When the subway system is running out of whack, the MTA often does not make it easier for its riders. (Illustration via @FakeMTA on Twitter)
By and large, the MTA is a typical bureaucratic organization in early 21st century American politics. Due to decades of political neglect and patronage, it is top-heavy with far too many managers, and due to years of overly generous labor practices, it is also bottom-heavy with far too many employees who enjoy comfortable benefit packages. But in another sense, the MTA isn’t a typical bureaucracy because it must also provide services for paying customers.
Most governmental agencies don’t have to deal with millions of people on a daily basis. They’re supposed to make our city, our state and our country run with minimal disruptions, and career bureaucrats exist to achieve that goal. We don’t see regulators on a daily basis because the regulations are highly targeted for certain industries and sectors. Although government may be pervasive, it runs in the background.
The MTA though must, by virtue of its role as a public authority running New York’s transit system, see the people it is supposed to be servicing every minute of every hour of every day. At some point or another, people are riding on trains, waiting for trains, buying MetroCards or needing directions. It is a very hands-on authority, and at the same time, it’s supposed to be providing a service while running a zero balance on its ledger books. Without serious support from the city and state, that is a nigh impossible goal.
Yet, the MTA doesn’t run itself as a customer-oriented business at times. Take, for example, a ride I took this Saturday afternoon. I took a 3 train from Grand Army Plaza with plans to switch to the 4 at Nevins St. As I make this transfer every day this summer for my day job, I have seen how this is a very popular transfer. Because the trains are directly across the platform — and not down and up a set of staircases as they are at Atlantic Ave. — riders need the Nevins St. platform.
While my 3 train sat at Atlantic, a 4 pulled in, and I thought I would be in luck. The 4 pulled out first, and the 3 crawled into Nevins. As the doors to the 3 opened, we dashed across the platform only to be greeted with the closing doors of the 4. The conductor on the train watched as people threw their arms up in frustration, and then the driver pulled away.
During the week, I can understand why express trains at Nevins St. do not wait for connecting passengers from the local trains. The rush hour schedule, particularly along the Lexington Ave. IRT, is a demanding one, and a slight delay can ripple up and down a line at capacity. But on the weekends, the schedule is looser. The previous 4 was eight minutes ahead, and the next one was 8 minutes behind. Instead of providing a service for its weekend passengers — a service that the schedule dictates it should provide — the MTA left those who are paying it for train service in the lurch. There is no explanation or accountability for this sort of behavior.
As a governmental entity divorced from the city and state for historical reasons of political expediency and financial well-being, the MTA bears the brunt of a lot of abuse. Politicians who opt not to fund the authority put their own failings on the shoulders of the transit agency, and New Yorkers have come to embrace the MTA as a sign of governmental bloat and inefficiencies. What happened to me on Sunday showed why people hate the MTA. It isn’t run, from the customer’s perspective, as a service-oriented authority when it should be.
Today will be a true test of the MTA’s abilities to relate to its passengers. Despite months of announcements and media coverage as well as signs that have been up for nearly two months, many people I saw today in Brooklyn didn’t know about the death of the B71, B75 and B77. They didn’t know that the B61 was now running a long, meandering route to Brooklyn Heights from Park Slope via Red Hook. They had no idea that bus stops were no longer being serviced by buses despite signs blaring this reality.
As subway changes go into effect this morning, the authority will send out the troops. The employees will greet frustrated and confused customers who just want to get to work. It’s time to see how the public sector can interace successfully with those who ride it. If Monday goes off without a hitch, the MTA could take the lessons they learn during the trying days of service changes and apply them to the daily days of travel. Perhaps, then, if the express train waits 10 more seconds for connecting passengers, people will think more kindly of a beleaguered agency.