Archive for View from Underground

What time is it? (Photo by flickr user Dan Nguyen)

As straphangers filed onto my Q train at Canal St. on Monday night, I let out an inward sighed. A “Showtime!” crew in full regalia with musical accompaniment boarded my train. They announced their routine, and before legs and hats and arms could go flying, they stopped. The big guy standing near the door seemed like an undercover cop and nearly confirmed as much. The troupe decided against risking it, sat out the ride across the Manhattan Bridge and quietly switched cars.

Now, watching a Showtime crew give up isn’t a new experience. Sometimes, they board a train at rush hour that’s too crowed for the routine; sometimes, riders simply will not move over to clear enough space. Before starting a fight, they wait and move on at the next stop. (They target the Q, of course, because the bench seating on the new rolling stock leads to wide aisles.) Still, I had never seen kids stop in their tracks due to the potential presence of a plain-clothes officer.

Lately, under Commission Bill Bratton so-called quality-of-life crimes have come under police scrutiny, and as The Times detailed yesterday, subway acrobats have been on the receiving end of an NYPD crackdown. As no fan of Showtime!, I initially applauded the move, but the more I read about it, the less I’m sure it’s the way to go. Here’s how Matt Flegenheimer, soon to be off the transit beat, and J. David Goodman put it:

Cheered by tourists, tolerated by regulars, feared by those who frown upon kicks in the face, subway dancers have unwittingly found themselves a top priority for the New York Police Department — a curious collision of a Giuliani-era policing approach, a Bloomberg-age dance craze and a new administration that has cast the mostly school-age entertainers as fresh-face avatars of urban disorder.

Arrests of performers have more than quadrupled this year, to 203 through early this month, compared with 48 over the same period last year…The attention is part of a broader policing strategy in which officers, who often act on complaints from the public, place an emphasis on low-level offenses with a goal of rooting out more serious crime…

Once emblematic of urban disorder, the subways have been a focus of renewed efforts, drawing significant resources for what Deputy Inspector Edward O’Brien called “a cat-and-mouse game.” Teams of officers, dressed casually, follow tips from riders or transit personnel and fan out across cars. “They know we’re out there,” said Inspector O’Brien, who heads special operations for the Police Department’s transit bureau and who was on the train in plainclothes when other officers moved in to arrest Peppermint and Butterscotch. “They’re stepping up their game to a certain degree.”

The Times notes thats around 20 percent of subway dancers have outstanding warrants while others face charges of reckless endangerment or disorderly conduct. Even that seems on the excessive side of things. I’ve objected to the Showtime! routine on the grounds that they’re loud and disruptive with the potential for an errant foot to meet an unsuspecting head. They’re nothing though that probably can’t be solved by ejecting the kids from the system and giving them a warning or a summons.

Any charges simply seem to be rubbing it and unnecessary for any future records, but maybe I’m being too lenient. After all, the kids keep coming back, and enough people keep donating to make the whole thing worthwhile. So let me throw it open to you by revisiting a poll from earlier this year. What do you think of Showtime?

What should the cops do with "Showtime" troupes?
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Under other circumstances, last week would have been a big one for the long-term future of the MTA. For three days, the MTA Reinvention Commission paraded a series of bold-faced transit names through the MTA offices as it fielded suggestions concerning the future of transit. Eventually, it will develop action items aimed at considering and responding to “changes in customer expectations, commuting trends and extreme weather patterns” while focusing on future capital plans. Of course, the LIRR negotiations stole the show, but the Reinvention Commission’s work isn’t done.

As I could, I followed along with the commission’s happenings. I couldn’t attend the meeting, but various transit reporters and other news websites covered the happenings. As you can see from the three-hour video above, the MTA recorded (and streamed) the proceedings, and at times, I wasn’t overly impressed with what I saw. You can, if you wish, watch nearly all the sessions on YouTube.

Early on, the meetings delved into a policy discussion on affordable housing, and many of the subsequent comments concerned fairly obvious initiatives that aren’t so much about reinvention as they are about forward progress. We know the MTA hasn’t been able to move quickly on a MetroCard replacement program, and we know the costs of maintaining the current fare payment system will balloon in five years. That’s old news.

In a way, one set of testimony sums up the need for reinvention and the problem with last week’s commission hearings. It came from REBNY, and as Dana Rubinstein previewed last week, it focused again around the idea to send the 7 line to Secaucus. The idea, seemingly born on the back of a cocktail napkin by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, involves an ambitious plan to send the subway beyond New York’s border to a densely populated area of New Jersey.

“It has been more than 100 years since we have built a rail connection under the Hudson River,” outgoing REBNY head Steven Spinola said. “Since then, the city’s population has almost doubled and the population of the counties west of the Hudson has tripled. More significantly, almost a third of the city’s workforce is comprised of suburban workers, with a growing share coming from New Jersey.”

As always, the MTA expressed lukewarm but noted that “the Transportation Reinvention Commission exists to consider a wide variety of ideas from a wide variety of stakeholders.” The real issue though remains costs. To reinvent the MTA involves asking tough questions about why every construction project costs so much and can’t wrap on time. Once those hard issues are resolved, the MTA can focus more on expansion, improvement and reinvention.

In a related vein, last week for The Atlantic’s City Lab site, I focused on the Second Ave. Subway and wrote about the MTA’s need to build and need to control costs. The two are at loggerheads right now with no real solution in sight. I’ve written about the need to think big on this site before, and here’s a selection from my piece:

At $2.23 billion per mile, the Second Avenue subway is orders of magnitude more expensive than similar projects across the world. At various times, MTA officials have blamed the exceedingly high price tag on overstaffing due to onerous union requirements, the environmental review process, NIMBY opposition, the cost of working in New York, and the number of eligible contractors. The dollars present a major impediment to the future of the Second Avenue subway and to citywide transit expansion at large. Few politicians will fund projects that outlast their terms and cost so much money.

Meanwhile, New York faces a capacity problem. The city is expected to add one million residents over the next few decades, and river crossings—a key barrier separating where people live from where they work—are increasingly nearing capacity. Economically, the city can’t support construction that costs more than $2 billion per mile and takes a decade to build out a mere two of them. And New Yorkers are facing a future where political inaction could prevent badly needed subway expansion projects from seeing the light of day…Only subway lines can sustain New York’s projected growth, but New York can’t sustain multi-billion-dollar subway lines.

I don’t have the answers; if I did, I could head up the Reinvention Commission. But that issue — the cost vs. the need — should be the primary focus of any effort to reform the MTA. We can’t build subway lines that cost a few billion per mile, and we can’t move enough people through half-hearted Select Bus Service lines. Hopefully, the reinvention commission can look beyond the reiterative interest group politics at play and find some way to reform the MTA.

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Did’ja miss me? Sorry for the prolonged silence. I’ve been out of town for the past 10 days, visiting 12 breweries, kicking back for a bit and, well, getting engaged. It’s been a busy and exciting week and a half.

While I’ve been wrapped up in other things, since it’s summer, the transit news tends to slow down a bit. We know the Fulton St. Transit Center isn’t opening for a few more weeks, but what else have we missed? I’ll run down the big stories below and follow up as appropriate.

Help Point Starts to Spread

You may have noticed over the past few weeks that Help Point intercoms have started to appear in a variety of stations throughout the city. This is part of the MTA’s effort to expand security underground. The intercoms are now up on new platforms and stations across the four boroughs. Still, I have to wonder why this is a separate effort from the Transit Wireless roll-out. Wouldn’t it be more cost effective to speed up the wireless rollout rather than sink money on an entirely separate alert system?

Meanwhile, the MTA’s overall security efforts, which stemmed from the 2001 terrorist attacks, have been pushed back by a year or two. Eventually, the system will be secure, but it may not come before the 15th anniversary of 9/11. Meanwhile, Bill Bratton wants security cameras in every subway car.

Showtime Crackdown Continues

Speaking of Bratton, the NYPD has begun a crackdown of “Showtime!” dance troupes. As you know, I’m not fan of these subway acrobats. Generally, they’re annoying and pushy with the potential to hurt someone. That said, the NYPD is changing these kids with misdemeanors for their routines, and I am deeply ambivalent about it. I believe in the #WarOnShowtime, but misdemeanor arrests seems excessive. Plus, it’s now generally a worse crime to break down on the Q train than it is to kill someone with a car in New York City. That’s troubling to me.

Bus Countdown Clocks Coming Soon….At A Cost

Last week, a bunch of City Council members — but not all — announced an aggregate expenditure of $2.8 million to install bus countdown clocks at stations in their districts. As you’ll recall, the MTA won’t foot the bill for this technology, and advocates have pressured city pols to use discretionary funds for this purpose. It’s a noble effort, but one that leads, as I see it, to two kinds of people: those without countdown clocks and those with countdown clocks.

Considering how many people have smartphones and access to Bus Time via other cellular technology, Crain’s rightfully questioned the expenditure. To what better uses could we put this money? It’s worth a thought.

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While rummaging through a drawer in my parents’ apartment a few years ago, I came across this great button. I don’t remember if I got it an Upper West side street fair in the early 1990s or on some trip to the Transit Museum, but it’s an excellent relic of another age. From the MTA logo to the plea to the public to assist the Transit Authority in wiping out something the overwhelming majority of riders didn’t want to see, graffiti was a constant way of life underground.

In May, the MTA celebrated a significant milestone. For 25 years, trains in service have been graffiti-free. It took a concerted effort, a few MTA heads and some aggressive policing tactics to clean the cars, but nowadays, no subway car will leave a yard with graffiti. This doesn’t, of course, mean that cars are always graffiti-free. Taggers still target yards, and post their conquests on Instagram. But riders see nothing worse than scratchiti or an occasional scribble in marker on a seat.

The MTA marked the occasion last month:

The nearly two decade-long scourge of vandalism began with felt-tip markers and soon escalated to spray-paint. The practice turned the subway system into an unwelcome underworld where it seemed that all official control had been lost. Subway cars and stations were covered with grime and layers of graffiti, which gave the system an air of rot and decay. During this period, ridership plunged, crime soared and a generation of subway riders was left thinking that things would never get any better.

At the height of this destructive urban phenomenon, subway cars were so completely “tagged” that it was nearly impossible to see out of the windows. NYC Transit’s initial attempts to squash graffiti all failed. In 1981, guard dogs and a double set of ten-foot high fences were deployed at the Corona Yard in Queens. Initially, the program worked but vandals eventually switched tactics. The low point came in 1983, when hundreds of subway cars were painted bright white, a virtual invitation to an army of graffiti vandals who took full advantage of a fresh canvas.

However, beginning in 1984, a new management team, the first capital program, new stainless-steel cars, and freshly painted older cars, along with stepped up security measures all combined to turn the tide. By May 12, 1989, major investments in the subway system had created a car fleet that was made up of either new or rehabilitated subway cars. Trains were taken out of service at the end of their runs and scrubbed when a piece of graffiti did appear and removal of graffiti from subway station walls and columns had to be accomplished in a defined period of time.

The MTA at the time was aggressive with their messaging. “When you’re sitting in a graffiti-covered car, you don’t feel safe. When the trains were covered with names, codes and epithets, there was a sense that the system was out of control,” then-Transit President David Gunn said, perhaps a bit hyperbolically. Still, for those that subscribe to the broken windows theory of transit attitudes, the end of graffiti was a welcome day. I remember those trains vividly, even if the button I have has to spur my memory.

For more on the history of graffiti in the subways, check out this Gizmodo post or Martha Cooper’s book. For more views from the subway system past, present and future, give me a follow on Instagram.

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The day job has been very busy, and I haven’t a chance at night to delve into a longer post. So instead, enjoy this amusing video of New Yorkers just missing the G train. It is equally applicable to every subway line though and not just the poor, abused G train (which, I’ll always contend, isn’t nearly as bad operationally as its reputation). If you were to follow me on Twitter, you could have seen this video last night. More soon, hopefully.

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While I was up in Montreal two weeks ago, this short article from The Times slipped past my radar. The details in it seem a bit unprecise, as New York City’s population has been on an upward trajectory for longer than the piece notes, but the overall point remains: New York City’s population is at 8.4 million, an all-time high, and is showing no signs of slowing or declining.

Here’s the story. I’ll get to why it’s important after.

Despite the challenges of city living, the city’s population is growing in ways not seen in decades. For the third consecutive year, New York City last year gained more people than it lost through migration, reversing a trend that stretched to the mid-20th century.

For the year ending July 1, 2013, an influx of foreigners combined with a continuing decline in the loss of migrants to other states increased the population by more than 61,000, nudging it past 8.4 million for the first time, according to estimates to be released on Thursday by the United States Census Bureau.

Every borough registered a gain in population. Even the Bronx, a traditional laggard, recorded a rate nearly as high as top-ranked Brooklyn and Manhattan. While Manhattan and the Bronx lost more people to migration than they gained, the difference was made up by more births than deaths…Joseph J. Salvo, director of the population division for the Department of City Planning, estimated that the number of New Yorkers had grown by 2.8 percent since 2010.

So here’s my loaded question with a very obvious answer: If the number of New Yorkers has grown by 2.8 percent over the past four years, has our transit network kept pace? Of course not. In 2010, as you may recall, the MTA slashed subway and bus service across the board, and while some of it has come back, much hasn’t. Service levels remain barely adequate to meet current demand, and rush hour trains are generally unpleasantly crowded with no leeway for error.

Going forward, there aren’t clear indications the MTA will be able to meet population demands through the current system. Yes, Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway will open in 32 months or so, and yes, the 7 line extension will, eventually this year, debut. But after that, the abyss of no transit expansion projects awaits. Phase 2 of SAS is but an idea on paper with no money behind it, and forget about much-needed Outer Borough expansions beyond Flushing, to Little Neck or even down Nostrand or Utica Ave. where much of the population growth is occurring.

What happens, then, as the city’s population grows but the subway system can’t keep pace? Already, the transit community is concerned about what the Domino Sugar Factory development in Brooklyn will mean for an L train that can’t handle current demand. The 7 train stations in Long Island City can’t handle more inbound traffic, but buildings continue to climb. Meanwhile, the South Bronx seems primed for a renaissance that will further tax the Lexington Ave. IRT just as the Second Ave. Subway opens. Ridership meanwhile reached a 65-year high as these new New Yorkers are generally using the subway system on a daily basis.

There’s no real easy answer here. The bus network will have to become more frequent and more reliable. The city will be forced to explore congestion pricing both as a means of controlling traffic and funding transit. And the pace of expansion may need to pick up. Eventually, without some forward thinking and plans for the future, New York’s growth will be constrained by the capacity of its transit system and its road network. We may be reaching that point sooner than anyone would like.

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At Grand Army Plaza, a subway stop I use on a daily basis, the fare control areas are designed to encourage riders to use the emergency exits. At the western end, four turnstiles sit atop a staircase with the emergency exit closer to both the stairs leading from the platform and those leading out of the station. At the eastern end, the stairs lead to two exit-only iron maidens on the south side and an emergency exit door on the north side. As you can imagine, I’ve seen those emergency exits used for nearly every type of egress, and I can’t say I’ve ever seen them used in an emergency.

On the one hand, this isn’t that much of a problem. So long as fare scofflaws aren’t ducking into the emergency gates, riders are using the path of least resistance to clear out of the subway system, and the straphangers using the emergency doors aren’t providing a humanity-laden counterflow against those trying to enter the system to catch a train.

This isn’t limited to Grand Army Plaza. I see it at Times Square near the Shuttle where the emergency exit is often the only way to avoid people entering; I see it at Union St. where the three turnstiles can’t handle the mass of exiting commuters at rush hour. I see it at Yankee Stadium where cops are on guard for fare jumpers, and I saw it, before Transit reconfigured fare control, at West 4th St., where it just made sense to use the emergency exits.

But there’s a catch, and that catch is the incessant, loud, obnoxious blare of the emergency exits. Much like the boy who cried wolf, the alarm sounds, and no one blinks. It’s just another noise in a city full of them, one relegated to background status, except its a background noise that pierces everything around it and may just be unsafe for human ears.

Over at The Times, videographer Ken Webb takes on the emergency exit issue, and he put together the film I’ve embedded atop this post. This is an issue no one wants to solve; it involves elements of ADA compliance and other regulations concerning safety. Self-important New Yorkers ignore the “emergency” part of the exit doors, and Transit is content to let the alarms blare throughout subway stations. And yet, there must be some way to fix it if only we thought about it for a few minutes. After all, nobody loves the sound of the emergency exit in the morning. Or at night. Or ever.

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It’s no secret around these parts that I’m not much of a fan of the “Showtime!” crews that roam our subways. I find their antics tiresome, and over the past few years, they’ve grown more aggressive with moving weary straphangers out of the way, blasting loud music and coming precariously close to kicking New Yorkers in the face. What was once a gimmick has become a nuisance.

I know I’m not alone either. In a recent poll here, nearly three-quarters of my readers expressed similar sentiments. I’ve found that people who really love Showtime are enthusiastic supporters while those of us who don’t like it hate it with a passion. Now, we can count NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton amongst our ranks.

In an interview with Capital New York’s Dana Rubinstein, Bratton discussed some quality-of-life issues when he mentioned his time riding the subway. (For some reason, the police commissioner’s subway rides are headline-making news, but that’s a concerning development for another day.) Lately, cops have been targeted panhandlers and illegal subway peddlers as part of a ticking blitz, and it seems that Showtime is next.

Bratton has always been a believer of the broken windows theory of law enforcement, and we could debate for hours whether ticketing panhandlers, who have no money to pay fines, and sleeping straphangers, who aren’t hurting anyone, is a worthwhile use of NYPD resources. The Showtime crews are a more active menace. “The issues of concern are those quality-of-life issues, the acrobats, the aggressive begging, the people manipulating the swipe cards in the turnstiles,” Bratton said. “We’re going to be having significant focus on those issues. You’ll see more police and you’ll see them more aggressively going after those so-called quality of life issues, which create fear, frustration and sometimes anger.”

So there you have it: The NYPD chief doesn’t like “the acrobats.” The War on Showtime is going to enter an entirely new battleground soon.

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Whenever I read another report about the state of New York City’s infrastructure, I think both of the boy who cried wolf and of Nero fiddling while Rome burns. As the trains continue to run everyday, the average New Yorker who pays no attention to these sorts of things must think we’re all crying wolf while the politicians who are aware of the problem but do nothing seem to be the ones fiddling while New York City slowly crumbles around them. The ultimate outcomes — spend lots of money or watch the city lose its global status — aren’t alluring, but something has to give.

The latest warning comes to us from the Center for Urban Future and focuses on the $50 billion in outstanding investments needed to bring our infrastructure up to par. It includes sentences such as this: “LaGuardia’s main terminal is 50 years old and in terrible condition, while two of JFK’s six terminals have stood for over four decades.” In essence, the CUF report doesn’t sugar-coat anything, and the city’s key pieces are, by and large, in terrible shape.

While the state controls most of the transit spending, the report (available here as a PDF) spends some time focusing on the subway. The picture it paints of key systems we don’t usually see or appreciate on a daily basis is grim. According to the report, 37 percent of the system’s signals have exceeded their 50-year useful lifespan, and yet, they keep on ticking.

The MTA’s signaling system is old and obsolete. Of the 728 miles of mainline signals, 269 have exceeded their 50-year useful life. Twenty- six percent are more than 70 years old and 11 percent are between 50 and 69 years old. The equipment is no longer manufactured, forcing the Transit Authority to build and replace parts at its own signal shop…Expediting signal modernization would require a tremendous infusion of money or a significant redistribution of capital dollars among MTA subsidiaries. Even with unlimited funds, replacing signals would be exceedingly difficult and disruptive…

In addition to funding and track access is- sues, the MTA is hobbled by a dearth of qualified contractors. At the moment, only three to four contractors are available to perform signal installation and modernization work. This limits com- petition, increases expenses and caps the amount of signal work that can be performed at any one time. To address this constraint, the MTA recently began a mentoring program for training contractors.

The problem isn’t limited to signal systems. The report takes on station conditions as well.

New York’s subway stations are chaotic and beleaguered. Trash is sometimes strewn across the platform and between the tracks. Leaking ceilings and water-damaged walls are pervasive. Paint peels from the ceiling. Columns rust. Bottlenecks form at narrow stairwells, choking the circulation of foot traffic. “New York’s subway stations are terrible,” says Paaswell of the University Transportation Research Center. “They’re dirty. They’re dingy. They need painting. They need new architecture. They need better lighting.”

While MTA officials recognize these deficien-cies, in recent years they have scaled down their approach to rehabilitation. “In stations, the MTA has basically conceded that you will never get to a state of good repair,” says Jeremy Soffin, the for- mer MTA spokesperson. “It’s simply not possible. There are so many tens of billions of dollars of repair needs.” Since 2010, the MTA has opted to replace individual components in stations rather than perform comprehensive renovations. According to officials, the old strategy proved too slow and too costly.

And what about maintenance shops?

Like the system they service, subway shops and yards are old. The 13 facilities opened nearly 90 years ago on average. Two buildings at the Concourse Yard were recently placed on the Na- tional Register of Historic Places. The East New York facility, originally built in 1880 as a horse and carriage depot, still relies completely on hand- thrown switches. The narrow aisles at the Livonia and 240th Street facilities are ill configured for modern maintenance and repair practices.

In a recent survey of each of its capital asset categories, the MTA found its yards and shops were in the worst state of repair. Fifty-four per- cent of the components at these facilities exceed their useful life. Thirty-eight percent of lighting is in poor condition and does not meet current standards. The MTA has not increased investment to address the decay at its critical maintenance facilities. Instead, capital outlays have fallen from $455 million in the 2000-2004 capital budget to $263 million43 in the current five-year budget. If greater attention is not paid to rehabbing these facilities, subway car maintenance will suffer and train delays will become more common.

Beyond the subway system, you can read about the sorry state of the city’s airports, the rough condition of the roads, and the structural deficiencies that will impact bridges, utilities and schools in the coming years. With at least $50 billion investment pending, this report hardly paints the picture of a city on the rise.

What’s the answer? How do we find a solution? We’ll need leadership and money. Infrastructure upgrades can spur on job creation and economic growth, but neither Andrew Cuomo nor Bill de Blasio has embraced spending on capital projects. The MTA, on the other hand, has proposed a five-year capital plan worth over $20 billion that would address exactly the issues named in this report — at least on the signaling front. They can’t do much beyond that without an infusion of dollars.

Still, this need for investment will require leadership to make uncomfortable and unpopular decisions. It’s not likely to happen soon, but I wonder how long New York can thrive without it. The situation sounds needlessly dire, but that’s because soon it will be. Invest. Fund. Grow.

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New York is a city of noise. Amidst the hustle and bustle of pedestrian life, the largely unnecessary honking of horns and the blaring of car alarms, and the sirens that go by at all hours of the day, we tend to block out the aural distractions. Thus, a simple beep, while annoying at the wrong time, is very easy to ignore.

For subway turnstiles, that’s a problem. For every MetroCard swipe, failed or otherwise, an MTA turnstile emits a beep. No matter the outcome, the beep is the same, and even the slight double-beep of a failed swipe or a triple-beep of an empty card aren’t distinct enough to catch the attention of someone who’s already trying to zoom through. In other words, a stiff turnstile arm to the gut is far more likely to draw someone’s attention that a double beep.

As problems go, it’s not a particularly pressing one, but with the MTA eying a complete overhaul of the fare payment system within the next few years, the agency is particularly primed to do something about it. Enter James Murphy. The former frontman for LCD Soundsystem has been pushing his plan to make the subways more tolerable for a few years, and he recently garnered a front-page article in the Wall Street Journal. Murphy’s solution doesn’t solve the problem of differentiating between swipe outcomes, but it would make the subways, he says, sound more pleasant.

For the past 15 years, Mr. Murphy has been crafting what he says is a low-cost musical solution: He has worked out a unique set of notes for every station, one of which would sound each time a passenger swipes his or her MetroCard to catch a train. The busier a station becomes, the richer the harmonies would be. The same notes would also play in a set sequence when the subway arrives at that stop. Each of the city’s 468 subway stations would have note sets in different keys.

As Murphy notes that other subway systems have far more soothing sounds, he isn’t the only one proposing a solution. Still the MTA doesn’t seem too open to the idea:

[Spokesman Adam] Lisberg said Mr. Murphy’s plan “is a very cool idea,” one that several people have independently proposed over the years. But it might be hard to put into practice, he said: It’s likely to require a lot of time and money, and probably means temporarily taking each of the city’s 3,289 turnstiles out of service, something the authority is not inclined to do “for an art project.”

“If you screw something up,” Mr. Lisberg continued, you risk breaking the turnstile. Given the 5.5 million passengers who use the system on an average weekday, he said the transit authority was “not inclined to mess with anything that could get in their way.”

In other words, please swipe again.

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