Three Systems, One region: New York’s Commuter Rail

Three Systems, One region: New York’s Commuter Rail

5/14/18 by ReThink Studio

Every weekday morning, close to a million commuters flow into New York City from all around the region. That’s a huge number of people, many of whom are heading to business centers like Midtown and Lower Manhattan. But a closer look at the data reveals that most people in our region are not 9‐to‐5 commuters into Manhattan, as it turns out: The ridership data and origin‐destination surveys from NJ Transit, LIRR, and Metro‐North paint a much more nuanced picture.

To do a holistic analysis of the flow of people around the region, we mapped the average number of passengers physically onboard trains towards the core at every point in the network during morning rush hours (the black lines). In addition, we’ve overlaid either the average total weekday boardings at each station for LIRR and NJ Transit or the average weekday rush hour boardings for Metro‐North (the white circles).

So what does all this data tell us? That even though all three commuter networks carry virtually identical numbers of total passengers every year, they do so in ways that are far more different than it may at first appear.

Not surprisingly, one of the biggest factors influencing ridership across all three systems is frequent direct or express service to Midtown Manhattan. Looking toward NJ Transit, the lines with direct service into Penn Station have a disproportionately large share of peak direction riders: The Northeast Corridor alone carries more than 2/3 of peak commuters from New Jersey to Penn Station, for example. This number does not account for the thousands more passengers who disembark in Newark, many of whom are transferring to PATH trains to Lower Manhattan across the platform. By contrast, lines and stations without either direct service to major job centers or easy transfers have far fewer riders.

In New Jersey, we can also see the impacts of service levels on ridership by looking what happens on stations that serve functionally identical neighborhoods, but get radically different levels of service. Just past Newark, there is little difference in the demographics of, or the land use in, communities served by the Morris and Essex Lines. But some stations get both far more riders and far more service. There is a bit of a chicken‐and‐egg problem with drawing conclusions from that data point, as the ridership has drawn additional investment in station facilities in some cases, but it is the starkest example of a consistent pattern across all three networks.

East of the Hudson River, LIRR is the most “peak dependent” of the three networks, in more ways than one. Ridership is more heavily concentrated at specific individual outlying stations, and a higher percentage of total riders are going into Manhattan at rush hour. A tiny number of commuters are boarding at stations like Montauk – 5 on average in the morning rush there, for example – while the bulk of LIRR ridership originates at busy stations west of Ronkonkoma. In fact, more people board rush hour LIRR trains at the Hicksville or Ronkonkoma Stations than do so combined on the entire Montauk, West Hempstead, and Oyster Bay Branches. Atlantic Terminal and Long Island City, meanwhile, are far smaller secondary destinations for LIRR than Hoboken or Newark is for NJ Transit. Just under 10,000 rush hour passengers disembark at the Downtown Brooklyn station, and just about 3,000 are riding LIRR to Western Queens.

Metro‐North also highlights the critical role of reverse commuting and secondary business districts within the New York region. Stations like Fordham and 125th  St see significant ridership, but because so many customers are using them to reverse commute to jobs in the suburbs, peak direction trains aren’t significantly more crowded after stopping at those stations. Meanwhile, stations like White Plains and Stamford are major intermediate destinations in their own right, with as many people getting off the train as are getting on it. By encouraging people to use those stations to do more than just go to Manhattan in the morning, Metro‐North is able to carry more people overall without further overcrowding trains.

In our coming posts, we will explore the underlying reasons that create these transit hubs outside of major business centers, and the weaknesses that lead to low station usage. As shown by the data depicted here, the relationship between the region’s three commuter networks and their individual qualities plays a crucial role in shaping the way each system operates, and how each could adopt the best characteristics of the others.