Photo: Nancy Borowick

New York City subway stations are unpleasant and unhealthy

Compared to many global cities with exceptional subway stations, New York City falls woefully short. Its stations are stifling hot in the summer, become damp when it rains, and have poor air quality and deafening noise levels when trains enter and leave. Crowded platforms keep trains from moving through the stations quickly and pose hazards for passengers, who also struggle with confusing signage and a lack of information. In many stations, there is peeling paint and cracked tiles; rats scurry on the tracks looking for trash left behind by travelers. Fewer than one in five stations is accessible to people with disabilities.

A region that depends so heavily on public transportation deserves subway stations that are safe and comfortable

While moving passengers from one place to another is the main function of the subway system, making sure customers are comfortable and safe as they enter the station from the street and wait for their train is an essential part of the service. There are a number of ways to improve the experience.

Make all stations ADA-accessible

Only 82 out of 472 stations are accessible (or partially accessible) to those with physical disabilities. Being able to access the platforms from the street without needing to take stairs is important not only to those in wheelchairs, but also to the elderly and people with children in strollers who have no choice but to take the subway. The MTA currently has a waiver from the Americans with Disabilities Act allows it to get by with making only 100 key stations accessible. This is unacceptable, particularly as the population ages. The MTA should accelerate adding stair-free access to 10 to 15 stations annually, with a goal of reaching 100 percent access by the 2040s.

Reduce crowding in stations

Thirty stations across the network are too small for the amount of pedestrian traffic they experience every day. Substantial investments are necessary to improve pedestrian flows and reduce congestion. These projects will be significant undertakings, costing on average hundreds of millions of dollars per station. But the return on “right-sizing” would include an increased capacity of the system beyond the station itself as a result of the improved speed and reliability of the trains traveling through.

Specific actions to “right-size” subway stations include:

  • Build larger and more accessible entrances. These egress points should ideally be located within buildings or pedestrian plazas, and include escalators and elevators. Stations should be accessible to all users, including the elderly, the disabled, travelers with luggage, and parents with strollers.
  • Redesign and enlarge corridors and mezzanines. Stations with clear sightlines are less confusing and easier to navigate. Major hubs such as Union Square and Herald Square should be completely rebuilt to create large column-free areas and wider walkways. In smaller stations, columns should be removed wherever possible to ease traffic flow.
  • Remove obstacles and widen platforms. To move riders on and off of them quickly, station platforms should be decluttered of anything non-essential—such as newsstands that could be placed on the mezzanine—and in some cases widened. Vertical circulation could be improved by adding new stairways, escalators, and elevators. Riders would reach their destinations faster, and trains would spend less time in the stations.

In the longer term, like many metros around the world, stations could be rebuilt to separate the flows of pedestrian traffic going in opposite directions, thereby reducing congestion and improving throughput.

Reduce heat in stations

The extreme heat inside subway stations in the summertime—often well over 90 degrees—is not only unpleasant, it’s also a health hazard. There are a number of ways to mitigate this:

  • Adopt regenerative braking on trains. While traditional brakes release heat when activated, regenerative braking systems capture the heat energy and store it in a battery. This has the dual benefit of reducing both the amount of heat generated by braking trains as well as the amount of energy required to operate the subway.
  • Install modern signals. Communications-Based Train Control (CBTC) enables trains to maintain a constant distance from each other using their current forward inertia and only applying the brakes when absolutely necessary. By reducing the stop and go of most manually operated trains, CBTC can reduce the amount of heat generated from unnecessary braking that radiates inside the tunnels and stations.
  • Lower the weight of subway cars. According to the MTA itself, new subway cars could weigh as much as 2,000 lbs less than those in use today. This would decrease train power draws by 2.5 percent, and thereby the amount of heat.
  • Change how subway cars are air conditioned. Air conditioning on subway cars increases the temperature on the platform, and moving from a sweltering station to a relatively cold car is unhealthy. Lowering the amount of air conditioning and exploring other ways to cool trains would help in this regard. Better ventilation over the tracks could also help divert some of the heat, although this solution would not be feasible in many of the older stations.
  • Design and engineer future subway lines to generate less heat. “Humped tracks,” for example, harness the power of both gravity to assist with acceleration as trains leave the station, and braking, before trains enter the next station. Curves in tracks can also be designed in a way that reduces the need for unnecessary braking between stations and maximizes the benefits of coasting.
  • Improve ventilation plants. Better ventilation—in stations or even in tunnels—helps alleviate heat in the stations. Unfortunately, only 60 percent of ventilation facilities are in a state of good repair. Strategies to improve station ventilation and cooling may be considered part of public transit bonuses for real estate development.
  • Investigate using pumped groundwater to cool stations, as was recommended by the MTA’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Sustainability.
Thirty of the MTA’s 472 subway stations are too small for the pedestrian traffic they experience every day, and should be improved with bigger entrances, wider walkways, and redesigned platforms. Source: RPA

Improve air quality in stations

  • Eliminate diesel vehicles and equipment. The MTA should retire its diesel-powered service vehicles that emit “black carbon,” a health hazard, and replace them with all-electric-power equipment.

Reduce noise in stations

  • Smooth the rails. Continuously welded rail eliminates joints in the tracks, reducing noise and improving the smoothness of the ride. The MTA has installed continuously welded rail in a handful of places, and ultimately, should install it system-wide. In the shorter term, eliminating these joints around stations and on the express tracks running through local stations would help reduce noise in stations.
  • Install quiet rail or low-vibration track in all stations. Railroad ties encased in concrete-covered rubber and neoprene pads (instead of the traditional wood ties in concrete), combined with continuously welded rail, would further reduce vibration and noise. The new stations on the Second Avenue line have installed these systems, and the difference is noticeable.
  • Add sound-absorbing panels. Most subway stations are finished with tiles or stone, which exacerbate and amplify noise. Low-maintenance sound-absorbing panels made of fiberglass or mineral wool have been installed in the new stations on the Second Avenue Subway, and should be made standard across all stations in the MTA network.

Platform screen doors would provide a dramatically more comfortable traveling experience

Although platform screen doors—glass and steel walls with doors placed between the tracks and the platform—can be very expensive and complicated to install, they would have a tremendously positive impact on the passenger experience.

Full-height platform screen doors would allow stations to be air conditioned (or heated in the wintertime), and would substantially reduce noise and passenger exposure to particulates. Altogether, they would radically improve the health of the station environment.

Even half-height platform screen doors would:

  • Save lives, by preventing people from falling (or being pushed onto the tracks)
  • Prevent trash from entering the tracks, thereby reducing delays caused by track fires
  • Secure subway tunnels from unauthorized access
  • Increase platform capacity, ease pedestrian flow, and enable trains to enter and depart stations faster
  • Allow for better temperature control

Installing platform screen doors has significant cost implications. Most of the system’s platforms would need to be reinforced to bear the load, and columns would potentially need to be removed to make space for unimpeded movement. Maintaining the doors would also increase operating costs. That said, there is also a cost savings to implementing platform screen doors from reduced litigation and track cleaning. Finally, platform screen doors would require the MTA to standardize its fleet of trains to ensure both sets of doors align.

Opening up stations to light and air would give the subway a more prominent presence in the urban fabric—and help with orientation below ground

Breaching the plane between the street and subway stations underground would bring natural light and air into the subway system. It would also give transit a more visible presence at the street level. Unfortunately, over the last 10 years, subway stations were built very deep underground to avoid utilities and reduce surface disruptions during construction. Nevertheless, many existing stations could be daylighted, thanks in large part to pedestrianization efforts to widen sidewalks and create more public plazas throughout the city.

Bringing light and air into stations also opens up the possibility of installing green walls and other natural finishes to help cool and filter the air. Cities around the world are experimenting with bringing nature into man-made environments; New York City subways should explore similar interventions.

This is the subway system New Yorkers deserve—with platform screen doors, better elevators, less congested platforms, and more light and air. Image: ORG Permanent Modernity for the Fourth Regional Plan

Outcomes

These investments will make stations healthier and less crowded. The additional space and improved vertical circulation will increase the throughput of the subway and its reliability by reducing delays (dwell time at stations). It will make the subway accessible to the segment of our population that avoids it today, and allow it to continue to serve an aging population. Improving the environment of our stations will decrease medical costs over time by protecting riders’ hearing and respiratory systems, along with substantially reducing stress. Finally, improvements like platform screen doors will save lives, eliminating the 50 or so deaths per year caused by riders falling onto the tracks.

Paying for it

Improvements to the stations should be partially paid for by the local property owners who would benefit from the investments. This could be done through a value-capture mechanism—a property-tax surcharge for commercial land owners and new residents. Where Business Improvement Districts exist, resources could be leveraged to help improve and maintain underground spaces, as has been done with surrounding streets and public open spaces. Advertising as part of screen doors and other installations could also be a source of revenue.