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Subway System Planners Feel Vindicated by Survey


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Lie or Not, Numbers Don't Complain: Subway System Planners Feel Vindicated by Survey

By MICHAEL LUO | August 19, 2004

Success can be an elusive totem in the world of rail service design, mainly because people like to complain. "You can never satisfy everybody," said Glenn S. Lunden, a planner for New York City Transit.

So, after the drastic scrambling of the subway map between Brooklyn and Manhattan six months ago that affected 600,000 riders, there was the inevitable deluge of telephone calls and letters. The redrawing was prompted by the restoration of all four subway tracks over the Manhattan Bridge for the first significant period since 1986. Planners heard a lot of complaints, but they wanted hard numbers, so they set out to analyze ridership statistics and poll people on platforms.

The results, tabulated recently, paint a rosy picture, said members of the operations planning unit at New York City Transit.

"We're basically satisfying 77 percent of the customers," Peter G. Cafiero, director of rail service design, said last week.

In April, two months after the changes, transit workers polled about 2,000 riders, asking them this simple question: Do you prefer the way the service is now, or the way it was before? As it turns out, about 48 percent said they preferred the new service, and 29 percent said either way was fine. Only 23 percent said they preferred the old.

Study the ridership information more closely, planners said, and the logic behind each route change comes into focus.

The main goal in the changes was to send more trains over the Manhattan Bridge, bypassing Lower Manhattan, because planners discovered that three-quarters of riders wanted to go that way, while only half the trains running between Brooklyn and Manhattan during rush hour were doing it.

With 36 trains a day now going over the bridge during peak times, compared with 27 before, average weekday ridership over the bridge is up nearly 19 percent, while on slower routes that go through tunnels into Lower Manhattan, it is down 28 percent on the M and R trains and 16 percent on F trains.

"These were people who were going to Midtown but were taking slower routes before," Mr. Cafiero said.

Statistics on individual lines confirmed the Midtown trend. The Sea Beach line, served by N trains that now go over the bridge, had an increase in passengers of nearly 10 percent. Meanwhile, ridership on the Culver Line, served by F trains that wind through Lower Manhattan, fell by 6.4 percent at stations near N train stations in Brooklyn. In other words, thousands of people are choosing to walk to the N train station for the faster route over the bridge.

Another central feature was the decision to route trains in the Brighton line along both the Avenue of Americas and Broadway during weekdays. In 2001, when work was finally completed on the southern side of the Manhattan Bridge and lines were scrambled so work could start up the north, those on the Brighton line suddenly found their trains heading up Broadway, after more than a decade of heading up Avenue of the Americas. Transit workers asked riders which they preferred. A majority, they found, preferred Broadway, but a sizable percentage liked the other option.

Sure enough, in their new survey, they found that 53 percent of bridge riders during peak hours were on trains that headed up Broadway, compared with 47 percent on Avenue of the Americas trains.

The most striking statistics involve Chinatown, which has endured strong swings in service as work on the bridge proceeded so slowly. "Chinatown has seen just enormous changes in service over the years," Mr. Lunden said. "We focused on seeing what was happening there."

The numbers seem to point to a rebirth. After dropping significantly over the two years when the Grand Street station was all but abandoned because of repairs on the bridge, ridership at three stations in Chinatown - Grand Street, Canal Street and East Broadway - has returned to the levels before the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001.

Perhaps more telling, weekend ridership has grown 14 percent after the changes, returning to roughly what it was before the attack as well.

"In the economic climate that we're in, that's good news for Chinatown," said Paul Fleuranges, a New York City Transit spokesman.

Many in Lower Manhattan who use the Broadway line have complained that they have only the R train to return to Brooklyn, so they have to wait longer for trains. But statistics show that the trains are still only at 45 percent of maximum load guidelines, meaning the numbers do not justify more service.

"We were over-serving downtown before," said Keith J. Hom, director of operations planning for New York City Transit.

Given the popularity of the B train, among the biggest complaints has been the decision to halt the service during late nights and on weekends. But in this case, transit planners said, operational constraints prevent them from doing anything more.

From The New York Times

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