Who Rides the R Train Downtown, Anyway?

Court Street R station
Photo by Hey Ridge

Last Wednesday, four of our elected officials, led by Congressmember Max Rose, released a letter to NYC Transit President Andy Byford asking to study and consider “quickly” returning the R train to the state it ran in during Montague tunnel repairs—in two separate segments, with the Brooklyn side running from 95th Street to Court Street before turning around.

The goal is to improve service, so that service interruptions in Queens no longer cascade to Brooklyn, and vice versa—resulting in fewer delays and better rides, at least for riders that commute in Brooklyn only.

But what about the riders that use the Montague tunnel, which connects Court Street to Whitehall? Who are they? How many of them are there? Where are they coming from?

Most importantly, what will they do if the tunnel is closed again?

Who rides the R train downtown

These two circles are about the same size, but importantly: the circle on the left is concentrated in the districts of the four cosigning legislators, and the circle on the right is spread out across several districts, and is a small minority in each.
To get to Lower Manhattan, some riders switch to the R from the N or D at Atlantic Avenue and the Q or B at DeKalb; the transfer at both is on the same platform. The option exists for A and F riders at Jay Street as well, via passageway and staircase.

The Montague tunnel is unique among East River tunnels in that, in practical terms, it only serves local riders going between Brooklyn and its four Lower Manhattan stations. The tracks run through to the rest of Manhattan, of course, but for any Brooklynite headed to a point beyond City Hall, there is almost certainly another train that will get them there faster (although some people may choose to stay on the R train for the convenience of a single-seat/zero-transfer ride).

There are approximately 32,000 people that get on the subway in Bay Ridge each weekday [see footnote 1]. Approximately 30,000 ride through the Montague tunnel each day [footnote 2]. Some of these are the same people, but mostly they’re not.

It’s easy for even the average observer to pick up on the general patterns:

  • A number of Bay Ridgeites get off the R at 59th Street or 36th Street to take the N or D to Manhattan and beyond.
  • Sunset Parkers and Park Slopers who get on the R at their local stations do the same thing at Atlantic Avenue.
  • Residents from all over Brooklyn—Bensonhurst, Gravesend, Borough Park, even Midwood and Brighton Beach—ride their neighborhood trains, such as the N, D or Q, and transfer to the R train at Atlantic Avenue and DeKalb Avenue to go downtown.
  • In smaller numbers, there are even people transferring from the A, C, or F at Jay Street to get to the far southern tip of Manhattan, or from the Staten Island ferry to go the other way to get to jobs in Downtown Brooklyn.

And of course, some of you are riding all the way from Bay Ridge to Lower Manhattan.

So what will those 30,000 people do if the Montague tunnel is closed?

Probably the same thing they did in 2013–2014 during the repairs to the Montague tunnel, and a lot of them won’t like it:

If the direct-to-Manhattan R is taken away, there are other options, but all of these require a transfer at Atlantic Avenue featuring ascents up two long staircases.

Most of the riders described above could transfer at Atlantic Avenue to the 2, 3, 4 or 5 trains and get pretty close to where the R would have taken them. But unlike the R/N/D transfers, the 2/3/4/5 transfer isn’t on the same platform. R-, N- and D-train riders have to go up a long staircase, walk down a busy passageway, go down a long staircase, cross over some more, then finally go up a second long staircase. Q-train riders would do the same with one less down-staircase and one less passageway.

The trains they’ll be boarding are already crowded. The 2/3 trains carry 75,000 people under the East River already, and the 4/5 trains carry 93,000. If the Montague tunnel is closed, they’ll have to carry up to 30,000 more.

If it wasn’t bad enough already, numbered trains are about a foot narrower than the lettered trains.

Is a better ride for some worth the inconvenience to others?

30,000 is a lot of people to give the shaft to! Although, Montague is the least-used of the East River subway crossings—the second-least used crossing is the F train’s Rutgers tunnel, which carries 2.5 times as many people. And since the 30,000 come from all over Brooklyn, they aren’t concentrated in any once council, assembly, state senate or congressional district, making them a small voice in any one rep’s overall constituency.

But 30,000 is still:

  • The equivalent of almost all of Bay Ridge’s subway riders, whether it is made up of those same riders or not.
  • More than the number of people served by any one of Brooklyn’s 63 bus routes [footnote 3].
  • And more people than is carried by the entire NYC Ferry system, all routes combined, by a very large margin [footnote 4].

But it will still be a nicer ride for some, right?

It was in 2013 and 2014! Namely, for people whose R train commutes were fully contained within the borough of Brooklyn.

On the other hand, it won’t save anyone from delays originating in Brooklyn. The Great Blue Wall Meltdown of July 30, 2018, for instance, still would have murdered the commute times of R riders in Brooklyn because it was an operational disaster made in Brooklyn (and it was also hell for D-train riders in the Bronx and N-train riders in Queens).

And anyone who transfers to another train—including people who already do—are still subject to that line’s delays. Anyone who has to switch to the 4 will be subject to sick passenger delays from Woodlawn instead of Forest Hills.

Related Reading:

Also: The R Train, LaGuardia Airport, and the Ripple Effect in Transit [vanshnookenraggen]


[1] Combined ridership at the four Bay Ridge stations on the R-line was 32,303 in 2016. I made the assumption that these riders are taking the R out of Bay Ridge, and not going from 95th Street to Bay Ridge Avenue, then back again at the end of the day. Used 2016 because 2017 data is skewed by the six-month closure of the Bay Ridge Avenue station.

[2] According to the 2016 Hub Bound Travel report from the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council, Manhattan-bound travel on the Montague tunnel was 25,995 on their study day, and Brooklyn-bound travel was 35,391. That’s, um, a pretty large discrepancy, one that’s literally hard to believe, unless one supposes there was a service diversion on the day the data was collected (there is a similar discrepancy in the opposite direction for the 4/5 tunnel). It highlights the difficulty in collecting information that can’t be measured directly at the turnstile. I broadly assumed that a much higher percentage of riders are taking the same route in and out, and just took the average of the two numbers—30,693 in each direction. I also made this assumption for the F, 2/3, and 4/5 tunnels.

[3] The bus route with the highest ridership is the B46, with almost 42,000 trips per weekday in 2017. Assuming most of its riders are taking two trips a day—a trip out in the morning, a return trip in the afternoon—it provides service to about 21,000 people.

[4] NYC Ferry releases quarterly ridership data. Average weekday ridership was 20,732 in the 3rd quarter and 12,204 in the 4th quarter of 2018. Just like the data in Footnote #2, and unlike the data in Footnotes #1 and #2, these trips can broadly be assumed to include a large number of people making two trips a day (one in the morning and one in the afternoon).

Average weekday ridership from the Bay Ridge landing was 423 and 157 for the 3rd and 4th quarters, respectively. Ridership-by-landing captures one-way trips, so any return trip is being captured at a different landing, like Wall Street (making it comparable to the data in Footnotes #1 and #2).