Archive for View from Underground

West 4th Tower crews work to restore service following an early morning water main break this morning. Photo: MTA / J.P. Chan

Following an early-morning water main break at 5th Ave. and 13th Sts. that flooded out subway service at West 4th, the MTA restored service this morning, and the commute this evening should be relatively problem-free. The same, of course, couldn’t be said for this morning as Sixth Ave. trains were rerouted all over the place, and Uber, as expected, instituted surge pricing while people struggled to get into the office.

As part of the postmortem on the accident, the MTA offered up some spin on how service was restored so quickly:

Two pump trains were dispatched but were not needed. A pump room located at 9 St as well as portable pumps that were positioned into the area were able to pump water that had risen 24-30 inches along 300 feet of track north of the West 4 St station. Drains along the tracks were able to absorb much of the water that had entered the system. The drains performed well as a result of the attention they have received during FASTRACK work along that corridor.

This is the rosy view of everything. “Look! All that work we do that inconveniences you overnight now and then is paying off because we could restore subway service in a matter of hours,” the MTA says. It’s easy to cast a cynical eye toward that statement, but it’s also true that the MTA’s old technologies — pump rooms, well-placed drains — have continued to serve the agency well. Sometimes, infrastructure built in the late 1920s and early 1930s holds up remarkably well. It’s just something to chew on.

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A few months ago, I made a slight shift in my evening commute back home to Brooklyn. Instead of taking the 2 or 3 train as it slowly winds its way south of Chambers St. to Grand Army Plaza, I shifted to the Q train from Times Square to 7th Ave. Although Q headways are longer, the ride itself is faster and more comfortable. I can usually get a seat from the get-go, and if I can’t, the BMT rolling stock is wider than the IRT’s. What I didn’t account for was “Showtime.”

You know “Showtime.” What time is it? Showtime! If you ride the subways long enough, you’ll see it and hear it and see it again and hear it again and again and again. A group of kids — sometimes young, sometimes old — come into the car, blast some music, and spin around on the poles. It’s the modern-day version of break dancing. After an express run — from Union Square to Canal if you’re lucky, from Canal to De Kalb if you’re not — they canvas for money and move on to the next car.

As things go underground these days, “Showtime” is divisive. I can’t stand it. It’s loud; it’s in your face; it’s inconsiderate, especially at rush hour. People on already crowded trains are focused to move to the sides (though I’ve seen more than a few groups refuse to move), and then tinny music blasting from a portable speaker fills the car. I just want peace and quiet on the way home.

Not everyone is as curmudgeonly as me. Some people love the Showtime routines. It is, they say, just a way for kids to earn a few bucks, and it doesn’t harm anyone. It’s just good ol’ New York fun.

The debate came to a head shortly after Christmas when two men were arrested. DNA Info reported that a Showtime duo were charged with reckless endangerment as a misdemeanor as they “caused a hazard to themselves and others around them, and made excessive noise by blaring music from a stereo.” I think an arrest is a bit too harsh, but removing the threat of Showtime from a crowded subway is A-OK with me.

But I’m just one person. Let’s hear from you. What are your thoughts on Showtime? Let’s have a poll.

What do you think of "Showtime" routines on the subway?
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As 2013 — and our $245 pre-tax commuter benefits — draws to a close, let’s take a look back at the year that was. We had no major disasters, and after a spate of what one might call concern-trolling by the media, subway deaths showed no statistically significant increases over previous years. The TWU certainly tried to exploit the issue.

What 2013 had though was, as always, both good and bad. The MTA received yet another new CEO/Chairman as Tom Prendergast was nominated and approved for the job. Some capital projects moved closer to completion while the new South Ferry station seemed to languish in limbo while the MTA tried to move forward with a rebuild. The fares went up in March, but favorable economic conditions allowed the MTA to announce increased service for 2014 (including weekend M service. Further, the MTA announced smaller fare hikes for 2015 and 2017 though I worried if the announcements were premature.

But those weren’t the top stories that you read here in 2013. Instead, future planning and spending priorities took center stage. As has become an annual tradition, let’s run down the top ten most popular posts I published this year as our Transit Year in Review.

10. April 18: What about a subway for Staten Island?
With Mayor Bloomberg agitating on and off for an extension of the 7 line to Secaucus — a plan I expect will die with his mayoralty in 14 hours — Staten Island politicians started raising a ruckus. In April, State Senator Diane Savino, echoing arguments from the early half of the 20th century, vowed to block any New Jersey subway extension that came to Albany for a funding request prior to a Staten Island subway. We explored the isolated borough’s need for a better transit connection. Unfortunately, neither a tunnel through the harbor nor a rail line to Bayonne is likely to see the light of day any time soon.

9. January 23: Link the R to JFK via the Rockaway Beach Branch
I spent a lot of time both on these pages and on Twitter arguing over the future of the Rockaway Beach Branch. A select few in Queens want to turn it into a High Line-esque park while many transit advocates want the ROW preserved for rail or reactivated. In January, Capt. Subway presented his assessment of the line’s future and explored how the R could run to JFK Airport while adding subway service to areas in Queens that need it. We’ll hear more about QueensWay next year as various studies come due.

8. May 30: From four architects, four ideas for Penn Station’s future
Madison Square Garden received its 10-year occupancy permit from the City Council earlier this year with a firm warning that everyone needs to work together to solve the Penn Station problem. In May, we saw what could be termed architectural rendering porn as four high-profile shops released their dreams for Penn Station. None of these are likely to see the light of day, but something must be done about Penn Station. Our incoming mayor should show some leadership on this project.

7. January 17: A look inside South Ferry, three months later
Shortly after Sandy, I took a tour of the new South Ferry station. As the pictures show, it did not look good. The MTA is hoping to reopen the station, with improvements and hardening, by mid-2016.

6. July 23: As Triboro RX looms, a mayoral race on ferries emerges
For transit advocates, the race to replace Bloomberg this year was underwhelming and uninspiring. Christine Quinn talked about a cockamamie bus route for the Triboro RX routing while everyone wanted to add ferry service. Mayor de Blasio will have the opportunity to speed up and expand Select Bus Service implementation. Let’s see if he leaps at the chance.

5. June 11: Revisiting a subway connection for Staten Island
During the GOP Mayoral primaries, Joe Lhota spoke on the desire to bring the subway to Staten Island via a tunnel under the Narrows. This is an idea as old as plans for the Second Ave. Subway, but I am skeptical it’s the right one for Staten Island. In June, we explored why.

4. February 13: WTC PATH hub delayed another 18 months
The mess that is the $4 billion Calatrava PATH Hub seemed to grow even messier in February as a Port Authority exec let slip word that completion of the project would be pushed back 18 months. The Port Authority later disputed the project, reasserting a 2015 completion date, but for a subway stop that was supposed to cost $2.3 billion and open last year, the PA’s assertion seemed to miss the point. Meanwhile, Santiago Calatrava’s hometown has filed suit against the architect as one of his creations is falling apart after just eight years. How comforting.

3. June 24: Photos: The latest from inside the 7 line extension
The MTA offered up a comprehensive photoset of scenes from inside the 7 line extension with 12 months remaining on the project. It’s always fun to live vicariously through photographs of subway construction. For some recent shots, check out my photos from the Mayor’s inaugural ride into the 34th St. station.

2. August 30: A history of future subway systems
What if money were no obstacle? What if all of the proposed subway lines from New York City’s past were to become a reality? We explored the idea with an accompanying map over the summer. In a similar vein, check out Joe Raskin’s new book called The Routes Not Taken. It tracks the history of proposed and never-built subway lines. I’ll have a review in early January once I finish it.

1. November 8: This is why we can’t have (more) nice things
The most popular post of the year was a rant on the PATH Hub’s $250 million hallway connecting the train station with the Brookfield Place complex. It was and remains a patently absurd price to pay for an underground walkway and remains emblematic of the reasons why transit expansion faces so many obstacles in New York City.

As always, thanks for reading throughout the year. Trains and buses operate on a Sunday schedule tomorrow, and so does the site. I’ll be back on Thursday. See you in 2014.

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One of my lasting impressions of the year in transit for 2013 was this photo I took of Mayor Bloomberg a couple of weeks ago. As the doors on the 7 train he rode into the not-yet-completed 34th St. station closed shut, he turned around to salute the scrum of photographers who were left on the platform. Following his valedictory remarks at the station his administration funded, Bloomberg smiled and flashed a thumbs-up. A minute later, the train curved north toward Times Square, and the mayor’s involvement with transit went along with it.

I’ll have a glimpse back at my top stories of 2013 later this week. Needless to say, it was a relatively quiet year for transit stories. Thankfully, we had no Sandy to sweat through, and no major disruptions to subway service. Even the year’s hand-wringing over an alleged spike in subway deaths will end up being nothing more than just that. The preliminary numbers show no statistically significant increase in incidents over previous years. The fares went up, but even that seems to be something not too newsworthy for straphangers these days.

But 2014 should bring a series of news stories with it and some key questions about the MTA’s and New York City subway’s short- and long-term future. The two most visible elements of the year to come are that 7 line extension and the Fulton Street Transit Center. Both projects have been in the planning or construction stages for most of the past decade. One grew out of the Mayor’s wish to bring the Olympics to New York and the other from the infusion of federal money into Lower Manhattan following 9/11. Both are set to open around the same time this summer.

The impact of the 7 line is far more obvious than Fulton St. The Far West Side, currently undergoing rampant development, will now be open to subway service. Ferry terminals will be far more accessible, and the Javits Center will seem a part of the fabric of New York City. The Hudson Yards development will grow, and the area will change. No longer the frontier, it will be just another neighborhood off the 7 train.

Downtown, Fulton Street’s completion signals another step in the 13-year recovery effort, and it will add street life back to an area under constant construction. Underground, we’ve already seen the impact as the platforms are updated and connections easier to navigate. I’ve long questioned if the $1.4 billion was money well spent, and that debate still rages. No matter the side you’re on, it’s money that’s been spent, and in six months, that project essentially wraps as well.

Thus, 2014 is a year of congratulations for MTA Capital Construction, but it’s also a year of looking at what’s next. The next five-year plan is set to be hashed out this year, and early indications are that it will focus on decidedly unsexy elements of the subway system. We’ll hear about signal upgrades and technology investment. We won’t hear about future phases of the Second Ave. Subway or similar projects to the 7 line that represent relatively short subway extensions that can have a major impact on areas currently lacking in transit. New Yorkers interested in seeing the city continue to grow in a sustainable way should be wary of capital plans that aren’t focused around some expansion efforts.

Outside of the capital work, we’ll hear about BusTime when all New York City buses are online in a few months, and we’ll follow along as the TWU’s contract dispute enters a third year. We’ll see the next round of Sandy repairs take shape as the Montague Street Tunnel reopens in December, and by the end of the year, we’ll have a good sense of the 2015 fare hike as well. Service will increase in June as well. As we get ready to say good bye to 2013, I know this for sure about 2014: It won’t be a dull year, and your subway will, at some point, be delayed due to train traffic ahead of you.

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With Bill de Blasio’s inauguration less than a week away, a bunch of news outlets are offering up their wishlists for New York’s first new mayor since 2001. Shortly after the election, I put forward a transit “To Do” list for de Blasio, and a few others have set out their ideas for improving transportation in and around the city. One, in particular, deserves some attention as it focuses outside the traditional realms of subways and buses.

As part of its package of articles previewing de Blasio’s administration, Crain’s New York polled a group of experts on a variety of topics and tried to propose innovative approaches to city problems. The transportation list is an intriguing one as it barely touches upon subways and buses. It seemingly recognizes that the MTA, a state agency, is somewhat immune to the charms and whims of Gracie Mansion and instead answers to higher powers in Albany. Rather it looks as approaches a new mayor could explore with the resources of the city at his hands.

The problem with this approach though is that subways and, to a lesser extent, buses are the backbones of city transit. The subways provide the best and fastest way to move a lot of people over greater distances in relatively short amount of times, and no amount of attention paid to or money spent on, say, ferries can change the fact that waterfront access is limited to people with relatively good transit options. Nothing can revolutionize transit in New York City quite like new subway lines.

That said, the Crain’s list touches upon ideas that should happen. Transportation Alternatives has proposed redesigning Queens Boulevard, Atlantic Ave., Grand Concourses and Manhattan thoroughfares with pedestrian plazas, bike lanes and extended curbs. I’d add dedicated and physically separated bus lanes to some of these routes as well. Residential parking permits is an idea whose time should have come years ago as well, and Dan Doctoroff found another outlet to spread his light rail gospel.

But one idea has me raising an eyebrow. Crain’s wants to see the mayor “Reopen trackless old subway tunnels for electric express buses.” This isn’t the first time Crain’s has beaten their drum, and it’s hard to say which expert is pushing this plan. The problem is that there are no trackless old subway tunnels just lying about. In their coverage, Crain’s links to this list of permanently closed subway stations, but despite repeated inquiries, no one has identified trackless subway tunnels that could support bus infrastructure (or any that couldn’t, for that matter).

As now, the only potential unused sections of tracked subway tunnel are on the BMT Nassau St. Line and consist of part of the Brooklyn Loops that weren’t intersected by the Chrystie St. Cut in the late 1960s. The second platforms at Bowery and Canal St. are currently unused, and of course, the Essex St. Trolley Terminal is unused. No one will be ripping out unused subway tracks, and it’s unclear if the Essex St. space could support bus infrastructure. It’s certainly nothing a new mayor should focus on at the expense of real solutions to the city’s transit problems.

Ultimately, it’s odd to see a wishlist that doesn’t focus on bus rapid transit or even more city-funded subways. Everything else seems more futuristic or “21st Century,” but the truth is that for New York to grow, it’s current high-capacity transit infrastructure needs to grow. Enough about ferries or seemingly out-of-the-box ideas that aren’t even possible. Let’s talk instead about real expansion and investment.

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The MTA is testing track intrusion detection technology at one undisclosed station.

From an MTA statement, here’s what happened this morning at 125th Street on the 8th Ave. line. It’s a crazy story:

At approximately 9:30am this morning, customers on the northbound platform at 125 St alerted subway personnel that a blind customer and his service dog had fallen onto the northbound express tracks at the station.

A construction flagger at the station observed the customer on the roadbed and instructed the customer to stay down in the trough between the rails and not attempt to climb back up onto the platform.

Other customers attempted to alert the train operator of an approaching northbound A train to stop. Contrary to initial reports, the train operator was unable to stop in time and 1 ½ cars did pass over the customer. The train did not come in contact with the customer and he was removed with minor lacerations to his head to St. Luke’s Hospital. There were no noticeable injuries to the dog.

Pete Donohue was on the scene and spoke with witnesses. No one was quite sure how the man and his dog fell or how they survived, but, needless to say, everyone was relieved.

This headline-grabbing incident comes toward the end of a year that saw increased attention to passenger/train collisions and platform jumpers. Yet, according to Donohue, the 2013 numbers so far — 144 riders hit, 52 deaths — isn’t too far out of line with the averages of 134 and 49, respectively. Still, the MTA is planning to test, at one unnamed station, track intrusion technology. It’s hard to know how successful the test will be as there are no real hot spots for customers entering the tracks, but it is at least a nod to passenger safety.

For its part, the TWU is still advocating for a slowdown that would be costly and disruptive to subway riders. And so it goes.

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The day job’s kept me busy lately, and I haven’t had an opportunity to do a proper post. The tabs are piling up though so let’s dive in.

Quieting the Q Train

While the BMT Astoria Line has snaked through Queens since 1917, residents have become to grumble about the noise. Reportedly, the brakes on the new rolling stock in use on the N and Q trains are louder than previous generations even as the rides overall are quieter. After determining that the brakes added 10 decibels to the area’s sound levels, the MTA will install sound dampeners on Astoria-bound trains.

City Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. was the pol behind the push. “This deafening noise has been scaring little kids, startling our senior citizens and damaging our eardrums for far too long,” Vallone said last week, seemingly without a hint of irony.

A Jackson Heights pizza shop opens, finally

It’s been two years since Famous Famiglia won the bidding to operate a pizza parlor in the 3000-square foot space available in the Jackson Heights subway station, and now the slices are ready to go. After years of stops and starts due to construction designs and various requirements imposed by law and the MTA, Famous Famiglia opened this week with a ribbon cutting. The space had been empty for years, and Famiglia will pay the MTA at least $2.6 million over the next 20 years.


The NYPD is cracking down on subway panhandling…Despite eying a costly PATH extension to Newark Airport, the Port Authority isn’t very interested in a one-seat ride to JFK right now…Speaking of Port Authority, it’s a real mess there right now…Federal commuter benefits are set to decrease to $130 per month at the end of the year while parking subsidies are going up to $250…More later.

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I had to run a few errands in Lower Manhattan yesterday and found myself with just enough time to kill to check out the South Ferry station. The new two-track terminal on the 1 train — lost to Sandy — are walled off to the world as some sort of recovery effort continues, but the old station and the loop are back. It’s the closet we can get in New York to taking a ride back in time.

Of course, it hardly seems like it was that long ago that we had to ride the South Ferry loop, and that’s because it wasn’t. The one-track loop with its old gap-extenders and in which only the first five cars of every train can fit was decommissioned in 2009 only to be recommissioned in 2013 when the $600 million station was lost in the flood. The old station survived relatively unscathed because it’s not as far underground as the new station and because much of the sensitive infrastructure had been removed.

As I walked the curve, I was struck by the station design. On the one hand, it’s not a particularly memorable station aesthetically. As it was out of service for four years and hastily returned to use, the platforms are looking a little shoddy, and the platform extender barriers have always had a makeshift quality about them. But look up and you’ll see mosaics — like the one atop this post — that may make you smile. The old South Ferry ships line the small, curved platform, and they add character.

Throughout the subway system, these mosaics pop up with some regularity. They were a hallmark of the early IRT stations and can still be seen at Chambers St. and Astor Place, among others. They’re far more intriguing than the IND’s station tiling scheme and put the newer stations to shame. In fact, I couldn’t help but compare the old South Ferry to the new.

When the South Ferry terminal opened and I had a chance to tour it, I was struck by how sterile it appeared. The walls were infinitely white with no unique signifiers, and while the station features some of my favorite Arts of Transit installations, those hardly redeem the platforms.

This design — white on white on white — will be the norm for the foreseeable future. When the 7 line extension opens in six or seven months, the station will look quite similar to the South Ferry stop, and renderings of the Second Ave. Subway show a similar design. Anything noteworthy or specific to that particular station won’t be a part of the design.

As much as I scoff at faux-nostalgia surrounding New York’s good old days, the early teams that built the IRT had a much more aesthetically pleasing environment for the subways than the one we enjoy today. They wanted to tie each subway stop into its community and not just present something monolithically dirty. Interestingly, though, the IRT came of age when construction costs weren’t astronomical and design could be entertained. Today, costs are so high to preclude creativity, and stations will all resemble one another. Where did we go wrong?

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A temporary interactive shopping kiosk will inhabit an empty space in the Bryant Park subway stop. (Photo: Metropolitan Transportation Authority / Patrick Cashin)

Outside of industrial-strength behemoths that dispense Metrocards, vending machines in the subway are a relic of another era. Where once they could found underground, decades of neglect and an increase in crime eventually lead to their ousters. Today, they may be on the way back — at least for some high-end retailers.

As Stuart Elliott detailed in The Times today, one company has placed vending machines in the subway in an effort to drum up some business. That company is L’Oreal and the vending machines are a bit more high-tech than a Pepsi dispenser. The vending machines will be in the Bryant Park subway station through December 30, and they will appear — as the Uniqlo pop-up shop is — in a vacant space.

The Times has more:

Passers-by will see screens and a mirror that use cameras and sensors to recommend women’s cosmetics bearing the L’Oréal Paris brand name, which can then be purchased. The project, called the L’Oréal Paris Intelligent Color Experience, is being described by the participants as an entry in the realm of interactive shopping outside of traditional stores. It is another example of a trend known as experiential marketing, which seeks to give brands more tangible form beyond retail shelves.

…The project, with a budget estimated at $700,000 to $1 million, was developed by the R/GA Lab unit of R/GA in New York, part of the Interpublic Group of Companies; R/GA is the digital agency of record for the L’Oréal Paris brand. Also involved in the project are CBS Outdoor, which sells advertising space in the subway system, and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

“What we’re trying to find out is whether there is an appetite for something between e-tailing and brick-and-mortar retail,” said Paul Fleuranges, senior director for corporate and internal communications at the M.T.A. “We hope to do some market research while this is up and running, [and] we may be willing to do other pilots. We have a lot of retail space that is not currently under lease…If we can find ways to generate revenue from those assets, that’s a good thing for us. If we can add to the passenger experience, that’s a good thing for us. If we can bring new technology into the system, that’s a good thing for us.”

According to statements for L’Oreal, the cosmetics company considered 20 other stations in addition to Bryant Park but determined that the passageway underneath the library and the winter holiday market offered “the right audience for L’Oréal Paris” and “the best visibility.” I’ve asked the MTA how much they’re making off of this pop-up vending machine but have yet to receive a figure. As with the Uniqlo shop, it’s certainly worth the revenue for the MTA to find temporary uses for empty spaces.

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Uniqlo employees show off the merchandise available in the Union Square pop-up shop.

Uniqlo employees show off the merchandise available in the Union Square pop-up shop.

As the subway system has rebounded from the dark days of the Bernhard Goetz era, the MTA has sometimes struggled to fill its empty retail spots. Newsstands with their arrays of candy bars fill some spaces while discount clothing stores line some corridors. The Record Mart remains the best place to build up your back catalog of Fania releases. But otherwise, retail has yet to embrace the subway.

Lately, though, as part of an aggressive push to maximize empty space and draw in more dollars, the agency has pushed for new commercials opportunities, and this week, they announced a pop-up shop initiative that will bring retailers underground. These stores will receive month-to-month leases to operate in what the MTA is calling temporarily vacant spaces as the agency works to find takers for long-term leases. The Newsstand at Lorimer/Metropolitan in Williamsburg piloted the concept, and now Uniqlo has opened a store within fare control at the Union Square station.

In a press release, MTA officials spoke about orienting these spaces toward the ever-popular Millennials. “The younger generations are gravitating to the subway system as never before,” MTA Real Estate Director Jeffrey Rosen said. “They are savvy about shopping online. Retailers want to reach them where they are, which is our subway system. We are glad to be able to offer space in our stations to facilitate this new business niche.”

As to the mechanics of the deal, anyone who rents out the space — from small entrepreneurs to established corporations — are taking a lease “as-is,” and stores may appear more temporary than normal. The MTA notes that high-traffic areas can serve to increase exposure “where the emphasis is on displaying merchandise as much as actually conducting on-site transactions.” In other words, it’s another advertisement in a system working to maximize incoming revenue from ancillary avenues. (I have an inquiry into the MTA concerning Uniqlo’s rent but have not yet received a figure.)

“Pop-up stores will provide a fresh and beneficial element to our stations while also improving the image and desirability of retail space in the subway,” MTA Chairman and CEO Thomas F. Prendergast said. “This is another example of the MTA working to make better use of its real estate portfolio and improving the subway environment for customers at the same time.”

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