Roosevelt Island Transit: How To Get Where You Want

Roosevelt Island Transit: How To Get Where You Want

What are Roosevelt Island’s transit options…

What are we dealing with here?

Roosevelt Island transit choices jumped into focus again, last winter, when the MTA threatened to gut bus service. And followed up with mangling a subway shutdown. Then, the pandemic threw it all out of sync, but as we ramp back to normal, here’s a current overview.

By David Stone

Roosevelt Island News


It should come as no surprise to anyone that Roosevelt Island‘s transit needs are unique. We can’ walk to only a few needed services, jobs and events. We need special consideration and always have. It’s obvious…

We’re smack dab in the middle of a river.

MTA Hypocrites On Main Street

And that’s what makes it so surprising when we don’t get what we need.

It may look familiar but this photo of crowding in the Roosevelt Subway is from November, 2015. It’s worse now, and like then, the next train will be packed on arrival. Shove on or get left behind.

Related: MTA’s Smart Bay Ridge Branch Idea

Option #1: NYC Subway

No transit choice is more heavily used on Roosevelt Island than the subway. And none are less loved.

Three years ago, we published Third World In Our Backyard, a report on the dreary state of our station. The MTA responded with a small outburst of cleaning, but that didn’t last.

There are differences, of course, after three years. More crowding is one, much of it caused by opening the Second Avenue Subway Line. As we predicted, that enhanced the value of the F Line to commuters.

Cornell Tech’s opening added more travelers to and from Roosevelt Island. As the campus grows and two new Southtown buildings open, it gets worse.

And planners come up blank when Roosevelt Island transit choices are needed.

Instead, officials marked our lack of clout by rerouting M Trains, not along the congesting F Line, but as a supplement to the Q along Second Avenue.


The answer’s the same as it was when they asked famous robber Willie Sutton why he robbed banks.

“That’s where the money is.”

A subway solution…

I argued this with everyone from State Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright’s office to Steve Shane, RIOC’s president three administrations back.

Send more trains through Roosevelt Island during rush hours.

The response never changes. The MTA says they can’t. Seven-minute gaps are all they can manage.

Which is a pile of crap.

Anytime they need to reroute Es or Rs through Roosevelt Island, for whatever reason, those gaps shrink to three or four minutes, and everything works fine.

But we don’t even need that frequency. Increase by two or three trains per hour, and that clears the platforms.

Easy peasy. But not for the MTA.

Another Alternative

This needs to be explored, but as we reported in our ghost tunnel under Roosevelt Island piece, the tunnel now delivering F trains has a twin beneath it. It’s part of the boondoggle Midtown Access plan, departing from the F after 63rd Street, curling toward Grand Central Station.

As one reader pointed out, the platforms and tunnel are already there. All we need are additional escalators, stairs and elevators to go a single flight.

It’s the most economical solution; so, why not?

Roosevelt Island Tram

Our Tram‘s damn near a miracle.

Sure, we had some interruptions when our 43-year-old system needed improvements, but rain or shine, the Tram just works.

Its shortcomings are unfixable. Capacity, with just two cabins, will always be limited. And it’s route is even more limited.

To get anywhere but home or the near East Side, you transfer or walk.

But unlike its sister agency, the MTA, RIOC keeps the Tram clean, neat and courteous, respectful of riders.

Possible solutions…

If Tram operators asked passengers to remove their backpacks and stop battering their neighbors, that would also conquer something the subway finds insurmountable.

NYC Ferry

Roosevelt Island’s Ferry Landing was a mass transit gift from Mayor Bill de Blasio. While the New York Post whines about how the NYC Ferry loses money, so does every other government service.

When was the last time NYPD turned a profit? Public schools? It’s a bogus, conservative complaint. They don’t like it because it helps people like us.

First Roosevelt Island Ferry arrival

Ferry service connects us quickly and comfortably to otherwise hard to reach neighborhoods. Its run to Wall Street takes some load off other transit options.

But capacity, like the Tram, is limited, a situation worsened by, unlike the Tram, serving other transit hungry communities. It’s also limited by landing, in most places, far from other mass transit choices for transfer.

Roosevelt Island Transit Option #4: MTA Bus

Q102 service was devalued a few years back when deep thinkers at the MTA chose to stop alternating routes on Roosevelt Island, ending the chance for direct MTA bus travel from Tram and Subway all the way north to Coler Hospital.

But it’s still valued by many riders needing access to Queens and by visitors and workers at Coler.

Unfortunately, more brilliant thinking has the MTA threatening to gut remaining bus services. An active proposal takes away the Q102, replacing it with a QT78 which reduces services by more than 50%.

As with the earlier thickheaded move, transit volume on Roosevelt Island would shift to already overcrowded RIOC Red Buses.

Buses that are free because they’re there to serve residents will be further swarmed by nonresidents in need.

RIOC, State Senator José Serrano and Coler volunteer Judith Berdy mounted a campaign, hoping to change MTA’s plans. Optimism abounds, but there’s no guarantee of success.

Other Roosevelt Island Mass Transit Ideas and Alternatives

Three ideas pop up perennially, like weeds that won’t be killed, but let’s try anyway.

  • Build a Stairway and/or Elevator to the Queensboro Bridge: Even pretending the Department of Transportation hasn’t already said, “No,” a hundred times, who’s climbing up 10 flights of steps, just to walk another half-mile to land? Who pays for the elevator and maintenance? And what destination is great enough to send walkers across that icy river in mid-winter? It’s a stupid idea and needs to be suffocated.
  • A Walking Bridge Across the East River: Anyone gifted enough to find funding for engineering and construction of a bridge, a quarter of a mile long, to nowhere anyone wants to go, is immediately qualified for a MacArthur Grant. Next challenge: find enough hearty souls willing to take the long time-consuming route during rush hours to provide any serious reduction in subway crowding.
  • Construct a New Subway Station for Roosevelt Island: Among transit options, this one makes the most sense. Two subway lines besides the F’s 63rd Street passage run under us. Construction would be costly and likely to take more than a decade to finish. The Second Avenue Line took a half-century after groundbreaking. The F Line itself was twenty years in the making. And it needs to be said again: we have no political clout here. We’re small and partially ruled by an unelected caretaker.


Funny thing is, the most viable solution to Roosevelt Island’s transit dilemmas is also the easiest to solve.

Were it not for the MTA…

A few more trains down that 63rd Street tunnel and “Hallelujah!”

But they decided to help the Upper East Side instead, and you’re free to guess why.

Our best hope: a growing and influential Cornell Tech campus forces the issues. Among the many benefits Cornell’s brought us, developing civic muscles may, in the end, be the best.

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5 thoughts on “Roosevelt Island Transit: How To Get Where You Want

  1. One solution for transportation in and out of the island is to stop building. You stop building by having builder finance an elevator to the bridge and maintaining it and a permanent shuttle to Manhattan. Who was the genious who planned to overcrowd this island without a transportation plan?A water taxi would help going from the pier by the subway to the former helicopter station. Who would finance the implied expenses? Hey Cornell just built a hotel! …Who knows. Then the water taxi could use the NYC landing.

    1. Building additional space is already committed by contract for one more Southtown building and for the remaining 2/3 of Cornell Tech. Who knows after that? But increasing transportation options is fairly easy, if we just had better, more effective representation.
      For example, our subway tunnel is a double. There’s an identical, barely used tunnel beneath the one the Fs run through. It’s going to be part of the Midtown Access Project (the worksite across from the subway station) if they ever finish it. It’s years behind schedule. It will be underutilized because there’s not enough demand; so, there’s no good reason why they can’t build access stairs/elevators to connect them and either allow Roosevelt Island as a stop on the LIRR or create a new subway line. There’s plenty of capacity.
      I’ve previously suggested taking the load off by running an extra train or two per hour through Roosevelt Island, maybe diverting an underused M, but MTA refuses to consider. If we had someone more effective than Rebecca Seawright, we might get extra trains like the far less busy 2nd Avenue line does.
      An elevator to the bridge is out because DOT refuses for a number of reasons, including safety, and there no place for a shuttle. The water taxi is promising to the helipad is interesting, but it might be cost prohibitive. And although we have direct access to mass transit on our side, it’s not so hot on the Manhattan side.
      But all and all, there are many good ideas, but with RIOC and unmotivated electeds “working” for us, it’s hard to imagine anyone putting anything effective together.
      Keep thinking creatively though…

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