Transit Romance

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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 Rebecca Aronauer, keeper of the Raronauer’ed blog.

Perhaps the greatest fantasy for any New Yorker is to fall in love on the subway. Who hasn’t checked out someone across the aisle, espied them reading your favorite book and have your heart skip a beat? To think: To have a train line and Philip Roth in common. This must be the real thing.

But like rent control, this New York dream is just that, a dream. What if a stranger actually approached you on the subway? It would be kind of weird. And even when strangers do find each other on the subway—with some help from the internet — true love takes more than a meet-cute.

But if there’s any romance to be had on the subway, it’s falling in love with yourself. Between work, family and friends, the subway is the true New Yorker’s chance to be alone. We’re hurried people, and it’s fitting that we find downtime traveling. That’s why tourists and packs of teenagers traveling together are so annoying: They’re violating the first rule of subway etiquette, which is to entertain yourself quietly.

Of course this statue is only in effect on weekdays. On the weekends, it’s perfectly acceptable to travel in groups, or late at night, in pairs. On the way back home, perhaps too inebriated from the night out to do anything but people watch, who hasn’t felt a little sadness when seeing couples share the ride home together? Like our small apartments, riding the subway alone is a reality New Yorkers must accept. And we can only make the best of it with iPod solitaire, romance novels and daydreaming about the person who just got on.

Categories : Subway Romance
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This poster will soon adorn a train near you. (Click to enlarge.)

In mid-July, New York City Transit came under fire when word got out about the inactivity surrounding to a few planned anti-groping PSAs. According to reports at the time, the agency had been hesitant to launch an awareness campaign dues to fears that the ads could encourage copycat behavior.

Well, after The Post exposed this odd stalemate, the MTA has decided to act. NYC Transit is set to debut their new PSA — seen above — in train cars throughout the city. This ad will run for at least the next three months. “We think the poster sets the right tone, and provides our female customers the information they need — which is namely that they shouldn’t tolerate such criminal behavior and that they should report it,” Paul Fleuranges, NYCT spokesman, said in an e-mail. “It’s a message that not only applies to women, but also to men who may witness such behavior.”

In explaining the decision to proceed with this ad campaign despite the original copycat concerns, Fleuranges noted that the benefits of this PSA far outnumber the negatives. “The possibility of instigating this type of unwelcome behavior is far outweighed by putting out the message that this type of behavior will not be tolerated in the system and is viewed by us and the NYPD as being an extremely serious crime,” he said. “In and of itself the card may not stop all of it, but hopefully we can help put a dent in these occurrences.”

Holla Back New York City, a long-term proponent of these ads, is pleased to see one of their goals realized. They have been pressing the issue since well before Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer’s 2007 survey found that nearly two-thirds of all women experienced subway harassment. There is little doubt in my mind that displaying these ads is right thing to do.

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Maybe we’re looking at the MTA’s financial crisis from the wrong perspective. Maybe, instead of asking a financially distraught state or city to pick up the tab, business developers, real estate mavens and local communities should pitch in and clean up.

That is at least what the New York City Transit Riders Council is suggesting. In a report that rehashes some familiar territory, the NYCTRC proclaims the subways to be in dire straits. As the council wrote in the press release (PDF) drawing attention to its survey of 50 stations (PDF), “The most common indicators where stations received failing grades include the presence of exposed wiring, the cleanliness and condition of station ceilings, the presence of tactile warning strips indicating platform edges, water leakage on ceilings, water leakage on walls, and cleanliness and condition of station walls.”

We know this already. We’ve had everyone from NYCT President Howard Roberts to the Straphangers Campaign and some local politicians tell us so. But the report contains some rather out-of-the-box approaches to combating both the decrepit stations and the finances involved in fixing them up.

The NYCTRC report begins with the regular litany of funding sources. The state should ensure a “steady, predictable source of revenue.” The city should “join with NYC Transit in a mutually beneficial effort to create a positive subway experience for users” — which is just a fancy way of saying, “Give the MTA more money.” But after that, things get interesting.

First, the NYCTRC suggests a “station impact fee.” Under this plan, the city would automatically charge a fee on any new development with walking distance of a subway station. The report says, “The presence of a subway station within walking distance adds great value to any development and increases the use of this transportation service; as such, new development and redevelopment should share in the care and maintenance of this important asset of the community.”

Next, the Council calls upon Business Improvement Districts to lend a hand in station maintenance. As clean and modern stations would attract more shoppers and business people to an area, the BIDs have a substantial interest in maintaining and improving conditions underground.

Hand in hand with the BID proposal is one calling for the creation of an “Adopt-a-Station” plan. Through this program, “neighborhood-corporate partnerships are formed to financially support capital improvements and maintenance of stations. Community residents and commercial establishments should have the opportunity to participate in the preservation of their local subway station.”

Why the MTA hasn’t implemented this idea in the past I do not know. By encouraging communities to take ownership of stations, the MTA can get its riders and those local business owners who rely on the stations to take command of some of the things the Transit Authority can’t. Critics will call this a dereliction of the MTA’s duties, but those same critics won’t fund the transportation agency to its fullest.

Of course, this idea gets to the very philosophical nature of the MTA. If the MTA — a public benefit corporation tasked with maintained and running the trains — can’t fulfill its overarching goal, should the public step in and rescue it through such a program? And while some richer neighborhoods have the disposable income to spend on subway station maintenance, do the city’s less well-off areas have to suffer as well?

Perhaps modeling such a plan on the successful Adopt-A-Highway program would be a good way to start. Perhaps the MTA shouldn’t come knocking, hat in the hand, to ask communities for such a direct contribution to station upkeep. But as it becomes more clear every day that the MTA doesn’t have the money, that the city and state don’t have funds, that congestion pricing remains a long shot, someone will have to step in and implement and out-of-the-box idea to rescue our subway system. If this one doesn’t deserve a shot, I don’t know what does.

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  • MTA suffering from BAAAA-d security · Want to penetrate the MTA’s crack security perimeters? Well, all you need is a heard of goats. According to the Daily News, a herd of goats sneaked their way under a fence near Verrazano Bridge on Staten Island without triggering an alarm. While the MTA claims that had the fence been damaged or tampered with, the alarms would have gone off, I’m just relieved knowing that the old Trojan Horse technique is all that it takes to break through to the MTA’s restricted areas. · (0)
  • Mayor Mike proposes reservation tax to fund MTA · While Richard Ravitch and his commission are hard at work identifying potential sources of revenue for the cash-starved MTA, Mayor Michael Bloomberg isn’t letting the issue pass him by. Bloomberg, ever the businessman, calls upon the state to collect taxes on Indian reservation cigarette sales. For the past 14 years, since the Supreme Court decided that states could collect taxes on reservation sales, New York has opted not to enforce this rule, and Bloomberg writes that the taxes would amount to $800 million annually or just enough to cover the MTA’s budget deficit. I wouldn’t say “no” to this idea, but I’m sure the same politicians who won’t push congestion pricing aren’t going to sign up for this one either. New York City and its transit system is stuck in neutral, and Albany is to blame. · (3)

Subway Escalator by flickr user hizonic.

If I were the MTA, I wouldn’t attempt to draw too much attention my escalators. We have long heard about how many escalators are notoriously out of service, and in a way, the escalators are symbolic the larger problems plaguing the MTA.

But that’s not stopping the transit authority from plowing ahead on the escalator issue. According to Sewell Chan of The New York Times, the MTA is set to unveil some rather spiffy and environmentally-sound escalators over the next few months in an effort to respond to past critiques of their moving staircases. This move should also save the MTA just under $2000 per escalator per year.

Chan reports:

Starting on Monday, 35 recently installed escalators at four stations will start operating at variable speeds as part of a pilot program. The escalators, which use infrared motion sensors, will slow to just 15 feet per minute when no one is on them, compared with the normal full speed of 100 feet per minute. The escalators will gradually accelerate to the full speed, over a few seconds, once a rider steps on.

“Like humans, machines benefit from a little rest from time to time, and the escalators that provide service to subway customers are no exception,” said Paul J. Fleuranges, a spokesman for New York City Transit, the arm of the authority that runs the subways and buses.

By replacing old escalators with new ones that use a variable-frequency drive and numerous sensors, positioned near the escalators, officials hope to save on energy costs, and, just as important, reduce the wear and tear on the many mechanical parts in the heavily used machines.

“It’s not an idea we invented,” Thomas Kenny, principal mechanical engineer in the department of capital program management at New York City Transit, said in a phone interview. “We call it sleep mode. Others call it intermittent operation. It’s been used widely across the world, particularly in Europe and Asia.”

According to Chan, the lucky escalators can be found at the following stations: 34th Street-Herlad Square; Roosevelt Island, home of notoriously unreliable escalators; Jamaica-Van Wyck; and Jamaica Center-Parsons/Archer. Don’t you all go screwing around with the sensors now.

It’s hard to argue with the MTA on this one. Environmentally-friendly escalators that save the beleaguered transit agency some money are a plus in my book, but there’s a catch. These escalators have to work in order to be effective, and the MTA’s track record in that regard is far from stellar. I hope the MTA can pull this one off, but until their escalators run with some regularity and fewer breakdowns, I’ll be skeptical of it all.

Maybe, come Monday, the MTA will prove me wrong. I hope so.

Categories : MTA Technology
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  • The subways are cool · Or at least, that’s what New York City Transit would have you believe. According to NYCT statistics, 97.3 percent of all subway cars are adequately air-conditioned, which means that those cars were at 78 degrees or cooler. That’s a questionable definition of “adequate.” Meanwhile, the E train was the system’s grand loser with just 83 percent of the cars checking in at under 78 degrees and about six percent featuring temperatures higher than 88.

    According to Daily News writer Pete Donohue, NYCT is focusing more on air conditioning this year. As he writes, “Maintenance superintendents with the highest percentage of cool cars get trophies. Those with the worst numbers get oversized thermometers that they must keep on their desks.” How kitschy. · (4)

This weekend, on two separate occasions, I had the opportunity to see first-hand the state of the subway system. On Saturday evening, I took the N train from Pacific St. to Coney Island, and on Sunday, I used the Smith/9th Sts. subway stop coming to and going from Red Hook. Neither of these experiences presented much hope for the state of stations in disrepair.

The Smith/9th Sts. station has gotten a lot of press of late. Originally, the MTA had planned a full station overhaul as part of the Culver Viaduct Rehabilitation project. But when parts of the project were scaled back, the station rehab plans were placed in limbo. The station itself is a mess. The paint is beyond peeling; there are holes in the staircase; and it’s generally one of the ugliest and most run-down stations in the system. With views of Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bay of New York, it should be a crown jewel.

Meanwhile, on that N ride through Brooklyn, the Sea Beach line journeys through Gravesend and Bensonhurst en route to the modern marvel at Stillwell Ave. on Coney Island. As the N journeys through a trench in Brooklyn, decrepit station after decrepit station pass by. Walls are damaged by leaking pipes and dirty water. Paint is gone. Platforms are cracked. The train travels past a physically unsafe and visually unpleasant set of station.

These are just two examples of a widespread problem found in our subway system. The stations are in a state of disrepair, and according to New York City Transit President Howard Roberts, these conditions may be here to stay. Angela Montefinise and Kathianne Boniello had the story in The Post recently:

The head of New York City Transit acknowledges that less than a quarter of the Big Apple’s subway stations are in acceptable condition – and says the agency is an “unbelievably long distance” from bringing the rest up to par, even with higher fares.

“There’s not anything out there that anybody is very proud of,” NYC Transit President Howard Roberts Jr. told The Post in a wide-ranging interview about the fundamental problems plaguing the city’s 468 subway stations as the agency slashes its budget and talks about raising fares twice more in the coming three years…

Roberts’ response: It’s extremely bad, and it isn’t going to get better any time soon. Roberts said the number of stations in good condition could be “as low as 100,” far fewer than his agency’s capital plan suggests.

The issue, of course, is what it always is: The MTA doesn’t have the funds to do more than maintain the status quo. “We’re not doing as many rehabs, and we have very limited capacity to maintain and clean the stations we do have,” Roberts said to The Post. “We really do not have the funding to do a first-class job.”

According to the NYCT chief, the transit agency would have to employ over 800 more station cleaners and many more maintenance workers than it currently does. So as you look around at your surroundings each morning and wonder when those streaks of grimy water and patches of missing tiles are going to go away, just know that the answer is that they aren’t any time soon. As long as we have politicians who are reluctant to think out of the box in order to fund transit, our system will continue to suffer. And that status quo will just become more and more expensive to maintain.

We’re a long way from seeing our stations in a state of good repair, and that’s a damn shame.

Categories : MTA Economics
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  • The Return of the Son of Congestion Pricing · The MTA has no money, and with subway officials acknowledging the system’s state of bad repair, everyone is focused on solving the MTA’s fiscal crisis. To that end, reenter congestion pricing. According to an article in The Times over the weekend, Richard Ravitch and his commission to save transit as we know it is seriously considering recommending congestion pricing as a dedicated revenue stream for the MTA.

    On the surface, this move may be just the push congestion pricing needs to get over that legislative hump. No longer just a pet project of a very rich and very independent mayor, congestion pricing could be presented as the revolutionary plan to save the New York Metropolitan Area’s public transit system. Of course, Richard Brodsky is still predicting doom and gloom for any congestion pricing plan, but if pricing were to fail again, the legislature would continue to shirk its duties to the MTA and New York City. We could be in for one grand face-off between the Big Apple and Albany indeed. · (2)

For the vast majority of rush hour subway commuters, getting a seat is the Holy Grail of the ride home. That seat provides us riders with our own too-small space underneath the packed masses of disgruntled cube dwellers trying to make their ways to or from work in a train that’s too crowded, too hot, too slow and not on time. That seat is a beacon of hope, individuality and space in a place where, all too often, those three traits are noticeably absent.

But with if those seats were gone? What if, instead of standing expectantly above a seat waiting for that person to get off at DeKalb Ave. or Rockefeller Center or 68th St., those seats simply didn’t exist at all in the subway? Could more people fit into the trains at rush hour? That’s what New York City Transit head Howard Roberts is wondering, and he plans to find out.

In a pilot program announced over the weekend and set to debut in five-to-seven months, NYC Transit will be eliminating seats from some rush hour subways an in effort to combat over-crowded subways. Pete Donohue had more:

The agency is planning a pilot program featuring a train with flipup seats in four of 10 cars. The flipup seats will be locked in the up position during rush hours, meaning everyone inside the car will have to stand, the Daily News has learned.

“Each car will be able to carry more people,” NYC Transit President Howard Roberts said of the no-sitting strategy. “It means more capacity. It gives the ability to pick up more people, and have fewer people left on the platform waiting for the next train.”

After rush hours, workers will unlock the flipup seats for riders to use, Roberts said.

Right now, the MTA is still attempting to work out logistics of this program. The NYCT chiefs do not yet know which lines will enjoy these seatless cars, and officials aren’t sure of the long-term prospects of the plan. But those in the know believe two things to be: More people will fit into the cars, and passengers won’t like this plan.

It’s hard to argue with the former point. With seats gone, people will squeeze into every available inch of a train car. No one will sit with their legs spread open as annoyed and tired commuters glare uselessly in that person’s direction. No longer will people sit on top of each other for seats; instead, they’ll stand too close to each other.

It’s the second statement — Gene Russianoff’s assessment that passengers won’t like this plan — from which I dissent. If the MTA adheres to the NYCT plan and keeps six out of ten cars with seats, passengers looking to take a load off can still gamble in those cars. Sure, it may mean more people rushing for seats, but I, for example, could rarely if ever get a seat from W. 4th to 7th Ave. along the BMT line. I would be happy to find a car without those annoying seats that jut into the car so prominently featured on the R68s.

The folks who stand to lose are the aged and infirm who can’t stand up for the duration of their subway rides. The folks who stand to lose are those who get on early enough and ride far enough to get a coveted seat on the way home. The folks who stand to gain are the rest of us, and outside of rush hour, when the seats will be flipped down, nothing will seem changed. The needs of the many — space in a train on the way home — outweigh the needs of the few who want seats for their short commutes at the end of the day.

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