This post is adapted from a YouTube video that I created: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fIERh_9qieA
I recently took a trip to one of the cavernous stations on the brand new 2nd avenue Subway in New York City. Its mere existence is astonishing given all the roadblocks there were to getting it built in the first place, and the stations themselves certainly feel worthy of a modern metro system. But there's still something wrong, or at least disappointing, about the way in which these stations conceive of the relationship between a city, it's people, and their transportation. So what exactly makes this a bad design?
Since 1919, there have been plans to build a train under 2nd avenue, but it kept getting pushed back. First due to the great depression, and then subsequently by poor city finances during the 1970s and 80s. Finally, the first portion of the 2nd avenue line opened in 2017. It's part of a 4 phase plan to construct a Subway all the way from Harlem to the financial district. Although the second phase of the project is supposedly in the works, all that exists of this line is 3 stations at 72nd st, 86th st, and 96th st.
The first clue to the design flaws in this line is simply the number of tracks. While each major trunk line in Manhattan has 4 tracks, 2 for local service and 2 for express. The current 2nd avenue line only has 2 tracks which severely limits its capacity. But why even have separate express tracks? As far as I can tell, this local-express layout is a very New York thing and it means that not only can you increase capacity on a line, but you can also add many more and much longer branches to increase the amount of areas served. As it stands, the current infrastructure and provisions for the 2nd Ave Subway are severely under-designed and likely won't do as much to relieve crowding in the rest of the system. This is particularly ironic because one of the main driving points behind the 2nd avenue line construction now is to relieve the Lexington avenue line of congestion, which alone currently has more riders than the entire ridership of the DC Metro. Not including provisions for express tracks means the line certainly isn’t futureproof and will likely become congested in the near future.
One of the main critiques of the NYC Subway is its lack of accessibility. In fact, this map shows just how few stations are fully accessible, so if you require special accommodations when getting around, if you’re pushing a stroller, or if you’re even taking a heavy suitcase, you won’t be able to use most stations. Not to fear, however. Each station on 2nd avenue includes elevator access, which satisfies the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. But in this entire giant station, where exactly are the elevators? Well, there’s one from the platform to the mezzanine, and one from the mezzanine to the street level. The station itself has 2 entrances: one at 86th street and one at 83rd street, but only the 86th street entrance has elevator access. To make matters even more ridiculous, the elevator on the street level is physically removed from the main escalators, as if the designers wanted to deliberately discourage accessible use. This means that although the station is technically accessible, it’s very hard to plan your trip around elevator use.
This gets into the whole discussion of what do we really mean by “accessible.” Is it simply the option of taking the elevator even if it’s really inconvenient, or is it a more integrated approach that encourages accessible options on an equal or even greater basis than inaccessible design elements. What about people who don’t necessarily need wheelchair access but still get nauseous from the vertigo of such a long escalator? What about people who feel overwhelmed in a busy, cavernous tube like this? Regardless, it’s definitely apparent that although the 2nd avenue stations are technically accessible, they’re far from truly accessible.
In most other stations in the New York Subway system, getting on the train is a very simple process. You find the entrance for the direction you’re looking, you descend a short flight of stairs, you enter through the turnstiles, and you’re immediately at the platform. This combined with 4-6 minute train intervals means that getting on the subway is often a very quick and simple process that doesn’t take that much time away from your daily commute. Of course, there are plenty of irritatingly complicated stations that I could go on and on about. But the idea still stands that having trains run directly below the street means that it’s much easier to access rapid transit. Here in New York, the plane of the subway and the street level are very interconnected due to their close proximity. It’s why the MTA has signs that specify which entrance is on which side of the street. These little details are designed to make everyday commutes much easier, even though it’s definitely fair to say that in a lot of instances, they could do a much better job with signage. This interconnectedness between the street and the subway levels is also, in my opinion, one of the reasons the subway map includes far more above-ground features than you would usually see in a transit map. I think this is one of the reasons why New York has such high subway ridership. These deliberate design choices make it much more cognizant and aware for people that the subway isn’t wayyyy down underground. It’s just right there. It’s the difference between saying “ugh I have to take the train to get there” versus “oh I’ll just hop on the train.” And before someone types a stupid comment saying “oh actually the subway is really annoying,” the things that do make the New York subway infuriating are more often than not, long transfers, frequent delays, or inconsiderate passengers without masks. None of those really apply to the specific relationship between the subway and the street, which is one of the things that makes this system really unique.
Many other subways, such as the Washington Metro System and the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, include stations that are very deep and far removed from the plane of the street level. This creates a much greater mental and physical barrier between rapid transit and street life. As you might expect, these systems are also deliberately designed for much longer journeys, and so this model makes sense. Here in New York, however, the subway has such a deep relationship and history with being an option for both long and short distance transit, which is why I’m particularly disappointed that 2nd avenue’s stations are so deep underground. I fully understand that they constructed it in this way because removing all the massive infrastructure right below the surface is more costly than building deep. But, it’s sad to see that short distance design intent to almost leave completely. You can see this particularly in the spacing between each station on 2nd avenue, which makes it clear that the designers are favoring longer distance commutes over short distance connections. One of the most absurd is the over 4000 feet between 72nd and 55th streets, which are almost an entire mile apart. But why does losing this short distance commuting pattern matter so much? After all, couldn’t you make the argument that New York’s stations are, in fact, spaced too closely together? Well, in my opinion, it comes down to what kind of relationship we want to have with our transit. With so many American cities sprawled out over a large space, it makes getting around much more difficult. That’s why it’s so refreshing to see New York really embrace this kind of transit model. It encourages a much denser urban environment meaning it’s much easier to walk down the block for a couple of groceries rather than having to get in your car and drive there. Promoting transit access like this is key to creating good living environments in which people have the freedom to get around easily both short and long distances. This also makes cities much greener. It emits far less carbon dioxide to walk or take the subway rather than drive everywhere. And given how devastating the effects of climate change will be, making cities greener is definitely a top priority.
Having a close, interconnected relationship with transit is one of the things that New York excels at, and with the construction of the 2nd avenue stations, this key component is lost. I also fear that designing subway stations in this manner will set the precedent that all new stations should look more or less like this. So while I’m glad that New York has at least seen some new growth with its transit system, I’m not convinced that 2nd avenue’s stations are actually good in their design.