Home New York City Transit Sander, Roberts staking much on NYCT reorganization

Sander, Roberts staking much on NYCT reorganization

by Benjamin Kabak

Do we trust Lee Sander and Howard Roberts? That’s really the question behind this line manager plan New York City Transit will begin to implement on Monday.

If we trust the MTA CEO with impeccable academic credentials and the NYCT President who helped streamline the New York City buses twenty years ago, then this seemingly bureaucratic addition of line managers will help improve subway service, somehow. If we don’t trust them, it’s just one more layer of bureaucracy in an organization already plagued with too many employees and layers of red tape.

First, the details: In response to the mediocre grades the MTA has received from the unscientific Rider Report Cards and the seemingly glacial pace of change the pre-Sander MTA, New York City Transit has decided to assign line managers to each line. While most government agencies would shy away from adding another 20 middle managers, Howard Roberts, NYCT president, and Sander, the MTA’s head honcho, think that turning each line into its own railroad with its own funds and crew will help streamline common problems.

William Neuman in The Times wrote more about this restructuring:

The changes are designed to give individual subway lines a greater degree of autonomy by putting each one under the direction of a manager who will be responsible for almost everything that happens on the tracks, in the trains and in the stations.

The goal, Mr. Roberts said, is to have 24 subway lines operating in many ways as 24 self-contained railroads. (The number may vary, depending on how the lines are counted.) They will compete against one another and be rated on service, cleanliness, on-time performance and other measures…

The new managers will be backed up with money and manpower. Additional cleaners will be assigned to stations and trains. And managers will also be able to send out special crews to “blitz” their stations — swarming in and spiffing up everything: peeling paint, rusted fixtures and damaged signs.

The pilot program — because the MTA always needs a pilot program — starts on Monday on the L and 7 lines, those isolated bastions of crowded, underperforming subways. And with the quote of the day comes Roberts. “Bureaucracy is where it takes a year to get something done,” he said. “Creating small organizations that can react quickly and solve problems overnight is the antithesis of that.”

I have long dreamed of the day the MTA solves something overnight.

Sarcasm aside, it’s really easy to see how this plan can fail. Individual subway lines are not autonomous. While the L and 7 are the only trains on their respective tracks, take the B train. At no point from Brighton Beach to Bedford Park Boulevard are the B trains the only trains on the route. The B must share tracks, switches and signals with, at times, the Q, the D and the C trains while the F, V and A also stop at similar stations but use adjacent tracks. Who is supposed to manage that mess?

And what about this whole competition thing? Most people don’t enjoy the luxury of competition in choosing their subways. The vast majority of New Yorkers take the same trains each day because that train is close to home and gets them to work. No one’s going to walk a significant distant to find a train that won’t save them too much time. So while one commenter at CityRoom suggests naming subway cars and other superficial improvements, the Subchat contributors suggest a more rational pay-for-performance model. If your line’s stations are the cleanest, you get paid more. I like that.

For its part, The Times likes this plan. In today’s editorial, The Times notes that, right now, one person is in charge of 468 stations which is why nothing gets done. Is it better to add a new vice president and 22 more managers to improve this problem? Only if more fat is trimmed.

As Railman718 noted (here and here) today on Subchat, this reorganization appears to be something that Sander and Roberts have had on the agenda since before either of them were installed at the MTA. It’s why Pataki-era leaders who weren’t known for their transportation savviness have left in droves.

So basically, we’re right back where we started. If the MTA is intent on eliminating middle management, as Scott suggested here yesterday that they are, it’s probably a winning restructuring. If they can create adequate spheres of influence and figure out how overlapping lines are going to managed, this plan will work. If they can address the systematic problems with the MTA and bring the current state of subway technology in New York City into the 21st Century while doing it, it’s a win. All of this just makes for one tall order facing an agency that needs to overcome a tall order to gain back the trust of its riders.

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Ed December 7, 2007 - 7:56 am

Generally, more centralization promotes economies of scale, but more decentralization promotes accountability. Right now, the MTA needs accountability. And one manager running 468 stations is ridiculous. So this is a good plan.

I would have done things slightly differently, and have the lines divided by color instead of number/ letter. There should be one manager for the 1,2, and 3; one for the 4,5, and 6; one for the B, D, F, and V, and so on. Give the stations to whichever line has the highest ridership in the station. But if the line managers have real authority, the plan as currently mooted should still be a real improvement.

Cap'n Transit December 7, 2007 - 8:19 am

One potential advantage is that riders feel more “ownership” of their line. So, for example, a Bushwick neighborhood organization could invite the manager of the L line to give a talk at their monthly meeting and take questions.

If these managers are to be accountable, they should have email and snail mail addresses and phone numbers made available to the public. That way if someone notices a problem – say, that the trains around 7:15 AM are always bunched, or that the pigeons always shit in one spot that never gets cleaned up – they can contact the line manager or their staff instead of leaving a message with central MTA operators.

Batty December 7, 2007 - 9:18 am

So since some overpaid manager can’t do their job they’ll hire 20 more who probably won’t either. To pay for this we should obviously bump the fare up to $5 a ride because the MTA is so cash starved. Ugh.

Batty December 7, 2007 - 9:22 am

OK, one more because this whole really pisses me off. If you have a job, and you are doing a lousy job in almost any company you’re fired and they look for someone who can. The MTA rewards lousy jobs with more people at the same time pleading poverty. If they want to win people over it has to start from within and not with service cuts – this is why no one is in favor of a hike.

Batty December 7, 2007 - 9:29 am

Sigh – one more. In the editorial they mention how if it takes two years to fix a crack no one gets blamed. First off – that’s a problem no levels of bureaucracy will fix. Where is the accountability? Second is that if they put up a simple wiki interface and made it easy for straphangers to report problems (like a ticket system) you’d get a lot of free labor and an accountability of why things aren’t done. A small handful of existing employees can screen and combine tickets for an official list of things to be fixed with priorities (hanging wires are more important than peeling paint for instance). That seems like a no-brainer and something $1k can fix and take less than an hour to go from a reported complaint to the department that needs to take care of it (painting vs plumbing vs welding vs … ).

Benjamin Kabak December 7, 2007 - 9:47 am


To address your first part, it’s hard to fault the MTA for wanting to spread management around. It’s ludicrous that one person is in charge of maintenance and upkeep at 468 stations. I’m just wondering if a line-by-line reorganization is really the way to go.

Batty December 7, 2007 - 10:38 am

I don’t know the answer to this – but doesn’t he have a staff? I’m sure if a token clerk sees something s/he doesn’t pick up the phone and call him directly, right? If so, I agree – too much for one person. But somehow I have a feeling it goes through several channels (doesn’t every station have a station manager? What do they do?) before it gets to him.

Peter December 7, 2007 - 1:49 pm

Jeez. Complain about redundancy, then send 3 emails. Then a 4th.

Do you have ANY idea of the organizational make-up of NYCT, and how responsibility is actually distributed? There are divisions for Rapid Transit, Track, Signals, Stations, Electricity, Structures, Capital, all of which are involved in making the entire system work, imperfectly, as we all know. If you think that somehow additional new people are going to be hifed to try to organize and rationalize those operations on behalf of the riding public.
David Gunn was able to make enormouse headway 20+ years ago, but he was fully backed by the State and Local Goverments, and was given the Capital funding and Operating budget to do the job.

AlexB December 7, 2007 - 2:31 pm

The first commenter pointed out the key question: “more centralization promotes economies of scale, but more decentralization promotes accountability.” The MTA is already accountable, albeit indirectly, to voters. Is it really so much to just expect our elected leaders to do their jobs, appoint competent people and expect results?

Although I understand the idea of pinning the performance of each line to one person and holding that person accountable instead of a bureaucratic system, isn’t integration of a vast series of subway lines a better idea than giving each one autonomy? As another commenter said, it’s not like we have much of a choice in which line we choose. In the situations where people do have a choice, such as choosing the 123 over the BC or the 4 over the BD, the conclusion we can draw is that the system shortchanges the CBD, not that the 1234 are somehow better run.

Instead of making all the lines different, I be much more supportive of bringing the PATH system into the MTA and further interconnecting and expanding the existing system efficiently. That would be much more transformational and exciting.

Second Ave. Sagas | Blogging the NYC Subways » Blog Archive » As more frequent service debuts, experts write off line managers December 17, 2007 - 12:48 am

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[…] initiative, the MTA added service on the 7 and L lines and eventually launched a pilot line manager program along those two lines. Over time, transit watchers and experts expressed their doubts about both […]

Second Ave. Sagas | A New York City Subway Blog » Blog Archive » With mixed reviews, MTA set to expand line manager experiment September 22, 2008 - 2:24 am

[…] that the MTA was out of touch with its riders, New York City Transit President Howard Roberts introduced the line manager program. In the intervening months, the L and 7 served as guinea pigs, and now the MTA will spread the joy […]

Second Ave. Sagas | A New York City Subway Blog » Blog Archive » New York City Transit testing innovations on the tracks October 15, 2008 - 1:14 am

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