• The subways, now with more rats · Forget economic woes and oft-delayed trains. New Yorkers are more concerned about the grossest thing in town. According to amNew York’s Matthew Sweeney, the number of rats in the subway are on the rise. This underground denizens are taking the subsurface tunnels by storm, and officials are blaming both increased construction and increased volumes of litter due to higher ridership figures for the surge in rodent population. From the sound of things, the IND line stations south of 34th St. are among the most rat-prone in the city. Lovely. · (0)

When it comes to the MTA and its recent economic difficulties, the media has enjoyed laying all of the blame for rapid fare hikes and fiduciary black holes squarely on the backs of the transit authority. Absent are many mentions of the inadequate city and state contributions to the MTA’s coffers. New York City’s Independent Budget Office would like to see this media approach change and, more importantly, would like to see more government contributions to the MTA.

In a report (PDF) released yesterday, the NYCIBO slams the city and state for shortchanging the MTA and blasts the media for failing to focus on the real financial issues at hand. City Room’s Sewell Chan reported on the IBO’s findings:

State and city subsidies to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority have remained largely flat since 1990, exacerbating the authority’s fiscal pressures at a time when it is threatening to raise fares and facing steep deficits because of the turbulence in the real estate market, according to a new report.

The three-page report…did not make any policy recommendations, but it suggested that the intense news coverage of the authority’s troubled finances has largely overlooked the issue of government subsidies. The authority collects far more revenue from subway, bus and commuter rail fares, dedicated taxes, and bridge and tunnel tolls than it draws from direct government aid.

“It remains to be decided whether new types of subsidies are necessary, or whether existing levels should be altered by adjusting terms that have held some subsides flat for a decade,” the report’s authors, Alan Treffeisen and Doug Turetsky, wrote. “But in order to best decide how to aid the M.T.A. in the future, a common understanding of how much assistance the city and state provide today is needed.”

You won’t hear me disagreeing with this assessment. In fact, I have long called upon city and state officials to stay true to their words and adequately and fully fund the beleaguered Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Of course, politicians love to posture, and while New York’s leaders are happy to give lip service to this IBO statement, none of them will accept financial responsibility for the MTA.

On Thursday, in fact, Mayor Bloomberg illustrated just how the politicians are willing to talk the talk but not walk the walk. “Generally speaking, given the quality of mayors, they should be in control of their transportation systems,” Bloomberg said yesterday, The Times reports.

But when pressed to commit a greater level of city money to the MTA, Bloomberg changed his tune. “We have no money to do that, and it’s up to the state to find the money,” he said.

It’s always up to someone else to find the money, and as the city and state — two financially-strapped institutions in their own rights — bicker over funding, the MTA will turn to its one steady source of revenue: fare hikes. The only way to change this course of events is to convince elected representatives once and for all to show the MTA the money. That’ll be the day.

Categories : MTA Economics
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The two-dollar ride

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I’m on vacation for the next week, but since New York’s subways never shut down, neither will Second Ave. Sagas. I’ve enlisted the help of a few bloggers to help keep things fresh around here. Today’s guest post comes to us from Todd, a frequent SAS commenter and the author of Blog Name Removed.

Last Friday, I was slowly making my way downtown on the 4 train. It was a bad ride; we kept stopping between stations for long periods. Apparently, there was a problem further down the line and everything was backed up. It got to the point where people were cursing The MTA aloud. Then all of a sudden this elderly African-American man walked into the car. He was easily 7 feet tall; it was quite striking. (When was the last time you saw an obscenely tall old man?) He had to stoop, even in the tallest part of the train. After he found a seat next to me, we both sat and watched another guy grow increasingly angry at our whole non-moving situation.

Finally, the tall old man stood up and walked over to the angry guy. T.O.M. kinda tapped him on the shoulder, and in the most grandfatherly and non-offensive way, told him this:

“Son, this is what you get for a two-dollar ride. This is the cheap ride. It’s what you get. If you wanted to go fast, you go up there [pointing up] and pay for a ten-dollar ride. That’s the fast ride. This is the two-dollar ride. We go slower down here. No sense getting angry about something you can’t change.”

Angry guy stopped being angry. In fact, everyone within earshot just stopped for a second, including me. Then T.O.M. sat back down and everything was calm.

That experience has really stayed with me.

When Ben posts bad news about the subways, I am one of the first people to start blasting The MTA. The trains are always late, they smell (you my boy C-Dog!), they are too hot, the stations desperately need rehabilitation, the unions ruin everything, the workers are lazy, the MTA never finishes anything they start, their report cards are useless, and on and on…

That tall old man was right. If I wanted the faster, cleaner, and more reliable ride, I could pay for a cab. Even then, I would probably end up sitting in traffic inside a hot car that smells like curry, sweat, and broken dreams. The subway is still the best way to commute. It is much better for the environment, and it is very inexpensive, especially with the monthly pass. Sure, it sucks sometimes, but it is nice to put it back in perspective every once in a while.

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Over the last two days, The New York Times has uncovered the police plans for the rebuilt World Trade Center complex. Originally presented as an open space with appropriate security measures, the rebuilt Ground Zero, as the NYPD sees it, will be a heavily-guarded area with an around-the-clock police presence.

While we’re only tangentially concerned with the above-ground world, when The Times via a City Room post drilled down on the police presentation, the findings impacted the underground world of the subway and should be dismaying to subway advocates, to say the least. According to the document, the police are aiming to conduct sweeps of train cars that pass underneath the World Trade Center complex. Even worse are the calls for on-board searches that could delay train cars up and down the various subway lines, creating even more subway delays.

According to the 36-page presentation that The Times says has been given “by top-ranking police officials in recent months,” the security zone encompassing Ground Zero would call for teams of eight to ten officers led by a sergeant to conduct on-board security sweeps. The NYPD would “briefly hold” trains in the station while officers — one per car — conducted the searches.

I can’t argue against security measures put in place to protect the subway system. As it stands now, New York City Transit’s underground network is a rather porous and vast system that runs under and above some of the city’s most vital areas. Hundreds of trains pass under Times Square and over the Manhattan Bridge each day. Rail yards are left unguarded and are accessible to anyone who puts some effort into getting in.

But subway cars are a different matter. The NYPD should not get into the business of holding subway cars in stations to conduct sweeps. While they may wish to only “briefly” keep those cars sitting idle, a brief delay, as NYC Transit is wont to point out, echoes up and down the entire line. If the NYPD holds a Brooklyn-bound R train at Cortlandt St. for a few minutes, trains in Astoria will feel like the shockwave of that delay. Subway service, already slower than we’d like and subject to a rising number of delays, will slow to a crawl around a Ground Zero security bottleneck.

The subways should be safer, but security measures should not include more delays. The NYPD has to find a way to improve subway security without sacrificing efficiency, and this plan — while simply a proposal — highlights measures that could drastically impact subway performance. That is not an adequate solution to any security problem.

Update: As NY1’s Bobby Cuza noted in the comments, this is not a new NYPD tactic. As part of Operation TOMS (Transit Order Maintenance), the NYPD has been conducted 40-second sweeps of train cars. Here, they are proposing to add the WTC site to their list of heavily-trafficked and closely-guarded stations. I haven’t heard much — negative or positive — about Operation TOMS, but I’m still not too keen on police sweeps holding up train traffic, even if only for a supposed 40 seconds.

Categories : Subway Security
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There’s an old saying out there that goes something like this: All is fare in love and subways. Or perhaps that’s love and war. But either way, this week has not been a good one for public transit and fare-payment technologies.

We’ll start in New York where the MTA has recently discovered a flaw in its vending machines that has allowed riders to acquire free tickets just by using a debit card. Oops.

William Neuman reports:

The Long Island Rail Road said that a check of its records from 2004 until this May, when the glitch was discovered, found that in addition to the scam, there had been 990 transactions totaling $74,000 that appeared to be related to the software error.

Metro-North said that it had not made such an extensive check but that in the first several months of this year it found that the error had allowed the sale of tickets worth $2,960 in which the buyer was not charged. The machines were installed in 2001, and a Metro-North spokeswoman said that there appeared to have been hundreds of the free transactions in the intervening years…

Technicians discovered that it was possible to buy tickets using one of the debit cards even if there was not enough money in the account to cover the cost of the transaction. Further investigation revealed that other debit cards from some smaller banks operated in the same way: if the account had insufficient funds, the vending machines dispensed tickets anyway, and did not charge the account.

So instead of alerting a customer to a potential overdraft and denying the charge, the MTA’s vending machines simply processed the transaction and dispensed a ticket for free. Needless to say, the glitch — seven years in the making — has supposedly been corrected, but this is an embarrassing admission on the part of an agency long criticized for its inability to adopt and respond to problems with new technologies.

Meanwhile, in Boston, a group of MIT students has hacked the MBTA’s own fare payment system. Basically, three students figured out how to reverse-engineer the magnetic strip on the CharlieTickets and how to crack the RFID technology used in the CharlieCard. Transit systems across the nation and globe rely on these technologies, and I’m sure no one is too thrilled to hear about these two developments.

For those of us who ride the subways every day and don’t want to see our technologies hacked, these news is not surprisingly but discouraging. Those who run subway systems are forever looking for ways to improve fare systems, and the obvious answer is technology. MetroCards allow for discounted fare options, and more flexible payment systems. RFID-based cards such as the CharlieCard or London’s Oyster Card allow for speedier fare processing. A touch-and-go system is a lot more efficient than our swipe, “Try Again at this Turnstile” and finally go technique.

But as with any technology, the people who can get at the root of the code and turn it around are always one step ahead. The hackers will always be able to exploit security holes and systematic loopholes. Once the MTA addresses its problems and the MBTA deals with their security holes, something else down the line will pop up. That’s just the nature of technology.

While it’s easy to say that we should go back to an era of tokens, even those relics of another age aren’t hack-proof. Just ask Alan Campbell and Kim Gibbs. I wonder how their token slug ring is doing today.

Categories : MTA Technology
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I’m on vacation for the next week, but since New York’s subways never shut down, neither will Second Ave. Sagas. I’ve enlisted the help of a few bloggers to help keep things fresh around here. Today’s guest post comes to us from Gerrit, better known as The Altar of Entropy at 2Log.

Hear it go clink, ya pansies… the gauntlet’s officially down!

Let’s recap.

2log, wherein I do my blogging, hosts a weekly competition among talented bloggers to determine who’s best of the best. Many fortnights ago, Ben threw his hat into the ring. And he bloodied us all bad. What can I say… he fights dirty. he came armed with… with… with mouth-watering pictures of nachos. Who could resist?!?!

Although I could use my short stint as a guest-blogger for Second Avenue Sagas to write one of my many flippant posts about the subway, I thought I’d use it to bring the fight back to Mr. Kabak’s home turf.

Way back in the day, I pitched Kabak a series of questions about the subway, but he only answered two of them correctly. For my post here at Second Avenue Sagas, I respin the underlying theme of my third question into a larger, more philosophical question:


I know what you’re thinking… it’s because they’re a pack of dorked up, Diet Coke downing, middle-manager rejects with curiously large nose hairs whose idea of creativity is putting a U2 album on shuffle. Whoa there, Mr. Negative… let’s not go all John McCain this early. Here’s some crazier ideas they could try as a possible source of additional revenue. Some are so crazy they just might work.

Stick Some Junk in That Trunk
This was my original idea… late at night, when the subway cars aren’t in use, use the MTA to transport freight about town. Gas prices are ridiculously expensive, right? Seemingly 20% or more of the city’s traffic is trucks hauling shipments. Why not use a few cars on the late-night trains, which are pretty much deserted anyway, to offer merchants cheaper rates on shipping. The upside for passengers is that, if the program becomes super-popular, then late night passengers will see more trains roll by and their wait time will plummet, especially along trains that touch a port (like the airports or any hub to dirty Jersey).

Kabak countered that it has something to do with the gauges, but I say that’s nonsense. A single subway car easily holds 50 people. At about 150 lbs a person, that’s at least 7,500 lbs of cargo per train without any modifications. So what you have to say ’bout that?!?

First Class Trains
Where do airplanes make their money? It’s not on coach, it’s on the rich idiots who are willing to pay extra to be separated from the commoners. So here’s what you do. Take the first car on every train, and call it a first class car. Tear up the orange plastic seating and install plush La-Z-Boy chairs. Offer a copy of the Wall Street Journal and a latte, and charge $50+ a ticket. There’s enough wealthy hedge fund bankers in the city who would take the deal, and the rest of us would be happy to not have to ride with them.

Chinatown Subway
Pretty much the opposite of the previous example. Some wizard figured out how to operate a bus at only $10 to Philadelphia that runs faster than the trains and outside traffic combined. Why not find this genius and offer him or her the key to the tunnels. For only a quarter, they’d build a high-risk train that could take you from Flushing to Canal Street in 13 minutes. BOOM BLAP! I don’t care if it’s hauling heroin, I just want to get to my danged discotheque.

Gauntlet’s down, MTA!

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  • Green (escalators) means stop · Last week, when the MTA announced its plans for green escalators, I responded with some skepticism. The MTA has, after all, run into numerous troubles with their escalators, and I wasn’t sure if they could maintain its rather complicated new machinery. Well, it seems as though my initial thoughts were right. As City Room reported, the green escalators’ first day was not a smooth one. While I’m sure the MTA will iron out their problems, the public, as Sewell Chan noted, is bound to remain skeptical anyway. · (1)

I’m on vacation for the next week, but since New York’s subways never shut down, neither will Second Ave. Sagas. I’ve enlisted the help of a few bloggers to help keep things fresh around here. Today’s guest post comes to us from Sarah Seltzer, keeper of The Egalitarian Bookworm (Chick?)… a friend of mine since we were three. Enjoy.

Greetings, fellow mass-transit users, and thanks to Ben for letting me guest blog. I’ve known him since the days we used retro bus passes, bronze and silver tokens, and colorful paper transfers to get to pre-K.

My topic today is only tangentially related to mass transport and the subways, but I thought I’d throw it out to the the savvy and urbane Second Ave. Sagas readership. The topic is: what the hell is happening to Manhattan?

The subways and stations are getting even more packed with briefcase-toting businesspeople. Every time I turn around, a new sleek high-rise condo block has moved in to an area that was previously derelict and run-down, bringing with it yet another Duane Reade, Starbucks, and six banks.

Strollers own the sidewalks everywhere from Tribeca to Harlem, and I’ve just learned, after sitting in at a community meeting for the West Side Spirit, some of the top public elementary schools are getting perilously overcrowded.

Obviously there are some big advantages to the gentrification wave. For one thing, as Ben has documented so assiduously, more riders going to formerly neglected neighborhoods has resulted in some public transportation service improvements, not to mention the renovation of some formerly decrepit stations.

But what about New York’s soul? I can’t help but fret that our entire city may be turning into one giant episode of the “Real Housewives of New York,” (which is a good show, but still…)

So my question is this: what do you guys see as the future of Manhattan (and parts of Brooklyn?) Is the condominium madness going to continue indefinitely, or will the slowing of the housing market outside finally allow the city to balance out these past years of growth?

And should we grumpy life-long New Yorkers just get over it and welcome our new neighbors and new landscape, or do we have a right to be concerned about the loss of our loveable urban grit and menacingly glare at the fresh-from-the-suburbs-yuppies across from us on the 1 train?

I’m turning it over to you, subway riders.

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  • The buses are cooler · Following last week’s news that the subways are mostly adequately air conditioned, New York City Transit released the bus air conditioning figures over the weekend. The buses, according to NYCT, are nearly perfectly air conditioned. Of the 2200 buses tested, 97 percent of them were found to be under 78 degrees, and just 78 buses overall were too hot. Now if only the buses moved with any speed through the City… · (3)

I’m on vacation for the next week, but since New York’s subways never shut down, neither will Second Ave. Sagas. I’ve enlisted the help of a few bloggers to help keep things fresh around here. Today’s guest post comes to us from Clinton, keeper of the Zombie Fights Shark! blog. Be forewarned: This guest column is not for the faint of heart or nose, and the piece contains some adult language. Sadly, there is no nudity.

The subways of New York City are, for better or for worse, one of our nation’s greatest achievements in the arena of mass transit. There simply isn’t a better system out there… Chicago? Please, it’s all color-coded and it looks like Candyland fucked a civil engineer (there’s a Pink Line… A PINK LINE!!! Can you imagine?) Washington DC? I heard that every ride automatically registers you to be a Government page; believe me when I tell you… those Senators… they get handsy. And don’t get me started on the supposed Los Angeles subway system. Let’s just say that the term “movable crack house” could be spray-painted across the side of all their trains and everyone would just nod their heads and say, under their breath, in an awed tone, “Finally… honesty.”

So that leaves New York, in all it’s shiny, metal glory. Getting us from here to there all awesome-style with just enough bureaucratic nonsense and threats of a violent mugging so as we don’t get too comfortable. However, despite the general goodness of the NYC transit system, there are some issues. And it’s one of these issues that I’d like to discuss with you now, as it is, and I don’t think I’m overstating this, THE MOST IMPORTANT ISSUE FACING COMMUTERS TODAY.

I’m talking about smells. BAD smells. Stinky trains, kids, of which our beloved transit system has by the bucketful. I mean, sure, you could argue that rampant fare increases or dangerous, poorly-maintained platforms or marauding bands of C.H.U.D.s are really the more pressing issues out there, but… no… I’m here to tell you that it’s the way the trains smell that affect us most. Although, granted, bad odors won’t bite your faces off late at night (that’s mainly the C.H.U.D.s domain), but still.

So, here now, a breakdown of the bad smells found underground, on the train, with you, up your nose…

Food – Being a decadent fat man myself, I can understand the appeal of eating a large, sloppy sandwich all runny with mayonnaise and oil and big hunks of shaved meat just dripping out of that bitch like a jailbait tease… “Eat me, big boy… eat me hardcore…” I get it, I do. But, dude, your sandwich is not for public enjoyment. It’s making the train smell like a deli died a bad death and that, coupled with the sight of your greasy maw sadly chewing and chewing and CHEWING, is bumming us the fuck out harder than if our parents were getting squished in front of us by that big steel-press thingy they used to kill the first Terminator in Terminator. And that goes DOUBLE for you, dude-eating-McDonalds. McDonalds stinks worse than an open grave and you brought that into a closed environment like that wasn’t the worst thing you do to your fellow passengers short of stabbing them in the eye with your house key? What’s wrong with you? I hope you die in a tragic Playland collapse because I just fucking KNOW you’re up there on the slides feeling free as a bird even though it clearly states those are just for kids. So rude, you, and eating in public where we all have to get nostril-violated by it is just a symptom. And I can’t even discuss people that bring Chinese food or, god forbid, Indian food on the train. That’s like looking to the eyes of a madman and seeing nothing but your own soul, rotting.

Sweat – During the summer, New York is roughly a million billion degrees. And it’s humid, too, so it’s kind of like someone took a swamp, tied it up with the Equator, and started using it like a cudgel to beat us into slimy, nasty submission. And when we get tired of said beating, we get on the subway to go home. So there we are, our shirts all clingy like an ex-girlfriend and out faces so moist, it looks like we head-butted a Sparkletts truck. Now, sometimes you’ll be on a nifty new, baby blue subway car that’s got a brand-spankin’ AC pumping out cold air and love and everyone goes “AAAAHHHH” and considers ditching their apartments to just live right here until October. Mostly, though, you end up on one of the old cars. The 1970s yellow-orange cars that had their air conditioning units installed by union members working under the governmental control of Fiorello LaGuardia. Armpit city, man, and you better BELIEVE the dude standing next to you’s shower broke last week and he hasn’t bothered to fix it because he’s lazy and thus smells like a jockstrap nightmare that a neutron bomb made of Right Guard couldn’t fix. So that’s what summertime in the city is like, my friends. Damp, unpleasant, mean, and cruel. Anyone that tells you different is a robot.

Vomit – A couple of years ago, I was riding the train on my morning commute, not a care in the world, a heart full of happy songs and a mind free and clear of the horrors one could brush up against when traveling by rail. There was a little girl standing in front of me, holding her father’s hand and eating a sticky bun that appeared to be filled with sweet, delicious paste. Apparently, however, the bun was ACTUALLY filled with botulism garbage liberally doused with Ipecac because, not five seconds after her last bite, she exploded in a fountain of puke that made Old Faithful feel bad about its volume of liquid output, even though it KNOWS geysers and little barfing girls are two totally different things. Anyway, the whole car reeked like a frat pledge’s laundry for the rest of the ride into the city and this is but a small sample of the vomiting crimes committed on NYC public transportation. Particularly on the weekends, when everyone’s stumbling out of the bars after their jerkass friend dared them to do ONE MORE shot of Cuervo even though they were already feeling spinny and they thought they could make it home but they couldn’t and suddenly there’s a lake of pizza slices and the aforementioned tequila and everyone in the car wishes they were born without noses.

Human Waste – Like, from the butt or the wang. It doesn’t happen often, but it DOES happen, usually with the swiftness of building blowing up or, rather, out. Onto the floor. In a puddle or a pile and everyone’s frozen in horror and the person… the “expeller,” if you will… is standing there suddenly forced to pick through the wreckage of their life to see exactly at what point they went horribly wrong and ended up here, amongst shame and strangers and their own filth. Farts are the most common HW happening and, unless they particularly favor a busted septic tank, they can just as easily be dismissed as a momentary lapse of etiquette. Pee would come next and, again, it all goes back to those damned bars and your fucking friends who just HAVE to fill you full of beer even though they KNOW you have a bladder like Bonnie & Clyde’s car after the ambush. So you’re halfway to your stop and your whole existence has become red-faced and clenched and all about NOT…FUCKING… PEEING… and then suddenly, train hits a bump or takes a curve too hard, and SKERPLOOOSH. Life will never be the same. And then there’s poo… well, it’s pretty much the same as pee, except fifty times worse, more smelly, and mentally scarring for all parties involved.

And finally… encompassing all of the above…

The Homeless – Okay, look, like any good liberal with idealistic leanings, I’m not insensitive to the plight of the downtrodden. Hell, I even dress like them for the most part (clothes with holes are still cool, right?) and if I’ve got some spare change loitering in my pocket, I’ll now and again toss it their way in hopes they can find some booze to ease their pain, if only for a night. But the fact remains… the homeless are the smelliest of the subways smells, especially since they tend to be a combo platter of the previous four categories we’ve discussed. The whole is far greater (greater = stanky) than the sum of it’s parts, as it were. They’ve got the moldy food that they’ve hoarded, they’ve got sweat pretty well locked down, what with the never-showering thing, they’ve got the vomit because they drink a lot or do a lot of easily obtained (and thus nearly toxic) street drugs, and they’ve got the human waste going on because no business lets the homeless use their public toilets (and even if they did, most homeless folk aren’t really all that bothered by just busting out brown right in their shabby hobo slacks). And again, I’m not trying to mock them or say, “Ha ha, look at the poor insane Vietnam vet who can afford his medicine.” That’s not my style. I bring it up only because it’s an irrefutable fact of subway life… the homeless are there a lot, they smell really bad most of the time (barring a recent prison and/or rehab stint) and that’s just the way it is. Sad but true. And gross.

So there you have it; a primer on the odors of the underground. I can only assume that you’ve now learned everything you need to know on the subject of stinkiness and trains and that you’ll use this knowledge only for good (although I don’t technically see how one could use it for bad, other than targeting homeless people for swift drubbings with a scented candle… which, by the way, don’t do that). So, I guess that’s it. I did want to thank my boy Ben for letting me sully his good name and reputation with my own particular brand of whimsy. Sorry about that. And to all his readers who came here looking for actual news… er, sorry as well. He’ll be back soon. And to everyone else… thanks for reading! To you, and to the subways themselves, I say… smell ya later!!!

Categories : MTA Absurdity
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