Archive for View from Underground
Over the weekend, seemingly in only an article in The New York Times and not anywhere else on the Internet, the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles announced a new look for the state’s driver licenses. Beginning in July, New Yorkers renewing their licenses or getting new ones will receive hard polycarbonate cards with two black-and-white photos. Ostensibly this is a move to combat counterfeiters and purveyors of fake IDs.
The details surrounding the new licenses — including word of a lawsuit over the contract reward and bidding process — are laid out in Jesse McKinley’s article. For now, this move will have little impact on anyone’s life as we’re not being asked to fork over the dough to receive new licenses yet. I wanted to take a look at the sample though because something familiar grows in the background.
If you look closely you will see that the background is not a usual symbol of New York State. The seal of New York, the city skyline and Niagara Falls have all been banished from the license, and in their places are the Statue of Liberty and….Santiago Calatrava’s half-built World Trade Center PATH train transportation hub? Pardon my incredulity but since when do semi-realized architectural renderings for a project not due for completion until maybe 2015 or maybe 2016 qualify as a Great Symbol of New York State?
To me, this reeks of an ex ante justification for the transportation hub — or perhaps even an ex post attempt at excusing the project. As of now, the hub is set to cost nearly $4 billion and won’t do a lick to increase rail capacity. It’s supposed to be an anchor in Lower Manhattan and a symbol of the area’s rebirth 15 years after the September 11th attacks, but it’s become a sign of New York’s inability to invest sensibly in infrastructure while keeping costs under control. We should have great public spaces, but we shouldn’t be bilked out of money by an architect more concerned with his vision than New York City’s needs.
And so, we’ll be forever reminded of this multi-billion-dollar porcupine in Lower Manhattan that really serves as a gateway to and from New Jersey because it will be featured ever so prominently on state-issued ID cards. Today, it’s not a symbol of anything really because it doesn’t exist, and when it does exist, it shouldn’t be a symbol New York should embrace so readily.
This amusing video from Adam Sacks and some of his colleagues at the Upright Citizens Brigade has been making the rounds today. While the language gets a little colorful during the final 30 seconds, I love the idea of a bunch of frustrated commuters trying to coax a reticent into the station. After all, every New Yorker has had that experience where an incoming train faces red signals in full view of everyone waiting on the platform.
Setting aside the humor of an anthropomorphic shy train and a situation familiar to millions, subway delays are a huge problem. In its board materials yesterday, the MTA released statistics on delays, and the causes are diverse. Over-crowding and slowdowns caused by workers on the track lead the way along with right-of-way delays. Sick or unruly customers cause a large number of slowdowns as well. Of course, with nearly 5.4 million weekday riders, delays are bound to happen, but that doesn’t make them any less tolerable or annoying.
In fact, just yesterday morning when signals problems had the some East Side trains running up the West Side during the a.m. rush, I was reminded anew at how annoying delays can be. I got into Grand Army Plaza just as a 2 train pulled in, but then we sat. When we moved, we crawled due to “train traffic ahead of us.” It didn’t ultimately slow us down too much, but the perceived pace of the train led to irate groans throughout my subway car.
Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley have tried to put some weight behind those things that most irk transit users. Framing it as a way to study perception and behavioral adaptation to “unreliability” in public transit, three professors have submitted a paper of their findings. Only the beginning is available online for free, but Angie Schmitt at Streetsblog offers up a top line summary. So what are the factors that most annoy transit riders? Drumroll, please.
1. Delayed on board due to transit vehicles backed up or problems on the transit route downstream.
2. Experienced long wait at a transfer stop.
3. Missed departure due to wrong real-time information.
4. Unable to board or denied boarding due to crowding.
5. Delayed on board due to emergency or mechanical failure.
6. Experienced long wait at origin stop.
7. Ran to stop but the bus or train pulled away.
8. Delayed on board due to traffic.
Basically, these can be summarized as “delays” and “waits.” Now, it’s hardly insightful to say that transit riders don’t like to wait and they don’t want to be delayed. New Yorkers will love the subway if the trains showed up every 90 seconds 24 hours a day with no downstream problems ever, but that’s just not the way reality works. The real question is how to fix it.
The authors of the UC Berkeley study were focusing on the Bay Area with an eye on buses, but the same issues apply to subway systems too in a way. There, shared ROW traffic isn’t an issue, but the transit agency is still viewed as the culpable body when it’s their fault and also when it’s not. Is the answer patience? More frequent service that exceeds real demand but better aligns with rider expectations? Or are we too far down the rabbit hole to figure it out?
Much like the rodents themselves, stories about the MTA’s attempts to contain its rat problem never really go away. The MTA knows it has to eliminate garbage to eliminate rats, but the budget doesn’t allow for refuse collection frequent enough to keep the animals out. A pilot to remove garbage cans has been mildly successful, but as long as subway riders chuck food into the tracks, the rats will never leave.
The oft-discussed, never-implemented idea to enact a total ban on food in the subways never gets anywhere due to its controversial nature, but that’s one solution that could limit the rat problem. Still, rats are horny little buggers. The animals reach sexual maturity in about five weeks and produce litters of seven to 14 four times a year. With a gestation period of 21 days, that rat population can explode quickly.
So what if the MTA could control the rat population’s birth rate? Maybe the city could contain its rat problem through science. That, at least according to the latest from Ted Mann, is how the MTA is now approaching its rat problem. The Journal reporter offers up this tidbit on rat birth control:
Working with SenesTech Inc., the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is launching the first urban trial of a pest-control bait that induces permanent infertility in rats. The product has succeeded in rural environments, lowering rodent populations without harming other animals, crops or humans. In New York, however, the company faces a new and vexing challenge: Big-city rodents have developed more sophisticated palates than their country counterparts, who have been lured into switching from grains or other foods to the bait…
But winning over rattus Norvegicus, the species common to New York, means making bait that’s more alluring than the pizza crusts, discarded Chinese takeout and cold French fries littering the subway system. It is a difficulty the company acknowledged in a grant application to the National Institutes of Health, which has put up more than $1 million to finance tests of its sterilizing product, ContraPest, in a metropolitan setting. Existing baits, the company wrote, are hampered in cities by “the abundance of more palatable food choices (i.e. trash).”
Later this month, Dr. Mayer and her colleagues will launch a rodent taste test in a handful of subway trash rooms. The scientists will spread birth-control bait of different flavors and scents. Should other available food scraps prove too tantalizing, Dr. Mayer didn’t rule out resorting to using pieces of pepperoni. “We really won’t know [what works] until we get in there,” she said.
Mann’s article delves into the technicalities behind these efforts. The idea is to introduce menopause earlier in rats so they have fewer opportunities to procreate. As Mann writes, the poison has to outpace procreation, but slowing down procreation could help too.
At this point, it’s worth exploring any avenue in the fight against rats. They’re large, gross and agressive, and they lend an air of anarchy to the subway system. They seemingly symbolize an endless fight against a clean, sanitary environment and add to the overall dinginess of many parts of the system. Short of aggressively eliminating all food underground, there’s only so much we can do to cut down on rats.
A few weeks, I found myself in the Borough Hall subway stop with a good seven minutes to spare when my eyes hit upon these stickers above the payphones. Now, subway payphones themselves are relics of another age when we had to carry around quarters and didn’t have easy access to a phone in our pockets. These days, the subway’s payphones are a dying breed. Those that remain barely function, and those that do work aren’t exactly paragons of cleanliness.
This sticker though offers us a glimpse into the past — many levels of the past in fact. There’s a New York Telephone logo with the reminder of NYNEX (and their catchy jingle); there’s Bell Atlantic peeking through; and there’s Verizon, the current carrier if the phone works at all. The sticker has survived many layers of anti-trust law as well as many decades in the subway. But there it is for anyone to see.
Every day, Monday through Friday, I spend around 50-60 minutes on the subway, and I’m not alone. According to the Citizens Budget Commission, our commute times place us behind nearly every competitor city in the country and could be improved with a stronger commitment to transit investment. That we already know, but we’re stuck. I have no other choice each day I go to work.
Those 60 minutes a day is not my most restful hour. On Monday, for instance, my 2 train was packed and stiflingly hot. After a weekend of snow, no one expected temperatures in the mid 40s, and the heat was up for too high in my subway car. Meanwhile, one bench had five seats taken up by straphangers uninterested in making room for anyone else, and everyone was feeling that early Monday morning ride. The ride home was faster.
So what do we do with those 60 minutes? I’ve slipped into a regular routine over the past few years. I read the paper in the morning — sitting or not — and then read something else on the way home. Sometimes, it’s a magazine; sometimes, it’s a book. I don’t use headphones because, even as I know the subways are safer, I still like to be more aware of my surroundings while I ride home. I find the reading is a nice way to detach from the work day or the to-do list that awaits me when I get home. I can’t always accomplish much else on the subway, but I can get in some good reading time.
But what about the rest of my fellow riders? Even a small glimpse around one subway car can reveal the diverse interests of New Yorkers. Outside of reading a daily paper, I’d say the Bible appears most often, but a lot of people spend their time reading. Many others are listening to music — often at volumes far louder than necessary, and some sleep. Another large group is just, well, zoning out. I’ve never been quite sure how people can sit on a subway car for so long without a distraction, but I guess sometimes a brain needs a break.
I’m not alone in noticing the diversity of activity on a subway car. In a special issue on Straphangers, City Limits examined the way we spend time on trains. New Yorkers spend around 200 hours a year on the subway, and somehow, we have to fill that time. So how do we do it? Jordan Davidson and Alex Eidman offered up this take:
On a recent weekday, smartphones and tablets were popular choices of ways to spend time on rides, especially since most of the J line runs above ground, which allows for Wi-Fi access. However, some passengers pointed out they still prefer simpler pleasures.
“I definitely read books more than I look at my phone,” said Brandi Kutuchief, a guidance counselor who has a lengthy morning commute from Bushwick to East New York.”It’s really the only time I get a chance to do that.”
Meanwhile, a morning A Train was packed and quiet. Passengers wore ear buds, played video games or read. Riding the city’s longest subway line provides commuters with ample personal time. “Maybe we all choose distractions so we don’t have to think about terrorism and what’s in someone’s backpack and how to escape a fire,” said Mark Hayman, a commuter traveling from 207th Street to Columbus Circle. Hayman said he likes to read travelogues from the 1920s and ’30s.
Hayman’s take is a bit too paranoid for me. The subways, while porous, are protected by the country’s anti-terrorism forces which are hard at work. For me, it’s a time for something else. There are no cell distractions, no emails, no phone calls. There’s nothing I need to attend to other than waiting out my stop, and in a way, despite the headaches and frustrations, it’s almost a peaceful hour of the day, every week, every month. And it sure beats sitting in traffic.
After arguing with the TWU over Twitter last night about their hare-brained scheme to slow down trains, I need a little bit of a break from subway platform safety. I’ll have more on my thoughts on what’s driving the union’s argument and the attendant costs to everyone else of such a plan. Needless to say, it’s not in the riding public’s interest to see subways slowed to a crawl as they enter every single station.
Instead, let’s what a video. Rebecca Davis of The Daily News spent a year taking photos of folks she’s come across on the New York City subway and produced a slideshow of sorts.
The part of me that enjoys the subway sees this video as a glimpse into our lives. Sure, some of the folks have that zombie-eyed look of a straphanger just trying to get home, but others look truly happy. There are plenty of couples and a few babies and small children who are joyful in each other’s companies, and that’s what makes the city — and its subways — great. There are millions of folks with millions of stories all riding the rails every day.
The more cynical side of me, though, sees this video as instructive of the way we ride, and as I’ve said in the past, the way we ride is with little regard for everyone else. Some photos capture riders with their feet on the seat while more than a few highlight New Yorkers riding with their bags on the bench, taking up valuable seat space. Others are sitting bow-legged, encroaching into someone else’s space, and still others have plopped themselves down in the middle of two seats.
Earlier on Thursday, I spent some time watching my 3 train. At 8:30 in the morning, the eight bucket seats were occupied by just six passengers. One guy was sitting with his legs spread enough to block the empty seat, and the rest were taken up by folks who didn’t seem interested in sitting on top of each other. I didn’t really blame them for that, but I think this behavior speaks to how we ride and how we approach the subways.
Americans hate being cramped. There are no ifs, ands or buts about it, but when we ride each morning, we are cramped. People elbow, knee, shoulder, shove and glare at each other when our space is encroached, but we have no other choice. (For what it’s worth, slower trains and less frequent service will just make this worse.) Part of the social pact for New York City involves the subway, but it can be grueling. At least the babies are always smiling though.
If only we all received such applause at the ends or beginnings of our daily rides…
Underneath New York City, the catacombs of the subway stretch beyond our imagination. New Yorkers vaguely remember passagesways — the one under what used to be Gimbels, the one stretching north from Herald Square — shuttered due to crime and budgetary concerns. The ones we do know are austere and ugly. The massive IND mezzanines seem desolate, the walk between 7th and 8th Avenues underneath 42nd St. is cramped and crammed with people. These passageways do nothing to make us feel good about the subways.
Over the weekend, former Bogota mayor and current NYU scholar Enrique Peñalosa found himself in one of those passageways and issued something of a challenge to New York. While walking underneath 14th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues, Peñalosa snapped the photo you see atop this post and issued a short missive. “Walking under the city in subway tunnels,” he said, “is not pleasant.”
Those ten simple words capture the essence of these tunnels. The stations with pleasant walkways, such as those maintained privately that run under 6th Ave. near Rockefeller Center, are few and far between, and the rest seem barely functional with not much in the way of attention paid to them. It’s a sorry state of affairs really.
These passagesways shouldn’t be like that. Even though I’m skeptical of spending, say, billions of dollars to beautify a PATH hub or the Fulton St. Transit Center, the environment of the subways can create better attitudes among passengers. If the system looks maintained and cared for, if we feel comfortable walking down hallways and aren’t assaulted by the smell of urine or something worse, we are inclined to feel more confident in the system and to look it more.
To that end, I asked my Twitter followers how we can fix up the MTA’s passageways. Take a look at a few of the replies:
@secondavesagas don’t you want to commission some intense but uplifting soundscape for those tunnels?
— Nico Muhly (@nicomuhly) January 22, 2013
@secondavesagas art? “Under Bryant Park” is great.
— Franklin Bynum (@franklinbynum) January 22, 2013
— Brian R. (@bgrmosaic) January 22, 2013
I posed the same question on my Facebook page and got another array of answers all with a similar theme. The answers focused around better lighting and the use of more color, whether through advertising or an Arts for Transit installation. The Under Bryant Park installation in the short passageway between the 6th Ave. Line and the 7 train seems to draw rave reviews across the board.
Infrastructure for subway passengers doesn’t have to be drab or foreboding. Even the bare minimum of upgrades can make an otherwise unappealing passageway seem less threatening, and the psychology of riders and the way they interact with and appreciate the system can be improved through simple fixes. If international leaders find subway tunnels unpleasant, New Yorkers shouldn’t just accept them as part of the everyday drudgery of the subway ride.
While you were enjoying a three-day weekend, a drunk 26-year-old from New Jersey decided to take a nap in the crevasse next to a set of active subway tracks early Sunday morning. He awoke when his leg splayed out and an E train drove over it. He survived but will live with one leg. On Monday morning, a man or maybe a woman leaped in front of an oncoming 2 train at Times Square. He or she was DOA in a suicide.
These are but the latest in what seems to many like an uptick in subway/passenger accidents. For the last few weeks, we’ve heard terrifying stories of two incidents involving someone pushing another straphanger into the path of an oncoming train. We heard of someone who fell into the tracks while defecating between subway cars (which, by the way, is something that doesn’t happen too often). We’ve heard of threats of an TWU-requested slowdown, and now we have Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer calling for an MTA Inspector General audit on subway safety. What exactly is going on here?
The answer, you may be surprised to hear, is nothing. At least that’s one rational take on it. As Dana Rubinstein expertly detailed in Capital New York yesterday, subway accidents aren’t on the rise. Rather, the only thing on the rise seems to be the attention we pay to them. Rubinstein writes:
In 2012, 141 people were struck by trains and 55 died. That fatality number was up from in 2011, when 146 people were struck by trains but 47 died. In 2010, 127 people were struck by trains and 51 died. In 2009, 136 people were hit by subway cars, of whom 49 died. The M.T.A.’s data on this only goes back to 2001, but in those years, the high mark for fatalities was set at 55 in 2007, and matched last year.
The number of people hit by trains is essentially holding steady, but the incidents seem to be getting more attention lately, after two particularly ghoulish homicides in December, both of which involved mentally unstable assailants allegedly pushing strangers in front of oncoming trains and to their deaths…
The M.T.A. says that reducing entry speeds would reduce the number of trains that could move through the system by up to 40 percent, which means there would be longer waits for trains, and more crowding on subway platforms, leading to even more collisions between straphangers and subway cars. The authority also suggests that what the union is actually advocating is a work slow-down in disguise.
Whether or not this spate of subway deaths is a problem depends upon one’s perspective. People who witness these accidents say they are horrific, and train operators, in particular, bear the psychological brunt of these collision. The City Council, never one to miss an opportunity to gain media attention, also seems to be in on the action. “Standing by without a plan of action as incident after incident occurs is not an option,” Transportation Committee Chair James Vacca said in a statement. “The MTA needs to bring all the stakeholders to the table and acknowledge that this is a serious problem that demands a coordination solution, and they must tell the public what their plan is.”
But how much should we spend on this problem? A subway slowdown isn’t the answer anywhere else, and it’s not the answer here. Until we start responding to automobile deaths in a similar fashion, it’s hard for a rationalist to see subway deaths as a major problem. But it seems as though the MTA will have to answer to someone, be it the public, the TWU or the City Council.
So we’re left with a problem that isn’t really solvable at a reasonable cost, a union playing politics with people’s lives over a tenuous contract situation and a government oversight body snatching at headlines. Call me cynical, but that seems to be a perfect storm heading toward a bad solution to something that we could consider an intractable problem.
Amidst a rigorous debate on platform edge doors and potentially illegal slowdowns, a pair of incidents forced the Lexington Ave. subway nearly entirely offline during rush hour yesterday evening. Matt Flegenheimer had the gruesome details, and they are gruesome indeed.
After initial reports that a man had been struck and killed by a train after a confrontation on a platform at East 125th Street in Manhattan on Tuesday afternoon, the police said that in fact the man had been killed and another was injured in separate episodes near the station.
The man who was killed had been on a train, defecating between two cars, when he fell on the tracks and was struck by the train, said Paul J. Browne, the Police Department’s chief spokesman.
In an unrelated episode, Mr. Browne said, a bloodied man with a broken pelvis emerged from the tracks at the 125th Street station just before the fatal accident. Mr. Browne said the man told investigators that he did not know what had happened to him. The Fire Department said the man was in serious but stable condition at Harlem Hospital Center.
No amount of platform edge doors will prevent some riders from defecating between subway cars, but maybe we should reconsider my point on subway restrooms? Or at least take a look at articulated trains?