Archive for New York City Transit

Generally, in recent New York City history, as the city’s economy grows and employment increases, transit ridership does as well. On a basic and obvious level, it makes sense. After all, people need to get to work, and if more people are working, more people are going to be using the subways and buses to get to their jobs. And yet, this time around, something funny is happening: As the city’s economy continues to add jobs, transit ridership has continued to plunge.

This story began years ago as ridership started to slip, and I looked into the numbers over the summer. When the agency released its board materials for last week’s meeting, the picture remained negative. Average weekday subway ridership in July 2018 was nearly 2 percent lower than in July 2017, and the MTA noted that this dip was a steeper decline than the one during the second quarter of this year. Weekend ridership has declined by over 5 percent. Take a look at the graph of the 12-month rolling averages. Weekend totals include both Saturday and Sunday.

July ridership numbers show an ongoing decline.

The averages aren’t the only numbers showing an alarming dip. Year-to-date ridership is 0.5 percent below 2017’s pace even as total NYC employment has inched up by nearly two percent over the same period in 2017. Where is everyone going? Or better yet, how are they getting to work?

In the Board materials, the MTA doesn’t speculate as to the lost riders. The agency notes that bus ridership is lower due to fewer student rides, but student rides make up a small fraction of trips especially during the summer months. That’s an unsatisfying answer. Meanwhile, we’ve already seen the MTA attempt to explain the ridership decline with less than impressive results. The agency blamed for-hire vehicles for the declining ridership rather than the poor service, and it’s not clear the agency has a plan to stanch the bleeding or cares much about it.

And that brings me to the next question: Should we care? The answer is a nuanced one. On the one hand, the declining ridership in excess of MTA projections means the agency will miss its fare-based revenue projections, but the miss totals only around $3.1 million. The year-end total will be somewhere around $5.5-$6 million, a piddling amount for an agency with a $13 billion budget but still an amount that could lead to service cuts. Meanwhile, if a modern economy allows potential commuters to work remotely, perhaps we shouldn’t expect a ridership increase commensurate with employment numbers.

But the nagging feeling I have, based on that July report on ridership mode shifts and the general worsening subway service, is that subway and bus ridership numbers are declining because the MTA can’t provide regularly reliable and fast service. Thus, potential transit riders are looking at other modes for travel, and the increase in usage of FHVs (along with added congestion) will increase because the MTA’s service doesn’t provide the reliability New Yorkers need.

If Transit is worried about this ridership decline, the executives aren’t showing it. Andy Byford’s Fast Forward remains a plan without a funding stream rather than an ongoing concern, and agency officials haven’t spoken of the need to combat the decline or a fear that the bottom could fall out. I believe stopping this dip should be a primary concern if NYC is stay on a pace of sustainability with fewer car trips and more transit usage. This slow-motion death spiral will choke the city.

Comments (42)

A Monday meltdown reinforces why transit ridership is down across NYC. (Source: MTA)

Monday morning dawned in New York City yesterday as it so often does these days: with a total MTA meltdown. The problem this time came about because of a year-long project to fix a stretch of tunnel under 4th Ave. about which the MTA forgot to tell riders and somehow messed up the GO. Thanks to a typo, the D, N and R were all running local and wooden plywood formed a surprising barrier on the express tracks. As complaints on social media piled up and no one knew what was happening, riders flocked to any other possible route — ferries, Ubers, whatever they could find.

Later in the day, the MTA determined that a typo caused the meltdown, and Aaron Gordon did a deep dive into the mess that was. As Gordon discussed, because the work order identified the wrong signal as the end point of the construction zone, D trains were routed onto the local tracks, and the entire 4th Ave. line south of Atlantic Ave. was thrown into disarray. Furthermore, since Transit had scheduled this work as a long-term change, the internal communications staff didn’t realize it required special word to passengers in the form of station posters and announcements. Thus, the powers-that-be at Transit simply didn’t know they needed to make an effort to bring word of these service changes to commuters during rush hour on a Monday morning.

The agency struck an apologetic tone. Sarah Meyer, Transit’s new-ish Chief Customer Officer, issued a lengthy statement about the issue (which notes how the blue wall actually improves service and eliminates the need for flagging). “We deeply apologize for our significant errors today and know that we need to do better,” Meyer (a long-time classmate of mine in elementary and high school) said. “We are working through our policies and procedures to ensure this does not happen again.”

But happen again it does time and time again. As Dave Colon detailed at Curbed (while linking to this post of mine on this very topic from 2011), the MTA constantly fails at communicating basic information about subway delays. As Colon noted, Transit’s twitter account had no update on the issue until 9:17 a.m., at least 40 minutes to an hour after initial reports started trickling in. No one anywhere knew what was happening, and this lag in getting information to the public is a near-daily problem these days.

Now, Monday’s delay was a particularly bad one, but this a long-winding way of getting to another point: Monday’s issue isn’t that rare and is illustrative of declining reliability of subway service and a main driver behind the alarming multi-year dip in ridership I charted last week. Following the release of the raw numbers, during the MTA Board meeting last week, agency executives presented a deep dive on ridership trends. What they unveiled wasn’t surprising: Subway ridership is on target for another two-percent dip this year, and the biggest declines in weekend ridership are from the hours of 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., not coincidentally when service gets less frequent and more likely to be plagued by track work-related changes.

Other than from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m., weekday subway ridership is down across the board with the biggest dips in evening and late night travel. (Source: MTA)

It’s hard to find good news in the MTA’s report. The only time ridership has steadily increased has been in the hours between 5 a.m. – 7 a.m., and while the morning rush is still above 2014 levels, by the end of this year, ridership in the 22-hour period from 7 a.m. – 5 a.m. will be at its lowest in six years. Overall, the biggest declines are in the Bronx and Queens, with these boroughs seeing subway ridership fall by 6 percent and 5 percent respectively this year.

Not coincidentally, again, the MTA notes that growth in the usage of for-hire vehicles — the Ubers, Lyfts and Vias of the world — increased markedly in 2017. Growth in FHV usage was 13 percent last year as 63 million more riders used for-hire vehicles in 2017 than in 2016. That’s a larger increase than from 2012-2016 combined, and when combined with the 199 million bike and ferry rides (and the corresponding 6 million rider increase last year), this increase is a one-for-one match with the 69 million rider decline in subway service.

The increase in for-hire vehicle and taxi usage corresponds closely with the dip in subway ridership. (Source: MTA)

So is Uber responsible for the MTA’s ridership dip? That is what MTA Chairman Joe Lhota seems to want the city to believe. As he said last week in response to a question to Dan Rivoli of The Daily News, “Some days, I drink Coke, and some days, I drink Pepsi.” It’s hard to read this as anything other than an attempt to blame personal choice and forces outside of the MTA for the decline in ridership. To me, though, this is both a gross misreading of the situation and an inverting of the cause and effect. The cause of the MTA’s ridership declines isn’t an increase in Uber use; rather, the effect of the MTA’s declining service reliability is an increase in the use of for-hire vehicles.

Notably, the MTA has charted steep declines in outer-borough routes (that is, travel between the boroughs rather than to Manhattan), and that can be explained by long and arduous trips that either require multiple transfers or multiple modes. With VC money still subsidizing for-hire vehicle fares, those New Yorkers who need to take these outer borough trips and can afford a taxi ride do so, particularly when subway service (and communication about that subway service) is a crap shoot. As one Uber rep said to The Wall Street Journal, “The best way to boost subway ridership is to improve service.”

These ridership declines are worrying trends. The spiral will continue to send those with means out of the subway system while New Yorkers who can’t afford alternate travel are left with an unreliable system that costs them time and money in delays and lost wages. The MTA should recognize that the cause is not Uber but rather the service, and Monday’s communications and travel meltdown was just another sign of the depths of the transit crisis.

Comments (36)

A post shared by Second Ave. Sagas (@secondavesagas) on

After a few months’ delay and some gentle nudging on social media over the past few weeks, the MTA this month finally released detailed ridership figures for 2017, and it’s not hard to see why the agency delayed releasing these numbers, as they usually do, in May. In short, 2017 was not a good year for the New York City Subway (and 2018 is shaping up to worse). The decline echoes with ramifications well beyond the confines of New York City Transit’s budget projections. Let’s dive in.

We’ll start with the bad, and the bad is pretty bad. Following years of unreliable service and constant subway disruptions, ridership dropped for the second consecutive year, and the total 2017 subway ridership was 1.727 billion, down by nearly 30 million riders from 2016. Last year’s figure is still historically high, but it’s the lowest annual total ridership since 2013 when the MTA recorded 1.707 billion passengers. The picture isn’t much prettier this year as, through May, average weekday ridership was down around 1.6 percent and average weekend ridership is off last year’s pace by nearly 6 percent. It’s very likely that 2018 will see the lowest annual subway ridership total since 2012, and this will represent the first four-year decline since 1988-1991 when a recession and rising crime rates led to the ridership decline.

To me, this decline represents a problem. Crime in New York is at historic lows, and the city’s economy and job market are strong. All leading indicators suggest that subway ridership should be booming, not cratering. But it’s not, and it’s worth pondering where these trips are going. By and large, the granular ridership figures show that the decline is generally concentrated in the off-peak and weekend slots. Anecdotally, more New Yorkers simply aren’t leaving their neighborhoods via subways on the weekend, and the city’s economy will be worse off for it. It’s also safe to assume that some people will rely on bikes and bike share while others will use for-hire vehicles or private automobiles. Thus, as subway service grows less reliable and ridership declines, the streets will become more clogged with cars (and the congestion and air quality will be worse). This is not a positive downward spiral, and it’s one with which city politicians should be concerned.

To make matters worse, this decline in total annual subway ridership comes after the MTA spend a few billion dollars to open up the three new stops along Second Ave. (and a few years after the 7 line extension opened). Thus, ridership is declining in spite of more revenue-service track miles. Even though the subways are still crowded — after all, 1.727 billion is still a very high figure in recent NYC history — the trend lines are all trending in the wrong direction. Andy Byford’s plan to rescue the subways becomes more important in this light.

But the news isn’t all bad, and in a roundabout way, we return to the Second Ave. Subway. As I mentioned, the 2017 numbers are the first reflecting the new service, and riders on the Upper East Side are enjoying the benefits. The three new stations along 2nd Ave. combined for over 20 million riders, and the Q’s shared station with the F at Lexington Ave.-63rd St. saw a 25 percent jump in station entries. With hospitals nearby, 72nd St. and 2nd Ave. is already the 40th busiest subway station in New York City.

Take a look at how ridership numbers across the Upper East Side compare year-over-year, and you’ll see the full impact of the 2nd Ave. Subway.

2nd Ave. Subway 2017 Daily Ridership

Station 2016 2017 % Change
Lexington - 63rd (F/Q) 16,988 20,893 +23%
68th St. - Hunter College (6) 35,068 24,456 -30.3%
72nd St. (Q)   28,145  
77th St. (6) 36,103 27,584 -23.6%
86th St. (4/5/6) 64,793 45,882 -29.2%
86th St. (Q)   23,722  
96th St. (6) 26,939 18,983 -29.5%
96th St. (Q)   17,150  

As promised, the Lexington Ave. lines are seeing significantly lighter passenger loads along the East Side while the 2nd Ave. Subway is introducing new riders to the system. A conservative estimate shows approximately 27,000 new riders per day entering the system due to the 2nd Ave. Subway with the potential for more depending upon particular ridership patterns. (For what it’s worth, the M15 buses on 2nd Ave. saw a decline of around 3.7% or 517,000 annual passengers as citywide bus ridership declined by around 5.6%.)

In the first year, the Second Ave. Subway seemed to deliver on its promise to ease overcrowding along the Lexington Ave. lines, and these numbers should serve as ammunition for project proponents as the MTA gears up to deliver Phase 2 to East Harlem. As a counterpoint to my optimism, Aaron Gordon at The Village Voice questioned the Second Ave. Subway in light of ridership figures, but I’m more concerned with the cost and construction timeline for Phase 2 than for its utility. It should be built for a variety of reasons and will bring with it big benefits to areas of Manhattan relatively isolated. (More on that later.)

For now, though, the subways are still crowded, but less so. That “less so” part should scare everyone thinking about the long-term successes and challenges facing New York City. The picture slowly coming into focus isn’t a pretty one if ridership declines aren’t reversed soon.

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.

Comments (30)

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.”

Comments (27)

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.

Comments (68)

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.

Comments (62)

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.

Comments (31)

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.

Comments (35)
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.

Comments (14)