Home View from Underground ‘What we’ve got here is failure to communicate’

‘What we’ve got here is failure to communicate’

by Benjamin Kabak

A web-based weekend diagram is no stand-in for adequate customer service.

When the weekends roll around in New York City, I know just as well as anyone else that riding the subways becomes something of a crap shoot. Usual train routes are thrown out the window as weekend work forces the subways into an oft-indecipherable mess of service changes that are often scheduled with no regard for each other. We’re lucky if all of the folks driving the MTA’s subways know about the service changes. Expecting straphangers to memorize the voluminous changes simply isn’t realistic.

Now, we all know why the MTA has to change service over the weekend. It gives the authority the best time to perform work, and by reducing service over a span of 54 hours on the weekend, the authority doesn’t interfere with peak-hour, weekday travel. To that end, the MTA has tried to make weekend subway trips as easy as possible. They’ve redesigned their signs and unveiled an online diagram of weekend subway service. By and large then, it’s possible to find out either before you leave the house or once you get to the subway what the changes are, but when things go bad on the weekends, they go very, very bad. Communication, it seems, is the issue.

I had three experiences this weekend that truly drove home that point. The first happened on Saturday. I was waiting at Spring Street for a downtown 6 train in order to reach the Brooklyn Bridge stop where I could transfer to a Brooklyn-bound train. According to the MTA’s timetable, normal southbound service on the 6 at around 3:45 p.m. involves a train every eight minutes. I waited 20 minutes for mine as four different express trains passed Spring St. Not once did the MTA make an announcement concerning any delayed trains, and with the PA/CIS system offline, the countdown clocks could not placate the impatient masses. I could have walked to Foley Square in 20 minutes.

Today, I had a similar experience while heading to the TWA Flight Center for Open House New York. I made it to Jay St. at around 1:30 to wait for a Rockaway-bound A train to take me to Howard Beach, and I waited and waited and waited and waited. In the 30 minutes, I stood there waiting I saw four Coney Island-bound F trains arrive, four local C trains and four Lefferts Boulevard-bound A trains. It was not until later when I arrived home did I learn from Twitter that A service to the Rockaways had been temporary suspended due to a problem with the South Channel Bridge. The MTA never sent an announcement to the Jay St. platform, and conductors on arriving A trains failed to mention it either.

The final strike came on Sunday evening when I was journeying back to Brooklyn from the Upper West Side. First, the MTA had arranged weekend service so that it was basically impossible to get a one-seat ride from areas in Brooklyn served by the BMT Brighton Line or the IRT Nostrand, New Lots or Eastern Parkway lines to Manhattan. The Q wasn’t running at all, and the 2 and 3 weren’t heading into Brooklyn. I wonder if there’s a way for the MTA to stagger these service changes without cutting off an easy ride to the West Side for everyone in a large swath of Brooklyn.

With these service changes in place, the ride back from the Upper West Side featured numerous cut-ins by the conductor on my 2 train as he told riders where to go. As we pulled into Times Square, he urged passengers to switch to the N, Q or R trains to get to Brooklyn, and then he did the same when he told riders nearing 14th St. to take the L to Union Square. Now, generally, that’s a great idea, but by telling customers to switch to the Q, the conductor was giving out erroneous information. With the Q shut down, people switching from the IRT to the BMT would find themselves even more inconvenienced than if they simply made the out-of-system transfer to Bowling Green from South Ferry.

Now, I know and you know that the MTA doesn’t want to ruin people’s weekend commutes. They’d prefer to run frequently trains without altering the service patterns, but life with a subway system over 100 years old doesn’t quite work like that. We begrudgingly accept service changes. We shouldn’t though begrudgingly accept bad customer service and communication. Transit has a central control room with the ability to broadcast messages to PA-equipped subway stations throughout the city. When they don’t take advantage of that ability, it’s a problem.

Ultimately, there’s no compelling reason why Transit never made an announcement regarding the Broad Channel problems yesterday. If they can broadcast it to Twitter, they can send it to the station. With the PA/CIS technology in place, there’s no compelling reason why two 6 trains went missing from the schedule at 3:45 p.m. on a Saturday with nary a word over the PA system, and it goes without saying that conductors shouldn’t be telling riders to switch to trains that aren’t even running.

In the minds of customers, these little things all add up over time. If the MTA wants public support at a tough time in its financial and political history, it has to do its part too. Keeping straphangers informed of changes over the weekend when travel is already tough enough should become a customer service priority.

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Alex C October 17, 2011 - 2:12 am

People in charge of this at the MTA need to go to Subwayweekender.com. Hire that guy. Get all local TV and radio channels to broadcast this info every single day. And not just a blurb, have it be mentioned in detail with weather/traffic. That’s actually a thing that bothers me. You’d think with so many people taking the subway this info would be mandatory for tv/radio in NYC to give out. Anything as far a city ordinance or something that can be passed to make this a legal requirement?

Tsuyoshi October 17, 2011 - 8:52 am

Now that you mention, it does seem odd that they don’t cover transit in their traffic reports. Either they just never thought of it, or they decided that the typical subway rider has too little disposable income for their advertisers to care about reaching them. Given the types of advertising I see on the subway, I suspect the latter.

BrooklynBus October 17, 2011 - 9:49 am

They do cover transit. All they say is “subways running normally”. Forget about the buses They dont even count If there is a major storm, they say, “expect transit delays”. That’s the type of coverage they do. Exceptions are when an entire line is out. That gets reported as a news item. Reallistically, there is no time to report on all the delays everyday. But yes the media and the MTA could do a much better job in this area.

Bgriff October 17, 2011 - 10:46 am

NY1 covers transit service changes in their traffic reports. Don’t know about other sources.

ferryboi October 17, 2011 - 9:50 am

Buy a car. You’d have been at JFK in 20 mins. Seriously, if you think the MTA gives a rat’s ass how long you wait on the weekend for your trip to Open House NY, think again. No announcements, no updates, no trains. This has been the MTA’s SOP for 40 years now. All the blogging in the world won’t change a thing. After years and years of this garbage, I broke down and bought a car, which was the best thing I did for myself in years.

VLM October 17, 2011 - 10:07 am

I’m not really sure how you reach the conclusion “buy a car” from Ben’s rant on poor communication between the MTA and its riders. Between the costs of buying a car, paying of insurance, maintenance and gas as well as dealing with parking in Park Slope, Ben certainly isn’t better off buying a car that he would likely rarely use. If anything, he could join ZipCar, if he hasn’t already, and used that to drive out to JFK. That’s a far better solution than dropping at least 10 grand on a car that won’t get see a lot of use.

My other point to you is that the MTA should give announcements for JFK-bound trains whether people are going out there for reasons of tourism or travel. If the city wants to encourage the use of the train to the plate, it should keep riders informed. That’s the point.

ferryboi October 17, 2011 - 10:18 am

True, ZipCar would probably be better option for folks like Ben. The point of my mini-rant was that you can wait 20, 40, 60 mins for a train, and take 2 hours to get from Park Slope to JFK (even on a weekday, btw) or get in a car and take a 20-min drive. I got tired of complaining and waiting for the MTA to get its act together. And now that my car is paid off, it comes in very hand for trips to the airports, the outer edges of the city, and NJ/CT.

Bolwerk October 17, 2011 - 10:36 am

Or you can be stuck in car traffic for two hours. Cars make more sense sometimes, but they’re not a magic bullet.

ferryboi October 17, 2011 - 10:53 am

Again true, but at least I’m sitting down in an air-conditioned or heated car with leather seats and a radio. And my car doesn’t have rats, discarded chicken bones, or smell like piss, which is always a plus when traveling across town.

Bolwerk October 17, 2011 - 12:07 pm

Yes, and like the people who leave those things in subway cars, I suppose it’s comforting to know the consequences of your behavior are mostly someone else’s problem.

BrooklynBus October 17, 2011 - 12:18 pm

Very funny.

SEAN October 17, 2011 - 12:30 pm

Oy vey, it looks like two guys need a time out similar to the E Trade baby.

ferryboi October 17, 2011 - 1:03 pm

Kinda like you buying and using a computer made by slave laborers in China. Or wearing clothes made by 10-year-old kids in Vietnam. Or eating veggies picked by poor immigrants earning $2 a day in California, or…well, you get my drift. My little Chevy that I drive once a week ain’t exactly Public Enemy #1. But you wear your air of moral superiority very well, so keep on truckin’!

Preseter John October 17, 2011 - 1:34 pm

Yeah, providing jobs for people in poor countries that they take willingly sure is akin to increasing asthma rates among inner-city children and accelerating climate change!

I’m sure those people would rather not have jobs. After all, those immigrants only crossed at least one international border and risked their liberty, lives and life’s savings in order to work that job.

ferryboi October 17, 2011 - 1:37 pm

Selective Outrage is a wonderful thing. It’s always someone else’s fault. Be careful going thru life in that little bubble of yours, it’s bound to burst any minute now.

Bolwerk October 17, 2011 - 2:23 pm

Uh, nice deflection. You were the one who got up on the high horse about chicken bones and piss.* So, no, not kinda at all. None of those things is anywhere near the actual problem for society that your car multiplied by a million is. And FYI, I do my best to avoid all those things you mention too – and probably do a pretty good job when it comes to computer parts and clothes. I don’t expect anybody to be perfect, but I can reasonably expect people to be aware of the consequences of their actions without being a prig.

* Of course, I should point out that you probably exaggerate how common those things are too. Regardless, they’re nuisances, not significant health or environmental problems.

ferryboi October 17, 2011 - 2:29 pm

St. Bolwerk of Nieuw Amsterdam! He who is without sin…

My Chevy spits out about 90% less pollution than the average car of 1970, and doesn’t even come close to those manufacturing plants in China that build your computer, your TV, your iPOD/PHONE/PAD, the cell phone you use, and 100 other items you use every week. But by pointing the finger at others, you can feel better about you and your lack of carbon footprint. I totally understand. Hope you sleep better because of me, The Cobalt Devil!

The Cobalt Devil October 17, 2011 - 2:35 pm

My new SAS moniker!

Bolwerk October 17, 2011 - 3:34 pm

But then, a car’s manufacture presumably produces several times more pollution than all those things I mostly don’t have combined. And then, after it’s manufactured, it continues to pollute. And then it pollutes at a greater rate when it’s finally disposed of. So I don’t really see what your point is, unless you were deliberately trying to make an argument that looks ridiculous.

I didn’t point my finger at anything. I simply pointed out your indignation (“finger-pointing,” if you prefer) at people for pissing and leaving chicken bones in public contradicts your obviously lack of concern for doing something more harmful. Your initial lack of consideration is perfectly understandable, but that you have make up a strawman to try to shift the burden of responsibility onto others changes your position from understandable innocence to deliberate hypocrisy. Congratulations.

Andrew October 18, 2011 - 10:39 pm

Strange rant. Your Chevy is a substitute for a 1970 car plus a computer plus a TV plus an iPOD/PHONE/PAD plus a cell phone?

Andrew October 18, 2011 - 10:43 pm

And you can’t read a book or take a nap while you’re waiting.

But I don’t understand. Don’t you want other people to be on the train? The more people you convince to drive, the more likely you are to get stuck in traffic.

Al D October 17, 2011 - 12:32 pm

From Park Slope to JFK by car would be about a 40 min drive on the weekend, again depending on time of day of travel.

ferryboi October 17, 2011 - 12:45 pm

I’ll take 40 mins over 2 hours anyday!

BrooklynBus October 17, 2011 - 10:08 am

That was exactly what I was going to say. Well almost. Ben, when are you going to realize that the MTA never cared about the passenger and unless something radically changes, they never will. Your always apologizing and trying to make the public see things from their point of view will not change the way they operate and think. You know nothing about what actually goes on in the MTA and what their real agenda is. All you know is their public personna.

In my piece this week on Sheepsheadbites I critiqued their analysis of their local Brooklyn bus cutbacks. As usual, they draw conclusions not based on the data they collected which is presented in their usual biased manner. First they draw their conclusions, then try to fit the data to it. That is not the way to plan or serve the public. In my opinion, it is clear from what I’ve read of that report, their mission is too provide the least amountnof service they can get away with politically even if reducing service makes the system more inefficient. In the most glaring example, the B48 efficiency when measured by cost per rider greatly increased as riders deserted the system and the MTA thus far has announced no plans to restore service south of Fulton Street. Their conclusion was that at least we cut costs even if efficiency worsened. That is just irresponsible.

Their mission should be to improve connections between neighborhoods. Instead they have been destroying those connections my increasing the number of occasions a three bus double fare trip is needed driving more people to use illegal van services which exactly what the MTA is trying to accomplish. If they really want to cut costs, maybe then they should just shut down the entire system which is the direction they are going.

VLM October 17, 2011 - 10:17 am

Wait a second. So you whine for months about how Ben never criticizes the MTA — ignoring all the while that he does criticize the MTA fairly regularly — and when he writes a piece that’s highly critical of the MTA, you still bash him for it? Wow. You’re a bigger jerk than I thought. Do you not like him because he doesn’t link often enough to your “I’m a bitter old man who can’t get a job” crap on Sheepshead Bites or what? Lay off it, buddy.

And it’s “you’re.” If you’re going to slander someone by saying “Your always apologizing,” at least get the grammar right.

BrooklynBus October 17, 2011 - 10:32 am

Yes he is criticizing the MTA but why don’t you look for a minute at the framework he is using. He states they have tried to make subway weekend trips as easy as possible by redesigning signs and maps and he mentions how weekend work is necessary. This is all true. So if the MTA cares so much why did Ben have so many bad experiences and why will it continue if the MTA truly cares? Why should communication be that bad? All he knows are his own experiences. Multiply that my the millions of others who go through the same thing every weekend and only complain about it to their friends because forget about complaining to the MTA. They will only ignore you unless you bring the problem to the attention of the media.

You just can’t seem to say anything without insulting me can you? You have no use for anyone who can present intelligent facts that disagree with your view of the world. I’m not a bitter old man who can’t get a job. I call that slander. Why don’t you practice what you preach, hypocrite?

BrooklynBus October 17, 2011 - 10:37 am

And to make things perfectly clear, I wasn’t criticizing all the hard working and well meaning people at the lower levels of the MTA who try to do their job the best way they can. I am criticizing upper management who set policy and priorities.

Andrew October 19, 2011 - 12:01 am

It’s not upper management that failed to keep Ben informed of the delays that he encountered.

BrooklynBus October 19, 2011 - 11:45 am

Correct. It is not upper management who is responsible for keeping the passengers informed. Clearly, something went awry in all three instances somewhere between upper management and the lower levels. But it is upper management who sets the tone for good customer service and that clearly is not a priority of current upper management.

 I’ll give you just one example. It has recently come to light that if you pay your bus fare with a MetroCard with insufficient funds, the system is set up to deduct what is left on the card so you can complete the transaction with cash. Maybe fine if you are short a quarter. But what if you are short $1.30. Few people will have that amount of change.  Some think that if they use a second MetroCard, the amount they are short will be deducted, but the system deducts a full fare, so $1.30 would be lost. 

This has not been a problem until recently when odd amounts started being left over. The system could be modified to give the driver the option if the amount should be subtracted or the card returned with the money still intact. But the MTA doesn’t view this as their problem, but the customer’s problem, for not knowing at all times how much is exactly on their cards as if that is the only thing on their minds. The system needs to be modified because it is their problem since they are getting money they are not entitled to. They don’t care, since getting the extra money is more important to them than being fair to the customer. 

You may say that this has nothing to do with Ben’s problem, but I see a parallel. If upper management were truly concerned about the passenger, there would be measures put in place to minimize miscommunication from happening in the future. Yes, he should complain to them, but will it really make a difference?  One person might be reprimanded and he might do a better job in the future. But much more needs to be done. The fact that he had three instances in one weekend shows this is all too common of an occurrence. When Peter Stangl headed the MTA he made it a point to emphasize good customer service as the MTA’s highest priority. Today it is reducing service to balance the budget that seems to be the only priority, not even to make the system more efficient. See. http://www.sheepsheadbites.com.....38715858 

Andrew October 19, 2011 - 5:16 pm

Customer service has been a much greater priority for current upper management than it has been for previous upper managements. Last year’s service cuts were precipitated by a severe budget shortfall. There was no way to avoid them.

Your MetroCard issue did not “recently come to light” – it’s how MetroCards have always worked from day one, and it’s never been a secret. I’m sorry nobody told you personally, but somehow I knew about it, and on the rare occasion that I’ve boarded a bus with less than the full fare on my card, I’ve been prepared with enough change to cover the rest. (Normally I just make sure I have enough money on the card to cover my rides.) If you don’t like it, blame Peter Stangl, who was in charge when the MetroCard system was designed.

BrooklynBus October 19, 2011 - 7:35 pm

But it wasn’t a problem until they started screwing around with the bonuses so it became more difficult for the rides to come out even. They could at least publicize that you can’t combine two cards if they cared about the customer. The truth is they would rather just keep the money.

There are many other examples. There is the “Request a Stop” program on buses at night but most people do not know about it. It hadn’t been publicized for at least ten years. People forget in that time and new people move into the City. So I complained to them and a month later I saw a notice in the buses about it, but it was removed after one month. Why couldn’t it have been left on the buses permanently when most of the ad space is empty anyway? I don’t believe it is even mentioned on the bus maps.

Al D October 17, 2011 - 12:50 pm

Well said, and perhaps they finally should re-think their bus service delivery model, outdated now by I think more than half a century. Like this article, I have not the time or patience to wait 40 minutes for 6 bunched buses to arrive at the same time, and with no foreknowledge that this would happen (i.e. communication from the MTA). In Manhattan, I’d take the first yellow cab I could get. In the boroughs, I’d be up a creek with no paddle…

Nora October 17, 2011 - 12:32 pm

I agree that it would be nice if the MTA could stagger service changes. I live just off the Q and the fact that the Q, G, and 2 were not running out by me pretty much cut off every option I had to leave my house. Practically as bad as service in the snowstorm last year, though at least I could take the bus this time.

Al D October 17, 2011 - 12:44 pm

Except for Manhattan, the answer is to use a car on the weekend, or bike (city-wide). Now, just think if you had a family in tow, how astronomically more aggravating this would be, fussy children, fussy spouse.

You gave a good amount of your weekend to MTA, in time lost, and aggravation. A weekend I suspect that’s too important to you to be left to the whims you encountered.

Many discussions on Ben’s blog take place in a transit bubble if you will, but the pratical reality of this city, or at least many, many parts of it, is that a car is needed to get around in many (not all) instances, especially when there is a family involved.

I ride the bus and subway regularly, and prefer them for many trips, but there are just atimes where I use my car because of the huge convenience it offers over transit, a 1 seat ride, travel time 1/3 of the equivalent transit time, transporting mutiple/large items…

Andrew October 18, 2011 - 10:54 pm

Well, if you have a car (most New Yorkers don’t), and your destination has plenty of parking, and you’ll find parking when you get back, then I suppose driving is a reasonable option.

But most of the weekend service changes are minor inconveniences. Sure, there are some big deals (like shuttle buses), but as long as you look up what’s going on in advance and figure out how to get around, it usually doesn’t take much longer than if everything was running normally. (And every once in a while a GO will work to your advantage and save you a transfer or give you the perfect express/local mix.)

Most of what Ben was complaining about had nothing to do with scheduled service changes – he was hit by unscheduled disruptions (which, obviously, could take place just as easily on a weekday, except that, on a weekday, there’d be more people riding and much more track congestion) which were not being announced properly.

The Cobalt Devil October 17, 2011 - 3:44 pm

You’re hurtin’ my feelins Bolwerk. No matter, I’m in the market for a new car, maybe something bigger than my little Chevy. I’ll be sure to buy US-made, maybe a Chrysler or Ford to keep Americans working. I’ll be sure to hit the horn as I pass by you as you’re waiting 40 mins for an elevated train on a Saturday morning.

Chris O'Leary October 17, 2011 - 4:12 pm

Please don’t honk. You’re already punishing him enough by spewing emissions from your vehicle into the air he has to breathe.

Joe October 17, 2011 - 9:19 pm

I just returned from NYC for the weekend and getting around was miserable, especially from Brooklyn. The hours I wasted in the subway…

I kind of wish they’d just shut down entire stations or sections for a few months and just get everything done at once. It would surely be more cost-effective than contracting the work only on weekends and in a way that the workers have to clear the tracks every few minutes to let a snail-pace train crawl by and printing and posting countless service changes signs. There’s simply no end in sight to the nights & weekend madness in NYC which seems to be getting much worse than when I moved out two years ago and WAY worse than when I first moved there at the beginning of last decade.

I live in Chicago (ie the second largest subway in the US) now and that’s exactly what they did for the recent Brown Line project—they renovated the *entire* line (tracks and stations) over a few years with major disruptions and closures at times— and in sum, it seemed much less painful: they were great about communicating what was happening and when and how it would affect passengers well ahead of time, the work was completed on time and on budget, and now there is virtually almost no more major track or station work required for the foreseeable future (with the notable exception of some badly-selected platform wood that already needs replacement). They did a similar thing when replacing all of the ties and tracks in the Dearborn Subway: they mounted a large awareness campaign and then brute forced it through even if it meant major disruption for a few months. Now, voila: only very minor track maintenance in the area ever since. And they’ve even recently taken this approach to minor station too by getting everything done at the same time: painting, electrical, lighting, communications, platforms, signage, etc… they simply swarm the station for a few days with dozens of workers from across departments, and when they finish, there is a highly noticeable improvement in the facilities and the work is complete for what will hopefully be a long while, and trains don’t have to slow down in the area for months on end.

I don’t know how feasible it is for the MTA to take this approach but anything has to be better than the endless confusion and torture of its nights & weekend riders.

pete October 18, 2011 - 1:34 pm

Union labor and cost plus contractors. The longer the newspaper your reading, the longer your on company time. Coordination doesnt exist at the MTA. If your not moving, your not working. How often do you see MTA workers standing doing nothing? They of course are on the clock.

DF October 25, 2011 - 9:00 am

Prove it

ipac October 17, 2011 - 11:04 pm

What’s funny is that they are still posting their propaganda advertisements all over the subway, saying how they are improving.

Andrew October 18, 2011 - 11:56 pm

Complaining here is fine, but are you also emailing the MTA with your specific concerns (dates, times, locations, car numbers)? There are some obvious announcement errors and omissions here, so why don’t you tell the people who are in a position to do something about it?

DF October 25, 2011 - 9:01 am

This is a joke


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