Redundancy and efficiency

Walking through Penn Station in New York, I remembered how much I love its open structure. By “open,” I don’t mean bright and airy. I mean “open” in a topological sense. The station has three below-ground levels–the uppermost has ticket counters (and, what is more relevant nowadays, ticket machines), some crappy stores and restaurants, and a crappy waiting area. The middle level has Long Island Rail Road ticket counters, some more crappy stores and restaurants, and entrances to the 7th and 8th Avenue subway lines. The lower level has train tracks and platforms. There are stairs, escalators, and elevators going everywhere. As a result, it’s easy to get around, there are lots of shortcuts, and the train loads fast–some people come down the escalators and elevators from the top level, others take the stairs from the middle level.

The powers-that-be keep threatening to spend a couple billion dollars upgrading the station. I hope that never happens, because I know that it will all become much more organized and airportlike, with “gates,” long lines, and only one way to get from point A to point B. Something horrible like that new Chicago public library (not so new now, I guess–it was built around 1990) that was so pretty and so nonfunctional.

6 thoughts on “Redundancy and efficiency

  1. Dear Prof Gelman:

    Here are my tricks for Penn Station:

    1. If you are waiting for Amtrak, do not watch the main board for the announcement of the boarding track – that is the last place where it is posted and you'll be in a mad rush for the posted gate;

    2. Watch instead the small TV screens that announce arrivals, look your train code up and, behold, it will tell you on which track it is arriving.

    3. Do not use the main entrances to tracks in the main level, instead go down one level to LIRR area and board Amtrak from there.

    4. If you follow these steps you'll likely be the first to board each and every train!

    5. Buy water and victuals outside the station. Inside you'll be ripped off and, in the train, robbed.

    That said, Penn station is a piece of garbage that is an ugly sore on this city. I hate it.

    As for Amtrak, what can you say about carriages that leak when it rains and travel as slow as a Chinatown bus… In more ways than one NYC is stuck in the 19th century

  2. You are crazy! Penn Station is the worst station ever. Aside from aesthetics, the system for getting passengers onto and off of trains seems to me criminally bottlenecked–I am never coming up an escalator or staircase from a platform to the station without thinking of what would happen in a fire where people needed to move quickly and without panicking. The way they wait so late to announce the boarding platform leads to mob rush! I think your description assumes a host of KNOWLEDGEABLE users–in fact because it is confusing there is often highly inefficient distribution of passengers between multiple available routes!

  3. When walking through New York's Penn Station, I feel like I'm in a sewer. Too bad that you are too young to have ever experienced a walk through the original Penn Station built in 1910 and demolished in 1964. The magnificent Concourse of glass and steel. The waiting room, inspired by Roman Baths of Caracalla. That station was one of the great train stations of the world. Just walking through it was a thrill especially when the sun streamed through the roof glass. You can't reproduce that experience today with photos or film– you had to have been there.

    In the 1950s the rats came out of the sewer and destroyed one of New York's treasures. You can tell something about a people from their architecture. What does the current station say? There's nothing to love there in any topological space.

  4. Andy,

    Sorry, the new Penn Station always depresses me. What a way to enter NYC from NJ.

    Funny that I've yet to visit the new Chicago library in the years I've been to Chicago. Who goes to big public libraries anymore?

  5. Oy vey!

    They announce the track a few minutes before departure, guaranteeing chaos.

    The signs are inadequate

    The stores and restaurants are (as you note) lousy.

    Contrast that with Grand Central. Tracks are announced well ahead of time. It's roomy. It's easy to find your track. The restaurants are much better. The stores are also better.

  6. What you have failed to mention is that the openings from level to level are few and very tightly congested during commuting times. I can easily walk up the stairs from a train platform in a few seconds when no one else is there, but fill the platform with a train load of passengers and a few seconds may become as long as ten minutes. Standing in an impatient crowd for even one minute is uncomfortable not to mention that this seems like an accident waiting to happen. Forcing people to do this every day as they commute to and from work has earned NY Penn its reputation for being a very poor train station.

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