Home MTA Construction Crowds grow and so do weekend complaints

Crowds grow and so do weekend complaints

by Benjamin Kabak

To help weekend crowds combat route changes, the MTA redesigned its service advisory signs last fall.

A few weeks ago, on Father’s Day, I was waiting for an express train back to Brooklyn from Manhattan at around 9 p.m. that Sunday night. When the 2 train pulled into 14th Street, it was packed. I had enough room to stand comfortably, but no seat opened up until a few folks got out at Fulton Street. The train remained crowded — not just for a Sunday night — until I left at Grand Army Plaza.

For frequent riders, these crowded weekend trains aren’t a new phenomenon. In absolute numbers, weekend ridership remains far behind weekend totals. In fact, the combined ridership for Saturday and Sunday in April reached 5.4 million while the subway seems 5.2 million per weekday. Yet with fewer trains on the rails and popular tourist and nightlife destinations packing in people, trains can be nearly as crowded on the weekend as they are during the week, and this is, according to an article in today’s Times, a new and surprising development for Transit.

As Michael Grynbaum reports, large swaths of subway routes aren’t seeing the massive decreases in ridership that used to be a weekend hallmark. Weekend totals, he writes, “have doubled in the past 20 years, far outpacing the growth of ridership during the workweek.” “You would probably have to go back to close to World War II — when people were working six days a week — to find a similar trend,” William M. Wheeler, the MTA’s director of planning said to The Times.

Transit officials are attentively watching these ridership trends which they say are spurred on by “the shifting cultural and economic picture of New York.” No longer are residents afraid of riding the subways after dark as they were from the late 1970s through the early 1990s. With rampant gentrification pushing the city’s less safe neighborhoods to the margins of the map along with a concerted push by the city to clean up the subways and capital investments in rolling stock, the subways are far safer than they once were, and it shows.

An accompanying graphic highlights how some stations aren’t seeing major weekend decreases in riders, and Grynbaum has more:

Dozens of residential developments have sprouted up around subway stations in once-desolate parts of Brooklyn and Queens. And the rise of a service-oriented city economy means many workers report to jobs on the weekends or at off hours.

Just 10 years ago, the transportation authority was running advertisements that encouraged riders to take advantage of extra space on weekend trains. Today, in nightlife-heavy neighborhoods like the Lower East Side, the subways move nearly the same number of riders on weekends as they do during the week, a phenomenon once considered unthinkable.

At the Bedford Avenue stop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which serves about a third of the L train’s passengers, an average weekend day retains 90 percent of the ridership of a weekday. At Prince Street in SoHo, recently recast as an upscale shopping mecca, the retention rate is 85 percent.

For the MTA, though, this increase in ridership leads to disgruntled weekend passengers when service changes — which this weekend, impacted 16 lines — lead to roundabout reroutings and shuttle buses. The number one gripe many have with the MTA these days focuses around weekend travel. “The MTA can no longer have the luxury to think that weekends are expendable; weekends are commuting days now,” John Liu, the city comptroller who never met a complaint he wouldn’t audit, said. “People who commute Monday to Friday say nice things about the subways. But the complaints about weekend service resound all throughout the city.”

So as Liu audits the MTA’s weekend service patterns — to what end, I have no idea — the MTA will continue to reroute trains for the weekend. Even with ridership down, it’s still overall a fraction of the weekday totals, and a plan floated by Jay Walder last year to shudder full lines in order to blitz them with work gained little traction. “[The weekend] is the only time available to get these projects completed,” MTA spokesman Charles Seaton said.

And so New Yorkers will complain. They want smooth weekday rides and full weekend service, but they can’t have both. Ridership, which should inch ever upward, will push the MTA to find a better weekend solution and provide more reliable replacement service while it can. Ultimately, though, William Henderson of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee put it best: “There are no answers that are going to be painless.”

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Stephen Smith July 11, 2011 - 3:19 am

It’s an interesting article, but it was frustrating to me that Grynbaum spent all the column inches talking about service disruptions – which really are to some extent inevitable – and totally neglected late night service frequency, which is totally fixable. Costs at this hour are almost 100% labor costs, and these can be reduced with OPTO and simply paying drivers less (do they get overtime for working late at night? you could start the cuts there). This satisfies riders (who get better service), but bothers politicians (who pay in terms of union support). This may not be the “painless” answer that Henderson and Grynbaum are looking for, but it’s something worth at least discussing.

Grynbaum’s article, unfortunately, doesn’t even mention the issue of high labor costs, much less the obstacles to lowering them.

Marc Shepherd July 11, 2011 - 8:46 am

I was on an A Train at 6pm last night, headed north from 42nd Street, and it was just as crowded as a typical weekday rush hour.

Grynbaum ends with a quote from that most reliable of political idiots, John Liu:

“The M.T.A. can no longer have the luxury to think that weekends are expendable; weekends are commuting days now,” said John C. Liu, the city comptroller, whose office is conducting an audit of the agency’s weekend service. “People who commute Monday to Friday say nice things about the subways. But the complaints about weekend service resound all throughout the city.”

So . . . exactly when does Liu think the MTA ought to do repairs?

Russell July 11, 2011 - 12:57 pm

I agree with increasing frequencies wherever possible to minimize customer impacts on the weekends. Yesterday, for example, I had to get from 14th st. to 86th street on Eighth Avenue, at around 5:30 PM. I knew in advance that I would have to go all the way up to 125th and then backtrack. When I got to the platform, I had just missed an A train, and proceeded to wait 16 minutes before a C train arrived. (Either an A or a C would have been fine). In theory, my wait should have been 5 minutes with the A and C scheduled to operate on 10 minute headways at that time. Now there may have been some equipment problem that delayed the train, but in all honesty, these trains should be running with greater frequency given that many trips are longer because of the backtracking. I acknowledge backtracking is necessary for construction projects, but in all honesty, the MTA can increase the frequencies on the tracks that they aren’t performing construction on to minimize delays for customers.

Ed July 11, 2011 - 6:12 am

On a sort of “be happy with what you have, even if what you have is crap” note, I”ve actually seen systems elsewhere in the country where you might have ten or so busses going from the suburb to the central city between, say, 6:30 AM and 9:30 AM, ten or so busses going to the central city to the suburb between 4:00 PM and 7:30 PM, maybe one bus each in both directions outside these hours, and nothing on the weekends at all.

But sometimes I get the impression the MTA wants to move to that. I’ve noticed the weekend trains have tended to be more crowded than rush hour weekday trains for sometime. Even on the Lexington Avenue line, the tourist packed weekend trains can be almost as bad as the weekday rush hour trains, which I realize is hard to believe, though the 6 at least runs pretty frequently at night.

As always, you have to separate out which is due to labor rules and which is due to bad management. At least for nights, I would set up a “night system” where about a third of the trains and busses run on their normal schedule, the same trains and busses every night, with the rest of the system essentially shut down. You then shut down the night system for maintenance on the weekends, while the rest of the trains and busses run normally because maintenance is done on the weeknights. The point of this is that it is widely publicized and predictable, so if you happen to have a job at night, you use the night system trains and busses for as far as you can, and cover the rest with a cab/ car service, though since the system will be publicized, you may just refuse to take the job (and the employer will know this), unless the employer ponies up for the cab or car service.

Andrew July 13, 2011 - 10:42 pm

You’ve just stranded large parts of the city every night, and other large parts of the city on weekends.

Night work is very inefficient, because of the fixed overhead in the shut-down and start-up processes. Weekend work is far more productive.

Kid Twist July 11, 2011 - 8:53 am

Years ago, they used to cut the fare in half on the weekend; that’s how desperate they were for riders. No one wanted to take the subway unless he had to.

Woody July 11, 2011 - 1:25 pm

We have “free” weekend rides with unlimited ride MetroCards. Isn’t that the math? If you use the subway to commute to work 5 days a week, that is 10 rides a week, about 40 rides a month, times $2.25.
So, the “extra” rides are almost free.

So why is anyone surprised that people use the buses and subways nights and weekends when they’re free?

Joe Steindam July 11, 2011 - 9:30 am

I’m actually happy that the MTA has this problem. It’s a 24/7 system and it’s good to hear that it’s operation hours are actually justified, otherwise then the MTA could figure out a shutdown period where they could actually get maintenance work done. But now we know that such a scenario would be unacceptable.

Of course it sucks for weekend riders that there are subway changes all around (no one likes having to take 3 trains to get to Williamsburg because the G train is worse than it is on the weekdays), but maybe it will educate people on the very complicated nature of maintaining a subway system. Or maybe I’m just delusional that anyone will learn anything from being inconvenienced.

Hank July 11, 2011 - 9:53 am

Totally agree. I found this article rather heartening (despite Liu’s inevitably grating grandstanding). The more people committed to the subways at all times means more pressure on the City and state to allocate resources to maintain and (hopefully) expand the system.

Andrew D. Smith July 11, 2011 - 9:43 am

PATH suffers even worse from the same problem. It cuts service so much on weekends that every train is stuffed. It also cuts one of its four lines and combines another two lines into one, making basically every possible trip take twice as long on weekends. And there’s no justification for it whatever. (They justify part of it on grounds that repairs shut one of the two tunnels to lower Manhattan every weekend — a project that has taken longer than the construction of said tunnels by guys with shovels — but the excuse doesn’t hold. The one working tunnel only services two trains per 20 minutes, which simply isn’t anywhere close to max capacity.)

PATH is also worse than the subway in that there aren’t enough riders who rely on PATH enough to put any real pressure on the folks who run the system. Walder may not be able to give riders all they want — it’s clearly not even possible — but so many voters rely on the subway that he clearly feels pressure to constantly think about improvements to placate people. The folks at the PA feel no pressure whatever. There simply is no level of bad service that could get them in trouble, so the PATH operates to please its execs and employees. (For all the budget crunch going on elsewhere, you don’t hear a thing about PATH going to one man trains or planning huge productivity concessions from employees. It simply doesn’t matter to them.)

The real solution to most of the city subway problems is to make construction work go way, way faster. The building trades in New York have, over the past 40 years, successfully slowed the pace of construction to make what used to be one year of labor take five years or more. It has happened on subway projects. It has happened on other public works. It has happened on building construction. It needs to end. It all gets back to the same problem.

capt subway July 11, 2011 - 12:30 pm

The manner in which weekend service is trashed to make possible all the repair work is in large part unnecessary and is driven by an obsession with On Time Performance. The operating department has, with each passing year, requested timetables with fewer and fewer scheduled trains for weekend diversions. They feel running too many trains through flagged work sites will cause more lateness, so – get rid of the trains. I know this for a fact because, during the years I was in charge of the IRT Schedule section, I routinely supervised this slashing of scheduled service.

Of course the root cause of all of this is the TA’s sick obsession with OTP, a virtually useless indicator of the quality and/or reliability of service delivery on a rapid transit railroad. They should be far more concerned with adequacy of service (are there enough trains to carry the passengers in reasonable comfort) and with an even spacing between trains, two areas where they fail miserably.

So not to worry. If you were squeezed onto a grossly overcrowded train Sunday night just think – that train was probably on time.

Kevin Walsh July 11, 2011 - 1:28 pm

“[The weekend] is the only time available to get these projects completed,” MTA spokesman Charles Seaton said.

The problem is, work is never ‘completed.’ There’s always another leak in the dike that has to have a finger put in.

Bolwerk July 11, 2011 - 2:27 pm

You know, this is where some strategically placed light rail around the city could really relieve some pressure on the cheap, and it’s frustrating the MTA can’t acknowledge that. Bustitution of the L stretch from Lorimer to Myrtle Wyckoff is always a nightmare, but two articulated LRVs coupled together would handle the load quite well. Same goes for the future SAS, where the two-track service is not going to have all the advantages of the other four-track trunks.

John July 12, 2011 - 10:38 am

Since when is light rail cheap?

Bolwerk July 12, 2011 - 12:06 pm

It’s similar in cost to BRT. It’s much cheaper than forcing parallel grade-separated rail.

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Ed July 11, 2011 - 9:53 pm

Andrew Smith makes some excellent points above, but I have personal experience with PATH weekend service. The PATH is essentially one of those systems that operates to move commuters to and from work during rush hour (which it actually does quite well). However this is one of many reasons why Jersey City has never really developed as a bedroom community to Manhattan.

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I’ll bite: in what way is Jersey City not a bedroom community to Manhattan that Brooklyn and Queens are?

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