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Ask George: Will Moynihan Station Improve the Reverse Commute?

train station people escalator

Reverse commuters – workers who travel from South Brooklyn to a job in Westchester , for instance – are a fast growing segment of the city’s population. According to a recent New York Times article the number of reverse commuters grew 11 percent from 2000 to 2005 to a total population of over 300,000 residents.

From 2000 to 2005, reverse commuters to Westchester grew 32 percent, reverse commuters to Long Island grew 5 percent, and reverse commuters to New Jersey grew 14 percent.

Most reverse commuters drive to their jobs in the suburbs, but with increased traffic congestion many are willing to endure long and costly daily journeys that might begin with the MTA subway, continue with a connection to a commuter train at Penn Station, and conclude with a bus ride to the office park (check out a map of the average time and cost of commuter rail trips). After getting nailed with a transfer fee, reverse commuters are usually stuck with a 90 minute gap between trains during rush hour.

We asked George Haikalis what this trend means for Moynihan Station and transportation planning in general. How can we make the life of the reverse commuter less horrible?

He said the city and the state need to expand the subway connections at Penn Station, install frequent service in both directions on the commuter lines, and create an integrated fare system. Full answer below.

Q. How does the rise in reverse commuting affect plans for Penn Station and for Regional Rail in general?

Mr. Haikalis: Only a very tiny fraction of reverse commuters — workers who live in NYC and commute to the suburbs — live within walking distance of Penn Station. Most will arrive at Penn Station by subway, or take a bus or a subway to train stations in the Bronx, Brooklyn or Queens. To reach worksites in the suburbs these commuters will require yet a third mode, except for those who can walk from suburban train stations. At Penn Station, the need is to expand and upgrade the connections to the subways. Also, for suburb-to-suburb commuters who must change trains as they pass through Penn Station, easy access to a transfer concourse is essential.

Making reverse commuter trips easier will require major changes in train frequency and integrated fares. For reverse commuting to Long Island the LIRR must operate trains in both directions on its Mainline through Mineola during peak commute hours. At present the LIRR operates both of its tracks in the peak direction, leaving an 80 to 90 minute gap in the reverse direction during peak periods. This is not really an issue of capacity, but rather performance. The LIRR can operate more non-stop express service through this segment this way, but at the price of sacrificing reverse service. With the recent completion of the Roslyn Road underpass in Mineola the LIRR could quickly complete a critical two-mile segment of three-track line, permitting start up of frequent reverse service, even before the full project is completed.

To serve a large and growing travel market the region’s commuter rail lines need to be remade into “Regional Rail” lines. A desirable goal would be to provide 20 minute headways, each way, all day long, late into the evening and on weekends on each major “Regional Rail” line serving the NY-NJ-CT area. On a few of the busiest lines, like the Babylon Branch and the Stamford and White Plains locals, a ten minute headway would be helpful. These levels of service are now in place on many light rail lines in the U.S. and on the rapid transit lines that extend out many miles into the suburbs serving Washington, DC and the San Francisco Bay Area.

A second component of Regional Rail is integrated fares. Because reverse commuters have more difficult and time-consuming journeys than Manhattan-bound commuters they should get a price break. Since reverse commuters are more likely to need a second and third travel mode, at the very least the fare penalty for making a transfer should be eliminated. Since employers are more likely to provide free parking at worksites in the suburbs, steeply discounted reverse peak fares are needed to compete with the dominant mode – travel by car.

Read “The Big Commute, in Reverse,” by Ford Fessenden for The New York Times