Archive for New York City Transit

Over the past few years, as subway service reliability has declined, New York City Transit has been loathe to take responsibility for the various delays, slow speeds and assorted problems. Instead, they’ve taken to blaming riders, and in particular, the high number of them, for delays. This isn’t particularly satisfying or rider-friendly, and it’s also come across as disingenuous. Delays due to too many riders isn’t a cause; it’s a symptom — a symptom of a poor and unprepared management.

An MTA prepared for increasing ridership, and perhaps an MTA that had noticed trends in the late 1990s and early 2000s and anticipating increasing growth, would have built demand into the system. A modern signal system in place before the current one started to completely break down would have allowed the MTA to ramp up service as ridership increased, but instead, we have a system weighted down by numerous signal timers that limit both train speeds and system capacity, thus leading to overcrowding that can further slow down trains. As I said, it’s a symptom and not a cause.

Now, though, Andy Byford has a plan to stop this victim-blaming. As Dan Rivoli reports in The Daily News today, the new New York City Transit president would like to phase out blaming delays on “overcrowding” and identify instead the root cause of these delays. Rivoli reports:

NYC Transit President Andy Byford and his team are ditching the “overcrowding” category in an overhaul of how information on train delays is collected and reported. Officials will use the data to speed up slow trains and fix spotty service, cutting down on the number of late trains.

Byford, in an interview with the Daily News, called “overcrowding” a “misrepresentation” and “misnomer.” Now, with the MTA in a repair blitz to fix aging equipment that causes major commuting headaches, Byford plans to tackle the small holdups and slowdowns that make for a crummy ride. “They just find that the service is very patchy, it’s very gappy,” Byford said, speaking of commuters. “That’s very frustrating to them. Our trains per hour isn’t as high as the signaling system will permit.”

…MTA board members on Monday will see the new way that delays will be tracked and tallied, which is still a work in progress. The most significant change will be the ambiguous “overcrowding” category, which became the most commonly cited reason for late trains that effectively blamed the riders for suffering subway performance. A new “operating environment” category will now cover many of the overcrowding and unassigned mystery delays.

While seemingly vague sounding, these metrics will have teeth behind them. As Rivoli reports, “operating environment” delays will include delays due to signal timers, and the “right of way” delay category will be axed in favor of one that specifically identifies delays due to failed signals and associated repair work. Much of these changes were driven by Rivoli’s reporting earlier this year when he detailed how the MTA hid the true causes of delays in the “overcrowding” category, and some increased transparency is much welcome.

On the surface, this isn’t a move with a direct impact on most riders. New Yorkers don’t really care why their trains are delayed; they just want to know that fewer and fewer trains will be delayed in the future. That is, however, something the MTA hasn’t been able to promise of late. But this granular level of delay information gets Transit on the right track toward combating delays. It’s easy to ignore delays due to “overcrowding” if you think overcrowding is the root cause of the problem. It’s harder to ignore delays due to signal timers when you know signal timers are the cause of the delays, and it’s easier to combat these delays by identifying and eliminating those signal timers that aren’t absolutely necessary.

These are of course baby steps, but they’re the right baby steps that Byford has to force Transit to take so service can get better in the future. He’s still saying and doing the right things, and as long as he has political cover to act, slowly and surely, he can work the subways out of this crisis. It’s going to be a long ride though, but at least it’s not one delayed by you and me and the 5.6 million other subway riders every day.

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With Byford’s blueprint in hand, will Andrew Cuomo save the subways?

Last week was an odd one for the Andy Byford subway rescue plan. Nearly immediately after its release, it became clear that Andrew Cuomo, as I wrote last week, didn’t know how to respond to the plan he essentially commissioned. He brought in Byford and personally interviewed him for the job with the idea that this Andy would fix the subways, but when the plan he came out, Andy C. punted. This move seemingly took everyone by surprise, but considering how Cuomo has embraced transit over the years, perhaps we should have expected it all along.

The politics of the moment, however, found a way to intervene, and the dynamics of the Democratic primary reared its head late last week. Shortly before Cynthia Nixon announced a kitchen-sink plan to fix the MTA — endorsing the Byford plan while calling for both congestion pricing and a Bill de Blasio-inspired millionaires’ tax to fund transit — Cuomo decided the plan he commissioned was one worth endorsing. Toward the end of last week, he made the call for a congestion pricing plan to fund the Byford proposal to save the subway. You can (and should) read Emma Fitzsimmons’ coverage in The Times. The question now is whether Cuomo will follow through, but since the Byford plan is a preview of the Transit asks for the next two MTA Five-Year Capital Plans, we won’t know for another year or so if Cuomo is serious.

The politics are the politics are the politics. After a while, having to convince the governor of New York to support the economic lifeblood of the largest city in the state gets exhaustingly tiresome. The governor doesn’t appreciate the transit system, and the person who should be New York City’s biggest champion thinks he’s the mayor of some suburban town of ten thousand drivers. Sometimes, I can’t help but thrown my hands up in disgust at the whole thing, but right now, that’s neither here nor there. The politics will play out in the coming months, and forces will likely align behind the bulk, if not all, of Byford’s plan. Which brings me in a somewhat roundabout way to a question: What exactly is in Byford’s plan? Though I wrote about it last week, I haven’t delved into the details so let’s do that.

In a sense, as I’ve mentioned, the plan is a preview of things to come. Byford accelerated the 40-year plan to replace the bulk of the subway signal system and will instead do it in ten years. He wants modernized interlockings and over 300 stations to be brought to a state of good repair. He wants a new fare payment system, 130 new ADA-compliant stations, over 3600 new subway cars (which I hope will include open gangways) and nearly 5000 new buses (which I hope all use clean-air technology). “We propose doing in 10 years what was
previously scheduled to take more than 40, including major progress in the first 5 years,” Byford said. “This means lines that are currently capacity-constrained will be able to carry more people, more smoothly and reliably.”

Visually, the plan looks like this:

I’m not quite sure what happens with the parts of subway lines that aren’t included in the ten-year upgrade approach. Do these non-modernized segments act as chokepoints that still limit the number of trains subway lines can accommodate? If, for instance, the 1 line between Van Cortlandt Park and 96th St. isn’t modernized while the remainder to South Ferry is, can the MTA run additional trains? And what of, for instance, the F between York St. and Church Ave.? Or the entirety of J train?

The plan isn’t without pain, and the pain is the key issue. The MTA considered and dismissed time-barred full-line shutdowns to accommodate the work and plans to maintain weekday train service. But Byford warns that “continuous night and weekend closures” may last for up to 2.5 years per line with both express and local service shutdown where applicable. What the plan does not detail is how exactly the work will go from taking 40 years to taking 10 or whether costs will fall in line with even the upper bounds of international standards rather than current spending which far exceeds that of any other comparable transit system.

Beyond the signal upgrades and CBTC installation, the rest of the plan does what the MTA should be doing but on an aggressively fast schedule. More stations renovated in shorter time frames. More ADA and other accessibility upgrades. Better management (which may be short for cleaning house). Actually delivering a new fare payment system. Route overhauls “to reduce reliance on critical interlockings.” It’s all what the MTA should have been doing for decades.

You can read through the plan document as a PDF right here. It’s a quick read, and it’s a blueprint for the future. Publishing it was the easy first step though, and the harder part is someone else’s political lift. That, as The Times’ editorial board writes today, is the hard part. “Mr. Byford’s plan asks New Yorkers to make sacrifices. They will have to pay more in taxes and fees and endure night and weekend subway shutdowns as workers fix lines and stations. But most people would be willing to bear that pain for a safer and more reliable transit system,” the editorial notes. “What is less clear is whether New York’s elected leaders can summon the necessary political will to turn this plan into reality. It was heartening to see Mr. Cuomo belatedly embrace Mr. Byford’s plan last week, but he has to back up his words with action. Because Mr. Byford is right: New Yorkers can’t wait 50 years for a modern transit system.”

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Andy Byford’s plan to modernize the city’s subway system will hinge on political support from a governor reluctant to embrace transit.

For the first four months of his time in New York City, Transit President Andy Byford has played his intentions fairly close to the chest. He has refused to engage in the political game of challenging Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s support of transit and wading into the ridiculous funding battle between the Governor and Mayor Bill de Blasio. He’s been open and honest about Transit’s shortcomings, particularly around ADA accessibility issues, accurate accounting of subway delays and the overall state of things. He was brought in to fix things, and that’s what he’s trying to do.

A few weeks ago, Byford unveiled his first big initiative — the bus turnaround plan. Designed to combat declining ridership caused by abysmally slow, unreliable and infrequent bus service, Byford wants to modernize the bus system and redesign the network. The project doesn’t include a big price tag, and the biggest ask is likely city-state cooperation. But the bus plan was just the appetizer.

Last week, Andy Byford revealed what is intended to be his pièce de résistance – his plan to rescue the New York City subway. It is now under the Fast Forward moniker with its own website and a lengthy PDF. In broad sweeps, Byford hopes to accomplish in 10 years what the MTA has long claimed would take 40: a complete modernization of nearly the entire subway signal system. “As I said when my appointment was announced, what is needed isn’t mere tinkering, a few tweaks here and there,” Byford said in introducing his plan. “What must happen is sustained investment on a massive scale if we are to deliver New Yorkers the service they deserve and the transit system this city and state need. Now is the time to think big and transform our network so it works for all New Yorkers.”

I’ll dive into the details and questions I have surrounding the plan in a later post. In summary, the plan is divided into two five-year halves (intentional), signal modernization throughout the city, ADA accessibility for around 150-180 stations and state-of-good-repair work at nearly 300 stations. It also includes over 3000 new subway cars and a new fare payment system. If some of these initiatives sound familiar, that’s because they are. Byford’s plan is essentially New York City Transit’s asks for the MTA’s next two five-year plans, and that’s fine. Byford’s approach is a politically expedient and operationally efficient way to line up this major work, and it will require riders to suffer some pain I’ll delve into later this week.

But political expedience can go only go so far, and nearly immediately last week, the messy ugly politics of transit in New York City came to the forefront. Prior to the plan’s great unveiling, early press reports indicated a price tag anywhere from $19 billion to $38 billion, and apparently that set off a storm in Albany. The announcement on Wednesday didn’t include a dollar figure, and the MTA disputed reports that Cuomo pushed the agency to omit any talk of money. Meanwhile, Cuomo issues one of his milquetoast statements that tried to indicate he had no idea what was coming or when despite his intimate involvement in MTA efforts lately.

Dani Lever, a Cuomo press representative, put her name on the initial statement. “Our bottom line is that the plan needs to be expeditious and realistic and we made it clear to the chairman that before it is finalized, the MTA must bring in the top tech experts in the nation. Because if we can experiment with self-driving vehicles, there must be an alternative technology for the subways,” she said. Cuomo repeated Lever’s statement nearly verbatim at the New York State Democrats’ convention last week before reenaging in his tired shtick over city ownership of the physical infrastructure of the subway system. It was really just a bunch of word vomit and an attempt by the governor to distance himself from the controversial and expensive subway rescue plan that the man he picked to rescue the subway produced.

And therein lies the political rub. Byford has stayed above the political fray because Cuomo has largely let him, but how long can that last? And if Cuomo’s words last week are to be taken seriously, are we to believe that Cuomo did not know about the New York City Transit President’s 10-year plan that, at one point at least internally, carried a potential cost figure of nearly $40 billion? This is the same Cuomo who micromanages everything and has his hand in as many political pots as possible. Cuomo knew.

And if Cuomo knew, is he setting up Byford to be the fall guy? Byford is the respected British expert who came to New York by way of Toronto and can plausibly be ignorant of the budgetary machinations that impact every aspect of New York state politics. He can be the guy who puts out the plan while Cuomo pretends to play the responsible adult, swatting it down for spurious claims of fiscal concern while salvaging some cheaper elements in an attempt to bolster his infrastructure cred. Maybe the signals are fixed, but maybe they’re fixed in 20 years instead of 40 (or instead of ten).

If that’s what’s going on, then I would humbly suggest Byford noisily exit while he can still save face. If the governor who brought him in to fix the problem won’t stand behind the solution, Byford should quit and quit loudly, burning down the house of cards as he goes. If Cuomo never intended to fix anything, Byford shouldn’t spend any more time on this forsaken transit system than he has.

Of course, it’s easy to say that but it’s not that easy for Byford to follow through. The subway rescue plan won’t start until 2020 at the earliest, and the funding fight is a long and arduous one that requires a strong subway champion. Perhaps Cuomo will come around (he already tried, at the end of last week, to walk back his initial comments once the skepticism seemed through), and perhaps Byford can be that champion. But right now, he’s firmly in the political thick of things, and the fate of the New York City subway system rescue plan, if not the entire system and the city itself, hangs in the balance.

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A few charts, along with some MTA editorializing, courtesy of the May 2018 MTA Board committee briefing book for the Transit Committee. The committee will be meeting in the morning to ostensibly discuss these materials, though it is anticipated that Andy Byford’s long-awaited subway rescue and Transit reorganization plan will take up the bulk of everyone’s attention. As these charts show, he has his work cut out for him.

And now a few brief thoughts: The MTA doesn’t really seem to know what’s driving these ridership declines. A bunch of months ago, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo claimed bus ridership declines were acceptable since subway ridership was on the rise, but it’s clear that’s not the case right now. Meanwhile, the agency has blamed the weather and higher fares for the declines in subway ridership and bus ridership respectively, but this seems to be a shot in the dark. Weather wasn’t noticeably worse over the past year, and subway ridership has been on a long-term decline as the city’s economy has seen job increases over the past 12 months. In my view, ridership is on the decline because service has been unreliable and unpredictable, and it’s creating a negative feedback loop in which more and more potential subway riders seek alternate means of travel.

Meanwhile, fare revenue for Transit from the start of 2018 through the end of March was around $38.3 million below expectations. If these trends continue throughout the year, the agency could be looking at an unanticipated budget gap of around $150 million. For an agency that operates on razor-thin margins, losing a significant chunk of ridership revenue could be a problem. For now, the MTA is adding subway service on some lines and focusing on ways to save the system. But it’s alarming that ridership is declining, the MTA doesn’t know why and any urgency around stopping the bleeding of paying customers seems nonexistent. Clearly this is a story worth watching as 2018 unfolds.

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In about a week or so, Andy Byford is going to reveal his big NYC Transit subway rescue plan to a public anticipating a Big Idea. Byford was brought in specifically to build this plan and execute on turning around the struggling subway system. It won’t be easy, and one of the major obstacles in Byford’s way is New York City Transit itself. The agency often can’t seem to get out of its way, and many of the current problems with fast and reliable service are self-inflicted.

One of the biggest problems, as I discussed in mid-March, are signal timers slowing down service throughout the city. These timers were a reaction to the 1995 Williamsburg Bridge crash, and in March, Aaron Gordon of the Village Voice explored how the MTA did not understand the effect the timers would have on capacity and service. A study nearly 20 years after the fact betrayed the MTA’s problems. “The 2014 study — the first time the authority had attempted to analyze the impact of any of the revamped signals, using its improved data system — found 2,851 lost total passenger hours per weekday could be attributed to thirteen modified signals alone. That was almost double the predicted impact; for comparison, the modifications of [] thirteen signals alone created 5 percent as much lost time as that experienced by riders of the entire London Underground on its average day,” Gordon reported, based on internal MTA documents.

This past week, The New York Times revised the issue with signal timers in an easy-to-understand graphic explaining how signal terms slow down service and decrease through capacity on the subways. It’s well worth your time to play with the interactive interface, and it’s worth remembering that the capacity of the system cannot exceed throughput at the slowest choke points. The Times piece delves into how the subways no longer have extra capacity because of the intentional choices the MTA has made over the past few decades. Here’s Adam Pearce on the problem:

The M.T.A. projected that the signal changes would not reduce the number of trains that could pass through a section of track each hour. But this assumed the signals would work properly and that trains would operate at the speed limit. In reality, many signals are poorly maintained and misconfigured, triggering emergency braking at speeds below the listed limit. An unpublished 2014 internal M.T.A. analysis, first reported on by The Village Voice, found that the signal changes caused a significant slowdown, more than the M.T.A. expected. Train operators face steep penalties after a number of instances of tripping a signal, like losing vacation days or being forced into early retirement…

The analysis stated that if the M.T.A. had known the signal changes would reduce the number of trains able to run on congested lines, they would not have been made. But the damage was done. After the signal changes, two fewer trains could run on the southbound 4 and 5 lines hourly, forcing the thousands of passengers those trains would have carried to squeeze into already crowded cars. Across the entire system, more than 1,800 signals have been modified since 1995.

To me, this graphic is the biggest indictment of all.

These stations in Lower Manhattan are absurdly close together and largely along straight tracks. A train operator on a downtown 4 or 5 train can see each station from the one before it, and yet, the signal timers add 15 seconds per trip from Fulton St. to Bowling Green. Over the course of a line, this adds up to a significant constraint on capacity, and delays due to “overcrowding,” an excuse the MTA has hidden behind for years.

The success of Byford’s plan will hinge on how he treats and responds to these signal timers. It’s guardedly good news that he has, as Jon Weinstein said to Pearce, “asked for an analysis of the impact of signal modifications on subway schedules.” But it’s not enough to ask; he has to respond and fix the problem (without sacrificing safety). But more on that — and the new flagging rules The Times noted — in a follow-up post.

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NYC Transit President Andy Byford last week urged the NYPD to prioritize moving trains.

A disputed seat becomes a fight between passengers becomes a crime scene becomes a 90-minute rush-hour delay to police activity. It all happens in the blink of an eye as it did last Thursday morning when a fight on an A train at High St. snarled rush hour service on both the 6th and 8th Avenue lines for 90 minutes. And now it’s touched off a bit of a war of words between new NYC Transit President Andy Byford and the NYPD over the right way for the cops to respond to subway disruptions so as not to snarl service for hundreds of thousands of riders.

The details regarding the incident on the A train at around 8:15 on Thursday morning are nearly inconsequential. Two people got into a fight over a seat on a crowded train, and a fight ensued which involved mace and reportedly some blood. The new combatants left the train and kept fighting on the platform at High Street, but cops held the Manhattan-bound A train in the station for 90 minutes. This led to MTA-acknowledged delays on the A, C, E and F trains and more crowded trains reported by riders along 6th Ave.

In the aftermath of the delay, Andy Byford diplomatically suggested that perhaps delaying service for 90 minutes isn’t quite the best way to handle it. Here is his full answer, via Dan Rivoli, in response to questions regarding whether the cops handled the situation appropriately:

“I need to look into it a bit more. The fact that it lasted so long would suggest to me – no. I very much appreciate what the police do. But we shouldn’t have been at a stand for that long so I’d say actually it’s between us and the police.

It should have been escalated certainly to my Chief Operating Officer’s level and ultimately to mine because I would have been all over that saying you have the train but you’re not having it there. We’ll give it to you, you could take it somewhere else but you cannot stop the service for 90 minutes for a fight.”

The cops of course responded graciously and with an acknowledgement that they would do better in the future. Oh wait no they didn’t. In anonymous comments to The Post, one law enforcement source was dismissive of Byford’s statement. “Where are you gonna move a train to if a police investigation is being conducted? Maybe Mr. Byford has a suggestion,” the source said. In milquetoast on-the-record comments to The Times on Friday, an assistant NYPD commissioner said the crime was “spread over a large area and needed to be handled with care” and that “safety of our subway system is a top priority.”

It’s indisputable that Byford is correct. The first priority, especially in a non-fatal situation, should be to get rush hour (or any-hour) trains moving as soon as possible, and a 90-minute delay in service for an investigation that led to one arrest on reckless endangerment charges is unacceptable. It’s also correct for Byford to engage in a dialogue with the NYPD on this approach to subway policing, as various MTA officials and spokespeople may clear on Thursday and Friday.

But it’s also notable and laudable that Byford even started to broach the topic in public and so directly, and it’s a good sign that he’s willing to advocate for keeping trains moving even in the face of an immovable object such as the NYPD. Keeping trains running smoothly at rush hour must be a top priority of both the MTA and NYPD, and I can’t recall an NYC Transit president willing to tackle this subject head-on. If that means addressing how police respond to incidents in the subway so that policing is more efficient and investigations conducted with an intent to move trains as soon as possible, that’s a good outcome for every straphanger and a good sign as Byford goes to bat for riders who have not often had a forceful, vocal ally leading the TA.

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Current TTC head Andy Byford will be the next NYC Transit president. (Photo via TTC)

Current TTC head Andy Byford will be the next NYC Transit president. (Photo via TTC)

Being the next head of New York City Transit may sound like a thankless, no-win situation. Between a public rightly demanding something resembling reliable and trustworthy transit service and a boss in Gov. Andrew Cuomo demanding whatever half-developed idea pops into his head on any given morning, the constituencies for this presidency are fickle and, in the case of commuters facing another morning of subway meltdowns, angry. But that doesn’t stop many people from taking on the Herculean, or perhaps Sisyphean, task of running and fixing the subways, and last week, the MTA announced that Andy Byford, from London by way of Sydney and Toronto, will assume the role of New York City Transit President by the end of the year.

Byford replaces Ronnie Hakim atop Transit. When Joe Lhota took over the MTA, Hakim moved into the position of MTA Managing Director, splitting responsibilities with MTA President Patrick Foye and MTA Chief Development Officer Janno Lieber. “We are thrilled that Andy is going to lead NYC Transit during this time of great change,” Lhota said in a statement last week. “Our transit system is the backbone of the world’s greatest city and having someone of Andy’s caliber to lead it will help immensely, particularly when it comes to implementing the Subway Action Plan that we launched this summer. In order to truly stabilize, modernize and improve our transit system, we needed a leader who has done this work at world-class systems and Andy’s successes in Toronto are evidence that he is up to this critically important task.”

The British native started out working for the London Underground in the late 1980s before working in leadership for both South Eastern Trains and London’s Southern Railway. He spent a few years in Australia with RailCorp before moving to Toronto where he has led the Toronto Transit Commission since 2012. APTA recently named the TTC, under Byford, as its Outstanding Transit System of the Year, but not all has been wine and roses for Byford in Toronto. Some Torontonians have grown weary of near-annual fare hikes, and Toronto transit voice Steve Munro told The Times that Byford has grown “somewhat less receptive to criticism” over the years.

Still, Byford brings an international perspective to an agency that has been mired in New York Exceptionalism for years. The MTA has been seemingly shy or afraid about implementing best practices not invented here for reasons that have been tough to explain. If Byford can bring his learnings from London, Australia and Toronto to New York City, perhaps Transit can fight its way out of this crisis with an approach more robust than Lhota’s pet Subway Action Plan.

But Byford’s approach in Toronto and the legacy he leaves behind is almost besides the point as the 800 pound gorilla in New York’s room looms large. That gorilla is of course Andrew Cuomo and the influence he exerts over, well, everything. Byford brings a unique perspective to the insular MTA, but the question is whether Cuomo will listen. So far, he hasn’t as Byford participated in the laughably sterile MTA Reinvention Commission a few years ago and on a panel this past summer as part of the MTA genius campaign. Both led to recommendations that were routinely ignored in Albany.

In The Times last week, Marc Santora explored the question of politics and the ways in which Byford should or shouldn’t play politics. (It’s the companion piece, in a way, to Jim Dwyer’s full-on assault on the poor politics of transportation in New York right now.) Santora’s thesis is that Byford should avoid political fights, specifically the feud between Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio. But Byford shouldn’t be afraid of taking positions, and I worry already that he’s going to thread too fine a needle. Take a look at this excerpt from Santora’s piece (the emphasis is mine) :

Mr. Cuomo supports a congestion pricing plan that would charge drivers entering the most crowded parts of Manhattan and is expected to offer a detailed proposal early next year. Mr. de Blasio has been steadfast in his opposition to congestion pricing, saying it would burden low-income New Yorkers, and has instead pushed a plan to raise taxes on wealthy residents.

Mr. Byford said he was “agnostic” about how the money is raised, adding that his task was to show that he could win political support by building a management team capable of running the subway. Transit advocates said he must also win over riders by quickly showing concrete gains, especially by improving on-time performance.

I am willing to give Byford a pass because he’s the new guy, but being agnostic as to matters of transit, transportation equity and funding is a recipe for being a Cuomo pawn. We need a New York City Transit president who is willing to be a champion for New York City transit with a lower case t. He should fight for smart policies and intelligent funding that can help stabilize and modernize our old system. That will involve challenging Cuomo and taking sides that aren’t always popular in Albany. Will that play with the Governor? Will that help push Transit toward a future where delays and poor service aren’t the norms? It’s a tall task, and for now, it’s Byford’s.

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Subway ridership showed a slight dip in 2016 with the weekends accounting for the decline.

Subway ridership showed a slight dip in 2016 with the weekends accounting for the decline.

After years and years of massive growth, something a little bit funny and a little bit predictable happened to New York City’s weekend subway ridership last year: It declined. This is the first year since the Great Recession in late 2008 led to a subsequent dip in ridership in 2009 that weekend trips have gone down, and although many have pointed to Uber as a likely culprit and convenient scapegoat, it is a symptom, rather than a cause, of the downtown.

The MTA released its preliminary ridership figures at its board meetings at the end of February. Overall ridership was 1.7568 billion for the year, off the budgeted amount by around 2.5 percent and slightly off the 2015 pace. Nearly all of the losses came on the weekends.

During the week, the subways are still very crowded. Average weekday ridership is now 5.656 million, up by around one-tenth of a percent over 2015’s figure, and on 39 weekdays (down from 45 in 2015), ridership was over 6 million. But with a few extra weekend days in 2016, ridership sagged. Weekend subway ridership averages dropped from 5.943 million in 2015 to 5.758 million in 2016, a decline of around 3.1 percent.

As frequently happens in transit and rail circles, Uber took the blame. A Times piece called out Uber in a headline, and the interim MTA Chair Fernando Ferrar suggested that the increasing popularity in cab hailing apps in New York City is putting pressure on the MTA’s ridership numbers. When you consider that Uber’s VC money is going toward artificially deflating fares and a trip from disjointed neighborhoods miles away can cost under $15 as they did this past weekend, it’s easy to see why Uber is to blame.

But are nearly 200,000 New Yorkers each weekend giving up their subway rides because of Uber or is Uber (and other city improvements such as Citi Bike) replacing these subway rides for other reasons? I’m inclined to believe the latter. Now, it’s certainly possible that Uber has led to a decline in subway ridership; you can chart the ups and downs of taxi usage in NYC right here. But to believe Uber is the driving force behind subway ridership drops requires you to believe that nearly every single new daily taxi ride in NYC in 2016 replaced a subway ride. That seems like a stretch to me.

So what’s the problem? To me, this chicken-and-egg problem starts with the MTA and the simple truth that weekend subway service is abysmal, unpredictable and unreliable on a week-to-week basis. These three factors alone would be enough in any other city to torpedo transit ridership entirely. That the MTA’s hasn’t cratered on weekends yet shows how resilient the subway is to relatively poor service and how necessary it is for New Yorkers to get around.

Getting around the city on a weekend is a total crap shoot. Between necessary work and the MTA’s lack of transparency regarding changes, weekend service can be slow and frustrating to decipher. Press releases on weekend GOs are often not released until Friday afternoon, just a few hours before changes go into effect, and signs at stations are an indecipherable mess of F trains running on the Q line but only southbound in Manhattan while shutting buses run in Brooklyn and G trains replace F trains to Coney Island, whatever that all means to the uninitiated. This weekend’s changes aren’t likely to be in effect next weekend when an entirely new set of service patterns are briefly established with the same few hours of warning for most people. The Weekender is a graphical mess, and it’s often easier just to walk, bike or, you know, open up Uber, hail a Lyft or flag a cab. T

hat there are viable replacements shows that people aren’t wedded to the subway if it’s not convenient; they’re not, on the other hand, eating into subway service simply by existing. It’s still cheaper and usually faster to take a subway. That said, if your peer group is a bunch of upper middle class yuppies, Uber will be the easy and relatively inexpensive replacement for subway service, especially on the weekends. It’s up to the MTA to combat this decline by offering either better weekend service or a clearer picture of how weekend changes will effect our rides.

Of course, in the end, even as the MTA budget relies on ridership projections, we’re a long way from the bad old days. Total ridership in 2016 was up 77.6 percent since ridership was at its nadir in 1982. That’s impressive growth, but with a system aging and struggling to expand, it’s not impossible to believe that the only way to go from here is down.

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Numbers from July show a slight dip in subway ridership. (via MTA)

Numbers from July show a slight dip in subway ridership. (via MTA)

As legend has it, when asked about a popular restaurant, perhaps in New York or perhaps in his native St. Louis (history is vague on the answer), Yankees catcher Yogi Berra uttered the famous line, “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” Lately, I’ve been thinking about this Yogism in the context of subway ridership as after years of growth, ridership has stagnated and started to slip a little. Have we reached peak subway? Or the are the trains so crowded that no one goes there anymore?

This issue has been percolating throughout 2016, but it came to the forefront in the most recent MTA Board materials. Those materials, released at the end of September, include subway ridership figures through July, and the numbers are starting to sag. Total subway ridership for July was 138.9 million, down from a projected 141.3 million. The MTA believed rain over the July 4th weekend and some New Yorkers’ decisions to extend the long weekend into a mini-vacation led to the variance. It’s quite plausible as subway ridership figures are very sensitive to weather and long weekends.

Now, in a vacuum, missing projected ridership estimates by one percent isn’t that big of a deal, but the year-to-year numbers show a decline. Average daily weekday ridership fell by nearly 2 percent between July of 2015 and July of 2016. Weekend subway ridership, meanwhile, dropped by 3.5 percent between July of 2015 and July of 2016. Again, the MTA blamed rain and vacation, but July continued the year-long trend of ridership either leveling off or declining it.

I had a few thoughts stemming from this trend: First, does it matter? It might if the MTA continues to miss revenue projections due to lower-than-expected fares. It also might matter because we need to understand where these riders are going and why. If the low costs and popularity of cab-sharing apps are sending potential subway riders into cars, that could be a concern for congestion on our streets and a source of long-term competition around the margins for some subway rides. If the continued increase in Citi Bike riders is a factor, this may be indicative of something else at play. It could be that people are fed up with overcrowded rush hour trains that crawl through tunnels and lead to uncomfortable riding conditions because trains are too crowd. It could be something else.

That something else is the second question: What else is going on with the subways? Throughout the same board materials, a variety of other reports indicate service problems. The rolling stock is aging, and failures now occur on average every 120,000 miles (rather than every 143,000 as it was a year ago). On-time performance has dipped to 73.4 percent with a 12-month rolling average of around 68 percent, and wait assessment figures so inconsistent headway gaps, especially during the weekends when getting around time involves deciphering complex and wide-reaching service changes. What if New Yorkers are starting to give up on the subway because service simply isn’t reliable enough?

The subway systems’ renaissance over the past 25 years has been remarkable as annual ridership has grown from 900 million a few decades to 1.7 billion last year without significant increase in track mileage. With new stations and the Second Ave. line set to come online within the next few months, that number will jump again. But it seems that service is starting to come under pressure of all these riders who demand more. Twenty five years ago, the MTA didn’t plan to have 1.7 billion riders in 2015, and it’s not clear that the agency has a plan that will meet today’s ridership demands in 25 years, let alone the demands of whatever ridership could be in 2040. It’s starting to show, and the subways may just be so crowded that no one goes there anymore.

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In the annals of MTA press releases, the one the MTA sent out late last week is certainly one of the stranger ones. The MTA, the press release noted, is going to clean subway tracks. You might think this would come with the territory, but track cleanliness — and resulting fires — has beguiled the MTA for decades. These fires aren’t the problems they once were in the 1970s and early 1980s, but we’ve all seen piles of garbage growing in the tracks.

The MTA is calling this effort MTA Track Sweep, and the video above gives an introduction to the program. It is, MTA head Tom Prendergast said, part of a renewed focus on the station environment. “Operation Track Sweep is a critically important part of our overall effort to create a transit system that’s faster, more efficient, and more customer-friendly,” he said. “There’s no question that a concerted and sustained effort to limit trash on subway tracks will have a significant impact on the efficiency of subway service…Just as importantly, this initiative will also have a positive effect on how people feel about their daily commute. When there’s less debris, the entire station looks and feels cleaner, and the ride is more enjoyable.”

So what are they doing? First, the agency expanding its cleaning schedule. The number of station tracks that are cleaned every two weeks jumped from 34 to 94. Second, in mid-September, the MTA will being a two-week system-wide blitz involving 500 workers who will remove trash from tracks at every station. This is an effort that involves cleaning more than 10 miles of track, and the work will take place largely at night. The crews will post signs at each station noting when the clean-up efforts were completed. It’s not clear though when the MTA will again engage in such a concerted clean-up effort.

On a long-term basis, the agency is working to procure two more portable vacuum systems that can quickly scoop up garbage along the tracks near stations. These systems are expected to arrive before the year is over. Finally, the MTA will procure three new vacuum trains that will arrive in 2017 and early 2018. These trains can hold up to 14 cubic yards of trash — a mole hill compared with the volume of trash the MTA has to remove from its system.

It’s not entirely clear what’s pushing this effort. A few politicians have called upon the MTA to improve its trash-collection practices over the past few years as concerns about rodents and general cleanliness have taken center stage, and a Comptroller’s report last year highlighted the MTA’s trash collection failures. The MTA, Scott Stringer’s report found, simply could not keep up with the volume of trash that built up on subway tracks or its aggressive collection schedule.

So this new effort is a response to constant criticism, and it’s supposed to improve the passenger experience. It is notably not an effort to clear or beautify stations but rather is focused on tracks which should improve train service. We’ll see in a few months how it plays out, but as one MTA official noted, riders bear some responsibility too. “We’re approaching this as a sustained effort to get the tracks clean, and keep them as clean as possible over the long haul,” NYC Transit President Ronnie Hakim said. “Even as we redouble our efforts, it’s important for everyone to realize that riders have a critically important role to play as well – keeping the tracks clean means that everyone has to pitch in by disposing of trash properly.”

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