Earlier this week, New York City Comptroller and Democratic mayoral hopeful William Thompson released a spate of audits critical of the MTA. I examined his report on station maintenance yesterday, and today, we’ll delve into Thompson’s views on New York City Transit’s performance metrics and the way the agency doesn’t really make this data available to the public. Obviously, Thompson isn’t happy with this state of the MTA’s data.
Before we delve into the report itself, I wanted to take a minute to ponder the politics behind it. Thompson has overseen the release of a few critical audits of the MTA this week, just a few days after he secured the Democratic nomination for mayor. He is going up against a powerful incumbent who has made populist unrest over the MTA into a cornerstone of his campaign, and while Thompson’s audits started in 2008, he is seemingly trying to play catch-up through the Comptroller’s office.
Anyway, politics aside, Thompson does not believe that Transit is communicating its internal metrics properly to its riders. “If the MTA wants to win rider trust after the recent fare hike and other missteps, it must make sure that it is upfront with riders about how it is doing,” said Thompson. “One key step is measuring service accurately in a way that’s easy to understand.”
The report — available here as a PDF — urges the MTA to be more forthcoming with its internal assessments. Thompson claims that the agency’s current indicators “distort reality,” and he wants Transit to better inform the public. Riders, he says, currently “cannot track how crowded their subway or bus is compared to other lines, the severity of service gaps how clean or well lighted their subway station, among other measures.”
To this end, Thompson proposes that the MTA streamline its data presentations and offer riders more information about subway crime and safety. He bullet-points his suggestions:
- Revise on-time performance data to reflect real-life experience during rush hours, off-peak periods and night-time and weekends and add measurements on service levels and crowding;
- Release more subway and bus information by line, so that riders can see how their line stacks up against other lines. Thompson praised NYC Transit for releasing subway-car breakdown information by line for the first time ever in July.
- Release station-by-station information and revising station ratings so that they include measurements of deteriorating structural conditions, water conditions and other problems;
- Ask for more complete crime information from the New York Police Department. Currently, NYC Transit releases data only about major felonies, missing many of the more commonplace crimes that occur on subway trains and in stations. For instance, NYC Transit’s crime statistics do not record petit larceny or fare-beating.
According to Thompson, his motive for releasing this report were purely altruistic. “Because of the overall lack of useful data, riders, advocates and elected officials must rely on anecdotal reports or outside analyses by groups such as NYPIRG’s Straphangers Campaign,” he said. “The lack of meaningful data makes it hard to define what must be improved and prevents NYC Transit from taking credit for service improvements.
“An unreliable and unappealing mass transit system drives away both riders and employers,” he continued. “My intent – and I am sure yours as well – is to help position our transit system so that it receives its fair share of public financial support.”
Take that for what you will. As Comptroller, Thompson has urged the city to provide more money for the MTA, and he has urged the MTA to provide more accountability to the public. Nothing has come of it. This report may very well fall on deaf ears, but it shouldn’t. While I doubt riders are, as Thompson claims, avoiding the MTA due to its lack of on-time performance metrics, we would all benefit from more information about our train lines.