrying out such a plan must be begun immediately and proceeded with gradually and continuously if the transit facilities are in any degree to keep pace with the tremendous traffic increase.

The money for such a program may be obtained just as it has been obtained in the past — that is, by utilizing the credit of the city and borrowing such amounts as may be necessary, not to exceed the city's debt limit. The only difference between what has occurred in the past and what is proposed for the future is that the city's credit should be utilized not only to secure rapid transit facilities, but also to secure bus and surface car facilities, whenever the transit program requires it.

The debt limit of the city is fixed by law at not greater than 10 per cent of the total assessed value of the real property in the city. All of the money that the city has expended on its subway facilities to date, aggregating nearly $300,000,000, has been obtained in this way. There is now charged against the debt limit the $233,000,000 expended for new subways under the dual contracts. The commission plan provides that the interest and amortization on this sum will be paid out of the pooled receipts of the new system, thus removing the charge against the debt limit, and thus making this vast sum available for new subways.

In the future, some other means of enabling the city to supply the necessary funds may be necessary, but whatever plan may be adopted, the cost of municipal transit must be paid for, and the answer is that the city must find the necessary money.

In 1920, during the maximum three hours in one direction, from 7 to 10 a.m. workward, or from 4 to 7 p.m. homeward, the total commuter travel into lower Manhattan, including steam railroad, ferry and tunnel commuters, aggregated approximately 336,000 passengers. This traffic is growing rapidly. During the last ten years it has increased about 117 per cent at the Grand Central Terminal. During nine years, the Long Island commuter traffic has increased 141 per cent at Flatbush and 275 per cent at the Pennsylvania Station. The commuters on the New Jersey Central, Lackawanna and Erie roads have increased approximately 40 per cent during the last ten years. These figures emphasize the fact that the commuter traffic has become a very great factor in our rapid transit problem. The growth of the traffic is so stupendous that the consequences will be very serious if immediate steps are not taken to deal adequately with it. A Metropolitan Transit Plan, separate and distinct from the Metropolitan transit system, should be devised for this purpose.

Mr. Turner's Summary

The public welfare demands that more street railways must be provided in order that better service may be furnished during the rush hours and during all hours of the day. For social reasons it is desirable that transit facilities should be extended into new territory as early as possible. For the same reasons, new lines of travel should be developed instead of following old ones. City transit should precede the population; it should not follow the population. If all of these principles are followed, then:

Congestion of population will be dissipated, not intensified;

The population will be distributed to the outermost limits of the city, not confined to population centers like the lower East Side of Manhattan.

The outlying sections of the city will be developed and enhanced in value, not depreciated.

The city's growth will be promoted, not retarded.

Universal transfer privileges can be established so that the passengers may ride between their homes and business for a single fare; and

The intolerable rush hour conditions will be eliminated. Every passenger will be able to travel to business In the morning and home at ftight, comfortably and decently.

In other words, if the transit plan is based upon the area served instead of upon the traffic in sight;

If municipal ownership is substituted for private ownership;

If operation by a private company under public control prevails instead of municipal operation, as proposed, or

In short, if city transit is developed in accordance with all of the foregoing principles, instead of those which have prevailed in the past;

then the New York City transit problem will be solved.

The Commission Plan proposes to follow such principles.

Discussion on Mr. Turner's Paper

The chairman of the session at which Mr. Turner's paper was presented was Nelson P. Lewis, consulting engineer Board of Estimate, city of New York, and until recently and for many years chief engineer of the board. Mr. Lewis explained that invitations to discuss the paper had been sent to representatives of all of the principal traction companies in the city, but each had expressed an unwillingness to give his views. He then introduced as the first speaker in the discussion Edward A. Roberts of the Beeler organization, and also connected with the engineering department of the commission.

Mr. Roberts explained that his remarks would be confined to the surface lines. Some people seem to think that they are an insignificant part of the transportation system of the city and they can be scrapped without great loss, but for every three passengers on the rapid transit lines there are more than two passengers on the surface lines. At one time the companies were in prosperous condition, but now the contrary is the case. Their present problem is in two parts, namely, to attract more passengers and to reduce expenses. These two objects are by no means incompatible. Rerouting is the first thing to be attacked in a case of this kind. Districts are constantly changing owing to business and social conditions, and to obtain the bes.t results car routes should be frequently revised. Another important miatter is the introduction of modern equipment, and the speaker described the beneficial results obtained on many railway systems through the operation of safety cars. Other means of obtaining the desired results are regularity of service, loading platforms, skip-stops, which the speaker said can better be designated as proper spacing of stops, and revision of time tables to reduce waste time. He then compared operation in New York and Boston as follows: Boston: Fare 10 cents, with 20 per cent of the. passengers paying 5 cents; earnings per car-mile, 66 cents. New York: Fare 5 cents, earnings per car-mile, 68 cents. Boston: Revenue car-miles per car-hour, more than 10; earnings per car-hour, $6.62. New York: Revenue car-miles per car-hour, less than 7; earnings per car-hour, $4.71.

Mr. Roberts also pointed out that if it was possible to increase the schedule speed in New York by the moderate amount of only 1 m.p.h., which even then would leave New York considerably behind other large cities in point of speed; 13,000,000 car-miles could be added at practically no additional operating expense or capital outlay. These added car-miles would provide facilities for 125,000,000 passengers, or more thian a 5-cenit increase.

Frank J. Sprague, the next speaker, said that thirty years ago he visualized the needs of New York transit and laid down the underlying principles in the daily papers and in addresses before technical societies. His plan contemplated two four-track lines north and south each side of the city with a crosstown line extending through Williamsburg, Brooklyn and New York to Jersey City and Hoboken, crossing the north and south lines at a different level. The original Interborough line was built like a snake and when the logical H was formed the Forty-second Street shuttle with its illogical engineering features was the result. He said that in 1890 and 1891 the rapid transit commissioners did not know whether they wanted an underground or elevated railway, and an effort was made by certain interests to secure the right to build a steam-operated elevated railway up Broadway. At that time the speaker said he offered to run trains with electric power at 40 m.p.h. if given the opportunity. Continuing, he said that traffic facilities in New York had too long been a means to an end in private operation, though perhaps this was a necessity. In future designs it is most important to have routes and tracks utilized to the limit. If the present subways were operated by electric locomotives or single motor cars at the head of the trains the capacity would be so limited that the city would have to invest more than $100,000,000 in additional subways to secure the same capacity. Multiple-unit operation has made the present capacity possible. Logically, a train should be made up of like units, because then a train would have the same speed characteristics as a single car. Brakes are applied to every wheel and why should not motors be also? It would be interesting to see what could be accomplished with every wheel equipped and with the greatest possible speed, particularly on the local tracks. Much thought has been given recently to schemes for reducing expenses by keeping the number of trains and attendants at a minimum, but except for studies by Mr. Turner, particularly on spreading office hours, there has been little investigation as to how the passenger carrying capacity of the rapid transit lines can be increased without increasing their trackage.

Mr. Sprague then declared that the suggestion for a universal transfer in Mr. Turner's paper, in his opinion, was not sound, as it would decrease the capacity of the system. People would ask for transfers to ride short distances when they could just as well walk, and walking would be better for them. The sound basis was for a man to pay for what he got.

General Lincoln C. Andrews, in charge of the working organization of the Transit Commission, then said that while the picture painted by Mr. Turner was good, he was more interested to know what could be done during the next five years, as it would take five years to build a subway. There was a crying need for a solution.

H. M. Brinckerhoff, of Parsons, Klapp, Brinckerhoff & Douglas, was the next speaker. He said that he had checked off with a "no" and "yea" the conclusions listed at the end of Mr. Turner's paper and had found more "nos" than "yes." He believed that Mr. Turner had treated the subject primarily on the basis of city development, but one must be on his guard against thinking that he can control city development by transit. Figures show that for a number of years the populations on the lower East Side and lower West Side of New York have changed very slightly in number and that the decrease in population in Manhattan has come from the central district. He thought that greater relief to these crowded tenement districts would come from sanitary measures than from transit changes. The present congestion in transit matters is more at the delivery end, and in developing new residential districts care must be taken that too many lines are not brought into the heart of the business district to increase the congestion already there. The speaker then referred to the experience in Chicago where some years ago elevated roads were built into the suburbs far in advance of the population. Now, Chicago has what might be known as the "twilight" district, just outside the business district, because people had moved from there to the more attractive residential districts outside. In referring to a paper which he had presented before the same section last year, Mr. Brinckerhoff said he had shown that the transit development in New York so far had been almost entirely north, east, and south. He hoped that the commission would see if it could not develop population more to the west. In conclusion he offered a defense of city planners who, he thought, were endeavoring to coordinate their work with that of adequate transit facilities.

T. K. Thomson said he thought the term "rush hour" was a misnomer because train and passenger movements at that time were slower than at other times.

John P. Fox pointed out that important office and business districts were being built up at various points along the rapid transit lines, citing the development of the Forty-second Street district as an example. He praised the idea of a four-track rapid transit line.


Electric Railway Journal, McGraw Hill Company, Digitized by Microsoft, Americana Collection, archive.org.

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