It’s no big stretch to claim that the New York City subway’s station infrastructure is not in particularly good shape. As the authority has invested billions in track, signal, switch and rolling stock maintenance and upgrades over the past three decades, stations have enjoyed renovations and modernization at a far slower pace. To some degree or another then, the bulk of subway stations look closer to the photo I snapped a few years ago of 7th Ave. on the IND Culver line than they do of somewhere clean and presentable.
Yet, whenever I bring up the fact that Transit’s stations are in various states of disrepair, someone will always appeal to some sense of New York City grittiness and character. In my post yesterday on driverless trains, I referred to the “passable-to-decrepit appearance of the subway system,” and someone took issue with it. Here’s what SAS commenter “normative” had to say:
Why do you always say that? The NYC train system is an experience not merely just a ride from A to B. Every time I travel out of the country, I always get asked about the subway in NYC. WHY? Because its dirty, loud, a motley mix of the marginalized, alternative, the rich, and the normal. There are performers, political diatribes, street artists, angry old women, and people who sing out loud to themselves. I take the DC train, and it is pharmaceutically sterile, boring, and just about getting to work and getting home. I start so many stories with, “on the train the other day…” This is NYC. The subway-as-experience makes it what it is, and why people write books on it, make films about it, and why there are train buffs who can tell you everything about it. If you woke up tomorrow and the train looked like DC, do you really think this would be NYC anymore?
When it comes to stations, I don’t think we should be so accepting of the “subway experience.” At one station near my apartment in a relatively affluent section of Brooklyn, my regular “experience” includes a shuttered staircase that is literally eroding due to a 20-year stream of human urine. This station often plays host to more than one homeless person, and I’ve seen human excrement on the platform more times than I care to remember. Fifteen blocks away, the tiles are falling off the walls. That’s my “experience.”
Now, I don’t think Washington, D.C.’s vault-like subway stations are the way to go. I was down in D.C. in mid-June, and I found the Metro to be oppressively dark and dreary. The train service, with constant mechanical problems and infrequent service, is even worse. There is a happy medium though.
Subway stations don’t need to look as though they have been neglected for decades with constant water damage and a general state of disarray. Rather, subway stations should look like something we can tolerate for 10-15 minutes at a time. They should be well-lit with clean places to sit, staircases that aren’t falling apart and walls that can stay in place. The experience — with its melting pot of New Yorkers and varying design elements — won’t disappear. It will just look good. Is that too much to ask?
I’ve wavered on the issue of station cleanliness and presentation over the years. At a certain level, the MTA has to prioritize investments in tracks and rolling stock because that’s what makes the system run regularly and reliably. On the other hand, though, by putting forward a cleaner public face, the MTA can create a more pleasant environment and possibly fewer disgruntled commuters. It’s a Broken Windows theory of station maintenance: If straphangers experience something pleasant in the stations, they are less likely to despise, nitpick and bemoan the system. Complaints about subway service start because station environments aren’t conducive to waiting.
Ultimately, this whole thing boils down to money. The money isn’t there for the necessary station rehabs that involve massive lead and, in some cases, asbestos abatement projects. It’s timely and inconvenient to shutter stations, and the outcomes have been far from perfect. Still, stations have to be a part of the discussion. Putting lipstick on this pig might produce more than just a prettied-up swine.