Archive for View from Underground

Early 2016 transit developments have included the retirement of Dr. Zizmor.

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.

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The year of Andrew Cuomo started with a subway shutdown, included the Laguardia Airport, pictured here, and ended with some sort of agreement on the capital plan. (Photo via Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office)

What good is the end of the year without some sort of top ten list? It’s such deliciously snackable content that even the Straphangers are getting in on the action. The rider advocacy group named its top 10 best and worst stories of 2015. The lists included pizza rat, a fare hike, the opening of a new subway stop and whatever tenuously tentative and still-unapproved plan has been reached to fund the MTA’s gigantic capital plan. Whether those are good are bad, well, I’ll leave that up to you.

The Straphangers’ list didn’t include my top transit story of 2015 — which was Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s unprecedented decision to bar passengers from accessing the subway due to the threat of a snow storm. The trains kept running all night, devoid of passengers, and New Yorkers who had to be at their jobs — whether through economic necessity or their roles as emergency services providers — were forced to drive in potentially treacherous conditions. The storm hit to the east, and the move was first- and second-guessed to death. Hopefully we won’t see a repeat this year when and if winter’s snow arrives.

Anyway, as I’ve done in the past, let’s recap the most popular posts I’ve published this year. There is of course a bias toward the earlier half of the year, but these are a good indication of what we were talking about throughout 2015. Somehow, despite his less-than-enthusiastic embrace of transit, Gov. Cuomo sure dominates this list.

10. On Cuomo’s $4 billion overhaul for ‘un-New York’ LaGuardia and his lackluster support for transit
The Governor unveiled a $4 billion plan to cure Laguardia Airport’s ills. The plan, it seemed, stemmed from his personal experiences flying out of the decrepit airport, and it offered up a stark contrast to his unwillingness to commit state resources to the subway system. I looked at how Cuomo’s embrace of the airport plan squared with his arm’s-length treatment of other transit issues.

9. On the flawed LaGuardia AirTrain proposal and Astoria’s N train
As part of his Laguardia overhaul, Cuomo included some support — though not full funding — for a half-baked plan to build an airtrain to Laguardia. We’ll return to this plan later in this list, but in August, I looked at just how bad Cuomo’s plan really is. Ultimately, a Laguardia Airtrain via Willets Point is most likely worse than the no-build option.

8. At Cortlandt St., awaiting the final part of the post-9/11 work
It’s hard to believe the 1 train’s Cortlandt St. station has been closed since September 11, 2001, and thanks to various Lower Manhattan projects, including the endlessly delayed (but soon to open) PATH Hub, the station is still a year or two away from seeing passengers. In early 2015, the MTA assumed control of the work needed to rebuild the station, and the agency recently reiterated its belief that it will return to service in mid-2017, nearly 16 years after the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers.

7. The 7 line extension: Adding a Midtown mess to the Map
The new 7 line station at 34th St. and 11th Ave. is shiny and clean. The addition of it to the subway map was a bit of a mess. These are the important stories.

6. Out of nowhere, Cuomo announces an AirTrain to Laguardia
In late January, Gov. Cuomo caught everyone by surprised when he announced plans to build an airtrain to Laguardia via Willets Point. We don’t know when this will happen, how much it will cost or why this poor routing was chosen over better options to send, say, the N train to the airport. This plan certainly made headlines, but whether it will go anywhere remains to be seen.

5. Q Train Quandaries: Astoria and the Second Ave. Subway
We’ll know for sure in a few months, but the W train is likely to return to serve Astoria when the Q gets rerouted up Second Ave. This has been a popular topic of conversation (and countless emails to me) over the years. One way or another, Astoria won’t see a reduction in service come the opening of Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway.

4. Previewing the L train’s looming Sandy work
Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, but its effect on the subways has lingered for years. At some point soon, the MTA will have to confront the ugly truth of repairing the Canarsie Tubes, and L train riders won’t like it.

3. New 7 line stop at 34th Street definitely officially opening on Sept. 13
Nearly 21 months late and 26 years in the making, the MTA finally celebrated the opening of a new subway stop. Ridership hasn’t met projections yet, but development work is continuing at a steady clip around the Hudson Yards area.

2. Snowmageddon 2K2015: Cuomo threatens subway shutdown ahead of storm
Spoiler Alert: He delivered on this threat.

1. After Cuomo’s surprise, overnight subway service continues without passengers
The need for a subway system arose out of the 1888 blizzard, and in 2015, my most popular post concerned Gov. Cuomo’s misguided shutdown of the subway system. The trains kept running, sans passengers, in what was the oddest development in the most confounding story of the year. (I ran a postmortem at the end of January.)

Honorable Mention: The MTA Board approved a new capital program but with less money for the 2nd Ave. Subway, and it caused politicians to finally focus on the 2nd Ave. Subway’s problematic timeline. We also don’t know how the capital plan will be funded (other than through additional debt.) This story remains an ongoing and important one, but it didn’t crack the top ten….We might get that Gateway Tunnel after all.

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As ridership peaks, a typical morning ride on the Q train involves lots of hair and armpits and very little space. (Photo: Benjamin Kabak)

Could subway service be improved if the MTA adopted better operations practices? (Photo: Benjamin Kabak)

Today’s post comes to us from long-time SAS reader and commenter Alon Levy. Alon originally published this on his own site this past weekend and has graciously allowed me to run it in its entirety here. With subway service trending toward unreliability and uneven headways becoming more pronounced, Levy has tackled the interrelated issues of the MTA’s load guidelines, service frequency, interlining and general frustration with NYC’s increasingly crowded subway system. You can read more of Levy’s work on his site Pedestrian Observations and follow him on Twitter.

In New York, the MTA has consistent guidelines for how frequently to run each subway route, based on crowding levels. The standards are based on crowding levels at the point of maximum crowding on each numbered or lettered route. Each line is designed to have the same maximum crowding, with different systemwide levels for peak and off-peak crowding. While this approach is fair, and on the surface reasonable, it is a poor fit for New York’s highly branched system, and in my view contributes to some of the common failings of the subway.

Today, the off-peak guidelines call for matching frequency to demand, so that at the most crowded, the average train on each route has 25% more passengers than seats. Before the 2010 service cuts, the guidelines had the average train occupied to exact seating capacity. At the peak, the peak crowding guidelines are denser: 110 passengers on cars on the numbered lines, 145 on shorter (60’/18 m) cars on the lettered lines, 175 on longer (75’/23 m) cars on the lettered lines. There’s a minimum frequency of a train every 10 minutes during the day, and a maximum frequency at the peak depending on track capacity. When the MTA says certain lines, such as the 4/5/6, are operating above capacity, what it means is that at maximum track capacity, trains are still more crowded than the guideline.

In reality, guideline loads are frequently exceeded. Before the 2010 service cuts, many off-peak trains still had standees, often many standees. Today, some off-peak trains are considerably fuller than 25% above seated capacity. In this post, I’d like to give an explanation, and tie this into a common hazard of riding the subway in New York: trains sitting in the tunnels, as the conductor plays the announcement, “we are delayed because of train traffic ahead of us.”

The key takeaway from the system is that frequency at each time of day is calculated separately for each numbered or lettered route. Even when routes spend extensive distance interlined, as the 2/3 and 4/5 do, their frequencies are calculated separately. As of December 2014, we have the following headways, in minutes:

Line AM peak Noon off-peak PM peak
1 3 6 4
2 6:30 7:30 6:45
3 6 8:30 6:45
4 4:30 7:30 4:24
5 5 8:30 5:45
6 2:30 4 3:18
7 2:30 5 2:30
A 4:45 10 4:45
B 8:45 10 9:15
C 9:15 10 10
D 6:15 10 6:45
E 4 7:30 4
F 4:45 7:30 5
G 6:30 10 10
J/Z 5 10 5
L 4:30 6 4
M 8:45 10 9:25
N 7:15 10 7:30
Q 7:15 10 7:45
R 7:30 10 7:30

Consider now the shared segments between the various lines. The 4 comes every 4.5 minutes in the morning peak, and the 5 every 5 minutes. There is no way to maintain even spacing on both lines with these headways: they share tracks for an extensive portion of their trip. Instead, the dispatchers move trains around to make sure that headways are as even as possible on both the shared trunk segments and the branches, but something has to give. In 45 minutes, there are ten 4s and nine 5s. Usually, on trunk lines with two branches, trains alternate, but here, it’s not possible to have a perfect alternation in which each 4 is followed by a 5 and each 5 is followed by a 4. There is bound to be a succession of two 4s: the second 4 is going to be less crowded than the guideline, and the following 5 is going to be more crowded.

It gets worse when we consider the extensive reverse-branching, especially on the lettered lines. For example, on its northbound journey, the Q initially does not share tracks with any line; then it shares tracks with the B, into Downtown Brooklyn; then it crosses into Manhattan sharing tracks with the N; then it again shares tracks with no other route, running express in Manhattan while the N runs local; then it shares tracks with the N and R into Queens; and then finally it shares tracks with the N in Queens. It is difficult to impossible to plan a schedule that ensures smooth operations like this, even off-peak, especially when the frequency is so variable.

Concretely, consider what happens when the Q enters Manhattan behind an N. Adequate separation between trains is usually 2 minutes – occasionally less, but the schedule is not robust to even slight changes then. To be able to go to Queens ahead of the N, the Q has to gain 4 minutes running express in Manhattan while the N runs local. Unfortunately, the Q’s express jaunt only skips 4 stations in Manhattan, and usually the off-peak stop penalty is only about 45 seconds, so the Q only gains 3 minutes on the N. Thus, the N has to be delayed at Herald Square for a minute, possibly delaying an R behind it, or the Q has to be delayed 3 minutes to stay behind the N.

In practice, it’s possible to schedule around this problem when schedules are robust. Off-peak, the N, Q, and R all come every 10 minutes, which makes it possible to schedule the northbound Q to always enter Manhattan ahead of the N rather than right behind it. Off-peak, the services they share tracks with – the B, D, and M – all come every 10 minutes as well. The extensive reverse branching still makes the schedule less robust than it can be, but it is at least possible to schedule non-conflicting moves. (That said, the M shares tracks with the much more frequent F.) At the peak, things are much harder: while the N, Q, and R have very similar headways, the D is considerably more frequent, and the B and M considerably less frequent.

I believe that this system is one of the factors contributing to uneven frequency in New York, with all of the problems it entails: crowding levels in excess of guidelines, trains held in the tunnel, unpredictable wait times at stations. Although the principle underlying the crowding guidelines is sound, and I would recommend it in cities without much subway branching, in New York it fails to maintain predictable crowding levels, and introduces unnecessary problems elsewhere.

Instead of planning schedules around consistent maximum crowding, the MTA should consider planning schedules around predictable alternation of services on shared trunk lines. This means that, as far as practical, all lettered lines except the J/Z and the L should have the same frequency, and in addition the 2/3/4/5 should also have the same frequency. The 7 and L, which do not share their track or route with anything else, would maintain the present system. The J/Z, which have limited track sharing with other lines (only the M), could do so as well. The 1 and 6 do not share tracks with other lines, but run local alongside the express 2/3 and 4/5. Potentially, they could run at exactly twice the frequency of the 2/3/4/5, with scheduled timed local/express transfers; however, while this may work for the 6, it would give the 1 too much service, as there is much more demand for express than local service on the line.

To deal with demand mismatches, for example between the E/F and the other lettered lines, there are several approaches, each with its own positives and negatives:

– When the mismatch in demand is not large, the frequencies could be made the same, without too much trouble. The N/Q/R could all run the same frequency. More controversially, so could the 2/3/4/5: there would be more peak crowding on the East Side than on the West Side, but, to be honest, at the peak the 4 and 5 are beyond capacity anyway, so they already are more crowded.

– Some services could run at exactly twice the frequency of other services. This leads to uneven headways on the trunks, but maintains even headways on branches. For example, the A’s peak frequency is very close to exactly twice that of the C, so as they share tracks through Lower Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn, they could alternate A-C-A-empty slot.

– Services that share tracks extensively could have drastic changes in frequency to each route, preserving trunk frequency. This should be investigated for the E/F on Queens Boulevard: current off-peak frequency is 8 trains per hour each, so cutting the E to 6 and beefing the F to 12 is a possibility.

– Service patterns could be changed, starting from the assumption that every lettered service runs every 10 minutes off-peak and (say) 6-7 minutes at the peak. If some corridors are underserved with just two services with such frequency, then those corridors could be beefed with a third route: for example, the Queens Boulevard express tracks could be supplanted with a service that runs the F route in Jamaica but then enters Manhattan via 53rd Street, like the E, and then continues either via 8th Avenue like the E or 6th Avenue like the M. Already, some peak E trains originate at Jamaica-179th like the F, rather than the usual terminus of Jamaica Center, which is limited to a capacity of 12 trains per hour.

– The service patterns could be drastically redrawn to remove reverse branching. I worked this out with Threestationsquare in comments on this post, leading to a more elegant local/express pattern but eliminating or complicating several important transfers. In particular, the Broadway Line’s N/Q/R trains could be made independent of the Sixth Avenue trains in both Queens and Brooklyn, allowing their frequencies to be tailored to demand without holding trains in tunnels to make frequencies even.

For the lettered lines, I have some affinity for the fourth solution, which at least in principle is based on a service plan from start to finish, rather than on first drawing a map and then figuring out frequency. But it has two glaring drawbacks: it involves more branching than is practiced today, since busy lines would get three services rather than two, making the schedule less robust to delays; and it is so intertwined with crowding levels that every major service change is likely to lead to complete overhaul of the subway map, as entire routes are added and removed based on demand. The second drawback has a silver lining; the first one does not.

I emphasize that this is more a problem of reverse branching than of conventional branching. The peak crowding on all lines in New York, with the exception of the non-branched 7 and 1, occurs in the Manhattan core. Thus, if routes with different colors never shared tracks, it would not be hard to designate a frequency for each trunk route at each time of day, without leading to large mismatches between service and demand. In contrast, reverse branching imposes schedule dependencies between many routes, to the point that all lettered routes except the L have to have the same frequency, up to integer multiples, to avoid conflicts between trains.

The highly branched service pattern in New York leads to a situation in which there is no perfect solution to train scheduling. But the MTA’s current approach is the wrong one, certainly on the details but probably also in its core. It comes from a good place, but it does not work for the system New York has, and the planners should at least consider alternatives, and discuss them publicly. If the right way turns out to add or remove routes in a way that makes it easier to schedule trains, then this should involve extensive public discussion of proposed service maps and plans, with costs and benefits to each community openly acknowledged. It is not good transit to maintain the current scheduling system just because it’s how things have always worked.

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As ridership peaks, a typical morning ride on the Q train involves lots of hair and armpits and very little space. (Photo: Benjamin Kabak)

As ridership peaks, a typical morning ride on the Q train involves lots of hair and armpits and very little space. (Photo: Benjamin Kabak)

It’s become an annual ritual for the MTA. Every year as October rolls around, subway ridership spikes, and a few weeks later, the agency announces a new one-day record high. This time around, the lucky date was Thursday, October 29 when Transit recorded 6,217,621 subway entries. It’s a modern record and likely the highest single-day total since the mid-1940s. It’s also an increase of around 50,000 riders over the previous high, set in 2014, and over 300,000 more than the 2013 record. I can’t help but wonder where these riders fit and how we’ll deal with even more over the next few years.

The raw numbers are staggering. When the MTA first started keeping daily ridership totals in the mid-1980s, the first high-water mark checked in at 3,761,759 on a day in December of 1985. As recently as 2003, the highest daily recorded ridership total was still under 5 million, but in the last decade, the subway system has seen unparalleled growth considering the MTA has added just one new station in recent years.

That Thursday in October wasn’t an isolated incident either. The MTA announced that 15 weekdays in October saw ridership top 6 million, and the final day of the month — Halloween with a World Series game — saw 3,730,881 customers. The MTA offered this summary of the crowds:

October 2015’s average weekday subway ridership of 5.974 million was the highest of any month in over 45 years, and was 1.4% higher than October 2014. Approximately 80,000 more customers rode the subway on an average October 2015 weekday than just a year earlier – enough to fill more than 50 fully-loaded subway trains…

Between 2010 and 2014, the subway system has added 440,638 daily customers, roughly the equivalent of the entire population of mid-sized cities like Miami, Fla. or Raleigh, N.C. More customers have led to additional crowding on some lines, creating conditions in which trains are more likely to be delayed, and delayed trains in turn affect more customers than in the past.

Those 50 fully-loaded subway trains the MTA notes, by the way, would each have around 150-200 passengers per car depending upon the rolling stock. The agency isn’t kidding when they claim these trains are fully loaded. You can’t fit too many more people than that on one subway car.

The agency seems to recognize the challenges this high ridership totals bring, which was reflected in a statement by MTA Chairman and CEO Thomas Prendergast. “The relentless growth in subway ridership shows how this century-old network is critical to New York’s future,” he said. “Our challenge is to maintain and improve the subways even as growing ridership puts more demands on the system. We are doing it thanks to the MTA Capital Program, which will allow us to bring meaningful improvements to our customers, such as real time arrival information on the lettered subway lines, cleaner and brighter stations with new technology like Help Points, modern signal systems, and almost 1,000 new subway cars.”

Notice though that none of Prendergast’s “meaningful improvements” involve expanding system capacity or increasing frequency to help with overcrowding. Rather, Prendergast has urged New Yorkers to adjust their working hours — a luxury many people don’t have. Off-peak service too has been more crowded and isn’t nearly as reliable as necessary to achieve significant travel time-shifts, but more on that later.

In its press release, the MTA touts the Second Ave. Subway, CBTC efforts and positioning personnel on platforms to wave people into and out of trains with flashlights, the effectiveness of which I’ve questioned. Service will increase in June, but as Charles Komanoff recently detailed, those service increases won’t keep pace with growing ridership. There is, unfortunately, no good answer, and that leaves those of us who have to take the subway every day, twice a day during peak hours, with no relief in sight.

No matter where you’re riding to or from, subway rides, especially during the morning rush, have become miserably crowded, with passengers forced to let multiple trains pass until even enough room to cram another body into a packed car emerges. Forget about getting a seat unless you board near a terminal. In other words, the subways are crowded, and it shows.

The problem is relief. The MTA did not anticipated annual ridership growing by 70 percent since 1995, and while the agency is happy to have added the equivalent of a small city to its daily ridership since 2010, the daily riders aren’t quite as thrilled. As now, the only core capacity increases are Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway, due to open next year, and Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway, due to open in a decade if we’re lucky. Beyond that, we have no Crossrail (let alone a Crossrail 2) or Grand Paris Express on the horizon. We have a 20-year needs assessment from late 2013 and constant fights over dedicated bus lanes and short-term band aids for long-term problems.

I don’t have the magic bullet or the one great answer. We know now that the MTA should have been aggressive in its ridership projections two decades ago, but who knew grow would be so extreme in the intervening 20 years? It’s time now though to plan for 2035, and as we sit here today, the subways are close to maxing out. It costs too much and takes too long to build anything that can be a short-term fix, and as New York continues to grow, we are facing a transit capacity crisis without an easy answer.

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During the opening of the 7 line extension in February, I overheard one MTA official talking about the new station. Speaking of the vast hallways and open spaces underneath 11th Ave., this official remarked “I’ve spent my entire career closing these mezzanines.” For someone with decades of experience — and organizational philosophy — under his or her belt, this new station design represented a massive break from the past. While the old guard may still be wary of the safety elements of open spaces, New Yorkers aren’t fazed by areas that, by design, aren’t always crowded.

Over the past few years, meanwhile, the MTA has engaged in an effort that intentionally reduces eyeballs underground. As part of the 2010 budget cuts, station agents were reduced to the point where only one station entrance requires staffing. That is, if the northbound Union St. entrance underneath 4th Ave. in Brooklyn has a station agents, the southbound entrance doesn’t need one even if the southbound platform is separated by the northbound platform by four tracks and two walls. Most stations now have (and really always have) plenty of waiting areas that aren’t visible by station agents. Plus by removing the station booths at hundreds of locations throughout the city, the MTA ensured it wouldn’t face calls to bring back these agents were the agency’s finances to improve.

With this in mind, we return to shuttered station entrances. As the MTA struggles to cope with expanding ridership, station chokepoints and unhappy crowds, we continually return to access points no longer open. They dot the city, a remnant of an era of declining ridership and increasing crime when the MTA engaged in a short-sighted attempt to seal off areas of the subway system that agency officials deemed high risk. Not only would these entrances improve passenger flow at stations with increasing ridership but they would create more pedestrian paths to stations, a boon to both residents and business.

Lately, a new round of media coverage has focused on these entrances. amNew York ran a piece in October on closed entrances in Williamsburg and Bushwick and revisited the topic last week. As Rebecca Harshburger noted, one in four stations have closed entrances, and some grassroots organizers who have approached me for advice have begun to look at the issue on a granular level. These closed entrances are hyper-local issues of transit access.

Now, Kate Hinds and the data team at WNYC have delved into the location of the closed entrances. They produced the map embedded above, and the data is extensive. This isn’t of course the first time this issue has gotten attention. When I last looked closed entrances in January, I noted a 2001 PCAC Report urging action. After nearly 15 years, not much has changed, but the MTA, in comments to amNew York and WNYC, recognized these entrances as “something we’re very actively looking at,” at MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg said to Hinds.

“The MTA has been setting modern ridership records almost every month, and as we try to accommodate more than 6 million customers on our busiest days, we’re looking at ways to expand capacity everywhere in the system — including analyzing whether some closed parts of subway stations could be reopened,” said spokesman Adam Lisberg.

It’s certainly taken a long time for the MTA to analyze these entrances, and again, I’m left wondering if there’s a short-term plan to disperse crowds and adjust to spiking ridership numbers. In reality, the MTA can open many of these entrances in the amount of time it takes to procure some HEETs, sweep and paint. While many have pointed to ADA requirements as a potential roadblock, the issues regarding accessibility requirements for long-closed entrances that are reopened remain untested and a potential risk to the MTA. I believe the agency could point to the 20% threshold in Section 202.4 in the 2010 ADA Standards as indication that they do not have spend prohibitive amounts of money to reopen these entrances, and one station could serve as a test case if the agency wants to pursue the action.

Rather, I’m left with a nagging suspicion that Patrick O’Hara on Twitter may be onto something. As he put it, “Accessibility requirements are also tend to be a convenient excuse to throw out when you don’t really want to do something too.” But we’re past the point of doing nothing. Reopening entrances can ensure compliance with NFPA guidelines on station egress times and can actually contribute to transit usage — something that should be embraced as a policy goal but may otherwise scare an agency whose trains are packed at all hours. The move can also ease chokepoints and commuter frustration. Why wait much longer? Transit should identify those entrances easy to open and start opening them. There’s no good reason not to.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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