As Transportation Alternatives’ Stefanie Gray has embarked on her task of setting a new world record for travel through the New York City subway system, I’ve been following along via her personal Twitter account and the TransAlt account. Since early Tuesday, Gray has been charting her progress throughout the subway system as she tackles the record. Now around an hour off pace, she was stymied by a very long wait in the Rockaways and is currently suffering from a lack of bathrooms in the subway system. In other words, it sounds like a typical day underground.
As Stefanie has sent in her updates from throughout the city, I’ve thought about my own trips this week and how the subway tests our patience. I had two back-to-back commutes that were far from problem-free. On Monday night while coming home, a sick passenger on a 2 or 3 train at Nevins St. combined with a previous delay on the 4 and 5 trains made my usual 30- to 35-minute commute take over an hour. On Tuesday morning, what I eventually learned was a fatal accident at 137th St. caused long waits and numerous problems. Not once did the MTA provide an in-system announcement with details or a warning of the problem.
I’ve written about this communication gap before, and even a cursory glance at the MTA’s archive of service alerts reveals the problem. Sometimes the delays are reported; sometimes the alert doesn’t go out until after the issue is cleared. It’s an imperfect solution for a very complex system that has to move millions in short order. New Yorkers demand something close to perfection, and Transit often doesn’t — or simply cannot — deliver.
In no small part, this complaint reaches the core of the city’s relationship with its subway system. The city exists because of the subways, and yet, we love to hate it almost as we love and need it. In fact, as the subway serves as a melting pot, spanning races, classes, neighborhoods, the subway showcases the worst of us too. We grow impatient as trains are delayed, and we exhibit behavior not socially acceptable anywhere. Do we treat our kitchens and living rooms as we do stations and subway cars?
And what of personal behavior underground? From the crush capacity rush hour trains on which straphangers can’t find it within themselves to say “excuse me” to the pole-huggers, the seat-hoggers and the door-cloggers, the people on the train can make our rides a real test of our ability to cope with everyone else in very close quarters. In an individualistic society, it’s not always easy to suffer through those 20- or 30-minute subway rides twice a day. Somehow, we make it work.
Ultimately, the MTA often bears the brunt of our frustrations. I grow exasperated at the lack of communication, at the eight-minute waits for a train at 8:15 a.m. and the bunching that then occurs when the next two trains are one minute apart. It’s exceedingly annoying when a train’s doors close in your face, and the wait for the next train reaches seven minutes. It seems as though service is suffering, but it’s easy to forget as millions travel throughout the day that those operating the system can’t win. Even when service is good, steady, fast and reliable, we want more of it for less money.
So as Stefanie Gray wraps up her trip with some excursions through Queens, northern Manhattan and the Bronx tonight, may she serve as a reminder of the reach of the subway system. It truly goes (almost) everywhere, and it definitely needs more political support than it gets. As we curse a long wait, a sick passenger, a stalled train, we should remember the good to go with the bad. They can coexist along those 722 miles.