Could New York City get its own CrossRail?

Penn station: heart of the CrossRail proposals. Image: Getty.

As well as having the world’s largest metro system by number of stations, New York City also has a pretty sizeable commuter rail network.

In fact, it has several. There’s the MTA Metro-North Railroad, run by the city’s Metropolitan Transit Authority, which serves the northern suburbs in New York state and Connecticut. There’s the Long Island Rail Road, and the Staten Island Railway: those are also run by the MTA, and respectively serve, well, you can probably guess. And then there’s the NJ Transit rail network, run by the authorities in the adjacent state of New Jersey, which serves that state and a few counties in its neighbours.

Between them, these four different systems carry passengers to and from the city from all points of the compass. But the system is fragmented: to get from Staten Island to Manhattan, you need to take a ferry. Some of the trains from New Jersey run into Penn station, in midtown Manhattan; but capacity constraints mean that many others terminate across the Hudson in Hoboken, requiring passengers to change to a PATH train, and then probably again onto a subway.

It’s a measure of the network’s complete lack of integration, in fact, that there is, best we can tell, no official map which shows all of it – even though some NJ Transit trains magically turn into MetroNorth ones at the state boundary. All seems a bit silly to me, but there we are.

None of this seems very likely to change any time soon, if ever – but in 2015, some city planning students at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design did at least propose a start.  Here, inevitably, is a map:

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The New York-New Jersey CrossRail project would involve a capital “R”, as well as a pair of new tunnels under the metropolis. These would run from Newark in New Jersey, through Penn Station and out to Jamaica in the suburbs of Queens. There’d also be branches connecting to Newark and JFK airports, and another heading north to link up with Metro North services.

All this would mean that the current service would change from this...

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...to this:

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The big benefit of such a scheme is that it would make it much easier to get across the Hudson. No new transit tunnels under the river which divides New York from New Jersey have been built since 1910, and those which do exist are at full capacity. The existing Hudson River tunnels, the CrossRail team wrote, “are the most significant choke point along the entire Northeast Corridor”.

The proposed new tunnel will remove this bottleneck. It’d also make it easier for residents of Queens to get to Manhattan, relieving chunks of the subway network, too. And as a bonus, it’d open up new real estate schemes along the route, generating at least some of the cash which would pay for it.


How realistic is this? It is fundamentally the work of some students (albeit pretty well qualified ones), rather than an official proposal. And building new rail capacity in New York has proven to be both difficult and incredibly expensive. The recently opened second Avenue Subway extension has been called the most expensive subway ever built: nearly $4.5bn for just two miles of line, which would be hilarious were it not for the fact that stuff like this makes it harder to persuade politicians to invest in this stuff.

But CrossRail isn’t a complete pipedream. The students’ proposal builds on two official ones: Amtrak’s proposed Gateway project, which would build a new tunnel under the Hudson and expand Penn station, and the MTA's Penn Station Access project, which would take Metro North through Queens into Penn Station. What CrossRail does is to combine these, and to continue the route to the east, out towards Jamaica and Long Island.

There’s lots more nerdery in the report, about financing, phasing construction, service patterns and so on. But odds are you came here mainly for the maps, so let’s end on this one, which compares the proposed New York CrossRail with the nearly completed scheme which inspired it:

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You can read more about the proposal here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.