Archive for View from Underground

The day job has been very busy, and I haven’t a chance at night to delve into a longer post. So instead, enjoy this amusing video of New Yorkers just missing the G train. It is equally applicable to every subway line though and not just the poor, abused G train (which, I’ll always contend, isn’t nearly as bad operationally as its reputation). If you were to follow me on Twitter, you could have seen this video last night. More soon, hopefully.

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While I was up in Montreal two weeks ago, this short article from The Times slipped past my radar. The details in it seem a bit unprecise, as New York City’s population has been on an upward trajectory for longer than the piece notes, but the overall point remains: New York City’s population is at 8.4 million, an all-time high, and is showing no signs of slowing or declining.

Here’s the story. I’ll get to why it’s important after.

Despite the challenges of city living, the city’s population is growing in ways not seen in decades. For the third consecutive year, New York City last year gained more people than it lost through migration, reversing a trend that stretched to the mid-20th century.

For the year ending July 1, 2013, an influx of foreigners combined with a continuing decline in the loss of migrants to other states increased the population by more than 61,000, nudging it past 8.4 million for the first time, according to estimates to be released on Thursday by the United States Census Bureau.

Every borough registered a gain in population. Even the Bronx, a traditional laggard, recorded a rate nearly as high as top-ranked Brooklyn and Manhattan. While Manhattan and the Bronx lost more people to migration than they gained, the difference was made up by more births than deaths…Joseph J. Salvo, director of the population division for the Department of City Planning, estimated that the number of New Yorkers had grown by 2.8 percent since 2010.

So here’s my loaded question with a very obvious answer: If the number of New Yorkers has grown by 2.8 percent over the past four years, has our transit network kept pace? Of course not. In 2010, as you may recall, the MTA slashed subway and bus service across the board, and while some of it has come back, much hasn’t. Service levels remain barely adequate to meet current demand, and rush hour trains are generally unpleasantly crowded with no leeway for error.

Going forward, there aren’t clear indications the MTA will be able to meet population demands through the current system. Yes, Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway will open in 32 months or so, and yes, the 7 line extension will, eventually this year, debut. But after that, the abyss of no transit expansion projects awaits. Phase 2 of SAS is but an idea on paper with no money behind it, and forget about much-needed Outer Borough expansions beyond Flushing, to Little Neck or even down Nostrand or Utica Ave. where much of the population growth is occurring.

What happens, then, as the city’s population grows but the subway system can’t keep pace? Already, the transit community is concerned about what the Domino Sugar Factory development in Brooklyn will mean for an L train that can’t handle current demand. The 7 train stations in Long Island City can’t handle more inbound traffic, but buildings continue to climb. Meanwhile, the South Bronx seems primed for a renaissance that will further tax the Lexington Ave. IRT just as the Second Ave. Subway opens. Ridership meanwhile reached a 65-year high as these new New Yorkers are generally using the subway system on a daily basis.

There’s no real easy answer here. The bus network will have to become more frequent and more reliable. The city will be forced to explore congestion pricing both as a means of controlling traffic and funding transit. And the pace of expansion may need to pick up. Eventually, without some forward thinking and plans for the future, New York’s growth will be constrained by the capacity of its transit system and its road network. We may be reaching that point sooner than anyone would like.

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At Grand Army Plaza, a subway stop I use on a daily basis, the fare control areas are designed to encourage riders to use the emergency exits. At the western end, four turnstiles sit atop a staircase with the emergency exit closer to both the stairs leading from the platform and those leading out of the station. At the eastern end, the stairs lead to two exit-only iron maidens on the south side and an emergency exit door on the north side. As you can imagine, I’ve seen those emergency exits used for nearly every type of egress, and I can’t say I’ve ever seen them used in an emergency.

On the one hand, this isn’t that much of a problem. So long as fare scofflaws aren’t ducking into the emergency gates, riders are using the path of least resistance to clear out of the subway system, and the straphangers using the emergency doors aren’t providing a humanity-laden counterflow against those trying to enter the system to catch a train.

This isn’t limited to Grand Army Plaza. I see it at Times Square near the Shuttle where the emergency exit is often the only way to avoid people entering; I see it at Union St. where the three turnstiles can’t handle the mass of exiting commuters at rush hour. I see it at Yankee Stadium where cops are on guard for fare jumpers, and I saw it, before Transit reconfigured fare control, at West 4th St., where it just made sense to use the emergency exits.

But there’s a catch, and that catch is the incessant, loud, obnoxious blare of the emergency exits. Much like the boy who cried wolf, the alarm sounds, and no one blinks. It’s just another noise in a city full of them, one relegated to background status, except its a background noise that pierces everything around it and may just be unsafe for human ears.

Over at The Times, videographer Ken Webb takes on the emergency exit issue, and he put together the film I’ve embedded atop this post. This is an issue no one wants to solve; it involves elements of ADA compliance and other regulations concerning safety. Self-important New Yorkers ignore the “emergency” part of the exit doors, and Transit is content to let the alarms blare throughout subway stations. And yet, there must be some way to fix it if only we thought about it for a few minutes. After all, nobody loves the sound of the emergency exit in the morning. Or at night. Or ever.

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It’s no secret around these parts that I’m not much of a fan of the “Showtime!” crews that roam our subways. I find their antics tiresome, and over the past few years, they’ve grown more aggressive with moving weary straphangers out of the way, blasting loud music and coming precariously close to kicking New Yorkers in the face. What was once a gimmick has become a nuisance.

I know I’m not alone either. In a recent poll here, nearly three-quarters of my readers expressed similar sentiments. I’ve found that people who really love Showtime are enthusiastic supporters while those of us who don’t like it hate it with a passion. Now, we can count NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton amongst our ranks.

In an interview with Capital New York’s Dana Rubinstein, Bratton discussed some quality-of-life issues when he mentioned his time riding the subway. (For some reason, the police commissioner’s subway rides are headline-making news, but that’s a concerning development for another day.) Lately, cops have been targeted panhandlers and illegal subway peddlers as part of a ticking blitz, and it seems that Showtime is next.

Bratton has always been a believer of the broken windows theory of law enforcement, and we could debate for hours whether ticketing panhandlers, who have no money to pay fines, and sleeping straphangers, who aren’t hurting anyone, is a worthwhile use of NYPD resources. The Showtime crews are a more active menace. “The issues of concern are those quality-of-life issues, the acrobats, the aggressive begging, the people manipulating the swipe cards in the turnstiles,” Bratton said. “We’re going to be having significant focus on those issues. You’ll see more police and you’ll see them more aggressively going after those so-called quality of life issues, which create fear, frustration and sometimes anger.”

So there you have it: The NYPD chief doesn’t like “the acrobats.” The War on Showtime is going to enter an entirely new battleground soon.

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Whenever I read another report about the state of New York City’s infrastructure, I think both of the boy who cried wolf and of Nero fiddling while Rome burns. As the trains continue to run everyday, the average New Yorker who pays no attention to these sorts of things must think we’re all crying wolf while the politicians who are aware of the problem but do nothing seem to be the ones fiddling while New York City slowly crumbles around them. The ultimate outcomes — spend lots of money or watch the city lose its global status — aren’t alluring, but something has to give.

The latest warning comes to us from the Center for Urban Future and focuses on the $50 billion in outstanding investments needed to bring our infrastructure up to par. It includes sentences such as this: “LaGuardia’s main terminal is 50 years old and in terrible condition, while two of JFK’s six terminals have stood for over four decades.” In essence, the CUF report doesn’t sugar-coat anything, and the city’s key pieces are, by and large, in terrible shape.

While the state controls most of the transit spending, the report (available here as a PDF) spends some time focusing on the subway. The picture it paints of key systems we don’t usually see or appreciate on a daily basis is grim. According to the report, 37 percent of the system’s signals have exceeded their 50-year useful lifespan, and yet, they keep on ticking.

The MTA’s signaling system is old and obsolete. Of the 728 miles of mainline signals, 269 have exceeded their 50-year useful life. Twenty- six percent are more than 70 years old and 11 percent are between 50 and 69 years old. The equipment is no longer manufactured, forcing the Transit Authority to build and replace parts at its own signal shop…Expediting signal modernization would require a tremendous infusion of money or a significant redistribution of capital dollars among MTA subsidiaries. Even with unlimited funds, replacing signals would be exceedingly difficult and disruptive…

In addition to funding and track access is- sues, the MTA is hobbled by a dearth of qualified contractors. At the moment, only three to four contractors are available to perform signal installation and modernization work. This limits com- petition, increases expenses and caps the amount of signal work that can be performed at any one time. To address this constraint, the MTA recently began a mentoring program for training contractors.

The problem isn’t limited to signal systems. The report takes on station conditions as well.

New York’s subway stations are chaotic and beleaguered. Trash is sometimes strewn across the platform and between the tracks. Leaking ceilings and water-damaged walls are pervasive. Paint peels from the ceiling. Columns rust. Bottlenecks form at narrow stairwells, choking the circulation of foot traffic. “New York’s subway stations are terrible,” says Paaswell of the University Transportation Research Center. “They’re dirty. They’re dingy. They need painting. They need new architecture. They need better lighting.”

While MTA officials recognize these deficien-cies, in recent years they have scaled down their approach to rehabilitation. “In stations, the MTA has basically conceded that you will never get to a state of good repair,” says Jeremy Soffin, the for- mer MTA spokesperson. “It’s simply not possible. There are so many tens of billions of dollars of repair needs.” Since 2010, the MTA has opted to replace individual components in stations rather than perform comprehensive renovations. According to officials, the old strategy proved too slow and too costly.

And what about maintenance shops?

Like the system they service, subway shops and yards are old. The 13 facilities opened nearly 90 years ago on average. Two buildings at the Concourse Yard were recently placed on the Na- tional Register of Historic Places. The East New York facility, originally built in 1880 as a horse and carriage depot, still relies completely on hand- thrown switches. The narrow aisles at the Livonia and 240th Street facilities are ill configured for modern maintenance and repair practices.

In a recent survey of each of its capital asset categories, the MTA found its yards and shops were in the worst state of repair. Fifty-four per- cent of the components at these facilities exceed their useful life. Thirty-eight percent of lighting is in poor condition and does not meet current standards. The MTA has not increased investment to address the decay at its critical maintenance facilities. Instead, capital outlays have fallen from $455 million in the 2000-2004 capital budget to $263 million43 in the current five-year budget. If greater attention is not paid to rehabbing these facilities, subway car maintenance will suffer and train delays will become more common.

Beyond the subway system, you can read about the sorry state of the city’s airports, the rough condition of the roads, and the structural deficiencies that will impact bridges, utilities and schools in the coming years. With at least $50 billion investment pending, this report hardly paints the picture of a city on the rise.

What’s the answer? How do we find a solution? We’ll need leadership and money. Infrastructure upgrades can spur on job creation and economic growth, but neither Andrew Cuomo nor Bill de Blasio has embraced spending on capital projects. The MTA, on the other hand, has proposed a five-year capital plan worth over $20 billion that would address exactly the issues named in this report — at least on the signaling front. They can’t do much beyond that without an infusion of dollars.

Still, this need for investment will require leadership to make uncomfortable and unpopular decisions. It’s not likely to happen soon, but I wonder how long New York can thrive without it. The situation sounds needlessly dire, but that’s because soon it will be. Invest. Fund. Grow.

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New York is a city of noise. Amidst the hustle and bustle of pedestrian life, the largely unnecessary honking of horns and the blaring of car alarms, and the sirens that go by at all hours of the day, we tend to block out the aural distractions. Thus, a simple beep, while annoying at the wrong time, is very easy to ignore.

For subway turnstiles, that’s a problem. For every MetroCard swipe, failed or otherwise, an MTA turnstile emits a beep. No matter the outcome, the beep is the same, and even the slight double-beep of a failed swipe or a triple-beep of an empty card aren’t distinct enough to catch the attention of someone who’s already trying to zoom through. In other words, a stiff turnstile arm to the gut is far more likely to draw someone’s attention that a double beep.

As problems go, it’s not a particularly pressing one, but with the MTA eying a complete overhaul of the fare payment system within the next few years, the agency is particularly primed to do something about it. Enter James Murphy. The former frontman for LCD Soundsystem has been pushing his plan to make the subways more tolerable for a few years, and he recently garnered a front-page article in the Wall Street Journal. Murphy’s solution doesn’t solve the problem of differentiating between swipe outcomes, but it would make the subways, he says, sound more pleasant.

For the past 15 years, Mr. Murphy has been crafting what he says is a low-cost musical solution: He has worked out a unique set of notes for every station, one of which would sound each time a passenger swipes his or her MetroCard to catch a train. The busier a station becomes, the richer the harmonies would be. The same notes would also play in a set sequence when the subway arrives at that stop. Each of the city’s 468 subway stations would have note sets in different keys.

As Murphy notes that other subway systems have far more soothing sounds, he isn’t the only one proposing a solution. Still the MTA doesn’t seem too open to the idea:

[Spokesman Adam] Lisberg said Mr. Murphy’s plan “is a very cool idea,” one that several people have independently proposed over the years. But it might be hard to put into practice, he said: It’s likely to require a lot of time and money, and probably means temporarily taking each of the city’s 3,289 turnstiles out of service, something the authority is not inclined to do “for an art project.”

“If you screw something up,” Mr. Lisberg continued, you risk breaking the turnstile. Given the 5.5 million passengers who use the system on an average weekday, he said the transit authority was “not inclined to mess with anything that could get in their way.”

In other words, please swipe again.

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The MTA frowns upon these signs EPP NYC has begun to place throughout the subway system. (Photo via @EPPNYC on Twitter)

For veteran riders of the subway system, there is no better feeling of transit satisfaction than getting to the right spot to wait for a train based on where you want to go. I know, for instance, which set of doors on the Coney Island-bound Q train I need to be among the first people up the stairs at 7th Ave., and I know where to stand to optimize the transfer between the BMT and IRT at Union Square.

Over the years, various tools have allowed New Yorkers more access to this information. The MTA’s neighborhood maps, accessible if you know where to look, help and so too does the Exit Strategy App. Now, though, a new effort by a group calling itself the Efficient Passenger Project is raising some eyebrows both in support and opposition to the effort.

The idea is simple: Signs on subway platforms will guide riders to the best place to stand if they’re trying to transfer. Not surprisingly, the photo making the rounds shows a sign at the L train’s Bedford Ave. station highlight the switch to the 4/5/6 at Union Square. As the photo atop this post indicates, there are many more to come.

WNYC’s Kate Hinds profiled the EPP today, and while the Straphangers voiced their support, the MTA did not. Hinds reports:

“It’s a public, civic service,” an EPP founder told WNYC. The founder asked to remain anonymous because the signs are not sanctioned by the MTA. The subways can be “a labyrinth of tunnels and transfers and stairways. The project is an attempt to kind of rationalize some of that environment, and just make a more enjoyable, faster commute.”

Gene Russianoff, staff attorney of the Straphangers Campaign, was firmly in the ‘pro’ column. “I am all for sharing subway smarts,” he said, adding presciently: “The EPP activists better have many replacement copies of the poster.”

MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz confirmed that the transit agency was, indeed, planning on removing them. “These signs have the potential to cause crowding conditions in certain platform areas and will create uneven loading in that some train cars will be overcrowded while others will be under-utilized.” Besides, he said, “regular customers already know which car they want to get into.”

Those reactions basically run the gamut from friendly to, well, expected. I appreciated the WNYC colleague who objected to the signs because “posting [the information] so flagrantly etches away at the quiet pleasure” of knowing just where to stand. Make of it all what you will.

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This decals won't pop up in stations without garbage cans.

In the never-ending war pitting the MTA vs. rats and also endless amounts of garbage, the transit agency has spent the last few years engaged in a battle of reverse psychology. Since late 2011, the MTA has couterintuitively removed trash cans to combat trash, and now this program will expand to 29 stations. It’s somewhat controversial and often derided, but according to Transit, it’s getting results as the amount of garbage in the trash can-free stations has rapidly declined.

For years, the MTA has suffered from a trash problem. Some of it stems from the sheer volume of people who use the system; some of it stems from the fact that, for various reasons, the MTA hasn’t made a move to ban eating underground. No matter the cause though trash has mounted up in stations, and due to the logistics of a vast 24-hour system, it cannot be picked up timely or regularly. With trash that sits for days, rats abound, and station environments become generally unfriendly and dirty.

The pilot then is designed to appeal to common courtesy. Most people won’t discard their garbage if there’s no trash can and will instead carry it out of the system. A small percentage of riders will chuck their trash where they can — under seats, on platforms, in the tracks, in a small space between a pipe and a wall — but those folks are apt to do that even with trash cans present. Eliminating trash cans then will eliminate trash.

As you may have guessed from the news that the MTA is cutting out garbage cans at 29 more stations, the pilot is apparently working. “We’ve seen a change in customer behavior. Riders knew that there weren’t trash cans at those stations, so they took their trash somewhere else,” Joe Leader, Transit’s vice president of subways, said during a board committee meeting yesterday.

The MTA’s own numbers seem to bear witness to this reality. Since removing trash cans at ten stations over the past few years, the agency has seen trash collection reduced by 66 percent at those stations with a small increase — 3.2 percent — in bags collected litter thrown on the tracks. Track fires not increased, and the MTA say these stations are as clean as they were with garbage cans. Meanwhile, the reduced trash at these stations has allowed the MTA to allocate resource to collecting trash and cleaning other areas of the subway system.

Additionally, the trends over time have shown significant improvement as well. As more time has elapsed, litter has become less common at these stations. Garbage overnight has nearly disappeared, and the daytime levels of heavy litter are 11 percentage points better than average. By and large, straphangers are taking out what they’re bringing in. It’s the national parks philosophy hard at work.

To continue this program, the MTA will add an additional 29 stations along the J/Z and M lines to the program. To combat the potential for track fires, the agency plans to increase track cleaning frequencies, but garbage cans will essentially disappear from most of the BMT Nassau St., BMT Jamaica and BMT Myrtle Avenue Lines in an effort to further reduce collection costs. The MTA won’t spread this program to all 468 stations; it’s trying to better seal up existing garbage facilities to fight the rodent problem. But for now, trash cans will become more scarce underground, seemingly to better behavior by most.

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I’ve been sitting on a bunch of open tabs for a little while and thought it would be a good idea to get around to sharing these. These are stories I found interesting or newsworthy but just haven’t had an opportunity to post here.

$500 million from unused MetroCards

I’ve talked a bit about the MTA’s new green fee and the money realized from unused MetroCards, and a recent piece in The Times put those dollars into context. Throughout the first decade of the 21st century, the MTA collected half a billion dollars from unused fares. Since straphangers have to pre-pay for MetroCards, dollars that are left on the cards long after their expiration dates remain with the MTA, and on an annual basis, the money is a small, but important, part of the agency’s annual budget.

Unused fares isn’t something that’s come about because of the MetroCard era. Back in the day, New Yorkers would buy tokens and never use them. They would get lost, get forgotten, get overlooked, and the MTA could collect those fares. But today with uneven bonuses that make the math of a free fare more difficult, more dollars are left on cards that expire, and the $1 fee for new MetroCards means revenue as well.

As the MTA phases out the MetroCard — the topic of my March 19 Problem Solvers session — these unused fares may diminish a bit. The next system may well be a pay-as-you-go set-up that doesn’t focus around any proprietary fare collection system. While the MTA will lose the money from unused fares, it will also drastically reduce the amount it has to spend to collect fares. That’s a win for the customers, and a win for the transit agency as well.

Send the 3 to the Bronx

As New York City subways go, the 3 train runs an odd route. It stretches deep into Brooklyn but then stops short of anything in Manhattan. It terminates at 148th St. near the Lenox Yard and goes no further north. In a piece at Welcome2TheBronx, Richard Garey argues for extending the train to the Bronx. With the need for some cross-Bronx subway service and the incoming soccer facility near Yankee Stadium, the time may be right to look at some subway extension options.

Garey’s post focuses on the 3 train as a way to serve neighborhoods that once enjoyed streetcar service and now don’t, but I think he has the routing wrong. The 3 shouldn’t end up as another north-south route in the Bronx but could instead cut across the borough, serving areas that don’t have good cross-Bronx transit options while boosting subway service. It is, after all, a fast ride downtown on the IRT express. Without a massive infusion of cash, we’re just dreaming, but it’s an intriguing proposition after all.

Unhappiness at 149th Street

For years, I’ve been using the 149th Street-Grand Concourse subway stop as a transfer point on the way to Yankee Stadium, and for years, it has been one disgusting station. The walls were marred by leaking pipes, and on the way home from a World Series game in 2001, my sister and I saw squirrel-sized rats on the uptown 2/5 platform. It was very, very unpleasant.

Recently, the station underwent a renovation, but a few area residents are unhappy. One transit buff took a video tour of the station post-renovation and discovered some subpar work. Meanwhile, another group of residents wants to restore elevator service that was shuttered 40 years ago. As best as I can tell, the elevator in question went from the 2/5 platform to street level. The MTA has no money, and protestors hope Mayor de Blasio can help out. I wouldn’t hold me breath.

Countdown clocks for the SIR

Thanks to an infusion of funds from Council member Vincent Ignizio, four stations along the Staten Island Railway — Great Kills, Eltingville, Annadale and Huguenot — now have countdown clocks. The work is part of a $675,000 initiative funded by Ignizio’s office that will eventually include a Subway Time component that will add these SIR stations to the MTA’s tracking app. For now, the information is available on the St. George-bound side, but Tottenville-bound service will have its time in the sun as well. If you pay for it, it will come.

In running through the subway pet peeves last week, I didn’t talk about one aspect of the experience that drives me absolutely nuts. Ever since the MTA started investing in new rolling stock and better public address systems for its stations, the onslaught of public announcements has become infuriatingly annoying.

For me, personally, the problem reached a crescendo on Tuesday night while traveling home from work. Despite the snow drifts piling up throughout the city and warnings to stay home, I caught a Q train from Times Square in relatively quick order, and when we zoomed past the N train idling at Prince St., I knew we would cross the Manhattan Bridge first. All was well until we went back underground prior to De Kalb Ave.

My guess is that a B train had crossed the bridge just before us, and the Q had to wait. What I know happened is that four times — four times! — in a four-minute period in which the Q train idled in between the eastern end of the Manhattan Bridge and De Kalb Ave., every single passenger was told that we were being held for train traffic ahead of us, that we would be moving shortly, and that the MTA was thankful for our patience. Over and over and over again, we heard this message. We couldn’t stop anywhere else, and the situation in front of us hadn’t changed. For some reason though the conductor insisted on pressing play four times.

Generally, I’m a fan of the train traffic message. It’s an acknowledgment from the MTA that something isn’t right. The same holds true of the message concerning a delay to the train’s dispatcher. We want to be moving, but we can’t because someone is holding us up or something is in front of us. It’s not a long-term problem, like a sick passenger or a signal malfunction, and we should be moving shortly. There’s just no reason, though, to play it every 60 seconds when nothing else is happening.

This is hardly the worst announcement. For over a decade, we’ve been blasted with “an important message from the NYPD” about keeping our belongings safe at all times, checking ourselves, and seeing and saying something. I’ve become immune to that one Yet, it just keeps going. And going. And going. And going. And going. And go…

In one sense, these announcements serve a purpose. Any regular rider who doesn’t wear headphones can recite them all by rote, and that means they’re working. We’ve been trained to be whatever is on the right side of paranoid while traveling underground, and we know to be alert. But we’ve also been lectured about it nearly every day of every week of every month of every year since the early 2000s. At this point, it’s just another piece of noise to add to the clanks and squeals of our everyday subway commute.

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