As identifiable elements go, the signs in the subways are among the city’s most recognizable. Look up at the header on Second Ave. Sagas, and you will see a sight familiar to any who ride the subway: a modular sign featuring Helvetica — or one of its close relatives — on a black background.

But it wasn’t always like that. Now and then, relics of an old age pop up. These old signs pop up in various stations around the city or at the Transit Museum. For the most part, though, the signs are standardized.

This homogenization process started in the late 1960s. With the advent of the MTA and the arrival of free transfers among the old IRT, BMT and IND lines throughout the system, the transit agency had to figure out a way to get passengers moving swiftly and efficiently through the tunnels. Enter Massimo Vignelli.

The creator of the one the subway system’s most controversial maps also designed its omnipresent graphics, as he discusses on his website. Vignelli used a sans serif font — then Akzidenz-Grotesk, now Helvetica — to guard passengers throughout the system.

History isn’t this neat though, and it actually took a lot of wrangling and trial and error to develop a fairly efficient system that still has some quirks. (Anyone ever notice the signs that urge you to find an exit at another end of the “plat” instead of the platform?) To that end, Paul Shaw, a respected graphics designer, has penned an epic piece on the history of the New York City subway signs. While long, it makes for great reading over the Thanksgiving weekend, and it’s chock full of minutiae and urban history that subway buffs love.

Out of a great big mess of fonts, signs and designs came simplicity and uniformity. It is a Hollywood ending for graphics enthusiasts and subway buffs everywhere.

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A day of Thanks, on alert

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As millions of New Yorkers prepared for their Thanksgiving day celebrations, the FBI and the NYPD issued a guarded terror warning for the New York City transit network. While the threat sounds remote, city officials are ramping up patrols in the subway system are and are urging passengers to remain alert.

The Times had more:

Federal authorities in Washington informed law enforcement officials in New York this week of a possible Al Qaeda plot to bomb transportation systems in and around New York City. But officials sought to play down the significance of the threat on Wednesday, in marked contrast to previous cases in which they issued public warnings of possible terrorist attacks in the region.

In this case, an intelligence bulletin sent on Tuesday to city officials said that the F.B.I. had received “uncorroborated but plausible information” that, in late September, Al Qaeda terrorists may have discussed attacks on transit systems in the metropolitan area, including the city’s subway system, a federal official said on Wednesday.

The information was included in a routine document given each month to local law enforcement officials “for their information, so they can look at it and take whatever measures they deem appropriate,” another official said.

The terrorists, according to the document, reportedly contemplated deploying suicide bombers or using explosives set off by remote control. In response to the bulletin, federal and local law enforcement agencies in and around New York City increased patrols on Wednesday.

In response to this news, the MTA released a statement on Wednesday afternoon:

The MTA is aware of an unsubstantiated report of terrorist threats against transit properties during the holiday season. We are already on high alert and are always on a heightened state of readiness during this season. We have been working closely with local, state and federal law enforcement to increase police presence throughout our transportation system. As always, we ask that our customers remain alert and report any suspicious activity or packages, but there is no reason to be alarmed.

With the unrelated bombing in Mumbai fresh on everyone’s mind, this news will be sobering. Travel safely on Thanksgiving and be vigilant.

Just a service note: Trains are operating on Sunday schedules today. There will be a whole slate of service changes for the weekend that I will post on Friday.

Categories : Subway Security
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  • Fare hikes, service cuts could lead to more gridlock · The role of a mass transit system in an urban area is to discourage driving. Getting around New York by car is no easy feat, and the subways provide a relatively quick escape from the trials and travails of bumper-to-bumper crosstown traffic. To that end, the people of the Kheel plan, the proposal that called for a high congestion fee and free subways, believe that the Doomsday combination of MTA service cuts and substantial fare hikes will lead to more congestion. The authors of the original plan making a compelling case for why transit prices should not increase if service is decreasing. The last thing this city needs is more traffic. · (2)

MTA officials are in a bit of a bind. They are routinely vilified for the fare hike and service cuts proposal by a public that doesn’t understand how the Board must operate and by a press that does.

Basically, the Board has to pass a balanced budget. Otherwise, they’ll face some civil penalties — but not jail time — and the state legislature probably wouldn’t approve it.

The MTA Board members don’t want to have to cut service and raise fares. They would rather get the money they need from congestion pricing plans and commuter taxes, from city and state contributions and from federal grants. That money however just isn’t coming, and so the Board has turned to the one tool at its command: service and the fare.

The Board members and MTA bigwigs too are aware of this problem. To that end, Hilary Ring, the MTA’s director of government affairs. At a recent public hearing — the first since the Doomsday scenario was unveiled — Ring urged the public to protest vocally the fare hikes and service cuts. Get in touch with your elected officials, he urged. Tell them to fund the MTA.

Pete Donohue and Leo Standora were there to report on the hearing for the Daily News:

Describing the cutback package as “terrible,” MTA director of government affairs Hilary Ring urged people at a public forum to express their anger at public hearings in January.

“Please come,” he appealed to the crowd of about 125 at Swinging Sixties Senior Center in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, last night. “The only way it’s not going to be implemented is if you express outrage.”

“The budget we presented to the board is not the budget we want to see adopted,” he said. “We had to make very tough choices. We don’t want to make these cuts. We think the state and city should increase their contributions to us.”

To mince words, the city and state have pulled the rug out from under the MTA, and if anyone should bear the brunt of the public anger, it is those officials. They won’t fund our mass transit; they won’t embrace alternate and out-of-the-box revenue-generating and environmentally-friendly schemes. They will just sit back and criticize an agency with its back to the wall.

So get there and get your voice heard. As Peter Finch screamed in Network, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this any more.” Tell that to Mayor Mike as he seeks his third term.

Categories : MTA Economics
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Fifteen months after a crippling flood exposed deep-rooted communications and technology problems at the MTA, the transportation authority has unveiled a text-message and e-mail alert system designed to bring up-to-date information to the masses in near-real time.

The agency’s press release has the details:

Using the MTA’s website at, customers can register to receive alerts about any combination of subway lines, bus routes, rail lines, bridges or tunnels. They can choose to receive them 24/7, or only during a particular time of day or week. The system will use an email transmission technology called Distributed Processing, giving it the capability of sending out up to a million messages every five minutes.

“This is a revolutionary step that has the potential to transform the experience our customers have with us,” said Elliot G. Sander, the Executive Director and CEO of the MTA. “If you know about a service disruption before you leave your home, or now, even as you are making your way to a subway or rail station or a bus stop, you can avoid the frustration of delays by seeking an alternate route.”

The launch of this system…It marks the first time that the MTA will send timely notifications of unplanned service disruptions on subways, buses, bridges or tunnels, and is the first MTA service to use text messaging.

This service is being provided in partnership with the MIS Sciences Corporation under a $10,000-a-month contract that includes an unlimited volume of emails and text messages. While the MTA will not charge customers to use this service, those customers who have cell phone plans that charge for incoming text messages will be liable for those fees.

Interested straphangers can sign up for the service at

In a way, the MTA has a lot riding on this plan. They’re paying out a decent chunk of change for it, but more importantly, riders are going to depend on it for immediate service alerts. For those who aren’t yet underground, the system will be the first way for many riders to find out that they need to change their travel plans, and if a major outage occurs, as it did with the August 2007 flood, the service will have to guide commuters throughout the city.

Furthermore, the MTA’s technological reputation hinges on it too. With the train arrival board project facing an uncertain future, Computer-Based Train Control far off and GPS-based bus arrival boards a bust, the MTA’s technological track record has been far from perfect lately. They’ve gone through an extensive testing process with this alert system and feel that it’s ready for showtime.

The early word though is mixed. A friend of mine signed up for service alerts along the N/R/Q/W lines, and while the MTA recently released an alert for those lines, that friend received the concurrent alert about problems on the F instead. On the good side, the alert arrived, but it was for the wrong line. For now, we can chalk that up to first-day jitters, and we’ll just have to see how it works going forward.

Categories : MTA Technology
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While the MTA, like many other institutions, is struggling to make ends meet these days, savvy train buffs and subway enthusiasts alike can turn to that tried and true method of boosting consumer confidence: Christmas shopping. The Transit Museum, purveyors of all things MTA, have quite the selection available at their store this holiday season. Let’s see what we can find.

To the right are some snazzy ornaments. While the Museum shop is low on Hanukkah gifts, they’ve got something for the Christmas celebrants around the city. The ornaments are available for all lines except the L, S, V and soon-to-be-extinct W. You can also decorate your tree in MetroCards, tokens or my personal favorite, Santa Claus riding the subway.

For those of us who don’t have a tree to decorate, there are many more practical gifts on sale. Are you always getting lost on the subway? Never sure what line to take? Now, you can have easy access to a subway map. The next time someone asks you for directions, just drop your pants and point them on their way with these handy subway map boxers. Nothing points to lovin’ quite like these silk undergarments.

If you find yourself metaphorically lost in the kitchen, a subway map pot holder may be the right accessory for you. This Manhattan-centric item also comes in oven mitt and apron form. The store also carries some subway hot sauce, but that’s not a connections I’d like to think too much about.

Perhaps you’re more of a snazzy dresser than a Top Chef hopeful. To that end, the $70 cufflinks made form recycled subway maps complete the best of outfits. The token charm bracelet hearkens back to a different era when swipes were unheard of. The station mosaic reproductions lend an air of authenticity and Heins & LaFarge or Squire Vickers grandeur to even the smallest of New York studios.

The Transit Museum has something for the heavy rollers too. Designed by renowned artist Boris Bally, the subway map chair is available for the low, low price of $2200 or just 1100 swipes of your pay-per-ride MetroCard. The special one-of-a-kind Times Square-themed chair checks in at the same price. Looking for something equally as, um, unique but not as pricey? Try an air gauge for just $62.50.

Finally, we end with the practical gifts. Want to know how long you’ve been standing there at Lorimer St. waiting for the G train? Well, then, get your own G train watch, guaranteed to be on time for often than the train itself. Take a few shots out of the MetroCard Shooters. With fares going up, we need all the relief we can get. And here’s to that rainy day with a subway map umbrella. For passengers watching yet another packed 7 train go by, at least you can stay dry while being reminded of the sad fact that you have no other choice of train line.

But in all seriousness, the Transit Museum Store has you covered this holiday season for all your subway-related gifts. While our fares might be going up, the Transit Museum and its stores while away the hours, reminding us of days when the subways cost 5¢ and MetroCards were but a futuristic device far off in the future. It’s a fun place to visit, and you never know what you might find lurking in the gift shop.

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Everybody wants to ride to the MTA’s rescue. Politicians from all walks of New York life are trying to propose ways through which the MTA could cover some — or all — of its $1.4 billion deficit without resorting to fare hikes and service cuts. Let’s take a look.

First up is the New York City comptroller. William Thompson just wants to add high fees to every car registration in the Big Apple and its surrounding counties to cover the deficit. He also wants to implement a commuter tax. Colin Moynhian had the story:

The New York City comptroller, William C. Thompson Jr., said on Sunday that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s gaping budget deficits could be diminished by increasing automobile registration fees in 12 counties served by the authority’s trains and buses.

At a press conference outside Grand Central Terminal, Mr. Thompson said that drivers now pay $30 every two years to register a vehicle in New York City, though they also pay additional state fees. He proposed adding an annual fee of $100 for drivers in the city and nearby counties who register vehicles weighing up to 2,300 pounds, with vehicles above that weight also being assessed an additional 9 cents per pound.

The fees, which Mr. Thompson said would go directly to the authority, could total about $1 billion per year, with some $350 million from New York City residents. The authority faces a $1.2 billion deficit next year, and it unveiled a budget on Thursday that called for a 23 percent increase in tolls and fares along with cutbacks in service and layoffs. Mr. Thompson, a Democratic candidate for mayor, said he feared that the proposed fare increases would make mass transit unaffordable for some riders.

Thompson also called for a revival of the commuter tax, last seen around these parts in 1999. He believes these combined fees could raise nearly $2 billion for mass transit while serving to cut down on traffic as well.

Of course, the problem is that this plan, proposed by a potential mayoral candidate, is completely politically infeasible. If congestion pricing — a fee targeted at those that actively enter and exit the Manhattan Central Business District — couldn’t pass, a passive fee levied on everyone probably wouldn’t stand much of a chance.

This is a sad reality really because this would be a great plan. Owners of cars would reconsider their lavish purchases while businesses wouldn’t be taxed nearly as heavily as they would have been under the congestion pricing plan. Meanwhile, those businesses would easily be able to pass on the costs to their consumers.

I’m sure Richard Ravitch will include this idea in his proposal. After all, Thompson brought it up in his testimony to the commission, but whether it could become a reality is another question entirely.

* * *

In other news, Council members Eric Gioia and David Yassky have again urged the MTA to better manage its real estate holdings. The problem here is that this is a one-time solution. If the MTA sells their buildings or stops leasing what is now mostly vacant space in Brooklyn, they get an infusion of cash for now but not a steady income stream going forward. We need real long-term solutions and not a short-term fix.

* * *
Update 4:23 p.m.: The Comptroller has released the details of his plan. You can read the whole thing right here as a PDF.

Categories : MTA Economics
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In jail with the MTA Board

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During one of the various discussion about the service cuts sure to come out of the MTA’s financial crisis, Dale Hemmerdinger issued what has become my favorite quote of the week. “We are charged,” he said, “by law to propose a balanced budget by the end of the year. We only have two ways we can handle that: We can either cut service or we can raise fares. That’s all we can do. If we don’t balance the budget by the end of the year, we could all go to jail.”

Can you imagine the scene when U.S. Marshalls or NYPD officers show up to cart Hemmerdinger and his co-conspirators off to jail? I wonder if Norman Seabrook would turn into a devout Jew while stewing in his cell in Rikers.

While Hemmerdinger was using a little bit of rhetoric to make a point, it was certain a silly-sounding statement to make. To that end, William Neuman poked a bit of fun at Hemmerdinger in a column this weekend. He wrote:

So, is it possible? Could the authority’s board be tossed in the hoosegow if the budget it passes shows a negative balance in its bottom line?

Or what about another possibility, given Mr. Hemmerdinger’s evident heartache over the proposed budget’s dire measures: What if the board, all 23 members, in an act of civil disobedience, refused to pass a budget until state lawmakers rescued the transit system with more money?

Legal experts said they did not believe the board would be sent to jail for a budget that showed a negative balance. At most, the authority might become the target of a lawsuit, they said. In theory, if a judge then ordered the authority to balance its budget and the board repeatedly refused, its members might be held in contempt of court, which could ultimately lead to a bread-and-water diet behind bars. But, as they may say, that train has not left the station yet.

Gene Russianoff, the ubiquitous head of the Straphangers Campaign, joined in the mockery. “I take that requirement as a requirement that’s not backed up by a year in the slammer,” he said to The Times “If they really had criminal liability, they might be eligible for a jury trial. I’d worry about the jury coming in with a verdict of capital punishment. They’re not too popular.”

Hemmerdinger later clarified his thinking, as Neuman writes:

“I just assumed that if we didn’t do the law we would go to jail,” he said. “I’m not a lawyer. I said something without thinking of all the implications.” He said that upon reflection it was clear to him that the laws involved were civil and not criminal, and so were not likely to lead to Rikers Island.

But he added: “Some of the riders I’m sure would like to send me there, after the comments I’ve heard on the radio this morning.”

Of course, the MTA Board won’t go to jail, and New Yorkers will probably end up paying more for the agency’s financial troubles than the wealthy moguls who sit on the board. But in our dreams, we can imagine MTA officials in jail, not for failing to pass the budget, but for holding the public responsible for the fiscal improprieties of both our state government and the MTA’s overseers.

Categories : MTA Economics
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Before I launch into the weekend service advisories, check out the Second Annual MetroCard Challenge. There’s an interactive component this year if anyone is interested.

I think Clyde Haberman said it best in talking about this week’s MTA financial news: “So now we know what doomsday looks like for New York. It looks an awful lot like an ordinary weekend.”


Of course, Haberman is talking about the current level of service. The service cuts would make regular weekday travel approximate current weekend travel conditions. But under the service cuts, getting around the city on the weekend would be a potentially painstakingly slow process. Hopefully, someone — Richard Ravitch, Sheldon Silver, Gov. David Paterson, anyone — steps in to save the MTA, and we can look back on this Doomsday scenario as something that never came to pass.

Meanwhile, weekend work continues apace. This weekend is a fairly hectic one as I believe work will slow down a bit next weekend through the end of December as tourist season ramps up. Remember too that these come with the usual caveats: Service advisories are subject to change. Check the signs in your station and listen for on-board announcements.

From 11:30 p.m. Friday, November 21 to 5 a.m. Monday, November 24, there are no 1 trains between 34th Street and South Ferry due to work on the new South Ferry terminal. Customers should take the 2 between 34th Street and Chambers Street. There is a free shuttle bus running between Chambers Street and South Ferry.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, November 22 to 5 a.m. Monday, November 24, 1 trains skip 28th, 23rd, and 18th Streets due to work on the new South Ferry terminal.

From 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday, November 22 and Sunday, November 23, Bronx-bound 1 trains skip 225th, 231st, and 238th Streets due to track maintenance and repairs at 225th Street.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, November 22 to 5 a.m. Monday, November 24, downtown 2 trains run local from 96th to Chambers Streets due to work on the new South Ferry terminal. Uptown 2 trains run local from Chambers to 72nd Streets, then express to 96th Street.

From 11:30 p.m. Friday, November 21 to 5 a.m. Monday, November 24, there are no 2 trains between 96th and 241st Streets due to switch work at 135th Street, new roadbed installation between 135th Street and149th Street, and tunnel security work. Free shuttle buses replace 2 trains between 96th Street and 149th Street-Grand Concourse. 5 trains replace the 2 between 149th Street-Grand Concourse and 241st Street.

From 11:30 p.m. Friday, November 21 to 5 a.m. Monday, November 24, there are no 3 trains running due to switch work at 135th Street, new roadbed installation between 135th Street and149th Street, and tunnel security work. The 2, 4 and free shuttle buses provide alternate service.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, November 22 to 5 a.m. Monday, November 24, there are no 5 trains between Brooklyn Bridge and Bowling Green due to work on the new South Ferry terminal. Customers should take the 4 instead.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, November 22 to 5 a.m. Monday, November 24, 5 trains run in two sections due to switch work at 135th Street, new roadbed installation between 135th Street and149th Street, and tunnel security work:

  • Between Dyre Avenue and East 180th Street and
  • Between East 180th Street and Brooklyn Bridge

From 12:01 a.m. to 5 a.m. Saturday, November 22, and Sunday, November 23, uptown A trains run express from 59th to 125th Streets due to track cleaning.

From 11:30 p.m. Friday, November 21 to 5 a.m. Monday, November 24, free shuttle buses and shuttle train service replace the A between Howard Beach-JFK Airport and the Rockaways due to work on the South Channel Bridge.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, November 22 to 5 a.m. Monday, November, 24, there are no C trains running. Customers should take the A instead. A trains run local between 168th Street and Euclid Avenue. Uptown trains run express from 59th to 125th Streets. These changes are due to tunnel security work.

From 4 a.m. Saturday, November 22 to 10 p.m. Sunday, November 23, Manhattan-bound D trains run on the N from Stillwell Avenue to 36th Street due to track panel installation.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, November 22 to 5 a.m. Monday, November 24, Manhattan-bound F trains run on the A line from Jay Street to West 4th Street due to tunnel security work.

From 8:30 p.m. Friday, November 21 to 5 a.m. Monday, November 24, there are no G trains between Forest Hills-71st Avenue and Long Island City-Court Square due to N and R work (see below). Customers should take the E or R instead.

From 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, November 22 and Sunday, November 23, Queens-bound J trains skip Hewes Street, Lorimer Street and Flushing Avenue due to third rail repairs.

From 11:30 p.m. Friday, November 21 to 5 a.m. Saturday, November 22 and from 11:30 p.m. Saturday, November 22 to 5 a.m. Sunday, November 23, and from 11:30 p.m. Sunday, November 23 to 5 a.m. Monday, November 24, there are no L trains between 8th Avenue and Union Square due to switch replacement work at 8th Avenue. Customers should use the M14 bus instead.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, November 22 to 5 a.m. Monday, November 24, there are no N trains between Queensboro Plaza and Times Square due to track replacement in the area of 5th Avenue/59th Street, switch work at Queensboro Plaza and tunnel security work.

  • For Lexington Avenue and 5th Avenue, take the 7 to Grand Central and transfer to the uptown 456 to 59th Street
  • For 49th Street and 57th Street, take the 7 to Times Square and transfer to the uptown Q

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, November 22 to 5 a.m. Monday, November 24, N trains skip Prince, 8th, 23rd, and 28th Streets. (Same work as above.) Customers should take the Q instead.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, November 22 to 5 a.m. Monday, November 24, N trains are rerouted over the Manhattan Bridge between DeKalb Avenue and Canal Street. (Same work as above.)

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, November 22 to 5 a.m. Monday, November 24, Manhattan-bound N trains skip 30th Avenue, Broadway, 36th Avenue, and 39th Avenue due to switch work at 39th Avenue.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, November 22 to 5 a.m. Monday, November 24, Q trains replace the R making all local stops between 57th Street-7th Avenue and DeKalb Avenue. (N and R project.)

From 12:01 a.m. Sunday, November 23 to 5 a.m. Monday, November 24, R trains run on the V line from Queens Plaza to Broadway-Lafayette Street, then via the Manhattan Bridge to DeKalb Avenue. (N and R project.)

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, November 22 to 5 a.m. Monday, November 24, Manhattan-bound Q trains skip Neck Road and Avenue U due to station rehab work.

Categories : Service Advisories
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Last November, as the MTA started talking about a fare hike, I decided to see just how much I, a moderately heavy user of the subways, pay per ride. Thus was born the MetroCard Challenge.

For a month, I charted my swipes, and in the end, I found that I got a pretty good deal on the subway. I used my $76 30-day Unlimited Ride Card 74 times in one month for an average cost-per-ride of $1.03. That’s a steal.

Five days ago on Monday, with the MTA’s financial woes coming to the forefront, I bought an $81 30-day Unlimited Ride Card, and I plan to host the challenge again. So far in a little less than five days of usage, I’ve used the card 13 times for a cost-per-ride of $6.23. It’s dropping quickly.

To set the stage a little bit, I’m a New Yorker and a student. My transportation to Thanksgiving dinner involves talking the 2 or 3 from Grand Army Plaza, switching to the 4 at Nevins and disembarking on the Upper East Side. During the week, I’m a commuter student. So much like the 9-to-5 crowd, I take the subway to and from work — or in my case, school. With finals coming up, my social life will be a bit curtailed. Perhaps, this month is ideal as I’ll be approximating someone who works.

So let’s see how things end up. I know I’ll be paying well less than the best fare, and I’ll be tracking my expenditures in the side bar. Just how low my fare will be remains to be seen.

Update: I’m going to make this interactive this year. I’ve shared a spreadsheet on Google Docs for the world to use (until it gets vandalized). Add your own line and keep track of your MetroCard use throughout a month. Just remember to update it regularly or semi-regularly to watch your own cost-per-ride drop. For now, the cost-per-ride column will automatically update when you fill out the other fields.

Categories : MetroCard
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