Before delving into the renovation, expansion and purchase plans buried in the MTA’s proposed 2010-2014 capital plan, we have to face the fiscal reality of the package. The MTA needs this $25.5 billion to maintain its system in a state of good repair but has just $15.6 billion at its disposal right now. Where the remaining $9.9 billion will come from is anyone’s guess.

In laying out the proposal for this capital plan, the MTA is very upfront with this budget gap. “Even with this $6 billion of new bonding capacity” — from the recent Albany rescue package — “a funding gap of $9.9 billion still remains to be filled to meet all the needs identified in the proposed MTA 2010-2014 Capital Program,” the report reads. “In the absence of additional support from the MTA’s funding partners, the MTA’s ability to maintain its network in good repair and address assets past due for replacement will be severely compromised.”

With this gap in mind, let’s see how the MTA plans to fund the remaining $15.6 billion investment. Some of the assumptions found in the proposed capital plan may lead to a wider-than-expected gap:

Federal Formula Funds: The MTA expects $8.175 billion from the Federal Transportation Funding Reauthorization Act. This bill will hit Congress late in the year, and the authority is “seeking significant increases in federal transit subsidies consistent with the Federal Transit Administration’s recognition of the substantial backlog in investments needed for state-of-good repairs across the country.” The authority is assuming they can receive “a 25% increase in base funding levels.” I am optimistic that the Feds will deliver.

Federal Security Funding: The MTA is planning for $225 million in grants from the Department of Homeland Security. This figure is consistent with current funding levels with a bump by a few million so that the MTA can expand its security programs. I see no potential roadblocks here either.

City of New York Capital Funds: Here, the MTA expects the city to up its contributions from $80 million a year to $100 million a year. Considering Mayor Bloomberg’s recently calls for an MTA overhaul, $500 out of a $25 billion investment program seems to be a token gesture. Perhaps the agency should put more pressure on the city to deliver money to the capital program.

MTA Bus Funding – Federal and City Match: The MTA will receive $160 million over five years through this program. Per the report, “With the MTA takeover of the City private bus lines in 2004, federal funds previously allocated to the City for these properties are now transferred annually to the MTA. As part of the transfer, New York City has agreed to provide the match for the required grant funding.”

MTA Bonds: Again, per the report, “During its 2009 session, the New York State legislature approved new revenue sources adequate to support debt service on $6 billion of new bonds.”

Asset Sales/Pay-As-You-Go Capital/or Other Internal Sources: This $600-million chunk will come from, as you might guess, asset or property sales or other sources. It will “provide support” for 2010 and 2011 only.

Generally, these funding sources are secure. The MTA should be able to wrestle the 25 percent increases out of the Federal Government and the City of New York. But that still leaves the capital program short by nearly 40 percent.

Starting now, the MTA is going to have to do a lot of begging, and that’s just one of the reasons why the State Senate needs to approve Jay Walder as the new agency head. The MTA cannot afford to be in the grips of an interim director at a time when it has to secure $10 billion in funding for a key capital campaign. The money has to be there; the leadership has to be there; the investment has to be there. As always, New York City depends up on it.

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The overhaul of 34th St. continues.

Updated 1:50 p.m.: As the city and the MTA continue the joint project that will turn 34th St. into a river-to-river transitway, New Yorkers will again witness yet another attempt by the MTA to implement bus arrival boards. The latest iteration of bus-tracking technology will use satellite and GPS technology to bring passengers along 34th St. real-time arrival information.

For the MTA, bus-tracking technology has turned into something of a bugaboo. The agency has spent the better part of two decades and countless millions in attempts that have failed to bring a technology readily available throughout the world online in New York. In March, I eulogized the bus tracking plan as the MTA killed it for the second time. Now, though, agency and city officials claim they have found the winning combination. So will the third time be the charm or will it be three strikes for the MTA’s technology implementation efforts?

Michael Grynbaum had the news on City Room this morning:

Electronic countdown displays will be installed at shelters along the heavily trafficked 34th Street crosstown route, allowing riders to see how many minutes are left until the next bus shows up, according to two officials familiar with the plans.

Satellite tracking and GPS devices will allow computers at the bus stop to estimate arrival times, as part of a pilot program organized by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the city’s transportation department. The project is set to be announced on Tuesday by city officials, including Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

The bus-tracking technology will be installed and provided without charge by Clever Devices, a Long Island firm that implemented a similar system in Chicago in 2006, the officials said. After an initial pilot stage, the Chicago program, called Bus Tracker, was later expanded to that city’s entire bus route, and now includes online and mobile applications.

So this time, the MTA and DOT are going with a company that, based on its website, actually seems to know what it’s doing. That’s a relief.

Meanwhile, according to Grynbaum’s story, Mayor Bloomberg compared the 34th St. implementation to military tracking. The mayor said the project will rely on “mesh network technology, similar to that used to track military vehicles in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

According to Streetsblog, the arrival boards at eight stations along the street are up and running right now. I’ll try to get some pictures later in the week. Meanwhile, neither the MTA nor city has expressed any plans for a city-wide implementation if this 34th St. test is successful. I have to believe, however, that this program will quickly expand if Clever Devices can deliver. It’s about time.

Categories : Buses, MTA Technology
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Over the next few days, I’m going to delve into some in-depth analysis of transit plans, proposals and projected spending. Both Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to reform mass transit and the MTA’s own proposed $25.5 billion capital plan for 2010-2014 will dominate this week’s coverage on Second Ave. Subway.

Before we begin that journey, though, it’s important to remember just why transit matters. It’s easy to toss out numbers and platitudes: Subway ridership is at 50-year highs; numerous subway lines are operating at — or even above — capacity. What though would New York City look like without a subway system?

In a thought-provoking post on his blog Frumination, Michael Frumin explored a New York City without a subway system. If the city were laid out the same but we all drove cars instead of riding the rails, life in the city would resemble a Big Parking Lot instead of a Big Apple:

From 8:00AM to 8:59 AM on an average Fall day in 2007 the NYC Subway carried 388,802 passengers into the CBD on 370 trains over 22 tracks. In other words, a train carrying 1,050 people crossed into the CBD every 6 seconds. Breathtaking if you ask me. Over this same period, the average number of passengers in a vehicle crossing any of the East River crossings was 1.20. This means that, lacking the subway, we would need to move 324,000 additional vehicles into the CBD…

At best, it would take 167 inbound lanes, or 84 copies of the Queens Midtown Tunnel, to carry what the NYC Subway carries over 22 inbound tracks through 12 tunnels and 2 (partial) bridges. At worst, 200 new copies of 5th Avenue. Somewhere in the middle would be 67 West Side Highways or 76 Brooklyn Bridges. And this neglects the Long Island Railroad, Metro North, NJ Transit, and PATH systems entirely.

Of course, at 325 square feet per parking space, all these cars would need over 3.8 square miles of space to park, about 3 times the size of Central Park. At that point, who would want to go to Manhattan anyway?

At Transportation for America, Stephen Lee Davis noted that Frumin’s post highlights “the invisible benefits” of a transit system. I’d call that a slight to public transportation.

There is nothing invisible about the New York City subways and its tangible positive impact on the city. The subways may be under ground, but we see them every day. We see density and a compact central business district. We see less sprawl and smaller carbon footprints. We see fewer cars per capita, fewer miles driven and less gas burned than any other city in America.

As we debate the merits of Mayor Bloomberg’s call to restore more control of the transit system to the city, as we look at the MTA’s request for tens of billions of dollars over the next five years, we can’t lose sight of the importance of the subway system. Without it, New York would be a car-choked city with nowhere to go and no character. With the current one, underfunded and under-maintained as it may be, the city moves and at a good pace too. As we look to the transit future, we can’t forget that reality or the threat of a city without a subway.

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Over the last 27 years, the MTA has invested $75 billion in a series of capital plans designed to boost transit infrastructure in the city. From its nadir in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the MTA has slowly worked toward a state of good repair with a complete overhaul of the system’s rolling stock, the introduction of electronic fare payment systems, station rehabilitation plans and the start of the system’s first new subway line in over eight decades.

Yet, as New York City grows, as transit ridership increases, as the system grows older and technology ages, the MTA needs to invest more and more into the system. Every year, as roads and drivers are subsidized, the MTA and New York City’s transit advocates face uphill battles in securing the billions needed for New York City’s subways.

Today, with ample time for public comment, the MTA has released a proposed draft of its 2010-2014 capital plan. It is a $25.5 billion plan with core infrastructure and technology needs accounting for nearly three-quarters of the five-year expenditure plan. The agency also released a twenty-year draft calling for over $80 billion in capital investment.

Over the next few days, I’ll delve in depth into the massive PDF presentation of the proposed capital plan. For now, let’s look at the MTA’s top-line proposals. As the agency’s site on the plan says, “many of the proposed investments repair and replace fundamental components of the transit system.”

  • More than 500 new subway cars, 2,800 buses and 410 rail cars;
  • Signal improvements and upgrades for the commuter railroads and subways;
  • Station renovations, including the introduction of a new program that targets necessary component improvements; and,
  • Improved access for the disabled including audio-visual screens, low-floor buses, elevators, paratransit vehicles and ADA-compliant stations.

Meanwhile, new technologies take centerstage in this five-year plan as well. The MTA is calling for full investment in “a new contactless fare payment system to more fully integrate regional travel.” The agency wants to bring “real-time customer information” online. On the ground, the following initiatives make up a substantial part of the plan as well:

  • Bus rapid transit initiatives, using low-floor buses, off-board fare collection, dedicated bus lanes and signal prioritization to speed bus service;
  • New train control systems to increase capacity and safety on subways and commuter railroads; and,
  • New subway transfers and strategic commuter rail investments to make the existing system work better for customers.

Finally, we get to the big-ticket expansion items. The Second Ave. Subway is still limited to just Phase I, but it’s better than nothing. Unfortunately, these items are, for the most part, projects continued from the current capital plan. To adequately meet the demands, the MTA will need a far-reaching plan that transcends the limitations of a five-year investment period. Anyway, here they are:

  • First phase of the Second Avenue Subway, which will relieve overcrowding on the Lexington Avenue subway lines and carry more than 200,000 customers;
  • East Side Access, which will bring save 76,000 daily customers up to 40 minutes a day by bringing LIRR trains to Grand Central;
  • Extension of the 7 subway line to 34th Street and 11th Avenue, which will support development of Manhattan’s Far West Side;
  • Study of Staten Island’s North and West Shore travel corridors, which will identify ways to support faster and more reliable transit service on Staten Island;
  • Queens Boulevard Corridor study, which will evaluate solutions for meeting today’s high demand and serving projected population and employment growth as well; and,
  • Continued study of Tappan Zee corridor, which will evaluate alternatives for the Bridge, including transit, to reduce congestion and improve mobility.

These documents are tough to digest in short order, and over the next few days, I’ll highlight the innovative aspects and much-needed parts of them. Expect a lot more analysis and a big political fight over the MTA’s future. That $25 billion price tag is steep, but not investing in transit will leave the city in a hole far larger than that.

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A rendering of the soon-to-be completed Atlantic Terminal LIRR entrance.

For years, the LIRR entrance at the Atlantic Terminal has been shrouded in construction. While the Atlantic Terminal mall opened in 2004 with promises of a rebuilt LIRR entrance to follow, the project has been encumbered by seemingly never-ending delays. Shocking, I know.

While I was away on vacation, The Local, The Times’ Fort Greene and Clinton Hill blog, dug into the causes behind the delay. In response to a reader query into the state of the delays, Michael Szeto uncovered an answer — and a revised timeline — for the project:

According to a spokesman for the Long Island Railroad, the project at Atlantic Terminal will be completed this fall. There are two phases of construction and the final phase is being completed now.

The first phase of the project involved Flatbush Station improvements. It was completed on time in 2005. The last phase centers on the new entrance pavilion that was scheduled for completion in 2007 but “unforeseen site conditions,” according to a spokeswoman for the LIRR, extended the project for two more years. There was a need for additional steel and building materials and the work areas were smaller than expected, which slowed the pace of construction, the spokeswoman said.

It is of course both surprising and not to hear about the reasons for the delay. The project needed more materials and the work space, hardly a secret when the MTA fielded bids on the entrance, ended up being “smaller than expected.” No wonder Mayor Bloomberg wants to trim some of the bureaucratic mess from the MTA and streamline internal operations.

We never hear about the penalties built into the contracts the MTA awards to contractors who can’t finish projects on time or near budget. I have to hope, however, that the authority is not on the hook for what seems to be, over and over again, a faulty bidding system. Getting the lowest bid would seemingly save the authority money, but then again, they get what they pay for.

Categories : LIRR
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While I was away last week, Mayor Michael Bloomberg decided to jump into the well-trodden transit fray. Bill covered Bloomberg’s 33-point plan for a better transit system in a guest post last week, but I want to offer up a few of my own thoughts on this plan. I’ll have a few more posts on the specifics of Bloomberg’s plan as this week goes on.

The main gist behind Bloomberg’s call is a desire to see mass transit improvements in and around New York City. To that end, Bloomberg’s mayoral campaign has released a comprehensive list of suggestions that aren’t too original. He wants to take on the “bloated bureaucracy” of the MTA in a “cost-effective and responsible manner.” He also wants the authority to embrace some new and some not-so-new technologies that “would reduce costs and provide better service for riders.”

Platitudes aside, Bloomberg’s plan has some concrete ideas. He wants to add F Express service to Brooklyn — a plan for which I have advocated for a few years and one that can’t be implemented until the Culver Viaduct work is finished. He wants countdown clocks on every platform, and each station in a state of good repair. He wants more bus rapid transit service, more ParaTransit service, free crosstown buses and a comprehensive bus-tracking system. The plan also includes expanded ferry routes and more high-occupancy car lanes.

From a policy perspective, Bloomberg’s plan sounds great. He is, after all, pushing many proposals I and many other transit advocates have called for over the last few years. Yet, something about it seems less than sincere. It’s a populist plan designed to tap into public sentiment over the MTA at a time when Bloomberg needs to appear to be a mayor of the people. The MTA always has made for a great whipping boy.

Politically, though, and practically, Bloomberg’s plan runs into some trouble. He controls just four of the MTA Board’s 17 seats, and most of his top-line initiatives — the administrative trimming that the MTA really needs — are out of his hands. He can’t cut the bureaucratic tape; he can’t implement the technology via any other city-run agencies; he can’t control fare policies. He can push his plan in TV spots and campaign appearances, but his hands are mostly tied.

I say “mostly tied” because Bloomberg has a few economic options at his disposal should he choose to pursue them. First, Bloomberg must recognize that many of the roadblocks his proposals face are monetary in nature. The MTA simply does not have the money to install countdown clocks at every station or implement a city-wide bus tracking system. To get these much-needed improvements back on track, the MTA needs money, and Bloomberg could deliver the bucks by upping the city’s contributions to authority. With the city strapped for cash though, I wouldn’t hold my breath here.

Second, Bloomberg could tighten the ability of cars to get around the city. He could push for congestion pricing. He can push for bridge tolls. He can push for higher on-street parking rates, higher registration fees and generally higher anything that taxes car drivers. By doing so, he would be putting a lot of indirect political pressure on the state and the MTA to provide better and more comprehensive service to the region.

As a transit advocate, I love Bloomberg’s ideas. I love seeing transit proposals dominate the mayoral race. I love seeing papers giving serious attention to transit policy and proposals. I know that it is not really feasible for Bloomberg to push his plan through, and I know he’s putting this out there for political purposes. Maybe though it’s the start we need for a comprehensive transit overhaul to arrive.

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Weekend service advisories

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Sorry for the delay in getting these up. I got back home last night and am attempting to overcome jet lag. The 15-inning Yankees/Red Sox marathon didn’t help.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, August 8 to 5 a.m. Monday, August 10, Bronx-bound 2 trains skip Bronx Park East, Pelham Parkway, Allerton Avenue and Burke Avenue due to signal work at East 180th Street.

From 12:01 a.m. to 6 a.m. Saturday, August 8 and from 12:01 a.m. to 8 a.m. Sunday, August 9, Brooklyn-bound 2 and 4 trains skip Bergen Street, Grand Army Plaza and Eastern Parkway due to switch work near Eastern Parkway.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, August 8 to 5 a.m. Monday, August 10, Manhattan-bound 6 trains run express from Hunts Point Avenue to 3rd Avenue due to platform edge rehabilitation at Cypress Avenue, East 143rd Street, East 149th Street and Longwood Avenue stations.

From 12:01 a.m. to 5 a.m. Saturday, August 8, Manhattan-bound A trains skip Shepherd Avenue, Van Siclen Avenue and Liberty Avenue due to track cleaning.

From 12:01 a.m. to 5 a.m. Sunday, August 9, Manhattan-bound A trains skip Rockaway Avenue and Ralph Avenue due to track cleaning.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, August 8 to 5 a.m. Monday, August 10, Brooklyn-bound D trains skip DeKalb Avenue and run express from Pacific Street to 36th Street due to track chip-out at DeKalb Avenue.

From 12:30 a.m. Saturday, August 8 to 5 a.m. Monday, August 10, Manhattan-bound D trains run local from 36th Street to DeKalb Avenue due to a track chip-out at DeKalb Avenue.

From 12:30 a.m. Saturday, August 8 to 5 a.m. Monday, August 10, Queens-bound E trains run local from Queens Plaza to Forest Hills-71st Avenue due to power substation rehab work.

From 11:30 p.m. Friday, August 7 to 5 a.m. Monday, August 10, Manhattan-bound E trains run local from Forest Hills-71st Street to Queens Plaza due to power substation rehab work.

From 11:30 p.m. Friday, August 7 to 5 a.m. Monday, August 10, Queens-bound F trains run local from 21st Street-Queensbridge to Forest Hills-71st Avenue due to power cable work north of Roosevelt Avenue.

From 11:30 p.m. Friday, August 7 to 5 a.m. Monday, August 10, Manhattan-bound F trains run local from Forest Hills-71st Avenue to 21st Street-Queensbridge due to power substation rehab work.

From 8:30 p.m. Friday, August 7 to 5 a.m. Monday, August 10, there is no G service between Forest Hills-71st Avenue and Court Square. Customers should take the E or R instead.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, August 8 to 5 a.m. Monday, August 10, Manhattan-bound N trains run on the D line from Stillwell Avenue to 36th Street due to track panel installation.

From 12:30 a.m. Saturday, August 8 to 5 a.m. Monday, August 10, Brooklyn-bound N trains run on the R line from Canal Street to 59th Street-4th Avenue due to track chip-out at DeKalb Avenue.

From 12:30 a.m. Saturday, August 8 to 5 a.m. Monday, August 10, Manhattan-bound N trains run on the R line from 36th Street to Canal Street due to track chip-out at DeKalb Avenue.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, August 8 to 5 a.m. Monday, August 10, Brooklyn-bound Q trains run on the R line from Canal Street to DeKalb Avenue due to track chip-out at DeKalb Avenue.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, August 8 to 5 a.m. Monday, August 10, Q trains run local between Canal Street and 57th Street due to a track chip-out at DeKalb Avenue.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, August 8 to 5 a.m. Monday, August 10, Coney Island-bound Q trains run express from Prospect Park to Kings Highway, bypassing Newkirk Avenue due to station rehabilitation.

From 5 a.m. to midnight Saturday, August 8 and Sunday, August 9, there are no R trains between Forest Hills-71st Street and 36th Street (Brooklyn) due to power cable work north of Roosevelt Avenue. The EFNQ trains provide alternate service.

Categories : Service Advisories
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It’s the end of the week and time to wrap up my guest stint here at Second Avenue Sagas. Thank you to Ben for the opportunity to share my work with other people who are interested in what I consider one of the greatest public transportation systems in the world.

I missed this story in the Daily News about the NYC Transit auditions for new station announcers. According to the article, potential ethereal voices are being culled from among subway conductors and motormen to cover fifteen posts throughout the system, and there is money in the budget for 14 additional posts down the road. A followup article reported that an unemployed chauffer, not even employed by NYC Transit, decided to audition as well.

In my interviews with passengers over the past several years, one of the foremost complaints that I have received about sound in the subway is the difficulty of understanding announcements in the trains and on platforms. Although the occasional tourist has a hard time understanding service changes because of the accent of the transmitted voice, most breakdowns in communication can be chalked up to technological malfunctions. Broken speakers, overpowering electronic buzzes, or crackling sounds due to a short in the wiring can all get in the way of clear communication if the public address system is not sufficiently maintained.

The introduction of automated, pre-recorded service advisories, voiced by Bloomberg Radio personalities, in the new R142 trains that have been running on IRT lines since 2000 are certainly an improvement. But even in those trains, sudden changes in schedules require the interjection of live announcements, often susceptible to the same issues mentioned above that other cars and station PA systems face. Although most planned service changes are announced with signs posted in stations, trains are regularly delayed or diverted from their normal routes for a variety of reasons, and in these instances the only way for passengers to know what is happening is to listen to the announcements. To make things worse, some stations – a whopping 35% of them as recently as 2005 – still don’t have PA systems installed.

I’d like to hear from you. Does your station have announcements? Do you have a hard time hearing them? Have you seen NYCTA workers walking through the trains taking decibel measurements of car speakers? Leave your thoughts in the comments, and if you’re really interested or opinionated about the issue, please take this survey on sound and the subway to contribute to my research. Thank you, New York!

Bill Bahng Boyer splits his time between Brooklyn and New Hampshire, where he is a visiting fellow at the Dartmouth College Leslie Center for the Humanities. He’s currently completing his dissertation, titled “Public Hearing: Sonic Encounters and Social Responsibility in the New York City Subway System,” for a Ph.D. from NYU. In his free time, Bill plays the sanshin in HappyFunSmile, a New York-based Okinawan and Japanese pop band.

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Susie Tanenbaum

Susie Tanenbaum

Arguably the definitive book on musical performance in the spaces of public transportation, Underground Harmonies: Music and Politics in the Subways of New York, by Susie Tanenbaum, presents an insightful and fascinating portrayal of the culture of music that has existed for decades in the stations of New York’s subway, adroitly drawing research techniques from urban anthropology, sociology, social history, cultural studies, constitutional law, political theory, urban planning, folklore, and urban ecology. Earlier this week I met with Ms. Tanenbaum in her office at Queens Borough Hall and had the opportunity to ask her about Underground Harmonies and the work she has been doing on behalf of local musicians and artists since the book’s completion.

It’s been nearly 15 years since Underground Harmonies was published. Are you happy with the book’s reception?
At the risk of sounding cliché, writing Underground Harmonies was an absolute labor of love. It meant a lot to me to be able to write about subway music as this incredibly special public space phenomenon, one that makes a difference to countless people as they go through their daily urban routine, one that legitimates the subways as a cultural venue, one that places value on subjective experience, and one that encourages people – complete strangers – to communicate across ethnic/racial boundaries without the need for advertising or other corporate packaging. It’s gratifying to know that UH was the first book written about NYC subway music; 15 years later, I’m thrilled to get contacted from time to time by researchers (like you) and documentarians.

Do you think it had an effect on conversations about public transportation and the arts?
I’m not sure I can gauge UH’s impact on conversations about public transportation and the arts. In January, I was invited to speak at a national transportation conference, and I was told that this was the first time the association (with membership in the tens of thousands) had organized a panel on arts in transit. Maybe work like mine, and yours, will become more relevant as transit experts and mavens pay more & more attention to aesthetics. The Know Your Rights Guide that I wrote after the book, in collaboration with City Lore: The Center for Urban Folk Culture, which is now on City Lore’s web site, may have had a greater impact on conversations between subway performers and police.

Have you noticed any changes in the situation of live musical performance in the New York subways in the past fifteen years?
The truth is, I don’t spend as much time in the subways as I did in the 1990s. But my own impression, and that of some of my friends, is that there isn’t as much live music in the subways as there used to be. If not, why not? Maybe it’s because subway music is no longer a novelty, and musicians have moved on to other venues and callings. Or maybe it’s because many transit police officers are still under the impression that the MTA’s Music Under NY members are the only ones who have a legal right to perform underground, so they (the transit police) shut down the freelancers. In reality, all performers, whether freelance or MUNY, have a constitutional right to perform in subway stations. Steve Zeitlin from City Lore has been getting a lot of emails lately from freelance musicians who say that the transit police have told them they’re not allowed to perform on subway platforms. Unless the MTA/NYCT rules were amended recently, this is untrue.

It’s strange…. Rudy Giuliani was a bully, obsessed with Police Commissioner Bill Bratton’s “broken windows theory” and determined to render our public spaces orderly by clearing out any meaningful human activity. But Mike Bloomberg is quite different. He really values public art, and in the summers he organizes these vehicle-free Saturdays to encourage people to come out and engage in all kinds of spontaneous play. Is this a situation where the sentiments of the folks in charge haven’t trickled down to what’s happening on the ground in the subways? Is it a situation where the priorities of the NYCT (getting people from point A to point B) conflict with the priorities of the Mayor & the MTA (making public spaces hospitable)? Or is it a situation where spontaneous play only matters when the city schedules a day for it – in other words, does the city still either not trust or not care very much about spontaneous, freelance street and subway performances?

How did you initially get interested in musical performance and doing an ethnographic study of people in the subway?
I enrolled in the Urban Studies Master’s program at Queens College-CUNY in the late 1980s, mainly to study with Dr. Roger Sanjek, an urban anthropologist who was doing fieldwork at the time in Elmhurst and Corona, Queens, the epicenter of the new immigration to New York at the time. Roger and his team were documenting the relationships between long-time residents and recent immigrants, and I deeply appreciated his approach to understanding the multiple layers of race relations in our borough and city. I arranged to do an independent study with Roger and, for reasons that remain unconscious to me, I wanted to explore how traditional music helped new immigrants to settle into their new society. After a few attempts at visiting particular communities in this part of Queens, Roger asked me why I don’t write instead about the guys I’d become friends with who were playing music in the subways. I’d been getting to know the members of Antara, one of the first Andean bands underground. I took Roger’s advice, and with guidance from another professor, Candance Kim Edel, I continued my fieldwork for the next four years. It became my Master’s thesis, then Roger helped me to get my work published by Cornell University Press. I’m still good friends with some of the original members of Antara.

If you were to republish the book today, what changes would you make?
Truthfully, I don’t think I could write the same book today. For one thing, transit police officers and NYCT employees probably wouldn’t grant me interviews as they did back then. Whether it’s post-911 security or a general trend toward bureaucratizing & controlling information, it seems our government agencies prefer not to have researchers document the subjective experiences of their employees. I really hope I’m wrong about this. In any event, if I were to write the book today, I would certainly include copies of the questionnaires that I used (the New York Times criticized me for leaving them out!). I’d love to know if people have suggestions on what else to include in a book like this!

What other projects have you been working on since you wrote the book?
In the 1990s I worked as Program Director and later Associate Director of the Jackson Heights Community Development Corporation. Among other things, I started LACE, the Local Arts Collaborative & Exchange, a network of 60 – 100 visual, literary and performing artists. Together we organized exhibits, concerts, readings & Open Mics throughout western Queens. Several of the members & my co-organizers were subway musicians. Currently I work for Queens Borough President Helen Marshall, and two of my areas of responsibility are immigrant and inter-cultural affairs. I plan cultural heritage events with various religious and ethnic communities in the borough, and I organize cross-cultural dialogues, which still often incorporate music. I really enjoy bringing people together across cultural lines and creating spaces in which they build relationships; to me, this is a quiet but meaningful form of political empowerment, one that I actually get to do out of a political office (because I have a wonderful boss who is an integrationist and a veteran of the civil rights movement)! On the side, Steve Zeitlin and I are in touch with subway musicians and we’re hoping to revive what we call our Street Performers Advocacy Project. I’ll keep you posted on that.

Today is the final part of a four-part series on the Future of the MetroCard and smart card technologies. Part 1 outlined the benefits of smart card technology; Part 2 outlined the deficiencies of the MetroCard; Part 3 summarized the current plans for a smart card in NYC; and Part 4, below, proposes a new smart card for NYC.

The NY Times this morning had additional coverage on Bloomberg’s free cross-town bus proposal, as well as his push for a NYC smart card. According to the article, Mr. Soffin, an MTA spokesman, insisted that the MTA’s pay-pass pilot (on the Lexington Avenue Line) would be expanded to some buses by the end of the year.  No word on a potential link with the Port Authority or New Jersey Transit, as the Philadelphia Daily News reported in July.

Part 4 – Get Smart
Although the specifics remain unclear, there are enough whispers from Elliot Sander, Jay Walder, Bloomberg, and the Port Authority to glean that an inter-agency smart card (in some form) is on its way. Outlined below is a proposal for what I believe such a smart card should look like in NYC.

A fantasy smart-card for NYC. Could this be our future?

1. Contactless RFID-Chips
I admit that I do not understand all of the technology behind fare cards, but I can say with certainty that the magnetic strip technology of the current MetroCard is not capable of performing all of the functions of a full-fledged smart card. Smart cards use an RFID chip, which enables a greater amount of information to be stored on a card than on a magnetic strip. Many credit card companies have supplemented magnetic strips with RFID chips on their own credit cards, because the capacity of  RFID offers space for security features that permit users to use the card without a PIN. These same security features enable transit agencies to create smart card management systems for riders online. Additionally, the capacity of RFID allows one card to carry multiple pieces of transit information: an unlimited pass, a user’s transit status (student, handicapped, senior, etc.), transit balance, etc..

In addition to holding a greater capacity, RFID chips are also incredibly durable and adaptable.  Even if a magnetic strip could implement all of the technological benefits of an RFID chip, it would have to be replaced at least as often as the average, well-used debit card. And unlike magnetic strips, an RFID chip can be embedded into virtually anything: cell phones, key chains, and even bizarre, carbon-tracking gloves.  In Hong Kong and Britain, transit RFID chips are embedded into bank debit cards, streamlining wallets with one fewer card and enabling users to re-fill their transit accounts at bank ATMs.

Yet let’s take this a step further. Imagine a day when you can buy your transit tickets and passes on your smart phone. When you arrive at a fair gate or enter a train, instead of waving your smart card over a sensor – you’ll wave your RFID-embedded phone. In other words, your phone has become both the ticket vending machine AND the ticket. No MetroCard will ever be able to do that.

Finally and most importantly, RFID chips enable Contact-Less payment. While the MetroCard seems relatively fast, anyone who has used a contact-less smart card will tell you that it’s slow and prone to error.  Currently the NYC subway system is bursting at the seams with over 5M riders on a weekday, and that number will continue to grow.  A fast fare payment system will reduce congestion at subway turnstiles and dramatically speed payment on buses.

2.  Inter-modal Compatibility
Like the Oyster and the Octopus, NYC’s smart card must be inter-modal.  As outlined on Monday, the smart card has the power to remove psychological and logistical barriers between transit systems and modes. Once those barriers are removed, transit systems see greater flow between complementary, connecting modes.

As readers mentioned in their comments, implementation on each respective mode will require coordination and planning. While subways have logical entry and exit points, commuter rail lines do not. International systems, however, offer many examples of successful implementation on different modes of transportation. On the National Railway in London, conductors carry digital readers that scan the smart cards. Each rider’s card has a monthly pass, a digital one-way ticket purchased on the platform, or a fund to debit the ticket purchase.  The flexibility of the technology ensures successful, inter-modal implementation.

3. MTA, Lead the Way! Sort of. . .
The politics of creating a regional smart card for NYC will undoubtedly be complicated. On the one hand, the Port Authority has traditionally played the role of inter-state transit leader. In order for the smart card to be a success, however, the MTA will play the most important role.

As outlined yesterday, the Port Authority has already implemented SmartLink, a smart card that has many of the features of modern smart card technology. Not only is it contact-less, like the Oyster or the Octopus, but its value can be controlled through the SmartLink website.  The PA’s pilot for an expanded smart card system presumably will utilize the SmartLink.

A smart card in NYC, however, must be implemented first on the NYC Subway and NYC buses, because it the most efficient way to achieve a critical mass of smart card users.  Unlike on commuter rail systems, smart card implementation on the subways/buses will be straightforward both for the MTA and most riders.  Furthermore, since subway and bus ridership are so large relative to all other systems, smart card success on these modes would encourage its success on other modes/systems. Riders will gravitate to the fare card they use most frequently or is most popular.

As a result, implementation of a NYC smart card should follow a pattern that first establishes mass acceptance and then builds upon that foundation to link other systems that do not traditionally share the same fare collection system:

A. Start with systems where implementation is straightforward, ridership is greatest, and services are already linked: NYC Subway & Buses.
B. Extend implementation to popular connecting services that are intuitive extensions of the existing implementation: PATH, Hudson-Bergen Light Rail, Newark Light Rail, NJT Local Buses, AirTrain, etc
C. Extend to connecting systems that require more complex implementation and potentially contradict users’ traditional payment methods: LIRR, Metro North, NJT, Regional Buses, etc.
D. Extend to systems with lower ridership: Ferries, private jitneys, etc.

Although this project must rely on the MTA’s participation in order to achieve success, it should not be, nor can be, the sole agency leading its design. In my opinion, the Port Authority is unique in NYC for its role in bridging different governments and transit systems.  Furthermore, the SmartLink card has already been successfully developed and piloted on the PATH. As a result, the MTA should not build their own smart card. Instead, they should take advantage of the Port Authority’s already completed R&D work by adopting the SmartLink and then working with the Port Authority to spread it to other systems.

4. Super-Regional Compatibility
Several readers expressed concerns about the boundaries of a NYC smart card. Reader Avi remarks:

“But once you add NJ Transit you open up a whole new can of worms. NJ Transit shares a station (Trenton) with Septa. Do you add Septa to the system? What about the NJ Riverlines? PATCO? It’s easy to keep saying yes, yes, yes, but before you know it you’re trying to coordinate an agreement between 10+ different agencies in 5+ states. Good luck getting everyone to agree on that.”

First, thank you, Avi, for your comment – it’s a very important point.  Before I address it, I would like to remind everyone that we shouldn’t limit our plans simply because they seem complicated or overly ambitious. If planners had felt the same way 100 years ago, we never would have built NY’s current subway system.

Second, don’t underestimate the power of the smart card. If the Philadelphia area issued its own smart card for SEPTA, PATCO, and NJT services in the Philly area, there is no reason why this system could not be compatible with New York’s system. On Massachusetts highways, for example, the toll collection system is Fast Lane, but is fully compatible with EZ-Pass. The technology of RFID chips and their linkage to credit cards and bank accounts could easily allow for cross-system compatibility. In fact, planners in Philly are already planning to ensure potential cross-compatibility, by creating an “open-loop system” that will allow any RFID-enabled device to pay for the services.

Even if we presume that cities – DC, Philly, New York, Boston – remain the epicenters of respective smart card systems, we can presume that each card can be designed or adapted to ensure cross-compatibility. As a result, services that exist on the border of two transit eco-systems, like the RiverLine (NY and Philly), can accept more than one smart card. Regardless of which card you use, the appropriate agency will still receive the fare.

Categories : MetroCard
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