Archive for View from Underground

The mayor called 24-7 subway service a ‘birthright’ as the RPA’s Fourth Regional Plan kicked off a debate over the MTA’s approach to modernization.

Every generation or so, the Regional Plan Associate releases a major vision for the New York City metropolitan area and the ways its residents travel. The third Regional Plan, released in 1996, included calls for the Second Ave. Subway, East Side Access, and a streamlined transit hub at Fulton St., projects we know and love (or love to hate). Not everything becomes a reality — the 1996 plan also included calls for a one-seat ride from Lower Manhattan to JFK Airport and the Triboro RX circumferential line — but the plans serve as a blueprint for years’ and decades’ worth of discussions. So when the RPA unveiled its Fourth Regional Plan last week, the moment was something of a watershed for the next few decades’ worth of transportation plans.

Or at least it should have been, but one part of the RPA’s Fourth Plan stole the headlines. In it, the RPA may have proposed, to some degree or another, curtailing some or all 24/7 subway service. It was a vague, off-handed mention that that should have been clarified before the plan saw the light of day, but it cut at something New Yorkers believe to be sacred. Even if only approximately one percent of subway rides occur overnight, you can pry our 24-hour, seven-day-a-week subway service from our cold, dead hands. But as complaints about subway service the whole rest of the time mount, something has to give.

The spark to this fire was a brief mention of a plan to close, well, something at some time that arose on page 120 of a 374-page report [pdf] in the section on “accelerate the adoption of modern signaling systems.” The MTA’s need to quickly replace its collapsing signal system is hardly controversy; this paragraph was:

Guarantee track access and extended work windows. Track work is complicated and expensive on a 24/7 system. Closing the subways on weeknights and/or for more extended time periods would create more opportunities for track installation and testing of the equipment—and reduce costs. Only 1.5 percent of weekday riders use the system between 12:30 am and 5 am. The overwhelming majority of people who ride the subway during the daytime would benefit from the better, more reliable, cleaner and better-maintained system that weeknight closures allow. Of course, whenever lines are shut down, the MTA will need make sure that riders are not left stranded. New bus service should be provided to mimic subway service on traffic-free streets, and with shorter waiting times than today’s overnight subway service.

Now, it’s not immediately clear what the RPA is proposing here, and their comments surrounding the plan, including a subsequent blog post, did little to offer clarity. They say they want to “close the subways” for “more extended time periods” to allow for concentrated periods during which workers can access tracks. It’s indisputable that the current system, which allows for track access during limited overnight shutdowns, is a barrier to a quick signal replacement effort as the MTA itself believes it cannot complete a wholescale signal replacement effort in less than 40 years. But the scope of work completed during FASTRACK — night shutdowns, in which workers are afforded at most 4-5 hours of access — is limited to cosmetic repairs and track clean-up efforts. Replacing a light bulb isn’t the same as replacing an entire signal system.

Since the RPA mentioned the paucity of overnight riders, everyone latched onto this idea as a bad one put forth by a think tank insulated from the reality of low-income workers who rely on the late-night subway service, as bad as unreliable as it is, to get from work to home. Officer cleaners and late-shift healthcare aides can ill afford to lose their rides home. The outcry was immediate.

The mayor sounded an alarm and New York exceptionalism at its finest. “I’m a New Yorker, ” he said. “Twenty-four hour subway service is part of our birthright. You cannot shut down the subway at night. This is a 24 hour city.” (Of course, other 24-hour cities have more reliable late-night options via buses which are better suited for late-night ridership volumes, and some are only now introducing limited 24-hour service a few nights a week, but I digress.)

One City Council member is considering introducing a bill mandating overnight subway service be maintained if the MTA wants city funding. The law of unintended consequences is screaming in protest as this mandate could inhibit the MTA’s ability to do any work, let alone large-scale capital work it seemingly cannot do now.

Even MTA Chairman Joe Lhota pushed back hard as he seemingly objected to something the RPA wasn’t even proposing. “I believe a permanent closure of the entire subway system every night is a bit draconian,” he said. “The MTA has successfully been closing certain subway lines in evenings and on weekends as needed for maintenance and repairs. A permanent closure, I fear, would be inappropriate for the ‘city that never sleeps.'”

Had the RPA been more careful in its initial release, no one would have been talking about a permanent closure, and it’s not clear to me that the RPA intended to infer that a permanent closure was even on the table. We can unequivocally say that a permanent overnight closure of the subway system shouldn’t be on the table. The MTA doesn’t have enough maintenance workers to make this worthwhile, and there is no real underlying need to stop 24/7 service.

But to improve subway service at all other times, it may be time to consider line-by-line shutdowns for extended periods of time so that the MTA can make modernization a reality in the next 15 years rather than the next 40. My proposal comes with many conditionals and is modeled on the L train shutdown and what I believe to be the proper mitigation plan. Close entire lines, or certain discrete segments of them, for the number of months needed to make all repairs and replacements to the signal system. Provide adequate advanced notice and adequate replacement service (via bus bridges and increased service on nearby lines) and institute a night bus service as robust as the one in London. If this is sold as a short-term pain that’s necessary to deliver long-term gains, New Yorkers will accept it and plan around it. At this point, considering the state of the subway system, do we have another choice?

Last Thursday, RPA Chair Scott Rechler made just that point as the brouhahah over his organization’s plan developed.

Some late-night workers voiced their support too.

Of course, this is where the MTA’s credibility gap is a big negative. We don’t know what the L train mitigation plan is yet, and DOT and the MTA will have to collaborate on surface-level replacement service to a degree not seen in recent years. Worse though, New Yorkers don’t believe the MTA can complete work on time or provide adequate replacement service, and riders fear the MTA won’t restore service that is lost to short-term cuts. Based on the agency’s recent track record, I don’t blame anyone for this skepticism.

Yet, I’m left with the feeling that options are limited. Normal service these days is an unreliable toss-up of failing signals and endless delays, and experts expect unreliable transit to have a negative impact on NYC’s economy. If Option A involves short-term 24/7 shutdowns with the promise after of much better service and Option B involves muddling through until the entire system collapses, I’ll take A. How we get there from here involves careful messaging and a reasoned debate over the past way to fix the NYC subway system. The RPA’s plan, and the outcry over one vague paragraph in an otherwise thorough document, was not the way to start the discussion.

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While I haven’t had an opportunity to post here in a few weeks, the transit news has been rolling non-stop. From Penn Station to the subway’s aging signal system, we’re witnessing the acceleration of the slow-motion collapse of New York City’s transit infrastructure, and Gov. Cuomo is taking responsibility for his MTA only in fits and starts. There are no plans to ramp up the pace of work required to ensure the system doesn’t backslide any further, and that is a topic I hope to explore more in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, as train service starts to sag and reliability declines, everyone is wondering how much can New York City, an economic center of the country, withstand before the problem becomes a national one. I believe we may already be there even if our leaders won’t, don’t or can’t take responsibility for any of their actions. It’s a lazy cliche to say only time will tell, but for now, only time will tell.

For more insight into the current state of things, I spoke with Slate’s Isaac Chotiner last week, and his Q-and-A with yours truly ran today in the online mag. We discussed the issues writ large of declining service reliability; we pointed some fingers at Albany; and we pondered whether the feds, not particularly sympathetic to urban life these days, could be depended upon for a rescue as they have been in the past.

I’ll leave you with an excerpt and my thought for one politically challenging but perhaps necessary approach to the S-L-O-W pace of signal upgrades. Mosey on over to Slate for a full read, and I promise I’ll have more here soon.

If you were governor, what could you do right now to make the situation better?

Say to people, “We know your subway system is bad, we know your train system is bad. To really fix it we have to take lines out of service for extended periods of time.” We don’t know what those periods of time are because no one at the MTA has really explored the issue yet. But if you can accomplish a signal replacement in a year without a train service, it might be better to do that than to knock out service over seven or eight years and have this uncertainty.

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Nov
13

A return to the new normal

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It’s been a quiet few weeks for me around these parts. As I’ve mentioned a few times, I’ve been busy at work with less time for regular posts. Additionally, I spent a lot of energy over the past month, as many of have, focused on the presidential campaign. In that regard, it was an exhausting month.

I don’t need to tell you that my side lost on Tuesday night. Anyone who has read this site for bits and spurts or all of its ten-year life knows where my political sympathies lie, and for the past few days, I’ve been trying to come to terms with what the results of Tuesday’s election will mean for me and my family, for my friends and for my country. Some of you may be happy with the outcome; others are concerned for American freedoms and for friends who are minorities who feel abandoned by the government. We are facing a time of uncertainty in America that this country has not witnessed in over 150 years.

With this backdrop, bickering over transit policies can seem almost besides the point. What happens with the subway or a few Select Bus Service lines or a Laguardia AirTrain can seem inconsequential when basic rights are at stake. But transit has its place in our society. As John Raskin of the Riders Alliance wrote to the organization’s membership on Thursday, transit “makes our city more just, more inclusive, more compassionate, and more sustainable.” A better transit network with money well invested to solve mobility problems ensures better opportunity for New Yorkers of all stripes, and I’m not going to stop covering transit just because I’m also concerned about the direction of our national politics right now.

So I’m going to try to get back into the swing of regular updates here. I can’t promise you daily posts; my schedule doesn’t always allow it these days. But as the Second Ave. Subway nears opening and as other initiatives move forward, I’ll give them the attention they deserve so our city and state leaders can be assessed on their transit records. As New Yorkers, we’re in this together even if we may have differing takes on national politics. I hope you’ll continue to join me on the journey here.

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I’m on vacation for the next two weeks, traveling in Barcelona, Provence and Paris. I’ll be riding the Metros in Spain and France (with two SNCF rides in between). So keep an eye on the Second Ave. Sagas Instagram account. I’ll be on Twitter when possible, but I won’t post much more than service advisories here. I’ll be back from Europe on September 11 so barring any breaking news, I’ll see you on September 12.

In the meantime, some links to keep you occupied (for a minute or two or more): In the ongoing saga of the performance artist who caused a scene on the D train last week, police arrested Zaida Pugh today and threw the book at her. She is facing charges of reckless endangerment, obstructing governmental administration, false reporting an incident and disorderly conduct, according to Daily News sources, all stemming from her hoax that left a D train stranded. The cops acted fast in this case, and Pugh has seemed remorseful on social media.

For a longer read, check out this City Journal piece on the Port Authority. In an overview of the massive beast that the Port Authority has become, Stephen Eide argues that it is time to disband the bi-state agency, a constant rallying cry of reformers and advocates. Eide argues that the regional model isn’t working as the Port Authority suffers from extreme mission creep and can’t make investments where needed. Eide recommends the PA restructure its debt, spin off the airports, and dump the World Train Center. Many have considered whether the MTA should ultimately wrap PATH into the New York City subway, but Eide does not call for the PA to divest itself of PATH. I’ll likely have more on this piece in a few weeks, and it’s an interesting one to ponder.

Finally, Amtrak last week unveiled plans to purchase 28 new trainsets for operation along the Acela line. These cars will enter service in 2021 and should allow Amtrak to run half-hour Acela service along the Northeast Corridor. The cars will be able to operate at speeds of up to 186 mph and are part of a $2.45 billion investment. They will indeed include USB ports at every seat. Read the press release here, check out renderings here, and read Jason Rabinowitz’s roundup of the Alstom-made cars. (And fret over the Amtrak-MBTA dispute that could temporarily torpedo Boston Amtrak service.)

When I get back, we’ll talk Midtown East rezoning and the MTA’s joining NATCO after dumping APTA. You can always read some free ebooks in the subway, but just don’t break too many rules while I’m gone.

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Was your office, like nearly everyone else’s in New York city, chirping over this tale from a Wednesday evening D train? It’s one of those only-in-New York tales that makes people wonder how they cope on a daily basis, and it highlights the absurdity of the subway emergency brake.

For me, the story started with a text message from a good friend of mine shortly after 6 p.m. on Wednesday. “Yay! Someone pulled the emergency brake on my D train!” he said to me. “I’m getting a nice long view of the bridge!” All he knew after were that cops had shown up at De Kalb Ave. to greet the D train and remove an unruly passenger. Here’s how The Post relays events:

A crazed woman trying to sell crickets and worms on a D train suddenly threw them all over the crowded car, sending it into chaos during the evening commute. The woman walked into the train car at about 6 p.m. Wednesday and made a pitch to passengers to try to get them to buy the chirping insects and wrigglers. A group of teenagers pushed her, prompting her to freak out and toss the box of pests into the air, said witnesses. Straphangers then started screaming and crying, and all ran down to one end of the car.

…Someone then pulled the emergency brake and the train skidded to a stop on the Manhattan Bridge. The air conditioning shut off and the screaming passengers were all stuck inside the sweltering car with the woman, who then treated them to antics for half an hour as the crickets jumped on passengers. The worms just wriggled on the floor. [The women started trying to throw up on passengers working to restrain her, and she] then urinated on the floor and everyone again ran to the other side of the car while still trying to avoid the piles of bugs.”

This is certainly a bit of a disaster of a subway ride, to say the least, but it was made all the worse for one thing: Someone pulled the emergency brake. Counterintuitively, the subway emergency brake isn’t really for emergencies, and in a situation like Wednesday’s, it simply meant that passengers were stuck on a D train above the East River in a spot where emergency personnel could not attend to the situation.

The problem is one of messaging (and it’s one I covered all the way back in 2010). The MTA gives no indication on trains regarding when passengers should pull the emergency brake, and the only instructions are buried on a page about safety on the MTA’s website. The short of it is that, in case of emergency, do not pull the brake. Rather, let the train pull into a station and seek immediate help. As the MTA notes, the brake should be used only “when the motion of the subway presents an imminent danger to life and limb. Otherwise, do not activate the emergency brake cord, especially in a tunnel. Once the emergency brake cord is pulled, the brakes have to be reset before the train can move again, which reduces the options for dealing with the emergency.”

But no one knows this! And can you blame someone for pulling the brake amidst a plague of grasshoppers and a woman having an episode? After all, it was an emergency, and the pull-cord is clearly labeled an emergency brake. The MTA doesn’t seem to care to clear this up; they likely face liability if they start telling riders not to pull the brake in an emergency. But savvy riders should know the emergency brake, in the vast majority of cases, causes more trouble than it resolves. Just ask the riders on Wednesday’s night D train.

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The R-17, shown here in operation as the Shuttle in 1982, was the first subway car outfitted with air condition. (Photo via Steve Zabel at NYCSubway.org)

Needless to say, it’s been a wee bit hot out in New York City. As the heat wave finally crests so that temperatures are a cool 80 degrees as I write it, the heat has settled into the city like an unwelcome house guest. It fills every nook and cranny with uncomfortably stale air and the smells of New York in the summer. It is indeed a pity the days can’t be like the nights.

New Yorkers though have a special dread of summer. It’s hot outside, but it’s worse underground. The heat traps of the subway system, made even warmer with the exhaust from subway cars pushing the mercury up higher, create unpleasant rides on a good day. At least, we think, the air conditioned subway cars offer a respite from the warmth. But what if it all goes wrong?

For a while on the site, when summer dawned, I would dive into the history of bringing air conditioners to the subway system. We haven’t yet solved the platform problem (although new deep-bore stations offer climate control), but after three decades of starts and stops, the MTA introduced a fully air conditioned fleet of subway cars by the mid-1980s. The ceiling fans seen in the old rolling stock at the Transit Museum seem simply quaint these days.

Lately, though, certain air conditioners have begun to fail. Most notably, the single-compressor units in the R62A cars — what you might know as the 1 and 6 trains — have been plagued with outages. The problems began in bits and spurts a few years ago, but with the sustained heat, the issue has exploded in a wave of Tweets directed toward @NYCTSubway, and a transit agency that can’t do too much more than acknowledge the problem.

Kate Hinds at WNYC has covered this story tirelessly this summer because she, like the rest of us, is wary of getting into the so-called hot cars. In late July, when she first wrote about the problem, the MTA explained that they field reports via social media, log them and try to figure out when to address them. The R62As are particularly prone to outages. These 30-year-old cars are due up for scheduled maintenance and have one compressor rather than multi-unit HVAC systems which are easier to repair. They’re old; they break.

But the problem has been the repeat offenders. Hinds revisited the story this week, and either the problem is growing or people are paying more attention. The MTA, which still claims only around 12 reports today, has fielded upwards of 30 air conditioner complaints on Twitter each day this week, and may cars are repeat offenders with early reports stretching back to mid July or even early June. Simply put, the problem is not going away.

Again, these issues are two-fold. First, the MTA doesn’t have the leeway to take one car out of service. Due to the way trainsets are coupled, removing one car from service basically torpedoes half of a ten-car train set. If the MTA took all of the problematic cars out of service, it wouldn’t have nearly enough rolling stock for peak hour demand. (By my count, at this point, around 40 or more different 1 and 6 train cars have been flagged for AC outages. I’m sure more hot cars are out there that haven’t been reported yet.) Second, while the MTA acknowledges that the R62As need scheduled maintenance, the SMS process can take nearly two years. These cars aren’t getting fixed overnight.

It’s bad solution to a design problem that isn’t getting fixed any time soon. We’re going to be hearing about hot cars until the R62As all undergo scheduled maintenance, but it would behoove the MTA to be upfront about this. Right now, they’re asking New Yorkers to report hot cars but are essentially saying that we have to keep riding them until the agency can find a solution. Beware then those emptier cars in an otherwise crowded train. It’s going to be hot in there.

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These Ferrari-like buses won't do much to increase ridership if the MTA doesn't run them frequently or fast enough, a new study shows.

These Ferrari-like buses won’t do much to increase ridership if the MTA doesn’t run them frequently or fast enough, a new study shows.

Over the past few months, it has been exhaustingly frustrating listening to Gov. Andrew Cuomo talk about transit. As I explored late last week, he has latched onto vaporware ideas and thinks he’s investing in smart and rational transit expansion programs. His ideas — AirTrains that go the wrong way, buses he termed “Ferrari-like” with ceiling-mounted USB ports, e-tickets that should been implemented years ago — don’t move the ball forward.

But, in the words of LeVar Burton, you don’t have to take my word for it. A study issued this week by the Transit Center called Who’s On Board [pdf] highlighted the factors that drive people to use transit, and these flashy benefits that Cuomo has been pushing rank dead last. Out of a series of 12 service improvements, wifi and power outlets finished behind the field while service frequency and travel time led the pack. Other leading factors, especially with regards to buses, included countdown clocks, one-seat rides, low fares, and seat availability.

“There’s no magic bullet for transit, but there are some simple rules,” Steven Higashide, the report’s lead researcher, said. “Make it easy for people to walk to transit, put it close to important destinations, and make transit frequent, fast, and reliable. Frequent transit networks in walkable neighborhoods reduce reliance on cars, spark economic growth, and create vibrant urban places.”

The report also served to validate other assumptions regarding transit riders. Higashide and the Transit Center team found that most transit riders walk from to transit, thus highlighting the need to locate stations in busy and walkable areas with safe access routes. More importantly for New York, the report highlights how transit users, particularly those who own cars or have access to other means of transit, are far more sensitive to quality. For years, transit planners and analysts have relied on the idea of a “captive rider” who uses transit because there is no other choice. But the report has found that those who live and/or work near higher quality transit — reliable trains, frequent buses – use transit whether they own cars or not. “When transit becomes functionally useless,” the report notes, “there are very few people who will continue to use it; agencies can take no one for granted.”

Is New York’s current focus wrong then? Highlighting Gov. Cuomo’s promise of Ferrari-like buses, the report states, “Our findings call into question the fad among transit agencies touting free Wi-Fi for customers who don’t care strongly for it.” Instead of focusing on gimmicks, transit investment should focus around more frequent service and faster travel, whether through dedicated lanes or otherwise. The orders from the governor then seem backwards. Slapping a new decal on a city bus and adding amenities that don’t get riders to their destinations faster is about branding that most see through; improving travel times by investing in more routes and prioritizing road space accordingly is a bigger political lift but with a greater pay-off at the end.

Ultimately, New York seems to be spinnings it proverbial wheels, but it’s not clearly who’s listening. And with ridership holding steady on subways and ticking downward on buses these days, it seems that the MTA is a living example of the Transit Center’s findings. Potential riders seek out transit that is of good quality, and declining service, whether through longer waits or slower speeds or disappearing routes, lead those commuters to seek other means. No number of USB ports will ever reverse that trend.

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Gov. Cuomo praised the MTA's new three-door articulated buses for their "European flair" and "Ferrari-like" design. The New Flyer-produced vehicles will hit city streets beginning next month.

Will technology-enabled buses or simply more frequent bus service attract more riders?

There is something so glaringly obvious about proclaiming frequent service as the main driver behind transit ridership growth that we often tend to overlook it when discussing adding riders. Yet, every now and then, it’s worth remembering the basic maxim of transit planning: Above all else, frequent, reliable service is the key driver behind good and popular transit networks.

Recently, it seems, the MTA has forgotten this truth. Despite massive growth in ridership, service increases have been incremental with, thanks to TWU work and shift selection rules, long lead times before the MTA can institute shorter headways. In return, the MTA has turned toward gimmicks to, as officials claim, attempt to attract Millennials to transit (even though Millennials are already major transit users). We’ve seen the MTA to discuss USB- and wifi-enabled buses, and we’ve heard MTA CEO and Chairman claim a long wait for a train is more tolerable so long as the station has cell service. As I said in March, this is lipstick on a pig.

Meanwhile, recently, in Boston, the MBTA had to scale back certain plans for the extension of the Green Line, a costly plan that involves no tunneling but with a scope that grew out of control. To regain control of a project out of budget, the MBTA cut ostentatious station designs with reduced footprints for headhouses and fewer escalators and elevators. These stops won’t be grand designs, but they’ll be functional with constant service. That, Yonah Freemark at The Transport Politic recently wrote is what counts, and it’s worth looking at Freemark’s framing:

Given how reliant the people of New York City are on their Subway, an outsider just looking at ridership data might conclude that the system must be paved with gold, or at least its stations must be decent to look at. After all, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that the comfort of a transit system plays an essential role in encouraging people to abandon their cars and get on the train or bus. That’s why, some would argue, it’s so important to put amenities like USB charging and wifi into transit vehicles.

Yet anyone who has ever ridden the subway knows first hand that its success has nothing to do with aesthetics or access to luxury amenities. Stations are hardly in good shape, trains are packed, and cell service is spotty at best. People ride the subway in spite of these things; they ride it because it’s fast, it’s frequent, and it’s (relatively) reliable.

Too often, this simple fact is ignored by public agencies actually making decisions about how to invest. New York’s own $4 billion World Trade Center Transportation Hub—perhaps the world’s single-most expensive station—is evidence of that; rather than improve service frequency or speed, officials chose to direct public funds to a white monument that does nothing to actually ease the lives of daily commuters.

So be wary when Gov. Cuomo starts touting technology as the solution to the MTA’s woes. No amount of wifi-enabled stations, USB charging points or video screens will eliminate the fact that the MTA should be running more service and building out capacity. More frequent service is what makes transit appealing, and everything else is just a distraction from the real drivers of a better transportation network. We shouldn’t lose sight of that in an era in which the political discussion is dominated by technology rather than by service levels.

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Dude.

Despite an ongoing MTA etiquette ad campaign, recent observers spotted an increase in manspreading.

As the subways grow more crowded, the way we take up space has garnered more attention. No one should care how we spread out, sit, or stand on a subway car that’s mostly empty, but when every square foot is precious, straphangers who take more than their allotted space come under the microscope. “Manspreading” was seemingly the 2015 word of the year in New York City as the unfortunate tendency of some riders to reserve space and take up multiple seats by spreading their legs became the Internet’s cause du jour. And now a Hunter College professor has taken a closer, observational look at subway etiquette.

The report — available here as a pdf — used observations across a variety of subway lines in both the fall of 2015 and the spring of 2016 to identify certain etiquette trends. Observers found manspreading to be a steady issue while door-blocking was more prevalent. Pole-hugging, another etiquette violation, wasn’t nearly as widespread, and riders eating made up only around 1/2 of 1 percent of subway passengers.

I found the passages on manspreading to be instructive. In the fall studies, observers found that 8.5 percent of seated male riders engaged on some form of manspreading, but this figure dipped to just 2.9 percent on crowded cars. “This finding suggests that manspreading is not a biologically-based phenomenon due to the body dimensions of males as some have argued,” they wrote. “Rather, its occurrence appears to be situational and depends upon the population density of the riders in the car.” In the spring, these totals jumped to 14.4 and 9.6 percent of riders, but the Hunter professors attribute this, in part, to a renewed focus on manspreading during the spring observations.

Interestingly, though, the Hunter observers spotted a problem the MTA has recently identified as a cause for delay. The study calls the phenomenon “disorderly exits,” and we know it more commonly as door-blockers. Riders will not get out of the way of open doors as straphangers attempt to enter and exit subway cars or those entering will board before everyone exiting has alit. Thus, passengers have to queue up to funnel through a confined space, and train dwell times at stations (and thus delays) are increased. In crowded cars, disorderly exits were observed during over 30 percent of peak rides this past spring.

The MTA has started an aggressive campaign of public address announcements aimed at reducing delays due to crowds, and I’ve worried this comes across as victim-blaming. Since the agency isn’t or can’t run enough trains to meet demands, they’ve taken to lecturing riders for delays that are kinda, sorta beyond the riders’ collective control. The Hunter study though suggests that perhaps riders on both sides of the doors are to blame for these delays. Some people can’t wait to run unto a train while refuses to clear the doors at busy stations. Delays mount one way or another.

It’s tough to draw sweeping conclusions from an observational study, but the authors offer up a few words of advice. They note, interestingly, that females are less likely to enter a subway car that’s relatively empty, and they have some words of wisdom on boarding. “If the subways are to run more efficiently and attenuate the frustrations of riders due to delayed trains,” they write, “then one priority should be to focus on reducing the incidence of disorderly exits.” Easier said than done, eh?

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A Saturday evening, Manhattan-bound Q train had no empty seats to spare. (Photo: Benjamin Kabak)

While working on a somewhat related piece tonight, I started collecting a series of numbers regarding the last few decades’ worth of subway ridership that I wanted to share. These numbers tell a story of a city that’s growing and a transit agency that’s going to struggle to keep up. They tell the story of planners potentially caught off guard and economics and construction timelines that are impossible to sustain. The numbers leave many questions up in the air, and I’m not quite sure what the next few decades will bring.

Let’s start in September of 1996. Right before MetroCard discounts were announced, the average daily subway ridership was 3.684 million. Four years later, in September of 2000, daily subway ridership hit 4.745 million. Last October, average daily subway ridership reached 5.974 million. So in the span of 20 years, the MTA saw, on average, 2.3 million more entries per day or an increase of nearly 66 percent. That is, simply put, remarkable growth. On an annual basis, in 1992, overall ridership was below 1 billion; in 2015, that total topped 1.762 billion.

On the other hand, in the intervening twenty years, the MTA has opened a new station, and that new station has been open only since September. The agency is currently constructing three more with the first substantial addition to the subway map in a generation set to open within the next seven months (give or take a few), but this seems like a woefully inadequate response to a system that would have felt downright empty in the early 1990s as compared with our packed trains at most hours of the day.

This is, in a nutshell, the capacity crisis that has gained recent headlines. As I wrote last week, there are few immediate solutions and most transportation proposals seem to be bespoke ones driven by outside interests. The Brooklyn-Queens Streetcar, for instance, is going to do diddly-squat to help a Bronx commuter find a few square inches of space or a Q train rider at 7th Ave. fit into a Manhattan-bound subway at 8:30 a.m. Bike share solves some of the city’s last-mile problems, and despite my annoyance with the attention on ferries, they can help around the margins. But when a good year for the ferry system means 1.2 million riders over the course of 365 days (or 20 percent of today’s total subway ridership), we’re really comparing apples to oranges.

Today, we’re living with the consequences of both deferred maintenance and a lack of foresight. At some point in the 1930s, for a variety of historical and economic reasons, New York City simply stopped expanding its subway, and a few decades later, the city stopped investing in regular upkeep. Thus, when the state took over, it had a backlog of maintenance and no money for expansion. Today, the subway still needs money for maintenance, but the MTA can’t expand fast enough or cost-effectively enough to meet demand. (In 2007, when the Second Ave. Subway broke ground, annual ridership was 1.56 billion — over 200 million less than it is now.)

So what happens? I’ve been beating the drum for open gangways for a long time, and it’s a solution the MTA needs to explore and adopt as soon as possible. It’s also imperative to find a way to build faster and cheaper. Many options are simply fingers in the dike of a flood of riders, and without a commitment to a high-volume, cost-effective expansion effort, the subways are going to be this crowded for decades to come. And what happens if ridership growth continues on its upward trajectory? That may just be a question without an obvious answer.

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