Seven hours in New York City

I was briefly in New York yesterday. By briefly I mean I left Minneapolis when it was daylight, and returned and it was still daylight. This is of course much easier to accomplish when you are near the summer solstice, but still it suggests the technical feasibility, though definitely not the desirability, of cross-continental commutes.

On the Minneapolis side, things went very smoothly. I left my house at 5:45 AM, caught the bus at 5:53, was at the LRT by 6:00, caught the ~6:03 LRT to the airport and was there by 6:20. Security was quick, the weather was good, the 8:05 flight was on-time.

Some comments on transportation in America’s largest city.

For a city with so many airline passengers, and presumably airline profits, some of the airport terminals (JFK Terminal 2) are still quite dumpy (Yes there is a plan to fix this). One would think that if there were competitive owners of each different airport (and each terminal), they would have to compete for customers (both passengers and airlines) by differentiating quality (presumably upwards). Though there has been some terminal modernization, New York is far behind the rest of western (and eastern) civilization in this arena.

Second, there is not good transit access from the airports to the City. New York, with the US’s largest subway system has had more than 50 years since the dawn of the jet age to connect its airports to its transit system successfully, and seems to have failed to avail itself. (I am aware of JFK’s AirTrain, it seems to require a separate charge from the transit system and a transfer, surely someone could figure out how to bundle that. It also required taking the subway with 33 stops to my Midtown destination). This is not an unknown problem, and solutions are proposed for LaGuardia (via Bus, apparently the train proposal was shelved) and JFK (at about $10B, which seems excessive, but this is NYC).

At any rate, someone else was paying for my surface transportation, so I was in a car. (Which I realize makes me part of the problem, not the solution, but also gives me the perspective of enlightened commentators such as Dorothy Rabinowitz. Yet I did not notice any problems with CitiBikes on my brief stay. There were some bicycles darting in and out of traffic, but that was because cars were not moving and bikes could). On the way in I also got to hear the political philosophy of my driver (a well-educated Russian immigrant from over 30 years ago), who is probably best described as a Peter King Republican, which probably would not have happened on a subway train. The driver seemed to be of the belief that bus lanes were a bad idea because they delayed cars, and in general was opposed to the Bloomberg administration. He also thought most of the works were badly managed and timed poorly (this I agree with) so the Unions could flex their power, and that trucks should only enter the city at night. Of course where you stand depend on where you sit.

Third, New York has far more street traffic congestion than it should. Of course it is crowded, and it probably shouldn’t build more highways, but it doesn’t manage scarce roadspace the way a well-managed city would.

  • On the way in to the city, one of the lanes on the Queens Midtown Expressway was blocked so someone (1 person) could sweep the shoulder, with a broom, in the middle of the day. To be charitable, maybe there was recent broken glass that required cleaning, but this seemed far more substantial cleaning than the debris from a fender-bender. The queues formed by the lane closure were several miles in length.
  • Why is on-street parking permitted in the middle of the day on both sides of the street on major congested streets (37th Street)? This seems to be more than loading/unloading and more than temporary construction crews.
  • And why is don’t block the box not enforced. This would seem a perfect opportunity to use red light running cameras to ticket people who block cross-traffic on the red light.

This is even before considering what economists normally think about when they say pricing, some form of congestion charge, which has been proposed and not implemented because the winners could not bring themselves to pay off the losers.

Fourth, why is there congestion at the airport on a clear day with as perfect weather as one could ask for? Leaving LaGuardia, we boarded the plane on-time and the plane was 17th for take-off with about 40 minutes of ground wait. We landed “on time”, meaning the airline (Delta) built in 45 minutes of ground delay into the schedule to ensure “on time” arrivals. If the schedule is such that the same flights are repeated daily (an approximation), then our plane would take off at the same time every day regardless (unless it was worse due to weather). Which means, we could have been scheduled a half-hour later and not waited in the plane on the ground. This is a simple coordination problem that could be solved with reservation pricing. I suspect this is a problem because there are competing airlines which want to offer the same departure time (~6:45 pm), but a monopoly airport. In a different airport a dominant (hub) airline might internalize the delay costs. See Daniel (1995) on Congestion Pricing and Capacity of Large Hub Airports: A Bottleneck Model with Stochastic Queues.

One thought on “Seven hours in New York City”

  1. Opinion hat on. No comment on Port Authority of NYNJ. Airline profits AFAIK at NY are surprisingly slim (to highly negative). Required destination for all airlines & it becomes an advertising / corporate sales expense in a sense (purchasing managers for corporate contracts often focus there). A consequence of that wide service is that no airline has good pricing power there. Pricing yields are on the low side. There are public reports about highest-fare cities. Newark sometimes gets on the list but never LGA or JFK.

    About LGA traffic, the slots have been grandfathered in for decades. They are jealously guarded & utilized even if no demand at present — for their potential future value. There are too many slots in circulation and no mechanism to claw them back. Airlines pad the schedule “block times” at LGA, EWR assuming long taxi and ATC delays. This mitigates cascading delays down the line & across the country. The cost imposed by those excess slots in LGA and EWR is maybe the biggest policy failure of its kind globally.

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