When a large portion of your day is devoted to travel you will develop methods to manage your time. What you do depends on the transportation you use. Car drivers take favored routes. Subway riders can give themselves a portion of time but do not generally have a strict schedule because of the high frequency of service. Regional train riders need a strict regime. Being two minutes late for a train can make you a half hour to two hours late depending on the schedule. (Bus riders have to leave earlier than anyone because they face all the disadvantages of car drivers and regional train riders. They have to adhere to a schedule but they have no ability to take detours when something goes wrong.) Riding the train to New York City everyday means you have probably developed a couple of habits. Of course, riding the train to Penn Station creates its own peculiar demands but that is only one part of the relationship between the suburban commuter and the City.
You get to the station at roughly the same time because you leave home at roughly the same time. You know when you need to be there and you know how long it takes to drive and park, ride and lock up, or walk at a reasonable pace. Then you wait but not for too long. You have that worked out, too.
You probably don’t take the last train that will get to work on time. You take the second to last train that will get you to work on time. You never know when something will go wrong and it is better to be early than late.
You stand at a spot on the platform that allows you to get a seat. Some are aggressive, some are ritualistic, some refuse to face backwards, and others are strategic but everyone wants to be comfortable.
You find a way to pass the time.
Maybe you commute in the same car with the same people everyday and chat, maybe you read for pleasure, maybe you start your work, or maybe you play a game. Maybe you take a nap and hope nobody snaps your picture while your snoring.
You choose a section of the train that leaves you in a convenient spot in Penn Station. For the occasional visitor to Penn Station it probably seems absurd to use the word “convenient” to describe anything in that complex. When you go there five days each week you understand it inside and out. You know the fastest way to the street or your preferred subway line. You know the maze of lower level tunnels that will take you from NJ Transit tracks to the 1, 2, or 3 train. You know how to take the West End Concourse from the LIRR platforms to 8th Avenue through that pokey staircase in the A, C, E subway station. You know which doors tend to leave you near stairs and which ones tend to leave you near escalators. You probably have a preference. You probably pack your things away and walk towards the door once the train slows down to a speed that says the trip is almost over. An unexpected delay that slows it down inside the tunnel will leave you standing in front of the doors for several minutes while it all gets resolved. You’re not a tourist but you do feel a little bit sorry for them. The signage in that place is next to useless.
You make your way to your destination. It is the final stop on the train but Penn Station is probably not your destination. The original Penn Station was designed to be the beginning and end of a grand traveling experience. Its magnificent waiting rooms and entryways were crafted for interstate travelers to enjoy and to demonstrate for them the superiority of the Pennsylvania Railroad. That building was a sight, an attraction much the way Grand Central Terminal is today. According to Jill Jonnes, the number of regional commuters caught the Pennsylvania Railroad by surprise. Long Island and New Jersey were the sites of rapid suburbanization after the completion of Penn Station. That did not happen because McKim, Mead, and White designed a beautiful terminal, it happened because a whole lot of sandhogs mucked out tunnels that took people directly into Manhattan. It is the connections that matter most, not the aesthetics. Penn Station is one location, one stage, in a mundane process enacted by hundreds of thousands of people each working day. It is a process that drives the symbiotic, economic relationship between the City and the suburbs. It does not have to be magnificent in order to work. Although it is true that there is no space for architectural grandeur, the belief that improvement is impossible with Madison Square Garden above is mistaken. More than once Penn Station has been improved and is being improved again as you read this.
As often as commuters are used as props in arguments over Penn Station our true needs are rarely addressed by critics. Most who make their way through the complex only need timely service and easy access to the rest of the City. Despite repeated declarations by critics that Penn Station has been neglected it has, in fact, been the site of several renovations. The LIRR concourse improvements in 1994 and the recent improvements to New Jersey Transit waiting areas have not resulted in magnificent spaces, or even one cohesive space for that matter, but they have made the lives of thousands of people easier. No one disingenuously talking about moving Madison Square Garden ever asks how many years of disruptions will result from the massive demolition and construction projects demanded by such a “move”. Phase 1 of the Moynihan Station project has already begun. It is yet another improvement to the complex and the most consequential one since 1994. It won’t turn Penn Station into a destination either but it will create a better connection. Actually, it will create several thousand connections, everyday, for years.
This is Part II of a who knows how many part series. Part I is here. Part III will break down Phase 1 of the Moynihan Station project.