Archive for View from Underground
When I was a little kid, I used to love the street fairs on the Upper West Side. In the early spring, the Daily News would hand out printed one-sheeters featuring the Yankee schedule, and I’d follow along for the season. Plus, those funnel cakes were great. My parents and I — sometimes with my aunt and uncle along as well — would stroll the fairs and soaking in the street life.
Somewhere along the way, though, over the past three decades, New York City’s street fairs have grown to be intolerably repetitive events with no relationship to the neighborhood and little in the way of overall utility. On Sunday afternoon, the street fair came to me, and I obliged. I awoke to the sights of merchants constructing their white tents along Park Slope’s 7th Ave., and I ended up spending about an hour walking the gathering called, for some reason, the Seventh Heaven Festival.
My girlfriend and I did our best to make the most of it. We ate only from local restaurants and skipped past the sausage stands, zeppole booths and mozzarepa dealers that have become the hallmarks of these city-wide fairs. Still, we were hard-pressed to find anything of value. Outside our apartment were stands hawking allegedly hand-made baskets, $5 dresses, cut-rate sunglasses with designer names attached, tube socks and sheets. Down the block were people also selling allegedly hand-made baskets, $5 dresses, cut-rate sunglasses with designer names attached, tube socks and sheets. The crowning moment came when a booth bearing the sign “Interesting Items” promised to sell us scissors, tweezers, and magnifying glasses. Never have I been less interested.
My not-so-newfound boredom with street fairs isn’t something that has come with age and experience. The city over, these things are the same, and even those street fairs with a modicum of individuality — the Atlantic Antic comes to mind — have seen booth space taken over by discount merchants selling a bunch of junk no one needs or wants. As I surveyed the scene (and later spotted a B67 bus trying to wind its way down 6th Ave.), I marveled at the street fair’s complete takeover of normal New York City life. Local businesses are literally crowded out by tents of remainder goods too cheap for Target; pedestrian life is interrupted; and transit services are diverted to less optimal routes. Why exactly do we put up with these things?
Over the past few years, New Yorkers have lived through a remarkable transformation in public space. As Clyde Haberman profiles in today’s Times, NYC DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan has led an effort to restore street space to people. After decades of prioritizing cars and eliminating sidewalk space and room for people, New York planners have tried to make it work for everyone. We’ve seen pedestrian plazas grow in popularity, and a new City Bench program brings seats to areas where a fire hydrant or curb were the best options around. And yet street fairs persevere.
The problems with street fairs are well documented. Seven years ago, the Center for an Urban Future called upon the city to rethink street fairs, and in subsequent testimony before City Council, Center officials blamed the monopolistic set-up of the street fair structure. One company runs nearly every single street fair in the city, and the choices they make are mind-numbingly repetitive and boring. Three years ago, the Center followed up with a series of suggestions for improving street fairs that would have them look more like a greenmarket/holiday market/Brooklyn Flea/Red Hook Food vendor set-up than the current iteration. The plans sound good, but policy changes remain few and far between.
I don’t have any great answer for the street fair problem. Yet, as I strolled down 7th Ave. today, I wondered what the point of it all was. If street views disappeared tomorrow, would anyone in New York City miss them? I don’t think so.
The Website: Improve the Subway
Concept: Randy Gregory, a Masters candidate at SVA, offers up this summary of his site: “For the next 100 Days, I will propose various improvements to the New York City Subway, which in 2012 had 1.6 billion riders, and should be seen as the best subway in the country, if not the world. I’ll be exploring various ideas, from UX, Environmental, Co-Branding, Audio/Visual, and more, including potential interviews with MTA employees, all in an attempt to create discussion.”
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As New Yorkers ride through the subways each day, they spend some time dwelling on ways to improve commutes. From a more pleasant station environment to real-time train location information to a smell-free ride, these improvements range from the dramatic to the mundane. Randy Gregory has decided to turn his own thoughts into a project. Gregory is 55 days into his 100-day effort to present ways to improve the city’s subway system. Some ideas — platform screen doors, electronic notice boards — are ideas in the works or under consideration while others — USB power strips — are more fanciful than practical. Others — a Laguardia AirTrain, RFID fare payment systems — remain frustratingly out of reach.
My favorites are the technological fixes that would drastically improve our rides but would present challenges to the MTA in adoption. A real-time car-density monitor would better allocate passengers to empty spaces, but think about the obstacles that must be overcome (including, of course, dollars). We’ll probably have animated in-car ads sooner rather than later, but I wouldn’t expect a smell detector any time soon.
The past weekend came and went with little fanfare, but for New York City, June 1 should have raised a few eyebrows. Down south in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, Saturday marked the start of the hurricane season, and the first tropical depression that could warrant a name is brewing in the Gulf. New York City celebrated the start of the season by reopening the A train over the Jamaica Bay crossing and crossing its fingers that no storm would take aim at our city this summer.
For the MTA, last week’s reopening of the A train and regular service to the Rockaways was a milestone to celebrate, but it’s not time to rest on the laurels of that work. It may be easy for an armchair quarterback to look at the subway system and appreciate its return to a completed state barely seven months since Sandy arrived. With the old South Ferry loop recommissioned and Rockaway service restored, things are back to normal, right? At least, that’s how it appears on the subway map.
Of course, that’s far from the truth. On the one hand, the MTA hasn’t even addressed hardening the system in any significant manner. Parts of the Broad Channel crossing were rebuilt to withstand storm surges, but otherwise, every single part of the subway system that was vulnerable last October is still vulnerable this June. The MTA has begun to assess various solutions including tunnel plugs and removable floodwall paneling, but it’s a long ways away from implementing a fix.
On the other hand, the system isn’t really repaired. While service has been restored, components that were inundated with floodwaters are corroding at a rapid clip, and signal and switch problems are on the rise. This weekend, we received another glimpse at the future ahead of us as the MTA announced an upcoming bidding process for work in the Montague Tube. The R train’s connection from Lower Manhattan to Brooklyn suffered extensive flooding and is one of the few tubes that will have to undergo a near-top-to-bottom makeover.
In the documents [pdf], the MTA offered up the following assessment:
Work includes the demolition of existing duct banks; removal & disposal of existing tunnel lighting, conduits, wiring, fixtures, ballast & receptacles; construction of new duct banks; installation of new Power & Communications cables in the new duct banks; reconstruction of circuit breaker houses CBH # 82, CBH # 83 & CBH # 91; rehabilitation of two substations (Montague Furman Substation & Broadway-Park Row Substation); new tunnel lighting including fixtures, wiring, & conduit; replacing isolation dampers & wiring for the fan plant; replacement of three submersible pumps & new AC/DC lighting at the pump rooms; track work including new rails & plates; installation of new 8” dry discharge line in both tubes; painting & lead abatement.
Needless to say, none of that is good news for riders who depend upon the R train for their daily commutes. MTA officials haven’t yet confirmed the extent of the work or any potential service outages, but I’ve heard long-term rerouting may come into play. On the bright side, the R train through Montague St. is one of the least-used East River subway crossings, and with the 4 and 5 trains via the Joralemon St. tunnel just downstream, riders enjoy plenty of redundant (and faster) service.
This work and the outages won’t be limited to the R train. The L train’s 14th St. tunnel suffered extensive damage, and the G train’s tube underneath Newtown Creek did as well. And now we’re in that hurricane season again with our fingers crossed that nothing will hit the area that could roll back the recovery progress already in the books. It takes time to rebuild and fortify the system, but time isn’t necessarily on our side.
Over the weekend, a 22-year-old Bronx man dropped his iPhone in the subway tracks, and then he decided to go it. He electrocuted himself upon jumping into the tracks, and then the incoming 2 train struck him. It was a fatal accident, and it wasn’t the only one this weekend. Two other New Yorkers — both determined to be suicides — were killed by trains this past weekend.
After an initial flurry of press over subway/passenger collisions earlier this year, the coverage has largely died down, but the issue remains. As part of a general awareness campaign, the TWU released the video posted above. It’s a rap urging straphangers to stand away from the platform edge as trains enter subway stations, and it’s sage advice. (The call at the end of the video for slower trains upon entering stations is, on the other hand, not a wise one.)
But will the video solve the problem? An article in The Post this weekend delves into the numbers behind subway deaths, and suicides have a slight edge over the last three years. According to numbers The Post received from a FOIA request, 78 of 153 deaths caused by subway trains from 2010-2012 are believed to be suicides. So far this year, 16 of 28 deaths fall in that category as well.
With these numbers on hand, New York politicians again called for the MTA to implement some safety measures, including as Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer said, “better early-warning systems to detect people on our subway tracks.” But people who jump in front of an incoming train wouldn’t trigger the warning system early enough and even a train traveling at reduced speeds will still kill someone who leaps in front of it. Platform edge barriers — an expensive and sometimes impractical solution — remain the best deterrent.
Meanwhile, it’s not unreasonable to question how much of a problem these collisions truly are. According to Pete Donohue’s latest, there were 657 train/passenger collisions from 2008 through 2012 out of over 8 billion subway riders and around a quarter of those were attempted suicides. As the TWU rap says, stand back just a little bit, don’t jump in the tracks over replaceable items, and personal safety shouldn’t be an issue.
While roaming the York St. platform Monday afternoon waiting for a Brooklyn-bound F train to arrive, I came across this neat scene. This is no optical illusion. Rather, it is a sign — of half of one — reflecting in a mysterious piece of stainless steel ceiling panel. The letters are cut off slightly above the halfline, and although some are nearly mirror images, many are not. The words are just jumbled.
For the MTA, this sign is another in a long line of poorly placed panels. Perhaps not as egregious as the since-corrected sign fail at Atlantic Ave., this one still shows a left hand/right hand problem. It appears that, due to some structural issues with the York St. ceiling, crews put in place the metallic panel to bolster the ceiling or product passengers from something dripping. Instead of rehanging the sign to make it visible, they…just left it there. And now it’s blocked.
The first hour or so of the Tuesday after Memorial Day is never a fun one. Most folks heading into work or school are feeling the effects, literally or figuratively, of the first three-day weekend in a few months. Trains are crowded; tensions are high; patience is thin. It would be, in other words, a good day for a smooth ride.
Alas, for me, it was not quite to be. My ride into work was a quick one on the Q train, but as it frequently is, the Manhattan-bound trains leaving 7th Ave. in Brooklyn at 8:30 in the morning was packed to the gills. We had enough room in the car to board, and after Atlantic Ave., enough riders got out that we had room to breath as well. Everything was fine except for this one guy who kept bumping into us because he had on a backpack. Even with no room in the car and straphangers jostling for just enough space, this guy carried on, oblivious to the world around him.
An inability to figure out the right approach for a backpack seems to be an epidemic. On my ride home last night, on an much emptier B train, a guy sitting across from me had his backpack splayed across the two empty seats next to him. He might have been willing to move had anyone asked, but New Yorkers tend to avoid those types of subway confrontations like the plague.
I’ve always believed that the proper place for a backpack, especially on a crowded train, is down low. Hold it between your legs; keep at your feet. People take up significantly less space down in the lower extremity areas than they do at the midsection and shoulders. It’s harder to bump people if you’re standing over your backpack, and you allow other riders the space to navigate around you without any of the jockeying for position that takes place while dealing with a backpack to the head or neck. I think of it as common courtesy.
The packpack issue though is just one of many we face on our daily rides. The door-blockers, the panhandlers, the preachers, the breakdancers (who can get violent), the candyhawkers — we deal with it every day. Some are mere annoyances; others are a threat to our space and, potentially, our well-being. My short list doesn’t include the more sinister elements like the gropers and the flashers that women have to confront as well.
A few days ago, I posed this idea to Twitter and I want to present it here: What are the things that annoy you the most about a subway ride? I may put together a little bracket challenge. Do you find yourself getting irrationally angry at people eating on the train or those who insist on pole-hugging? What about those grooming and clipping their nails in a crowded subway car? Pick one; pick ‘em all.
It’s the Friday before a long weekend. Let’s just have some fun.
As New York City works to recover from the lingering impact of Sandy, the headlining news from the MTA on Thursday was largely positive. A train service to the Rockaways will return on May 30, nearly a month ahead of schedule, and the subway system will again be complete. But it’s a superficial completeness as the damage from the storm and its surge will make its presence felt for months and years to come.
In conjunction with the good news about the A train, the MTA yesterday delivered a press briefing with the bad news. I didn’t have a chance to attend the briefing, but Matt Flegenheimer of The Times did. He shares the news:
Inside a crew room at the new South Ferry subway station, once flooded wall to wall with the waters of Hurricane Sandy, transit officials on Thursday offered a sobering progress report on a system that continues to feel the storm’s effects. Emergency repairs have proliferated. Exposure to saltwater accelerated the corrosion for many metallic parts, and reduced the useful life of equipment like cloth cable sheathings. Last month, a pump discharge line in the Canarsie tube, where the L train operates, ruptured under normal loads — residual evidence of the storm’s excessive stress on the system, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
And if a hurricane were to approach the city in the immediate term, the agency’s best option for fortifying stations would most likely be the same: sandbags, plywood, and the hope that water would not find a way through. “It’s sunny outside. it’s warm,” said Thomas F. Prendergast, the authority’s interim executive director and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s nominee to be chairman. “We’re about a month away from the start of another hurricane season.”
The authority said it was devising plans to protect itself against storms as powerful as a Category 2 hurricane, adding that officials would study whether it was possible to protect against Category 3 or Category 4 storms…Mr. Prendergast suggested that aboveground floodwall panels, to be placed over station stairwells or sidewalk vents, were seen as a leading option to protect the system. But he cautioned that these additions were unlikely to arrive for the start of the next hurricane season, leaving the authority with little choice but to rely on sandbags and plywood. “By and large, it worked very effectively,” he said of the low-tech remedies. “But we can do better.”
Even as Prendergast tries to put a positive spin on things, the fact remains that key points in the system — underwater tunnels between the boroughs — remain vulnerable to flooding and seriously damaged. The pump in the Canarsie Tube burst last month, and I’ve heard rumors of long-term saltwater damage in both the Montague St. Tunnel and the Greenpoint Tube that could require extensive repairs and service outages down the road.
In the materials accompanying the briefing, the MTA announced a variety of efforts. In addition to the new Sandy Recovery and Resiliency Division I discussed yesterday, plans include tunnel repair work, pump room and pump capacity augmentation; and flood mitigation and prevention efforts focused around vulnerable stations in Lower Manhattan and car yards in low-lying areas. Still, the challenges are extreme, and the MTA has to prepare for the worst. As the materials detail, for instance, the Montague St. Tunnel would fill with water in 30 minutes if flood levels reached just over five feet, and a Category 2 hurricane could lead to a storm surge of up to 16 feet.
Over the next six months, as hurricane season unfolds, the city’s transit network will remain vulnerable. It’s still recovering from last year’s storm and can ill afford another direct hit. Until these measures are in place, we’ll be relying on sandbags, plywood and some dumb luck while we hold our breaths and hope for the best.
New York City Transit’s Graphics Standards Manual, designed by Massimo Vignelli and his team at Unimark International in 1970, stands the test of time as the paragon of sign design in the city’s subways. Over the years, the rout-indicator bullet colors have been unified, and the double letters and confusing QJ and QB designations have been simplified. But absent a switch in letter coloring from black-on-white to white-on-black, Vignelli’s signs have withstood the test of time as the key wayfinding elements underground.
The system doesn’t always work properly. I’ve been critical of the information presented on signs discussing divergent routes. It takes some base level of knowledge, for instance, to understand the way the B and D run after crossing the Manhattan Bridge and what service patterns are like once the B stops running but the D doesn’t stop at DeKalb Ave. Additionally, some of the MTA’s later additions not included in Vignelli’s manual are flat-out ungainly. The signs that shorten platform to “plat” are among the worst around.
Still, Vigenlli’s philosophy survives the test of time because of its simplicity. Whereas his subway map oversimplified New York City and the subway schematic, his signs present information riders need when they need it, not before and not after. To understand how this works, point your favorite web browser over to TheStandardManual.com. A few enterprising designers — all associated with Pentagram Designs — have published high-res photos of each page of The Standards Manual, and it gives the design-obsessed among us a chance to delve into the history of signage. Before Vignelli, it was a mess; after, it’s a unified system of generally clear signage.
My favorite page, almost obvious in its simplicity, concerns the placement of signs within a station. It’s something we take for granted now, but Vignelli’s instructions set the tone. “This diagram,” reads Page 2 of the manual, “explains the sequence of information to the rider. It is a branching system that will lead him to his destination as directly as possible. The basic concept of this branching system is that the subway rider should be given only information at the point of decision. Never before. Never after.”
With that in mind, take a look around your favorite station complex. The sign philosophy is best illustrated by a stroll around Times Square, and I’ve noticed that some signs are superfluous or beyond the decision point. That’s likely a result of years of modifications to the stations and signs that wind up in awkward or useless locations. (A sign hung behind a light at Atlantic Ave. comes to mind. It has been re-hung since I snapped a photo of it eight months ago.)
The rest of the Graphics Standards Manual is worth a perusal as well. Vignelli and Unimark discuss the modular design, the proper amount of information to put on a sign, and the process for deviating from standards. Over the decades, many elements of Transit’s public presentation have changed: The subway map looks radically different today than it did in 1972; we use Metrocards and not tokens; subway cars all feature LED route bullets without the distinctive colors on the front. And yet the signs remain. Idiosyncrasies and all, they must be doing something right.
As the MTA attempts to limit the subway’s rat population through birth control, the agency is also working on some decidedly less scientific efforts to control rodents. As officials explained to City Council members yesterday, crews will begin sealing off garbage rooms later this summer. The work will include, according to the Daily News’ report, replacing doors, blocking gaps and plugging “other avenues of entry.”
City Council members — who have a seeming inability to focus on big-picture transit issues while dwelling for months on minor issues — were happy to hear it. “I’m pleased,” Transportation Committee Chair James Vacca said. “I have seen rats dancing on the subway platform. There’s nothing more disgusting.”
I’m much less optimistic. Unless these rooms are hermetically sealed, rats will find away to food, and while sealing off some points of entry will push the rats to use common routes, it won’t eliminate the problem. Banning eating while underground would help, but otherwise, rats are here to stay no matter how many times Vacca and his brethren try to wish them away.