Home MTA Absurdity On the problem with the MTA’s escalators

On the problem with the MTA’s escalators

by Benjamin Kabak

Whenever I travel to a subway station with an escalator, I usually wind up taking the stairs. I like the exercise, and I find the stairs faster than trying to weave around straphangers who can’t figure out how to stand on the right and walk on the left. Still, the escalators in the New York City subway system are far from perect, and yet their reach is going to expand soon.

In today’s Times, Christine Haughney highlights the problem with the escalators. Even though the numbers are by and large positive, the ones that are broken seem to stay that way. Haughney writes:

In large measure, the system’s 194 elevators in 73 stations, and its 178 escalators in 52 stations, work far more often than not. Elevator availability was measured at 95.3 percent in the second quarter of this year, compared with 96.8 percent in the same period last year; escalators held steady at 92.8 percent.

Still, some troubling issues remained; in those three months, there were 73 instances when riders got stuck in elevators. And escalators and elevators in disrepair tended to stay that way. “The public perception is in a totally different place because if you come upon an escalator and it’s out of service, your perception is that it’s never in service,” Thomas F. Prendergast, president of New York City Transit, said.

The authority knows that this has long been a problem and is doing its best to fix it, Mr. Prendergast said. In July, the authority restructured elevator and escalator operations by creating a dedicated 299-person group, naming Tony Suarez as its leader, and having him present quarterly reports directly to the authority board.

Since then, the authority has tried to give riders better updates about out-of-service elevators and escalators by sending text messages, posting information on its Web site and adding more signs in stations. Most of all, Mr. Prendergast said, he is trying to change the mind-set of transit workers who dismiss broken elevators as an inevitable part of urban transportation. “Part of it’s denial and part of it’s blaming others,” Mr. Prendergast said of some transit workers’ view of elevator and escalator problems. “But we have to rise to another place.”

It’s sort of stunning to think that 300 people are devoted to the MTA’s escalators, and yet, many seem out of service seemingly semi-permanently. They are fixed, and then they break again. Those at the stations that need them the most, says The Times, “have the worst performance records.”

Escalators, then, would seem to be a thing to avoid for the MTA, but the authority is heading in another direction. When the 7 line extension opens at 34th St. and 11th Ave. in two years, it will be serviced by escalators and inclined elevators, thus creating the perfect storm of MTA technology. In fact, this week, the KONE Corporation announced that it had been rewarded the contract for the station.

KONE specializes in industrial escalators, and it will add nine heavy-duty transit escalators and two custom-inclined elevators to the deep-cavern station at 34th St. and 11th Ave. Earlier this year, the MTA said that it wasn’t planning on installing stairs there so these escalators and elevators will be the only manner of egress. Ultimately, then, I’m left with a Mitch Hedberg quote: “An escalator can never break: it can only become stairs.” The MTA’s escalators at worst are stairs, and that worst seems to pop up more than it should.

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19 comments

Stephen Smith October 14, 2011 - 12:57 am

Anyone who’s had the pleasure of riding the DC Metro will know that broken escalators can be much, much worse than stairs, especially if it’s raining, and especially going down. Unlike stairs, where there are landings every few dozen steps, a long broken escalator just keeeeps on going, and you’re guaranteed to get vertigo before you’re halfway down. Hopefully the 2nd Ave. Subway won’t be as deep underground as some of the DC Metro lines, though.

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Al D October 14, 2011 - 12:12 pm

Agreed. And the step/tredal distance disparity is marked. I’ll use the complementing stairs when I see an escalator that’s out.

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Christopher October 14, 2011 - 12:58 am

Having lived in DC where they pretty much ONLY have escalators. And where the escalators are always either broken or in repair status. (Some of them seeming permanently since I had originally moved to DC in 2004), i’m always amazed at how well NYC escalators work! Especially as ours look like they should not be working at all. So I guess it’s all about perspective.

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John-2 October 14, 2011 - 10:42 am

I lived in Washington in the late 1970s-early 80s when the system was just coming online and was amazed that WMATA had both made so many station platforms inaccessible without the use of escalators, and for design purposes, had failed to cover the escalators on the street entrances to their stations, especially the deep-tunnel stations like Dupont Circle on the Red Line.

It was almost as if the DC Metro planners, in their desire to make their system look as little like New York City as possible, also decided that their system would never suffer from mechanical breakdowns or weather-related hazards to the system’s mechanical components, like New York City. It was a recipe for disaster from Day 1, because while the system may have been fresh and flush with cash 30-plus years ago, the more popular WMATA got, the more pressure would be put on that same infrastructure as it aged, and municipal mass transit systems have always been among the first things pols look at during budget cutting times.

But the people designing and running WMATA in the 70s weren’t worried about how things would look a decade into the next Century, only that it looked good NOW — they weren’t going to running the damned thing in 2011. With the 34th Street station on the 7 train, it sounds as if the MTA is falling into the same trap, but without the same “How were we to know?” excuse of a brand-new system — making platform access dependent on some form of mechanical equipment while at the same time knowing about the history of elevators and escalators within the system is idiotic.

That doesn’t mean they should build a station with nothing but stairs and one ADA elevator, but if Hudson Yards is as successful as Mayor Mike wants it to be, you’re just asking for trouble 20 years down the line, since 34th-and-11th would be far more used than any other MTA station (like 168th Street on the 1 or Clark Street on the 2-3) with only mechanical access to the platform. At least put one decently wide stairway in next to the escalators for when the inevitable breakdowns occur.

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Brian October 14, 2011 - 1:18 am

escalators cannot break they can only become stairs

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Grosda October 14, 2011 - 11:44 am

as noted there are no landings in a long elevator. And the pitch (height between the steps) is often higher than on normal stairs. That makes them more difficult for climbers that have hip/knee/ankle problems.

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Anonymous October 14, 2011 - 5:05 pm

Until they close it for repairs.

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Marc Shepherd October 14, 2011 - 9:25 am

“It’s sort of stunning to think that 300 people are devoted to the MTA’s escalators, and yet, many seem out of service seemingly semi-permanently.”

Actually, it’s 299 for escalators and elevators; still, if the article is correct, that’s approximately 1.25 devices per person. While outages for such heavily used equipment are inevitable, they ought to be able to get them fixed.

I don’t think the situation is as bad as Ben says. Stations that depend on escalators usually have more than one. It is pretty rare that a long climb up an escalator is your only way out.

There really is no alternative to escalators at the new 34th St./11th Avenue station. That line had to be built very deep, because it was crossing underneath existing transit routes.

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SEAN October 14, 2011 - 10:14 am

What about Roosevelt Island the deepest station in the system. It has one elevator per platform & one for the street. On the escalator side, there are enough of them to satisfy station volume.

In 1988 when the White Plains MNR station was remoddled it was designed with escalators in mind, but they were installed a few years later. interestingly they are one person wide so forget about standing to the right.

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Al D October 14, 2011 - 12:17 pm

The first thing they should do for the 7 is to go to Prague and do exactly as they do. It’s escalator only access at some deep center city stations, and the escalators are fast, wide, clean, and quiet. Oh, and did I mention, long?

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Paulie3jobs October 14, 2011 - 2:15 pm

“I like an escalator because an escalator can never break, it can only become stairs. There would never be an escalator temporarily out of order sign, only an escalator temporarily stairs. Sorry for the convenience.” RIP Mitch

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BBnet3000 October 14, 2011 - 2:38 pm

BART has escalators at every station, but they are fairly reliable, AND there are always stairs as well.

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Clarke October 14, 2011 - 2:53 pm

Inclined elevators? That sounds pretty exciting.

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eveostay October 15, 2011 - 8:56 am

Yeah – what’s an inclined elevator? Is it actually a funicular?

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Alon Levy October 15, 2011 - 1:15 pm

Only vaguely. Inclined elevators are counterweighted like normal elevators, and for the most part have floors with call buttons like normal elevators. They just move you horizontally as well as vertically. There are a lot of them in Monaco, and nobody ever considers them to be like funiculars; they’re treated the same as purely vertical elevators.

That said, I don’t see why they’d be so useful for a subway system, where regular elevators are the norm. Their main use is as public elevators in hilly cities, which may require some horizontal motion on cliff edges and steep hillsides. For example, New York might want to install them at 116th and 135th as an alternative to making people walk up multiple flights of stairs to get from Central Harlem to the Heights. In contrast, to get from street level to platform level on most lines, you need to execute purely vertical motion.

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Andrew October 16, 2011 - 1:14 am

An inclined elevator can follow the same path as the escalator or stairs. A vertical elevator can’t, which might mean having to make the mezzanine larger than otherwise necessary.

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Harold October 15, 2011 - 9:23 am

The escalators in Japan don’t seem to break. Why is that?

Also, escalators don’t merely “become stairs” — they can break in a dangerous manner and injure riders. If we are going to have escalators, we should do whatever it takes to keep them running smoothly and safely.

Another thing. It would make sense — in a more ideal world where people maintained things — to have moving sidewalks at some subway stations where there is a long transfer — as in Times Square — like they do in airports.

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vbtwo October 15, 2011 - 9:37 pm

They probably just get fixed quickly. In places where public transit is more than an afterthought (politically), these things seem to run much more smoothly.

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jj October 15, 2011 - 2:30 pm

The MTA budget is becoming more beholden to employee salaries and pensions than to subway cars , buses and infrastructure
Look at the budget trends over the last 50 years and you see a huge increase in salaries , pensions and healthcare . This has to change , or we will be riding Third World transportation

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