Home Rider Report Cards After a fare hike, grading the subways

After a fare hike, grading the subways

by Benjamin Kabak

With the fare hike upon us, a lot of New Yorkers are digging into their thoughts on the subway system. While I’ve been in favor of the fare hike on the basis that the MTA needs the money and the fare hike isn’t that much of a financial onus, as Metro and the Daily News both noted, straphangers are none too pleased about the hike.

For all of our love about the subways, a lot of the critiques leveled anecdotally in the press recently are accurate. Subway service in New York could be better; subway service in New York should be better. Later today, during the State of the MTA speech — which I will cover — MTA CEO and Executive Director Lee Sander will push a lot of service upgrades. But for now, the subways need work.

With that in mind and with commuters shelling out more money to ride the subway, today is a good day to revisit the Rider Report Cards. I’ve never issued my rider report card. Allow me to correct that oversight. I’m not going to grade individual lines; rather, I’m going to grade the system overall with my comments on a few choice topics.

Reasonable wait times for trains — If the MTA deserves to be judged harshly on another topic, this should be at the top of that list. Tonight, for instance, I had to wait 10 minutes at 8:30 p.m. for a downtown express train at 96th St. and Broadway. Then, two showed up. Routinely, during morning rush hour, I wait up to eight minutes for Manhattan-bound trains at 7th Ave. in Brooklyn and up to five minutes for downtown-bound express or local trains at 14th St. and 8th Ave.

In Washington, DC, the WMATA manages to run rush hour service every three to four minutes. In London, the Tubes run even more frequently. Rush hour service should be better. Grade: D

Adequate room on board at rush hour — While some people might define adequate room as “getting a seat,” I think just having enough room to stand is good enough. That said, now and then, I find myself cramming into over-stuffed trains at rush hour because there aren’t enough rush hour trains. For the most part, though, I have enough room to get home at rush hour on crowded lines. That’s good enough for me even if it could be better. Grade: C

Minimal delays during trips — Generally, most “delays” are simply slower speeds due to track configurations. West Side IRT trains can’t speed through the Chambers St.-Park Place curve, and the Manhattan Bridge-De Kalb Ave. bottleneck isn’t nearly as bad as it once was. Unavoidable delays are just that, and usually alternate routes are available. Grade: B

Station announcements that are easy to hear and Station announcements that are informative — Let me set the scene: Fade in on a commuter waiting for the train on the lower level platforms at West 4th St. The loud speaker crackles, and the commuter strains to hear the announcement: “There is a Brooklyn-bound express train approaching West 4th St. on the lower level.” That is not a helpful announcement. The B and D trains make two more stops together before heading in widely different directions.

Passengers know that a train is coming; they want to know what train is coming. This shortcoming isn’t limited to one stop either. On lines across the city, trains are routinely identified as “Queens-bound locals” or “Manhattan-bound trains.” Tell us what trains are coming. That’s what we want to know. And enough already with the “important message from the NYPD.” We know. Grade: D

Train announcements that are easy to hear and Train announcements that are informative — Short answer: It depends on the train. The R42s that run on the B often feature loud speakers that hum at painful volumes and announcements that are inaudible. The announcement on the R142s come through loud and clear. Grade: C

Sense of security in stations and Sense of security on trains — Much better than it once was. Grade: B

Working elevators and escalators in stations — Staircases never break. Grade: B

Signs in stations that help riders find their way — This category routinely pulled down a C-range grade. I never understood that. The signs are pretty clear; they tell you what intersection you’re near. Those neighborhood maps are pretty nifty too. Grade: B+

Signs in subway cars that help riders find their way — Kick Map, London-style Subway map, Vignelli map or the current incarnation? You decide. I like what we have. Grade: B

Cleanliness of stations and Cleanliness of subway cars — The subways always seem dirty, and riders are more than happy to contribute. Maybe New York should take a cue from DC and start handing out more tickets for minor littering infractions. It’s amazing how quickly people got the point in the WMATA Metro. Get the bums out too. Grade: D

Lack of graffiti in stations, Lack of graffiti in subway cars and Lack of scratchitti in subway cars — Better than it was; far from perfect. Grade: C-

Courtesy and helpfulness of station personnel — Let’s just say that “courteous” and “helpful” are not two adjectives I often use to describe MTA station employees. Sometimes, the red-vested booth worker knows what’s around their station but not usually. Grade: C

Comfortable temperature in subway cars — Warm in the winter; cool in the subway. The platforms are a different matter all together, but this question asks about subway cars. Grade: B

Ease of use of subway turnstiles and Availability of MetroCard Vending Machines — This I could not understand. Routinely, straphangers gave these two topics bad grades. Maybe it’s just the stations I frequent, but I never see fewer than two or three MetroCard Vending Machines, and the more crowded stations have tons of MVMs. Meanwhile, sure, better turnstile technology is out there, but if you can’t use the turnstiles, I don’t think it’s the MTA’s fault. Grade: A-

Overall Grade — Despite some serious rush hour deficiencies and some systematic problems with station announcement, the New York City Subways are a pretty sweet deal. For less than $2 a ride — and sometimes for as little as $1.10 if you use a monthly card enough times — the subways will take a New Yorker from one end of the city to the other in a fairly timely manner. Not bad. Grade: B-

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Alon Levy March 3, 2008 - 12:34 am

I have to disagree with you about reasonable wait times for trains. I find the IRT West Side Line to have very short waits, on average. Delays are a problem, but the average headway tends to be very good. For example, last November, while going downtown on the 2 from around 7 pm on a weekday, we on average passed an express train going in the other direction once per fifty seconds, which corresponds to a headway of one minute forty.

It’s somewhat worse on the 1, away from rush hours, or when there’s a GO, but it’s still reasonably good.

Benjamin Kabak March 3, 2008 - 12:37 am

I think, Alon, that a lot depends on the line. I know that the Manhattan-bound B/Q trains during the morning rush at 7th Ave. in Brooklyn have a headway of about four minutes, and they come like clockwork. The downtown-bound A/C/E trains at 14th St. during the evening rush aren’t nearly as regular, and on more than a few occasions, the wait times are longer than they should be.

But I do agree with you that the West Side IRT lines are among the better at offering regular rush hour service.

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JMP March 3, 2008 - 9:00 am

I disagree on the turnstiles. I’ve long thought that the electronic turnstiles were a significant step backwards.

The old, token-driven mechanical turnstiles worked flawlessly. While approaching a turnstile, I would extend my right hand forward and drop in the token, walking right through without ever breaking stride. When they “upgraded” to the current model of turnstile, I suddenly found that I would walk straight into an immovable bar when I tried my old rhythm. With the Metrocards, it’s gotten worse. I have to pause and check if my card was read properly, sometimes finding it takes 2-3 swipes, in part because it can’t read cards at the speed at which people used to be able to walk through the old turnstiles.

I’m all for advancing technology, but until we have a solution that allows people to flow through the turnstiles as fast as they did when it was all mechanical turnstiles accepting tokens, I would hardly describe the turnstiles as working properly.

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Alfred Beach March 3, 2008 - 10:08 am

I disagree about clear signage in the stations, not for exiting, but for finding the right platform. I’ve started photographing signs that seem particularly poor. E.g. “To Coney Is. Exp wkdays Local other times. Late nights via Whitehall St” Does “Exp” mean “except” or “express”? What is “late nights”? 10PM? Midnight? Should I care about the train going via Whitehall St? Should I need to get out “The Map” in order to decipher if this train will get me to where I want to go?

I also agree that maps could be clearer. It once took me an hour to go from Penn Station to Canal Street, in part because I didn’t realize that the connection from the ACE to the JMZ that’s clear on the map doesn’t work on weekends. How much detail should a transit map provide, and how much responsibility do riders have to read footnotes?

NYCPond Chick March 3, 2008 - 10:20 am

I def think that there need to be clearer maps constructed and put in more visable places, I cant tell you how many times a tourst asked me how to get to a certain stop that they could have found clearly on a map if they were more visable!

ScottE March 3, 2008 - 10:30 am

I don’t think the regular turnstiles are THAT bad, although I’ll admit that I’ve walked into that immovable bar more than a couple of times when my Metrocard isn’t read on the first swipe — and I’ve walked into the person in front of me when THEIR card isn’t read. But that, I think, is acceptable.

The HEETs, as I mentiond in a comment some time back, are a royal pain. Especially the ones downstairs from the LIRR platform at Atlantic-Pacific Ave (LIRR Flatbush Ave); you get a crowd of people coming off of the LIRR train, and one-by-one through the HEET. It takes forever…

Marc Shepherd March 3, 2008 - 11:05 am

I used to think the poor grades for “Availability of MetroCard Vending Machines” made no sense. But I’m starting to find many MVMs that are unable to read my credit card. This weekend, after failing at two machines in a row, I just walked up to a booth and paid cash.

paulb March 3, 2008 - 11:52 am


Amen. And for blocking subway doors.

paulb March 3, 2008 - 11:53 am

The post just above was supposed to quote the phrase, “Maybe New York should take a cue from DC and start handing out more tickets for minor littering infractions.”

Benjamin Kabak March 3, 2008 - 2:42 pm

Alfred: I defer to you on the signs. That fault didn’t even occur to me, but now that I think about it, you’re 100 percent right. Try making sense of what the D says at Grand St. The signs simply do not convey when the D stops at DeKalb or Pacific as the next stop. And none of the signs bother to inform people when the last B/W/V trains go through their respective stations. Signage should be a whole lot better.

Mark, Scott, JMP: When I think of ease of use and availability, I’m thinking more along the lines of when they work properly. If the MVMs don’t take your card, it’s more a problem with the MVM technology than with the fact that there aren’t any of them in the station. The same can be said about turnstiles. Maybe I’m being too literal though.

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