Subways in America: Gangway, please

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IN LATE 2013, New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) released a comprehensive report on its capital investment needs for the next two decades. Buried in the report was a suggestion that could dramatically alleviate overcrowding on subways across America:

As the MTA continues to purchase new buses and subway and commuter rail fleets, it must incorporate state-of-the-art design concepts and technologies to minimize energy consumption, maximize carrying capacity, reduce loading times, and meet the expectation of a tech-savvy generation of new travelers. In particular, consideration should be given to trainsets with open gangways between cars, similar to the design of articulated buses. This will both maximize carrying capacity, and allow passenger to move to less-crowded areas of the train, balancing loading and unloading times at all doors.

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Very few American subways allow passengers to move freely between cars. On those that do, passage is usually through a narrow door. But in much of Europe, subway carriages are connected by wide-open spaces, allowing travellers not just to wander between cars but to sit or stand in the flexible areas between them. When Toronto adopted this technology in 2011 (see picture), it increased capacity by 8-10%, according to the city’s transit agency.

Despite all this, New Yorkers aren’t anywhere close to benefiting from open gangways. Benjamin Kabak, who blogs at Second Avenue Sagas, explains that since the MTA’s current orders don’t include any articulated trainsets, “It’ll likely be until the mid-2020s that we see any such cars hit the rails in New York.” As Matt Yglesias explained at Vox last week, this hints at a deeper problem with American mass transit [emphasis added]:

Everyone knows European cities have, in general, superior mass transit to American ones.

But American agencies are remarkably resistant to the idea that they should try to adopt some best operational practices from abroad. Amtrak has passengers board trains in a bizarre manner, America builds brand new mixed-traffic streetcars that are universally rejected abroad, and America rarely uses proof-of-payment fare-collection systems.

Until that bolded bit changes, business travel here will be a lot harder than it has to be.