Archive for View from Underground

Over the past few years, I’ve fallen back on a cliched line to discuss current record transit ridership: If it seems crowded in the subways, it is. The MTA has seen crowds not approached since the days of elevated trains running through the city, and for 2015, the agency expects at least 55 weekdays where daily ridership tops 6 million. That’s 11 weeks out of the year of very crowded subway trains, and it’s beginning to show around the margins.

For the MTA, these ridership figures blow away previous years’ totals. In 2014, the MTA saw 29 weekdays where ridership topped 6 million, and in 2013 and for decades before that, there were none. Meanwhile, the 12-month rolling average ridership through the first half of the year was up by nearly 125,000 passengers per day over the previous year, and we are on the cusp of the busiest three months of the year for subway ridership. It’s crowded, and it’s only getting worse.

Meanwhile, I’ve had the opportunity recently to ride during off-peak and midday hours, and the service has been subpar. Due to the MTA’s own load guidelines, which they can adjust on a whim, train waits are long — longer than they were for any service when I was in Berlin, Stockholm or Paris (or even Boston and Chicago) this past spring and summer. Weeknight service isn’t any better. Even with a problem on the 4 train, Brooklyn-bound Lexington Ave. IRT trains were running at uneven headways with 15-20 minutes between some trains and two minutes between others. Service is infrequent enough to be annoying and unreliably uneven. The MTA needs to do better as ridership growth shows no signs of slowing.

And that brings me to Thursday and Friday in New York City. Pope Francis-mania hits New York City later today, and with it have come predictions of congestion disaster 2K15. Numerous midtown streets will be closed at various points in the day, and city officials have asked — but, for some mystical reason, not required — people to leave their cars at home. The MTA is rerouting bus routes up the wazoo, and Staten Island residents are being asked to take the ferry rather than driving. The note on subway service is less than comforting:

The MTA New York City Subway system carries up to 6 million people on an average weekday, and will be able to accommodate additional customers attending papal events. Subway managers will be prepared to adjust train operations as necessary based on conditions in stations near those events. Additional customer service personnel will be on duty in subway stations near papal events to assist customers as they enter and leave the system.

With everyone being asked to be mindful of travel, the subways are bound to be even more crowded, but the MTA is committing to shorter headways or more frequent service. The attitude here seems to be “Oh, we can handle it.” That’s all well and good, but ask that to someone jammed against a door of a packed Q train trying to get home from work tomorrow afternoon.

I’m concerned we’ve reached a point where subway service isn’t adequate for the crowds, but due to funding constraints and artificially inflated load guidelines that don’t require more service until trains are packed, the MTA can’t or won’t do much about it. Hopefully, this week’s events with the Pope prove me wrong, and everything moves underground as it’s supposed to. But if it seems crowded, well, that’s because it is.

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I’m too tired of political bickering over the MTA’s capital plan to tackle the subject this late on a Monday night. So I’ll be back on Tuesday with more substance. In the meantime, ruminate on Pizza Rat, a symbol of New York City and its subway system. This rodent is all of us, trying to grab a bite to eat and utterly failing at it, but he tried. A real New Yorker would have folded that slice before taking it down to the L train at 1st Ave.

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More on trans-Hudson rail tunnel shenanigans later. As part of a project I’ll tell you more about shortly, I’ve put together a brief survey on the MTA’s Help Point Intercom systems. It’s a few questions and shouldn’t take you longer than a minute or two to complete. I’d appreciate your help. You can find the survey embedded below or right here. Your responses are anonymous, and I’ll share the findings soon.

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Litter may stop here, but is anyone around to clean it up?

Having spent so much time traveling over the past few months, I’ve missed some key bits of subway news. While the broad strokes — a still-unopened 7 line extension, a renewed focus on opening the Second Ave. Subway on time, no action from Gov. Cuomo on the MTA’s capital funding gap — haven’t escaped my attention, some important items that deserve a post slipped by. One of those items was a May report from Scott Stringer’s office on the MTA’s inadequate cleaning efforts.

Over the past few years, the MTA has faced mounting criticism over trash and rats. One thing I noticed while traveling abroad is how utterly devoid other subway systems are of garbage on the tracks, garbage on the platforms, garbage bags sitting around. On the one hand, that’s because these systems shut down at night which give crews the ability to clean without disrupting service. On the other, keeping stations cleaner seems more ingrained in the cultural norms surrounding transit ridership. (Subway car cleanliness is a different beast.)

In New York, the MTA has tried to eliminate garbage cans from certain stations to encourage riders to take trash out of the system, and constant announcements remind us that trash can cause track fires and, thus, delays. Without an equal effort on the MTA’s part to actually clean, though, asking nicely won’t amount to much, and in that regard, according to the New York City comptroller, the MTA’s efforts are lagging woefully behind.

“The MTA is constantly reminding riders to clean up after themselves, but they’re setting a poor example by letting piles of trash on the tracks fester for months on end,” Stringer said. “Our auditors observed rats scurrying over the tracks and onto subway platforms, and it’s almost as if they were walking upright – waiting to take the train to their next meal. This is a daily, stomach-turning insult to millions of straphangers, and it’s unworthy of a world-class City.”

The report — available here as a PDF — paints a rather unflattering picture. Noting that the MTA has stressed Fastrack as a way to improve station and system cleanliness, Stringer highlights just how far its own goals the MTA is, especially considering the $240 million per year the MTA spends on cleaning and maintenance. For instance, the MTA wants its stations cleaned once every three weeks, and Stringer’s team found during its one-year audit that only seven stations were cleaned that frequently. Most underground stations were cleaned around 3-6 times per year while some were cleaned just once. One station — 138th St. on the Lexington Ave. IRT — wasn’t cleaned at all.

Meanwhile, as far as track cleanliness goes, the MTA aims to clean all tracks twice a year, but Stringer’s team found that the agency’s vacuum trains aren’t up to the task. One of the two trains was out of service for nearly the entire 12-month audit period while the functioning train picked up only around 30% of the debris. “Virtually all of the same trash,” the report noted, “remained in the roadbed after the vacuum train was employed to clean it up.”

For its part, the MTA didn’t dispute Stringer’s findings too aggressively and, in fact, agreed with most of them. The agency is buying three new vacuum trains that should be better than the two currently on hand, and they are working to better deploy cleaning crews to dirtier areas. But ultimately, these problems are economic and systematic. The MTA needs to — and should — budget more for cleaning crews. Stations are the most customer-facing part of the system, and they should be viewed as the visual presentation of the system. Riders take cues from their environment, and right now, the environment screams “garbage.” With the money to clean — and perhaps some flexibility on who can clean from the union — the system overall would look and feel much more inviting.

“Fares keep going up, but anyone who takes the trains can tell you that we haven’t seen a meaningful reduction in rats, garbage and peeling paint,” Stringer said. “New York City Transit management needs to get its priorities straight and start deploying its resources to help improve conditions underground.”

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A classic Paris Metro entrance, before the mid-day heat gets too oppressive. With Paris amidst a record-setting heat wave, the lack of air conditioning on some subway lines is a big minus.

A photo posted by Second Ave. Sagas (@secondavesagas) on

So it’s been quite a whirlwind spring and early summer for me. Since early May, as many of you, especially those who follow me on Instagram, know, I’ve been to Berlin, Stockholm, Chicago, Boston and Paris, with my own wedding in between. I’ve ridden high-speed trains through France and Sweden, and I’ve had the opportunity to ride subways or Metros in six different cities including New York. It’s eye-opening to see what other cities are doing that we’re not and what works and what doesn’t.

Over the next week, while also exploring local issues such as the MTA’s trash problems and potential sources of Second Ave. Subway delays, I’d like to offer some observations regarding these other transit networks. I don’t think everything outside of New York is perfect, but there are certain practices the MTA could easily adopt that would improve everyone’s rides. First among those are open gangways — something I wrote about in April. Trains in Berlin, Stockholm and Paris all enjoyed open gangways, and it’s a marked improvement in terms of access and crowding.

The other real revelation concerns integration between various different modes of transit through city centers. In both Berlin and Paris, the more suburban-focused rail lines — the S-Bahn and the RER, respectively — operate essentially as Metros through the city center. They both run on subway-like frequencies, and fare structure for intra-city travel is the same as it would be on the U-Bahn or Paris’ Metro. Such operational practices improve mobility and, again, reduce crowding.

I’ll delve more in depth on these topics later, but needless to say, not everything is perfect. These systems do not run 24 hours a day, and the absence of air conditioning was a major drawback last week in Paris when temperatures outside were hovering at the 100-degree mark. And the routing of Paris’ Metro lines was apparently put to paper by a guy half asleep drawing semi-circles and meandering lines around the city. But again, more on that later. I’m still battling jetlag so I’ll be brief tonight. There’s plenty more to come.

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While drilling down on the 2014 ridership numbers earlier this week, I couldn’t get past the sheer volume of people using the subway each day. It’s hard to conceptualize 5.6 million every day, let alone the 29 weekdays last year with over 6 million riders, and that makes it very hard to figure out a solution for the MTA’s capacity woes that doesn’t involve multi-billion-dollar, decades-long construction efforts.

The easiest thing to do is for me to reel off a bunch of numbers. Times Square saw a whopping 7000 more riders per day last year than over 2013 and over 25,000 more per day in 2014 than in 2009. Grand Central saw a bump of 4000 entrances per day; the new Fulton St. saw nearly 5000 new swipes. Court Square saw nearly 2000 more entrances, and Bedford Ave. on the L, already beyond crowded, witnessed 1300 new swipes. What the Domino Sugar Factory development will mean for L train ridership is up for debate.

But numbers tend to lose their meanings after a while. New Yorkers know the subways are crowded because we’re down there every day. We know that the time to get space on the Manhattan-bound Q from Brooklyn is even earlier or later than it used to be, and we know we can forget about that seat. We know that trying to take a train up or down Lexington Ave. at 6 p.m. is a fool’s errand. We see trains on the weekend that are packed, and we remember when late-night meant empty cars instead of crowded platforms.

While discussing these ridership numbers on Twitter on Monday, a few people were surprised to hear the subway’s popularity were going up in light of the introduction of cab-hail apps such of Uber and Lyft and the raise in popularity of Citi Bike. It’s true that these services serve a purpose and an important one, but to get back to the numbers, they don’t do much for subway ridership. The car-hailing apps have cut into the supremacy of medallioned yellow cabs, but the price point for these services places them well beyond the reach of New Yorkers who rely on the subways day in and day out.

If anything, CitiBike may be able to solve some of the MTA’s capacity problems, others have argued, but the scales don’t line up. The overall subway network has an average ridership of 5.6 million with peaks of over 6 million. On its most popular day — which aligned with a day that saw subway ridership peak as well — New Yorkers took 39,000 rides on Citi Bike. That means Citi Bike accounted for barely six-tenths of one percent of subway ridership, and on average, that figure is closer to three-tenths of one percent.

A sampling of the Citi Bike travel logs suggests, anecdotally at least, that most riders aren’t duplicating subway rides. Even though more than half say their rides are replacing a subway fare, most are crosstown or otherwise replaces buses or walking routes. Furthermore, the crowding issues, particularly on the Lexington Ave. line, begin and end well outside of the current (or any planned) Citi Bike region. The scales just don’t line up.

The truth is that CitiBike can help around the margins. If 2 people out of 1000 opt against taking the 6 train from Grand Central to Union Square, then a few people may be able to get on a train rather than letting it pass. But CitiBike is a solution for the last-mile problem, not the MTA’s current first-mile problem.

To solve the capacity problems requires cost cutting and an infusion of capital dollars. It requires faster construction timelines and a more aggressive plan to bring real bus rapid transit — and not some souped-up express bus service with pre-board fare payment — to New York City. It will require taking an actual stand on political issues that resonant with subway riders, a constituency with great numbers but less access and money than those who aren’t regular subway riders. It’s not easy but it’s necessary. Otherwise, the subways will suffer from the Yogi Berra problem: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

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I’ve used this line before, but here we go: If the subways seem more crowded than ever, that’s because they are. Transit released its final 2014 ridership figures on Monday, and the increase in ridership hasn’t slowed. Overall, ridership jumped by 2.6 percent over 2013, and 1.751 billion people rode the subways, a level not seen in 65 years. It’s amazing then that politicians like to act as though the subways don’t exist — or should be used only as a prop — when they power New York City.

On a daily basis, the crush is obvious. The subways average 5.6 million riders per weekday and around 6 million on Saturday and Sunday combined. Ridership is up by nearly 500,000 people per day since the depths of the recession in 2009 and by over 2 million riders per day over the past 30 years. That’s insane growth considering the system hasn’t added any significant new service since then.

“The renaissance of the New York City subway is a miracle for those who remember the decrepit system of the 1970s and the 1980s, but moving more than 6 million customers a day means even minor disruptions now can create major delays,” MTA Chairman and CEO Thomas F. Prendergast said in a statement accompanying the ridership figures. “We are aggressively working to combat delays and improve maintenance, but the ultimate solution requires investing in infrastructure upgrades such as Communications-Based Train Control (CBTC) signaling systems to accommodate every one of our growing number of customers.”

On a granular level, the change in ridership mirrors long-standing patterns. Areas with massive population growth and development — Long Island City, Williamsburg, Bushwick — have driven ridership gains on nearby subway lines. Overall, Brooklyn led the charge with an increase of 31,000 riders per day while Manhattan entrances jumped by 2.5%, Bronx by 2.1% and Queens by 1.9%. Every single L train station saw ridership gains with Bushwick stations seeing double-digit percentage growth. The MTA attributed the jump, in part, to the CBTC installation which has allowed for more frequent service.

Meanwhile, the M line — rerouted in 2010 to cover for the dearly departed V train — saw ridership jump by around six percent at stations between Marcy and Metropolitan Avenues. The M in fact has led to a growth in ridership by nearly 25 percent throughout its corridor though it’s tough to separate that jump from the overall ridership increase brought on by an improving economy. Meanwhile, ridership in Long Island City grew by 12 percent as well, and the 7 line will see more new riders when the extension to Hudson Yards finally opens sometime ever. In the Bronx, the 2 and 5 led the way with 3.7 percent growth, and in Manhattan, the 2 and 3 set the pace with similar numbers.

Meanwhile, indirectly through Prendergast’s statement and directly from the mouth’s of the city’s transit advocates, the ridership numbers gave those fighting for dollars another platform to call for funding. The Tri-State Transportation Campaign:

The New York City subway system is one of the region’s most valuable assets, but with the delays and crowds that characterize the commutes of millions of daily riders, it is easy to underappreciate. Today’s news that subway ridership increased by 2.6 percent in 2014 is both a significant milestone celebrating the progress and popularity of the system over the decades, but potentially a harbinger of bad news if more investment is not made in the system.

The plan that outlines such investments, the 2015-2019 MTA capital program, has a $14 billion gap. The improvements that reduce delays and crowds are on the chopping block as a result.

As legislators return to session in Albany this week, addressing this gap must be one of their top priorities. This plan outlines the train, track, signal, technology, bus, and station projects that will mitigate delays, crowds and deteriorating service across the entire MTA system.

The Straphangers:

The New York Ci†y’s subways are giving us a degree of mobility unparalleled in America, with access to jobs, family and what makes New York City so appealing. So whether it’s a hipster going clubbing along the L line or tourists from Texas trying a new budget hotel in Queens, we welcome you – and demand that transit officials take action to make our commuting lives bearable.

The Riders Alliance:

People are taking the subway at levels we haven’t seen for generations. Our elected officials should be falling over each other to invest in better subway and bus service, to serve the eight million people who take the subway and bus every day. Instead, there’s a debate about whether to invest even the basic funds required to prevent the subways from deteriorating further. New Yorkers are voting with their Metrocards and relying on public transit more each year. It’s time for Governor Cuomo and state lawmakers to listen to the crowd and increase transit funding to match riders’ needs. If they don’t, riders are in for a future of more delays, dangerous crowding and higher fares. With more people than ever relying on public transit, that shouldn’t be Governor Cuomo’s vision for public transit in New York.

As voters do indeed vote with their Metrocards, is anyone listening? Even as alternatives bloom — CitiBike, Uber, Lyft — six million people per day can’t really be wrong.

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Warning: For those with sensitive ears or no headphones at their desk, the video contains some NSFW language.

Early on Wednesday morning, this video from Above Average started making the rounds, and it truly hits at something every subway rider thinks at least once or twice. To some note a few years ago, Transit’s automated announcements stopped apologize for unavoidable delays and simply started thanking riders for their patience. It was a sea change in the psychology of MTA announcements, and while it hasn’t solved the problem of unavoidable delays, the MTA is no longer apologizing on a regular basis for what they view as normal operating conditions.

Above Average has taken that concept to its comedic end as their video features a monologue from a conductor who is definitely not apologizing for a delay. “From now on,” she says, “we’re no longer going to apologize when we have nothing to be sorry for.” It’s the blunt approach to the MTA’s own shift in tone.

My favorite part of the video is the truth bomb. As the subway riders grow leery of the hijacked announcement, the conductor grows more petulant. “If you don’t like it,” she says after excoriating the passengers to act like adults, “you can go to some other city with a sh***ier subway system. Oh right, that’s every other city.” Spoken like a true New Yorker.

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One of the problems with aging infrastructure is facing the unexpected. For the MTA, these problems arise internally when signals malfunctions, switches fail and rails break, but the agency also has to contend with everything in between the subway tunnels and the street above. On Wednesday night, a water main broke at 14th St. and 7th Ave., and it of course shut down the West Side subways for some time.

As of this writing, the 1, 2 and 3 trains are not running between Chambers St. and Times Square. Some 2 trains are running via the 5, and otherwise, shuttle buses have replaced 7th Ave. IRT service in Manhattan. The MTA hopes to have everything running normal again by the morning rush, but keep an eye on the MTA’s website for the latest.

Since the water main break happened at a station with wireless signals and wifi service, the Internet played home to some dramatic images as water started filling up the local tracks. Early on, we saw the YouTube video I posted above — which isn’t of some pilot program for an in-station subway carwash system, and there were plenty of other images.

While the immediate problem was at 14th St. and 7th Ave., the MTA again had some issues with communicating amidst an unexpected service problem. I took the 4 train home from Grand Central at around 8:30, and by the time my train rolled into Nevins St., 2 and 3 trains were operating with 15-minute headways. There were no announcements about connecting service, and Transit opted against running the 4 and 5 trains local to pick up the slack. Riders waiting for trains at Chambers St. had no idea of the problem as the MTA made no announcements. Of course, the agency had bigger fish to fry — or really puddles to drain — but keeping riders who are already in the system aware of their options in real time has always been a challenge for the MTA.

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Those of you who follow me on Twitter may have woken up on Sunday morning to something of a Twitter storm. I had, you see, come across this Post article on the fare hike in which a copy editor writing the headline called the subways “atrocious” (which has since been changed to “woeful”) and the intrepid reporter noted that service is “worse than ever.” Acknowledging that there are clear warning signs and less-than-reliable service these days, I wasn’t impressed by this article.

Today’s problems — as anyone who has lived in New York for longer than the five years the 20-something author from Newburgh, NY, has knows — is not nearly close to being “worse than ever.” Hop back in time to the late 1980s and early 1990s when train breakdowns were common and doors wouldn’t open. Jump back to the early 1980s and late 1970s when muggings were commonplace and track fires frequent. Jump back to the mid-1970s when the MTA briefly pondered cutting the L train entirely due to a cratering ridership and backlog of maintenance. That was literally worse than ever.

Perhaps it was unfair of me to come down so hard on a reporter for The Post. After all, it’s The Post, and I should expect nothing better. (It also led to a fantastically sarcastic reply from Joseph Cutrufo.) But the underlying problem with Gabrielle Grilli’s was just how wrong it was around the edges. She claimed that recent fares hike cover “only the raises of MTA employees” and warned that the MTA is going to cancel the Second Ave. Subway without explaining how that threat affects only future, unfunded portions and not the one currently under construction. It also has nothing to do with the fare hikes and everything to do with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s lack of support for the MTA’s capital plan.

The overall issue with articles such as this one is that they are how the public gets its information. I have a dedicated but small readership, and The Post and The Times and The Daily News all reach more eyeballs than I do by an extremely high number. To see this type of coverage in our newspapers is discouraging, especially when these papers are supposed to serve as a conduit between the public and its politicians.

Grilli clearly tried to write something else. Her story wasn’t based entirely in fiction as a late-night release from the Straphangers showcased how certain elements of subway service are trending downward in recent years. Here’s what Gene Russianoff had to say:

This is the fifth subway, bus and commuter fare increase in eight years in the New York City area, leaving riders weary and angry. More hikes are planned. At the same time, service is suffering. Delays are on the rise throughout the system and crowding is at record levels.

The MTA also has a $15 billion gap for rebuilding transit over the next five years. If this shortfall stands, New Yorkers will likely lose many improvements for better service. This could range from fewer new subway cars and buses to the slow installation of countdown clocks alerting riders of train arrivals. It also could mean borrowing billions for these improvements, which would create more pressure on fares.

What riders desperately need are state leaders who will be powerful champions for funding decent transit. First and foremost, there’s Governor Andrew Cuomo, who appoints the MTA’s Board of Directors. Governor Cuomo should forcefully make the case for new transit funding. He can tell New Yorkers that the MTA fuels the State’s economy, conserves the State’s energy and promotes its environment. He should also press for progressive transit funding, like MoveNY’s fair tolling plan.

And here’s what he shouldn’t do: On one day, call the MTA’s capital budget “bloated” and on others use the system as a personal photo op. And on yet other days, raid hundreds of millions from dedicated transit taxes and use them for non-transit purposes. Cuomo’s leadership is key to winning a robust capital program. But the possible loss of critical rebuilding projects is a reminder of a painful truism: Never leave the subways without funding.

The MTA’s own board materials published in advance of Monday’s committee meetings lay bare this reality. Terminal delays on both weekends and weekdays jumped by around a third over the past year; trains aren’t arriving as regularly as they should; on-time performance is declining; and as rolling stock ages — even newer cars are reaching their teenage years — breakdowns increase slightly. All in all, things aren’t nearly as bad as they were or could be, but the system needs to be maintained, with money and attention and support, to avoid a future that repeats the past.

In something of a Catch-22, one of the reasons for these performance issues can be traced to recent record-high ridership with daily fares pushing past 6 million on a regular basis. The system simply isn’t currently built to withstand this many people. In essence, the subways are so popular that they are breaking down under the strain of too many people. For years, advocates have warned of the need to build for the future either through technological initiatives that can increase capacity on preexisting subway lines or through system expansion projects. Neither of these are far enough along to solve today’s problems, and it’s questionable if they can solve tomorrow’s problems before it’s too late.

It’s true, as the Straphangers and Riders Alliance have both pointed out lately, that Cuomo needs to step forward and be responsible. But we shouldn’t have this conversation without a look at the institutional flaws at the MTA. The agency is asking for $30 billion, and perhaps it’s bloated though not as Cuomo expects. His AirTrain proposal is more bloated than useful. Do they need this much? And why does everything cost so much and take so long? The MTA’s construction projects are more expensive and time-consuming than any other international transit agency’s work. They can’t automate lines or build new ones. They can’t even bring escalators, elevators and vent fans online in a timely fashion. Something needs reform just as something — the MTA and its subway system — needs proper political support.

Ultimately, contractor corruption and work efficiencies aren’t sexy. It’s easier for Gabrielle Grilli to highlight today’s service problems because she doesn’t know better just as it’s easy for people to bemoan the long lost W train or fetishize 1980s graffiti because they don’t know better. People who do know better though should come through with what’s needed: support, money and a real eye for reform. New York’s present and future depend on it.

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