Functions of Rapid Transit Lines in Cities (1920)

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View on Broadway near Sixty-fifth Street, New York, where the Manhattan Elevated crosses the West Side division of the Interborough Subway.

Electric Railway Journal · Vol. 56, No. 14; October 2, 1920. pp. 631-636.

By Henry M. Brinckerhoff, of Parsons, Klapp, Brinckerhoff & Douglas, Consulting Engineers, New York

Capabilities of each transportation agency outlined. Effect of geographical distribution on transportation conditions. Trend in rapid transit development.

The average visitor and most residents if asked how the people habitually travel about New York City will answer, "The vast majority on the subway and elevated lines, a smaller proportion on surface cars and a few on buses." This popular conception of the situation is largely due to constant newspaper discussion of subway congestion and the vivid impression made by long crowded trains following one another in quick succession at subway and elevated stations during rush hours.

Studying the statistics over a period of years, we find, on the contrary, that the surface car has borne the great burden of transporting the bulk of the citizens of our large American cities and that only in the past few years has even New York carried one-half of the total daily passengers on its rapid transit systems. This division of the growing New York travel during the past forty years is interesting, particularly as related to the population of the city. Other cities in the United States are now approximately the size that New York was thirty or forty years ago and, growing rapidly, they have ahead of them the probability of the same or similar traction problems.

In 1880 we find that 79 per cent of the passengers on the transportation lines of what we now call Greater New York were carried by surface cars, the population then served comprising about 2,000,000 people.

In 1900, twenty years later, the ratio was still 70 per cent surface car passengers to 30 per cent carried on rapid transit lines, while the population served had grown to about 3,500,000.

Almost another score of years brings us to 1919, when, after the expenditure during this latter period of more than $550,000,000 for subways, third tracking and extending elevated lines and additional rapid transit equipment, we find 43 per cent of the passengers still paying their nickels for rides on surface cars.

This condition is not peculiar to New York, as we shall see by a study of the history of transportation in other large cities.

In Chicago in 1906, with a population of about 2,000,000, 75 per cent of the revenue passengers were carried by the surface cars, and in 1919, with the population increased to about 2,800,000, 75 per cent of the people are still patrons of surface car lines.

In Philadelphia the Market Street elevated-subway line, with its free transfers between rapid transit trains and surface cars, makes a good showing in passengers carried per car-mile, but as part of the entire city lines it carries not more than 10 per cent of the passengers served by the whole system.

In Boston the surface-subway-elevated lines are so interconnected and the movement of passengers is so complicated by transfer privileges that a division is difficult. However, the proportion of the passengers actually handled here by surface cars is still large.

Turning to England, where the conditions of city development have been quite different, we see in London an even wider variety in the division of the passengers among the different classes of carriers, but still the rapid transit not in the majority. Here the motor bus (successor to the time-honored horsedrawn vehicle) assumes imposing proportions. The ratios of passengers carried may be taken as about 27 per cent on tram or surface cars, 33 per cent on motor buses and 40 per cent on rapid transit trains.

Greater London, with an area of almost 700 square miles and a population of about 7,250,000, carries one-third of its traveling public about the city in motor buses operated in crowded, heavily trafficked streets.

Greater New York at the other extreme, with a population of almost 6,000,000. distributed over about 327 square miles, or one-half London's area, carries 55 per cent of its city riders on rapid transit lines and not more than 2 per cent on buses.

Chicago, with a population of almost 3,000,000 and an area of about 200 square miles, carries 75 per cent of its travelers by surface cars, while Detroit and Cleveland, now at the 1,000,000 mark in population, are entirely dependent upon surface car transportation.

With such contradictory general facts before us we must apparently go to a more detailed analysis of conditions to draw any valuable lesson from past experience in the large cities of the world. In doing this the first question that presents itself is whether the study of existing systems will be of fundamental value in guiding us to a solution of modern transportation needs in a large city in accord with present-day thought.

Here appears to be the crux of the question. The existing transportation facilities in large cities are the result of private initiative; building for years along lines where greatest pecuniary profits were to be reaped. Only recently has this guiling motive been supplemented by effective public control, and this has often been directed to meet certain specific needs rather than a general solving of the whole problem.

We are today at a point where a broader view must be taken of city transportation planning in the interest of the traveling public's needs and convenience. The public must pay for the service directly or indirectly, but it must get what it pays for. The idea of the most profitable type of location of lines is therefore no longer absolutely controlling and we are face to face with the problem of supplying transportation to our large cities, as recognized a public necessity as water supply, paving and sewerage. The fact that an adequate circulatory system for a city's red-blooded working units is as necessary for civic growth and health as is a sound arterial system for the human body is becoming more generally recognized. In the solving of this problem city and company must co-operate to overcome the physical, financial and legal obstacles that will be met.

The time has come when a hearing can be obtained for an analysis and discussion of the complex elements of transportation from the viewpoint of the needs of the city as a whole. The purpose of this article is to point out the uses of subway and elevated lines with such a broad view of the situation in mind, but in doing so references to other forms of city transit are necessary to maintain a balance and completeness in the picture.

The real need for extensive transportation facilities in a large growing American city arises principally from the desirability, or often the necessity, for the individual workers' [the term workers is used in this article to denote any wage earner or person having regular employment or business and consequently regular habit of travel] to live beyond walking distance from their place of employment. The hauling of these people to and from their work constitutes the great bulk of the rush-hour traffic, hence a careful study of their riding habits is a valuable index to their transportation needs.

A canvass of the principal factories of the city of Cleveland showed that 52 per cent of their employees lived beyond the walking distance of 1 mile from their shops. Detroit showed 71.8 per cent, and a canvass in Chicago, locating the homes of 350,082 wage earners from all classes of shops, factories, retail stores and office buildings, showed 75.6 per cent living beyond 1 mile and therefore dependent upon transportation to earn their living.

An exhaustive detail study of the transportation habits of the people of a large city involves a great amount of work and the co-operation of many interests and has not often been undertaken. The most recent complete collection of data of this kind is contained in the report of the Chicago Traction and Subway Commission of 1916 and the figures there developed will here" be used as illustrating the basis of the division of riders between surface and rapid transit lines and the causes influencing their choice of routes.

Analysis of Chicago Transportation Needs

An analysis of the Chicago residential canvass, which covered all employment centers within the city area, showed a wide scattering of nearly all classes of workers over the many residential districts of the city. Thus it was possible to prove the almost universal need for transportation and also the great diversity of routes and combinations of car lines used by people in a single residence district in reaching employment centers, and vice versa the widely separated localities from which the factories drew their workers.

The American wage-earning family averages five persons, father, mother and three children, of whom three are usually workers. Unlike families in England or on the Continent, the children in America do not as a matter of course learn the trade of the parents, but each follows his own bent, with the result that they travel from their home center in many different directions seeking employment. It is the aggregation of many thousands of such families which creates the diversity in the transportation demands of our large cities.

The Chicago residential canvass when compared with a simultaneous traffic count on surface and rapid transit lines showed that the origin and destination of the daily trips of 50 per cent of the individuals composing the rush-hour crowds had been determined. As an indication of the probable proportion of these rush-hour travelers who require rapid transit, a charting by l-mile districts showed that 44.3 per cent made trips to and from work of more than 3 miles and 31.6 per cent of more than 4 miles. The rapid transit lines of the city carried 22 per cent of the total traffic against 78 per cent on the surface cars on the weekdays checked, while for the calendar year the ratio was 25 per cent to 75 per cent.

Adopting the generally accepted idea that more than 3 miles constitutes a legitimate rapid transit ride, the inference is that the elevated lines were inadequate or some other elements influenced the result beyond the mere question of distance. It was found that the principal element was "time," and its closely related factor "direct routing." By means of transfers from line to line the surface system offered routes particularly crosstown, which saved time over less direct although higher speed rapid transit lines.

To determine the time factor the Chicago Loop District was selected and 115,085 workers of all classes employed in this crowded city center were located as to residence, as shown on Chart 1, on which each black square indicates by its size the relative number of workers residing in that 1/4-mile area who were employed in the Loop District. These for our purpose can be classified as shown in Table I.

Analyzed by distances from home to work, the division was as shown in Table II.

TABLE I, Occupational Distribution of Workers in Chicago Loop District
In office buildings32,113
Department and retail stores32,755
Clothing manufacturers10,045
Banks and general offices26,622
Printers and engravers3,304
Wholesale dry goods5,868
Transportation UsedCountPer Cent
Elevated R.R.64,84756
Surface cars43,34438
Steam suburban3,9213.4

TABLE II, Classification of Chicago Loop Workers by Distance Traveled
 Total0-1 Miles %1-2 Miles %2-3 Miles %3-4 Miles %4-5 Miles %5-6 Miles %6-7 Miles %7-8 Miles %8-11 Miles %11-14 Miles %Over 14 Miles %
Accumulative total, per cent 3.714.726.141.757.470.380.888.494.696.3100

Deducting the walkers in the last tabulation, it is seen that 39.1 per cent rode 4 miles or less, which closely matches the surface car percentage shown above.

The analysis of this office and retail district canvass gave a good idea of the division of riding of the classes most easily attracted to rapid transit by reasons of ability to live in restricted residence districts and working short hours. A similar analysis of the immediately adjacent factory district west of the river (Chart 2), including 31,670 workers, showed 16.7 per cent walkers, while 53.6 per cent lived within the 3-mile limit and 69.8 per cent within 4 miles of their shops, 33.3 per cent in this factory district being dependent on transportation.

The difference in these two sections lay almost entirely in the character of the people employed. The average for the whole city was: Walkers (under 1 mile), 24.4 per cent; those living within 3 miles from work, 55.7 per cent; within 4 miles, 68.4 per cent; the per cent of workers daily using transportation being 75.6 per cent. When rapid transit routes are laid out, therefore, the character of the population to be served is an important element to be considered.

A special inquiry into time-saving covering 6,000 of the above workers in the Loop District (Chart 1) supplied the data for the curve shown on Chart 3. The individuals inquired of for this purpose were selected because they were as conveniently located for reaching either surface or rapid transit lines. They were also distributed over a wide area and at varying distances up to 16 miles from the Loop. This chart therefore gives a good idea of how people of this class divide on the question of time saving in a city like Chicago, other conditions being substantially equal.

Transfer Facilities

When the original Interborough Subway was laid out many loud criticisms were made of the local and express transfer stations, voicing the idea that on short trips people would not trouble to change cars. Today exchanging from local to express trains and back again for a saving of even a couple of minutes is so common as to have become almost a vice of the New Yorker.

On one surface car line in Detroit a traffic count showed that 85 per cent of the passengers either transferred to or from other lines, only 15 per cent of those carried starting and ending their journey on the line itself. At the City Hall in Detroit the Woodward Avenue line received or delivered 57,817 transfer passengers daily who utilized ninety-two different combinations of routes at this point. A similar condition exists at the Public Square in Cleveland, where 79,451 transfers were observed in twenty-four hours, more than 100 different combinations of lines being used.

The Chicago investigation showed clearly that the transfer privilege at more than 545 intersections of surface lines was a great factor in determining the routing of passengers; from 10,000 to even 25,000 transfers occurred daily at single intersections. Many groups of large numbers each were found who took the first leg of their journey on a nearby surface line and transferred to another surface car, running parallel to a rapid transit line, for a 4, 5 or 6-mile ride.

Careful study of complete twenty-four-hour checks of passengers on the surface and elevated lines of Chicago clearly demonstrated that these two large competitive systems serving a population of more than 2,500,000 distributed over 200 square miles of territory, due to their lack of co-ordination, did not function in such a way as to give the best service of which they were capable.

When the problem of enlarging the Chicago city transportation system as a whole was attacked by the commission it became still more apparent that additions to the existing systems on a basis of unified operation not only gave more capacity for a given expenditure but provided a greater variety of convenient routes to riders and would also be more economical to operate.

Transportation is a necessary function of a city's life as a whole. It is not confined to districts, classes of people or occupations. It is as democratic and cosmopolitan as the population of the city itself. Such being true, a division into separate lines serving only portions of the city is purely artificial, and the result of a system of development of these facilities by individuals largely influenced by hope of profit and with capital limited by the assurance of a return on their investment has been piecemeal construction.

When taken up from the viewpoint of the interests of the entire city's traveling population the proper arrangement to accomplish a complete solution is a single unified system the elements of which will each give the maximum of service at the least cost, both capital and operating. It is not within the scope of this article to discuss the many legal, financial and other obstacles to accomplish a general unification of all transit facilities. However, the function of subway and elevated lines is so dependent upon their relation to the other modes of transporting city passengers that whether they should properly be considered as competitive independent systems or should function as part of a harmonious whole seems to warrant the foregoing discussions.

Motor Bus, Surface, Elevated and Subway Lines

In order to consider the relative value of these four kinds of service in a complete unified city system it is simpler to compare ratios of cost or performance freed from local conditions. Present cost of construction, operating expenses, etc., are so abnormal and are changing so frequently even on the same system that direct comparisons are misleading without a multitude of explanations. For our purpose the following general statistics are typical of good American practice on average large city systems:

Maximum Passenger-Carrying Capacity per hour. — One way, one track: Bus, 1; surface, 1.7; elevated, 6; subway, 7.

This means that large two-car units on surface lines will carry a little less than twice the bus line under similar street conditions. The elevated with eight-car trains will supply six times and a subway with ten-car trains seven times the bus line passenger capacity. This is on the basis of allowing for standees, large cars and maximum peak load conditions.

Speed in Miles per Hour. — Average city conditions (Fifth Avenue Coach Company, 8-1/2 miles per hour): Bus, 1; surface, 1; elevated, 2; subway, 2. The surface cars and buses are about equal in average speed and the elevated and subway twice as fast.

From these two items it is plain that where large crowds are to be handled and the haul is long the subway, and elevated are immensely superior, having seven times the capacity of a bus line and twice the speed. As the presence of large passenger crowds means usually street congestion, these types have the additional advantage therefore of not occupying street space.

Cost of Operation per Car-Mile. — (Fixed charges excluded.) Subway, 1; elevated, 1.2; surface, 1.8; bus, 2. Here the economy of train operation with infrequent stops and on an easily maintained unobstructed right of way places the subway at the top of the list.

Operating Cost per Passenger Carried, 1919 figures. — (Fixed charges excluded.) Subway, 1; elevated, 1.2; surface, 1.4; bus, 2.6. This proportion is taken from averages of the actual 1919 figures of American systems so far as they can be brought into direct comparison. In these figures there is of course reflected the length of haul, in which regard the rapid transit lines have the worst of the bargain as they carry their passengers probably twice as far as the surface and three or four times as far as the bus lines.

Capital per Mile of Line. — Bus, 1 ; surface, 2 ; elevated, 12 ; subway, 36. Here the bus line makes the best showing, with the surface line at double the cost and the subway three times that of the elevated.

Subway, Elevated and Surface Lines Compared

On the face of these figures the subway costs thirty-six times as much as the bus lines and has only seven times the passenger capacity. If, however, the two are compared by requiring the buses to move the subway load, seven lines of buses would be required and a total street width of 230 ft., or four times the width of Fifth Avenue at Forty-second Street. If this widening were charged against the bus system the cost would be fabulous. Similarly, if a subway were built to carry a load of 7,000 passengers per hour, one train every ten minutes would carry them and the fare would have to be ridiculously high to cover the enormous fixed charges. The fact is that such direct comparisons are futile and go to prove that each of these systems has a limited field of its own. Each type should be used for the service to which it is peculiaily adapted and if properly incorporated as part of a single system will reach its maximum effectiveness and efficiency.

In view of these comparisons, it is quite apparent that subways should be confined to the main arteries of the city system and so far as possible to the densely trafficked districts. As the elevated form of structure supplies the same passenger capacity and speed as the subway the logical plan in the interests of economy is to come to the surface with the subway and extend the service by elevated wherever the building and property damage is not too great. Much talk was indulged in a few years ago advocating the taking down of the elevated railroads in New York, but today with the express service on the third tracks no one could conceive of abolishing this system and replacing it with subways at three times the cost.

When people speak of subways they visualize the New York ten-car train system in rush hours and when they mention elevated lines they think of the old Ninth Avenue, New York, or the Chicago Union Loop lines with their unsightly appearance and noise.

It is a pity that this latter conception cannot be supplemented with more up-to-date possibilities. In a city like New York, with its multiplicity of traction companies, its narrow and infrequent north and south streets and its unprecedented volume of rush-hour traffic, four-track subways paralleling one another may be justified, but in other cities whose rapid transit history is still to be written quite another procedure is not only possible but necessary.

Subways as such have no inherent virtue. They are, as we have seen, three times as costly to build as elevated lines and eighteen times as costly as surface lines. Why then should we not take the surface line, which usually exists and which the subway will parallel, and leaving it on the surface of the street as a local service transfer vertically to the subway express service below.

Consolidation of Various Systems Desirable

By utilizing the surface lines as local and feeder lines and transferring long-haul passengers down to subway or up to elevated express trains a vast saving can be shown over the building of a competing rapid transit system. This latter, if competitive, must draw its patrons from the limited territory immediately adjacent to its own lines. This lack of transfer surface feeders is one of the causes of the beehive type of apartment housing in New York.

In a radial city like Chicago or Detroit the building of rapid transit lines to all outlying sections is financially impossible. The intermediate areas between trunk lines will be well served by surface lines with transfers to these rapid transit lines.

Such a single system, it can be shown, will give greater facilities than two competing systems and at a far lower cost per capita.

The consolidation of city systems has been frowned upon by some people because it creates a monopoly, but with proper public control this is just the very element necessary for success in giving all classes of people the vast multiplicity of services called for by the activities of a big city.

The dismemberment of some of the consolidated New York Traction groups is an object lesson pointing the way in the opposite direction. Subways and elevated lines are necessary parts of the traction system of a great city, but they should have combined with them surface and bus lines as feeders, all functioning as part of a single system.

Chart I, Residential distribution of 115,085 employees in the Loop District, Chicago.
Chart 2, Residential distribution of 81,070 employees in West Side manufacturing district, Chicago.
Chart 3 — Percentage, of total passengers using rapid transit for various savings in time when both surface and rapid transit lines are available (From report of Chicago Traction and Subway Commission).The completion of the third track on the Ninth Avenue line added greatly to the carrying capacity.


Electric Railway Journal, McGraw Hill Company, Digitized by Microsoft, Americana Collection, archive.org

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