Archive for View from Underground

Noise pollution no more as the MTA has silenced emergency exit sirens. (Photo via flickr user rlboston)

As the MTA’s technology has improved, the amount of noise pollution in the subway system has gone up. While there’s only so much the agency can do to lessen the screech from metal-on-metal as subways bend around steep curves, the new rolling stock with its clear public address systems has led to a noted increase in announcements. We’re asked to be patient, sneeze into our arms, stand up, get out of the way, check ourselves, don’t block the door and say something if we see something. Much like some of those pesky delays, the sounds are seemingly unavoidable.

As 2015 dawns, though, the MTA is doing away with one source of easily avoidable noise pollution: The emergency exit doors with their ear-piercing sirens will be silenced. In effect, those doors are now simply exits as the MTA has finally caved to the reality of the flow of people out of subway stations that often do not have enough turnstile capacity to handle peak-hour crowds.

This move has been months in the making as the MTA has been slowly disarming the doors nearest station agents or simply opting against repairing failed alarms, but yesterday morning, WNYC’s Kate Hinds confirmed the news. “Our customers,” Transit spokesman Kevin Ortiz said, “have been quite clear in displaying their annoyance and letting us know that the alarms really were the number one annoyance for them as they travel through the system.”

Amusingly, as The Times’ Matt Flegenheimer noted, the MTA still maintains the rule that exiting through an emergency exit is against the rules, but enforcement is bare to nonexistent in this case. Straphangers routinely exit through these doors in full view of station agents and cops with no consequences, and that practice isn’t likely to change any time soon. Now, though, the blaring alarms will not greet customers trying to leave stations.

So what’s really going on here? The obvious is that, for years, the MTA has heard nonstop about the ineffectiveness of emergency exits from various rider advocacy groups. Straphangers didn’t care about the alarms and would routinely use the nearest — or least crowded — exit. So in one way, the MTA is simply giving in to popular opinion.

But there’s a deeper story here. First, the MTA is doing away with a source of noise pollution within the system and one that could be potentially damaging to the long-term hearing of station agents and other employees who were exposed to these sounds multiple times per hour. Second, this move can also be seen as one designed to improve station flow. As far as I know, the MTA is still working on plans to redesign station entrances. By removing the alarm, the MTA can study how people exit stations, and they’ll likely find that crowds optimize the emergency exits especially at stations with few other points of egress.

Ultimately, though, while New Yorkers generally welcome the New Year with parties, fireworks and a fair amount of sound, the end of the emergency exit noise is a welcome development. And now we know what we all assumed long ago: These emergency exits are simply just exist after all.

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While Governors Christie and Cuomo continued to show their true transit colors, we ended 2014 arguing about the best use for a long-abandoned right-of-way in Queens. As the MTA quietly celebrated 110 years of the New York City subway system, they finally opened the Fulton St. Transit Center while the 7 line didn’t open. Sen. Lanza continued his assault on SBS lights while the Senate waited until June to confirm Tom Prendergast as MTA CEO and Chair. Oh, and the R train reopned after Sandy repairs wrapped early. It was not a dull year.

So what’s next? In a way, 2015 is year of waiting. If all goes accordingly to plan, in less than two years, we’ll be riding the Q north from 57th and 7th Ave. all the way to 96th St. and 2nd Ave. So the next 24 months will represent the home stretch — if the MTA can open the project on time. But there’s much to anticipate for the year ahead.

1. Fare Hikes. You would hardly know that fare hikes as just a few months away as the biennial increases hardly seem to rile up New Yorkers any longer. The hearings over the last few weeks were sparsely attended, and even the outrage seems muted. We’ll find out if the base fare goes up and the bonus sticks around or if the bonus goes while the base fare stays. It’s hardly a huge choice, but it is yet another fare hike. It arrives this spring.

2. The 7 Line. When will the 7 line open? Will the 7 line open? The MTA had hoped to open the extension in February, but recent reports indicate that it may be more likely that April is the revenue service start date. The inclined elevators and fire alarms remain an issue, and the line will not open until 14-16 months after Mayor Bloomberg’s photo-op/faux-ribbon cutting ceremony.

3. Sandy Recovery. The MTA will be closing the Cranberry St. Tunnel this year for Sandy-related repairs, and the work will force weekend service changes for A and C train riders. The F train’s Rutgers St. Tunnel is further down the line, and the most inconvenient work on the 2/3’s Clark St. Tunnel and L train’s tubes loom. I’ll be discussing the Sandy Recovery efforts in depth at the Transit Museum in late January.

4. The Future of the MetroCard. Will 2015 be the year the MTA starts to roll out its next-gen fare payment plans? Some MTA sources have indicated to me that new pilots involving a smart card of sorts may be on the horizon. Watch this space.

5. Capital Plan. How could we enter 2015 without a nod to the capital plan? Somehow, someway, Albany is going to have to address that huge funding gap, and the MTA needs to get the money to ensure the system can meet growing demand and record high ridership. It’s going to involve uncomfortable conversations about spending priorities, details for Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway and perhaps the Move NY plan.

So stick around; it’s never boring around here. And have a happy and safe New Year.

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The latest MTA ad campaign asks riders not to eat on board.

The latest MTA ad campaign asks riders not to eat on board.

It can be instructive to chart the history of complaints about the New York City Subway as an indication over how we as New Yorkers feel about the system. From old rolling stock to the lack of air conditioning to track fires to delayed trains, broken doors, and rampant crime to service infrequent enough to meet demand to annoying announcements to rude behavior, we can chart the downfall and comeback of the subway nearly as neatly as the recent huge spike in ridership does. The MTA’s new ad campaign focusing around courtesy certainly belies a system with few overarching problems other than reliability. Crime, in other words, isn’t even a concern.

When an Ebola outbreak hit New York City, the MTA had an image problem on its hands. The long-standing campaign urging manners on the subway told people that “courtesy is contagious,” and, well, that caused some concern. The campaign was quickly dropped, and the MTA picked up specific quality-of-life issues. The latest posters and placards target etiquette in a time of 6 million daily riders — a number achieved six times in October alone.

“Courtesy is always important but it takes on an added significance as transit ridership continues to increase,” said NYC Transit President Carmen Bianco. “The simple act of stepping aside to let riders off the train before you board can trim valuable seconds from the time a train dwells in a station while removing a backpack makes more room for everyone. These acts serve to speed the trip while increasing the level of comfort.”

The new ads focus on do’s and don’t’s of subway rides. Part of me feels that this is the latest in the MTA’s long line of announcements that are excoriating riders to do something. Be patient. Check yourself. Don’t do this. Do that. But on the other hand, it’s part of a push to make riders more aware of the fact that 5,999,999 other people are also cramming themselves into a subway car.

The attention has focused around the manspread issue. Emma Fitzsimmons, with some help from Johnny T., explored the issue in The Times this weekend. But other no-no’s include nail clipping, pole-hogging, door-blocking and one set to debut in 2015 that states “Pole Are For Your Safety, Not Your Latest Routine.” The do’s urge riders to let others off, take off that bulky backpack and offer seats to elderly, disabled or pregnant riders. One urging straphangers to “keep the sound down” on headphones is a welcome addition.

Ultimately, these quality-of-life issues aren’t the most pressing for the MTA. They can help make our rides less tolerable, but they don’t expand the system or guarantee funding for modernization initiatives. Still, it’s telling that these are among the key issues facing the MTA and its riders. We should perhaps always be so lucky. After all, as the ads say, courtesy counts.



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If this foul-mouthed can figure this out, the rest of us should too, and it’s far better than being told, as we once were, that courtesy is contagious. I particularly enjoyed the puppets’ “Showtime!” routine at around the 45-second mark.

I’ll have more substantial material over the weekend. As a preview, check out David W. Dunlap’s excellent exploration of everyone’s favorite $4 billion subway station. There’s a lot to unpack in that piece, including a kicker that seems to indicate Santiago Calatrava tried to go back to the Port Authority for even more money when his designs fell short of expectations. As you can imagine, I have lots of thoughts on that piece, and I’ll share them soon.

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When it comes to proper subway behavior, I have Very Strong Opinions about things. I’m not a big fan of the “Showtime!” troupes who sweep folks out of the way on crowded subways to perform acrobatic feats that are often more feet than anything else (though I did see a good pole routine on a semi-empty train a few weeks back). I also believe that healthy adults with backpacks should them respectfully at their feet, and riders should generally take up the right amount of space without doing anything too disgusting or personal in public.

So when I heard about a wedding on an N train on Friday, I raised a quizzical eyebrow. Maybe it’s because I’m amidst planning my own wedding (or at least my fiancée is), but I find myself unable to grow too skeptical of a wedding. And as far as minimizing impact to other riders, this one was perfect. The bridge and groom were married on a Manhattan-bound N train at 3:30 p.m. on Friday afternoon of Thanksgiving Day weekend. The bride boarded the train at 36th St., and they performed the ceremony while crossing the Manhattan Bridge. That’s a low-traffic time on a low-traffic route.

The groom summed up this zany idea. “We’ve been through a lot. Good times, bad times, and a lot of the good times have taken place on the train,” Hector Irakliotis said. “Confessions of love, reconciliations, goofy, ridiculous conversations — the whole spectrum. In New York, you spend so much time on the train, we thought why not?”

As Gawker noted, it’s exceedingly easy to answer Irakliotis’ rhetorical question, but the bride’s reason is enough to melt anyone’s heart. “I’m originally from Ukraine, and each time we’d come back here, I’d say to Hector, ‘It doesn’t feel like home until I see the skyline as we’re crossing the bridge.’ And he remembered that. He planned it out specifically so that we’d see the skyline as we were married,” Tatyana Sandler said. Hopefully, we won’t be flooded with copy cats, but as many of my Twitter followers noted, a beaming bridge is far more preferable to a flying foot landing on a straphanger’s nose.

I’m traveling for business this week and will check in when I can. I don’t anticipate any breaking news but, with the subways, you never know.

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A fundamental question that isn’t often considered about New York City’s transit network concerns the adequacy of current service. Is a transit network that is essentially the same as it was in 1970 sufficient for New York City in 2014? Even if we flip ahead to 2020 when the 7 line extension, presumably, will be open, and the first phase of the Second Ave. Subway, presumably, will be open, not all that much will have changed over the past 50 years. Other than the advent of the MetroCard, improvements have been around the margins.

Very few things that are so integral to our everyday lives last five decades without change. Now, we can’t overlook new rolling stock and around $70 billion of investment in the region’s transit network, but we also can’t grow complacent. Complacency — or outright complaint — has led to where we are now. The MTA is reviled, and worse, the MTA’s forward progress seems to involve hauling a two-ton rock up a steep hill.

Nothing proves this point quite like the MTA’s Reinvention Commission report. I spoke earlier this week on my disappointment with the commission, and on Tuesday — two days before Thanksgiving — at 5:30 p.m. in a blatantly obvious attempt to bury a much-anticipated report that wound up saying very little, the MTA released the final draft. From the image on the cover of the sun setting on New York City to the fact that the report skirts the very issues that are fundamental to reinvention, the thing was designed to be good P.R. that’s ultimately ignored.

Over at Pedestrian Observations, Alon Levy has printed his very thorough examination of just why this report is so underwhelming. You should read his piece; there’s no reason for me to rehash his (or my) arguments. Instead, I want to look at three ways in which the MTA must be reinvented. I don’t the answers as to how — that’s a question above my current pay grade. But these are issues that have to be addressed for NYC to grow, and shockingly, it’s not all about a steady revenue stream.

1. The cost is too damn high. It’s been repeated everywhere for years, but the MTA’s construction costs are too high. For the amount of money they’ve spent on rather piddling subway extension north on 2nd Ave. or west to Hudson Yards, other countries build massive systems. The MTA’s construction costs are up to ten times higher than they should be. Why? Don’t ask the Reinvention Commission; they’re content with urging the MTA simply to “get the right work done faster and cheaper.”

2. Challenge the GCA … and the unions. A committee brought together by a politician isn’t about to go after two of the stronger interest groups in politics, but two of the main drivers behind the MTA’s high costs are contractors and labor. Someone with political capital will have to go after these two groups in order for the MTA to drive down its costs. Cuomo could have done that four years ago, but those were two interests that helped him gain office in the first place.

3. It all takes too long. Ask the MTA how long until we get countdown clocks at B Division stations, and the answer is, as it has been since 2011 or 2012, “three to five years.” Ask the MTA about a MetroCard replacement and the answer is still unclear. Figure out why it’s going to take over eight long years to build 2.5 miles of subway tunnel and three new stations along Second Ave., and you could win some sort of award. It’s been nearly 11 years since the MTA issued its Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Second Ave. Subway. Does that mean what we plan today won’t see the light of day until 2025? Considering that we as a city are barely planning anything, that’s not a good sign.

Start there; reinvent something. Otherwise, nothing will change.

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Earlier this year, in an attempt to save face on his lack of transportation policy, Gov. Andrew Cuomo appointed a who’s who of global transit experts to the so-called MTA Reinvention Commission, and then, nothing happened. The commission met a few times, but the meetings were underwhelming. Then as Election Day came and went, nothing arrived from the panel. It seemed as though Cuomo didn’t want the report to discuss MTA financing ahead of Election Day.

Now, though, the report — or at least an early draft of it — is out, and well, it’s boring. Dana Rubinstein got her hands on it, and you can read the thing at Capital New York (PDF links: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3). Here’s Rubinstein’s take:

The resulting report suggests that the M.T.A. continue to do some things it’s already doing (make its subways more resilient in cases of flooding, partner with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to improve access to the region’s airports), and some things it’s not…If the commission’s prescriptions occasionally border on underwhelming—it recommends, for example, that the M.T.A. remove the word “bus” from Select Bus Service to distinguish it from its less-sexy bus counterparts—the report’s description of purpose is strongly worded…

The M.T.A. underpins a New York metropolitan region that “accounts for 60 percent of the population of the state and 80 percent of its tax base, and contributes nearly 10 percent of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product,” the report says.

“Yet despite the value of the system that enables this success, even a cursory glance at peer regions around the world makes it clear that New York is significantly under-investing in its public transportation infrastructure,” it says. “The past is not prologue to the future: if New Yorkers want to continue to live in a world class region they must envision and develop a world class transit system.”

What’s Select Bus Service without the bus? Select Service? That makes no sense to anyone unfamiliar with the transit network, but I digress.

As Rubinstein notes, and as the report clearly details, the commission wants the MTA to continue its capital expansion plans, respond to the challenges of climate change, develop a next-gen fare payment system, build real BRT and, uh, do something about funding. What that something is what the commission punted on, and therein lies the problem.

Reinventing the MTA means answering very hard questions about funding schemes, transportation equity and who’s paying for and using what mode and how. It’s also about pushing politicians to take ownership over the MTA — which is a creation of the state — and it’s about building support for transit from all constituents who use it and their elected representatives. Sometimes that may mean angering smaller, more vocal constituent blocks to deliver something more beneficial to many. That’s just the reality of it.

Here, we have a commission of big names running away from the problem. It’s not clear, and probably never will be, if someone above them torpedoed the politically challenging aspects of transit support, but what we have, unsurprisingly, is a commission tasked with someone grand and delivering an obvious message on a small scale. It’s a reinvention commission that itself needs reinventing.

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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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