MTA CEO and Chairman Jay Walder plans to serve out his full six-year term as the head of the beleaguered transit authority, and this morning, he vowed that the MTA would not cut train and bus service again on his watch. “I think we’ve heard the voice of the people,” he said. “Our intent is not to cut those services any further.” While speaking at a Crain’s New York Business breakfast this morning, Walder said he could not promise the same when it comes to fare hikes. Despite recent efforts to close a substantial budget gap, the MTA is slated to raise fares again in 2013, and Walder plans to adhere to that schedule. I’ll have more on Walder’s comments at the breakfast later.
Riding the subways in New York City is oftentimes not a pleasant experience. Straphangers wait (for too long) on station platforms that are too hot and too crowded for trains that are too stuffed with fellow commuters. As the MTA had to cut services in June and must raise fares again in January just to maintain service as its current level, some former straphangers are finding other ways to travel.
In amNew York today, Sheila Anne Feeney highlights three travelers who have given up on the subways and, in the grand fashion of The Times Styles Section, tries to turn those three commuters into a trend. These three, she says, are representative of an “underground movement” whose members are looking for stress-free, environmentally friendly and cost-efficient ways of getting to and from work. She writes:
“Being outside and being in control of the destiny in your commute gives you a better outlook on the whole day,” said Michael Auerbach, 26 [of Upper Green Side], who bikes 10 miles from his Greenpoint home to his job on the Upper East Side. He appreciates saving $4.50 a day almost as much as he loves compressing his three-train, 50-minute commute into an invigorating half-hour.
Tracking a boost in walking is elusive, but there was a 221 percent rise in bicycle commuters between 2000 and 2009, to 15,495, with Brooklyn leading, according to the NYC Commuter Cycling Indicator.
New Yorkers resort to a step schlep or pedal push for a variety of reasons: Fare hikes, for example, “always give a bump to bike commuting,” said Noah Budnick, deputy director of Transportation Alternatives. Many people, too, said they resent being held hostage in increasingly crowded trains and buses.
Another attorney Feeney found walks three miles each way to and from her office, stopping at a nearby gym to shower. I’d have to believe these commuters may find their alternate commutes less invigorating as temperatures drop over the winter. Still, that some people are fed up with the service and conditions underground is a timeless tale in the annals of New York’s subway history.
New Yorkers, though, shouldn’t be worried about the walkers and the bikers. For as long as I can remember, my dad, who works a little over two miles from my parents’ apartment, walked when the weather was warm — but not too warm. He enjoys the 40-minute jaunt to the office and did so when subway fares consisted of tokens and a ride cost $1.25. As long as the city encourages biking and sidewalks exist, people will always bike or walk over shorter distances.
The people we should worry about though are the ones who eschew transit for cars. They’re the ones who think their rides are too long, who no longer have direct and convenient bus service to work or a nearby subway stop, who can’t stand how packed the trains are even four or five stops away from a terminal. The riders who switch to cars for the perceived convenience of it and to escape the grind of the subway will contribute to the congestion that cripples our area both economically and environmentally, and a future with more cars on the road is what we must try to avoid.
The MTA is, of course, stuck. As it has done so four times in the past seven years and will again be doing come January 1, the MTA is raising the rates on its fares just to keep service levels constant. To avoid a fare hike in 2009, the authority had to slash service across the board, and as wait times become longer and trains both more crowded and less frequent, the ridership levels will dip. Even an increase of just a handful of cars on the road can prove very costly, and the MTA — that main driver of transit in New York City — is in no position to staunch its economic bleeding.
Those commuters who leave the subway system for bikes contribute to no problems. It’s the people who live far away and can’t tolerate the subways that represent the real underground movement of disgruntled commuters, and the carrots to lure them back to transit are nowhere to be found.
As one of the myriad service cuts implemented by the MTA this service, the decision to cut the Barretto Point Park Pool shuttle for a savings of just $100,000 looms large. The MTA launched this bus in 2008 and ran it for approximately 11-12 weeks every summer, shuttling pool-bound swimmers from the 6 at Hunts Point Ave. to the pool. With no shuttle, the pool attendance has plunged.
In Metro this week, Carly Baldwin explores the numbers. As of August 11, only 22,473 people had visited the pool this year, down from 29,807 last year. Considering the heat we’ve had and the relatively dry summer, a 25-percent drop in attendance is very unexpected. Those who run the pool, however, are pointing fingers at the MTA.
“It’s been almost the hottest July on record. Numbers should be up,” Adam Liebowitz from the Point Community Development Corporation said to Baldwin. “In previous summers you had to wait on line 20, 30 minutes before you could go in. But now I’ve heard the lines are gone. It’s obviously because of the lack of public transportation.”
On the surface, the MTA’s numbers seem to warrant eliminating the shuttle bus. After all, they say, only 120 people took the route during the week and the weekend average was just 340. But over the course of the 73 days the shuttle ran last year, that added up to nearly 14,000 pool-bound travelers. Now, unless these Bronx denizens want to risk a 30-minute walk from the subway or an 11-block walk from the Bx6 through an area known for prostitution, the swimming pool if off limits. Is the $100,000 saved over the summer worth it?
When the MTA instituted its service cuts in late June, one change was long overdue. Instead of having the litte used V train terminate at 2nd Ave. in Manhattan, New York City Transit rearranged subway service so that the 6th Ave./Queens Boulevard Local route made use of the old Chrystie St. Cut, crossed the Williamsburg Bridge and terminated at Middle Village, the northern end of the BMT Myrtle Ave. line. Designed to alleviate overcrowding on the L and provide a one-seat ride to Midtown from areas of Brooklyn and Queens with high population growth, the rerouting has been a success.
Earlier this week, NY1’s newest transit beat reporter John Mancini hit the Orange M line to chat with riders about the service changes, and most believed it was a change for the better. “I live in Ridgewood, Queens, I work here in Greenwich Village. And basically now for the first time I have a one-seat ride to work. It’s taken probably 10 to 15 minutes off of my commute. I used to have to take the M to the F, which you could never get on at rush hour. So I’d have to take it down to Chambers Street and get on the 6. It took forever,” Christopher Crowe told Mancini.
The piece is a short one from Mancini, and in it, he talks to a few happy riders and a few others wary of the changes wrought by better transit service. “People who can’t afford to pay these rents will have to be moving out of the area. I mean because you are going to bring more of a crowd that can afford to pay this, and then the poor people that are here can’t afford to pay what they are paying now,” Ariel Lopez of Bushwick said.
In two quotes from two strangers on a train, Mancini captured both the essence of the service change and a problem with the MTA’s approach to service demand. When the V became the M, the Lower East Side and Alphabet City lost a train. No longer does every 6th Ave. local stop at 2nd Ave., the station closest to thousands of people who live on the far East Side. Those folks in a growing area were without one of their trains, and the neighborhood lost some of its bus service as well.
Across the Williamsburg Bridge, however, New Yorkers found reasons to cheer the service cuts. Although some Middle Village residents who work in Lower Manhattan or near Foley Square have a schleppy two-seat ride, those bound for Chelsea or Midtown no longer have to transfer or brave the crowds along the L train. The M has gone from a much-maligned shuttle to a useful train, and this was a service change that should have been made years ago. Unfortunately, the MTA is not in a position to adjust service to meet demand as fast as we’d like.
On the other hand, increased transit service comes with a cost. Neighborhoods are suddenly more accessible and more desirable for renters. Bushwick residents will see their rents creep up, and we can see in Brooklyn and Queens along the Myrtle Ave. line a harbinger of things to come for Second Ave. With more transit service, properties become more valuable, and thus, landlords can charge more. It’s an efficient market economy at work even if it penalizes those who were looking for a deal.
The Orange M will never please everyone, and at some point, if the MTA can introduce F express service in southern Brooklyn, the new routing will come under some form of scrutiny. For now, though, the new route is earning praise, and amidst a bad year for transit in New York City, this useful change is as welcome as any service cut can be.
Over at Transportation Nation today, WNYC’s Alisa Chang profiles the plight of the city’s disabled transit riders in the aftermath of the service cuts. With Outer Borough bus service significantly scaled back, these travelers, many of whom are wheelchair-bound, find themselves taking fewer excursions and suffering through longer trips and inconvenient routes when they do head out. The anecdotes are numerous, and while firm numbers are hard to come by, Chang reports that various groups are gearing up to sue the MTA over the service cuts. These suits will allege a discriminatory effect on the basis of a disparate impact as the service cuts hit disabled riders particularly hard. I’m not familiar with the mandates of the ADA, but these legal challenges could present a problem for the MTA.
When the MTA Board put its stamp on the four-year budget plan this week, it did so more with a grimace than with a smile. On one level, the plan is a strong indication of agency CEO and Chairman Jay Walder’s willingness to cut services, a necessary move his predecessor never implemented, but on the other hand, subway riders are losing more than just money. The authority has to cut some services that make commutes less painful and more pleasant. The subways are becoming austere.
“The foundation of this [Four-Year] Plan,” Walder said, “is the most aggressive and comprehensive overhaul in the history of the MTA. These actions have allowed us to hold true to our commitment regarding fare increases while maintaining the quantity and quality of service that New Yorkers rely on every day. The State’s ongoing fiscal crisis is one of many risks to the Plan, but with continued hard work and the participation of our labor unions I believe that this Plan can be achieved.”
The fares will be raised only 7.5 percent, an amount agreed upon in Albany as a precondition to the 2009 payroll tax funding plan, but the little things will go instead. We’ve already the V and W trains; we’ve already lost countless bus routes; we’ve already seen headways increase during off-peak hours. Now, as Andrew Grossman of The Wall Street Journal details, we’re going to see services scaled back as well.
The cost-cutting measures mentioned in Grossman’s article come from an engagement with the consulting firm Accenture. The savings to the MTA total nearly $202 million annually, but although economic efficient rules the day, Grossman notes that these cuts will “likely lead to an increase in the minor inconveniences of riding Greater New York’s mass transit system.” We’ve already heard about the plan to scale back on turnstile cleanliness, a move that will save the authority $1.8 million, and Grossman highlights a series of other cuts:
Once subway riders get through the turnstiles, they’ll encounter escalators with more debris on them. A program that started in 2007 aimed at cleaning escalators without taking them out of service ended on June 1. When riders get to the platform, they’ll hear fewer announcements about where trains are and whether they’ll be late. The MTA is cutting the number of stations that have dedicated announcers from 183 to 78.
Since June, there have been five fewer green-clad ushers pointing passengers confused by the hustle and bustle of Grand Central Terminal in the right direction. The reductions are part of staff cuts that will save $1.1 million this year and $1.9 million next year…
The Long Island Rail Road has cut its station pigeon-proofing in half. That could mean more droppings landing on passengers as birds nest in platform overhangs. The railroad will have fewer conductors on platforms at Jamaica Station. It won’t trim the trees and branches along its tracks as often as it did.
Commuters looking to railroad drink carts for comfort amid the cuts will find those more expensive, too. Prices for food and drink on the LIRR and Metro-North will go up 3% in September.
None of these cuts are as major as the June decrease in service levels, but combined, they create negative incentives to use transit. If stations are dingier and dustier, if food is more expensive, if people don’t find the system convenient, they will begin to eschew it for other means of transit or fewer trips away from home entirely. Maybe an outer borough denizen won’t spend money on a weekend in Manhattan; maybe a commuter will find it less appealing to wait at a station bombarded with pigeons.
The MTA has tried its best to whether the times, but without support from the state, the authority is left to enact its death by a thousand cuts. The system itself will be maintained, but the amenities will disappear as the trash piles up. “This is not a situation that we’ve created. It’s not a situation that’s occurring because our expenses are up,” Walder said at Wednesday’s board meeting. “It’s not a situation that’s occurring because our ridership is down. It’s a situation that is occurring because our subsidies have not been there and because money has been taken by the state.”
As part of the collateral damage from the MTA’s decision to shutter station booths and axe station agents, MetroCard readers in the subway turnstiles are getting cleaned less often, says The Post, and labor officials are making it a point of contention with the MTA. According to Janet Roth’s brief report, station agents used to clean the readers daily with an alcohol-based cleaning solution on a dummy card, but with fewer agents to clean the slots, straphangers might notice more reader errors. The MTA told The Post that station chiefs and cleaners are to do these daily cleanings, but union officials are telling the cleaners that cleaning isn’t part of their job.
This sort of funny, sort of predictable story leads me to two conclusions: First, the riding public yet again comes out the losers in this battle between a cost-cutting agency and its employee unions. Second, when the MTA finally implements a contact-less fare payment system, this petty argument won’t matter any longer.
Over the weekend, the MTA published its Board committee materials for this morning’s meetings. As part of the Transit Committee deck — available here as a PDF — the authority unveiled the May 2010 ridership figures, and after months of an economy-related decline in ridership, subway usage had finally started to creep up again. The service cuts, in other words, came at a very bad time.
Based on figures released by the MTA, ridership in May averaged 5.327 million per weekday and a combined 5.524 million per weekend. Those figures represent significant increases over the May 2009 ridership totals, and although the 12-month rolling averages are showing negative changes, as the city’s economy has recovered, so too has transit ridership. In fact, ridership for the year has been approximately 1.2 percent above expected for the MTA.
Despite this popularity, straphangers weren’t getting better service. In fact, by May, the MTA’s absolute on-time performance numbers were abysmal. Take a look at another chart from the same PDF:
As this chart clearly shows, the MTA’s absolute on-time performance hit a three-year low in May 2010. Only 59.8 percent of all weekday trains were on time, and these numbers were nearly identical across both A and B Division lines. The MTA says that scheduling changes, right of way delays and overcrowding represented 89.2 percent of the total delays. In this instance, a train is considered on time if it arrives at its terminal within five minutes of the scheduled time.
On a line-by-line basis, the results may warrant addition investigation. The 1 train, for instance, saw 81.3 percent of its trains arrive on time, while a reported 0.2 percent of all 6 trains were on time and 0 percent of all Q trains were on time. That seems a bit fishy to me. Controllable on-time performance — a measure that excludes sick customers, police activity and power outages — came in at 87.3 percent, slightly below the 12-month average but in line with the May 2009 figures. Weekend performance actually improved in May.
By and large, the ridership numbers should represent a high-water mark for the MTA. As the economy improves, the authority will have to deal with declining ridership brought about by fewer bus routes and the overall slate of service cuts. Furthermore, with the economy rebounding and subway service needed more so than before, the state has picked a bad time to let the MTA wither in its fiscal crisis.
With the service cuts on the one hand, looming news of a fare hike on the other should stifle this ridership growth as well. Commuters will simply grow to be fed up with the way the MTA is forcing them to pay higher fares for less service. It’s not part of the MTA’s agenda, per se, to cut service, but the state isn’t adhering to its responsibilities toward mass transit.
As the MTA’s economic woes deepen, we’ll see the impact of poor transit funding in New York City. We’ll see how the city’s economy is so closely intertwined with a vibrant public transit network that can efficiently deliver commuters, students and anyone else from Point A to Point B for a relatively cheap fare. We’ll see how less frequent off-peak service will drive down the MTA’s ridership and revenue totals, and we’ll see what happens when transit becomes an afterthought. It won’t be a pretty conclusion.
As most straphangers come to terms with longer wait times and fewer seats on our post-service cut commutes, a few commuters who live in the harder-to-reach areas of New York City are finding life particularly tough in the post-cut environment. These are the people who once enjoyed bus service to the nearest subway but now must take a subway and a bus or two buses to reach a route that gets them to work. These are the people who have sufferd through service cuts only to be greeted with a de facto fare hike.
For the vast majority of those who are dependent upon the MTA, the fare hikes have resulted in less pleasant rides. As NY1 details today, the MTA’s new load guidelines have meant fewer, more crowded trains, and riders accustomed to a sit are finding themselves out of luck. “Forget about that,” Olmon Hairston said. “What seat? You have to be very strategic and find maybe the very back of the train or the very front of the train and position yourself in such a way so you can jockey for position.”
Those bemoaning about seats are the lucky ones. For many in the outer boroughs, the cost of travel just went up. Some riders have to pay two fares to cover the same distance. Clyde Haberman, with an assist from frequent SAS commenter Allan Rosen, explains the dual fare:
Allan Rosen, who worked for the authority for many years, called my attention to a little-discussed aspect of changes that led to the closing or altering of dozens of bus routes. Some New Yorkers may now be forced to pay double to get from Point A to Point B. They have in effect been placed in two-fare zones.
Until recently, for example, people traveling in Brooklyn from Bushwick to Crown Heights might have taken the B52 bus along Gates Avenue and transferred at Franklin Avenue to the B48, heading south toward Empire Boulevard. But the southbound B48 no longer goes that far. To get where they want, riders who transfer from the B52 to the B48 must switch again at Fulton Street to the B49, running on Bedford Avenue.
That means three buses. For those with per-ride MetroCards, that second transfer costs them an extra $2.25. Similar situations exist on other routes. Are vast numbers of riders affected? Probably not. “But the point isn’t how many people,” Mr. Rosen said. “It’s the fact that it’s unfair and no one should have to suffer like this.”
To a lesser extent, the same problem exists in Riverdale. Bronx residents no longer enjoy the Bx20 and now must either transfer to the Bx7 and pay again to board the A in Manhattan or take the bus to the 1 train to the A train, a rather lengthy trip from Riverdale.
Although few have solutions for this two-fare problem, watchdogs and other transit advocates are not happy with this turn of events. “It’s bad enough somebody has to transfer two times to get where they need to go. They shouldn’t have to pay two fares,” William Henderson, executive director of the MTA Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA, said to New York 1.
For now, some of those riders can switch to unlimited ride MetroCards, but even that, based upon recent rumors, is a temporary solution. When the MTA implements a 90-ride cap on the cards early next year, the two-fare ride, a remnant of the pre-MetroCard days, will again become a reality. It is, as Haberman said, transit death by a thousand cuts.
While the new routes are in effect, many stations still feature old maps.
New York City Transit has a map problem. It’s not that the new subway map is bad. In fact, the redesign with fewer bus boxes and less unnecessary information makes the map more useful as a system navigation tool. The devil, however, is in the stations as five days after the service changes went into effect, the maps present throughout the system are still in the process of being updated.
To illustrate, a story: Every morning, I ride the train from Grand Army Plaza to Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall. I exit the stop in Manhattan at the northern end and pass through the unstaffed entrance that leads into Foley Square. The subway maps at both stations have been updated, but every other piece of supporting navigational materials has not. The “Neighorhood” maps at both Grand Army Plaza and City Hall still show the brown M train and its route into Brooklyn via the Montague St. tunnel. The Manhattan bus map at City Hall displays the routes as of last week and not this past Monday.
These aren’t isolated incidents. I’ve ridden more than a few trains that still display the old maps, and today, my Brooklyn-bound 2 train announced that customers could transfer to the J and M trains at Fulton St. The M hasn’t stopped there since last Friday. The Fulton St. complex is the tenth busiest station in the system, and if Transit’s pre-recorded announcements are telling people wrong information, that’s a problem.
Meanwhile, at other stations, the situation remains the same. Last night, I made the trip from Chambers St. to Christopher St. The latter is a reasonably popular destination stop. In 2009, an average of 10,000 people passed through it every weekday, and it serves as the gateway to Greenwich Village for many tourists visiting the city. The former serves around 20,000 per day. In both of those stations, featured prominently at the Customer Information Center, were subway maps that hadn’t yet been updated to reflect the new routing. Now, I’m not talking about far-off stations in the Rockaways that see a few hundred people a day; I’m talking about the 65th and 128th busiest stations in the system.
Eventually, Transit workers will get around to fixing these problems. The new maps will go up; life will go on. Yet, this situation reminds me of the post I wrote earlier this week about the MTA’s customer service woes. For weeks, Transit has been planning for the new service cuts and rerouted subway lines. The authority made a big show of putting up new subway bullets and fixed an obscene meme in two days when the Internet uproar began. Yet, five days after the cuts, they still haven’t replaced the maps hanging in at least a few stations, and the Neighborhood and Bus maps might remain outdated for some time.
This delay in updating the maps — arguably as important as hanging up some subway bullets at oft-deserted ends of platforms — isn’t a grave oversight by the MTA. It just shows how the authority doesn’t consider its customers. If anything, the maps should be the first things in a station changed because they are what allows people unfamiliar with the system to get around. A tourist unfamiliar with the subway system and bound for, say, MoMA would be left waiting for a V train that won’t arrive and would find at Christopher St. no station agent able to provide them with directions. The customer, it seems, is an afterthought.