Archive for View from Underground

I know I promised an update on the potential New Jersey Transit strike, but I’m still not convinced service will shut down this weekend. It’s been decades since the last strike, and with region warning of crippling traffic and daily losses of millions of dollars, these things have a way of working themselves out at the last minute. I’ll post an update with the service advisories tomorrow night if the negotiations are not resolved by then. In the meantime, we’ll stay in New York City for today’s post.

@mtanyctransit Chairman and CEO Tom Prendergast speaks to ABNY this AM on reimagining the #MTA and the Capital Program #nyctransit #transportation #powerbreakfast

A photo posted by Association For A Better NY (@abetterny) on

A day after Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the MTA touted their new wifi-enabled buses as a possible cure-all for the city’s declining bus ridership, MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast spoke at a breakfast hosted by the Associate for a Better New York. ABNY is a relatively expansive non-profit that connects New Yorkers from all areas of business, and an MTA breakfast is something of an annual tradition. Usually, the MTA chief gives his version of a stump speech, and that is basically what Prendergast did yesterday. Some of his statements, however, gave me cause for concern. Let’s review the Tweets:

So this is a fairly non-controversial take on the MTA, but it betrays a lot of problems. New York City has planned and is still planning for growth without a proper transit reckoning. The city is trying to rezone for a good number of new units as part of the mayor’s affordable housing plan, but transit considerations are superficial. Developers will be encouraged to fund the equivalent of station rehabilitation efforts to beautify nearby subway stops. Service expansion — which, as any L train rider can tell you, is badly needed — isn’t part of the conversation, and even the One Vanderbilt contributions which are hailed as the paragon of private investment in transit are delivering wider platforms and a new entrances rather than additional service on the Lexington Ave. IRT.

Meanwhile, how many times can we attempt to reinvent the MTA before someone actually has to step in and do it? Just 15 months ago, the MTA Reinvention Commission released its report that didn’t actually reinvent the MTA, and now officials are talking about reinvention again. Any attempt at reinvention should focus around three questions: 1. Why does everything cost so much? 2. How can the MTA lower costs to build at prices competition with international peers? 3. How can the MTA speed up construction and implementation of projects designed to increase current service levels (i.e., signal or automation upgrades rather than megaproject construction)? If those aren’t the primary questions, reinvention is just code for shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic.

To be clear, this is essentially saying that ridership growth is happening all the time. Ridership may not be growing at rush hour because, for the most part, it can’t. Sure, we could fit additional passengers in some trains at certain points, but the MTA is closing in on tapping out of rush hour service. The issue now is that subways during off-peak service are nearly as crowded as rush hour trains because the MTA isn’t running trains frequently enough. That’s a more solvable problem than rush hour but one the MTA manipulates away through the load guidelines the agency sets for itself.

That’s a doozy of statement to make in public, and it’s certainly one at which I cringed yesterday. Much like a new paint job and USB charging ports, a nice station with cell service but a long wait for a train is putting lipstick on a pig, and it’s certainly not the approach officials should be promoting in public, even if in jest. But this seems to be where the MTA has settled these days. They can’t adequately address the service constraints without billions of dollars and years of disruptive construction so we get modern amenities designed to distract us from a system that can’t keep pace with ridership. That’s a big, big red flag. Where do we go next?

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Allow me to pose a question to you that is particularly fitting in light of yesterday’s post on the institutional challenges plaguing our subway system. What would you, dear reader, most like to see improved about the subways? In fact, for reasons that will soon become clear, let’s do it as a poll, and consider voting now rather than after reading this post.

What would you most like to see improved about the subways?
View Results

To me, where I sit in year 10 of maintaining this website, these choices are a haphazard collection of problems that do and do not plague the MTA. They come from the latest NY1/Baruch poll that was released earlier this week, and while I suspect my readers will come to a different conclusion, a plurality of New Yorkers, by more than a few percentage points, claimed that the number one thing they must want to see improved about the subway is more transit police. In a subsequent question, only 41 percent of New Yorkers say they feel somewhat or very safe riding the subway at night compared with 51 percent who claim they feel not so safe or not safe at all.

I’ve been trying to wrap my head around these results all day. Although there has been a slight uptick in subway crime in early 2016 compared with the same period in 2015, the crime stats are well below levels set in 2010-2014, and as recently as twenty years ago, the crime rates were three or four times higher than they are today. Even as NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton expresses surprise at subway crowds and fearmongers over crime, the perception remains — whether due to an increased presence of homeless denizens or lingering fears from people over 65 who remember the Bad Old Days and feel the least safe — that the subways are dangerous.

What needs to be improved about the subways. The results are surprising. (Click to enlarge)

I don’t view crime as the challenge the MTA faces in providing sufficient service for its 5.65 million riders per day, and yet, my top two choices — subways to more places and trains that are less crowded — both finished below something as superficial as cleaner stations. Every day New Yorkers — those who ride the subways because they have to rather than those of us who see it as the way to grow New York City — seem to want more of what they can see and have trouble conceptualizing a subway system the way it could be. (Perhaps that’s part of the psychology behind why Gothamist’s recent post on fantasy subway lines captivated its readers to such a high degree.)

For New York City to grow and remain competitive on the global market, for our streets to become less congested and for mobility to improve, the subway should go more places, and trains, due to increased service, should be less crowded. Of the choices from the NY1/Baruch poll, those are the two things I’d most like to see improved about the subways, and from them flow a host of different issues including the MTA’s inability to spend inefficiently and build quickly, its resistance to international rolling stock design standards, its slow pace of technological advancement, and the intractable labor issues that stand in the way of money-saving train operations improvements. These are the Inside Baseball problems that someone who hates the subways but rides them because they’re cheap, quick and better than driving through New York City congestion doesn’t care to understand.

How can we, as those who support robust investment in transit and desire an MTA that can build on par with London and Paris, let alone other cities spending more efficiently and building farther more quickly, bridge that gap? The NY1/Baruch poll features another dismaying result that shows just how far those fighting for transit have to go because it betrays that New Yorkers do not know who is actually in charge of the transit network. Take a peek at the results.

Who do New Yorkers think has power over the subways? Not the person who actually does. (Click to enlarge.)

You’ll see that 47% of New Yorkers think the mayor has more control over the subways while just 39% pinpoint the governor as the man in charge. Perhaps the results make intuitive sense, but the MTA has so isolated Albany from any responsibility that no one really knows who’s in charge. And if no one knows who is charge, as we saw from Governor Cuomo last year, no one has to act as though they’re in charge. Thus, we have New Yorkers who want more transit cops instead of better service, and a political body that doesn’t really have to do much of anything about any of it. And in related news, the MTA’s 2015-2019 five-year capital plan still hasn’t been approved by Albany, but is it really any wonder why not?

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A sight more common than New Yorkers would like to admit.

For years, civic-minded transit-watchers in New York City have warned of the legacy of deferred maintenance. As the story goes, the systemwide collapse the subway system suffered from the mid-1970s and mid-1980s was a result of defered maintenance brought about by a lack of revenue from fares kept artificially low throughout the early part of the Twentieth Century. It was supposed to be a cautionary tale that ended in 1981 when Richard Ravitch launched the MTA’s capital spending plans. By investing heavily in the system, the MTA could attempt to clear out a backlog of repairs while eying modernization and expansion projects that had lingered in purgatory. It’s a nice story, but the only problem is that, 35 years later, we’re still not out of the woods.

Today, the MTA suffers from a problem vastly different from the one it confronted in the 1970s and 1980s. The subway system is essentially too crowded. Average weekday ridership throughout 2015 reached 5,650,000, the subway system’s highest total since 1948, and a full 48 workdays saw ridership top 6 million. Those figures represent around a 1 percent increase over 2014’s totals, and if we see another jump in ridership this year, it’s not entirely clear where all those people will fit. Because the agency hasn’t caught up to current technological trends, because the MTA can’t really run more trains without a massively expensive and time-consuming investment in upgrading nearly every facet of its operations, subway service is going to continue to sag from overcrowding. The MTA is a victim of its own success and a victim of years of poor management and investment practices.

The latest deep dive into the MTA’s problems comes to us from Robert Kolker. He explored the MTA’s delay crisis through the lens of Friday, October 16, 2015, the day the gap fillers on the downtown local tracks at Union Square decided to take a vacation that threw off service along both the East and West Side IRT routes. The resulting article is a narrative tour de force that sums up the MTA’s nearly intractable problems. The subways are too crowded and too old while the MTA is too broke and too institutionally conservative to solve capacity constraints and technological innovation in a way that keeps up with ridership.

Kolker’s piece is a treasure trove of information on delays. As we learn, the MTA is pushing around 500,000 delayed trains per year, and the agency’s on-time performance numbers are abysmal. Even if wait assessment is a better indicator of reliable service, only 70 percent of trains are arriving at their terminals within five minutes of their scheduled times, and last year, just 43 percent of 4 trains, 39 percent of 5 trains and 46 percent of 6 trains were considered on time under the MTA’s loose definition.

As Kolker reports it, the MTA, in part, blames its crowds. There are too many people trying to shove themselves into trains that don’t run frequently enough to catch up with demand, and delays stem from everything from sick customers (which one MTA official blames on riders who skip breakfast) to extended dwell times. Here’s Kolker on these delays:

MTA executives are naturally defensive about the criticism. They argue that, unlike in the ’70s, the current problems are a result of their own success — the subways are more popular than ever and therefore more crowded. Six million people use the subways on a busy day now; since 2010 the system has added nearly half a million daily users. The 6 line alone is up by 200,000 daily riders compared to a few years ago. “It’s like the sponge is soaked and we’re adding more water,” says Calandrella. Rush-hour crowds can start at six; the evening rush extends past nine.

Fifteen of the subway system’s 21 lines (not including the shuttles) have maxed out the number of trains that can ride safely on the routes, and ten of those 15 lines are at peak riding capacity, which means when something goes wrong, the dispatchers have no wiggle room. The MTA has blamed some 40 percent of delays on the system’s high ridership numbers, and the agency has few good options for tempering the crowds, including converting the train-car stock to “open gangway” cars, which annex the dead space between cars and convert it into usable space for passengers, increasing capacity by perhaps as much as 10 percent. Other cities have taken to rationing access to crowded stations or jamming passengers into cars Tokyo style.

Throughout the article, Kolker traces budget issues, the slow pace of CBTC rollout, and the challenges the MTA has in bringing system expansion on line. The three and a half new stations that Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway promises to deliver sometime later this year or early next hardly seem sufficient considering crowds throughout the rest of the city. Despite all these real-life challenges that we know exist, I am struck by Kolker’s kicker. He writes:

There’s another argument that the real problem behind the increase in delays isn’t the culture of subway ridership or even a budget shortfall but the culture of the MTA. When the agency lowered its on-time goals, was it being realistic or accepting defeat? I’m reminded of the recent comptroller’s report and its condemnation of the MTA’s dysfunction. “Transit officials,” the report concluded, “had no formal corrective action plans or programs to minimize the chronic underlying problems that caused delays.” Instead, the delay problem is being picked apart by more than a dozen task forces, studies, and initiatives. It’s like they say in track-safety school: There’s no such thing as a simple shortcut. Only quicksand.

So where do we go from here? Based on the need to line up funding and conduct environmental studies and figure out why everything in New York City has to cost so damn much, the MTA’s 20-year needs look laughably out of reach, and yet, New York City needs the MTA to realize its 20-year needs tomorrow and its 40-year needs by the time 2020 rolls around. That ain’t happening, and as we’ve seen, even modest service increases that have to be planned six or eight months in advance can’t keep pace with ridership growth.

Is the answer open gangways, an idea the MTA is barely embracing in an order of 790 new subway car that are supposed to last throughout most of the rest of your life and mine? Is the answer a stagnant New York that can’t grow because the subways have room for marginal growth? Is the answer a city-run network that starts with a questionably-motivated streetcar that won’t see service for eight more years? Is the answer sighing in frustration while Paris and London engage in massive transit expansion projects while New York spins its wheels? It’s hard to be optimistic when the answers seems frustratingly insufficient and ineffective, but it’s hard to see where else we are right now other than stuck in a rut too deep to escape.

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The MTA’s new subway stations, such as 34th St.-Hudson Yards, are fully accessible, but the feds are putting pressure on the agency to make more older stations accessible as well. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

When it comes to the Americans with Disabilities Act, the MTA has a rather tortured history with accessibility improvements the agency needs to make. Due to ever-spiraling costs and issues regarding available space, the agency has likely not fulfilled its obligations to make stations accessible during rehabilitation work, and it has hid behind the shield of its list of 100 Key Stations that will be fully accessible within the next few years. A new report though exposes these efforts for what they were: insufficient and likely wasteful.

Most recently, the MTA has used accessibility issues to stonewall on reopening closed entrances. The agency has claimed at various points that restoring station access via entrances closed in the early 1990s would trigger ADA requirements that make efforts to reopen closed stairways cost-prohibitive. That seem concern didn’t lead the agency to make the Smith-9th Sts. station fully accessible during a multi-year, multi-hundred-million dollar renovation effort, but I digress.

Late last week, Andrew Tangel of The Wall Street Journal brought some attention to this issue. I quote at length:

The cost of making the New York City subway more accessible for disabled riders could rise by more than $1.7 billion as federal regulators prod the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to add elevators to more stations in the 111-year-old system. The higher price tag through 2019 for subway-station improvements represents an unforeseen potential expense for the MTA as it struggles to pay for a backlog of repair and expansion projects…

At issue is how the nation’s largest transit system complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act, a 1990 federal law aimed at making public spaces accessible to those who have difficulty climbing stairs and may rely on a cane or wheelchair. The MTA quantified the potential increase in station costs in a recent filing for investors who buy the authority’s bonds, citing stricter federal guidelines for complying with the 25-year-old law. The Federal Transit Administration’s push is the latest bout in a decadeslong fight over making MTA’s sprawling network more accessible for the disabled. Advocates for the disabled and a former top MTA official say the authority has moved too slowly in making the city’s now 469 subway stations more accessible. An MTA spokesman said the authority is sensitive to disabled riders’ needs and has been working to improve accessibility…

As pressure to accommodate disabled passengers began to grow years ago, the MTA and other transportation agencies around the country invested in making bus systems more accessible and paratransit services that offer automobile rides for the disabled, said Howard Roberts, a former top official at the MTA. “It turns out that was a horrendously bad decision,” Mr. Roberts said. “It probably has turned out to be … a hundred times more expensive to go with buses and paratransit than it would have been to bite the bullet and simply rehabilitate the stations and put elevators in.”

…The federal government, which provides a major chunk of funding for transportation funding nationwide, aimed to clarify how local agencies should comply with the law, this former federal official said. That could mean triggering ADA-required improvements—including expensive elevators—sooner than local agencies might have planned. That has resulted in a behind-the-scenes tug of war between federal and MTA officials. Inside the MTA, officials have balked at the suggestion the agency must install elevators when it makes repairs to subway-station staircases, according to people familiar with the matter…A Federal Transit Administration spokeswoman said in an email that the agency has been “advising MTA for years to comply with ADA during renovation projects.”

You may wonder why no one has sued the MTA over ADA violations, and this is a question I’ve asked recently as well. I’ve been led to believe that the disabilities advocacy groups are facing funding issues and simply have not been able to raise the money to fund the lawsuits necessary to force the MTA’s hand on this issue. (Roberts’ words too are rather damning for similar reasons.)

As you can see, the feds are applying pressure as they can — which could end up jeopardizing the MTA’s access to certain federal dollars — but ultimately, this is an issue of misplaced priorities and lost opportunities. We can debate for hours whether the ADA, an unfunded federal mandate, is a net positive for everyone, but the MTA should be creating an accessible system that doesn’t rely on the money-suck that is Paratransit. For the dollars flushed down the drain, the MTA could have vastly expanded elevator access at subway stops around the city. Instead, only 22 percent of stations are accessible, and as the population ages, this problem will become more pronounced. Your ideas for solving this are as good as mine, but the MTA could start by reassessing its interpretation of the ADA.

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NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, left, found the subways to be quite crowded during a ride last week. He shouldn’t have been so surprised. (Via Twitter)

I don’t tend to cover subway crime much on these pixeled pages. As a storyline, subway crime tends more toward clickbait than real coverage with the city’s tabloids preying on decades’-old fears of the subways a hot bed for crime. The reality is far more boring with the NYPD reporting less than seven major felonies per day in the subway, a far cry from even as recently as 1997 when major felonies topped 17 per day. The subways are very safe, and that truth makes for dull press.

Now and then, though, something related to subway crime draws me in. This story is tangentially related to the “spate” of subway slashings. I use “spate” with some trepidation as six incidents in January is hardly a sign of a return to the bad old days, but these crimes follow a pattern. Two people have a heated interaction on a crowded subway car or platform, one slashes the other and flees. The cops have made three arrests and are investigating the other three, including one that unfolded this past weekend.

The slashings, in and of themselves, are warnings to be wary of altercations underground, but the NYPD’s reaction has been telling. To assess safety underground, NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton last week decided to ride the subway — with some fellow higher-ups and a security detail — to assess the safety of the subways. He proclaimed the subways “very safe” and added, “As [NYPD Chief of Department] Jimmy [O’Neill] and I found out this morning, they’re jammed in there like sardines. It’s amazing anyone can assault anyone. People can’t move in some of those cars.”

So it is early 2016 and apparently news to the police official in charge of the entire department that the subways are crowded and room is at a premium. Stop the presses indeed.

Bratton’s attitude and words are indicative of a bigger divide in New York City politics that comes about from granting so many top officials, elected and appointed, the perk of free parking and drivers. These leaders do not take the subways and view the subways and subway riders as “other.” Rather than experiencing the city as so many New Yorkers do on a daily basis through the lens of an hour or more spent riding subways each day, they view the subways as this thing that people who aren’t them — people who are the Other — use. The subways remain vaguely unknown and unsafe. Thus, crowded trains are all hours are viewed as a sign things are hunky dory underground.

It’s true as Bratton surmised, that crowds indicate safety. On a basic level, this indicates safety in numbers as the more riders there are, the safer we all feel. Plus, if millions of people didn’t feel safe taking the subway, the trains would be as empty today as they were during the doldrums of the late 1970s and early 1980s. As an infrequent rider, Bratton drew that seemingly common-sense solution, and he’s not wrong. But he’s also not quite right.

As trains get more crowded, the safety concerns manifest themselves in other ways. Subway riders — especially women — are more worried about sexual harassment and assault in the subways. After all, crowded trains give those so inclined cover for inappropriate contact or worse. Bratton wouldn’t pick up on that nuance if he were only last week discovering how crowded trains were. Riders too are worried about confrontations as space on peak hour trains is at a premium. These slashings have arisen over disputes over seats or standing space or those blocking doorways. With trains packed, we grow protective over our square feet, and watching the MTA’s service strain to meet peak-hour capacity means tense crowds and confrontations that can spiral out of control quickly. This too is not something an infrequent rider would immediately notice.

So what’s the solution? I don’t believe we should force politicians to take the subway. Such a requirement leads to disenchantment and bitterness, and it doesn’t help anyone understand the ins and outs of daily life with the subway. Rather, officials and politicians should take the subway because they want to learn and understand what their constituents experience and want to see the city through the eyes of its millions of transit riders. It’s an instructive way to understand the concerns of the millions of people who ride the subway each day. Thus, politicians and key officials would learn how safety concerns are implicated and what crowded trains mean, and subway riders would become the Normal rather than the Other. As the Other, we’ll be treated at arm’s length. As the Normal, conditions can improve in the right way for the better.

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Now that the dust has settled on Andrew Cuomo’s transportation and infrastructure tour of New York, the Empire State’s political watchers have had time to digest and assess the governor’s proposals. Inspired Robert Moses, the Master Builder who has been no stranger to controversy in life or death, Cuomo has promoted a bunch of plans aimed at improving the way people get into and out of New York City with only a superficial proposal to improve the customer experience for subway riders rather than system capacity or reach. A new Penn Station might be aesthetically pleasing, but where is the firm commitment to see through Gateway Tunnel, a project that, unlike those proposed last week, will extend well beyond the end of Cuomo’s tenure as governor?

I’ve said my share over the past few days, and I reiterated yesterday, these proposals, especially with regards to the subway system and inter-borough transit, leave me wanting more. But Cuomo likes his flashy ideas and hasn’t shown a willingness to take on bigger issues, including spending efficiencies, work-rule reform, and project staffing levels. But enough from me; let’s heard what everyone else has to say.

We start with cost. How much is this all going to cost? Well, according to a Cuomo aide, the full spending package comes in at $100 billion dollars which leads me to play this video clip for you:

It’s not clear how Cuomo’s team arrived this figure, what it includes and doesn’t include or how they’re going to fund $100 billion worth of infrastructure projects. But that is one large number, and already, commentators are wondering how Cuomo will fund it. As Jimmy Vielkind explored today, everyone is focused on cost. “Where’s the money going to come from?” John DeFrancisco, a State Senator from Syracuse, asked yesterday. “Once again, this sounds great — running around the state telling people a wonderful thing for them. But you have to take a look at what the cost is and what the other dollars could be used for.”

Vielkind adds:

For infrastructure, the state has a pot of $2.1 billion in un-budgeted proceeds from settlements and penalties wrought by the Department of Financial Services against major banks and insurers, $650 million of which was secured in the past year. Last year, Cuomo directed a much larger pot of settlement money to the Thruway Authority, to settle a dispute with the federal government over Medicaid over-billing and to fund an economic development competition.

The state currently projects spending between $3 billion and $4 billion for capital projects during the next four years, and borrowing another $6.5 billion to $7 billion for capital needs. Between 40 percent and 45 percent of that is marked for spending on transportation.

Some of this should factor into the $22 billion for upstate roads and bridges, but it’s unclear how much and exactly what programs — money for the Thruway Authority? A toll rebate program? $200 million for airports? — Cuomo has put into that overall number.

Meanwhile, Move New York proponents see Cuomo’s proposals as another opportunity to push through a rational traffic pricing plan. As Erik Engquist detailed, congestion pricing proponents see the revenue generated by the plan as a way to fund infrastructure improvements while disincentivizing driving. After all, Cuomo spent considerable time on Friday discussing mass transit usage as the best and most reliable way to ensure continually growth in and around New York City, and what better way to achieve that goal than to start pricing traffic as it should be?

But beyond the lofty price tags, a pair of pieces raise concerns regarding Cuomo’s approach. This too is a point I brought up last week. Much like Cuomo’s ill-conceived Laguardia AirTrain idea, his infrastructure projects aren’t the ones advocates view as most necessary, and many come across as aesthetic fixes to institutional problems or, in other words, lipstick on a pig. Jeremy Smerd in Crain’s says the governor has leapfrogged his agencies:

His love for a big project with his fingerprints on it seems to ignore the careful planning undertaken by the agencies charged with thinking about these things. The governor last week proposed adding a third track to the Long Island Rail Road—a project that was not important enough to make it into the MTA’s capital plan—and a Long Island-Westchester car tunnel that has gone nowhere since being conceived in the 1960s. His $1 billion idea to expand the Javits Center seems as slapdash as his plan four years ago to put a convention center next to Aqueduct. Consider that a similar Javits plan pegged at $1.7 billion in 2005 was canceled when the Spitzer administration found it would cost as much as $5 billion.

Cuomo’s vision for Penn Station seems equally curious. Rather than right a historical wrong that saw the destruction of the original Beaux-Arts building, he will keep Madison Square Garden, severely limiting the ability to bring light and space into the station’s congested warrens. The plan also appears to ignore a binding agreement giving the Related Cos. and Vornado Realty Trust the right to develop the Farley post office across the street into Moynihan Station. If these ideas are not coming from the agencies overseeing infrastructure, where are they coming from?

And finally, in a piece I’ll return to later this week, Philip M. Plotch and Nicholas D. Bloom urge the governor to get New York’s current infrastructure house in order before over-extending for expansive and expensive projects that don’t adequately address capacity concerns. I have some disagreements with Plotch and Bloom’s piece that I’ll discuss in a day or two, but they bring up some valid points regarding capital priorities. In the end, the overall reaction to Cuomo’s plans seems to be that $100 billion could be better spent and somehow doesn’t go far enough.

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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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