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NYC Finally Gets On Board With the Subway Car of the Future

The city announced that it will test “open gangway” cars that the rest of the world has been using for years.

Cities outside the U.S., including Hong Kong, have long used the "open gangway" design in subway systems. (Flickr/David Leo Veksler)

When it comes to railways and underground transportation, there’s no denying that U.S. cities lag behind other major cities. The U.S. has yet to fully adopt universal transit cards, we struggle to get streetcars right, and let’s not even get started on the lack of high-speed rail. But with New York City’s latest plan to roll out 10 new “open gangway”-style subway cars by 2020, at least one American city is finally starting to catch up to the rest of the world.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority announced in January that it plans to spend $52 million to test out the prototypes as part of its $2.7 billion proposal to replace 40-year-old trains on two of its lines. The design of the trains is simple: Open pathways between connected cars allow passengers to move freely from one end of the train to the other, which means no more darting in and out of entrances to switch to a less crowded car. The design has been in use, by one count, in over three-quarters of metros outside the U.S.—from Toronto to London to Tokyo.

And transit planners have long urged authorities to consider them in the New York subway, one of the oldest and most crowded in the United States. New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority reported that in 2014, ridership hit an all-time high of 1.75 billion. The subway serviced 5.6 million riders during the weekdays and 6 million on weekends, with ridership growing the most at off-peak hours. Even the minor disruptions can create stressful delays now that the subway is more crowded than ever.

Open gangways would open up more space. As Yonah Freemark wrote on his blog The Transport Politic, the unusable gaps between each subway car in New York and Washington, D.C., can measure up to five feet. Open gangway trains—sometimes referred to as articulated trains—would allow passengers to take the place of those gaps. And when one car gets too full, passengers can easily move to an emptier one. In fact, the city of London reported in its 2014 metro feasibility study that incorporating walk-through trains there would reduce congestion by as much as 10 percent.

The design is also a timesaver, as it gives riders more than one option as to where to enter and exit the train, reports Wired:

More than rescuing some poor soul from being lodged in someone’s armpit, dispersing passengers can reduce what the MTA calls dwell times, when the train’s sitting in a station, waiting for everyone to push their way out of or into particularly crowded cars.

New York City has experimented with a version of walk-through trains before, according to The New York Times. In the 1920s, the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation, which owned part of the subway, introduced a fleet of articulated D-type Triplex cars. They ran for 40 years before they were retired in the 1960s after the city took over in a push to unify the subway system. Today, the articulated trains are run only for nostalgia purposes, though experts call for modern versions of them to be part of the future of New York City transit.

Inside one of the Triplex trains, introduced in 1927. (Flickr/Mark B. Schlemmer)

For a subway system as widely used and as congested as New York’s, open gangways seem like a no-brainer, at least to transit planners. So why has New York—and most U.S. cities—ignored the idea until now?

When Freemark asked transit authorities back in 2009, he got less than satisfactory answers. A spokesperson for D.C.’s WMATA told him that they had “No plans to change it just to change it,” and New York’s MTA cited a lack of budget to design and test out new trains.

The larger reason, according to Vox, is “mass transit isolationism.” America, argues reporter Matthew Yglesias, is largely resistant to ideas from abroad, even if that means we end up with inferior—and often frustrating—systems that could easily be improved. Indeed, this isolationism applies not only to the transit industry: A building engineer once explained to me how challenging it is to introduce Japanese construction technology to the U.S.: “People are often content with using the tried and true, code-prescribed systems.”

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