Archive for View from Underground
I have a few more thoughts rattling around my head on the heels of yesterday’s exploration of crowded subway conditions. In particular, it’s worth discussing briefly a few other ideas around the margins of New York City’s transit capacity issues and whether or not these ideas solve, exacerbate or simply skirt the problem. So let’s discuss three proposals that won’t address the capacity crunch and one that will.
Gondolas East River Skyway. Remember that ridiculous gondola plan from late 2014 in which a real estate executive proposed an East River gondola system connecting Williamsburg with the Lower East Side? Thanks to the looming L train shutdown and DNA Info’s willingness to respond to a pitch email, it’s back in the news. Dan Levy wants to spend $135 million of private money to construct two stops in Williamsburg and one near Delancey St. He claims by running 40-person cars every 30 seconds, he could shuttle 200,000 people over the East River during the L train shutdown, but the math doesn’t work. The vast majority of subway ridership arises during peak hours, and even if Levy’s plan can be achieved, the most the gondolas could in an hour is 4800 passengers, a far cry from peak hour L train ridership. Plus, gondolas simply dump passengers into the subway at another point down the line, and thus, capacity problems are not resolved.
2. Ferries. I have lots of thoughts on ferries and none particularly positive. The mayor is sinking a lot of money and time into his five-borough ferry system (air pollution concerns be damned), but its returns will be marginal. It’s great for people who live and work near the water and don’t mind paying an additional fare for another mode of transit. It may won’t be totally useless, but it’s not a panacea. For $180 million, the city could do more to help improve freedom of movement for many more.
3. Brooklyn-Queens Streetcar. Does this take people from where they are to where they want to be? Not really, if you drill down on the plan. Plus, a large percentage of riders will be looking to transfer to the subway anyway, thus adding riders or simply shifting them around. Again, for $2.5 billion, I would expect more.
So what’s the solution that could be implemented quickly and at a reasonable cost? It’s all about that bus.
By investing in better bus routing and better bus infrastructure (including a massive rollout of pre-board fare payment, dedicated lanes and signal prioritization), the city could bolster a means of transportation that can add capacity to the core network and get people from where they are to where they want to be. Despite campaign assurances, de Blasio has dragged his feet on expanding Select Bus Service, and while buses have a reputation as an underclass means of mobility, a robust network can help move everyone. Buses will, by necessity, be a big key to moving people during the L train shutdown, but turning a pair of Manhattan avenues into dedicated bus-only lanes should happen sooner rather than later. Restructuring routes to include more cross-borough options would be a big help as well. Yet, buses seem to get the short shrift in conversations concerning capacity. That attitude should change.
As a postscript, I would note that bikes too can help, but I see this as a scale issue. You would need far more robust bike infrastructure from lanes to parking to alleviate capacity concerns. A few hundred people biking won’t make the subways emptier.
To say the subways are crowded these days is to state the obvious. Average weekday ridership hit 5,650,610 last year, up by 9.5 percent since 2010, and despite constant service changes and complicated re-routes, combined weekend ridership is up by nearly 11 percent over the same time period. As daily rides where we all stand shoved against people and doors and poles trying to find some amount of space attest, the trains are bursting at the seams.
In today’s Times, Emma Fitzsimmons explores the overcrowded subway system. Her focus is generally on safety concerns, and although the overcrowding is a symptom of larger funding issues and lack of general support for transit investment, we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss safety concerns. After all, even if people aren’t falling off subway platforms, if riders feel unsafe, it will affect how they view and use the transit system. Thus, at key choke points — on the Lexington Ave. line, narrow platforms at Bleecker St. and Union Square and an overall lack of space at Grand Central come to mind, people worry about safety whether or not reality reflects those fears. (The numbers do not show any uptick in crowd-related injuries.)
In terms of solutions, Fitzsimmons offers up a glimpse at an agency struggling for more space:
But the subway infrastructure has not kept pace [with increasing ridership], and that has left the system with a litany of needs, many of them essential to maintaining current service or accommodating the increased ridership. The authority’s board recently approved $14.2 billion for the subways as part of a $29.5 billion, five-year capital spending plan.
On the busiest lines, like the 7, L and Q, officials say the agency is already running as many trains as it can during the morning rush. Crowds are appearing on nights and weekends, too, and the authority is adding more trains at those times. The long-awaited opening of the Second Avenue subway on the Upper East Side this year will ease congestion on the Lexington Avenue line. Installing a modern signal system, which would allow more trains to run, is many years away for most lines.
When the MTA’s timelines are put forward in terms of “years” and “decades” and even something as simple as a 2-mile subway extension takes 10 years to build, relief is not exactly on the horizon. Yet, from where I sit, there are at least three steps the MTA should take immediately to address capacity concerns.
1. Open Gangways. One of the biggest missed opportunities of the last 15 years involves the MTA’s rolling stock designs. Since 2000, the MTA has seen nearly 4000 new subway cars enter service, and none of them were designed with open gangways, a feature standard in subway rolling stock throughout the world. As I wrote last year, open gangways can lead to a 10 percent increase in capacity without adding a single extra trainset, and while the MTA in 2013 acknowledged the need for articulated trains, the upcoming R211 order includes just one ten-car prototype. It’s not clear if the MTA has the option to add more open gangway trainsets to the R211 order, but not doing so would be a costly mistake for decades to come. This generation of rolling stock is likely to be in service until the late 2060s or early 2070s, and missing the opportunity to expand capacity now will burn us for generations to come.
2. Speed up CBTC installation. This is of course easier said that done, but recent reports have shown how it will take the MTA decades to fully modernize the signal system. CBTC would allow for modest increases in capacity, and prioritizing these efforts — whether through full line shutdowns over concentrated periods of time or other initiatives — should be an agency priority.
3. Just run more trains. As Fitzsimmons detailed, the MTA says it can’t run more trains on perennially crowded lines. For some, that’s due to routing choices — the Q is chock full of choke-points — and for others, such as the L, terminal capacity constraints come into play. Part of the MTA’s capital plan should involve expanding capacity through investments such as tail tracks at 8th Ave. and other minor upgrades that can net big results. For lines that aren’t maxed out, the MTA should just run more trains. But there’s a catch: An aggressive rolling stock retirement plan and a delayed Bombardier order has left the agency tight on available trainsets. Thus, just running more trains, in the short term, isn’t a practical solution even if it is the more obvious answer. Meanwhile, trains are operating at slower speeds, especially along crowded routes, and that too limits the agency’s ability to run more trains and clear out crowds.
Where we go from here isn’t particularly clear. You’re not in danger of falling into the tracks due to crowded platforms, and the MTA doesn’t need to resort to temporary platform closures as London does or subway pushers as Tokyo does. But relief isn’t exactly around the corner. Crowded commutes with packed cars running later into the evening and earlier in the morning are just a way of life until the MTA has the funds available to engage in an aggressive push to increase capacity. For now, though, we ride as we always do: crammed into a subway car, hoping for the best.
A few days ago, an interesting article from The Economist caught my eye. It has a dateline of Wisbech, a small East Anglian town with a population of around 31,000 that’s around 40 miles north of Cambridge and around 100 miles north of London. There’s no real particular reason for anyone not from Wisbech to know Wisbech exists, let alone visit it, but there it is, a quintessential-ish British small town.
What draws our attention to Wisbech is something that isn’t there and hasn’t been since the 1960s. That missing something is passenger rail service. Wisbech has a right-of-way that would connect to Cambridge, but it hasn’t seen service since 1968 when a report by Richard Beeching, head of British Rail, called for a massive reduction in service by approximately one-third. Since then, Wisbech has hit troubled times economically.
But now, there is movement afoot in England to reverse these historical wrongs, and that’s where The Economist comes in. Take a read through this short article. I’ll excerpt the key parts:
Yet Wisbech, like many towns cut off from the rail network, is now expecting great things. In recent years several hundred miles of railways around the country have been restored. As roads clog up and urban house prices climb, commuters, environmentalists and local politicians are pushing for more old lines to be re-opened. Some 200 proposals have been put forward, says Andrew Allen of the Campaign for Better Transport, a lobby group.
It is a remarkable new trend. After the war, many thought that roads would rule and rail would go the way of canals. When Milton Keynes, a new town, was built 55 miles north of London in the 1960s, it was deemed not to need a station. One was at last opened in 1982. In 2015 6.6m journeys started or ended there. Traffic on other restored lines has boomed, too. The track that re-opened in 2015 from Edinburgh to the Borders expected 650,000 journeys in its first year. Half a million were made in the first five months.
The process of re-opening is laborious. Feasibility studies take years. But with rail journeys doubling in the past two decades, Whitehall now realises it may be easier and cheaper to add rail capacity this way than through pharaonic projects such as HS2, a high-speed link north from London, set to cost over £45 billion ($64 billion).
It is the growth of Cambridge, 40 miles to the south and a centre for high-tech, that has provided the impetus for re-connecting Wisbech. A new station is opening at the Cambridge Science Park and it is hoped that the old line to Oxford will be restored by 2024. The Wisbech rail link would halve travel time to 40 minutes. Cambridge has lots of jobs and Wisbech has cheap houses (the average price is around £150,000 compared with £398,000 in Cambridge), with a recent local plan proposing 10,000 more. If the link goes ahead, the government would meet most of the £100m cost.
As The Economist notes, Britain’s rail restoration efforts would roll back under 20 percent of the so-called Beeching Cuts, but it’s a movement that’s gaining grassroots support in small towns such as Wisbech throughout the country. For minimal investments, Britain can increase rail capacity and solve congestion issues that are plaguing the nation.
I can’t help but turn my gaze toward the LIRR’s Rockaway Beach Branch — the so-called QueensRail — or the ever-gestating Triboro RX plan. At a time when subway extensions cost over $1 billion per station and take the better of a decade to go just a few miles, reactivating rights-of-way that are no longer in service can be a cheaper, faster way to better transit, and England is proving a particularly fertile proving ground for this approach.
Over the past few decades — even over the past one decade, it often seems — attitudes to rail and transit have shifted dramatically within New York City. The subways are in fact too crowded, and even a modicum of relief is years, if not decades, away. So our rights of way that aren’t used should be preserved for rail use in the future and considered for rail reactivation now. Giving up them would be a mistake with which future generations of New Yorkers would have to live forever. Isolated areas in Queens shouldn’t turn into our own versions of Wisbech.
The next time I drive to my office in Manhattan from my apartment in Brooklyn will be the first time. For years, I’ve made the same trip, twice a day, on the subway, and it’s not a particularly notable trip. I take the B or the Q, switch to a 6 and get off in Midtown. On a good day, it takes around a half an hour, just enough time for me to read through the paper. Some days are more crowded than others, and despite the weary faces, it’s the way millions of New Yorkers get around. A car-free day isn’t a notable occurrence primed for self-congratulatory press conferences; it’s just a fact of New York City life.
With Earth Day upon us, City Council Transportation Committee Chairman Ydanis Rodriguez declared today Car Free Day. His heart is in the right place, but with so many similar initiatives stemming from our elected officials, it seems to miss the point. As part of the celebration, a whopping total of 11 city blocks — Broadway between 17th and 23rd Streets., Wadsworth Avenue between 173rd and 177th Streets and a block near Washington Square Park — will be closed for a few hours. Broadway, for instance, won’t see cars but only between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. It’s a token gesture if ever there was one.
In response, politicians have been awfully proud of themselves. Rodriguez, who to his credit has been a very receptive Transportation Committee head and whose heart is in the right place, has held numerous press conferences, and the mayor said he would take public transit “whenever feasible.” I doubt that includes taking the 6 to the F train instead of his usual 12-mile drive from Gracie Mansion to his gym in Park Slope (because there are no Upper East Side gyms near his mayoral home apparently). Much like the Mayor’s toothless Vision Zero initiative, Car Free Day in practice is just a marketing campaign, and until city officials are willing to change policies and practice, the streets will remain clogged with cars who face no consequences for blocking pedestrians or otherwise running rampant over them.
But there’s another problem with this approach to Car-Free sloganeering: The idea that a car-free day is something exceptional creates a divide with an implicit message that people who feel they have to drive everywhere are somehow more important than the rest of us who take the subway everyday. They’re not; they simply think they are and the city, through lax enforcement and an unwillingness to make a few tough decisions, has created an incentive structure that doesn’t resolve this apparent inequity. Why we all take the subway is inherently personal. For most people, it’s economic; even with recent fare hikes, it’s far cheaper to buy a MetroCard than it is to maintain a car in New York City and drive it into Manhattan every day. For others, it’s one of convenience as the subway is simply faster and easier. Whatever the reason, they’re all perfectly valid.
Ultimately, Car-Free Day is directed at a minority of New Yorkers with an outsized voice. Based on the latest hub-bound travel report, only around 24 percent of people entering Manhattan’s central business district due so in a car (and that includes taxis, vans and trucks in addition to personal automobiles). For everyone else, Car-Free Day is a fact of life and not just a photo opp.
Today’s post is a guest piece by Sarah M. Kaufman. Kaufman is the Assistant Director at the NYU Rudin Center for Transportation, where she researches, advocates for and educates about cutting-edge technologies in transportation. She is also an Adjunct Professor of Planning, teaching Intelligent Cities, a course about policy and planning for the future of digital urban life.
Manspreading vs. bags-on-seats has dominated recent discussions about gender on transit, but it’s time to move the conversation on to larger issues that take up plenty of room on their own.
Specifically: Second Avenue Sagas readers responded several weeks ago, via Twitter poll, that they feel safe riding the subways late at night. In the same week, The New York Times discussed a rise in reported sex crimes on the subway: 738 in 2015, up from 620 in 2014.
This starkly different perspective highlights how riding the New York City subway varies by gender. Experiences in transit are as diverse as New Yorkers, and it’s time to call attention to the different ways genders approach transit in New York City.
Women seeking to go somewhere must choose between safety and cost, a choice found all over the globe. Here in NYC, women outnumber men on public transportation – of people taking public transportation to work, 52 percent are women and 48 percent are men, according to the American Community Survey. Women are also the predominant victims of subway-based crimes, specifically robbery, forcible touching (340 cases reported in 2015), public lewdness (223 cases) and sexual abuse (130 cases), according to The New York Times. These issues are exacerbated by the fact that women tend to travel at atypical commute hours, as they dominate fields like health, retail and education, which often do not comply with the traditional 9-to-5 workday.
When possible, women prefer another, safer mode, rather than waiting in desolate subway stations or at dimly-lit bus stops. Depending on their economic well-being, women may opt for dollar vans, taxis, livery cabs, Citi Bikes, Lyfts, Vias or Ubers. Women outnumber men in the relatively inexpensive dollar vans (ridership is 63% female, according to Eric Goldwyn), but use taxis less frequently than men do (34% female) and are vastly underrepresented on the comparatively costly Citi Bike (24% of rides are taken by women).
The cost of personal safety is not the only complication facing women on transit. Across the United States, women bear much of the burden of dependent care, including children and elderly relatives. This work involves bringing dependents to school, doctor’s appointments and the grocery store. These are arduous tasks, at best, on transit, where caretakers are suddenly aware of frighteningly close platform edges, the hearing loss incurred at some curved stations, the need to advocate for a seat, and the state of subway elevators. (A milestone of NYC parenthood: convincing your toddler that although the elevator is soaked in urine, he must hold it in until reaching a proper restroom.) Riding the subway while transporting another, less able-bodied person is a responsibility more frequently carried out by women, and presents a more complicated experience than that of a single commuter.
As a result of these household responsibilities, women are likely to do more trip-chaining – e.g. taking the subway from work to the grocery store, walking to school, taking the bus home with kids and arms full of groceries – which is more time-consuming and expensive. These responsibilities are increasingly being distributed between men and women, but typically remain on the shoulders of women, both in time and cost.
The positive side of trip-chaining in NYC is the breadth of mobility options (specifically, 28 of them), which makes it easier to travel around New York than many other cities. New York’s multimodalism is due in a large part to smartphones (carried by nearly 70% of New Yorkers, according to industry experts), which let users tap into a range of travel options. (Many of those options don’t require cash, building in a measure of safety from theft). The combination of nearly-ubiquitous smartphones and dozens of travel modes makes New York a vastly improved travel city for women.
Other cities around the world are already attempting to address these safety concerns. Women-only rail cars and buses have been instituted in Tokyo, Delhi, Jakarta, Mexico City and other major cities. Unfortunately, they do not tend to offer protection on platforms or at bus stops, or get to the root of the problems of unwanted touching and violent behavior.
In New York, specific improvements on the subway are needed to make it a viable option for women taking part in the city’s 24-hour economy. Here’s a brief wish list for female transit users:
- Accelerated buildout of cell phone service in stations
- improved elevator functionality and cleanliness
- Emergency call functions for On The Go kiosks
- Increasing transit police presence on crowded trains
- Training station agents to assist with station security throughout stations, looking out especially for women.
While readers of this site are right to prioritize an expanded subway system and reduced crowding on trains, these nearer-term transit improvements will make all New Yorkers safer, more comfortable and able to travel more efficiently.
While looking into the history of the Hudson Yards’ subway stop last night, I came across a series of dates that represent a stark reality. That reality focuses around how we have essentially stopped growing out the subway system for nearly sixty years now. Even with massive investment in capital expenses since the early 1980s, the subway we have now is nearly the same subway we had in the early 1950s, give or take just a handful of stops.
Mull on this, the most recent opening dates for new subway stations per borough:
Manhattan: 2015 (34th St.-Hudson Yards)
Queens: 1989 (21st St.-Queensbridge)
Brooklyn: 1956 (Grant Ave.)
Bronx: 1941 (Dyre Ave. stops) or 1933 (Concourse Line)
Staten Island, of course, still doesn’t have connection to the rest of the New York City subway system and most of its modest Railway dates to the 1860s. The year for the Bronx is up for debate since the Dyre Ave. stations in 1941 reopened as part of the IRT after they were converted from what we would now consider commuter rail. The most recent original subway stations to open in the Bronx are the Concourse Line stops which date from 1933.
Even this figures obscure the depth of the lack of system expansion. Since Grant Ave. — also a replacement stop for a formerly elevated station along Fulton St. — opened in 1956, four stations opened in Queens and seven (including South Ferry) have opened in Manhattan. That’s 10 new stations and one replacement over 60 years. If you look at New York’s so-called peer cities, including Paris and London, what we’ve done is embarrassingly inadequate in comparison.
It’s relatively easy to trace the history of divestment in the subway. Robert Moses bears some of the blame as does a crippling forty-year insistence on a five-cent fare. White flight in the 1950s followed by the collapse of the city in the 1970s meant that money simply wasn’t available to invest back into the transit system, and national trends at the time didn’t really support federal funding for transit expansion either. It’s been a perfect storm of non-investment at both the local and federal level since my parents were children.
Yet, I have a nagging concern that we’re simply not thinking big enough. The MTA has a $28 billion capital plan on the table, and yet, the plan would add a handful of Metro-North stops to the Bronx and no subway stations. The three new Second Ave. Subway stations set to open this year are part of the capital plan that ended in 2015, and the next three that are a part of Phase 2 aren’t likely to be fully funded until the 2020-2024 plan. We’re not expanding, and we’re not keeping up.
So what happens next? It’s hard to deny the city is growing. Although Brooklyn’s population, for instances, remains a hair lower today than it did in the early 1950s, Queens has 50% more residents now than it did in the 1950s. Can we add transit on par with European counterparts? We would need massive investment and proper prioritization (unlike, say, the Brooklyn-Queens Connector). It’s possible but improbably as long as the city and state play a tug-of-war over control of transit planning within and around New York City.
At some point, though, this lack of investment and growth will come back to bite us as competitive cities can offer better and more efficient mobility. We should have a Utica Ave. subway, a circumferential line, extensions through Queens, and a new cross-Bronx subway (or light rail). That we do not and have no plans to build any or all of this should cause some internal urban soul searching. That it hasn’t so far is the problem.
I know I promised an update on the potential New Jersey Transit strike, but I’m still not convinced service will shut down this weekend. It’s been decades since the last strike, and with region warning of crippling traffic and daily losses of millions of dollars, these things have a way of working themselves out at the last minute. I’ll post an update with the service advisories tomorrow night if the negotiations are not resolved by then. In the meantime, we’ll stay in New York City for today’s post.
A day after Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the MTA touted their new wifi-enabled buses as a possible cure-all for the city’s declining bus ridership, MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast spoke at a breakfast hosted by the Associate for a Better New York. ABNY is a relatively expansive non-profit that connects New Yorkers from all areas of business, and an MTA breakfast is something of an annual tradition. Usually, the MTA chief gives his version of a stump speech, and that is basically what Prendergast did yesterday. Some of his statements, however, gave me cause for concern. Let’s review the Tweets:
— ABNY Organization (@ABetterNY) March 9, 2016
So this is a fairly non-controversial take on the MTA, but it betrays a lot of problems. New York City has planned and is still planning for growth without a proper transit reckoning. The city is trying to rezone for a good number of new units as part of the mayor’s affordable housing plan, but transit considerations are superficial. Developers will be encouraged to fund the equivalent of station rehabilitation efforts to beautify nearby subway stops. Service expansion — which, as any L train rider can tell you, is badly needed — isn’t part of the conversation, and even the One Vanderbilt contributions which are hailed as the paragon of private investment in transit are delivering wider platforms and a new entrances rather than additional service on the Lexington Ave. IRT.
Meanwhile, how many times can we attempt to reinvent the MTA before someone actually has to step in and do it? Just 15 months ago, the MTA Reinvention Commission released its report that didn’t actually reinvent the MTA, and now officials are talking about reinvention again. Any attempt at reinvention should focus around three questions: 1. Why does everything cost so much? 2. How can the MTA lower costs to build at prices competition with international peers? 3. How can the MTA speed up construction and implementation of projects designed to increase current service levels (i.e., signal or automation upgrades rather than megaproject construction)? If those aren’t the primary questions, reinvention is just code for shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic.
MTA chief Tom Prendergast @abetterny says ridership growth is in midday, weekends, nights
— Dan Rivoli (@danrivoli) March 9, 2016
To be clear, this is essentially saying that ridership growth is happening all the time. Ridership may not be growing at rush hour because, for the most part, it can’t. Sure, we could fit additional passengers in some trains at certain points, but the MTA is closing in on tapping out of rush hour service. The issue now is that subways during off-peak service are nearly as crowded as rush hour trains because the MTA isn’t running trains frequently enough. That’s a more solvable problem than rush hour but one the MTA manipulates away through the load guidelines the agency sets for itself.
MTA's Tom Prendergast: you may be delayed but if you're at a nice station with cell service, "time goes a lot faster"
— Dan Rivoli (@danrivoli) March 9, 2016
That’s a doozy of statement to make in public, and it’s certainly one at which I cringed yesterday. Much like a new paint job and USB charging ports, a nice station with cell service but a long wait for a train is putting lipstick on a pig, and it’s certainly not the approach officials should be promoting in public, even if in jest. But this seems to be where the MTA has settled these days. They can’t adequately address the service constraints without billions of dollars and years of disruptive construction so we get modern amenities designed to distract us from a system that can’t keep pace with ridership. That’s a big, big red flag. Where do we go next?
Allow me to pose a question to you that is particularly fitting in light of yesterday’s post on the institutional challenges plaguing our subway system. What would you, dear reader, most like to see improved about the subways? In fact, for reasons that will soon become clear, let’s do it as a poll, and consider voting now rather than after reading this post.
To me, where I sit in year 10 of maintaining this website, these choices are a haphazard collection of problems that do and do not plague the MTA. They come from the latest NY1/Baruch poll that was released earlier this week, and while I suspect my readers will come to a different conclusion, a plurality of New Yorkers, by more than a few percentage points, claimed that the number one thing they must want to see improved about the subway is more transit police. In a subsequent question, only 41 percent of New Yorkers say they feel somewhat or very safe riding the subway at night compared with 51 percent who claim they feel not so safe or not safe at all.
I’ve been trying to wrap my head around these results all day. Although there has been a slight uptick in subway crime in early 2016 compared with the same period in 2015, the crime stats are well below levels set in 2010-2014, and as recently as twenty years ago, the crime rates were three or four times higher than they are today. Even as NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton expresses surprise at subway crowds and fearmongers over crime, the perception remains — whether due to an increased presence of homeless denizens or lingering fears from people over 65 who remember the Bad Old Days and feel the least safe — that the subways are dangerous.
I don’t view crime as the challenge the MTA faces in providing sufficient service for its 5.65 million riders per day, and yet, my top two choices — subways to more places and trains that are less crowded — both finished below something as superficial as cleaner stations. Every day New Yorkers — those who ride the subways because they have to rather than those of us who see it as the way to grow New York City — seem to want more of what they can see and have trouble conceptualizing a subway system the way it could be. (Perhaps that’s part of the psychology behind why Gothamist’s recent post on fantasy subway lines captivated its readers to such a high degree.)
For New York City to grow and remain competitive on the global market, for our streets to become less congested and for mobility to improve, the subway should go more places, and trains, due to increased service, should be less crowded. Of the choices from the NY1/Baruch poll, those are the two things I’d most like to see improved about the subways, and from them flow a host of different issues including the MTA’s inability to spend inefficiently and build quickly, its resistance to international rolling stock design standards, its slow pace of technological advancement, and the intractable labor issues that stand in the way of money-saving train operations improvements. These are the Inside Baseball problems that someone who hates the subways but rides them because they’re cheap, quick and better than driving through New York City congestion doesn’t care to understand.
How can we, as those who support robust investment in transit and desire an MTA that can build on par with London and Paris, let alone other cities spending more efficiently and building farther more quickly, bridge that gap? The NY1/Baruch poll features another dismaying result that shows just how far those fighting for transit have to go because it betrays that New Yorkers do not know who is actually in charge of the transit network. Take a peek at the results.
You’ll see that 47% of New Yorkers think the mayor has more control over the subways while just 39% pinpoint the governor as the man in charge. Perhaps the results make intuitive sense, but the MTA has so isolated Albany from any responsibility that no one really knows who’s in charge. And if no one knows who is charge, as we saw from Governor Cuomo last year, no one has to act as though they’re in charge. Thus, we have New Yorkers who want more transit cops instead of better service, and a political body that doesn’t really have to do much of anything about any of it. And in related news, the MTA’s 2015-2019 five-year capital plan still hasn’t been approved by Albany, but is it really any wonder why not?
For years, civic-minded transit-watchers in New York City have warned of the legacy of deferred maintenance. As the story goes, the systemwide collapse the subway system suffered from the mid-1970s and mid-1980s was a result of defered maintenance brought about by a lack of revenue from fares kept artificially low throughout the early part of the Twentieth Century. It was supposed to be a cautionary tale that ended in 1981 when Richard Ravitch launched the MTA’s capital spending plans. By investing heavily in the system, the MTA could attempt to clear out a backlog of repairs while eying modernization and expansion projects that had lingered in purgatory. It’s a nice story, but the only problem is that, 35 years later, we’re still not out of the woods.
Today, the MTA suffers from a problem vastly different from the one it confronted in the 1970s and 1980s. The subway system is essentially too crowded. Average weekday ridership throughout 2015 reached 5,650,000, the subway system’s highest total since 1948, and a full 48 workdays saw ridership top 6 million. Those figures represent around a 1 percent increase over 2014’s totals, and if we see another jump in ridership this year, it’s not entirely clear where all those people will fit. Because the agency hasn’t caught up to current technological trends, because the MTA can’t really run more trains without a massively expensive and time-consuming investment in upgrading nearly every facet of its operations, subway service is going to continue to sag from overcrowding. The MTA is a victim of its own success and a victim of years of poor management and investment practices.
The latest deep dive into the MTA’s problems comes to us from Robert Kolker. He explored the MTA’s delay crisis through the lens of Friday, October 16, 2015, the day the gap fillers on the downtown local tracks at Union Square decided to take a vacation that threw off service along both the East and West Side IRT routes. The resulting article is a narrative tour de force that sums up the MTA’s nearly intractable problems. The subways are too crowded and too old while the MTA is too broke and too institutionally conservative to solve capacity constraints and technological innovation in a way that keeps up with ridership.
Kolker’s piece is a treasure trove of information on delays. As we learn, the MTA is pushing around 500,000 delayed trains per year, and the agency’s on-time performance numbers are abysmal. Even if wait assessment is a better indicator of reliable service, only 70 percent of trains are arriving at their terminals within five minutes of their scheduled times, and last year, just 43 percent of 4 trains, 39 percent of 5 trains and 46 percent of 6 trains were considered on time under the MTA’s loose definition.
As Kolker reports it, the MTA, in part, blames its crowds. There are too many people trying to shove themselves into trains that don’t run frequently enough to catch up with demand, and delays stem from everything from sick customers (which one MTA official blames on riders who skip breakfast) to extended dwell times. Here’s Kolker on these delays:
MTA executives are naturally defensive about the criticism. They argue that, unlike in the ’70s, the current problems are a result of their own success — the subways are more popular than ever and therefore more crowded. Six million people use the subways on a busy day now; since 2010 the system has added nearly half a million daily users. The 6 line alone is up by 200,000 daily riders compared to a few years ago. “It’s like the sponge is soaked and we’re adding more water,” says Calandrella. Rush-hour crowds can start at six; the evening rush extends past nine.
Fifteen of the subway system’s 21 lines (not including the shuttles) have maxed out the number of trains that can ride safely on the routes, and ten of those 15 lines are at peak riding capacity, which means when something goes wrong, the dispatchers have no wiggle room. The MTA has blamed some 40 percent of delays on the system’s high ridership numbers, and the agency has few good options for tempering the crowds, including converting the train-car stock to “open gangway” cars, which annex the dead space between cars and convert it into usable space for passengers, increasing capacity by perhaps as much as 10 percent. Other cities have taken to rationing access to crowded stations or jamming passengers into cars Tokyo style.
Throughout the article, Kolker traces budget issues, the slow pace of CBTC rollout, and the challenges the MTA has in bringing system expansion on line. The three and a half new stations that Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway promises to deliver sometime later this year or early next hardly seem sufficient considering crowds throughout the rest of the city. Despite all these real-life challenges that we know exist, I am struck by Kolker’s kicker. He writes:
There’s another argument that the real problem behind the increase in delays isn’t the culture of subway ridership or even a budget shortfall but the culture of the MTA. When the agency lowered its on-time goals, was it being realistic or accepting defeat? I’m reminded of the recent comptroller’s report and its condemnation of the MTA’s dysfunction. “Transit officials,” the report concluded, “had no formal corrective action plans or programs to minimize the chronic underlying problems that caused delays.” Instead, the delay problem is being picked apart by more than a dozen task forces, studies, and initiatives. It’s like they say in track-safety school: There’s no such thing as a simple shortcut. Only quicksand.
So where do we go from here? Based on the need to line up funding and conduct environmental studies and figure out why everything in New York City has to cost so damn much, the MTA’s 20-year needs look laughably out of reach, and yet, New York City needs the MTA to realize its 20-year needs tomorrow and its 40-year needs by the time 2020 rolls around. That ain’t happening, and as we’ve seen, even modest service increases that have to be planned six or eight months in advance can’t keep pace with ridership growth.
Is the answer open gangways, an idea the MTA is barely embracing in an order of 790 new subway car that are supposed to last throughout most of the rest of your life and mine? Is the answer a stagnant New York that can’t grow because the subways have room for marginal growth? Is the answer a city-run network that starts with a questionably-motivated streetcar that won’t see service for eight more years? Is the answer sighing in frustration while Paris and London engage in massive transit expansion projects while New York spins its wheels? It’s hard to be optimistic when the answers seems frustratingly insufficient and ineffective, but it’s hard to see where else we are right now other than stuck in a rut too deep to escape.
When it comes to the Americans with Disabilities Act, the MTA has a rather tortured history with accessibility improvements the agency needs to make. Due to ever-spiraling costs and issues regarding available space, the agency has likely not fulfilled its obligations to make stations accessible during rehabilitation work, and it has hid behind the shield of its list of 100 Key Stations that will be fully accessible within the next few years. A new report though exposes these efforts for what they were: insufficient and likely wasteful.
Most recently, the MTA has used accessibility issues to stonewall on reopening closed entrances. The agency has claimed at various points that restoring station access via entrances closed in the early 1990s would trigger ADA requirements that make efforts to reopen closed stairways cost-prohibitive. That seem concern didn’t lead the agency to make the Smith-9th Sts. station fully accessible during a multi-year, multi-hundred-million dollar renovation effort, but I digress.
Late last week, Andrew Tangel of The Wall Street Journal brought some attention to this issue. I quote at length:
The cost of making the New York City subway more accessible for disabled riders could rise by more than $1.7 billion as federal regulators prod the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to add elevators to more stations in the 111-year-old system. The higher price tag through 2019 for subway-station improvements represents an unforeseen potential expense for the MTA as it struggles to pay for a backlog of repair and expansion projects…
At issue is how the nation’s largest transit system complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act, a 1990 federal law aimed at making public spaces accessible to those who have difficulty climbing stairs and may rely on a cane or wheelchair. The MTA quantified the potential increase in station costs in a recent filing for investors who buy the authority’s bonds, citing stricter federal guidelines for complying with the 25-year-old law. The Federal Transit Administration’s push is the latest bout in a decadeslong fight over making MTA’s sprawling network more accessible for the disabled. Advocates for the disabled and a former top MTA official say the authority has moved too slowly in making the city’s now 469 subway stations more accessible. An MTA spokesman said the authority is sensitive to disabled riders’ needs and has been working to improve accessibility…
As pressure to accommodate disabled passengers began to grow years ago, the MTA and other transportation agencies around the country invested in making bus systems more accessible and paratransit services that offer automobile rides for the disabled, said Howard Roberts, a former top official at the MTA. “It turns out that was a horrendously bad decision,” Mr. Roberts said. “It probably has turned out to be … a hundred times more expensive to go with buses and paratransit than it would have been to bite the bullet and simply rehabilitate the stations and put elevators in.”
…The federal government, which provides a major chunk of funding for transportation funding nationwide, aimed to clarify how local agencies should comply with the law, this former federal official said. That could mean triggering ADA-required improvements—including expensive elevators—sooner than local agencies might have planned. That has resulted in a behind-the-scenes tug of war between federal and MTA officials. Inside the MTA, officials have balked at the suggestion the agency must install elevators when it makes repairs to subway-station staircases, according to people familiar with the matter…A Federal Transit Administration spokeswoman said in an email that the agency has been “advising MTA for years to comply with ADA during renovation projects.”
You may wonder why no one has sued the MTA over ADA violations, and this is a question I’ve asked recently as well. I’ve been led to believe that the disabilities advocacy groups are facing funding issues and simply have not been able to raise the money to fund the lawsuits necessary to force the MTA’s hand on this issue. (Roberts’ words too are rather damning for similar reasons.)
As you can see, the feds are applying pressure as they can — which could end up jeopardizing the MTA’s access to certain federal dollars — but ultimately, this is an issue of misplaced priorities and lost opportunities. We can debate for hours whether the ADA, an unfunded federal mandate, is a net positive for everyone, but the MTA should be creating an accessible system that doesn’t rely on the money-suck that is Paratransit. For the dollars flushed down the drain, the MTA could have vastly expanded elevator access at subway stops around the city. Instead, only 22 percent of stations are accessible, and as the population ages, this problem will become more pronounced. Your ideas for solving this are as good as mine, but the MTA could start by reassessing its interpretation of the ADA.