Coming soon to a subway near you: Part 3

The 20th century has been ruled by the automobile; the future belongs to urban transit.

Lawrence Solomon
The Next City
September 1, 1995

Frank also envisions 100-foot-long buses for bikes and motorcycles that would carry 80 passengers and vehicles for his automotive society by the freeway. In this money-is-no-object fantasy world, the planners remain firmly in charge. Despite the success of decentralized systems, and the failure of large-scale, regional planning, their answer is more planning, more comprehensively done.

If transportation and land-use planning are to succeed, the article reports, they “must be conducted regionally with the full participation of local communities. Planners have known that for a quarter of a century, but efforts first to establish and then to strengthen regional bodies with more than specialized authority have proceeded slowly.” Another expert cited by Atlantic Monthly is even more militant on the need for command and control: “We must take control of technology — ‘storm the bridge of the Titanic’ — by setting goals to produce economical, energy-efficient vehicles and then dealing with issues relating to the reasons people drive and, more fundamentally, to the effects of an ever exploding human population on the world’s resources and creatures.”

These articles nowhere consider profitability; they consider — and reject — competition between public transit and the private automobile all within the same paragraph. The new reformers consider public transit as we know it, especially subways and other railed vehicles, an anachronism: “Municipalities have chosen to put their efforts and funds into subways and light-rail commuter trains that with few exceptions can be classed as follies — grand monuments to the power of the public dollar, and to the nostalgia value of trains. . . . Some sixty years ago the automobile surpassed the train as the preferred mode of transportation for Americans, and many transit officials and train buffs will admit off the record that that ranking will probably never change. Even in rail-rich Europe, studies show that in England and France, two countries with extensive urban transit systems, city dwellers prefer to drive or walk, in that order.”

“Mass transit was created to resolve crowding in cities in the late nineteenth century,” says Frank, the buses-for-cars advocate. “In this country, we have constructed a low-density society. Planners are wrong to want to re-create a nineteenth-century society.”

The article then justifies replacing past planning disasters with its brave new world as “no more radical than the one taken nearly forty years ago to create a culture dedicated to the car and linked nationally by a 45,500-mile ribbon of concrete and asphalt.”

It all sounds so desperate, so defeatist despite the rhetoric, and so unnecessary. Rather than blindly go into this technological black hole where the author hopes that somehow “a comprehensive new approach to transportation will give it a more human face,” and where public transit solutions must await the resolving of global population problems, we might pause to examine the nitty-gritty of our public transportation systems in the here and now. Railed vehicles are no less relevant today than in the past, their failings not caused by inherently fatal flaws but by the failure of politicians and planners to see railed system’s role in the transit scheme of things. The creation of the low-density society Frank talks about, caused by policies that depopulated inner cities, should not be worn as a badge of honor but as a stain.

The subway system’s three parts: the stations, the cars and the track

Car companies built automobiles but not roads and gas stations; these separate components of the automobile system, having different ownership, knew where their common interests lay but otherwise more or less went about their own business, allowing each to focus clearly on its particular goals.

London’s bus system, when it broke up under deregulation, similarly divided into its separate operations. The London bus system’s 10 subsidiaries were sold to private operators; the bus stations remained with the transit authority, which began to treat them as a separate business. A third part of the bus system — the roads — is also being rethought on a businesslike basis. Plans are now being developed to charge all vehicles, including cars, for the use of city streets. All U.K. highways, meanwhile, are converting to privately operated toll roads. With these changes, the private automobile will lose an untoward advantage it has had, and competition between public and private transit will be put on a far more even footing.

The next step in the disentangling of the rat’s nest that our public transit systems have become — and the most important one for most large cities — will be restructuring subways, high-speed money machines that have rusted and fallen into disrepair in London, New York, Toronto and many other large cities. Thanks to municipal owners who don’t put customers first, subway systems remain relatively undeveloped, unable to compete vigorously against the car and other forms of surface traffic. By separating subway systems into their component businesses, as the London transit system has done with its buses, and by letting each make its own way, the cost of subway travel will shrink amid a proliferation of new services.

The lowly subway station

In most subway cities, subway stations are appalling places. Often nondescript-looking, they are pricey nevertheless — the TTC estimates the cost of building a station at over $40 million. Mostly located underground, arrived at by stairs or escalator from the sidewalk above, or from an institutional street-level building, subway décor compares to that of public washrooms, the easier to mop down. Subway operators see these stations as engineering necessities to carry high volumes of people underground; stations, in their view, aren’t money-makers but expenses — overhead into which transit operators put as little as they can, because they’ll get nothing out.

To a transit operator, the high flow of pedestrian traffic is a problem to be managed; to a merchant on a busy street, and in the underground shopping complexes of Toronto and other cold cities, the high level of pedestrian traffic is not a problem but an asset.

Early subway station builders recognized street traffic’s value: the Metropolitan and District, a private company that built one of London’s first subways, located its subway entrances inside shopping arcades. Airports have also begun recognizing this value in pedestrian traffic, particularly since London’s Heathrow airport and other U.K. airports were privatized eight years ago. To the surprise of BAA, the new airport company, aggressive retailing (including lowering the price of airport goods to those in the city) so capitalized on airport traffic that BAA now brings in more revenue, and profit, from its various retail operations than from airplanes taking off and landing. Retail’s success also attracts passenger travel: People now choose Heathrow for their connecting flights because of the shopping. BAA, which has become one of the U.K.’s most profitable businesses, benefits another way: It now markets its airport retailing expertise to airports around the world, which are likewise learning to leverage their pedestrian traffic. Airports, as a result, have lost their deadbeat status.

Although some subway stations have limited retail activities, and sometimes even shopping malls, in their operation, the involvement is usually half-hearted: The station is designed for the subway’s convenience, and retail accommodates itself to whatever opportunities remain. Typically, these stores are small, generally below ground, and outside the turnstile.

The world’s subway systems should borrow a page from the subway’s past, and the airport’s present, and turn stations into profit centres by selling the street-level floor space to retailers who would know what to do with the traffic. Some subway locations, say in trendy boutique areas, might suit high-end clothing stores (if Boss Tweed had not stopped New York’s first subway more than a century ago, Devlin’s Clothing Store might have become such a station); others, near entertainment districts, might lend themselves to restaurants and bars, where theatregoers could pass the time before a performance or discuss it afterward. Stations in residential neighborhoods might double as drugstores or supermarkets. Retailers buying stations would be those most likely to benefit from increased traffic, and most likely, also, to promote their customers’ subway use. The retailers’ advertising would flag the subway stop that had become part of their identity. In cities that have extensive downtown underground shopping malls, pedestrian access to the subway would often come from the lower shopping level. In cities that don’t, retailers would create underground shopping malls to profit from commuter traffic.

Because subway stations are built by transit engineers and not mall retailers, subway platforms typically have one or two entrances, often inconveniently located. But with retailers at pedestrian levels providing access, entrances could be located at many points along the length of a subway platform. A busy intersection where subway lines connect might well have 120 or more stores above the subway platforms, 30 on each side of the street from each of the four street corners, 200 feet in each direction. Each of those 120 store owners would weigh the cost of providing an elevator or stair to the subway below against the benefit of the extra pedestrian traffic. With every subway station turned into retail establishments, this once-costly part of the subway system would be a separate, stand-alone operation, no longer a drain on the public purse but a convenience for the passenger and a boon to the retailer.

Subway cars

Automobiles come in various colours, shapes and sizes because people do: Automobile companies try hard to satisfy their customers’ diverse demands. How do the automakers figure out what their customers want? They look.

“We’re asking: What is somebody doing in a vehicle and what do they need?” says Gerald Hirschberg, Nissan’s vice-president of design. The proliferation of automobile accessories attests to the many things drivers do, or try to do, in cars. But despite the proliferation, it is hard to do much behind the wheel of a car. Drivers might try to lengthen their workday by working in fits and starts behind the wheel; they might squeeze in a breakfast of coffee and a muffin, or preen themselves by plugging in an electric shaver or putting on makeup. But autos just don’t have the potential of subway cars. These are, after all, 500-750 square foot structures, the size of small stores, that could be earning as much or more from retail operations as they do from selling their transportation services. Here, then, are some of the different stores-on-wheels that could — and should — be pulling out of our subway stations in the near future, chock-a-block with customers, shopping till their stop.

Kinko’s-On-Wheels — the business car

Someone like Gerald Hirschberg, looking at what people do on subway cars, would see determined souls trying to get some work done: middle managers, briefcase across their knees, scribbling memos to themselves; university students finishing their assignments; people with notebook computers, tapping their keyboards while getting jostled by their neighbors. On street level, stores like Kinko’s provide temporary offices for people on the go, and for the increasing numbers who work out of their home, but don’t have fully equipped offices. Also on street level, for people who want to stay connected to their co-workers and customers, an increasing number of automobiles are equipped with cellular phones and fax machines, even printers; for people making sales calls or operating businesses out of their back seats, some cars have virtually become offices. A Kinko’s-On-Wheels subway car, equipped with flip-down desks, cell phones and stationery, notebook computers and printers, would turn the downtime of travel into productive periods. Because the Kinko’s customer’s stop might come before the work was finished, the platform outside each Kinko’s car would be similarly equipped, and have a photocopier and binder to produce copies needed for a presentation. Kinko’s-On-Wheels would also allow people to clear away their personal chores, like balancing the chequebook and returning phone calls they couldn’t get to during the day. When passenger business tailed off at night, Kinko’s could sublet part of its car space to UPS or other parcel-delivery businesses. Courier businesses, which in subway cities already supplement their road vehicles with subway pickups and deliveries, would find that the advantages of doing so increased once the subway provided direct access to hundreds of stores above subway stations. Courier delivery could lead to shipments of freight and other goods, with secure predawn delivery of periodicals to magazine stores, bread to restaurants, milk to convenience stores — items now often left outside stores on the sidewalk, where they’re subject to theft and the elements.

VIP car

Many luxury car owners are also car renters who prefer to save their own cars for occasions that count. If these high-end car commuters had high-end subway cars to patronize, suitably appointed and serviced, with dependable schedules, many would be there. Their seats — airplane-style recliners — could be reserved by phone, for occasional trips or on an annual basis. Stewards could serve coffee in china cups in the morning, cappuccino for leisurely daytime travelers, and cognac for the ride home. Personalized TV monitors, with earphones so as not to disturb fellow passengers, could broadcast the news, stock quotes or entertainment. VIPs who wanted to get work done could have access to a cellphone, a modem, a laptop computer, a VCR for instructional videos, and a tax-deductible receipt to claim a business expense. When passenger business tailed off at night, the VIP’s platform furnishings could be stowed in the VIP car, which would then be retired for the night and be swapped for an entertainment car.

Standing room only (SRO)

Passengers generally pick subways for their longer public-transit trips — in one study, people who travel less than 10 kilometres make the trip faster on the surface. But many trips are nevertheless short, and for passengers who just want to go a few stops, or for those who prefer to stand after sitting all day, SRO cars will fit the ticket.

Without passengers struggling in and out of rush-hour seating, SRO cars will load and unload quickly. And because they will allow a whopping 285 passengers to stand with plenty of elbow room, SRO fares will run at a discount relative to other cars. Short-trippers will also appreciate the SRO’s pay-by-distance fares, which won’t penalize shoppers and others for hopping from stop to stop.

The smoking car (Lighten up)

About one-third of us still smoke, and to protect the two-thirds of us who don’t from this indoor pollution, most subway systems outlaw smoking. This prohibition drives a large number of customers into their automobiles, where, ironically, exhaust may do nonsmokers as much or more harm. Far better to provide smokers with well-ventilated cars of their own, charcoal-filtered to trap stray smoke before it can get to non-smokers. As with the new cigarette stores sprouting like weeds throughout the U.S. that stock almost every conceivable brand, from Marlboro to Indonesia’s Djarum clove, smoking car patrons would be able to light up in a guilt-free environment, savor their smokes over a morning coffee or while unwinding on their journey home, and pick up a carton or two while they’re at it.

Other specialty cars

Subway cars, along with the platform space outside them, would be owned by different merchants, who would offer their customers whatever seemed likely to make a buck.

In the same way that different parts of town cater to different interests, different subway lines would offer different opportunities to businesses catering to different clienteles. The increasingly competitive airport industry provides cues for the type of service the public wants. Seattle’s Concourse C, for example, provides neck and shoulder massages to fully clothed patrons in its airport lounge: $13 for a 15-minute massage, $22 for a half-hour massage. Subway patrons who like to relax over a drink might prefer a bar car, teens might flock to video arcades on wheels, evangelists might set up shop to save souls in the subway’s depths. Those who just want a comfortable seat would select upholstered seating cars.

Using a “smart card” that knows how much service on each subway car costs, and that is capable of charging on the basis of distance traveled and time of day, fares would be paid on entry in the boarding area. These boarding areas would sell goods and services complementing the subway car’s function — smoking paraphernalia outside the smoking car, Cross pens and caviar as you board the VIP car to go home, French bread and fresh flowers for the dinner table on disembarking everywhere.

Because some merchants would require more space, others less, subway cars would no longer be standardized in length, allowing for a greater number of cars per train, and for different subway lines to have different numbers of cars. But all the trains on a particular subway line would likely continue to resemble each other (the SRO car might always be the third car, the VIP always the last). Like stores in a mall, the position of particular cars on the platform wouldn’t change, and passengers would soon learn where to board the car they were taking that day.

Retailer/operators would own the subway cars. And each subway line would have a different mix of cars, corresponding to the nature of the districts the subway line passed through (VIP cars would only be found along affluent routes, smoking cars might be found along all routes). While one retailer might own all the smoking cars, say, the cars could also be franchised, with different franchisees operating the many smoking cars traveling a line.

Merchants would also boost revenue from subway advertising, which currently fetches a low price because advertisers can’t efficiently target their audience. With specialized subway cars and platform areas catering to very particular clienteles, higher advertising rates would be justified per person reached; with the system attracting more passengers, advertising revenue would increase proportionately. Taken together, advertising revenue would likely double, possibly triple.

Managing the track

To allocate the costs of use and upkeep of the tracks and other equipment, each subway merchant would own a portion of an infrastructure maintenance company in proportion to the length of platform it occupied. The company would be similar to a condominium corporation, where the cost of individual units (cars) is borne by the individual owners, but the cost of the whole building (tracks) is shared. Because the merchants’ livelihoods would depend on the entire system working well, they would have an incentive both to maintain it well and to use it intensively, to spread the track maintenance costs over more subway cars operating at greater frequencies over more hours. We would soon have subway lines that are kept immaculately clean and graffiti-free. Roadbeds would be continually improved to provide quieter, more comfortable rides, particularly when doing so would enable merchants to increase their sales (of drinks that might spill, say). Cost savings would be pursued. For example, only now are some subway systems examining the possibility of generating their own power, a major cost of any subway system. Because subway systems have relatively steady power requirements throughout the day, subway systems especially lend themselves to low-cost power production. The infrastructure maintenance business would also pursue related business opportunities: The tunnel might be able to provide underground rights-of-way to cable or power companies, or sell consulting services to subway systems starting in other cities.

Back to the future

Public transit has always been regulated. During the Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci proposed the first underground thoroughfare — a sunken double-deck roadway to move commercial traffic and unclog Milan’s hopelessly choked roadways. But Milan’s bosses, the Boss Tweeds of their era, thought otherwise and the subway idea languished for centuries. Even prior to the electric age, to protect hackney coachmen from competition, London enforced an ordinance forbidding omnibuses from picking up and dropping off passengers, leading omnibus drivers to chain themselves to their coach seats to prevent their being jailed. When increasing conflicts led to the repeal of this ordinance in 1832, a government licensing system for both drivers and conductors replaced it, legitimizing mass transit in the U.K. for the first time but keeping it under political control. Ever since, the spoils of the public-transit market have gone to those with the most influence at city hall, which has generally created little monopolies for private transit operators, or government bureaucracies for themselves. Competition, where it has occurred at all, has generally been for a company’s right to run a particular concession — to control routes on particular public streets for a limited period of time.

Despite Boss Tweed, New York eventually built subways, private lines that gave it one of the world’s best transit systems. But new Boss Tweeds were always just around the corner, and they tended to prevail. New York’s transit system, which by all rights should be an unparalleled success, is instead dirty and derelict, and a drain on public coffers, as are almost all the subways in the great cities of the world.

Cities, especially when they reach high densities and especially if they were built before this century, lend themselves to pedestrian thoroughfares and they lend themselves to subways. Cities are, by their nature, densely populated places where land values are extraordinarily high because so many people insist on living there. The scarce, expensive land encourages its efficient use: A London or a Paris needs only one-eighth of its land area for roads, half that of a recently built auto-oriented city.

Within high-density cities, there is only one way to move very great numbers of people over short distances with speed and efficiency: by foot. One hundred thousand people could manage the trek from downtown Boston to the Commons, using existing streets, in a half-hour with ease. Give them the benefit of the automobile and a small fraction would complete the journey. Before England had any public transportation, about 50,000 people per hour crossed London Bridge on their way to work. Our best expressways today manage 4,000 to 6,000 cars.

To move very great numbers of people over considerable distances with speed and efficiency takes subways, which can manage 40,000 to 50,000 per hour. Dense cities have no alternative. When cities are less dense, streetcars, with half the capacity of subways but costing much less, become more economical. At lower densities still, the bus makes most sense. The automobile would ordinarily have a limited role to play in dense cities.

Early on, the automobile industry recognized that cities didn’t suit them. General Motors decided it would need to “reorder society…to alter the environment in which automobiles were sold,” Studebaker said that “If we are to have full use of the automobile, cities must be remade.”

Cities were remade, not through the voluntary undistorted choices of its citizens but through political machinations that kept out competition in the public-transit market. Urban densities declined dramatically. Manhattan’s extraordinarily high density of 65,000 people per square mile today was 50 per cent higher — 100,000 — at the turn of the century.

Read Part 4

Read Part 2

Read Part 1


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