New York: “Subway Deserts” and the Bus “Turnaround” Campaign

It’s fun to draw maps of “deserts,” places where some cool thing is absent and where you can therefore imply that people are being abandoned or ignored.  This Chris Whong map of  New York “Subway deserts” for example, just showed up in Citylab:

Source: Chris Whong

Source: Chris Whong

Sure enough, most of the land area of New York city is not near a subway station.

But how many people is that?  It’s a lot of people, but fewer than you’d guess from looking at the map, because so much of the subwayless area is low-density or even open space.  Geographically accurate maps always invite you to misread area as population.

And in any case, should everyone in New York be close to a subway stop?  The subway is not the whole transit system; it’s just the high-capacity backbone of it.  You build subways only where you expect to fill long trains at high frequency for much of the day.

There may be places in New York that would profit from, and reward, the investment in a subway, but a map of everywhere that subways don’t go doesn’t even start that conversation.

The deserts that really matter are deserts of access, places where people are truly without options.  And to assess that for New York, even just for transit, you’d have to care about the massive bus network.  It’s the bus network job to cover the whole city, getting close to everyone.  Much of the bus system is also very frequent.

That’s why the smart folks at TransitCenter — a New York – based transit advocacy foundation — have launched a Turnaround campaign, meant to call attention to all the things that can be done to make New York bus service more useful, so that almost everyone can get to useful transit.  I deal with the barriers to good bus service all over the developed world, and the problem is always the same.  It’s not the technical limitations to what buses can do.  It’s the official apathy about them.

For example, many elected officials still believe that because buses are supposedly “flexible” they should just be changed so that they go by the house of anyone who requests them, as though fixed route bus lines were taxis or UberPools.  If they get enough phone calls, these elected officials will tell staff to transform the route on the right into the one on the left, with no comprehension of what they’re destroying.


Obviously, bus lines designed for high ridership run straight, so that they are as useful to many many people as possible, and so that they can run as frequently as possible.  Obvious stuff, but you have to fight this battle over and over, and that’s a lot of what I do.

So bravo to TransitCenter for its review of the New York buses.  It’s something that people in any developed-world city would be smart to review, and contemplate.

4 Responses to New York: “Subway Deserts” and the Bus “Turnaround” Campaign

  1. W. K. Lis July 20, 2016 at 2:58 pm #

    Isn’t Staten Island Railway (SIR) the only “rapid transit” line on Staten Island?

  2. RossB July 21, 2016 at 8:41 am #

    I think in general it is very difficult to represent the state of transit in a particular area via a map. If a city has a big subway system, then that is a start. But sometimes that ignores a very good, complementary bus system. This is one example, but in cities like Toronto and Vancouver, it is even more pronounced. If you focus on the rail, you will ignore how a large segment of the population gets around. It also implies that subways are always better, which simply isn’t true. There are buses that run more frequently and even with less congestion than some rail lines (especially surface rail lines).

    One option would be to make maps that show both frequency and speed. There have been a lot of great maps that show frequency the last few years (in part because of efforts made by the author on this site). But that only shows half the story, in my opinion. A bus that is frequent, but averages five MPH during rush hour is not a great bus. Representing two different things on the same map isn’t easy, but I would hope designers could handle the challenge.

    Since bus schedules often change dramatically in both speed and frequency during rush hour, I could see two different versions of the map. Ideally (as in this case) you would also want to overlay a census map. This is where the digital medium is very handy. If you had a map like the one I described (or even this map) along with a layer for density, it would be obvious that many of the “subway deserts” or even “transit deserts” are also “people deserts” (relatively speaking).

  3. JOE July 25, 2016 at 7:33 am #

    NY need to integrate the system Some LIRR can run like a subway with 15mins services inQueens where .NM in Bronx adding a few stop.Charging regular fares .Twin Cities commuter rail fares is the as the buses within comparable areas.

    E TRAIN SHOULD EXTENDED TO QUEENS village possible into LI.
    PORT Wa line become a subway line.
    Short branches on LI become Subway line shuttles.
    SYNDEY commuter rail have subway like schedules

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