New Yorkers who rely on the subways for their daily needs are prone to complain, and everyone knows the typical refrains. “Another delay on the 7.” “The L train stalled just past Bedford Ave.” “Signal problems on the A/C/E again.”

At times, subway complaining can almost seem like a game. It’s Subway Misery Poker. Did you have a worse commute than your co-worker? And sometimes, it’s hard not to think that we’re all exaggerating how bad we have it. After all, twenty-five years ago, track fires were a common occurrences and train doors often broke, stranding passengers up and down entire subway lines. The MTA in 2008 is a far cry from the MTA of 1980.

Yet, here we are again in 2008, and maybe things are that bad. Much like in 1980, Richard Ravitch has again been asked to ride in and gallantly save the MTA from sure doom. But just what is the extent of that doom?

In an extended post on amNew York’s Subway Tracker blog today, Matthew Sweeney expounded on the precarious state of the New York City subway system. Those complaints of poor service and frequent delays may be more valid than we as a city would like to admit.

Trains are falling farther and farther behind since at least March 2006. It’s worst in the evening rush where NYC Transit rates itself as running 88% of trains on time in March — the most recent data available — down from almost 92% in March last year…

The number of delays is up as well — an average of 27% over the last 12 months. Delays are counted as any train “abandoned en-route, abandoned at the terminal, and arriving late to the terminal due to any incident.” Anything from a signal problem, a sick passenger or track work can cause a delay. Track work is the most common cause of delays. In March, delays spiked upward with 1,361 more incidents than February. Delays have been on the rise for a couple of years. There were 105,290 train delays in 2006, and 138,446 last year…

Another indicator — the mean distance between failures, which is the number of miles divided by delays caused by the cars themselves — has a bleak prognosis. In March 2008, cars traveled 12% shorter distance before having a problem than they did during the same time last year.

“Every month we’re showing record ridership and we’re not putting any more service out there to accommodate the ridership,” MTA Board Member Andrew Albert said at Thursday’s meeting. “Right now it is crush conditions.”

On top of — or is it behind? — all of these problems with the physical plant, the MTA is suffering an acute money crisis, spurred in part by congestion pricing, in part by a terrible economy and in part by decades of government neglect at the city and state levels. That is where Richard Ravitch comes in. Ravitch has been tasked with finding viable options for the MTA to fund its projected $17 billion capital budget gap. But besides the expansion plans that are in jeopardy, a gap this large would seriously impact the MTA’s ability to maintain what the agency calls a “state of good repair” which, as you can see from stations and cars, isn’t a very high standard.

Without the money, the system will quickly tumble from good repair to bad repair. While it’s hard to imagine returning to those dark days of the 1970s and 1980s simply because the city is safer than it was twenty and thirt years ago, the subways will quickly become grimier and more unreliable than many New Yorkers ever remember them to be.

Eliot Brown writing in The Observer earlier this week profiled Ravitch’s tough task, and there’s plenty to like about Ravitch and his commission. I’m eagerly awaiting their recommendations.

So it is left to Mr. Ravitch and his commission, with members expected to be named in coming weeks, to sort through the mess and chart a viable course for the M.T.A. and State Legislature to follow.

Commissions such as these often follow a similar formula, as politicized members produce a report with a more or less predetermined outcome so as to give the commission’s creators a perceived mandate to proceed with whatever policy action they had intended, perhaps with a few tweaks.

But such a result is unlikely from Mr. Ravitch, those who know him say, as he has a well-known reputation for freely speaking his mind and fiercely defending his independence, an element considered key to his successful track record.

“He’s incredibly blunt about things, and may put some people off, but on the other hand you can depend on what Richard is saying as being what he really believes,” said Robert Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association. “He is a remarkable man.”

And that is where we are now with the subways. The system is nearly maxed out in terms of capacity, and the MTA is without the money — thanks to anit-congestion pricing foes — to address the situation. For the second time in less than thirty years, New York and the MTA will turn to Richard Ravitch to rescue their subway system. This time, the system is simply on the brink of collapse instead of a full-fledged nightmare, and we all have to hope that Ravitch can pull this rabbit out of his hat. The future health of New York depends on it.

The 1972 New York City Subway Guide courtesy of the Field Guide to New York City Subway Maps.

Categories : MTA Economics
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An Ironic Green Metrocard

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Where: Express tracks on the 7 at Shea Stadium
What: A discarded green MetroCard thrown out by a Mets fan heading back toward Manhattan.

For some reason, I don’t think this is what the MTA had in mind when they started their green campaign. A MetroCard thrown on the tracks is litter even if it’s yellow, green or blue. I thought there was something poetic in the irony of an environmentally themed MetroCard lying on the tracks as just another piece of subway trash.

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  • The 14-day Metrocard hasn’t caught on yet · Yesterday, I was planning my next few months of Unlimited Ride MetroCard purchases. My 30-day monthly had expired, and I’m spending two weeks in August out of the city. So I figured I would be able to purchase a monthly for May 21-June 20 and a monthly for June 21-July 21. That handy time frame would leave me with about 16 days in the city before my two-week excursion out of the Big Apple. What’s a subway rider to do?

    It was then I lit upon the latest offering from the MTA: As part of the fare hike, they instituted a 14-day Unlimited Ride MetroCard for $47. It would be perfect for me at the end of July. It seems, however, that I am among the few straphangers thinking along those lines. As Pete Donohue reports in the Daily News, 14-day card swipes accounted for just one percent of all MetroCard trips in March. Of course, the new card will take longer than overnight to catch on as riders adjust to the flexibility afforded by this card. As Paul Fleuranges, NYC Transit spokesman, said, “One month does not a trend set.” [Daily News] · (1)

After a few weeks of random purse-snatches and one escape through a subway tunnel that have led to lingering tensions between New York City Transit and the NYPD, the cops finally arrested the suspected purse-snatcher. While the resolution of this drama is a welcome denouement, the real story comes from an analysis of recent subway crime statistics. They may have bottomed out with nowhere to go but up.

At the end of December, the MTA announced a period of record low crime in the subways. While ridership reached a 50-year peak, crime had hit an all-time low. But it was not to last.

According to recent numbers, crime numbers in the subway saw a slight uptick during the first four months of the year. Pete Donohue reports:

The latest data shows that crime rose slightly during the first four months of this year – the third time in the last five years there has been an uptick.

There were 704 felonies, including robberies, on trains and in stations between January through April – an increase of 1.7%, according to NYPD statistics reported to the MTA.

Serious offenses are rare considering the volume of riders, but the mini-spike calls into question whether police can bring down the crime rate much more. “I doubt it can go down dramatically or [get] much lower,” said Eli Silverman, police studies professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “But can they keep it pretty close to where it’s been? I think they can.”

Silverman raises an interesting idea: At some point, due to the magnitude of the subway system and limitations of a personnel-based police force, the MTA and the NYPD won’t be able to continue lowering the subway crime rate. In fact, it’s quite possible that we’re at that nadir; unless different surveillance and prevention measures are put into place, subway crime won’t get lower.

Perhaps adding cameras to subway cars or stations could force the crime rate a few ticks lower. Perhaps increased police presence — Operation Torch? — will deter a few more potential criminals.

But either way, the MTA and NYPD have done a stellar job in turning the subways around over the last few decades from a crime-infested disaster to a vast public transit system about as safe as one could hope. As long as crime stays low, we’ll all come out ahead.

Categories : Subway Security
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  • Inside the subway bathrooms · Matthew Sweeney, an amNew York reporter, ventured where few subway riders dare to go: into the subway bathrooms. In a piece that spends altogether too much time opining on the malodorous smells emanating from these public restrooms, Sweeney notes that the MTA is closing the system’s restrooms from midnight to 5 a.m. While some late-night revelers bemoaned the new closing time and threatened to use convenient corners to relieve themselves, the MTA says they need to close them to prevent people from living in the bathrooms and to clean them.

    Of course, MTA cleaners refuse to evict restroom residents. Writes Sweeney,”One cleaner said that sometimes a homeless person will refuse her request to leave bathroom, so she has to clean around them.” I’m all on board with cleaning out the restrooms, but make an effort. Get the semi-permanent residents out of there too. [amNew York] · (8)

MTA CEO and Executive Director Lee Sander’s efforts to overhaul MTA management wrapped up this week when 37-year-old agency vet and MTA Bus President Thomas Savage retired.

Savage’s retirement came just a little over a week and a half after the MTA announced an extensive overhaul of the management at their bus company holdings. As with all things MTA, however, it is not without controversy. Pete Donohue, transit beat writer at the Daily News, notes that Savage will get a full year’s salary despite voluntarily stepping down:

The cash-strapped MTA will pay a former top-level executive $200,000 to do nothing.

Metropolitan Transportation Authority veteran Thomas Savage will receive a full year’s salary as if he was still reporting to work as president of the MTA Bus Co. – even though he stepped down from the executive post last month, the authority said.

Spokesman Jeremy Soffin described the $200,000 as a necessary cost of a larger initiative to consolidate management positions, which the authority expects to lead to financial savings down the road. Savage retired despite having one year left on his multiyear contract, Soffin said.

Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign had kind words for Savage and the MTA’s efforts to streamline operations – but said he believed the MTA is “too generous” when crafting packages for executives.

Savage, for his part, wouldn’t talk about the deal. His only comment to Donohue was to note that it wasn’t a buyout. Of course, when someone leaves his job — and isn’t the first MTA division head to do so under the new CEO — and is paid a full year’s salary for not working, well, you know what they say: If it smells like buyout and quacks like a buyout…

Under the new leadership structure, the MTA stands to save upwards of $150,000 annually. While that figure is small beans compared to the billions the MTA needs for its various capital projects, Savage’s departure and the bus consolidation is another sign that Sander has a set plan in place for streamlining the MTA’s bureaucracy. Overly generous buyout or not, it’s tough to argue with that.

Categories : Buses
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Sinking subway cars

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Man overboard! (Photo courtesy of Reuters)

Last Tuesday, I noted the impending reefing of a bunch of old subway cars. Well, bad weather postponed the sinking of the old cars until Friday, and three days ago, Reuters reporters and photographers were on hand to capture the subways going down to the sea bed. The news wire had a short story about the sinking and a nifty slideshow too. My favorite is this one that shows the train slowly sinking. It’s poignantly sad. I’d love to be on that barge watching the cars go down.

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  • Come on, ride the Staten Island train · Just in case you missed it when the Daily News ran an easy-to-understand graphic showing that ridership on the Staten Island Railway was up 12.8 percent this year, amNew York’s got your back. New York’s free daily profiled the SIR yesterday, focusing on the exploding ridership and the quirks of the free train line. While the line could still support an increase in capacity of another 25 percent, hardly anyone pays the $2 fare that the MTA collects only at the St. George Ferry Terminal stop. In fact, many riders opt for a seven-minute walk to avoid that fare as well. I have to wonder if perhaps, with ridership on the climb, the MTA should consider trying to capture fares in Staten Island. Every dollar helps. [amNew York] · (1)

When the MTA elevator story broke in The Times yesterday, I was struck by the candor in the reporting. William Neuman spoke to some high-level MTA employees — including NYC Transit President Howard Roberts and the agency’s own elevator and escalator guru — as he pieced his story together.

The MTA workers were generally candid in their critiques of their agency. “This organization is very, very good at subway car maintenance; it’s very good at bus maintenance. But maintaining auxiliary equipment it hasn’t done as well,” Roberts said. “I think that we are in the process of trying to create the same competence in elevator and escalator maintenance that we have in buses and subway cars.”

Joseph Joyce, the general superintendent of elevators and escalators, was equally forthcoming.
“I’m trying to get these guys to think that, you know what, that could be your mom that’s walking with a cane and needs that escalator,” he said to Neuman. “Nothing in this world is guaranteed. It could be one of us in a wheelchair next month. And if you want to enjoy the city, you want to be able to utilize our public transportation system. You need that elevator to work.”

It’s tough to find fault with the MTA for their honesty. Instead of hiding behind a bunch of “no comments,” the people in charge responded to an obvious problem and are seemingly willing to confront it head-on. Later in the day on Monday, NYC Transit released an official statement on elevator and escalator service problems. It read, in part:

To help better train our workforce, NYC Transit recently opened a specialized training annex aimed at teaching the maintenance and repair of elevators, escalators and moving walkways. The facility offers extensive hands-on training so employees will be as prepared as possible as they work to keep the subway system’s nearly 370 elevators and escalators in a state of good repair. Prior to the annex’s opening, all instruction was done in the field. The annex is now a vital tool in maintaining the reliability of the system’s elevator and escalator equipment. It should also be noted that in most instances, elevators are being installed in a system whose original designers never planned or provided for their installation.

Modeled after the program that helped dramatically boost subway car reliability, we have also begun a program that forecasts the expected service lives of escalator and elevator parts, and then replacing them prior to the point of failure. The system that houses maintenance records has been upgraded and fully computerized for easy reference and retrieval. Early improvements in reliability figures indicate that the move to the Scheduled Maintenance System is already having a positive impact. To visually check elevator and escalator operation, personnel from the Division of Stations check the equipment in their stations three times a day. In yet another move forward, NYC Transit has installed a $1.3 million electronic monitoring system to alert maintainers when an elevator or escalator stops working…

These aggressive shifts in our philosophy have earned some improvement in the reliability of escalators and elevators. Though we are still coming online with the training annex, escalator reliability rose from 97.1 percent to 98.1 percent from the first quarter of 2007 to the same period this year. Likewise, elevator reliability rose from 97.9 to 98.8 percent.

Part excuse, part explanation, but from the sound of it, NYC Transit is working hard to ensure elevator and escalator reliability, and they should be working hard. These services go beyond simple measures of efficiency and wasteful spending. For many wheelchair-bound straphangers, these elevators — although sparse — are the only means of entry and exit from the train systems. An unreliable system is doing no one any good.

In the end, it will be probably be a challenge for the MTA to keep these elevators running smoothly all the time. They are, after all, in use 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Some people use the privacy of the elevators for inappropriate bodily functions; some people use them as their own personal drawing boards or garbage cans. They’re trod upon and abused during all hours of the day.

But as The Times story has drawn attention to a problem that is getting increasingly harder to ignore — someone think of the privately owned escalators! — it is comforting to know that the MTA is working to improve service. Hopefully, those measures will be successful.

Categories : MTA Absurdity
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