Archive for View from Underground

For some reason or another, I’ve noticed lately a lot of adults riding the subways at rush hour with backpacks. Glance around a full car, and you’ll see it too: Grown men and women taking up space in the subway by cramming their backpacks into the people around them. They don’t take off their bags and hold them at their feet or between their legs. They just use them as a weapon.

As things go in the subway, backpacks aren’t the most pressing issue, but they affect the way everyone feels. We begrudge our fellow straphangers who aren’t considerate enough to minimize the space they use on crowded trains. We grow annoyed as every bump, curve, start and stop leads to yet another jab into our shoulders and elbows and backs. We sigh; we shove; we hope a fight doesn’t break out. We grow disgruntled with fellow New Yorkers who don’t recognize that we’re all in this together.

At the MTA Board Committee meetings earlier this week, Charles Moerdler noted that he had had enough with backpacks and suggested the MTA ban them outright. Of course, this is a foolish line of thinking that would discourage people from riding the subway and could otherwise result in a bunch of unnecessary summonses. But the MTA knows that people are fed with backpacks. So iin early 2015, as part of a rebranding campaign, the MTA is going to target this behavior.

For the past few years, we’ve been told in countless announcements that “courtesy is contagious,” but that idea came to a screeching halt when a doctor with Ebola rode three subway lines a few weeks ago. Now, in a campaign designed to fight quality-of-life complaints, the MTA will urge riders to take off their backpacks and, more importantly, stop taking up seats by spreading your legs, a campaign with which Jezebel is thrilled. Signs and in-car announcements will carry the word. Whether this will be a success remains to be seen, but this is a message I can get behind. It’s far more tolerable than yet another apology for train traffic ahead of us.

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It’s no secret that the MTA’s goal of achieving a State of Good Repair would always be a tough one to meet. The agency’s pace of work isn’t fast enough to keep up with the demands of a system sagging under the legacy of deferred maintenance, and as contractors slowly slog through even basic component replacement efforts, stations that were opened or refurbished in the past 20-30 years are starting to show serious wear and tear. Just how bad the state of the infrastructure is though was laid plain for all to see in a reporter issued this week by New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.

According to this audit, only 51 of the city’s 468 stations were free of defects, and only 25 percent had most of their station components in good repair. “New York City Transit reports it is making progress on repairing stations but the pace is too slow and much more work needs to be done,” DiNapoli said in a statement. “Worn or damaged stairs and platform edges pose risks for riders, while broken tiles, lights and peeling paint leave riders with a low opinion of the transit system.”

The short report paints a grim picture. You can read the PDF, and I’ll excerpt accordingly. From DiNapoli’s press release:

According to the latest [New York City Transit] survey, more than one-quarter of all structural components had defects. At 94 stations, at least half of the structural components needed repairs. The subway stations in Brooklyn and Queens had the largest percentage of components with defects (one-third). Nearly half of all platform edges (43 percent), which are important to rider safety, had defects in need of repair. While 33 percent of platform edges had a moderate level of deterioration, 10 percent exhibited serious defects. NYCT data also showed that 27 percent of station components — such as ceilings or columns — needed to be painted. Also, the tile or other finish on one-third of all subway platform walls and floors did not meet the NYCT’s minimum standards and needed to be repaired.

From the report:

Among the four boroughs served by NYCT, the stations in Brooklyn and Queens had the largest share of structural components with defects (one-third). Only 1 of the 81 stations in Queens was free of defects, although 13 others had most of their components in good repair. In Brooklyn, 28 percent of the stations had at least 90 percent of their components in good repair. In the Bronx, 26 of 70 stations (37 percent) had at least 90 percent of their structural components in good repair. Manhattan had the lowest percentage of components with defects (22 percent), but only 40 of the borough’s 146 stations (27 percent) had at least 90 percent of their components in good repair.

…Platform edges, which are important to rider safety because they close the gap between the platform and the train, had the largest percentage of defects (43 percent) of any structural component. While 33 percent of platform edges showed a moderate level of deterioration, 10 percent exhibited serious defects. One-third of other platform components (such as ceilings, floors and columns) were structurally deficient, while similar components at the mezzanine level (i.e., the area between the platform and the street level) were in better condition.

These gory and concerning details though are almost besides the point, and in that sense, both DiNapoli and I have buried the lede. At one point, DiNapoli notes that the MTA had hoped to renovate all 468 stations by 2022 but will be unable to attain that goal. He also states that nearly 20 percent of all escalators and elevators have outlived their useful lives. In another, DiNapoli notes that while Transit has renovated 241 stations over the last 32 years, “once the work was completed, however, NYCT moved on to the next station for rehabilitation without committing the resources to maintain the renovated stations.” Thus, stations that were renovated have inevitably begun to break down.

What DiNapoli does not cover are the reasons and ways to close this gap. The MTA’s work takes far too long, and the structures aren’t in place to adequately maintain stations after they’ve been renovated. It is a fine mess brought about by a history of disinvestment, politics and operational challenges. There’s no easy fix, but if it seems as though the subway system is crumbling around its users, well, that’s because it is.

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Bedbugs on a train

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New Yorkers are long accustomed to sharing their subway rides with all sorts of wild life. Cockroach sightings underground are, sadly, not rare, and rats scurry along train tracks searching for food. At outdoor stations, pigeons are known to amble into a train car or two in search of an errant french fry. The latest hangers-on though we could all do without.

Over the past few weeks, even though the larger epidemic was supposedly on the wane, numerous reports of bed bugs on subway trains — in particular the N line — have emerged, and in a column earlier this week, Pete Donohue of the Daily News reported at least 21 sightings in August. According to the columnist, the N train leads the way with nine sightings while the Q had three and the 6 two. Bugs were also spotted on the 3, 4, 5 and L trains and in crew rooms in Astoria, East New York and Coney Island.

As far as the extent of the problem, the MTA has worked to downplay the sightings. The agency says it has found “no bedbug infestations on any trains,” and crews inspect and fumigate train cars nearly immediately. “This is an interesting story but not a big problem,” spokesman Adam Lisberg said to the News. Still, it’s clear from rapid response times that the MTA is treating these reports very seriously, as they should.

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Thanks to some messed up mid-day headways on the IRT express on Wednesday, I had a few minutes to kill at Chambers St. following some meetings downtown. As I waited for the next uptown train to arrive, I had the opportunity to soak in the sights at a key transfer point between the express and local trains. Tourists tend to congregate there to and from Battery Park City, and Tribeca is directly overhead.

At the northern end of the uptown tracks, the wall is a mess. That’s what the photo atop this post shows. From a combination of runoff, water damage and who knows — or wants to know — what else, the wall has taken on a mulit-hued tone nearly reminiscent of art. If the MTA slapped a brass plaque on the wall, you could confuse this mural for an Arts for Transit installation, but the damage to the old mosaics showing Kings College as it used to be are a dead giveaway.

Over the years, I’ve seen these walls go from bad to worse, and today, it’s hard to find a patch of white tile untouched by the destructive elements. Unlike the long patch of black soot that remains on Grand Central’s ceiling as a reminder of what once obscured the majestic mural, this damage is simply a matter of the never-ending battle to achieve a State of Good Repair. Until the tiles fall off the wall, the damage is merely cosmetic and doesn’t interrupt transit operations, but there’s something to be said for a clean presentation.

Today, Chambers St. is a strange of amalgam of a station. The mezzanine level, replete with ADA-compliant elevator ramps and an open view of the trains entering and leaving the station from the south, is a gem, and the floor exists as part of a long-forgotten 2009 pilot program to combat the scourge of gum spots. It was to be cheaper and easier to maintain, but after five years, only one station has ever seen the floor arrive. The platform levels though haven’t been renovated in some time, and the wall shows its age.

In a sense, presenting a nicer station is akin to the Broken Windows theory of transit ops. Tiles are purely aesthetic but serve as signals to passengers. If the station looks nice, maybe riding the rails won’t seem to be as much of a burden as many New Yorkers make it out to be. Maybe they’ll be kinder and gentler to the subway system. For now, though, it makes for a dramatic photo. State of some repair indeed.

For more scenes from our subway system and more, check out Second Ave. Sagas on Instagram, and give me a follow there.

Tomorrow I should have something more on the new neighborhood maps the MTA is slowly unveiling throughout the city as part of NYC DOT’s WalkNYC, but for now, you’ll have to wait. I have an inquiry in concerning a certain feature that likely is still in place in a diminished form, and I’d like to get out to Crown Heights to snap some photos. Sit tight. Tonight, instead, I have a news round-up.

Bed bugs found on — and now gone from — the N train

It’s been a while since we’ve had a good old fashioned bed bug scare in the subway. The last one, in fact, dates from the height of the bed bug infestation in 2008 when wooden subway benches seemed to provide a safe haven for the cimicid insects. The problem came roaring back into the headlines last week when a few N trains were taken out of service due to reports of insect sightings. The infested cars — and the rest of their trains — were fumigated, and the R160s were placed back in service. While the Daily News reported of a bed bug sighting on the 5 over the weekend, the MTA has said that its trains, as far as agency personnel know, are now free from these bugs. I wouldn’t have had much of an occasion to ride the N train since the infestation first hit the news. Have you?

Transit testing track detection system at Rector St. unidentified station

As the MTA responds to last year’s brouhaha over subway/passenger collision deaths, the agency has moved forward with plans to test a track intrusion detection system. Pete Donohue had the opportunity to tour the setup at the unidentified station as part of a Daily News exclusive, but as the MTA allowed photos, it soon because obvious which station is hosting this pilot. As a few astute Subchatters posited, it appears as though Rector St. — which these days sees limited service due to the Sandy-related R train closure — is playing host to the system. Without 24/7 R service, the MTA can test the system without interrupting live train service. Donohue had more details:

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has been testing several “track intrusion” detection systems at a secret location — featuring thermal imaging cameras, laser-beam transmitters and other high-tech tools intended to alert the motorman if someone falls on the tracks. The tests have gone so well, transit executives now expect to begin installing one or more of the systems in subway stations during the 2015-2019 capital program, officials told the Daily News. “It’s not going to happen at 468 stations overnight, but once we determine the best technology, and identify funding sources, we can go out and start deployment,” MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg said…

Konal Kumar, an associate project manager, lowered a large inflated rubber ball, wrapped with thin cable, from the platform. The breach was detected by laser beams scanning the platform edge. Automatically, diamond-shaped signals, which instruct motormen to slow down, began flashing along 300 feet of track that leads into the station. Closed-circuit television cameras, meanwhile, transmitted live video feeds to a monitor set up in the station for the demonstration. When fully implemented, video will be displayed on dispatchers’ screens in the Rail Control Center in Midtown, along with schematics showing exactly where along the platform the track intrusion occurred, a detail that will help first responders.

Train operators won’t immediately slam the brakes. They will slow down but only halt if they see someone on the tracks, or are directed to stop completely by a dispatcher, Bienstock said.

According to Donohue, the system could cost between $50,000 and $500,000 per station — a huge range that could lead to massive costs for the MTA. Would platform edge doors, similar to those found in Tokyo, be a more affordable solution? MTA estimates say no, but either way, a systemwide solution will be costly and ultimately imperfect. The lives saved over the course of the system’s useful life will though likely be worth it.

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My apologies for the silence over the last few days. I’ve been swamped with a combination of baseball games, wedding planning and work, and I haven’t had time to move through the posts I have in the queue. You’ll unfortunately have to wait a little longer, but here’s a treat for you this Wednesday. I’ve always had a huge soft spot for this 1970s-era song from Sesame Street. Dig the Vignelli map cameo too.

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What time is it? (Photo by flickr user Dan Nguyen)

As straphangers filed onto my Q train at Canal St. on Monday night, I let out an inward sighed. A “Showtime!” crew in full regalia with musical accompaniment boarded my train. They announced their routine, and before legs and hats and arms could go flying, they stopped. The big guy standing near the door seemed like an undercover cop and nearly confirmed as much. The troupe decided against risking it, sat out the ride across the Manhattan Bridge and quietly switched cars.

Now, watching a Showtime crew give up isn’t a new experience. Sometimes, they board a train at rush hour that’s too crowed for the routine; sometimes, riders simply will not move over to clear enough space. Before starting a fight, they wait and move on at the next stop. (They target the Q, of course, because the bench seating on the new rolling stock leads to wide aisles.) Still, I had never seen kids stop in their tracks due to the potential presence of a plain-clothes officer.

Lately, under Commission Bill Bratton so-called quality-of-life crimes have come under police scrutiny, and as The Times detailed yesterday, subway acrobats have been on the receiving end of an NYPD crackdown. As no fan of Showtime!, I initially applauded the move, but the more I read about it, the less I’m sure it’s the way to go. Here’s how Matt Flegenheimer, soon to be off the transit beat, and J. David Goodman put it:

Cheered by tourists, tolerated by regulars, feared by those who frown upon kicks in the face, subway dancers have unwittingly found themselves a top priority for the New York Police Department — a curious collision of a Giuliani-era policing approach, a Bloomberg-age dance craze and a new administration that has cast the mostly school-age entertainers as fresh-face avatars of urban disorder.

Arrests of performers have more than quadrupled this year, to 203 through early this month, compared with 48 over the same period last year…The attention is part of a broader policing strategy in which officers, who often act on complaints from the public, place an emphasis on low-level offenses with a goal of rooting out more serious crime…

Once emblematic of urban disorder, the subways have been a focus of renewed efforts, drawing significant resources for what Deputy Inspector Edward O’Brien called “a cat-and-mouse game.” Teams of officers, dressed casually, follow tips from riders or transit personnel and fan out across cars. “They know we’re out there,” said Inspector O’Brien, who heads special operations for the Police Department’s transit bureau and who was on the train in plainclothes when other officers moved in to arrest Peppermint and Butterscotch. “They’re stepping up their game to a certain degree.”

The Times notes thats around 20 percent of subway dancers have outstanding warrants while others face charges of reckless endangerment or disorderly conduct. Even that seems on the excessive side of things. I’ve objected to the Showtime! routine on the grounds that they’re loud and disruptive with the potential for an errant foot to meet an unsuspecting head. They’re nothing though that probably can’t be solved by ejecting the kids from the system and giving them a warning or a summons.

Any charges simply seem to be rubbing it and unnecessary for any future records, but maybe I’m being too lenient. After all, the kids keep coming back, and enough people keep donating to make the whole thing worthwhile. So let me throw it open to you by revisiting a poll from earlier this year. What do you think of Showtime?

What should the cops do with "Showtime" troupes?
View Results
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Under other circumstances, last week would have been a big one for the long-term future of the MTA. For three days, the MTA Reinvention Commission paraded a series of bold-faced transit names through the MTA offices as it fielded suggestions concerning the future of transit. Eventually, it will develop action items aimed at considering and responding to “changes in customer expectations, commuting trends and extreme weather patterns” while focusing on future capital plans. Of course, the LIRR negotiations stole the show, but the Reinvention Commission’s work isn’t done.

As I could, I followed along with the commission’s happenings. I couldn’t attend the meeting, but various transit reporters and other news websites covered the happenings. As you can see from the three-hour video above, the MTA recorded (and streamed) the proceedings, and at times, I wasn’t overly impressed with what I saw. You can, if you wish, watch nearly all the sessions on YouTube.

Early on, the meetings delved into a policy discussion on affordable housing, and many of the subsequent comments concerned fairly obvious initiatives that aren’t so much about reinvention as they are about forward progress. We know the MTA hasn’t been able to move quickly on a MetroCard replacement program, and we know the costs of maintaining the current fare payment system will balloon in five years. That’s old news.

In a way, one set of testimony sums up the need for reinvention and the problem with last week’s commission hearings. It came from REBNY, and as Dana Rubinstein previewed last week, it focused again around the idea to send the 7 line to Secaucus. The idea, seemingly born on the back of a cocktail napkin by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, involves an ambitious plan to send the subway beyond New York’s border to a densely populated area of New Jersey.

“It has been more than 100 years since we have built a rail connection under the Hudson River,” outgoing REBNY head Steven Spinola said. “Since then, the city’s population has almost doubled and the population of the counties west of the Hudson has tripled. More significantly, almost a third of the city’s workforce is comprised of suburban workers, with a growing share coming from New Jersey.”

As always, the MTA expressed lukewarm but noted that “the Transportation Reinvention Commission exists to consider a wide variety of ideas from a wide variety of stakeholders.” The real issue though remains costs. To reinvent the MTA involves asking tough questions about why every construction project costs so much and can’t wrap on time. Once those hard issues are resolved, the MTA can focus more on expansion, improvement and reinvention.

In a related vein, last week for The Atlantic’s City Lab site, I focused on the Second Ave. Subway and wrote about the MTA’s need to build and need to control costs. The two are at loggerheads right now with no real solution in sight. I’ve written about the need to think big on this site before, and here’s a selection from my piece:

At $2.23 billion per mile, the Second Avenue subway is orders of magnitude more expensive than similar projects across the world. At various times, MTA officials have blamed the exceedingly high price tag on overstaffing due to onerous union requirements, the environmental review process, NIMBY opposition, the cost of working in New York, and the number of eligible contractors. The dollars present a major impediment to the future of the Second Avenue subway and to citywide transit expansion at large. Few politicians will fund projects that outlast their terms and cost so much money.

Meanwhile, New York faces a capacity problem. The city is expected to add one million residents over the next few decades, and river crossings—a key barrier separating where people live from where they work—are increasingly nearing capacity. Economically, the city can’t support construction that costs more than $2 billion per mile and takes a decade to build out a mere two of them. And New Yorkers are facing a future where political inaction could prevent badly needed subway expansion projects from seeing the light of day…Only subway lines can sustain New York’s projected growth, but New York can’t sustain multi-billion-dollar subway lines.

I don’t have the answers; if I did, I could head up the Reinvention Commission. But that issue — the cost vs. the need — should be the primary focus of any effort to reform the MTA. We can’t build subway lines that cost a few billion per mile, and we can’t move enough people through half-hearted Select Bus Service lines. Hopefully, the reinvention commission can look beyond the reiterative interest group politics at play and find some way to reform the MTA.

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Did’ja miss me? Sorry for the prolonged silence. I’ve been out of town for the past 10 days, visiting 12 breweries, kicking back for a bit and, well, getting engaged. It’s been a busy and exciting week and a half.

While I’ve been wrapped up in other things, since it’s summer, the transit news tends to slow down a bit. We know the Fulton St. Transit Center isn’t opening for a few more weeks, but what else have we missed? I’ll run down the big stories below and follow up as appropriate.

Help Point Starts to Spread

You may have noticed over the past few weeks that Help Point intercoms have started to appear in a variety of stations throughout the city. This is part of the MTA’s effort to expand security underground. The intercoms are now up on new platforms and stations across the four boroughs. Still, I have to wonder why this is a separate effort from the Transit Wireless roll-out. Wouldn’t it be more cost effective to speed up the wireless rollout rather than sink money on an entirely separate alert system?

Meanwhile, the MTA’s overall security efforts, which stemmed from the 2001 terrorist attacks, have been pushed back by a year or two. Eventually, the system will be secure, but it may not come before the 15th anniversary of 9/11. Meanwhile, Bill Bratton wants security cameras in every subway car.

Showtime Crackdown Continues

Speaking of Bratton, the NYPD has begun a crackdown of “Showtime!” dance troupes. As you know, I’m not fan of these subway acrobats. Generally, they’re annoying and pushy with the potential to hurt someone. That said, the NYPD is changing these kids with misdemeanors for their routines, and I am deeply ambivalent about it. I believe in the #WarOnShowtime, but misdemeanor arrests seems excessive. Plus, it’s now generally a worse crime to break down on the Q train than it is to kill someone with a car in New York City. That’s troubling to me.

Bus Countdown Clocks Coming Soon….At A Cost

Last week, a bunch of City Council members — but not all — announced an aggregate expenditure of $2.8 million to install bus countdown clocks at stations in their districts. As you’ll recall, the MTA won’t foot the bill for this technology, and advocates have pressured city pols to use discretionary funds for this purpose. It’s a noble effort, but one that leads, as I see it, to two kinds of people: those without countdown clocks and those with countdown clocks.

Considering how many people have smartphones and access to Bus Time via other cellular technology, Crain’s rightfully questioned the expenditure. To what better uses could we put this money? It’s worth a thought.

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While rummaging through a drawer in my parents’ apartment a few years ago, I came across this great button. I don’t remember if I got it an Upper West side street fair in the early 1990s or on some trip to the Transit Museum, but it’s an excellent relic of another age. From the MTA logo to the plea to the public to assist the Transit Authority in wiping out something the overwhelming majority of riders didn’t want to see, graffiti was a constant way of life underground.

In May, the MTA celebrated a significant milestone. For 25 years, trains in service have been graffiti-free. It took a concerted effort, a few MTA heads and some aggressive policing tactics to clean the cars, but nowadays, no subway car will leave a yard with graffiti. This doesn’t, of course, mean that cars are always graffiti-free. Taggers still target yards, and post their conquests on Instagram. But riders see nothing worse than scratchiti or an occasional scribble in marker on a seat.

The MTA marked the occasion last month:

The nearly two decade-long scourge of vandalism began with felt-tip markers and soon escalated to spray-paint. The practice turned the subway system into an unwelcome underworld where it seemed that all official control had been lost. Subway cars and stations were covered with grime and layers of graffiti, which gave the system an air of rot and decay. During this period, ridership plunged, crime soared and a generation of subway riders was left thinking that things would never get any better.

At the height of this destructive urban phenomenon, subway cars were so completely “tagged” that it was nearly impossible to see out of the windows. NYC Transit’s initial attempts to squash graffiti all failed. In 1981, guard dogs and a double set of ten-foot high fences were deployed at the Corona Yard in Queens. Initially, the program worked but vandals eventually switched tactics. The low point came in 1983, when hundreds of subway cars were painted bright white, a virtual invitation to an army of graffiti vandals who took full advantage of a fresh canvas.

However, beginning in 1984, a new management team, the first capital program, new stainless-steel cars, and freshly painted older cars, along with stepped up security measures all combined to turn the tide. By May 12, 1989, major investments in the subway system had created a car fleet that was made up of either new or rehabilitated subway cars. Trains were taken out of service at the end of their runs and scrubbed when a piece of graffiti did appear and removal of graffiti from subway station walls and columns had to be accomplished in a defined period of time.

The MTA at the time was aggressive with their messaging. “When you’re sitting in a graffiti-covered car, you don’t feel safe. When the trains were covered with names, codes and epithets, there was a sense that the system was out of control,” then-Transit President David Gunn said, perhaps a bit hyperbolically. Still, for those that subscribe to the broken windows theory of transit attitudes, the end of graffiti was a welcome day. I remember those trains vividly, even if the button I have has to spur my memory.

For more on the history of graffiti in the subways, check out this Gizmodo post or Martha Cooper’s book. For more views from the subway system past, present and future, give me a follow on Instagram.

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