Home View from Underground Loving and hating the subway system

Loving and hating the subway system

by Benjamin Kabak

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.

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33 comments

Charley October 24, 2012 - 2:36 am

Preach on…

The train bunching, or what the MTA refers to as “Train Traffic” really gets my blood boiling..I really hope that after this “wave” of major capital projects is complete (SAS, 7 extension, ESA) they will focus on system-wide CBTC, which will significantly improve existing system capacity and prevent this all-too-common headache.

I don’t want to think about how many billions of dollars it will cost (more than it should..), not to mention how many years it would take to install (longer than it should..), but it needs to happen.

Hopefully installing CBTC on the L and 7 trains will give the MTA some good experience/expertise on installing this modern technology within the framework of the rest of our century-old system, but the increased complexity of the 4-track express/local trunk lines will provide some new challenges. And the constant service outages necessary to implement it will leave me hating the system more than loving it.

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BBnet3000 October 24, 2012 - 11:39 am

The bunching is a huge peeve of mine, especially when transferring between an express and local.

Its also a problem that doesnt need advanced signalling to solve, but thats what its going to take.

Despite the obvious superiority of the NYC subway, the 2 things that have me missing BART is definitely the bunching and the lack of timeclocks on the B-division (the latter of which needs the better signalling).

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Justin Samuels October 24, 2012 - 5:27 pm

Well, NYS spends more money on medicaid than any other state. Perhaps if they cut spending on medicaid and shifted more towards infastructure like improving mass transit or additional transit projects, you could REDUCE the number of rolls as the economic boom could create more jobs with benefits (reducing the need for welfare).

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Henry October 24, 2012 - 8:25 pm

I don’t even think bunching is a signalling problem at this point – often, when I’m waiting for a 2 or 3 at Penn Station, the next train will be in 2 minutes, and then the train after in 9 minutes, and the train after that in 10 minutes.

In Seoul, they hire mathematicians to coordinate subway and bus schedules. If only that could be done here…

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Jonathan October 24, 2012 - 8:11 am

As an infrequent subway rider, what has begun to bug me the most is the conductor announcements. Why do conductors have to shout and sound so angry? I understand that riders need to move all the way into the cars, stop blocking the doors, wait for the train right behind this one, but it seems counterproductive to me to have such an aggressive, shouting approach to giving these instructions.

Having people shouting near you on your way to work or school is troublesome and unpleasant, and reduces the value of the trip.

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Flatbush Depot October 24, 2012 - 8:34 am

Those who shout and sound angry and frustrated are probably just disgruntled..or it could be that they are angry due simply to other aspects of their lives, which is the case for many people who do not even work for the city. Also, and with reference to my remark about them being disgruntled and frustrated about their jobs, it does not help that they have to make the same announcements over and over again (on non-NTTs) for years. Some, like Harry Nugent, make it special; others hate doing it. Also whether one operates NTTs or not is not the sole determinant of how one picks his/her assignments. Oftentimes it is more important to be on a line running close to home than it is to avoid non-NTTs, and in those cases they will simply keep on shouting into the mic and whatnot until they pick lines where they operate NTTs instead (usually because of a change of residence) or NTTs come to their current line =/

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Bolwerk October 24, 2012 - 9:07 am

This problem seems widespread across the NYC/NYS civil service to me. In fact, perhaps it is the vast majority of the reason New Yorkers get a rap for being “rude” compared to other places, with the two major government agencies facing tourists probably being the MTA and NYPD.

FWIW, the social psychology research explanation goes something like: those in low-status positions with power delegated to them have a greater tendency to act out than those in higher-status positions. And the MTA is a pretty hierarchical organization with something of an obsession with strictly delegating both power and responsibility – and, probably prestige too.

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nycpat October 24, 2012 - 11:46 am

Your snobbery is showing. What power do “low status” transit workers have delegated to them? The power to cajole over the PA? The power to close doors because they have to answer if they are behind schedule? Transit workers act out? I don’t think so. I constantly see the public acting out. They think spending $2 gives them the right to litter and curse and scream at transit workers.

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Bolwerk October 24, 2012 - 12:41 pm

Oh, come off it. Some people act out. If you think some transit workers do not behave rudely and even, yes, sometimes “act out,” you aren’t spending much time dealing with the customer-facing side of the MTA. And, har, think the fare is $2.

What power do “low status” transit workers have delegated to them?

For starters? The power to act like a complete asshole with almost no consequences. Like most NYC/NYS civil servants, from the DMV to the police.

I would guess it’s probably worse with token booth clerks or bus drivers, each of whom seem to occupy a lower rung on the MTA hierarchy than a conductor. But given how crotchety some conductors get? It’s happening there too.

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nycpat October 24, 2012 - 1:21 pm

The effective fair is something like $1.63. Civil servants don’t HAVE to be all smiley and deferential. This irks snobs like you.

Bolwerk October 24, 2012 - 2:30 pm

Um. You’re defending using a publicly financed office to purposelessly act like a wanton dick to the evil “acting out” public while accusing someone objecting to chauvinism of snobbery? This is almost too stupid even for the Internet.

The same level of basic courtesy I show them would be nice. For us mere mortal apes you fantasize about running over with your Hummer, such is usually considered fairly routine. You know, they don’t have to be nice, but they don’t have to be “civil” “servants,” either.

Justin Samuels October 24, 2012 - 5:31 pm

I’ve definitely seen the rudeness in the Post Office in New York. While these types of civil service jobs were secure (traditionally, not now) there was typically no advancement. And the workers were subject to the same stresses all the time, without challenges from upper management. Though it seemingly gotten better in recent years. I think in part its because these jobs are less secure, so knowing that, these workers make an effort to be nicer. The Post Office, with its huge budget crisis will shrink as UPS, Fedex, and the internet have taken away a lot of business.

BrooklynBus October 24, 2012 - 2:28 pm

It’s easy to blame civil servants but I don’t think that’s the problem. Transit workers are frustrated. Raises are a thing of the past and now management wants zero cost contract and isn’t promising managers any raises either who haven’t seen any in five years. That doesn’t do much for morale so it is no wonder that some are grouchy. But I believe everything is up to the individual.

There are many bus drivers, some nice and polite. Others that are grouchy. But it works both ways. When was the last time you told a bus driver to have a nice day if you exited out of the front? I do and most times I get a reply. The reason I say it depends on the individual is that years ago when I used te bus every day, I noticed one driver who never had an altercation with a passenger and half the riders greeted him and he replied. He also seemed to be on time more or less. What made him so special? I don’t think he enjoyed his job particularly because one day he told me he is retiring which he looked far too young to do.

I don’t think it is right to blame a whole class of people for anything, I.e. civil service workers.

Benjamin Kabak October 24, 2012 - 2:30 pm

I’m not going to wade into the class debate over here, but I’d like to point out that raises are only a thing of the past as of the start of 2012. All unionized workers enjoyed hefty rises through 2011. Bolwerk’s complaint was with the unionized forward-facing workers and not non-organized workers who haven’t gotten raises since 2007.

Bolwerk October 24, 2012 - 3:06 pm

All I mentioned was a likelihood that, amongst NYS civil servants in general, you’ll run into some, well, dicks. I don’t think the majority of them are dicks,* but I don’t see where I even implied as much. nycpat and I guess BrooklynBus are supplying that themselves and responding to it.

And, FWIW, job status is not necessarily a class thing. I think many of the positions we’re talking about here are fairly uniformly “working class,” with the range from cleaner or customer service functionary (fairly low status) to train operator (fairly high status) probably not requiring things like a college degree.

There are examples in the white collar world too: in law, paralegals might be fairly well educated, but often have significantly lower status than attorneys because, well, they’re not attorneys. In finance, analysts do a lot of the low-level grunt work but have little decisionmaking power.

* Not the majority of transit workers. Maybe the majority of DMV workers….

Justin Samuels October 24, 2012 - 5:34 pm

It was a low status, in the past, SECURE position. Behave like a dick at a restaurant, bar, or hotel and you are FIRED that DAY! It was much harder to fire people from these civil service jobs, with their excellent union contracts. In fact, a lot of the older workers were a part of a generation where government workers never lost their jobs . That changed in both the city and the state after 2001, when in response to the financial crisis, NYC and NYS finally laid off workers. As budget cuts have come, they’ve laid off other workers, and things like metrocard vending machines have someone replaced token booth clerks. Thus the remaining people these days seem to be a lot NICER, as they are now replaceable like any other EMPLOYEE.

Bolwerk October 24, 2012 - 2:45 pm

First of all, I don’t blame transit workers. I blame the people who behave that way.

Second, by and large, raises have been off the table for those of us who aren’t transit workers for even longer. In fact, for millions of us, basic dignities like employment are off the table. Whatever economic frustrations transit workers deal with, the average person has it a lot worse.

I don’t think it’s a lot to ask that civil servants who by and large make a better-than-living-wage and a pension not take their frustrations out on everyone else.

When was the last time you told a bus driver to have a nice day if you exited out of the front?

I don’t know who you think you’re talking to. I’m a regular enough rider of some routes where I know the drivers, and I can assure you that most times I exit I deliberately leave through the front to say bye to them.

I don’t think it is right to blame a whole class of people for anything, I.e. civil service workers.

I agree, and did no such thing. I mentioned a tendency that happens and has been studied. I personally find the majority of transit workers, particularly bus drivers, to be perfectly decent folk.

That said, being on the butt end of MTA customer service somewhat frequently, running into somebody that’s not pleasant is hardly unusual. Surely they deal with shithead customers multiple times a day, but they can save the hostility for them.

Jonathan October 25, 2012 - 8:50 am

It’s pointless to discuss whether civil servants are justified in acting like grouches. It’s wrong, period, and it reduces the value of the trip. If nonunionized managers can’t cajole their employees into acting politely, they should be replaced.

Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines October 24, 2012 - 8:58 am

[…] NYC Subways — Can’t Put Up With ‘Em, Can’t Live Without ‘Em (2nd Ave Sagas) […]

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Matthias October 24, 2012 - 9:21 am

I definitely heard announcements about that incident at 137 St.

Death to anti-social behavior–my favorite is the door-blockers who curse and threaten people who dare to squeeze past them. I can understand why conductors get sick of people stopping right inside and blocking everyone instead of moving to the center. This gums up the works so much, and they deal with this crap all day long.

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Bolwerk October 24, 2012 - 9:26 am

It’s sometimes responsible not to go all the way in. Especially if you’re getting off in a stop or two. I just try not to block the door.

Of course, for the cost of keeping conductors on, we could probably run more than enough extra trains to not have to deal with that crowding so much.

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Bolwerk October 24, 2012 - 9:23 am

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.

I don’t think we demand anything near perfection. I think we want accountability and reliability, but don’t always know how to express that wish. And those of us who don’t go to other places maybe don’t even have a basis for comparison.

And how about some basic fairness? Suburbanites and NIMBYs get their subsidized roads and toll-free privileges, civil servants (MTA included) get their benefits and pensions. Even NYCHA dwellers often get a cheap parking spot provided by the city.* And what do we transit-dependents get? Little hope a for a better system. We get a bill for drivers’ privileges and the civil service’s retirement to Florida. If we leave too, maybe to Texas or maybe to LA or maybe to a country with its shit together, whoever comes behind us does.

* some of our own citizens, selected by circumstance or at random for special privileges

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alen October 24, 2012 - 4:04 pm

the roads are paid for by gas taxes which are pretty high in NY. NY the NY State thruway is a toll road as well.
suburbanites also pay close to $10,000 in property taxes minimum in NY State in most counties.

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Bolwerk October 24, 2012 - 4:51 pm

Roads are maybe half paid for by gas taxes and toll revenue. Just don’t tell the randroids.

And, by “most counties,” I assume you mean the metro region.

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Justin Samuels October 24, 2012 - 5:37 pm

I’ve said on another thread that since NYS spends more on medicaid than any other state (54 billion) perhaps that should be REDUCED, even substantially. That’s a good source of money for capital projects for the MTA and other important facilities. Better development could lead to more jobs and less need for welfare. If NYS were able to halve its medicaid spending the second avenue subway could be paid for in ONE YEAR, with money left over to restore the Rockaway Beach LIRR, among other lines.

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Henry October 24, 2012 - 8:31 pm

If we’re going to throw money at the subway, we should use it to bring all stations into a state of (relatively) good repair and cleanliness.

Rockaway Beach LIRR is one of those things where it’s there, and it’s lying fallow, but there are numerous projects that warrant more attention and bring more bang for the buck (station rehabs, building transfers, S-Bahn style operations on the LIRR, etc.)

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LLQBTT October 24, 2012 - 9:31 am

For some perspective:

For a brief time, I lived in southern Brooklyn and worked in northern NJ. The drive was a little less than an hour in the morning (at top speed 45-50 minutes) and about a buck fifteen, buck thirty home. Let me tell you that nothing, and I mean nothing is worse than being stuck in your car, in a traffic jam that appears never ending, on a highway where the average speed is typically 75, with hundreds of road rage motorists, all trying to get to or from work, cutting in and out, on their horns, never knowing what they’ll do next. You can’t read, day dream or play with your phone. You have to pay attention at all times. You can’t stop, get out and stretch your legs. There are no options. With a train delay, often times, you can say *#@@#* it, I’ll get off at this stop and walk the rest of the way or I’ll take the bus upstairs. There were many days when I arrived crazed, or where I just had to stop at a rest area or a fast food jernt to gather myself and complete the commute.

Of course being stuck on a train and with no communication is difficult and maddening. I get that way too. But then I go back to the days when I was sitting on a NYC or NJ roadway, and I find some modicum of peace.

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TP October 24, 2012 - 10:15 am

My favorite antisocial behavior is the thing that kids do constantly (never seen older people do this one): standing right in front of the turnstiles, sometimes sitting ON the turnstiles, talking to their friends while they wait for the train. I feel like it’s a uniquely New York mentality. Any tourist or foreigner would never in a million years think to themselves “well I might as well stand in the one place in the station where I will get in everybody’s way!” but New York City kids? Hell yes! It’s the total disregard for fellow human beings that makes them tick. Bonus points for the offended look they give you when you ask them if they’d mind moving for a second so you can swipe your card through. After all, you’re getting in their way!

we exhibit behavior not socially acceptable anywhere. Do we treat our kitchens and living rooms as we do stations and subway cars?

Poor argument. Ever had random Craigslist roommates? Most people know how to live like decent human beings, but some people don’t. Some people live in filth. We have the luxury of going home to our clean, well-maintained apartments, and places such as the subway are our interaction point with the percentage of the population who DO treat their kitchens and living rooms like that.

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John October 24, 2012 - 2:57 pm

I think kids are the worst too. Have you ever had the displeasure of entering or exiting from the Grand Street L station at 3 in the afternoon? It’s insane. Multiple police officers are stationed inside and outside of fare control to watch for turnstile jumping, door crowding, etc. I see kids getting arrested there almost weekly. It’s a madhouse. Oftentimes there are kids sitting literally on the turnstile bars leaving one turnstile available and a line forming for people to get into the train. If I dare shake my head in disbelief at the behavior when I’m leaving, I’ll get yelled at.

Two weeks ago I was transferring from the 4 to the L. I was walking up the narrow staircase at the front of the 4/5/6 platform, and three kids were standing in the middle of the staircase, hanging out. They clearly weren’t catching a train because both the 4 and the 6 had arrived and they weren’t running to get it. One of them had his scooter blocking the entire staircase. No one could move in either direction. Out of frustration I said “can you move, guys?” and nudged past them. The response I received was “YOU MOVE, N****!”

Unbelievable.

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Henry October 24, 2012 - 8:42 pm

I’ve actually never encountered this. Is this specific to a certain part of the subway? As a “kid” I find that odd, and quite frankly rude.

The worst antisocial behavior I’ve seen is on the LIRR, where it’s standing-room-only because 75% of the three-seaters are occupied by one person who refuses to let anyone else sit with them. (People also don’t know how to use the overhead luggage racks.)

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The Cobalt Devil October 24, 2012 - 12:17 pm

It’s been 4 months since I moved to sunnier climes and friendly neighbors. And you know what I miss about the NYC subway system?

Not one damn thing.

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Bolwerk October 24, 2012 - 12:42 pm

And I assure you, we all terribly missed your butthert complaints.

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Someone October 25, 2012 - 4:45 pm

Which set of rules is she going by? Taking ALL of the lines to stop at ALL stations, or only passing through stations on all lines?

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