Home View from Underground Squaring the circle on public perceptions of subway service

Squaring the circle on public perceptions of subway service

by Benjamin Kabak

Allow me to pose a question to you that is particularly fitting in light of yesterday’s post on the institutional challenges plaguing our subway system. What would you, dear reader, most like to see improved about the subways? In fact, for reasons that will soon become clear, let’s do it as a poll, and consider voting now rather than after reading this post.

What would you most like to see improved about the subways?
View Results

To me, where I sit in year 10 of maintaining this website, these choices are a haphazard collection of problems that do and do not plague the MTA. They come from the latest NY1/Baruch poll that was released earlier this week, and while I suspect my readers will come to a different conclusion, a plurality of New Yorkers, by more than a few percentage points, claimed that the number one thing they must want to see improved about the subway is more transit police. In a subsequent question, only 41 percent of New Yorkers say they feel somewhat or very safe riding the subway at night compared with 51 percent who claim they feel not so safe or not safe at all.

I’ve been trying to wrap my head around these results all day. Although there has been a slight uptick in subway crime in early 2016 compared with the same period in 2015, the crime stats are well below levels set in 2010-2014, and as recently as twenty years ago, the crime rates were three or four times higher than they are today. Even as NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton expresses surprise at subway crowds and fearmongers over crime, the perception remains — whether due to an increased presence of homeless denizens or lingering fears from people over 65 who remember the Bad Old Days and feel the least safe — that the subways are dangerous.

What needs to be improved about the subways. The results are surprising. (Click to enlarge)

I don’t view crime as the challenge the MTA faces in providing sufficient service for its 5.65 million riders per day, and yet, my top two choices — subways to more places and trains that are less crowded — both finished below something as superficial as cleaner stations. Every day New Yorkers — those who ride the subways because they have to rather than those of us who see it as the way to grow New York City — seem to want more of what they can see and have trouble conceptualizing a subway system the way it could be. (Perhaps that’s part of the psychology behind why Gothamist’s recent post on fantasy subway lines captivated its readers to such a high degree.)

For New York City to grow and remain competitive on the global market, for our streets to become less congested and for mobility to improve, the subway should go more places, and trains, due to increased service, should be less crowded. Of the choices from the NY1/Baruch poll, those are the two things I’d most like to see improved about the subways, and from them flow a host of different issues including the MTA’s inability to spend inefficiently and build quickly, its resistance to international rolling stock design standards, its slow pace of technological advancement, and the intractable labor issues that stand in the way of money-saving train operations improvements. These are the Inside Baseball problems that someone who hates the subways but rides them because they’re cheap, quick and better than driving through New York City congestion doesn’t care to understand.

How can we, as those who support robust investment in transit and desire an MTA that can build on par with London and Paris, let alone other cities spending more efficiently and building farther more quickly, bridge that gap? The NY1/Baruch poll features another dismaying result that shows just how far those fighting for transit have to go because it betrays that New Yorkers do not know who is actually in charge of the transit network. Take a peek at the results.

Who do New Yorkers think has power over the subways? Not the person who actually does. (Click to enlarge.)

You’ll see that 47% of New Yorkers think the mayor has more control over the subways while just 39% pinpoint the governor as the man in charge. Perhaps the results make intuitive sense, but the MTA has so isolated Albany from any responsibility that no one really knows who’s in charge. And if no one knows who is charge, as we saw from Governor Cuomo last year, no one has to act as though they’re in charge. Thus, we have New Yorkers who want more transit cops instead of better service, and a political body that doesn’t really have to do much of anything about any of it. And in related news, the MTA’s 2015-2019 five-year capital plan still hasn’t been approved by Albany, but is it really any wonder why not?

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Philip McManus February 25, 2016 - 1:56 am

We need faster, safer, more frequent and reliable subways. We need to increase capacity and expand the subways across the city. We need to reuse inactive railways including the QueensRail and the Triboro RX. We don’t support taking away bus stops, traffic lanes, left turns, and more transportation options. We need to unite all commuters and treat them equally.
Support the Queens Public Transit Committee.

VLM February 25, 2016 - 8:18 am

So you are motorist activists pretending to be transit activists who believe in perpetuating a status quo where the needs of transit riders and pedestrians are secondary to ensuring you can drive through a city as fast as possible. Your claim to “unite all commuters” is the biggest load of crap if you understood anything about the last six decades of investment and prioritization in transportation planning. No wonder all the adults around here think the QPTC is a joke.

Plus you threadjacked these comments. Tsk.

Bolwerk February 25, 2016 - 11:35 am

He basically just spams that stuff and probably doesn’t wait around to read responses.

QPTC seems to be coming out against BQX too because it might interfere with the poor, poor motorists. So, uh, NIABYs? A = anyone’s

j.b. diGriz February 25, 2016 - 3:01 pm

I went to a couple of their rallies. At first, I was really drawn in to their focus on getting RBL deactivated. This was around the time of the start of the Queensway nonsense. You looked around and found no one else willing to say anything – not even the Riders alliance.

But man, did they NOT survive contact with the enemy. Their message degraded and twisted in the winds almost daily. First it became ‘use RBL as busway’. Then it became a ‘light rail is cool too’, even though it’s really not (at least not relative to a busway). Then they suddenly noticed that Woodhaven SBS was an actual real thing, saw some people in the neighborhood starting to bitch about their motorist entitlement being ever so lightly challenged, and latched onto it like a lamprey. It was so disappointing to watch.

At first I thought they were upset about the money being spent, and hoped the SBS money could be reallocated to RBL, and I tried to explain to them the nature of earmarked money, and the momentum of this project means it’s silly to link them as competition. But it eventually dawned on me that the folk in this group were set in their car-centric perspective of the universe and hoped to lure more followers by demonstrating their reliability in cars. The pro-lefthand turn hate is particularly insidious; facts are just other people@/ opinions and just don’t matter to the group’s semi-bullying showrunners who hate disagreement between natural allies more than the lure of new allies. The rest are meek, earnest and just want a subway line (except for the 1-2 who are rabid over the Rockaway ferry). I don’t think they even know what they want. They certainly don’t have a political plan, an outreach program or a true policy platform. After seeing them in action, I now know why.

NattyB February 25, 2016 - 10:00 am

From your rude threadjacking link: But pedestrian safety must not come at the expense of moving traffic.

I lost my grandparents to traffic violence before I was born. But, in case you were wondering, their deaths did unfortunately impede the movement of traffic, in particular a garbage truck. Oh, go fuck yourself.

Thomas Graves February 25, 2016 - 2:03 am

I am not over 65 and am a native New Yorker, and while I realize the subways are much safer than they were when I commuted to high school in the dark days of the mid-1970’s, I still find that the NY subways, the stations and the riders can be intimidating and – yes – scary. Perhaps it is the filth of the decrepit stations, the grim and frequently mentally-ill homeless, whatever, but the subways often still ‘feel’ dangerous. Now that I live in Singapore, the contrast is even stronger. So while it’s a biased perception, I can understand why the respondents in the pole wanted more cops. Having said that, you are of course correct. What the system really needs is more service to more locations. NY is losing the battle to stay a world-class city in terms of transportation infrastructure, and there seems to be no will (apart from on this website and others like it) to make the tough decisions that will change that.

JJJJ February 25, 2016 - 11:00 am

I agree with this. When my dad visits he gets worried in the subway because he sees the broken tiles, the peeling paint, the flickering lights, the puddles, the garbage and that in his mind means it is dangerous. The fact is, the NYC subway resembles a rundown housing project, while the best subway systems resemble a mall (and by that I mean clean floors, working escalators, ample seating, rather than places to shop).

BruceNY February 25, 2016 - 2:52 pm

You forgot to mention our Subway’s official mascot: the RAT!

The only time a station gets “cleaned” in any meaningful way is during a FastTrack overnight shut down. Otherwise it’s just an occasional broom to swirl around some soapy water on the floor late at night. Even just re-painting the ceilings is something that takes years to accomplish (West 4th was recently done), but when it does happen the visual before-and-after is astonishing. And let’s not accept that “But unlike other systems, ours runs 24 hours a day” excuse. PATH stations are immaculate by comparison, and it runs 24hrs.

mister February 25, 2016 - 3:22 pm

Mobile wash teams scrub the floors and power wash walls and floors at stations that are open too.

AMH February 26, 2016 - 11:29 am

I remember the first (and only) time I saw one. I was shocked that stations actually got cleaned!

tacony February 26, 2016 - 7:25 pm

Yes, and there are lots of 24 hour facilities that are well-cleaned. Airports, for instance. If you’ve been in an airport at 3am, you may have seen them cleaning everything top to bottom, despite the fact that a few poor souls are waiting for connections or getting off odd-hour flights. To not clean an airport terminal regularly would be “third world”!

Alon Levy February 25, 2016 - 3:06 pm

Singapore gets the perception of safety right… but it took its sweet time to connect the subway to the university, and it still only has one line serving Orchard (you know, the busiest station in the system). With any luck, the Thomson MRT line will actually be completed soon without any further cost overruns. $600 million per km for a line under a wide road between HDB towers and a forest is fair, right?

(I went to college in Singapore, and my perception that what’s important is service to more places is very much based on comparing Singapore with New York. I wouldn’t wish the 95 and 96 buses on anyone.)

Thomas Graves February 27, 2016 - 7:52 am

SIngapore went through a lost decade battling over whether transportation spending should go on more freeways or for rail transport. Rail ultimately won, but the delay was costly, and the much-needed Thomson East Coast Line is still 3-4 years away from completion. The suburban arrangement of outlying districts (reminiscent of LA) doesn’t help either. The decision to have 3 car train lengths on the newer lines was also a mistake. The just-opened Downtown Line extension is already jammed. But compared to Gotham, the system is safe, clean and a pleasure to use.

Roger February 25, 2016 - 9:14 am

Make NYC the 51st state!

SEAN February 25, 2016 - 9:44 am


Please include Westchester & Long Island.

j.b. diGriz February 25, 2016 - 3:03 pm

Trade Staten Island for Hudson County, NJ. Put the Port Authority into irrelevance, or merge it with the MTA.

Tim February 25, 2016 - 10:04 am

Oh, to dream…

Peter February 25, 2016 - 9:49 am

I think there’s nothing particularly puzzling about these results. The poll was conducted amid overblown coverage of a few dramatic subway slashings, and human beings are amazingly suggestible. If you had taken this poll a couple months earlier I’m certain “more transit police” would’ve gotten a much lower response.

I’m also not shocked to hear that people have a hard time conceiving of new subways. For most New Yorkers, the subway map is an inert object. Is it any wonder, given that barely any significant expansion has occurred within living memory? I would imagine a significant number of New Yorkers aren’t even aware of the Second Ave Subway, and most of those who are probably couldn’t accurately describe it. Living in a transit-geek bubble, it can be easy to forget that so many of our fellow citizens have such a dim awareness. (Not to cast stones; we all have our pet interests and there are any number of civic issues I could be criticized for ignorance of).

tacony February 25, 2016 - 10:11 am

Another thing to consider is that a lot of people, not just New Yorkers but people everywhere, are always convinced that crime is getting worse even when it’s not. National polls consistently show this: http://www.usatoday.com/story/.....e/2139421/

People are scared of what they can’t control, and being victimized by crime is the ultimate lack of control.

The disparity has been especially clear in New York City. That city saw the most dramatic crime decline of all: Since 1990, the homicide rate has dropped 82 percent, robbery by 84 percent, rape by 77 percent, and auto theft a stunning 94 percent, according to the New York Police Department. These numbers have now been confirmed in an independent study by Frank Zimring of the University of California, Berkeley, who confirms that the drop in crime is “real.”

But New Yorkers don’t feel correspondingly safer. “If you walk these streets, especially at night, you know crime is definitely not down,” a cab driver who lives in Harlem told the New York Daily News in 2009. “It’s not safe. I don’t know where they get these statistics.”


tacony February 25, 2016 - 9:50 am

The “NY1/Baruch poll” was conducted by calling random NYC phone numbers, right?

The poll merely shows people feeding into media headlines and surely includes a ton of non-regular subway riders. Despite record ridership, you have to remember that a ton of people, including seniors, people out of work, people who walk to work, people on disability, etc. don’t regularly ride the trains. Let’s not even get into the issue of whether these surveys include millennials who live in NYC but don’t have NYC phone numbers. (People don’t regularly change their cell phone numbers anymore, so most transplant New Yorkers aren’t going to be included unless their number is officially matched to an NYC address somewhere, which a lot aren’t.)

If you polled people on the actual subway you’d obviously get a more representative sample of subway riders, and I bet the request for transit cops would be much lower and the number choosing “less crowded” would rise (if not a request for “more reliable service”). 40% of 65+ respondents in the poll are scared of the subway, ’cause they’re sitting in their apartment watching TV all day and absorbing the media firestorm about subway safety. This doesn’t reflect actual conditions on the subway.

Benjamin Kabak February 25, 2016 - 10:06 am

Unfortunately, the poll creators did not think to ask how regularly their respondents actually take the subway. I would have been quite interested to hear that answer.

Eric Brasure February 25, 2016 - 10:28 am

On the one hand, I do think we should call the methodology of the poll into account, since if they (like most polling firms, incidentally) only called landlines, you are skewing your results relatively old.

On the other hand, I would love to see a more statistically robust poll on this topic that also asks questions like:

Are you a registered voter?

Did you vote in the last gubernatorial election?

How many times per week do you ride the subway?

tacony February 25, 2016 - 12:34 pm

They did call cell phones in this poll. Pollsters have been dealing with complaints about not including “these new-fangled kids who don’t even have a landline!” for more than a decade now, so they’re usually included these days.

My issue is how those cell phone numbers are assigned geographies. I’m not an expert on how they do this, but it appears to be a combination of public databases and just plain area codes. There are ex-NYCers all over the country who still use their NYC area code and there are tons of transplant New Yorkers who will never get an NYC area code. People who bounce around different apartments with roommates aren’t always being assigned correct addresses in these databases. For a lot of polls, it doesn’t make a big difference, but for things like this I think it matters a lot.

Eric Brasure February 25, 2016 - 1:22 pm

Interesting to know they called cell phone–thanks.

I’m one of those ex-New Yorkers that still has their NYC area code.

SEAN February 25, 2016 - 7:47 pm

I jokingly said to a friend last week, what would happen if the internet went down for a week? He went into a comical tirade that nearly had me on the floor. “Oh my god – what am I going to do! No Facebook, no Google how will I survive” & on & on.

Lord Deucey February 25, 2016 - 10:59 am

My vote: higher speeds on express trains and overnight express service on more than the 3 and the D.

JJJ February 25, 2016 - 11:07 am

I think theres a large segment of the population that only ever interacts with the subway at 2-5 stations. Their home station, their transfer station, their work station, and rarely, on occasion, some other destination. Those people wont care about expanding the system because it’s of no use to them.

Thats in contrast to the type of people who visit this blog who like to ride the subway to all their destinations.

You might also be looking at a demographic issue. The people who visit this website are most likely male (Id wager 90%+) and probably live in a desirable (safe) neighborhood. That means theyre not worried about crime.

But if youre a 20 year old 5’2″ woman living on the outer ends of the system, such as the north Bronx or Canarsie, then youre going to be a lot more worried about crime. Forget the media slashing reports, what about day to day concerns about being followed home, having your purse snatched, being groped, or simply constantly verbally harassed?

Why would you give half a shit about expanding the system if riding it every day is uncomfortable and theres no way in hell youd ride alone past 7pm?

VLM February 25, 2016 - 11:16 am

I more or less hear what you’re saying regarding perception of safety vs. reality, but if there’s “no way in hell you’d ride alone past 7 pm,” I just assume you’re a person who has no perspective on reality. Even on a normal weeknight through the outer edges of the outer boroughs, the subways are reasonably crowded well beyond 7 (and in many cases, well beyond 10 or 11 pm). We’re not living in 1982 any longer whether people believe that or believe the tabloid reporting on crime.

JJJ February 25, 2016 - 1:33 pm

Consider that after getting off the train you have to walk home. There are many women who are simply not comfortable walking home alone at night.

I also challenge the perception vs reality claim.

Crime stats are based off reported crimes. Being catcalled throughout your entire trip does not show up on those stats, but it sure as hell could be mitigated by the presence of a police officer. Likewise, having a scary guy stare at you non-stop is not a crime, but it sure as hell feels like it.

NYC Woman February 25, 2016 - 1:53 pm

Setting aside the generally sexist tone of your argument that women in NYC are damsels in distress who can’t ride the subway, I’d love you to see how many times my friends and I have been catcalled by the police. They’re not the solution you think they are.

SEAN February 25, 2016 - 4:41 pm

I know a woman who is afraid of NYC after dark & won’t ride the subway unless it’s the 4, 5 or 6 to or from Grand Central. I don’t know why, but I only found out about this a month ago & I’ve known this woman for over 20-years.

Bolwerk February 25, 2016 - 2:02 pm

Yeah right. Police officers are people who can grope you and never, ever get in any trouble for it. If you file a complaint, they investigate themselves and clear themselves of any wrongdoing.

Police are a mild threat to most white cisgendered males, at least the ones that aren’t gay prostitutes, but they are an alarming danger to everyone else. Anyone proposing more of them is trying to make things worse, deliberately or not.

Bolwerk February 25, 2016 - 12:09 pm

Subway lines to more places means less crowding on existing lines, usually. There should be a bureaucracy whose job is to create a few miles of subway line every year.

Benjamin Kabak February 25, 2016 - 12:10 pm

There should be a bureaucracy whose job is to create a few miles of subway line every year.

There is. They’re just not particularly good at it and seem to operate on timelines of “decades” rather than “years.”

Bolwerk February 25, 2016 - 1:45 pm

If you mean NYCTA or MTA Capital, they seem openly resistant to even basic stuff like reactivating existing ROWs. I can’t think of anything they actually proposed themselves. They dumbed down the SAS from a 4-track trunk to a 2-track spur that maybe will become a 2-track trunk. On North Shore, they practically contrived reasons to prefer buses on an existing rail ROW that can feed an existing oversized rail terminal. Triborough RX? RBB?

The phrase “not particularly good at it” seems like one of the biggest understatements I’ve ever seen you or anyone make!

mister February 25, 2016 - 3:33 pm

MTACC is an agency that is simply tasked with constructing “Megaprojects”, whatever that means. The definitely don’t do any planning. Seeing as how they’re not managing Penn Station Access, there’s a real question mark about what the future of this separate agency is.

Within the NYCT family, CPM is a department that manages and implements the capital program, but doesn’t necessarily plan for what needs to be done next. Various user groups within Department of Subways do have some input on what projects get into the capital plan, but these departments don’t have input into where new lines might be built. Operations Planning doesn’t seem to be able to advocate for new lines.

Ideally, there would be a department within the City of New York’s structure that would identify areas where increased density could be accommodated and then corresponding new infrastructure would be built. That would include new subway lines to new places.

Bolwerk February 25, 2016 - 4:40 pm

On a superficial level, the MTA has planners who manage projects, but I don’t think they do any macro level planning and basically haven’t since their early history.

mister February 26, 2016 - 12:34 pm

When Lee Sander was CEO, he proposed a number of new routes he wanted to see. That never went anywhere. MTA is simply not given leeway to propose new ideas; that’s left up to politicians who have their own pet projects, from Giuliani (Astoria Line extension to LGA) to Pataki (Lower Manhattan Access) to Bloomberg (7 West) to Cuomo (Airtrain LGA) to DeBlasio (BQX).

Bolwerk February 26, 2016 - 1:50 pm

Yeah, fair enough. Sander and Walder were probably the two more forward-thinking guys we had. Ravitch was a technocrat who Got Shit Done, and Lhota was a capable administrator at best.

rustonite February 25, 2016 - 1:01 pm

This is not a phenomenon that’s limited to the subways or even NYC. Fear of crime is actually very high everywhere in the US, even though actual crime rates have fallen through the floor.

Part of the problem is that most people don’t go many places (home-work-store-home again) and so their only contact with “scary” neighborhoods is the local news (which blows crime out of proportion for ratings.)

The other part is paradoxical: as crime falls, fewer people have experience with crime, either as victims or friends of victims, and so it becomes even scarier, since it’s a complete unknown.

It’s similar to how Americans rate public schools in general as terrible, even though graduation rates and test scores are at highs and they rate their local schools as excellent.

I have no idea how you solve this.

Bolwerk February 25, 2016 - 1:56 pm

It’s probably all news. Statistics show crime has been dropping for decades. News is about all the ghastly stuff that is so rare it’s unlikely to ever happen to you, and people voluntarily consume it for awe and salaciousness.

I’d venture to guess windshield perspective doesn’t help. If your view of the outside world only comes from CNN and what you see from your SUV, you have a skewed view of the world. That’s most politicians, including the supposed data genius Bratton who took a subway ride to gauge how safe they are.

SEAN February 25, 2016 - 4:31 pm

Let me quote one of my closest friends – “THE NEWS IS STUPID!”

Sorry for the all caps, just making the point.

SEAN February 25, 2016 - 5:02 pm


Just because graduation rates & test scores are up, doesn’t mean the students are prepared for what lies ahead for them.

You may recall a book that came out a few years ago entitled “Waiting for superman” The book profiles how school districts waist money on afterschool activities, gym facilities & lay the blame at the teachers union. And now there’s a similar book out called “Is college worth it?” One of the first things mentioned about this book is how college students are being indoctrinated into “liberalism” even though costs & other aspects are mentioned.

In either case the authors has or had a political agenda & lost credibility.

Bolwerk February 25, 2016 - 6:01 pm

What these things all have in common is vampirism. Waiting for Superman is agitprop for vampires. They don’t care if the education system sucks as long as they can divert public money to do-nothing shareholders. College may be necessary, if not worth it, but student loans are likewise a form of vampirism. The pig state is also a form of vampirism, as welfare for cops, prison guards, bail bondsmen and prosectors, and in the form of confiscatory fines for people who are trying to survive (serfs, as Larry puts it).

A fair number of vampires also milk transit construction.

SEAN February 25, 2016 - 7:58 pm

You neglected to mention the largest vampires of all – the polls & there corporate masters.

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