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Redundancy and efficiency: In praise of Penn Station

In reaction to this news article by Michael Kimmelman, I’d like to repost this from four years ago:

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.

To the commenters who disagreed with me, arguing that Penn Station is too crowded, ugly, “criminally bottlenecked,” etc., let me just ask you this: What do you think the replacement will be like?

My guess is that the new Penn Station will be a lot more like an airport. Bright and airy, some top-end stores, it would look beautiful if it weren’t filled with thousands of people trying to get on and off the train in rush hour. Right now I can get off the subway and walk along the lower level to the trains. The lower level is pretty crowded, but just imagine how crowded it will be when there’s only one level. I’m looking forward to lots of looong escalator rides, lots of detours, and unnecessary long lines. I’m pretty sure that any people-moving problems in the current Penn Station will be nothing compared to whatever $2 billion open airy beautiful horrible architect-designed paradise comes next.

13 Comments

  1. Jonathan says:

    Not to mention all of the service delays that will need to be accounted for.

  2. Popeye says:

    Professor Gelman, how often are you at Penn Station? It is unbelievably bad and the comments on your old post are completely accurate. I am astonished that people are not routinely trampled to death there.

    “To pass through Grand Central Terminal, one of New York’s exalted public spaces, is an ennobling experience, a gift. To commute via the bowels of Penn Station, just a few blocks away, is a humiliation.” Truer words have never been spoken.

    Things can always get worse… but when it comes to Penn Station I really have to like our chances.

    • Popeye says:

      I should add that taking Amtrak out of Penn Station is generally more pleasant than taking New Jersey Transit… The sight of thousands of people trying to squeeze onto a stairway smaller than the one in my house, just as a train’s platform is announced (5-10 minutes prior to departure) is astonishing and soul-crushing.

      • Zach says:

        Same experience for the LIRR. Equally soul crushing is the mass of rush-hour commuters staring up at the big track board waiting for the track announcement (always reminds me of 1984/ big brother speeches).

        I don’t know what Penn Station the author visits (or when), but 85% of LIRR commuters enter from the same stairway, rushing and running and pushing ~5 min before boarding. I can’t imagine a design change making it worse.

      • Andrew says:

        Popeye:

        In my experience, Penn Station is (a) much better than Union Station in D.C. and (b) much better than any major airport. Especially given how fast they load the trains. I can easily imagine a redesign in which there are long long lines. One thing that makes Penn Station work is that you can get to the track from multiple stairways and from different levels. When there is only one point of entry (as in Union Station and at airports) you get unpleasant bottlenecks.

        • Amtrak and NJ Transite are completely different beasts at Penn Station (I’ve never taken the Long Island Railroad). Amtrak forces you to go down exactly one stairway, where your tickets get checked just like boarding passes at the airport (only with someone reading rather than scanning them), dumping you in a queue that in my experience is exactly like the one at an airport’s boarding gate, with exactly the same clueless commuters blocking the aisles rather than stepping in. NJ Transit acts more like Andrew’s experience, but only if you know those alternate routes, which I did when I was commuting to Bell Labs.

          Basically, Americans aren’t very good at queueing. We’re more organized than the Italians perhaps (my last flight into Italy was comic-book bad on this front), but nothing like the Brits.

          Airports also vary dramatically. The NY airports are almost all lousy. The only one that wasn’t a complete mess in my experience was the Delta Shuttle at the Marine Terminal at Laguardia. Die-hard professional commuters in a bus-station like atmosphere that’s super efficient without the scrum. Of course that was mainly pre-9/11 when I was commuting to Boston — no idea what it’s like now. Last time I was at JFK the lines for security were so long they threaded about 200 people through an underground parking garage connecting two terminals to dump us in another long line at the next terminal over.

          • Andrew says:

            Bob:

            No. Amtrak at Penn Station is just as I described. There are 2 or 3 different ways to get from the waiting room to the platform. No queueing needed.

      • Wayne says:

        Popeye: This announcement of the track 5-10 minutes before departure convinced me to never take the train to New York again. It’s ridiculous. I’d like to believe that some kind of queuing/flow/people discipline determined that this avoids people being trampled, but I simply can’t. Not to mention that it actively discourages early arrivals or planning.

  3. Graham says:

    I actually like Penn, but the signage is infuriating. I have been probably two dozen times in my life, and a couple of times a month for the past year, but for the life of me I can never find signs leading from the 8th Avenue Subway to the Amtrak. There are, of course, signs; but if you miss the first one, you’re stuck in that interminable NJ Transit promenade with no guidance of how to get out. I still have no idea why I get there some times and get lost others.

    • Slate even had an article on the bad signage at Penn Station:

      http://www.slate.com/articles/life/signs/2010/03/lost_in_penn_station.html

      It was part of an entire series on signage. It’s an interesting user interface problem that people get so wrong. Like designing public doors that needs a “push” or “pull” label or a shower fixture that requires a plumber to understand or an electronic clock that only a computer programmer can set (Donald Norman’s “Design of Everyday Things” is a great read along these lines).

      The subway in NY is also incredibly poorly marked. I pity the fools trying to go from the 1/2/3 stop at 14th St to the L/F stop (not only do they not realize it’s a 3-block underground walk, the signage is really confusing both ways).

      Of all the signage in public transit hubs I’ve seen, I really like the company that did Schiphol, Heathrow and the Pittsburgh airports. Pittsburgh’s much smaller, but I love that airport compared to any other ones I’ve ever been to. They redesigned it without building new runways but building more taxiways, really cutting down on taxi times, too. When you land at JFK, it can feel like you’re taxiing to NJ before you get to the terminal.

  4. Leonardo says:

    Dear all,
    A couple of years ago, I read about a paper that looked at the distribution of p-values in the regression results of economics papers (or psicology?). As far as I remember, the author noticed a strange distribution on the p-values related to the variables of interest: there were peaks just after 5%.
    I’ve tried hard to find the reference but to no avail. Have I dreamnt about this paper??
    Many thanks!
    Leo.

  5. Adam says:

    What I would really like is for the powers that be to post floor plans around Penn station. I have a horrible sense of direction, and can count on getting lost if I veer from my normal route. A map somewhere (even on the internet!) would help a lot. However, the locals will lose some of their home-field advantage.

  6. offbooze says:

    The old Penn Station, prior to being torn down to make a stadium, was much more like Grand Central, and, in fact, the tracks and the staircases are original, but the structure above them is not. This probably has something to do with the weirdness of it.