Home Straphangers Campaign A closer look at the Straphangers survey

A closer look at the Straphangers survey

by Benjamin Kabak

Yesterday afternoon, I offered up a short piece and a link to the Straphangers Campaign annual state of the subways report card. I didn’t have time then to really drill down on the findings and offer up my critique of the survey. So let’s jump in now.

First up were the Straphangers’ various findings. You can see the tables of subway grades on the report’s site. Unfortunately, they’re available only as PDFs and not, in 2009, as online tables. Anyway, technology gripes aside, the top-line findings:

  1. The best subway line in the city is the 7 with a “MetroCard Rating” of $1.55
  2. The L came in second behind the 7 with a MetroCard Rating of $1.50.
  3. Both the L and 7 are in a “line general managers” program, which has promise to improve service.
  4. The C was ranked the worst subway line, with a MetroCard Rating of 50 cents.
  5. Overall, we found a mixed picture for subway service on the three measures we can compare over time — car breakdowns, car cleanliness and announcements.
  6. There are large disparities in how subway lines perform.

Those last two points in the survey require some further digging. Both in that top-line summary and in the subway line profiles, the Straphangers reveal widely divergent results without explaining they whys of it.

They only time, in fact, that they do explain why is in point three. The 7 and L performed better because the pilot program for the Line Managers had more resources available than the rest of the subway lines currently enjoy or will have in the future. In that regard, the Straphangers’ assessment doesn’t consider how Transit has seemingly weighted any line analysis in favor of a pilot program for which they wanted full approval.

In discussing points five and six, the Straphangers offered up some numbers. We’ll focus on two of them:

  • The car fleet breakdown rate worsened from an average mechanical failure every 149,646 miles in 2007 to 134,795 in 2008 — a drop of almost 10%. This is a bad trend, raising questions about the condition and maintenance of the aging transit fleet. We found: fifteen lines worsened (1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, A, C, E, F, G, L, Q, R and V), while seven lines improved (2, B, D, J/Z, M, N and W).
  • Accurate and understandable subway car announcements improved, going from 85% in our last report to 90% in the current report. We found that: sixteen lines improved (1, 6, 7, A, B, C, E, F, G, J/Z, M, N, Q, R, V and W), two worsened slightly (D and L) and four remained unchanged (2, 3, 4 and 5).

What is happening here is clear: The subway lines that enjoyed a rollout of new R160s during 2008 saw marked improvements in their scores. The B and W— two lines showing improvements in the maintenance department — inherited newer cars when the Q and N received new cars. Meanwhile, the BMT Nassau St./Jamaica line trains (the J, M and Z) also were the recipients of new trains. Thus, those lines were nearly guaranteed improvements across the board.

Point six suffered from the same new train bias. The N, according to the Straphangers, had a breakdown rate nearly 200,000 miles above average. That’s because the R160s haven’t yet started to break down or even age yet. Instead of praising the line for its successes, the Straphangers should be praising the MTA for investing in new rolling stock.

In the end, this survey is what it is. We all know that it’s tough to get a seat at rush hour, that the antiquated public address system isn’t really adequate and that stations are both crowded and dirty. The real reasons for the improvements — new cars, new management programs and an unequal and unsustainable redistribution of cleaning services — make for a far more compelling story than the one the Straphangers told yesterday.

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Kid Twist July 16, 2009 - 1:31 pm

I wonder if the breakdown rate will improve again thanks to the recent retiremnt of some older cars — R38s, R40s.

Also, how did in-car announcements get worse on the L train? The entire fleet on that line has newish cars with automated announcements.

Scott E July 16, 2009 - 3:54 pm

My guess (and this is only a guess), is that if a train is not moving, the conductor doesn’t chime in with an explanation (“train traffic ahead of us”). Or maybe there’s something wrong with the cars’ sound-systems themselves — the L is the only line that uses the R143’s.

Frank July 16, 2009 - 2:16 pm

V train sucks Mta need cut the V train

AlexB July 16, 2009 - 4:21 pm

It’s nice that the stranphanger’s campaign breaks down each line on these criteria, but this doesn’t really help much with determining who has the best overall service. This system of analysis would work in Paris where every line is self-contained and does not share track with any other line (for the most part.) In NYC, the system works through the very complicated inter-routing of multiple lines. For example, people who ride the Astoria line don’t care about the W or the N, they care about the combination of service provided by the N and W. The same is true for the 4/5 and 2/3 for most of their routes. Conversely, the straphangers combine the J and Z into one service which overstates the quality of service at stations that only get one of the other. To really understand who is getting the best service, trains need to be analyzed along sections of track. Instead of analyzing the 4 and 5, they should analyze the Lexington express. Instead of the F and V, they should analyze the 6th Ave local, etc.

Marc Shepherd July 16, 2009 - 4:59 pm

You are of course correct, but it would be difficult to devise a survey that accounts for all of these routing possibilities, while still being reasonable clear to someone who is not a subway geek. I mean, it’s true that for many riders the 4 and 5 trains are equally good; but there are some who really do need one and not the other. As you’ve noted, all of the routing possibilities are extremely complicated.

Andrew July 16, 2009 - 8:18 pm

And many riders need the 7 local and can’t use the 7 express. Yet they’re lumped together, boosting the line’s overall score. If they were treated as separate services, as the 4 and 5 are, they’d be rated lower.

In fact, I’d say that most 7 riders either need the local or strongly prefer the express – while most 4/5 riders probably don’t care which of the two they get, and some are equally happy with the 6.

If your daily commute is from 46th St. on the Flushing line to Union Squrae, which train do you wait longer for, the 7 local or the 4/5/6?

Come to think of it – the 6 also has a local/express split, in the Bronx. The 6 scores better in frequency than either the 4 or 5. Yet if you commute from Pelham Bay Park to Wall St. (transferring to the 4/5 at 125th St.), where do you wait longer, at Pelham or at 125th?

Marc Shepherd July 17, 2009 - 12:31 pm

Sorry, that’s nonsense. Almost every subway line has a different service pattern at some point during the day. The fact that the 7 has both an express and a local pattern is a detail every rider understands. Devising a survey that could account for all of the different segments of shared trackage on, say, the D Train, would be a completely different level of complexity.

Andrew July 17, 2009 - 6:47 pm

I’m not talking about different times of day. The 7 has both local and express service at the same time. On weekdays, trains in the peak direction alternate between local and express. The 7 is really two services with one name. Someone going to 46th St. has to use the local. Someone going from Manhattan to Main St. is probably going to wait for the express, if it’s running. This survey ranks the 7 highly in part because it’s very frequent – except that, to most people who ride it, it’s actually half as frequent as the Straphangers’ numbers indicate. The same applies to Bronx 6 riders.

The label “7” refers to all the trains that run on the three-track Flushing line.

Compare that to the label “4”, which refers to half of the trains that run on two of the tracks on the four-track Lexington Avenue line.

If the Flushing local and Flushing express had different numbers (say, 7 and 8), their ranking would drop. And if the entire Lexington Avenue line had a single number (say, 4), with multiple branches at each end and with some trains running local and others express, it would be ranked more highly than the 4, 5, or 6 are now.

While it’s nice that Straphangers tries to incorporate headways into its ranking methodology, it’s done in an overly simplistic manner. Even if the service called “7” is more frequent than the service called “4”, most 7 riders (who have only half of the service at their disposal) have to wait longer for their trains than most 4 riders (who can just as easily ride the 5, and in some cases even the 6).

Ed July 17, 2009 - 1:16 am

I was really thrown by the “train traffic ahead of us” explanation when I first heard it. My reaction was, well this is one track and there are other trains using the track, um, ahead of ours. Why are we stuck?

Only after going to this site and doing much thinking I realized that in normal English, the explanation is that “there is another train farther up the track that is stalled for some reason, so that means we have to be stalled too.” At least that’s what I think it means. I’m really just guessing here.

The MTA should both be giving out more information to its own conductors, and let the conductors actually inform the public what they see and hear is going on.

rhywun July 17, 2009 - 7:20 am

Or it means that a train up ahead has to wait for a train from another line to merge onto the same track. Happens on the R all the time with the M, for example.

Andrew July 17, 2009 - 8:04 am

It’s simply a (poor) translation of “congestion” from transit-speak to English. (Personally, I don’t see why “congestion” is considered transit-speak in the first place, but nobody asked me.)

If the train operator sees red signals and isn’t aware of any particular reason for a delay up ahead, it’s because of congestion, or “train traffic ahead of us.” Could be the next train sitting in the station with people getting on and off (or holding the doors), could be another train merging in front of yours (even if nothing’s supposed to merge in front of your train at that point – maybe there’s a stalled train somewhere else, and trains are being diverted to your line!), could be a stalled train or sick passenger on a train up ahead (although I assume the conductor should announce those specific causes if he knows about them), could be just about anything.

I agree with your last sentence, although sometimes there really isn’t any more information to give. There are some “pinch points” where things just get congested every day.

Frank September 29, 2009 - 7:21 pm

V train need be cut


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