Home MTA Construction Photo of the Day: The ‘why’ of weekend work

Photo of the Day: The ‘why’ of weekend work

by Benjamin Kabak

Trackbed removal along the G train often requires weekend service shutdowns. (Photo by Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Leonard Wiggins)

When my dad, who is currently on vacation in Prague, received his Second Ave. Sagas email this morning and read my take on the MTA’s increased weekend ridership, he had a question for me. “When are they supposed to do maintenance and improvements if not on weekends?” he asked.

It’s a good question, and one apparently lost on our public officials. In fact, John Liu himself, the city comptroller who has been mentioned as a potential 2013 mayoral candidate, didn’t seem to comprehend that point. “The MTA can no longer have the luxury to think that weekends are expendable; weekends are commuting days now,” he said to The Times. “People who commute Monday to Friday say nice things about the subways. But the complaints about weekend service resound all throughout the city.”

Apparently, the MTA had the same thought. Without referencing The Times article, the authority issued a pointed press release this afternoon intended to highlight the work crews do over the weekend. “At least three of this past weekend’s work projects involved jobs that required the removal of track,” the statement said. “A new concrete roadbed was installed on the uptown B/C Line track between 103rd and 110th Streets, in Manhattan. Once completed, the improvements to the roadbed will provide a smoother, quieter ride through the area.”

While noting that crews were also working on the connection between the uptown 6 at Bleecker St. and the Broadway/Lafayette station, the authority, which released a corresponding flickr photoset, had a message: “While these jobs pose some inconvenience for customers, weekends are the only time when complicated track, signal and electrical projects can be performed due to the necessity for workers to have access to tracks without having to be concerned about passing train traffic. Other types of jobs, such as station rehabilitation platform edge replacement also require suspension of train service.”

That is, of course, the problem: No matter how many people ride on the weekends, the numbers will not eclipse those dependent upon weekday subway service, and the MTA must rehabilitate its infrastructure which, at places, is 100 years old. When else can they do that except during the weekends?

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Christopher July 11, 2011 - 3:33 pm

THIS one of if not the reason for redundancy. In all it’s manifestations: better surface transportation, express tracks, parallel subway lines. Weekends shouldn’t be paralyzing.

I worked at Bronx Pride this weekend and while I managed to figure out how to get there relatively okay from home in Bushwick, into office in Lower Manhattan, and then up to the Bronx. My coworker didn’t fair as well, she left Park Slope to arrive in the Bronx 3 hours later.

Benjamin Kabak July 11, 2011 - 3:47 pm

Where in Park Slope does your co-worker live? The Manhattan-bound 2 was skipping the Park Slope local stations, but it was still stopping at Atlantic. No offense to her, but I sort of think your co-worker didn’t route herself properly if it took 3 hours.

Christopher July 11, 2011 - 3:54 pm

She was staying down near the 7th Ave station. She probably didn’t route herself correctly, but I think we here pile on people for not doing extra amounts of pre-planning. That’s just now people operate and to say “it’s your own damn fault” is to blame the victim and not saying, hey the system could be smarter for newbies. I know she had to change trains at least 3 times. And take a shuttle bus for the last 20 minutes.

Christopher July 11, 2011 - 3:57 pm

To add to that, it’s a very NY attitude that everything needs a “strategy” — going to the grocer store, when to get the best table at your favorite brunch spot, how to find the best tickets to a show. As someone that does enjoy strategic thinking sometimes, I like that aspect of NYC. But it’s also can be exhausting and impediment to participation.

Benjamin Kabak July 11, 2011 - 3:58 pm

Oh, I totally understand. It’s draining to have a strategy. I was just wondering if she could have re-routed herself better if the MTA made weekend travel planning easier (either through a web app or better signage).

Was she near the F/G 7th Ave. or the B/Q 7th Ave.?

Christopher July 11, 2011 - 5:32 pm

She’s near the F/G 7th Ave stop which added to the problems. Think she took F somewhere and then transfered in Manhattan some place. And then who knows how she got to the bus. And by the time she got to the bus what took me 15-20 minutes at 11:45 am, took her at least 30 minutes. (Our journey back wasn’t much better,decided to hell with shuttle and subway but totally forgot about the ridge on which Grand Concourse sits. Tried to walk there from Crotona Park to take B/D — which is allegedly is only a 1.2 miles according to Google, but a much longer trip in reality.)

R. Graham July 12, 2011 - 9:57 am

Pardon, but 1.2 miles in the summer heat is a long trip really.

Matt July 13, 2011 - 9:24 am

Especially up the hill to the Concourse

pea-jay July 11, 2011 - 5:53 pm

I’m used to this type of thinking and no stranger to this type of traveling but its not easy to learn. Im teaching my 10 year old this and had her chart out a way to get from Inwood to Battery Park City this past weekend. Diversions and all. No input or feedback from me at all.

I had her use the Subway Weekender map (why the MTA cannot do this is beyond me) and for the most part she did just fine with it for her first suggestion (A-7-4) to Bowling Green and then later from Cortland to 23rd and Fifth (R). It was only in the Flatiron area she made her first mistake to suggest uptown F to Columbus Circle to get the A. Yes I know that isnt remotely plausible. But she caught that mistake at the last minute and we took a downtown E to W4 to catch an uptown A so we didnt wind up in Queens. But overall, not bad for a soon-to-be fifth grader

Alon Levy July 11, 2011 - 7:21 pm

I like New York precisely because it doesn’t require strategizing. You get from point A to point B by walking along the grid. It’s much more pedestrian-friendly than the mess you see in cities with older street networks, or with local streets that don’t go all the way through or, even worse, terminate in cul-de-sacs.

Miles Bader July 12, 2011 - 1:52 am

I don’t think that’s quite fair. For tourists, yeah, a non-grid city can be confusing, but for anybody that actually lives there, it’s not terribly different in practice, although one tends to operate more in “landmark mode” than “address mode.”

Indeed, I think a good argument can be made that non-grid patterns are more pedestrian friendly, because they (1) serve to calm traffic (especially very old cities where the streets are especially small and wacky), and (2) vastly more interesting and fun to walk in.

(2) is a very significant point for me — I often find walking in grid pattern cities sort of exhausting and demoralizing, with the sameness of the grid downright depressing, and the long view distance a constant reminder of how far away one’s destination is!

For autos, of course, grids are nicer — they generally offer higher driving speed, and drivers benefit more from the simplicity of locating an address on a grid (a driver has less flexibility to stop/slow-down/look-around than a pedestrian does).

Alon Levy July 12, 2011 - 10:26 am

I’m saying about grids is valid for me both as a resident and as a visitor. In Tel Aviv, where individual neighborhoods have grids of arterials and local streets that don’t go all the way through, I was utterly lost outside my own neighborhood. When I was 7 or so, I thought that when I’d grow up, I’d have to move every time I drove somewhere, because I wouldn’t be able to find my way back. And in Singapore, it was even worse – the street network there is standard modernist cul-de-sac hell. In both cities, I wasn’t willing to walk the distances I routinely walk in Manhattan.

Street width is really independent of grids: Kyoto and a lot of Shitamachi neighborhoods have grids whose minor streets are 5 meters building to building.

To some extent, car-friendliness is independent of both. Manhattan’s grid may have no street narrower than 18 meters, but with parked cars, traffic, and unoptimized signals, crosstown traffic is not much faster than walking. My neighborhood in Providence, which is very old (1700s) and has streets about 12 meters wide building to building, is a lot car-friendlier, since there’s not much traffic and the street wall is lower.

Miles Bader July 12, 2011 - 6:06 pm

There are certainly other factors like street width, block-size, “connectiveness” (how many dead ends are there), “variability” (randomized cul-de-sac hell etc is still typically very monotonous and regular even if there are no straight lines). Most of these things seem more or less orthogonal (though they’re often correlated for historical/etc reasons).

I do agree that “more interesting” grids like that in central Kyoto are much better, but I’ve found that while the Kyoto grid does feel much more interesting on a local scale, long distance walks (from one side of the city to the other) there still generate some of the oh-god-it’s-gonna-take-forever feeling of despair from those longgg sight-lines. There’s also the opposite sort of grid, where very small localized grids are plopped down into a less regular general layout (you see this in many older cities; I think Edinburgh is a particularly beautiful example!).

I guess that makes the point that there are multiple types of “interesting” at work here — (1) is an area interesting for local walking (pop up out of a subway or off a bus, and walk around in a neighborhood), and (2) how a layout works for long-distance surface travel (whether walking, bicycling, or driving; of course the scale factor changes a lot depending on which mode).

I think it is very important, BTW, to distinguish from generated-with-a-random-number-generator cul-de-sac hell (monotonous, dysfunctional, many dead-ends, often no sensible hierarchy or attention to actual usage patterns), from the sort of non-regular non-grid layouts you find in old cities (extremely variable, but highly functional and often based almost entirely on actual travel patterns) — they are very different, but I’ve seen many grid proponents use the former as an argument against the latter!

Bolwerk July 12, 2011 - 12:12 pm

Holy shit. You’re in the homebrewing group, Streetsblog, and now SAS. Are you stalking me? :-p

I think grids, done right, actually provide a lot of potential to create interesting and unique environments. Grids actually maximize the potential for diversity; they don’t stifle it. Even with traffic, they should disperse it, not concentrate it.

Miles Bader July 12, 2011 - 6:30 pm

Heh; these transit/urban-design blogs do seem an incestuous bunch… [but I’ve been reading the homebrewing group for years and years… never posted much tho.]

Well as for grids vs. non-grids, I dunno, it’s obviously to some degree simply a matter of taste, and based on particular experiences (living in a “good” grid-oriented city [or section thereof], you’ll probably feel more favorable towards them than someone who’s lived in a “bad” grid-oriented city).

I don’t find grids evil or anything, but I’ve been utterly charmed by some of the non-grid cities I’ve lived in [Edinburgh, Tokyo, etc], and horrified by some grid cities [Chicago has some of the worst examples (ticky-tacky-little-houses-stretching-in-a-straight-line-towards-the-horizon-oh-god-kill-me-now…), and even inconsistently griddy Seattle has mega-monotous gridded areas, especially outside downtown], so I’m generally wont to defend the former.

I agree that very much depends on the details, and I don’t think grids are evil or anything, but neither are they obviously superior (I’ve seen many urban design types take the latter position, often based on comparisons with silly strawmen like suburban cul-se-sac-ville!).

[Note my view is pretty rigidly that of a pedestrian/transit-user/bicyclist: I’ve never had a driver’s license.]

Bolwerk July 12, 2011 - 8:11 pm

Ha, I was wondering if you made sake, or if you can’t get a good beer in Japan, or…? I actually mostly only lurk on r.c.b. myself, but damn it’s a handy resource sometimes.

Chicago doesn’t seem uniform in the city center, where the grid holds. 1930s-1950s planners seemed to love windiness in the suburban roadways around here. Of course, Moses felt the same way about his parkways. They’re supposed to wind a lot so they’ll be fun to drive in.

Miles Bader July 12, 2011 - 8:18 pm

In Chicago I’m thinking of the huge residential areas that are not suburban, but not really downtown (maybe northwest of downtown? I’m not sure, I only ever got there with someone else driving a car…)

Vasssst stretches of ticky-tacky little houses, with streets seemingly stretching to infinity… it’s really insane… (in a bad way)

Bolwerk July 12, 2011 - 9:52 pm

Sounds like Queens!

pea-jay July 12, 2011 - 11:01 pm

There’s quite a bit of architectural diversity around Chicago until you hit the Bungalow Belt, which despite it’s uniformity is still pleasant. And accessible. It’s only when you hit the post war crap do the residential streets start twisting and terminating (the arterials more or less run straight through, though the character changes vastly).

I lived for a number of years on the Northwest side and rather enjoyed the feel area (Logan Sq).

As for navigating the city, the grid made it easy. Extremely easy actually. The addresses actually let you know HOW far N/S or E/W you are. I lived 2100N/2500W and that actually corresponds to a point on the grid that means something to Chicagoans that know their sense of place.

Here in NYC, house numbers more or less increase sequentially from 1 when ever a new street name is given. It keeps the numbers smaller but makes it harder to tell how far a given point is. Broadway addresses up in Inwood range from 4500-5100. If they were done by blocks, the range would be more like 19600-21800 and would quickly let anyone know how far up Broadway they need to travel and what cross streets are nearby. This numbering by block is pretty standard in many cities and counties in the US.

Not saying we need that here, but it certainly does add a degree of ease when navigating.

Miles Bader July 12, 2011 - 8:27 pm

p.s. As for beer, Japan’s craft beer / homebrewing scene is nothing like the U.S, but I think it’s far better than any other east-asian country (this seems to be be true of beer brewing in general, not just craft). There are many good craft breweries (tax law changes in the 90s made them practical, and recently it’s been accelerating).

I think homebrewing is technically illegal, but tons of people do it anyway (there’s a bar near my house where it seems like 75% of the regulars homebrew!).

Bolwerk July 12, 2011 - 9:49 pm

I’ve been at it most of the past decade, but in the past 2-3 years it has really taken off here – r.c.b. was often a resource for new ideas. At least one supermarket in Manhattan even has a homebrewing section now. (There never was a homebrew store in Manhattan, or even within reasonable public transportation range, near as I could tell. There is a pretty good hardware/homebrew store out on Long Island.)

I am rather disappointed by the local craft scene though. Brooklyn Brewery is probably our best, and interestingly biggest, local option. Probably would be a good niche to fill if I had an extra $1M lying around. There seem to be a few small guys picking up the craft in the region,

Bolwerk July 11, 2011 - 7:03 pm

Don’t forget light rail. It’s a critical ingredient to affordable redundancy!

Nathanael July 13, 2011 - 12:47 am

Yep. London has started doing entire line shutdowns for a week at a time for giant work “blitzes”… but they can only do this because of redunancy in the network.

NYC actually has quite a lot of redundancy in its network, but has to be careful to create more.

Andrew July 13, 2011 - 10:13 pm

NYC has far more redundancy than most other systems, including London. Express/local, closely parallel trunk lines in Manhattan, alternate routes for the IND and BMT (and to a lesser extent IRT) across the East River, etc. Even if some stations have to be closed in one direction, they can usually remain open in the other.

leg July 11, 2011 - 4:07 pm

Of course work will have to be done. But it’s not impossible that weekend ridership could grow to the extent that it makes sense to start doing work on Friday evening and keep doing it until it’s done, even if it closes a line during the week. Undoubtedly some projects currently take longer because the track needs to be cleared for weekday service, not only disrupting multiple weekends but driving up the cost. Total subway misery might be minimized by disrupting some number of weekdays as well.

R. Graham July 12, 2011 - 10:15 am

Too much politics in trying that. The outrage would reach the sky. The Mayor would be up in arms and companies would complain to no end. It would be a PR disaster. Weekend ridership will never grow to weekday levels because weekend employment will never compete with weekday employment.

Andrew D. Smith July 11, 2011 - 5:07 pm

Some things could also be done at night — 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. — though obviously that doesn’t work for projects that require more than 7 hours.

That said, a lot of projects that now seem like two day projects could easily become 7 hour projects or less if we — gasp — expected construction workers to work, pretty much constantly, rather than standing around.

R. Graham July 12, 2011 - 10:12 am

Some guys have to stand around. The guys who operate jackhammers are not the same guys operating the machines that clear the road bed of the rubble. The same guys who lay the new track ties and rails are not the same guys pouring the cement. Heck, road bed replacement is at minimum a two weekend job.

Andrew D. Smith July 12, 2011 - 2:23 pm

How on earth did construction unions win such narrow job definitions? Why on earth can’t the guy who operates the jackhammer do something else when there won’t be any immediate need for more jackhammering?

You don’t need nine executives to do the job of one because one only writes PowerPoint, another only reviews expense reports, a third does strategic plans, etc.

Public employees can and should do many different things, enough different things that they’re being constantly utilized in some productive capacity.

R. Graham July 12, 2011 - 4:40 pm

It doesn’t really matter. By the time the jackhammer guys get through pounding at the old concrete, it’s time for shift change. Breaking the concrete can take from 2 A.M. Saturday until late morning or early afternoon. Then the rubble guys have to get done by somewhere around 2 to 4 A.M. Sunday and then the guys who lay the new ties and rail have to get done with measurements and bracing included by 1 or 2 A.M. Monday so a test train can run through to make sure service conditions are safe.

We haven’t even touched the concrete pour which is likely to occur the following weekend at this point. Each task takes a full shift depending on how much feet of road bed you’re working on and the level of man power assigned to the job.

pete July 12, 2011 - 5:27 pm

If they are being paid like college educated employees, then they need to have the skill set of college educated employees. But unions would never let that happen.

Nathanael July 13, 2011 - 12:50 am

There’s also usually a period when all the construction workers aer working… followed by periods when only a few of them are working… followed by periods when they’re all working again.

This is particularly true of the unskilled manual laborers who just lift and haul things. There are only certain parts of the work where they’re useful at all, but when they’re useful, you want to have them all there RIGHT NOW, and those times come and go every ten or fifteen minutes so you can’t just send them home and bring them back when they’re needed. I watched this in a road crew recently.

The skilled guys are usually working continuously.

Andrew D. Smith July 13, 2011 - 10:15 am

Are you really making an argument that NYC construction guys spend anywhere near as much time working as they spend standing around?

I assume you have seen a construction site in NYC at some point in your life. Perhaps the problem is that you’ve only seen construction sites here and assume there can be no other way.

If so, go to China some time and just watch. It’s one of the most entertaining things to do in Shanghai. Germany and Japan are nearly as good. The folks don’t move in a hurry the way they do in China but they do keep plugging away. Hell, even in Dallas or Houston you’ll see about three times as much activity per worker per hour.

R. Graham July 13, 2011 - 11:18 am

Well the differences between the US and other countries is a lot of things you would like to see going on at one time on a construction site are not allow in the US.

China will have one set of guys on one side tying additional re-bar while on that same section of project the concrete guys are pouring. Due to a significant number of safety regulations here in the US that type of thing is not allowed. Now mind you that is only and example and a common sense one at that, but there are other examples that I can’t think of right now. Just because you see some guys sitting around doesn’t mean other guys aren’t getting the job done on whatever their expertise may be.

Matt July 13, 2011 - 9:37 am

Some work is performed at night, however usually only during a 5-Hour diversion. The idea is to work as follows:

Weeknight G.O.’s (General Orders) – 12:01AM to 05:00AM

–12:01 to 12:30AM – Confirm [3rd Rail] Power Off

–12:01 to 1:00AM – Set up Flagging. Workers need flagging protection, even on a G.O. track, because of adjacent track service (i.e. protection from crossing into a live track with trains going full speed)

–1:00 to 4:00AM – Mobilize to work site, perform daily work activities, clean up and demobilize back to platforms/emergency exits/etc.

–4:00 to 4:30AM – Suspend G.O., confirm Power On, confirm site empty

–5:00AM – Revenue service STARTS

Maybe this can help explain A.) why we work weekends, B.) why projects take so long and C.) why labor costs are so high.

Alon Levy July 11, 2011 - 7:03 pm

Things can and should be done at night. High-speed tracks can run without interruption except for a few hours at night. Very busy local lines can run also without interruption for about 20-21 hours a day.

At night two-track subways can single-track with timed meets. There exist two-track 24/7 systems: Copenhagen maintains 20-minute headways on weeknights with timed meets (on weekend nights, headways are 7.5-15 minutes).

R. Graham July 12, 2011 - 10:07 am

Sure but you need a much better signaling system than what’s in place right now.

The problem with this signaling system is not only the limited spacing allowed, it’s also the very slow speeds allowed as trains run closer together towards the minimum distance allowed between trains and signal blocks. Then comes the slow response to command. Some older signals still in place take a horrific amount of time to respond to command for direction change for service. The Pelham Express used to be notorious for this. Bronx Express service at some times used to see full canceling of express service some years back as a result of response taking way too long.

Andrew July 13, 2011 - 10:22 pm

Agreed completely, and you also need more crossovers between tracks. Installing new crossovers isn’t a simple task anywhere – and on an underground line with structural columns between the tracks, columns have to be removed, which means opening up the box and installing a new support structure that can accommodate the crossover.

Anon July 11, 2011 - 8:45 pm Reply
Phil July 11, 2011 - 9:15 pm

I like the MTA’s new passive aggressive replies. Oh well, the American attitude of wanting everything perfect without being inconvenienced, whether it be through taxes or short-term investment pain, is still alive and well, even in the US’ transport capital.

Alon Levy July 11, 2011 - 10:04 pm

I like them too. I’d rather have a clueless, arrogant MTA that thinks all criticism of its practice is illegitimate, arrogant MTA that doesn’t even realize there exists criticism. Maybe in a few decades it’ll even hear about Copenhagen as more than an idol for effete hipsters.

Hank July 12, 2011 - 10:55 am

They do have a chip on their shoulder, don’t they? otherwise well-said

nycpat July 12, 2011 - 1:21 am

I think the MTA should always try to shift blame and reply to unfair criticism. I always try to make specific announcements. “Ladies and gentlemen we are stuck here because of a partial building collapse outside.” “L+G we are stuck here while the police arrest a flasher on the train ahead” “L+G due to a fistfight on the platform at Grand Central we are being held……”
Just today the entire 6 line was STOP AND STAY because a motorized wheelchair got stuck in a doorway. Does that kind of thing happen in wonderful Copenhagen? Do people just drop dead on trains in other cities? They do in New York.

Alon Levy July 12, 2011 - 10:39 am

These things happen everywhere. In Tokyo, people frequently commit suicide by jumping in front of the tracks, delaying the trains; the railroads have taken to suing the victim’s family in a desperate attempt to squeeze out what is now the last barrier to 100% punctuality. However, even with suicides, they can reliably time overtakes and meets – for example, check the schedules between Yokosuka and Kurihama, which is a single-track segment with double track at the two stations as well as the one intermediate station in between.

Spendmore Wastemore July 12, 2011 - 8:03 pm

How about just shut down a line or some segment of it for a full week during the summer, when many people are out of town?
AND (yeah I’m shouting) do it right, rather than pouring concrete roadbed in a make-work way such that it begins crumbling and has bad spots immediately after completion. On the 1-2-3 for instance, there are wiggling, sagging rails in spots which self-amplify immediately after fresh track is laid.

R. Graham July 13, 2011 - 11:26 am

Pouring concrete is pouring concrete. The only thing that you can really mess up with it is mixing it wrong. After that it is what it is. The real issue is one you can’t change. The conditions. Trains are heavy and they stress concrete in certain circumstances more than others. Curves, hills, tilts you name it. It all comes into play. Water is enemy number one. I almost wish they could just continue to use gravel instead of concrete as they have done in the past, but that’s not ideal.


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