Home View from Underground Link: 100 ways to improve the subway

Link: 100 ways to improve the subway

by Benjamin Kabak

Redesigned exit signs could enhance subway wayfinding. (Via Improve The Subway)

The Website: Improve the Subway

Concept: Randy Gregory, a Masters candidate at SVA, offers up this summary of his site: “For the next 100 Days, I will propose various improvements to the New York City Subway, which in 2012 had 1.6 billion riders, and should be seen as the best subway in the country, if not the world. I’ll be exploring various ideas, from UX, Environmental, Co-Branding, Audio/Visual, and more, including potential interviews with MTA employees, all in an attempt to create discussion.”

* * *

As New Yorkers ride through the subways each day, they spend some time dwelling on ways to improve commutes. From a more pleasant station environment to real-time train location information to a smell-free ride, these improvements range from the dramatic to the mundane. Randy Gregory has decided to turn his own thoughts into a project. Gregory is 55 days into his 100-day effort to present ways to improve the city’s subway system. Some ideas — platform screen doors, electronic notice boards — are ideas in the works or under consideration while others — USB power strips — are more fanciful than practical. Others — a Laguardia AirTrain, RFID fare payment systems — remain frustratingly out of reach.

My favorites are the technological fixes that would drastically improve our rides but would present challenges to the MTA in adoption. A real-time car-density monitor would better allocate passengers to empty spaces, but think about the obstacles that must be overcome (including, of course, dollars). We’ll probably have animated in-car ads sooner rather than later, but I wouldn’t expect a smell detector any time soon.

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BBnet3000 June 6, 2013 - 6:37 pm

I like that wayfinding sign design, though im mostly pretty happy with what we have now. One exception is in the Grand Ave-Newtown Station in Queens (west end). It has two exits with the same sign (“Broadway and Queens Boulevard” i think they say). The staircases are on opposite sides of the street, but you have nothing but your sense of direction to figure it out.

I was almost thinking of printing out stickers that say West and East to slap on the signs…

As for the smell detector, smells are a much bigger issue in the station than on the trains. Southern end of the W 4th F platform and 59th/Lexington express platform come to mind as the ones i use the most that smell pretty bad. Its not that hard to avoid the smelly train cars.

Sal F June 6, 2013 - 8:26 pm

I like the idea of locked doors in between cars. It would cut down on beggars and solicitors big time, and hopefully put an end to “Showtime!”

Ian MacAllen June 7, 2013 - 6:00 pm

Whatever seems to forget is that locked doors between cars means you’re also trapped in that car between stations if say, a guy with machete starts swinging at people or a dude on bath salts starts going zombie.

John June 6, 2013 - 9:47 pm

I love number 34. I have always envisioned how awesome an in-car digitized map would be. I pictured it similar, with an icon showing position on the map, but also with every line LED lit. When a train stopped at a station, say, Union Square, the map would dim all of the lines except the Lex, Broadway, and 14 St, making it easy to see what transfers are available and where you could get to by making that transfer. I think it could potentially be interactive (touch any station and see the best route/travel time from where you are in the system; touch two separate stations and it shows the best route and estimated time), but that may invite vandalism or abuse of the technology. It would be cool but, ultimately though, put an end to those nice moments when you feel good about helping someone else find their way.

Andrew June 6, 2013 - 10:04 pm

Cute, but I hope he realizes that the vast majority of these are highly impractical (and of the few that are practical, several are being actively considered or are in progress).

Chris C June 8, 2013 - 2:36 pm

150 odd years ago someone had the then seemingly impractical idea of having an under ground train line in London and was mocked but the idea was pursued and modern mass transport was the result and has been replicated the world over.

And whilst some of the idea may be impractical now they may not be in the future and they could be incorporated into the system as and when there are improvements – so solar panels installed when an (above ground) station is being rehabbed for example.

Bolwerk June 10, 2013 - 12:44 pm

But most of them just seem like playful eye candy. The focus of investment should be on making things work and run on time.

Spendmore Wastemore June 7, 2013 - 2:30 pm

Spare the technotainment. I can buy blinky toys were I so inclined.


Clean the platforms, including the tar/gum/whatever spots. The platform surfaces have cr-p embedded on them even when newly place. This is not hard, just look at PATH or pretty much anywhere other than NYC.

Prosecute people who piss on the platforms, benches, etc. That’s not a fun job for the cop, give them 2 hrs PTO for every bust. If some hippie judge thinks it’s no big deal, he gets to work 1 day with piss on his desk. Must spend at least 4 hours at the desk with the room temp the same as the subway platform, no fans, no masking scent etc.

AG June 7, 2013 - 5:52 pm


Bolwerk June 9, 2013 - 10:38 am

The “annoy a cop” bill isn’t enough? We have to find even more ways to incentivize police brutality in NYC? I don’t see what could possibly go wrong!

Alon Levy June 7, 2013 - 4:46 pm

Some of these ideas are good, some are interesting and should be investigated, some are truly mad. The car density measurement is in the good category, and already exists in Barcelona, so clearly the kinks can be figured out.

Generally, the wayfinding ideas look interesting. However, the disabled access markers are no substitute for actually having full train-long disabled accessibility, which seems to be the standard in Vancouver even with cars that are as old as the R62A. The lack of elevators can be excused, partially (but in Boston nearly the entire subway system is accessible), but the non-level boarding is inexcusable.

The foam and the gym-style floor look more questionable but still possibly interesting.

Locking the doors between cars is mad. On the contrary, the MTA should get out of the 1970s and get walk-through cars. SNCF has found that they feel safer for passengers because there’s more visibility and it’s easier to move away from sketchy or creepy people, and it is also good for capacity.

The AirTrain idea is also mad. Not only is the routing completely insane (who needs a self-intersecting line?) but also LGA is a bottom priority for the city, behind far more productive possible extensions. But people living on Utica are less important than business travelers flying out of LGA, so they will pay for the business travelers’ infrastructure while still enduring long commutes on the B46.

AG June 7, 2013 - 5:50 pm

What do you mean “LGA is a bottom priority for the city”? Don’t you recall that not too long ago the city tried to extend the subway to La Guardia but was fought down by the neighbors…? When it comes to Alpha Cities – NYC is behind when it comes to rail access to airport.

J B in Taipei June 8, 2013 - 10:06 am

He means there are extensions elsewhere, like Utica Ave., that would be used by more people. Airport extensions tend to underperform and are more useful to people who fly more, i.e. businesspeople and the wealthy/ upper middle class.
Of all the things NYC could learn from other cities, an airport connector is pretty far down the list.

Bolwerk June 8, 2013 - 1:58 pm

Yes, and if we are going to blow money on airport extensions, doing it right at JFK should be the first priority.

I’m not sure the LGA extension is such an awful idea, though it only makes sense as part of a wider comprehensive plan to expand subway service to other people in Astoria – and should have NIMBY crotch-chafing upzoning attached. (Hell, I would take it beyond the airport and aim to bring it to Flushing to relieve the 7 a little. It’s not a big incremental step, and Astoria seems to have some capacity)

AG June 9, 2013 - 7:14 am

“Under perform”? Where? Maybe in the U.S. – but I find that quite doubtful overseas where rail is second nature. As far as here – well of course the U.S. is car oriented. NYC has the best chance where rail to airports work (and maybe San Fran, Boston, Philly). Also – 3 years after opening AirTrain to Newark and JFK were operating above projections. That’s not “subway” – but it shows there is demand.

So it’s a class issue for you? You really think average subway riders don’t fly??? Air travel hasn’t been for rich for a LONG time (it’s heavily subsidized). Fact is average New Yorkers fly every single day (of course not the same people) – especially from La Guardia. JFK and Newark are the business oriented airports. Thousands of tourists a day probably use La Guardia as well… and there are thousands of employees there.

In addition – because the federal government realizes trains to airports take cars off the road – they are quick to cough up money for it. They have given money for quite a few. That relieves some of the local burden.

J B June 9, 2013 - 8:43 am

The fact that even when the airtrain is operating above expectations it isn’t reaching subway levels actually shows that there ISN’T as much demand as for subway lines. We should build what there’s the most demand for first- and what there’s less demand for later.
Also, I’m pretty sure airport connectors don’t get much ridership internationally as well. Rail stations serving airports in Taipei and Kaohsiung both have low ridership, and judging from its frequency (only 6 tph during daytime) so does Hong Kong’s airport line. Even if it wasn’t true, judging by bus ridership there are other areas of NYC that show more demand for mass transit than LaGuardia.
And yes, I do believe it is a class issue. Flights still cost a good chunk of money, if you’re having a tough time economically you’re not going to be able to afford them so easily. Long-distance travel is a luxury, and even the well-off people I know don’t fly particularly often. Business people on the other hand are more likely to fly for work than those doing blue collar jobs.
As for the employees, the fact that airports are so spread out means that it’s hard for rail to take them all within a reasonable distance of their jobs.

Bolwerk June 9, 2013 - 11:17 am

The comparison to AirTrain to subways is silly. AirTrain is a much lower-capacity service. It makes perfect sense, for what it is, and AFAIK performs well financially.

The problem is the notion that the subway should make a one-stop extension to LaGuardia. That is stupid. If LaGuardia is a stop on a meaningful extension that is useful for other riders, it’s not stupid.

AG June 9, 2013 - 9:52 pm

AirTrain is not supposed to have as much as a normal subway – because it’s not.

To say they don’t get

The fact is that many areas won’t want subway extensions because they will become more dense.

The airports are packed every day… and they are not all rich or all business people… I can assure you that.
Airports are spread out? Huh? In that case there is no need to have many stops since ppl jobs are all over. Just the way you are saying other places have more demand… well if ppl can’t use rail to get to work at an airport there can’t be a reasonable way to judge since they don’t have the option.

That said – I wasn’t arguing that LaGuardia is the most important extension… but it certainly is important. The airports themselves are the biggest employers in Queens – not including the residents and tourists alike who travel in and out of NY airspace every day….and it’s not all rich or business ppl… by the thousands they also come and go for weddings, graduations, funerals etc. etc. I know bc I have to make airport trips to drop off and pick up. None of those ppl are rich … which is why they ask me… bc if they had money like that they’d use a car service.

J B in Taipei June 10, 2013 - 10:33 am

Let me put it another way- according to Wikipedia, the AirTrain cost $1.9B and has an average of 15,000 passengers a day, and therefore costs about $127,000/ daily passenger. The 2nd Ave Subway is supposedly going to cost $20,000 per daily passenger. I may be missing something, but it seems to me that subways will serve more people per dollar spent than an air train.
I know not all air travelers are rich business people. That’s not the point. The point is air travelers are disproportionately rich compared to the general population, and that the rich fly much more often than the rest of us. They will therefore benefit more from airport extensions.
If you haven’t noticed, subways tend to work best in cities with dense job centers- cities like NYC, Boston, Chicago, Hong Kong, etc. No way LaGuardia has job density anything like that in Midtown or even downtown Brooklyn.
Anyway, my point is that airports simply aren’t natural destinations for heavy rail, as many seem to assume. If a line passes near one, fine, do an extension or whatever, but we’re probably going to get more cars off the road per dollar focusing on neighborhoods rather than airports.

AG June 11, 2013 - 10:12 am

I’m not a gambler – but I’d be willing to bet that the passengers who leave Newark and JFK on Airtrain are NOT the rich ppl you keep talking about. They ARE the average ppl who most likely don’t own cars and need to get to and from the airports… or just prefer not to drive.

To compare to the 2nd Ave. subway is ridiculous because if you use that metric then there should be no subway extensions in Queens at all since none will reach the volume of the 2nd Ave. subway.

Again – this is about Queens – not Manhattan or downtown Brooklyn. Airports are the job centers of Queens. The trend is now for more inter/intra-borough travel than to Mahattan. There is a reason also that there are traffic bottlenecks at airports… because there are a lot of cars going to one place.

Anon256 June 25, 2013 - 3:48 am

Airport links underperform in London and Paris too (carrying only about 30% and 20% of airport travellers in those cities respectively). People ride lines serving homes and employers every day, while they ride lines serving airports a few times a year; it’s obvious which will have much higher ridership.

AG June 25, 2013 - 10:46 am

Whoever said that it was supposed to have the highest ridership??? Considering how many ppl use airports a day… 30 and 20% is a good amount. If only 20 percent of airport users in our area used rails to get to the airport everyday – do you know how many cars that would take off the road??? 1 out of 5? That would be “under-performing”? 30% is almost 1 out of 3… could you imagine how much better traffic and air quality would be if that many ppl used rails to/from the airport?

Larry Greenfield June 7, 2013 - 9:02 pm

1.6 million rides, not riders.

Larry Greenfield June 7, 2013 - 9:03 pm

Sorry, billion, not million.

Daniel Butler June 11, 2013 - 5:59 pm

AirTrain comments aside (get to that later) The ‘improvements’ to the NYC system as considered by Mr. Gregory are indeed mostly impractical. Honestly, there is no substitute for learning to read a fucking map. While humanizing the system may do well for blog support, actual implementation and logistic improvement is another.

I am currently a resident of Chicago, but I lived in Brooklyn over three years ago, learning the entire subway system (not every station, but the methodology of its workings) in a matter of 5 weeks.

What I believe would work:

#54 Yes. Certainly. If the electronic maps ever fail, this will help
#49 Hells Yes. Already being implemented?? Wunderbar!
#48 See Below
#46 As an avid bike rider, I like the idea. Not sure how they would work, but its a good idea.
#23 Would relieve the GTFO my way! A common sense method of directing foot traffic. Seamless adoption upon implementation. Similar to what the city has done for the bridges. Love it.
#22 That works. All it takes is a little paint. Would work well for tourists and new residents.
#19 Possibly. But there may be sensory overload. Again: Ya gotta figure shit out for yourself and don’t expect a system to give you everything.
#18 Ditto for #22
#15 A great improvement.
#14 Very nice. Creative. But don’t wear flip flops.
#11 That works.
#2 Can’t complain about THAT!

What I believe won’t work:

#59: Give me a break. With the hackneyed street grids of Brooklyn, Queens & Lower Manhattan, you need a map that shows streets as much as lines. Vignelli is nice to look at, but you need streets.
#53 The subway is designed to get you from point A to B as efficiently as possible. Your feet hurt? I’m sorry. Think about the cost of adding gym flooring to the thousands of rolling stock, new and old, plus the wear and tear involved in maintenance, etc. Waste of money. The floor never breaks or cracks on the subway no matter what. Job well done by the MTA.
#52 (Personal bias alert) I love the roaring noise of the subway. It’s an integral part of the city. If you want peace and quiet in your commute, GET EAR PLUGS. Or better yet, Get outta town. Cities aren’t quiet. The MTA is not obliged to keep the noise level down.
#50 A good idea, but what happens when the drains get clogged or eroded? What about the cost of all that?
#45 A malfunctioning lock during an emergency is NOT something anyone wants. Keep them unlocked.
#31 Again, Malfunctions? What if someone needs to get OFF the train as well as get on?
#30 Laughable. Check the weather before you leave home, or on your goddamn phone. Break monotony? That’s your own brain’s job. Bring a book or something.
#29 All of these electronic systems require greater power and probability of malfunction. (pba: I prefer paper notice wherever practical)
#27 Again: Read the map. Learn it. Know it. Nothing replaces that knowledge. Not signage, electronics or Google Glass. Imagine the costs of implementing all of that technology when you could use your mind, FOR FREE.
#24 Laughable. So much automation. Why is it so important to know when the doors close? I want to catch that train as quickly as the next person. I have actually ran through busy stations (Union Sq for example) to catch a connection JUST before the doors snapped shut behind me. However, is a wee human inefficiency too much to bear? Geez…
#17 (PBA) I am good with directions and have observed that these have never actually helped me. But Maaaaaaaybe if you’re directionally challenged. =/
#16 Fuck that noise. I live in Chicago. Swiping is MUCH more efficient, especially for a city with 3X the residents and commuters.

What Mr. Gregory fails to mention is that the MTA, after 2010 or ’11, took the Line info box off the map. That box told you how each line ran at what time, what day of the week. You could understand the flow of rail traffic with that map, without ever being at the station. This NEEDS to be re-implemented into the map.

#48 (PBA) I fly to NYC at least once a year for a 7-8 day visit. I fly to JFK each time for 2 main reasons: One, JetBlue. Awesome airline. Reasonably priced one-way flight from O’Hare to JFK. Two, The AirTrain. Connects to the A, from which I can get anywhere in the city. If LaGuardia had an AirTrain..I would fly there instead.

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