Home View from Underground Photo of the Day: Vandalizing, non-stop

Photo of the Day: Vandalizing, non-stop

by Benjamin Kabak

Where: The Church Ave.-bound G platform at Metropolitan Ave.
When: Thursday, February 24, 2011 at around 8:00 p.m.

When the MTA unveiled their new signs in December, the rebranding effort was sure to be met with a certain public skepticism. It’s easy to say that the MTA is improving, non-stop, but it’s much harder to show. With fares on the raise at the end of 2010 and services scaled back six months earlier, straphangers aren’t feeling too good about the state of their transit network.

Over the past few days, I’ve seen the sign praising the MTA’s construction workers with the tagline “Improvements don’t just happen” vandalized in numerous ways. Mostly, clever commuters cut out the word “just,” and the new message is clear. New Yorkers, frustrated with the MTA, think improvements aren’t happening, period. A more obscene edit gets that point across.

In a sense, it’s a short-sighted zinger. Over the past 25 years, we’ve seen new subway connections into Queens open up; we’ve seen the Manhattan Bridge overhauled; we’ve seen the onset of MetroCards, reduced fare options and free subway-to-bus transfers; we’ve seen a near-total overhaul of the MTA’s rolling stock; and a slow-moving State of Good Repair program inch forward. We have countdown clocks in over 100 stations, and now, we’re seeing a part of the Second Ave. Subway move toward a Phase 1 conclusion. Progress is there, but it’s slow.

On the other hand, progress is slow, and we’ve seen the system slide back a bit lately. Stations are dirtier, and station agents have become an endangered species. The give-and-take between capital improvements and daily maintenance leaves many frustrated.

That said, I don’t think New Yorkers will be satisfied with the subways until the trains arrive constantly, there’s always a seat, no one is ever delayed and the fares decrease. Perhaps promoting improvements is a losing battle no matter what happens underground.

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Todd February 27, 2011 - 3:11 pm

Friends from D.C. were very confused by these ads. “Why are they spending advertising money and losing potential ad space?” I didn’t have a good answer.

Benjamin Kabak February 27, 2011 - 3:14 pm

They’ve run house ads for decades in the subway. I’m not sure that’s a very valid critique of these spots.

Alon Levy February 28, 2011 - 1:21 am

I’m not sure “They’ve been doing that forever” is a good retort in New York. They’ve also been postponing SAS forever.

Benjamin Kabak February 28, 2011 - 10:48 am

That’s an invalid comparison, Alon. What transit agency doesn’t use some of its own space for self-promotion? They’re definitely not sacrificing ad revenue — which they aren’t very good at capturing in the first place — to run these billboards and posters.

Alon Levy February 28, 2011 - 5:01 pm

I don’t remember any of that in Singapore. They had military propaganda posters, but that (hopefully) was paid for by the military.

John Paul N. March 1, 2011 - 2:12 am

I don’t see this as anything a lot different than, say, a TV station promoting its network’s programs or its news previews.

But the stations that tend to have ad space are those which have side platforms. Most island platforms don’t, and they tend to have the higher ridership. If the platform doors are going to be installed, they will attractive for the advertising in highly-trafficked island platform stations.

Dan February 27, 2011 - 3:44 pm

I’m pretty sure if they could sell the ad space, they would and will in a heartbeat.

ferryboi February 27, 2011 - 4:46 pm

“House” ads were a term we used in the newspaper biz, when there was space left over after an advertiser pulled out and/or there just wasn’t enough time to fill the space with news content. Something along the lines of “put your ad here”.

I imagine that the MTA has some extra, unsold space and uses these ads to fill the void and to conduct PR campaigns, which is not a totally a bad idea. However, the MTA and/or it’s ad agency (do they have one?) usually come up with bland and boring campaigns.

Woody March 1, 2011 - 12:50 am

The current campaign would be more persuasive and invite less contempt if it gave more concrete examples. Most riders never see many of the best improvements. We usually only see the changes on the lines, or the stations, that we use regularly. Riders on the Lexington line just don’t know about the new ADA compliant station on the Broadway line, etc.

So for one, report on the opening of the new 96th Street entrance mid-Broadway and explain its benefits: It takes only ’30’ steps to get to the platform, instead of ’60’ steps using the old underpass. It has elevators, adding this station to the list of accessible stations on the Broadway line, including 72nd St, 59th St (izzat true?), 42nd St, etc. With the new elevators at 96th, 00 of the top 100 stations are now fully accessible.

For another, a new tunnel opened late 2010 gives a free connection between rebuilt stations on the old IND and BMT lines in downtown Brooklyn, now the Jay St.-MetroTech station, allowing 35,000 commuters to change trains and save time.

Work is underway on rebuilding the Bleecker St station to allow connections between the old IRT Lexington line and the old IND B/D/F/M lines. When this project is finished in 201X, about 00,000 riders who will save time using this new transfer.

And so forth.

John Paul N. March 1, 2011 - 2:27 am

Yes. I have disliked the vagueness and contrived simplicity of many MTA ads (much like the reasons for planned service changes before they were phased out of the current posters). Would people stop to read an ad by the MTA more so often than the latest movie of the month? I would say yes, if the advertising doesn’t consistently sound like platitudes from up high. (Although it is iconic for the subway, a headline in a typeface other than Helvetica can also attract.) Specifically “showing off” the recently constructed improvements as you mention, even in stations far away from said improvements, is a great first step.

Yanir Maidenberg February 27, 2011 - 5:23 pm

I completely agree that there have been improvements and thank God for them. I think the frustration of the public comes from two main reasons. You pointed out the slow pace of improvements, and that is certainly one of them. I think the other reason is that there are just too many mishaps (e.g., the 181st St station, the blizzard ‘cleanup’ efforts, the not-keeping-to-schedule attitude as in the rehab of South Ferry or Fulton Street or Cortlandt Street)

I keep juggling the fantasy in my head of temporarily privatizing portions of the MTA – sort of like a charter. That would ensure:
1. expansion of the system
2. cleanliness of the system
3. healthy competition amongst these factions that would bring other numerous benefits.

All this at a temporary hike in (certain) parts of the subway system. (For instance, you can charter a company to expand the 7 train in Queens and have them charge extra in that branch of the train – whatever)

BrooklynBus February 27, 2011 - 5:41 pm

This is the way I see it. Yes there have been improvements, and are these improvements slow in coming? Of course. But what is more prominent than the improvements? It’s dirty and unpainted stations, overcrowded trains during rush hours, inconvenient reroutes on weekends, buses operating two at a time on a route scheduled every 20 minutes so the real wait is 40 minutes. And what can the people do about these problems? They feel totally powerless. They can do nothing but vandalize a sign to show their displeasure.

What can the MTA do to change this perception? Plenty. First of all, they can try to restore credibility by listening to their customers and also to their employees instead of planning from an ivory tower and never bothering to actually ride the system to see what is going on. Riding once a day the same route to and from work does not count.

When someone complains, the MTA needs to listen, instead of responding negatively to every suggestion because they believe they have all the answers.

I have been complaining about a problem since last October and made several suggestions on how to solve it. Operations Planning promised to study it. Every request I’ve made since October to find out how the study is progressing has not received a response. The MTA believes ignoring the problem will just make it go away. They need to keep their promises. This is not good customer service.

It’s a real shame to paint the MTA with broad strokes, because the Operations people really want to do a good job, but they have just as many problems getting their bosses to listen to their requests as the public does. A bus dispatcher told me he could do his job much better if another one was stationed at another location with a radio. But no one will listen to him.

Al D February 28, 2011 - 10:09 am

I agree with you. There’s this bureaucratic morass at NYCT and MTA HQs where everyone protects their turf, their are excessive levels of management and a complete disconnect with the needs of the riders.

The organization needs to be remade into a flatter reporting structure and/or the operation’s group for example be given more lattitude.

BrooklynBus February 28, 2011 - 11:03 am

You are correct. The reason Operations and other parts of the MTA are not listened to is because most of their recommendations involve a small outlay of cash. They are only listened to if their suggestions involves cutting costs.

The MTA is pretending to operate like a business but no business operates the way the MTA does by making operating costs their only priority. When a proposal involves a small outlay of cash, they need to do a cost-benefit analysis to ascertain if the benefits warrants the extra expenditure rather than rejecting any cost proposal outright. Sometimes it is prudent to make an operational investment.

Here is a specific example. If there are 100 people waiting at a bus stop and two buses are available to pick up the load (average load 50 per bus), they would rather operate one of the buses empty and force 75 people into one bus and make the other 25 wait for the next bus, because operating both buses in service requires paying five minutes of overtime. That is a very small price to pay to better serve that number of passengers.

The MTA has lost focus of its mission which is to serve the public. They view cutting costs as their primary mission which is wrong.

Joe Steindam February 28, 2011 - 12:04 pm

Can you blame the MTA for it’s focus on cutting costs when it has seen it’s funding sources vanish through the recession. Considering the financial pickle and the requirement to have a balanced budget, it’s not surprising that cost cutting gets top priority. Although this MTA has been better at investing money to allow for future savings (as Ben mentions, replacing metrocards with contactless cards).

BrooklynBus February 28, 2011 - 2:28 pm

So why were they not willing to invest money in improving bus operations during years when they had a surplus? They would only make a routing change if the result was a zero cost change or a net cut in service.

Joe Steindam February 28, 2011 - 3:30 pm

I don’t know for certain (I was also in high school during these years, and my focus was elsewhere), but I tend to blame it on the fact that for years the MTA was never run by people who understood how to run a transit agency. Jay Walder may not be perfect, but he is certainly the most qualified man to hold the job for most of the last decade.

BrooklynBus March 1, 2011 - 9:08 am

I still don’t think the people understand how to run a transit agency, although you may be correct that Walder is the most qualified in the last ten years.

Christopher Stephens February 27, 2011 - 5:53 pm

While vandalizing ads isn’t right, despite a long tradition, I agree with BrooklynBus: riders feel completely powerless. When something goes wrong, there is no one to complain to, and even if you can find someone who will listen, no one is being held accountable. As for the “renovations”, I was looking forward to my station getting a makeover (86th and Lex), and while the tile they installed is attractive, they didn’t fix the lighting or the PA system, and there are still huge chips of paint peeling from the ceilings. In other words, even the “successful” renovations are pretty half-assed. You’re right, people will always complain, but the MTA could try giving us fewer reasons to do so.

Quinn Hue February 28, 2011 - 12:51 am

I’m going to try my hand with MTA PR pieces. Be the actual voice of the MTA.

Alon Levy February 28, 2011 - 1:24 am

While we’re on the subject of MTA ads, those “a city is only as good as its transit system” posters are just begging for an airline to put its own ad right next, for flights to Tokyo or another famous transit city.

Al D February 28, 2011 - 10:44 am

They can’t even correct the spelling on a bus destination sign timely.

They are a huge, almost non-responsive bureaucracy that completes almost nothing timely and correctly.


There has been a free bay in the Williamsburg Bridge Bus Station since the B39 was discontinued back in June. So, since the B62 now, finally, connects at the bus station, the (s/b) transfer is still more than a block away and across a dangerous intersection. Why is it so difficult to now run the bus into the actual station?

When they bought the R143’s, they didn’t buy enough. Now, all MTA had to do was to make a proper study of the development along the L to realize that they weren’t going to have enough equipment.

There are so many more, buses that continue to bunch, now bunched buses won’t pass one another, further slowing down this dance, horrible station conditions…

Benjamin Kabak February 28, 2011 - 10:50 am

Al: I don’t disagree with you on the fact that they complete almost nothing timely. That’s been well documented here. I think you’re conflated a few issues though. In regards to the R143 order, they purchased what they had money for. It had little to do with whether or not they bought “enough.” They bought what they bought based on a purchase plan and subsequently added to the order later on. Bus bunching too has more to do with poor operational planning than being a non-responsive bureaucracy. Your first point though — about bus terminals — is spot on, and it happens all over the city.

BrooklynBus February 28, 2011 - 11:29 am

I disagree that they don’t complete almost anything timely. You are correct if it involves a capital program which is usually 20 years behind schedule (eg. Utica Avenue IRT and Atlantic Avenue renovations) But if it’s a small thing, it just has to do with knowing the right person to speak to and if they want to do it, it can be done almost immediately. I’ve got destination signs corrected in a couple of days and a broken sign fixed in 48 hours.

But for most people who don’t know who to talk or write to, it can take forever to get through the bureaucracy until the request gets to the right person who cares. There also is a high likelihood that it will just get lost along the way and the problem will never be fixed because serving the customer is not a high priority.

There are two reasons why the B62 isn’t rerouted into the station. Either no one thought of it, or it would involve some miniscule amount of additional operating cost which they are not willing to spend to better serve the passenger. Have you written to them about it?

Bunched buses do pass each other less often these days, but they still do it. I’m not sure why this is happening. Not passing definitely does have a negative impact on service. The MTA pays no attention to bus bunching and will not assist the operating people who do care about this problem. Upper management doesn’t see bus bunching as costing them money so they ignore it.

The fastest I’ve ever seen the MTA act is when they wanted to transfer me to another department. They notified me at 2PM on a Friday and by 4PM everything was all complete. They wouldn’t even wait until Monday morning like I asked them to. So don’t ever say they MTA can’t do anything timely. If it doesn’t involve money and they want to do it, it can get done right away.

Woody February 28, 2011 - 11:14 pm

Bloomberg’s 311 system works surprisingly well at getting the complaint, e.g., new pothole or lamp burned out, to the folks supposed to fix it.

Apparently there’s nothing like it at the MTA, and probably it would be better if there were an MTA 311.

Kris March 1, 2011 - 1:18 am

The contact form on the MTA website functions a lot like 311; I once wrote them to complain that my local bus had been *very* late every morning for almost a month. I got a letter apologizing and saying they’d look into it; the next week I saw MTA inspectors monitoring the buses at the terminal stop.

They might actually surprise you sometimes.

BrooklynBus March 1, 2011 - 9:12 am

I’ve had the same experience. They even sent 6 people down to meet with me to discuss the problem where it was happening and this happened on more than one occasion.

If the problem gets down to the operating level, those people do care and will do whatever they can. The problem is that they just can’t do whatever they want and need approval from higher ups which is often rejected.

John Paul N. March 1, 2011 - 2:54 am

Knowing nothing about the operation of the bus terminal, the easiest solution I would make is (assuming the layout of the bus terminal is the same as it was a year ago), shuffle the Q54 and B60 each one bay north, put the B62 in the current B60 slot. (Unless the B62 goes north on Havemeyer, it’s not a good idea to put it in the former B39 slot.) The turning radius should be enough for the B62 to go back westbound. One issue I see (perhaps the reason it had not been implemented) is riders will need to pay attention to the headsigns, as the bay as I described will handle both directions.

One bus improvement I have witnessed this past month is the bus stop swap at Brooklyn Borough Hall between the B41 and the B25/B38/B52. I like it as it gives drivers a better chance to cross the lanes of Adams Street effectively, but I don’t like that since the B25/B38/B52 have more people, they are all waiting in the narrower area north of the crosswalk.

This change, as with other bus stop changes, was not publicized; at least I haven’t seen a mention of it. NJ Transit routinely announces bus stop relocations/deletions/additions, no matter how seemingly minor (e.g. bus stop moved from near side of street to far side). This practice can also be applied to the MTA, if they are so willing.

Kevin Walsh February 28, 2011 - 2:06 pm

“That said, I don’t think New Yorkers will be satisfied with the subways until the trains arrive constantly, there’s always a seat, no one is ever delayed and the fares decrease. Perhaps promoting improvements is a losing battle no matter what happens underground.”

Is that so wrong?

Benjamin Kabak February 28, 2011 - 2:09 pm

Does any public transit system anywhere actually realize that goal? Trains arrive frequently in New York; delays are inevitable; and you won’t find seats at rush hour in any city. Should we strive for a better transit system? Of course, but I maintain that New Yorkers have unreasonably high and mostly selfish expectations.

BrooklynBus February 28, 2011 - 2:25 pm

“I maintain that New Yorkers have unreasonably high and mostly selfish expectations.”

I totally disagree. While people will always complain no matter how good a service is, they are also very tolerant when it comes to bad service. Many people. especially those in low income areas are used to waiting 30 minutes for a bus when they are scheduled to arrive every ten. Do you hear them complaining? No. They accept it as a fact of life.

John of the Bronx February 28, 2011 - 8:24 pm

Reading the above thread, I agree with the comments of Brooklyn Bus, Al D, Christopher Stephens and Yanir Maidenberg.

First, the MTA has a “public be dammed” attitude and couldn’t care less what the people think! With a few exceptions, most people are very tolerant of service diversions. MTA upper management incubates their ideas in their “ivory tower” and embellishes them with “junkets” to other cities, which make them swoon. The few who do use the subways take a trip from 86th St. to Grand Central or Wall St.—they have no idea what a trip from Far Rockaway, Pelham Bay or Wakefield is like.

Second, to refine the comments of Brooklyn Bus. They like to save money on the backs of the riders and their employees.

Third, the MTA pays very little attention to what the people want the most: service delivery!

About a week ago, Ben posted the news that subway ridership was up but that bus ridership was down. Perhaps, these are not new riders but those switching to the subways whenever possible.

Bus bunching definitely seems worse after the service cuts. And, I must add another factor: the so-called “Hybrid Electrical Buses” are too small. Every trip on bus lines that use them becomes rush hour and forget the real rush hour.

Fourth, the MTA has a definite bias for Manhattan–especially for wealthy communities. They spent 98 million to renovate 96th St. while the ceiling at 181st St. was falling and many stations, such as Seneca Ave., on the M were about to collapse. What the people want in stations is not exotic aesthetics but a station that is clean, well-maintained, safe and most of all, to be on their way. Spending millions on design and elaborate artistic design is a waste of public money.

The principal problem is that the MTA is a public authority and no one can say “no” to them or to implement something which the public desires. Both the people and their elected officials have no power over mass transit policy.

The solution is to have New York City run its own subways and buses. In this setup, the people would have the power to make a difference as would elected officials. And yes, the elected officials could no longer play the blame game.
Mass transit must have popular support. The MTA has none and having passed its “Katrina moment” with the service cuts, never will.

Newly elected Senator Tony Avella pursued the NYC option while in the City Council and hopefully, will continue his efforts in the State Senate.

BrooklynBus February 28, 2011 - 9:21 pm

I agree with most everything you said. The only thing I disagree with is the notion that anything would be different if the City had control over the subways and buses instead of the MTA. I remember how service was like when it was City run, and it certainly was no better. You can even argue that it was worse. The City was no more amenable than the MTA to listen to the public and make changes the public wanted. Take for example the free transfers. The City maintained an archaic transfer structure between buses that existed when all the routes were privately operated for over 25 years. Most could not understand why some two-bus trips would cost double fare and others only one fare.

John of the Bronx March 1, 2011 - 9:06 am

Brooklyn Bus: I’m glad to have touched base with someone who remembers when the City ran our mass transit. I look forward to your insights in the days ahead!

From my historical research, the City ran a much bigger system than the present and carried far more riders. I have seen no evidence of such total public dissatisfaction as exists today! In addition, the BOT projects had strong public support (IND expansion) which the MTA can only dream about.

The advantage which I see for the City taking over is:

1. Those running transit are mainly engineers and technocrats who have no feel for the people and because of their public authority status can totally ignore the people.

If NYC ran the system, the City Council would never have approved the elimination of the station agents. This, not the two books controversy, is what turned the public against the MTA. To this day, people curse the MTA when they enter a station in the outer boroughs and see no agent.

It’s a fact that the MTA is oriented to the wealthy areas of Manhattan, in particular. The need for City Council approval would finally mean a more equitable distribution of resources for the whole city.

I favor a NYC run Mass Transit Board which would include appointees by the 5 borough presidents. The people who live in the outer boroughs should decide what transportation improvements they need and want. Today, of the borough presidents, only Markowitz of Brooklyn has attempted to define transit improvements and he was mostly ignored.

In general, in a democracy you must have public support to function and to get funding. Since the elected officials would have the final say, they would definitely act in accordance with the public will on the big issues.

BrooklynBus March 1, 2011 - 9:24 am

I was really speaking of the New York City Transit Authority. The Board of Transportation was before my time. I hope you are correct that City control would be more responsiveness, but I doubt it. The BOT did nothing to rationalize the bus fare transfer policy when the City took over BMT buses.

Also DOT is not responsive to the public moving ahead with its agenda to expand bike lanes on streets where they cause more traffic congestion by eliminating traffic lanes, although there is growing opposition against it. They are just as bad as the MTA when it comes to non-responsiveness.

And as far as the station agents are concerned, I have no problem with eliminating them at lightly used stations that see only a few fares a day. I question their removal, however at stations like Herald Square where there are great number of tourists who may need to ask someone directions or another question a machine can’t answer, not to even mention the security aspect.

John Paul N. March 1, 2011 - 3:12 am

“What the people want in stations is not exotic aesthetics but a station that is clean, well-maintained, safe and most of all, to be on their way.”

There is something to be said about having aesthetically nice (visible) infrastructure. If you invest more (and care that you do), you will take pains to protect that investment. And you spend more in the hopes that the station is more attractive than it had been. However, we have seen that doesn’t apply to all places in the subway system, examples: Chambers Street J/Z station and the boarded up panes where stained glass used to be on the Brooklyn Fulton Street J/Z stations. In the end, it does come down to whether maintenance is easier and/or cheaper in higher-end stations than less-wealthy stations, and what class of people is going to complain more in such types of stations. Not fair, but appears to be the reality.

bamom April 16, 2011 - 12:38 pm

While i understand that all of you on this board are discussing these posters regarding the subway….I would like to point out that these posters are also up on the LIRR now, and the MTA is completely wrong (and clueless) with respect to putting these posters up on the LIRR trains. What a “delight” for the daily commuters to read these every day after the winter from hell we had as most of our trains were cancelled (and the ones that were not were delayed.) I would also like to know how much these posters cost, as the MTA has no money (since our fares were just increased again), yet they found money to print posters to thank their employees for “improving” the LIRR to the point of making most of the daily commuters late for work for the last 6 months. Good job all… well done.. and keep up the good (improvement) work! Oh and where are the posters for the “Courtesy Matters Cell-fish” campaign? Don’t see any of those anywhere? Oh, right, the MTA is out of money, I forgot….


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