Save Our Subways

A Plan to Transform New York City’s Rapid Transit System

Even among world cities, New York’s subways are unique. Unlike nearly every other major system we’ve got a flat fee, and offer 24-7 access. We have more stations and our lines go further. As a result the subway moves nearly six million passengers every weekday, more than the next three largest U.S. systems combined. But our subways are at a crisis point.

For the first time in recent memory ridership is now actually on the decline. Fixing the subway will require increasing our investment in them by billions and making major shifts in how the MTA, along with its unions, contractors and related state and city agencies, conduct maintenance, operations and construction to be able to deliver projects on-time and on-budget, and rebuild public confidence.

Fixing alone is not enough. Cities from Paris to Singapore are investing in modernizing and expanding their transit systems. As the region’s population continues to grow there will be even more demand for new capacity. And many densely populated parts of the city have never been well served by the subway, and should be.

The Save Our Subways plan is a technical report from Regional Plan Association’s research for its Fourth Regional Plan released in November 2017. This website presents an overview of RPA’s recommendations to transform New York City’s rapid transit system.

In May 2018 MTA’s New York City Transit released its own ambitious plan, Fast Forward, to modernize all of its services—subways, buses and paratransit.

RPA’s recommendations closely align with the subway chapter of NYCT’s Fast Forward plan, but go into more depth. In addition RPA’s Save Our Subways Plan envisions ways to leverage new these new investments and technology to create healthier stations and a better experience for riders. Finally our report recommends areas for future expansion of the subway.

Ten Investment Priorities to Modernize the Subway

Aggressively address the “high-risk” critical infrastructure backlog

Implement and maintain preventive maintenance measures

Modernize the subway signal system

“Right-Size” stations to reduce congestion and make them accessible

Simplify routing to reduce bottlenecks and delays

Standardize and assign fleet to services

Add service to reduce overcrowding on trains

Expand undersized and poorly designed terminals to allow MTA to run more trains

Correct extreme track geometry issues and poorly designed junctions

Ensure sufficient yard and power capacity

Photo: Nancy Borowick

How Would Modernizing the System
Improve Your Trip?

Modernizing the subway is a combination of major capital investments to restore reliability and add capacity, as well as less expensive changes that would make the experience of riding the subway more welcoming, improve unhealthy environments, and ease use of the system. These changes would also make the subways more affordable and easier to use for low-income riders, the elderly and the disabled. Below we explore some of these recommended improvements, download the report for more.

Modernizing Signals

The current subway signal technology dates back to the 1930s, and though the MTA has replaced much of the oldest pieces of the equipment, the same basic principles of how the system operates remain. Switching to modern, communications based train control technology would provide greater efficiency, reliability and flexibility. Because trains can safely run closer together, they can circulate with greater frequency, reducing bunching and uneven service.

The MTA’s new Fast Forward plan calls for substantially modernizing the signal system over the next decade, instead of the nearly 50 years previously projected by the agency. To accomplish this, RPA recommends the elimination of duplicative or legacy equipment, reducing customization, guaranteeing track access during longer work windows, and accelerating purchase of CBTC-equipped cars.

Creating Healthier Station Environments

Components of a Modern and Healthy Subway Station
Image: ORG Permanent Modernity for the Fourth Regional Plan

Subways fundamentally improve the health of all New Yorkers by promoting physical activity (every subway trip begins and ends with a walk) and improving air quality (by reducing the number of cars on the road). But subway stations themselves could be much healthier. A series of actions, including several that leverage planned upgrades to the subways, would help improve air quality in the stations, reduce noise, and keep the stations cooler in the summertime.

  • Leverage regenerative braking and CBTC to reduce the heat generated by trains
  • Improve ventilation and evaluate other methods of cooling, such as using pumped groundwater
  • Design future subway lines to be more energy efficient and produce less heat
  • Eliminate diesel vehicles and equipment from the fleet
  • Make the installation of continuously welded rail (CWL) standard system-wide
  • Install quiet rail or low-vibration track at all stations
  • Add sound absorbing panels throughout all station areas
  • Install platform screen doors
  • Open up stations to light and air

Untangling and Simplifying Services

Today, subway tracks criss-cross and multiple lines run on one track for long stretches. While this provides flexibility to the MTA, it also confuses passengers and propagates delays as the MTA tries to reroute trains around planned work and other service disruptions. There are several steps the MTA could take to simplify service which could eliminate bottlenecks, speeding up service, as well as reducing confusion for riders. One example of this is on the Q line. For others download the complete report.

Double the Frequency of the Express Q to the Upper East Side

Photo: RPA
Photo: RPA

The “Canal Flip”, a capital project switching the alignment of the express and local track feeds at Canal Street would enable the Q to run through Lower Manhattan and out to Brooklyn (following the current R route). This would make the Q the only express service in Manhattan on the Broadway line, eliminating merging services. This would double the capacity of the Second Avenue Subway (SAS) along with improving the reliability of service by straight-lining the services through Manhattan and eliminating the frequent delays caused by changing tracks. The N and R would serve Astoria. Both would run on local tracks and over the Manhattan Bridge and then go express over the 4th Avenue line, while the Q would run along 4th Ave local to Bay Ridge. The N would stay on its current route to Coney Island. The R would head down the current Q service route to Coney Island. The W would be eliminated.

Using New Technology to Improve Customer Experience

The ten capital investment priorities described above would restore the system, making it more reliable, improving service and giving it more capacity than it has ever had. The MTA should also make complementary policy changes and smaller scale investments that would provide customers with a modern 21st Century transit system. These changes would enable a fully intermodal system that integrates the subway with other existing and emerging forms of transit. They would make the subways more affordable and easier to use for low-income riders, the elderly and the disabled.

Reimagining fares and improving intermodality

The MTA is introducing new fare payment technology that provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to improve service and foster greater integration with other modes. Riders will be able to use their mobile devices or credit cards as transit passes to directly enter the subway or bus. In addition to making fare payments easier, it opens several possibilities:

  • Customize fares to meet public policy goals including: reducing crowding at peak hours; improving social equity by capping fares for low income riders, seniors and students; incentivizing mode shifts between subway, commuter rail and buses to reduce crowding or to provide alternative service during construction.
  • Curtail fare evasion by employing enforcement officers with fare-validation scanners.
  • Remove high entrance/exit turnstiles and revolving gates and replace them with accessible fare gates with retractable barriers.
Photo: Rich Barone

New operating technologies for a smarter subway

When the MTA installs modern signals, along with the current work being done to install wireless communications, both riders and MTA employees will be able to interact with the subway in new ways. To take full advantage of this potential will require a new operating paradigm.

  • Transition to one-person and eventually driverless train operations. As has been done in other cities, this will require collaboration between labor and management to provide workers with new skills that allow them to transition to having greater responsibility for train operations and customer service and safety.
  • Create a “smart subway” that is able to use real-time information to adjust service based on demand and customer destinations.

Getting it Done

The current crisis dictates that modernization of the subway must happen at a faster pace. If the MTA continues with business as usual, it would take a generation or more to implement the recommendations in this report. But using the strategies outlined below the subways could be modernized in just 15 years. They would require major reforms on the part of the MTA, its workers and partners, as well as near-term inconvenience for subway riders.

Implement extended closures on segments of lines

Providing longer work windows is essential to completing work faster and more cost-effectively. This could be done either by closing lines during nights and weekends until the work is completed, as proposed in the Fast Forward plan, or by closing lines entirely for a shorter duration, such as the planned 15-month suspension of L train service to repair damaged tunnels. The MTA should prioritize lines that have a critical mass of issues that affect capacity, and they should provide robust alternative surface transit service options during the closures. Read our full report for more details.

Replace late night weekday service with high frequency bus service

Only a handful of cities aside from New York run 24/7 service and in most of these cities it’s not the entire system, just one or two lines. If New York City decides to use overnight closures to accelerate modernization efforts they would be taking advantage of the fact that only 1.5 percent of weekday riders use the system between 12:30 am and 5 am. However, the MTA must provide robust alternative service for these riders, many of whom depend on subways to get to and from work and other late night activities. For these riders, the MTA should offer frequent high-speed bus service. This may even provide superior service for most riders given that late night service subway service is already infrequent and unreliable, and that buses could run frequently on largely uncongested streets overnight.

Weekday Subway Ridership by Hour (2016)
Source: MTA

Reform MTA’s Project Delivery Processes

Years of MTA projects being delivered over-budget and behind schedule have tested the confidence of the riding public and elected officials alike. RPA recently released a report entitled “Building Rail Transit Projects for Less,” which contains a series of recommendations to bring the MTA in line with global best practices, helping them to deliver new transit projects like the Second Avenue Subway in a more timely and cost-effective manner. Many of these reforms, which would require the participation of the MTA, state and city political leaders and labor, would apply to the recommendations in this report as well and save billions of dollars. Read the full report, Building Rail Transit Projects Better for Less.

Photo: RPA
Photo: MTA / Patrick Cashin

Expanding the System

Fixing and modernizing the subways will help the millions of existing passengers.

Despite New York’s reputation for being built around the subways, nearly ⅓ of New Yorkers live beyond a reasonable walk to a subway station. RPA identified areas that do not already have subway or express bus coverage, where the improvements recommended in other parts of this report will not provide additional capacity, but still have the population density needed to support rapid transit. RPA also prioritized areas with higher concentrations of people with low to moderate incomes in keeping with our social equity goals.

Unserved Areas

The composite map below overlays areas that are uncovered by the subway, dense and low income to set priorities for investment.

Density Income
Low High
Low Low
High High
High Low

Low income areas are places where the median household earned less than $45,000 per year and places that are considered dense have more than 20,000 persons per square mile.

Existing Coverage

The places uncovered by each of the transit services below are based on actual walking paths/roadways from stops/stations.


Places over a third of a mile from a subway station, which leaves 38% of city residents underserved by rapid transit.

Express Bus

Places over a third of a mile from an Express bus stop which extends the coverage area and offers more direct service.

Commuter Rail

Places half a mile from a commuter rail station. If this service made affordable in the city it would further improve coverage.

Rail Recommendations

T-REX + Triboro

The T-REX recommendations would expand upon this concept adding almost a dozen new stations in the city while also providing more frequent service and greater regional connectivity. The 22 mile Triboro will extend from Bay Ridge to Co-Op City, providing new transit coverage for neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. This still leave areas in the city that would be uncovered and would benefit from new extensions of the subway system.

Subway Expansion

New Lines

The proposals in the previous sections would fix and modernize the existing subway network on an accelerated 15-year time frame. However, they would not extend service to people and places that need rapid transit but don’t currently have it. Nor would they provide enough capacity on their own for all the growth the city and region can expect in the coming decades. Addressing these needs will require new lines and extensions of existing ones that will need to be implemented over a longer time frame. If implemented these would cover much of the remaining areas in the city with rapid transit, including almost all lower income, high density corridors.

  • Planned Second Avenue Subway Extension
  • RPA Recommendations
  • SAS Phase 2C, Bronx Extension to Grand Concourse Line.
  • Northern Blvd Line.
  • Jewel Ave Line.
  • Astoria Line Extension.
  • SAS Phase 2B, Crosstown 125th Street
  • #7 Extension to Chelsea and Meatpacking District.
  • Utica Avenue Subway
  • Nostrand Avenue Extension.
Photo: RPA

These changes will not be easy. They will require spending billions more than the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and its partners in the state and city are currently spending. They will require an openness and commitment from MTA employees, the unions, their contractors and their sister agencies to restructure how they work together to deliver projects. They will require patience from subway riders and a tolerance for the disruption needed to get the work done quickly and efficiently. But we can do it. Cities around the world are showing both the way forward as well as the enormous benefits in creating a truly 21st century rapid transit system. Now it’s our turn.