For Gene Russianoff long subway trips are very personal.
The longtime transit advocate at the Straphanger’s Campaign grew up in Sheepshead Bay, and remembers the benefit of an express train: “It made you feel you weren’t living in Siberia.”
He says his mother would take large books — “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” Jane Austen’s works — rip them into travel-sized sections and work her way through over the course of a month. The trip was long enough “for you to get your reading done.”
Russianoff brings this memory up as context for the Brooklyn train debate currently brewing — a recommendation to provide express service on the F train during rush hours in a swathe of Brooklyn.
The catch? The plan would halve local service at a number of northern stations.
“It’s a hard case,” Russianoff says. With major change in the subways, “there are always winners and losers.”
Take the local or wait for the express?
Express trains are the happy surprises of the subway system. Catch an express and you can leapfrog the misguided crowds who hopped too quickly on a local. For those without access to express trains, there’s no other choice.
The Culver line (the F route in Brooklyn) once included express service, but it was suspended in 1987 due to structural work and never restored.
The MTA NYC Transit released a long-awaited feasibility study of renewed express service this spring. The study found that running two-way express service during rush hours between Church Ave. and Jay St.-MetroTech would save express riders an average of 3.4 minutes every morning with a maximum savings of 7.3 minutes northbound (the savings is slightly less for southbound trains). Local riders would lose an average 1.3 minutes and at most 5 minutes, according to the study.
In total, this works out to a savings of 27,000 minutes: "1.0 minutes per affected passenger during an average weekday AM peak hour." Which leads the study authors to conclude that the plan would be worth implementing.
The math is simple — the effects seem small, but are significant when you add them up for the estimated 48 percent of riders who would benefit from the express.
The problem is that the remaining, local-only riders — who would be slightly inconvenienced — are clustered in some of Brooklyn’s most popular and crowded neighborhoods, which are only getting more crowded.
That’s the concern of Erin Lippincott, an F train rider who circulated a petition last week on dontcutlocalf.com, which quickly caught the attention of local elected officials.
“Nobody I know in any way shape or form is against more subway service in Brooklyn,” Lippincott says, but she rails against cutting service where Brooklyn is busiest.
Lippincott says she was concerned when developers announced plans for construction in Gowanus that she feared weren’t being supported by increases in infrastructure — the beleaguered sewer system, for example. Cutting transit could make things even worse.
The study notes that 1,900 and 1,800 riders get on during the northbound peak hour at Carroll St. and Bergen St. respectively, two stops where service would be cut, vs., say, 700 at Ditmas Avenue, one of the busier of the more southern stations.
Picking the right train
An MTA spokeswoman says that no final decisions have been made — a final determination by the MTA board is pending conversations with “impacted stakeholders.” If approved, the study’s recommended changes wouldn’t start before mid-2017.
Lippincott laments the way the recommendation pits “neighborhood vs. neighborhood,” recognizing the limited resources of MTA beneficence that are lapped after like the hungry dogs/subway riders that we all are.
Cutting service in busy, burgeoning neighborhoods where Fs sometimes open and close with no room for new passengers, doesn’t seem great. Yet if the numbers pan out, these are small delays for residents close to the city and with other transit options. Residents farther out could use a slice off their commute — riders like Russianoff’s mother can leave a slice of their novels at home — and maybe those neighborhoods would become rapidly burgeoning ones too if the transit options were there.
If only there were a third way, beyond this piddling over a few minutes. The report identifies and denies alternatives to this borough-wide Faustian bargain — for example, renovating a ghost portion of the Bergen Street station to allow the express to stop there is too expensive: in excess of $75 million, according to the report. And adding trains so service doesn’t need to be cut, the obvious solution? The tracks in current state can’t accommodate, and new trains are unavailable.
In the end Brooklynites will ho and hum and the board will make some decision that won’t make everyone happy, when the road to a less-zero-sum game in the subway system would be greater investment in mass transit.
“The problem is not the choice between express and local. It's financial constraints on the system forcing us to make that choice,” says John Raskin, executive director of the Riders Alliance.
“The reality is, we need to provide both.”
This is amExpress, the conversation starter for New Yorkers. Subscribe at amny.com/amexpress.