When the MTA, in December, announced plans to add more line managers and, seemingly, another layer of bureaucracy to an overburdened agency, I noted that the leadership were staking a lot on this program. Meanwhile, the transit experts did not believe the program would succeed because the line managers wouldn’t have the necessary autonomy.
Well, the line managers have been in place on the 7 and L lines for a few months now, and the results are slowly trickling in. So far, we’ve seen a mixed bag of improvements. The MTA likes to tout their ability to finish the 7 line work this winter ahead of schedule as a sign that the line manager system is working. However, favorable weather did as much to speed up the work as anything else.
On the public front, the MTA is pushing hard to stress the importance of a program about which the public should still be skeptical. The latest look at the line manager comes in the form of a lengthy piece on ProgressiveRailroading.com. Jeff Stagl, the magazine’s managing editor, goes in depth on the line managers, and his work leaves me with many of the same questions I had coming in. An excerpt:
The New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority agency’s subway division has a “stovepipe” organizational structure that’s poorly integrated because each department functions as a silo, says [NYC Transit President Howard] Roberts. As a result, the world’s second-largest subway system by size and third-largest by ridership is slow to identify and rectify operational shortcomings. For example, it might take a year to repair a broken speaker in one of NYCT’s 468 stations because it takes time for a work order to be drawn up, wind its way through several departments and continue changing hands, says Roberts.
So, he’s trying to decentralize NYCT to create a management structure that functions in unison — and with less bureaucracy — to speed decision-making and work processes.
“The scope of the system is staggering,” says Roberts. “We’re reorganizing to reduce that scale.”
The article then goes on to detail the ways in which the MTA is trying to get in touch with its customers and how the line managers should make things better. But I foresee a bureaucratic challenge: While Roberts says the MTA is trying to reduce scale, the plans call for line managers on 22 subway lines who will report to group managers. Who knows how far up the chain managers will run, but this just seems like a reorganization of the current system rather than a complete overhaul.
Bits and pieces of the story stick out as well. Faced with cleanliness problems, the MTA attempted to rectify a poor situation. Supposedly, one person was responsible for cleaning five stations in an eight-hour shift. By adding 313 cleaners, NYCT now has 1430 on staff and, thankfully, they “changed cleaning processes so one employee isn’t responsible for numerous stations.” But with over three times as many cleaners as stations, mathematically, NYCT could allocate three cleaners each to spend eight hours cleaning one station each day. The subway system certainly doesn’t appear as clean as it should by my count.
Institutional problems such as these will continue to plague NYCT and the MTA until a better system of horizontal integration occurs. We can continue to add more and more line managers, but does that solve or exacerbate a problem of bureaucracy? Stagl’s piece is well worth the read to see how the MTA plans to solicit more rider feedback, and the agency should be applauded for these efforts. But the changes that grow out of the feedback don’t seem to cut it quite yet.