Archive for View from Underground
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.
I don’t tend to cover subway crime much on these pixeled pages. As a storyline, subway crime tends more toward clickbait than real coverage with the city’s tabloids preying on decades’-old fears of the subways a hot bed for crime. The reality is far more boring with the NYPD reporting less than seven major felonies per day in the subway, a far cry from even as recently as 1997 when major felonies topped 17 per day. The subways are very safe, and that truth makes for dull press.
Now and then, though, something related to subway crime draws me in. This story is tangentially related to the “spate” of subway slashings. I use “spate” with some trepidation as six incidents in January is hardly a sign of a return to the bad old days, but these crimes follow a pattern. Two people have a heated interaction on a crowded subway car or platform, one slashes the other and flees. The cops have made three arrests and are investigating the other three, including one that unfolded this past weekend.
The slashings, in and of themselves, are warnings to be wary of altercations underground, but the NYPD’s reaction has been telling. To assess safety underground, NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton last week decided to ride the subway — with some fellow higher-ups and a security detail — to assess the safety of the subways. He proclaimed the subways “very safe” and added, “As [NYPD Chief of Department] Jimmy [O’Neill] and I found out this morning, they’re jammed in there like sardines. It’s amazing anyone can assault anyone. People can’t move in some of those cars.”
So it is early 2016 and apparently news to the police official in charge of the entire department that the subways are crowded and room is at a premium. Stop the presses indeed.
Bratton’s attitude and words are indicative of a bigger divide in New York City politics that comes about from granting so many top officials, elected and appointed, the perk of free parking and drivers. These leaders do not take the subways and view the subways and subway riders as “other.” Rather than experiencing the city as so many New Yorkers do on a daily basis through the lens of an hour or more spent riding subways each day, they view the subways as this thing that people who aren’t them — people who are the Other — use. The subways remain vaguely unknown and unsafe. Thus, crowded trains are all hours are viewed as a sign things are hunky dory underground.
It’s true as Bratton surmised, that crowds indicate safety. On a basic level, this indicates safety in numbers as the more riders there are, the safer we all feel. Plus, if millions of people didn’t feel safe taking the subway, the trains would be as empty today as they were during the doldrums of the late 1970s and early 1980s. As an infrequent rider, Bratton drew that seemingly common-sense solution, and he’s not wrong. But he’s also not quite right.
As trains get more crowded, the safety concerns manifest themselves in other ways. Subway riders — especially women — are more worried about sexual harassment and assault in the subways. After all, crowded trains give those so inclined cover for inappropriate contact or worse. Bratton wouldn’t pick up on that nuance if he were only last week discovering how crowded trains were. Riders too are worried about confrontations as space on peak hour trains is at a premium. These slashings have arisen over disputes over seats or standing space or those blocking doorways. With trains packed, we grow protective over our square feet, and watching the MTA’s service strain to meet peak-hour capacity means tense crowds and confrontations that can spiral out of control quickly. This too is not something an infrequent rider would immediately notice.
So what’s the solution? I don’t believe we should force politicians to take the subway. Such a requirement leads to disenchantment and bitterness, and it doesn’t help anyone understand the ins and outs of daily life with the subway. Rather, officials and politicians should take the subway because they want to learn and understand what their constituents experience and want to see the city through the eyes of its millions of transit riders. It’s an instructive way to understand the concerns of the millions of people who ride the subway each day. Thus, politicians and key officials would learn how safety concerns are implicated and what crowded trains mean, and subway riders would become the Normal rather than the Other. As the Other, we’ll be treated at arm’s length. As the Normal, conditions can improve in the right way for the better.
Now that the dust has settled on Andrew Cuomo’s transportation and infrastructure tour of New York, the Empire State’s political watchers have had time to digest and assess the governor’s proposals. Inspired Robert Moses, the Master Builder who has been no stranger to controversy in life or death, Cuomo has promoted a bunch of plans aimed at improving the way people get into and out of New York City with only a superficial proposal to improve the customer experience for subway riders rather than system capacity or reach. A new Penn Station might be aesthetically pleasing, but where is the firm commitment to see through Gateway Tunnel, a project that, unlike those proposed last week, will extend well beyond the end of Cuomo’s tenure as governor?
I’ve said my share over the past few days, and I reiterated yesterday, these proposals, especially with regards to the subway system and inter-borough transit, leave me wanting more. But Cuomo likes his flashy ideas and hasn’t shown a willingness to take on bigger issues, including spending efficiencies, work-rule reform, and project staffing levels. But enough from me; let’s heard what everyone else has to say.
We start with cost. How much is this all going to cost? Well, according to a Cuomo aide, the full spending package comes in at $100 billion dollars which leads me to play this video clip for you:
It’s not clear how Cuomo’s team arrived this figure, what it includes and doesn’t include or how they’re going to fund $100 billion worth of infrastructure projects. But that is one large number, and already, commentators are wondering how Cuomo will fund it. As Jimmy Vielkind explored today, everyone is focused on cost. “Where’s the money going to come from?” John DeFrancisco, a State Senator from Syracuse, asked yesterday. “Once again, this sounds great — running around the state telling people a wonderful thing for them. But you have to take a look at what the cost is and what the other dollars could be used for.”
For infrastructure, the state has a pot of $2.1 billion in un-budgeted proceeds from settlements and penalties wrought by the Department of Financial Services against major banks and insurers, $650 million of which was secured in the past year. Last year, Cuomo directed a much larger pot of settlement money to the Thruway Authority, to settle a dispute with the federal government over Medicaid over-billing and to fund an economic development competition.
The state currently projects spending between $3 billion and $4 billion for capital projects during the next four years, and borrowing another $6.5 billion to $7 billion for capital needs. Between 40 percent and 45 percent of that is marked for spending on transportation.
Some of this should factor into the $22 billion for upstate roads and bridges, but it’s unclear how much and exactly what programs — money for the Thruway Authority? A toll rebate program? $200 million for airports? — Cuomo has put into that overall number.
Meanwhile, Move New York proponents see Cuomo’s proposals as another opportunity to push through a rational traffic pricing plan. As Erik Engquist detailed, congestion pricing proponents see the revenue generated by the plan as a way to fund infrastructure improvements while disincentivizing driving. After all, Cuomo spent considerable time on Friday discussing mass transit usage as the best and most reliable way to ensure continually growth in and around New York City, and what better way to achieve that goal than to start pricing traffic as it should be?
But beyond the lofty price tags, a pair of pieces raise concerns regarding Cuomo’s approach. This too is a point I brought up last week. Much like Cuomo’s ill-conceived Laguardia AirTrain idea, his infrastructure projects aren’t the ones advocates view as most necessary, and many come across as aesthetic fixes to institutional problems or, in other words, lipstick on a pig. Jeremy Smerd in Crain’s says the governor has leapfrogged his agencies:
His love for a big project with his fingerprints on it seems to ignore the careful planning undertaken by the agencies charged with thinking about these things. The governor last week proposed adding a third track to the Long Island Rail Road—a project that was not important enough to make it into the MTA’s capital plan—and a Long Island-Westchester car tunnel that has gone nowhere since being conceived in the 1960s. His $1 billion idea to expand the Javits Center seems as slapdash as his plan four years ago to put a convention center next to Aqueduct. Consider that a similar Javits plan pegged at $1.7 billion in 2005 was canceled when the Spitzer administration found it would cost as much as $5 billion.
Cuomo’s vision for Penn Station seems equally curious. Rather than right a historical wrong that saw the destruction of the original Beaux-Arts building, he will keep Madison Square Garden, severely limiting the ability to bring light and space into the station’s congested warrens. The plan also appears to ignore a binding agreement giving the Related Cos. and Vornado Realty Trust the right to develop the Farley post office across the street into Moynihan Station. If these ideas are not coming from the agencies overseeing infrastructure, where are they coming from?
And finally, in a piece I’ll return to later this week, Philip M. Plotch and Nicholas D. Bloom urge the governor to get New York’s current infrastructure house in order before over-extending for expansive and expensive projects that don’t adequately address capacity concerns. I have some disagreements with Plotch and Bloom’s piece that I’ll discuss in a day or two, but they bring up some valid points regarding capital priorities. In the end, the overall reaction to Cuomo’s plans seems to be that $100 billion could be better spent and somehow doesn’t go far enough.
As far as 2016 goes for the MTA, this year may promise to be something of a quiet one. The MTA has no fare hikes planned, and its recently approved budget is fairly rosy by agency standards. In fact, in a piece on Gotham Gazette published Monday, Ben Max posted 40 questions for New York politics in the new year, and none of them concerned the MTA. The biggest pressing transit issue seems to concern the fate of Uber in New York City and New York State.
But that doesn’t mean big stories are afoot. There’s plenty happening this year that could echo well into the city’s future. Allow me then to preview a few stories worth watching in 2016.
1. Will the Second Ave. Subway open by the end of the year? The MTA is under the gun to wrap up Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway before 2016 ends. For years, the agency has promised to deliver this long-delayed project on time (according, at least, to the latest estimates); for years, the feds have claimed the MTA will miss its 2016 deadline; and meanwhile, the clock is racing toward December. Most recently, an outside consultant warned of a moderate risk of delay, and we’ll learn more in March and again in June as the MTA issues its quarterly updates. If I were a betting man, I’d take the over and look for an opening in early 2017. But the agency is under a lot of political pressure to deliver on time.
2. Whither the MTA’s capital plan? In October (though it now seems like years ago), Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a funding agreement that would guarantee nearly $9 billion in state funding for the MTA capital plan and an additional $2.5 billion from the city. It was supposed to be a hallmark deal designed to bolster the MTA’s five-year $28 billion capital plan, but any movement on approvals has all but sputtered to a stop. The state’s Capital Program Review Board hasn’t blessed the MTA’s most recent proposal, and upstate politicians want “parity” on infrastructure (that is, road) spending in some of New York’s less populous areas that certainly shouldn’t be investing billions in roads right now. This is what happens when the governor has no comprehensive approach to transit funding.
On a more granular level, thanks to the delays, the MTA had to push back plans to start Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway, and local New York politicians aren’t happy with the way money has or hasn’t been allocated to what they view as city needs. It is, in other words, a mess, and it’s not clear when this mess will be resolved or approved. The MTA is working with city stakeholders to address the Second Ave. Subway issues and accelerate Phase 2, but it’s not clear when state approval will arrive or what affect this long delay will have on projects that need to get started. This logjam should clear up in the early part of 2016, but we’re now in month 13 of this 60-month plan with funding not yet guaranteed.
3. Spinning wheels or moving forward on the Metrocard replacement. The MTA’s efforts to replace the Metrocard is one of those agency initiatives that, like B Division countdown clocks, are constantly three-to-five years away from reality, and as we sit at the start of 2016, the picture is worse for the Metrocard’s eventual successor. Thanks to the delays in the capital funding approval process, the MTA has held back the RFP for the next-gen fare payment project, and the Metrocard replacement may be delayed until at least 2023. When will the MTA release its RFP for the project and what will the parameters be? We should find out soon, if the MTA can get out of its own way with regards to this key technology project.
4. Yet another contract for the TWU. I’m sort of cheating with this one as it won’t become a real story until the first month of 2017, but 2016 marks the final year of the five-contract the TWU agreed to back in mid-2014. That’s what happens when you go over two years without a deal. How this will play out is anyone’s guess. Last time, Gov. Cuomo had to step in, and he failed to take advantage of any leverage the MTA had to reform work rules or streamline operations. TWU President John Samuelsen recently won reelection, and as expected, he has never embraced modernization, which would lead to reductions in staffing levels. This won’t develop into a story until the second half of the year, but it’s one worth watching.
5. The crowds keep growing. Last year, the subways reached ridership levels not seen since the end of World War II, and trains are constantly crowded at every hour of the day. Modest service increases aren’t set to go into effect until the summer, and by then, at the current pace of ridership growth, the increases won’t be adequate enough to reduce overcrowding. Is there a tipping point? Will we reach it sooner rather than later? What can the MTA do to improve service and meet spiking demand?
6. Who will be the next Dr. Zizmor? As 2016 dawned, we learned today that famed (though, at times, troubled) dermatologist Dr. Zizmor has retired from medical practice to spend his time, in part, studying the Talmud. Though his ads haven’t graced subway cars since 2013, he remains a symbol of 1990s New York, a time when the city was turning from bad to whatever it is today. Michael Grynbaum and Marc Santora penned an excellent paean to the doctor in today’s Times, and I wonder which subway advertisement will become New York’s next great icon. Dr. Zizmor, like Julio and Marisol before him, will join subway advertising history while a red manspreader may be just as emblematic of the mid-2010s as Zizmor was to the mid-1990s.