At the end of the day on Friday — always an odd time to make a major announcement — the MTA announced increased service at all times along the L and 7, their two favorite test lines. This move came in response to the subpar scores these lines received on their Rider Report Cards.
According to the report in CityRoom, the expanded service debuted this weekend. Basically, rush hour trains will run every 3.5 minutes on the L (service I could have sworn was implemented last month) with increased service across the board until midnight during the week and until 7 p.m. during the weekends. I guess the MTA hasn’t gotten the memo about Williamsburg’s being a popular weekend destination. The 7 will see more frequent service during rush hour and from 8 p.m. until midnight during the week.
The MTA will probably try to spin this as one of the benefits of the line manager system. However, as CityRoom and others have noted, the 7 and L are self-contained lines that, at no point, share tracks with another train. The MTA can add trains until the lines are at capacity here with the only costs coming from increased service. The same cannot be said of any other line in the system.
This move and the line manager system as a whole has prompted a wide range of responses from public transit experts. This weekend, E. S. Savas, a former first deputy city administrator and a professor of public affairs at Baruch, penned a very straightforward and well-written critique of the MTA’s line manager program. With the MTA’s pushing the increased service on the 7 and L right now, Savas’ piece is even more relevant. Allow me to quote at length:
To be effective and held accountable, managers of decentralized units require autonomy and authority, neither of which is possible within the city’s subway system. These managers will have to operate under the same civil service titles and regulations and the same constricting union agreements, use the standard subway cars and in almost all cases share the tracks. They will have little leeway to run more frequently or more regularly, or to operate longer trains.
There is no indication that the managers will be allowed to buy more subway cars or rebuild stations. Moreover, unless they control their own sections of the rail yards and their own car-maintenance and car-cleaning crews, they will have little influence over the condition of “their” subway cars. Only if the managers of the different lines exercise authority over these factors can one expect innovation, differentiation and competition; otherwise each manager could reasonably claim that he lacked control over crucial factors and could point a finger elsewhere…
Good managers could set higher standards and better schedules and procedures for cleaning, painting and making repairs, and follow-up to assure that the standards are met. They could improve signage and lighting and perhaps even install intelligible public address systems. They could emulate Tokyo’s stations, where advertisers create stunning displays that draw rave reviews and pay for station upkeep and more. Years ago the transit agency appointed station managers, but it is not clear what authority they have and what results they have achieved, or whether it was merely a public relations gesture.
As Savas sees it, the MTA is just installing a bunch of figureheads who will serve as a glorified level of bureaucracy. Maybe these managers will act as intermediaries between the MTA brass and Joe and Jane Straphanger. But in all likelihood, these managers will have the same impact as those station managers Savas mentioned. Each station has a manager, but no one really knows what that person actually does.
As I wrote last week, MTA CEO Lee Sander and NYCT President Howard Roberts are, in a way, staking their legacies on a move that should eliminate muddled middle management and replace it with a more clarified view of who is in charge of what in the subways. But for that to happen, the New York City subways need a lot more autonomy than they have or appear to be getting under this line manager plan.
We can celebrate much-needed and long-overdue service increases on the L and 7, but it seems that the MTA is just using those lines as guinea pigs. They can prop up the line managers with service additions and station beautification plans, if they wish, but in the end, the money, the resources and drive will be flowing from the same old MTA. We’ll just be left wondering if those line managers are truly worth it.