Every year at around this time, the Straphangers Campaign releases another set of its report cards, and every year, I begrudgingly cover them. I understand what the Straphangers are trying to do with the report cards; they’re trying to condense a lot of information about our subway system into an easy-to-understand presentation. But they’re also so kitschy. Do we need a report released in August of 2011 to tell us that our subway trains in mid-2010 were crowded, dirty and often did not arrive as scheduled?
This year, the best thing to arrive out of the Straphangers’ report was the headline on Andrew Grossman’s Wall Street Journal piece: “MTA Has 99 Problems, But J/Z Ain’t One.” The J/Z trains, you see, took top honors in the Straphangers’ poll. Tell that to the folks who have to ride those trains every day.
Anyway, here’s the story in a nutshell: The J/Z ranked top with a MetroCard rating of $1.45 while the 2 and C came in last with a rating of just $0.90. For the C, it’s the third year in a row at the bottom of the list, and that’s largely due to the fact that it has been, until recently, home of the oldest rolling stock in the system. The cars break down more frequently; the announcement are less audible; and the line is generally dirtier.
The report itself covers the first half of 2010, and it’s almost a case of shutting the barn door after the horse escapes. As Straphangers attorney Gene Russianoff said, “Its probably is too early to measure the full impacts of the 2010 cuts, but according to official transit statistics, there were fewer subway car breakdowns in the last half of 2010, while subway car cleanliness and announcements declined slightly in the year. What’s clear is that many riders on the top rated lines are getting much better service than those taking lines that are at the bottom of the barrel.”
In the report, which is available here, the Straphangers discuss their methodology. Basically, they rate across five categories: breakdowns, cleanliness, chance of getting a seat, amount of scheduled service and regularity of service. Unfortunately, by focusing on line-by-line variables, the report misses the forest for the trees. For instance, if I’m going from Brooklyn to Manhattan via the West Side IRT, I don’t care if, say, the 2 has service scheduled only every ten minutes as long as the 2 and 3 combined have five-minute headways.
This year’s version of the report found that few things had changed underground. In the short term, they rarely do. The subway car breakdown rate improved to 170,217 miles, up from 148,002 miles. Car cleanliness stayed the same, and intelligible announcements declined from 91 percent to 87 percent.
My biggest issue with the Straphangers’ report is the ultimate way it quantifies the subway system. By using a so-called MetroCard system that evaluates a bunch of variables, scales them and assigns a dollar value to them based off of a system where a $2.25 ride would require top scores in every category, the Straphangers are basically saying that the subway isn’t worth the swipe. That’s a dangerous thing to say in an era in which the MTA enjoys nearly no political support and the transit system is hanging on by the skin of its teeth.
The Straphangers nearly admit as much. As they say on their website, “Some riders may find this scale too generous, believing that performance levels should be far better than they are now. Other riders, who value transit service over other ways to travel in New York City, may believe the subways and buses to be a bargain.” Interpret that as you will.
For its part, the MTA sort of brushed off the study. The authority has been releasing this information in a more up-to-date form on its performance metrics dashboard, and its riders know how service lags. “Each month, New York City Transit reports on a wide range of performance indicators that are always available for riders at mta.info,” Transit said in a statement. “We always appreciate and consider the Straphangers Campaign’s fun and unique take on subway and bus service.”
Now if only someone would present a serious proposal that would help fix the inherent problems with both the MTA and its service offerings.