Archive for Straphangers Campaign
In an ideal world, New Yorkers spend very few minutes on subway platforms. Trains whisk us away from these waiting areas, and they become liminal zones we pass through on the way to and from various destination. But it doesn’t always work that way. We wait and take in our surroundings, and what we see is not always pretty.
As the MTA has struggled to maintain the systems that move trains — switches, tracks, signals — the station environment has often drawn the short straw. Generally, the work performed to make walls and platforms look good is cosmetic, but it causes service disruptions as trains have to be rerouted to ensure the safety of the workers. It makes sense, in a way, for the MTA to prioritize key components, but riders who want a pleasant experience often don’t agree. They want nice platforms that are clean without a sense of neglect. They don’t want dirt and grime, but that’s what they’re getting.
Yesterday, the Straphangers Campaign released its assessment of subway platforms and, not so surprisingly, found platforms to be “grim” and “dirty.” Their findings included observations of garbage on platforms and staircases or handrails in disrepair. Nearly a quarter of platforms had exposed wiring or “substantial areas of missing tile.” A third of all stations had visible graffiti and 40 percent had floor cracks. Another similar survey conducted at fewer platforms found rats at 13 percent of platforms and broken light fixtures at 20 percent of platforms. Water damage and peeling paint were found at over three quarters of the platforms.
“We found what many riders know from bitter daily experience: Many subway platforms are grim and dreary,” Jason Chin-Fatt, the Straphangers Campaign field organizer, said. In four metrics, the Straphangers found the station environments to be worse this year than last. Those include exposed wiring, graffiti, missing tile and lighting. The aesthetics, in other words, are on the decline.
Interesting, the MTA issued a defensive statement in response to the Straphangers’ report. Here it is in its entirety:
Safety is our top priority when it comes to the condition of our stations and platforms and all safety-related defects are repaired in short order. Our operating and maintenance forces have identified and repaired more station defects each of the last few years than ever before and we are on target to surpass last year’s results. In 2012, over 39,000 defects were repaired and we are projected to complete more than 53,000 in 2013, a 36% increase.
The items in the Straphangers report highlight elements that would be extremely costly to keep in perfect condition and would do little, if anything to either improve service or make stations safer. We have to prioritize projects using available funds to address the most pressing needs first.
Over the years, the MTA has issued various reports concerning the items identified in the Straphangers’ report, and ultimately, it all boils down to prioritization and use. If the items in question do not impact core functions — that is, the running of the trains — the MTA is hesitant to begin costly cosmetic improvements. For the sake of the agency’s delicate bottom line, I understand it, but should we accept it?
The stations themselves set the tone for the system. If passengers see stations that are well-kempt and in good repair, they are more likely to appreciate and enjoy the subways while working to keep it clean. If stations are a mess, customers will treat the subways as such. There’s no easy way out of this problem since nice stations cost a lot in both money and diversions, but it’s not a black-and-white issue that can be boiled down to a price tag.
For the past few years, the MTA has embraced mobile communication by issuing digital alerts for most major incidents that lead to subway service changes, and a few months ago, the agency posted the alerts archive to its website. An enterprising organization looking to assess major subway delays could parse that database for information, and that’s just what the Straphangers Campaign did this week.
According to the subsequent report, the MTA issued more alerts for the F line than any other, and the G train suffered the fewest. After Superstorm Sandy, though, alerts increased by nearly 30 percent, portending a system suffering from saltwater corrosion. It is, unfortunately, impossible to know from the text alert archive how long these various service changes lasted, but the data provides a further glimpse into the way we ride.
The Straphangers posted the spreadsheet online and offered up a topline summary of their findings:
- The most improved line was the G, which had 19% fewer delay alerts, comparing the first ten months of 2011 to the same period in 2012. The G went from 42 MTA delay alerts in 2011 to 34 alerts in 2012.
- The L worsened the most — by 60% — from 84 MTA alerts of delays in 2011 to 134 alerts in 2012.
- Manhattan was the borough with the most MTA alerts with 1,219 out of 2,669 in the first ten months of 2012, almost half of all total alerts. The Bronx had the least in 2012 with 9%.
- The most improved borough was the Bronx with 17% fewer MTA alerts of delays, going from 283 alerts in 2011 down to 235 in 2012. Queens performed the worst, going from 392 alerts in 2011 to 458 in 2012, a 17% increase in delays.
- “Mechanical problems” generated the most alerts — 36% — or 949 out of 2,669 alerts in 2012, followed by “signals.” While the number of mechanical delays increased 25% between 2011 and 2012, the number of signal delays remained unchanged.
Additionally, as I mentioned, track, switch and other mechanical problems drove a big jump in text alerts after the system reopened in the wake of Superstorm Sandy. From what I’ve heard, these Sandy-related problems will only increase until the MTA commits extensive resources to repairs on a number of flooded tunnels. That time is coming soon, and the service advisories will be quite severe, according to my sources. G and R train riders, in particular, may find their tunnels undergoing extensive repairs in the coming months. The MTA has yet to comment on these reports.
The agency did, however, issue a statement on the Straphangers’ study. Without offering much further explanation, a Transit spokesman said in an email, “The Straphanger Campaign’s use of the MTA’s email Service Alert as a barometer of individual subway line performance does not paint a full picture of service issues. However, it does serve to highlight one of the efforts in place to keep our customers informed.” The statement went on to nod at the wait assessment figures provided to the MTA Board, but those numbers aren’t as indicative of delays as the text alerts.
Ultimately, we know that subway service is fraught with problems. The system prior to Sandy needed to be modernized, and then-MTA Chair Joe Lhota spoke extensively about a capital campaign focused around just that sort of effort. Now that the mechanical aspects to the subway are suffering, that effort becomes even more vital. Unfortunately, it’s likely to get worse before it gets better, and that database of text alerts will grow and grow and grow.
As I wait for the subway at various stations and at various times, I often take a close look at my surroundings. I’m not looking for shady characters or suspicious packages. Rather, I look to see how the stations appear. With dirty or missing tiles, trash and the occasional pigeon, the platforms are often not much to look at. We have rats; we have garbage; we have things we’d rather not know about. But just how bad are they?
Yesterday, the Straphangers Campaign released its second annual State of the Subway Platform report, and there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that we still have subway platforms. No, wait. That’s not it. The good news is that subway platform conditions haven’t really degraded much since last year’s survey and that rat sightings may be down. The bad news is that subway platforms are still pretty gross.
“We applaud transit managers and workers for improving conditions at many stations,” Jason Chin-Fatt, a field organizer with the Straphangers who ran the survey said. “But there’s still room for further progress. There’s no reason, for example, that riders should have a one in ten chance of seeing a rat while waiting for a train.”
The survey — which took place at 251 stations between the end of May and the beginning of August last year — found that water damage and graffiti are on the rise while rat sightings have declined. There were fewer garbage bags on station platforms, and the Straphangers found fewer staircases in disrepair, less exposed wiring, a reduction in floor cracks, and better lighting. I believe that is a testament to the MTA’s component-based repair project which aims to fix the worst elements at stations rather than subjecting them to timely and costly rehabs.
While Transit conducts its own survey of stations, the Straphangers say they assess different variables. They did however offer up some ways in which their responses differ from the MTA’s assessment:
- Our finding — that, in the summer of 2012, 98% of the observed platforms had a garbage can and that only 1% of these were overflowing — is similar to the relevant PES measure. For the first half of 2012, NYC Transit found 98% of “trash receptacles usable in stations;” and
NYC Transit PES found 100% of the stations had none or only “light” “graffiti conditions” in the first half of 2012. The Straphangers Campaign survey found substantial graffiti at 27% of all the platforms observed in the summer of 2012, which was worse than in 2011 (20%).
All of this is well and good, but let me pose a question: How do you feel about the station platforms? I don’t feel too good about them, and I know I’m not alone. A friend of mine recently spoke about how dirty he felt platforms had become over the last few years, and during the James Vacca-hosted complaint-fest earlier this week, a few City Council members expressed similar views.
When I look around station platforms, I see a state of neglect and disarray. Now, of course, it’s better today than it was two decades ago, but stations that were rehabbed ten years ago are showing their age. Meanwhile, those stations that haven’t been overhauled looked terrible. They’re dark, dingy and evidently unclean. Even those with a trash can or two are replete with litter.
I’ve always wondered if we should care. Station environments are only skin deep. I’d prefer to have new rolling stock, modern signals and speedier trains before stations get their dues. But at the same time, stations set the tone for the subway system. If stations look nicer, customers are more likely to treat the subways with respect. For now though the state of the platforms is good enough for the Straphangers. Perhaps we’re settling for too little though.
Every year, the Straphangers Campaign goes through the pomp and circumstance of their Schleppie and Pokey Awards, and every year the outcome is the same. Some crosstown Manhattan bus is the slowest, and some north-south route is usually the least reliable. This year was no different as the M66 and M42 shared the Schleppie Award, and the M4 took home the Pokey.
The Straphangers’ report — full findings here — says that the two crosstown buses average around 3.9 miles per hour during their 12 noon runs. I’d imagine that time is even slower during rush hour when 42nd St. grows congested. “The M66 and M42 would lose a race to an amusement park bumper car,” Straphangers head Gene Russianoff said, “and be a lot less fun. A bumper car can go 4.3 miles per hour compared to the 3.9 miles of the Pokey Award winning buses.” The M4, meanwhile, suffered the most from problematic bus bunching and scheduling inaccuracies.
Of course, knowing that the buses are slow and unreliable is half the battle and barely news. While nodding at the city’s Select Bus Service as a clear sign of improvement, the Straphangers and Transportation Alternatives called for “investment,” but what kind of investment? The city should devote dedicated street space to buses, implement pre-board fare payment at most major routes and develop signal prioritization. Only then will buses begin to move faster than a healthy young adult can walk across town.
From Coney Island to Astoria via Canal St., the Q train offers up a culinary tour of New York City. The train starts at Nathan’s, stops a few blocks from DiFara’s, swings past Chinatown and ends in a hot bed of Greek dining. One day, it’ll service the Upper East Side too via that Second Ave. Subway. It is also, according to the latest edition of the Straphangers’ State of the Subway report, the best train in the city.
While the C train was rated the worst line for the fourth year running, the Q came out on top for the first time since 2001. “The subways are a story of winners and losers,” Gene Russianoff, Straphangers Campaign senior attorney said of the results. “Riders on the best line – the Q – have much more reliable cars, frequent service, subway car cleanliness and car announcements than riders on the worst line, the C. Sharp disparities among subway lines can be seen throughout the system.”
I’m a frequent Q train rider, and many people I know are as well. It’s tough to say if I’d rate the line the highest in the system due to what often seem to be excruciating waits between trains and the generally slow ride over the Manhattan Bridge. So how did the Q train win exactly?
According to the Straphangers, though, the Q won because it had the best P.A. announcements and above average performance in avoiding delays, car breakdowns, seat availability during rush hour and car cleanliness. With some of the newer rolling stock around, Q trains break down once every 690,000 miles, and from experience, it’s possible to nab a seat at rush hour.
Much like last year, meanwhile, the C train with its decrepit rolling stock ranked last again. It won’t move up the list until new cars arrive as the Straphangers dock it for frequent breakdowns, car cleanliness and inaudible announcements. Same as it ever was.
As part of the report card, the Straphangers also assign a value to each subway line, and here is where I take issue with the report. The organization is ostensibly a rider advocacy group, but they don’t view any subway line as worthy of the cost of the fare. The Q gets only a $1.60 rating while the C is worth 85 cents. Most lines are worth between $1.20 and $1.40, far less than what all but the most frequent users of a 30-day Metrocard pay.
Last year, the Straphangers acknowledged this complaint: “Some riders may find this scale too generous, believing that performance levels should be far better than they are now. Other riders, who value transit service over other ways to travel in New York City, may believe the subways and buses to be a bargain.”
On the bright side, the winner this year is “worth” 15 cents more than last year’s victors. Still, these ratings seem to be cheapening transit at a time when it needs some support.
Any veteran subway rider knows to dread an announcement concerning “an unavoidable delay.” Such a proclamation can precede an endless wait in a tunnel somewhere as some mysterious problem causes back-ups up and down the line. Details are scarce, and the waits infuriating. But what if those unavoidable delays aren’t so unavoidable after all?
For straphangers stuck in a train, the MTA delivers scant information. We never find out the why or wherefore of the service delay unless we seek it out. Yesterday, though, the Straphangers Campaign pulled back the curtain a bit, and after analyzing the 2011 service delays, what they found were a bunch of potentially avoidable delays based on the city’s aging subway signal system.
By analyzing the MTA’s text message alert system, the Straphangers produced a report on subway delays. The total world of delays included 4580 alerts, and the Straphangers determined that 1613 of them — or 35 percent of the total — were uncontrollable. That is, they involved sick passengers or police activity outside of the realm of the MTA. The remainder were indeed avoidable.
The remaining 2967 alerts encompassed delays due to signal or mechanical problems, and over 1000 of those were due to signal problems. The advocacy group offered up some topline summaries:
- The 2 line had the most controllable significant incidents in 2011. The 2 line accounted for 251 out of 2,967, or 8% of all controllable significant incidents.
- The 5 line came in a close second, with 247 controllable significant incidents. This was also 8% of all controllable significant incidents.
- The G line had the fewest controllable significant incidents in 2011. The G line accounted for 45, or 2%, of all controllable significant incidents.
- The most frequently occurring type of controllable significant incidents in 2011 was signal problems. This reason accounted for 36% of all controllable significant incidents.
The 2 and 5 lines, of course, share trackage in both Brooklyn and the Bronx so it’s no surprise that those two lines are intertwined in their delays. As critics of the G may say, since the train never runs, it can’t be delayed (but we know those numbers are due to the fact that it’s a one-train route from Queens until Bergen Street).
For its part, the MTA didn’t dispute these findings. “We agree with the Straphangers’ assessment that signal issues contribute to delays,” the authority said in a statement. “That is why signal upgrades remain a top priority and are a crucial part of our capital program. FASTRACK is also helping to improve how we maintain and improve our signals network.”
The Straphangers posed a few questions based on their data, and one in particular caught my eye. “Are there explanations,” they asked, “for why signal and mechanical problems constitute more than two-thirds of all significant controllable incidents?” The easy answer concerns the age of the subway infrastructure. Simply put, the equipment is very, very old; some signals are pushing 70. This technology needs to be better maintained and, more importantly, upgraded both to maintain current capacity and throughput and allow the MTA to expand its services.
A few weeks ago, I bemoaned the threat of a less ambitious capital plan. Joe Lhota had spoken then of looking at ways to spend less for a few years but invest in the hidden infrastructure. “It’s about signals,” he said. “If we’re going to have more throughput, we’re going to put more trains on the same track, and we’re going to have to have more modernized signals.”
So maybe this is indeed all about signals. The MTA plans to spend around $3 billion on signals over the next few years and will look to increase that amount when the pressures of funding — but not building — the megaprojects start to come off the books in 2015. Can we wait a few more years to upgrade this vital, if hidden, part of the subway system? We may have little choice, but all of a sudden, that less-than-ambitious capital plan looks a little more promising.
As far as transit services go, subway stations are caught amidst a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, it’s far more important for the MTA’s offerings to ensure that tracks, its signal system and the rolling stock are in top shape than it is to gussy up its subway stations. On the other hand, though, subway station appearance sets a tone for the level of care the authority gives its outward-looking infrastructure. Decrepit stations with rats and garbage indicates a level of inattention to passenger environment.
Today, the Straphangers Campaign released their assessment of subway station conditions, and the report attempts to quantify what we see on a daily basis. Their team observed 250 station platform at 120 randomly selected stops. That figure, they say, represents 28 percent of the system’s 909 platforms. During the survey, conducted last year, they found some good, some bad and some ugly.
As they highlight it, the good is a bare qualifier. Every station they saw had garbage cans present, and somehow, only one of the 250 suffered from overflowing trash cans. Furthermore, only six percent had visible garbage bags lying about. The bad included rats in 15 out of 139 underground stations — a figure that seemed low to me — missing tile, exposed wiring and cracked floors and staircase. The ugly though was ugly. Nearly 80 percent of stations had substantial peeling paint while 53 percent suffered from water damage.
Yet, despite these findings, I am inclined to think that the Straphangers over-rate the state of the stations. It’s the subtle things that matter. Sure, every station may have a trash can or two, but as I’ve noted in the past, at 7th Ave. on the Culver Line for instance, the last garbage can is a few hundred feet from the end of the platform. Thus, garbage piles up far from the trash receptacle.
Meanwhile, while recently renovated stations alleviate the underground blight, those that haven’t gone under the knife in decades, if ever, look worse for the wear. In the Bronx along the IRT lines, in Brooklyn both above and below ground, throughout Queens, stations are literally falling apart. Walls are bare, floors are grimy, benches are just flat-out gross. Franklin St. in Tribeca might look great, but the 149th St.-Grand Concourse subway station has needed a substantial amount of work for at least two decades, if not longer.
It’s hard to maintain over 468 subway stations, many of which suffer from decades of deferred maintenance. It’s costly and time-consuming to keep up with the seemingly unattainable State of Good Repair, and painting over leaky walls and cracked ceilings is akin to putting make-up on a pig. But between rats and water damager, dark corners and garbage bags, the city’s stations need some help. This report is just another voice calling out for better repairs.
If you’re trying to get across town in a hurry, you’re better off walking than taking the M50, according to the Straphangers Campaign. The transit riders advocacy group released its latest Pokey and Schleppy Awards this morning, and Manhattan’s M50 which runs crosstown on 49th and 50th Sts. was found to be the slowest with speeds of just 3.5 mph at noon on a weekday.
“You can push a lawnmower faster crosstown than it takes the M50 to go from 1st to 12th Avenue,” Straphangers attorney Gene Russianoff said at a press conference this morning.
It seems as well that riders are aware of the M50′s slow speeds. In 2010, the bus ranked 151st in ridership out of 191 local routes. Only 3905 riders per weekday board the slow-moving crosstown route. Anyone else heading east to west could hop the E or M trains via the 53rd St. tunnel or simply power themselves with their own two feet.
In addition to saluting the M50, the Straphangers also recognized the slowest routes in other boroughs as well. In Brooklyn, the B41 which travels via Flatbush Ave. between Kings Plaza and Downtown Brooklyn took home the prize. I’ve always believed Flatbush ripe for BRT-like improvements. In the Bronx, the Bx19 averaged 5.0 mph while the Q58 into Flushing was Queens’ slowest. The S48 earned recognition for its speeds along Staten Island but at an average of 8.8 mph, that’s one bus route that’s downright speedy.
In addition to honoring the city’s slowest buses, the Straphangers doled out the Schleppy award for the least reliable bus. Unfortunately, they couldn’t give the award to the entire bus network. So the M101/102/103 routes that run along Lexington and Third Avenues took home the joint prize. These buses — some of the busiest in the city — suffer from missed schedules and excessive bunching.
It wasn’t all bad news for buses though as the Straphangers declared that Select Bus Service was living up to its promises. They fond increases in travel speed of asmuch as 50 percent along both the Bx12 and M15 SBS corridors. It is promising then that two bus routes named least reliable in the city by the Straphangers — the B44 in Brooklyn and the S78 along Hylan Boulevard on Staten Island — will soon see their own Select Bus routes.
Of course, as I’ve noted recently, theses slow speeds and unreliable service levels are just one of the problems facing the buses. Ridership along local routes has been on a steady decline as the MTA has cut service levels over the past few years. Outside of the SBS routes, there is no indication that bus service will be getting better any time soon, and transit advocates seem to recognize that reality. “This year’s Pokey goes to yet another sad example of our underfunded transit system,” Paul Steely White, Executive Director of Transportation Alternatives, said. “The M50 might be slow but the bus system itself is racing toward catastrophe at full speed. New Yorkers deserve better.”
New York’s straphangers want the next MTA head to be well versed in public transit, according to a Transportation Alternatives poll. With current MTA CEO and Chairman Jay Walder’s looming departure, Trans Alt and the Straphangers asked 600 New Yorkers their views on the next MTA head, and the results show that riders want someone to advocate for the bus and subway systems. “New Yorkers know first-hand the city’s public transit needs,” Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, said. “Over the last three years, the state legislature has raided a total of $260 million in dedicated funds from transit riders. It’s no surprise that people want the next MTA chair to ensure that elected officials protect the public transit funding needed to prevent further fare hikes and service cuts. They want serious leadership for these challenging financial times.”
The polls, unfortunately, are somewhat self-selection as the two groups hosted them on their websites and Facebook pages. The respondents therefore are more attuned to transit issues than a typical subway rider may be. Still, the answers are telling. Riders want someone who has experience running other large and complext transit systems, and they want someone with the political skills to raise support for transit in Washington, Albany and City Hall. Those traits represent the Holy Grail amongst transit advocates, and finding the right person who is both willing to stick around and enjoys support from Albany has been a challenge.
“Riders most want an MTA chair experienced in running other large, complex transit systems,” Cate Catino of the Straphangers Campaign said. “With a public transit system that runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, riders need the next MTA chair to be able to step into our complex system and hit the ground rolling at full speed. Riders want it all, and we deserve it.”
Every year at around this time, the Straphangers Campaign releases another set of its report cards, and every year, I begrudgingly cover them. I understand what the Straphangers are trying to do with the report cards; they’re trying to condense a lot of information about our subway system into an easy-to-understand presentation. But they’re also so kitschy. Do we need a report released in August of 2011 to tell us that our subway trains in mid-2010 were crowded, dirty and often did not arrive as scheduled?
This year, the best thing to arrive out of the Straphangers’ report was the headline on Andrew Grossman’s Wall Street Journal piece: “MTA Has 99 Problems, But J/Z Ain’t One.” The J/Z trains, you see, took top honors in the Straphangers’ poll. Tell that to the folks who have to ride those trains every day.
Anyway, here’s the story in a nutshell: The J/Z ranked top with a MetroCard rating of $1.45 while the 2 and C came in last with a rating of just $0.90. For the C, it’s the third year in a row at the bottom of the list, and that’s largely due to the fact that it has been, until recently, home of the oldest rolling stock in the system. The cars break down more frequently; the announcement are less audible; and the line is generally dirtier.
The report itself covers the first half of 2010, and it’s almost a case of shutting the barn door after the horse escapes. As Straphangers attorney Gene Russianoff said, “Its probably is too early to measure the full impacts of the 2010 cuts, but according to official transit statistics, there were fewer subway car breakdowns in the last half of 2010, while subway car cleanliness and announcements declined slightly in the year. What’s clear is that many riders on the top rated lines are getting much better service than those taking lines that are at the bottom of the barrel.”
In the report, which is available here, the Straphangers discuss their methodology. Basically, they rate across five categories: breakdowns, cleanliness, chance of getting a seat, amount of scheduled service and regularity of service. Unfortunately, by focusing on line-by-line variables, the report misses the forest for the trees. For instance, if I’m going from Brooklyn to Manhattan via the West Side IRT, I don’t care if, say, the 2 has service scheduled only every ten minutes as long as the 2 and 3 combined have five-minute headways.
This year’s version of the report found that few things had changed underground. In the short term, they rarely do. The subway car breakdown rate improved to 170,217 miles, up from 148,002 miles. Car cleanliness stayed the same, and intelligible announcements declined from 91 percent to 87 percent.
My biggest issue with the Straphangers’ report is the ultimate way it quantifies the subway system. By using a so-called MetroCard system that evaluates a bunch of variables, scales them and assigns a dollar value to them based off of a system where a $2.25 ride would require top scores in every category, the Straphangers are basically saying that the subway isn’t worth the swipe. That’s a dangerous thing to say in an era in which the MTA enjoys nearly no political support and the transit system is hanging on by the skin of its teeth.
The Straphangers nearly admit as much. As they say on their website, “Some riders may find this scale too generous, believing that performance levels should be far better than they are now. Other riders, who value transit service over other ways to travel in New York City, may believe the subways and buses to be a bargain.” Interpret that as you will.
For its part, the MTA sort of brushed off the study. The authority has been releasing this information in a more up-to-date form on its performance metrics dashboard, and its riders know how service lags. “Each month, New York City Transit reports on a wide range of performance indicators that are always available for riders at mta.info,” Transit said in a statement. “We always appreciate and consider the Straphangers Campaign’s fun and unique take on subway and bus service.”
Now if only someone would present a serious proposal that would help fix the inherent problems with both the MTA and its service offerings.