Archive for View from Underground

Once upon a time, before the 2010 cuts decimated transit service in NYC, the MTA worked to ensure that off-peak subway service met increasing demands. From 2000 until 2010, as off-peak demand, especially between 5 a.m.-7 a.m., increased, the MTA responded in turn, adding more service so that the percentage of off-peak trains generally aligned with the percentage of riders using the system during these early hours. But since 2010, as New York City’s economy has rebounded from the depths of the recession and off-peak commuting has increased, the MTA hasn’t added service at a commensurate level, and this service gap is hurting New York’s lower-income workers, according to a new report by NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer.

“During rush hour, we’re packed into subway cars like sardines. But outside traditional ‘9-to-5’ travel, off-peak service is fundamentally failing to meet demand. It’s a crisis within a crisis, because over the past decade, the nature of our economy has changed,” Stringer said in a statement, “and ridership late-nights and early mornings has risen while actual service to match it has not. That means that those who need service to get to work during non-traditional hours are stuck with a crisis not of overcrowding, but of infrequency.”

Subway service to and from the Manhattan hub has not kept pace with growing ridership in the early morning (5 a.m. to 7 a.m.)

The crux of Stringer’s argument is the chart above. Based on the nature of New York City’s economic recovery, as more jobs have shifted outside of the 9-to-5 realm, the MTA has not added service to meet demand. Thus, as Stringer put it, more riders are waiting longer for more crowded trains in the morning even as the MTA has engaged in an on-again, off-again PR campaign to ask riders to shift travel outside of the peak hours. Furthermore, riders who need to commute during these off-hours are generally earning around 20% less than those who travel for traditional peak-hour jobs. They can ill-afford sub-par transit service, but that’s what they’re getting.

The numbers are stark: Since 2010, ridership to and from Manhattan has jumped by 14% in the two hours before 7 a.m. and by 13 percent in the four hours after 7 p.m. Meanwhile, over the same period of time, train service declined by 3 percent between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m. and increased by only 3 percent between 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. Thus, anecdotes of 10:30 p.m. trains packed to crush load are borne out by numbers that show service failing to keep pace with ridership trends. As Stringer notes, these unreliable commutes can lead to reprimands at work, docked pay, termination and a general slow-down in productivity. His office had previously estimated that subway delays cost around $400 million annually in lost productivity and wages.

Subway service in and out of the Manhattan hub did not keep pace with growing ridership in the early morning and evening from 2010 to 2016

Stringer’s report has some interesting trend information concerning commutes. As ridership has exploded over the past 30 years, commuting patterns have undergone a dramatic shift. In 1985, a whopping 49 percent of daily ridership into the Manhattan central business district occurred between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. Now that number is only around 28 percent. In essence, all of the people riding in 1985 between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. are still doing so (and then some), but off-hour commuting which was non-existent to a combination of safety concerns and lack of jobs has exploded.

Meanwhile, people are waiting much longer. Stringer’s report notes as follows:

While the MTA may be restricted from increasing frequencies in peak hours due to aging infrastructure and underinvestment, these capacity constraints are less relevant in the early morning and late evening. In fact, the MTA runs 60 percent fewer trains from 5 a.m. to 6 a.m. than it does from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 38 percent fewer from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. Clearly, there is ample train and track capacity at these hours.

This dramatic decline in off-peak subway service, of course, leads to significantly longer wait times for riders. During the morning rush hour, for instance, 87 percent of subway lines run more than six trains per hour and 36 percent run more than 12. That means that passengers will rarely wait more than five or ten minutes for a train—provided all goes well.

By contrast, in the evening (8:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.) and early morning (5:30 a.m. to 6:30 a.m.)—when a growing number of workers depend on public transit—subway service is significantly diminished. Just 47 percent of subway lines maintain headways of less than 10 minutes in the evening and only 10 percent maintain frequencies of less than 5 minutes. In the early morning, meanwhile, only 43 percent have headways of less than 10 minutes and zero have headways of less than five minutes. Looking at individual lines, the biggest drop-offs in the early morning are on the 1, 6, 7, B, and W trains, where hourly throughput declines by more than 50 percent in the peak direction, as compared to the A.M. rush. In the evening hours, the 4, 5, A, B, and F lines experience a similar fall in service.

This is, of course, not a surprise to those who have tried to ride outside of peak hours. Waits are noticeably longer, and trains tend to be nearly just as crowded off-peak on some lines as during the peak due to these increased headways. As I mentioned, it’s particularly jarring in the context of numerous MTA officials urging those with flexibility to commute at off-hours to do so. Percentagewise, at least, a significant number of commuters have moved to these so-called off-peak timeslots, but the MTA hasn’t provided a carrot in the form of increased service to go with the stick.

Where I find Stringer’s report lacking however is in its messaging. The recommendations are on point; the MTA, he says, should perform a comprehensive review of scheduling and strongly consider how latent or induced demand can further drive up off-peak commuting. But in releasing the report to the public, he also tried to use it as a crudgel to beat on the drum of city support for the MTA’s subway action plan. He says city support of the subway action plan will ensure the trains run on time, but he could use this report to call for the subway action plan to directly add more off-peak service. It would be a better use of the money anyway than the SAP band aid that many think won’t actually fix anyone’s commute.

Ultimately, though, the overall message is one worth remembering: Yes, the MTA needs a new signal system and a comprehensive overhaul of its procurement and construction processes. By as with the signal timers, commutes are worse than they should be because of choices made at the MTA. The agency is not a bystander in the accelerated slow-motion collapse of the city’s transit system.

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A fatal J train crash on the Williamsburg Bridge consumed the front page of The Daily News on June 6, 1995 .

Early in the morning on June 5, 1995, Layton Gibson blew a red light on the Williamsburg Bridge and crashed his J train into a stopped M train. Gibson was going only about 20 miles per hour when his train collided with the one in front of him, and he died instantly as 54 passengers were hurt in the crash. A subsequent investigation determined that both human and mechanical errors led to the crash, and while Gibson did try to stop when he saw the M train ahead of him, the then-77-year-old signal system did not trip an emergency brake in enough time to avoid the collision.

Now, 23 years later, the MTA still hasn’t gotten around to beginning to replace that signal system, and it’s now 100 years old, a dubious achievement indeed. But in the aftermath of the crash, the MTA determined that many of the then-septuagenarian signals were too close together to adequate stop modern trains faster than their late-1910s counterparts, and thus, the MTA in conjunction with Parsons Brinckerhoff began to implement speed limits throughout the subway system. Richard Perez-Pena, writing for The Times back in 1995, told the story. The emphasis is mine.

About one-third of the system has the antiquated signals that are considered candidates for speed limits, though officials said not all of them will require one. Just how many will is still under study. Joseph R. Hofmann, senior vice president in charge of subways for the Transit Authority, an arm of the M.T.A., said the plan to improve the trains’ emergency brakes would eventually make many, if not all, of the slow-speed orders unnecessary. But that program will not be completed for more than two years, and in the meantime trains will have to slow down in dozens of places where no speed limits were in place before…In any place where there is not adequate stopping distance, the report said, the Transit Authority “must institute speed restrictions or take some alternate immediate action to insure at least 100 percent stopping distance.”

The PB report indicated that more thousands of signals did not have adequate stopping distances, and the MTA instituted immediate speed restrictions on some lines that, The Times said, added around four minutes of travel time. Over the years, those speed restrictions seemed to become a way of life and faded into the background of the subway crisis in which we are mired.

But a few months ago, I noticed something peculiar. Southbound 6 trains heading from 51st St. to Grand Central were inching through the tunnel, and it seemed a timer was to blame. I had noticed a few of these slower trips over the years; for instance, 2 and 3 trains heading north into 96th St. now begin to slow down as early as 86th when they used to run at speed well past the abandoned 91st St. station. I started asking around and heard the tales of new timers identified in the wake of that 1995 crash being freshly implemented and of a group trying to fight back against timers. No one could explain why the timers were necessary now, and nearly everyone involved with decision-making at NYC Transit and the MTA in 1995 has long since left the agency.

Aaron Gordon started asking around too, and he published this piece in The Village Voice last week on slower trains. It is a must-read on the state of the MTA. The gist of it is that much of the MTA’s woes, especially with regards to their default view that “overcrowding” is causing delays, are self-inflicted. The MTA slowed down the trains, and thus service is worse. I’ll excerpt here as Gordon picks up with the post-1995 changes to the speed limits:

NYCT had predicted that the signal modifications would only marginally affect run times. But the 2014 study — the first time the authority had attempted to analyze the impact of any of the revamped signals, using its improved data system — found 2,851 lost total passenger hours per weekday could be attributed to thirteen modified signals alone. That was almost double the predicted impact; for comparison, the modifications of those thirteen signals alone created 5 percent as much lost time as that experienced by riders of the entire London Underground on its average day…

NYCT’s estimates were so off in part because they didn’t account for a human element. The most problematic of the newly modified signals were “one-shot timers,” so called because the operator has only one chance to meet the posted speed limit. One-shot timers are easier and cheaper to install, say MTA sources; the more “shots” the operators have to get under the required speed, the more timing mechanisms have to be installed across a longer portion of track. (An MTA spokesperson disputed this, characterizing the decision to install one- or two-shot timers as safety-related.) But the consequences of going over the speed limit are high — the train is stopped, and the operator gets penalized — so many operators now opt to go well below the posted speed limit just to be on the safe side.

“The grade time signals force us to operate slower, and because they have been installing them gradually, the subways have been slowing down gradually,” the train operator told the Voice. “I used to be able to go from 125th Street to 59th Street on the A line in seven minutes. Now it takes around nine minutes!”

Gordon has talked with some train operators and others within the MTA who are laser-focused on the signal timer issue, and I have spoken with some within the MTA who have largely echoed Gordon’s reporting. A group within the MTA is working like mad to overcome bureaucratic inertia and resistance to rocking the post-1995 boat in an effort to better assess whether timers are necessary both in terms of safety and in terms of cost of worse service. If trains are running at slower speeds, then the MTA simply cannot run as many trains per hour as it needs to in order to meet service demands or as many trains per hour as the system was built to handle. Thus, bad service — slower service, more crowded service — is a choice the MTA has made and is not, as Gordon notes, due to overcrowding but rather a cause of it.

But Andy Byford, the new man in charge of Transit, seems to have his ear to the ground on this issue. In this week’s MTA Board materials, he states that he has “asked my team to look in detail at the effect on line capacity of various signaling changes that were progressively introduced as a result of the Williamsburg Bridge crash of 1995.” He also discusses his hopes to see if these changes can be “safely mitigated.” Gordon received a similar response from the new New York City Transit president for his article:

In an email to the Village Voice, Byford acknowledged that “changes made to the signal system (in response to a crash in 1995) have undoubtedly had an impact on subway capacity,” and added that NYCT leadership has already met to begin reviewing the issue. “We are studying the impact and what was done to see if adjustments can be made while still maintaining the safety benefit these changes (and more onerous flagging arrangements) were brought in to address. This renewed scrutiny is part of my drive to properly understand — then tackle — root cause. As I have already said, the real fix is renewed signal systems and that will be the anchor behind my Corporate Plan that I am currently working on.”

Gordon’s piece ends with a sad story from a TO who feels the MTA is trying to slow down trains at a time when New Yorkers need better subway service. I’ll leave you with the quote I gave Aaron for his story: “If you’re running trains at speeds that are lower than what the system capacity was designed for, then you’re losing capacity, and that’s a choice that you’ve made. If that’s a choice that you’ve made, then you have to prove to people why you’ve made that choice. And if it’s a question of a hypothetical safety situation that doesn’t come into play, then you kind of have to question how that analysis has been reached.” It’s now up to Byford to tell us why these signals are necessary and how the MTA can maintain safety standards while reducing timer-related delays and improving service.

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Over the past few months, as city and state representatives to the MTA Board have squared off over the scope and omissions in Transit’s Enhanced Stations Initiative, the MTA’s adherence to the requirements in the Americans with Disabilities Act has come under the microscope. The agency agreed a few decades ago to make 100 Key Stations fully accessible by 2020, and the MTA is, it says, on pace to meet this goal. Disabilities advocates say that, despite the Key Stations, the MTA routinely flouts the requirements of the ADA by not investing in elevators when non-Key Stations undergo renovations. That the ESI stations aren’t being made accessible is a key sticking point, and now the feds, focusing on a 2013-2014 renovation of the 6 train’s Middletown Road stop, have joined a suit alleging MTA violations of the ADA.

The suit, one of many the MTA currently faces alleging similar violations, has been working its way through federal court for nearly two years. A June 2016 DNAInfo article profiled it when the plaintiffs first filed. The feds, in something of a surprise move this week, filed a complaint-in-intervention to join the suit.

Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, condemned the MTA. “There is no justification for public entities to ignore the requirements of the ADA 28 years after its passage,” he said. “The subway system is a vital part of New York City’s transportation system, and when a subway station undergoes a complete renovation, MTA and NYCTA must comply with its obligations to make such stations accessible to the maximum extent feasible.”

The crux of the government’s complaint — available here as a pdf — involves the MTA’s request to the Federal Transit Administration for funding for the renovation. The agency spent $21 million but could not find a budget for elevators to make this elevated stop accessible. Prior to the renovation, the FTA had asked the MTA to defend its claim that it would be “technically infeasible” to include elevators, and the never MTA never provided such justification, the feds claim. Subsequently, the claim alleges, NYC DOT conceded that elevators could have been technical feasible had they been incorporated into early project designs. After a lengthy back-and-forth over funding, the FTA determined that the MTA had violated the ADA, and the MTA lost out on federal dollars for rehab. Now the feds are seeking an injunction mandating that the MTA install the necessary elevators at Middletown Road.

The MTA has said it will defend the suit on the merits, and disabilities advocates are thrilled that the feds are finally taking legal sides in this fight. A litigator with the Disabilities Rights Advocates noted that the feds’ involvement “sends a clear message to the MTA that they can’t continue to get away with business as usual.”

My semi-informed guess is that this is a test case for the feds and the MTA. Multiple other suits are percolating through the courts right now involving the MTA’s alleged violations of ADA requirements, but this one is a particularly strong one. It is focused on only one station and rests on a determination by a federal agency that the MTA actually violated Title II of the ADA. It’s as close to an open-and-shut case on the ADA as one may find, and if the MTA is intent on fighting it on its merits rather than settling, the feds are likely to win.

With a victory in their pockets, federal prosecutors would have stronger arguments for some of the tougher cases against the MTA, including potential suits targeting the Enhanced Station Initiatives. Transit Center’s Jon Orcutt, for one, recently told Politco New York that the MTA should probably be sued over the ESI, and this seemingly easy case puts that goal in reach. “They’re doing major work in stations and not doing anything on accessibility. They probably need to be sued directly on stations to bring that issue to a legal head,” Orcutt said.

Of course, this could still settle out, but it adds a new wrinkle to the MTA’s resistance to fulfilling the terms of the ADA on a system-wide basis, and it’s about time prosecutors forced the agency’s hand. The subway system should be on a path to full accessibility; it’s a moral imperative and a legal one too.

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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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