Home MTA Absurdity Fifteen years late, Transit names a V.P. for 21st Century Service Delivery

Fifteen years late, Transit names a V.P. for 21st Century Service Delivery

by Benjamin Kabak

I recently had the opportunity to look at a calendar, and I was shocked to discover that it’s 2015, by many accounts the 15th year of the 21st Century. Considering how much time has elapsed since the heady days of the Y2K threat, that Limp Bizkit song called, for some reason, “9 Teen 90 Nine,” and unironic promises to “party like it’s 1999,” you would think that the country’s busiest transit agency would have perhaps planned for the 21st Century by now. You could be forgiven for being wrong.

In a move that resembles a bit of Orwellian nomenclature, the MTA, according to Pete Donohue, has named a Vice President of 21st Century Service Delivery. Better late than never, right? Here’s the story:

Transit officials recently created a new top-tier executive position for the subway system: vice president of 21st Century Service Delivery. The job was given to NYC Transit division veteran John Gaul.

Gaul’s will focus on improving customer service, relieving subway overcrowding and spearheading other priorities such as a new fare-paying system to replace the MetroCard, Metropolitan Transportation Authority spokesman Kevin Ortiz said.

“He will lead efforts to redefine how we deliver customer service within our system; everything from train service to how we communicate with our customers, how we can accelerate bringing new technology into the system … and how we can strategically and aggressively enhance capacity within our system.”

Color me highly skeptical, but shouldn’t the MTA have been playing for the 21st Century, say, 20 or 25 years ago and not a decade and a half into the 21st Century? On a more practical and less snarky level, none of the elements of Gaul’s job that Donohue described are particularly unique to the 21st Century. If anything, Gaul is helping the agency catch up to where they should have been where the 21st Century dawned.

In presenting the story to the Daily News, Transit sources cited a slew of technological advancements and initiatives that won’t wrap for a few more years. We see mention of a new fare-payment system that should have been implemented already and likely won’t be fully installed before a quarter of the 21st Century elapses. We see a nod to the Help Point customer intercom system, a technology rendered redundant by cell phone service and one hardly new to transit systems (or college campuses) across the nation. We see Transit officials hoping that Gaul can work to “relieve subway overcrowding” — something that can’t be accomplished without signal upgrades and perhaps automatic train operations. By and large, these are late 20th century challenges not otherwise unique to our times.

So what should a 21st Century Service Delivery ops team work towards? For one — and especially for the MTA — the eyes should be focused on mid-21st Century anticipations. Speed up the pace of technological adoption and work on those B Division countdown clocks with some urgency, but also work to anticipate new transit trends in both customer-facing technologies but also in service patterns. How can the MTA grow today to meet demands of New Yorkers in 30 or 40 years? Inevitably, that would require serious cost and efficiency improvements. Is Gaul up to that challenge?

Ultimately, the MTA as a whole should be looking to the 21st Century. One position alone won’t be sufficient, and perception that this is nothing more than a nod to progress (rather than actual progress itself) will be tough. Gene Russianoff, in a statement to Donohue, said it best, “What should the chief goal of the new 21st century subways and buses vice president? Why, to get the transit agency into the 21st century before it ends.”

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Alon Levy March 12, 2015 - 3:32 am

I was shocked to discover that it’s 2015, by many accounts the 15th year of the 21st Century


Michael Noda March 12, 2015 - 5:56 am

15th is correct, assuming the pedantic reckoning of marking the beginning of he Century as 01/01/2001. Which is not to say that the sentence as written would not also be true had it been written as 16th… dammit I need more coffee.

Spiderpig March 13, 2015 - 9:53 am

“There was no year zero.”

Peter L March 15, 2015 - 2:31 pm

There was no year one, either. When Dennis the Short came up with Anno Domini he *guessed* that the calendar started 525 years before …

Christopher March 12, 2015 - 7:04 am

Admittedly this is something that I’m deeply concerned about and currently (at least partially) researching but I don’t understand how a “transit veteran” is the ideal choice to lead what seems to be a service design function. I’d hope that he would be at least familiar with the work of user and experience design as well as familiarity with the work of Civic Service and Public and Collaborative or of the many civic service design organizations here in NYC and elsewhere. Instead this seems like a ridiculously named position for someone who is comes from a traditional background unfamiliar with the direction the leading edge conversation here.

LLQBTT March 13, 2015 - 9:24 am

Agreed. How much forward thinking can one have after spending years in a huge, dysfunctional organization? After a while, you just assimilate.

Someone from the outside with a truly strong customer focused and technology background, maybe the airline, hotel or retail industries.

Brandon March 12, 2015 - 11:00 am

So CBTC, contactless fare payment, countdown clocks and articulated trains are perhaps in the offing? Other than arguably contactless fare payment (because most existing systems are proprietary) those are all actually elements of “Late 20th Century Service”.

Bolwerk March 12, 2015 - 11:28 am

The only thing you listed that has enough of an impact on service to be a game changer is CBTC.

Tower18 March 12, 2015 - 1:06 pm

I don’t know, it’s been noted before that articulated trains offer an 8-10% capacity boost, which is roughly equivalent to an additional car on a train. This won’t provide ground-breaking impact on capacity, but a 10% increase in capacity on a 10-car train of R160s is 202 additional passengers, or 20 additional per car. Let’s say maybe that’s 13-15 per car in the real world. That could go a long way to absorbing some of those “left behind” on the platform on overcrowded lines.

Obviously there are capital costs to getting these trains, but otherwise, I would consider this “low hanging fruit” in terms of capacity impact, when compared to others thrown around like CBTC, de-interlining, etc.

Bolwerk March 12, 2015 - 1:50 pm

Not saying it’s bad! Well, I don’t know about 8-10% per train. But I guess it’s 50 sq. ft. per articulation, which is nothing to scoff at, especially considering it’s all standing room. It might not be practical to make entire trains articulated. More likely married pairs would be articulated. That said, the capital cost probably isn’t very big as long as the order is placed on future equipment that is being replaced anyway. Definitely worth it.

Still, the implications of CBTC are much bigger.

Alon Levy March 12, 2015 - 5:50 pm

The plan is to have open gangways (the local nomenclature frowns on “articulated” unless the bogies are articulated) in 4- or 5-car units.

The gain in capacity isn’t just in nominal space. Making it easy for passengers to move between cars equalizes crowding levels between cars to some extent, leading to lower de facto crowding.

Rob March 12, 2015 - 4:53 pm

For the Queens Blvd E trains, what abt returning to trains of 11 60 ft cars, as was done at one time, to get a 10% capacity increase?

Tower18 March 13, 2015 - 10:31 am

I think the R160 cars can only be in 4-car or 5-car sets. Not sure what would be involved in converting them to support an additional 11th car.

capt subway March 12, 2015 - 12:13 pm

I can’t believe anybody fell for this BS. This is a slap in the face to JG. He was removed from Dept of Subways because he wouldn’t knuckle under to the politically motivated BS he was asked to go along with. This is a totally fake position – utterly meaningless, with a staff of exactly one (1) person. This is what is euphemistically called, in the TA, when you are relieved of your regular duties, being put on a “special assignment”. Special Assignments, in the TA, are usually wholly made up positions with no actual responsibility. Think of it as being put out to pasture. These “special” jobs are given with the hope that the recipient of said special assignment has the requisite perception to read the handwriting on the wall and cash in his chips – i.e. “put in his papers” and retire.

BrooklynBus March 13, 2015 - 12:03 am

You are very correct. When there is a reorganization, or a new title created, people are under the assumption that it is being done to help the public. People like us who have been in the MTA for their entire career know the real reasons. It is either as you said, in this case, for them to read the writing on the wall and leave, or else it is to give a favorite son a promotion. I guess Director of Special Projects as is usually the case would have been too obvious, so they came up with something a little more inventive.

You know it’s BS, because when Mr.Gaul does leave, he will have done such a good job that all his tasks will have been completed and there will be no reason for a replacement and the title will be abolished.

I remember when the budget was very tight it became very difficult to give someone a promotion so they did an entire reorganization and created an entirely new department for the sole purpose of giving a particular favorite individual a huge promotion. He had previously received a 50% salary increase all at once and it was time for another one. Of course there was this big justification why this department was necessary to improve operations and all that it would accomplish. A few years later, it was time to give this individual another huge promotion, so he was moved to elsewhere within the MTA where something else was created for him. So who was appointed to replace him in his old department? Well no one. That department which was so needed only a few years before, was broken up and its parts distributed among other departments.

Ben, I remember when I first started reading your blog how you would believe all the MTA’s PR and always defended them. I told you that as you mature and get older, you will become more skeptical. You have. I now see a great deal of criticism of the MTA that I never saw before.

Chris March 12, 2015 - 12:35 pm

I really don’t get the B division countdown clock holdup. Paint giant QR codes on the train cars (don’t bother trying to optically recognize the human-readable car numbers), write some software to track trains and model travel times, and call it a day already.

Chris March 12, 2015 - 12:40 pm

It would be even simpler if the existing system in use were well-written and architectured such that commonalities could be reused. Not holding my breath on that score.

Tower18 March 12, 2015 - 1:12 pm

It looks like RFID transponders are available on the open market for anywhere from $0.80 to $1.50 per unit. Seems like you could stick an RFID chip on the front and back of each train, and place readers strategically throughout the system. A certain train’s identifier is assigned at the terminal, and then as train 358173857932 passes various readers, the system knows it’s a C train. The ID never changes, but the route and letter can be easily changed.

I know nothing about this topic, so I’m just spitballing here and don’t focus on the details, but it seems like you could get train location information very easily, and relatively cheaply, with readily available parts any old hobbyist can buy. I mean, this is basically EZPass.

Chris March 12, 2015 - 3:12 pm

My guess is the perfect is being made the enemy of the good: A requirement for a very small margin of error, a requirement that any system has to work in 100% of the potential use cases (think short G trains that stop in the middle of huge platforms), an approved vendors list, or maybe just an institutional bias against simple solutions over complex.

I’d like to see the problem opened up to the public. Publish the requirements, current capabilities, an accounting of what infrastructure can be reused from the A division implementation. Accept proposals, and try a couple of them out. Doesn’t cost much to rig up a few RFID readers, or slap some stickers on a train and stick some cameras in a few stations to see how different ideas work.

pete March 12, 2015 - 10:52 pm Reply
Maggie March 12, 2015 - 2:08 pm

I like it. Hopefully next is a VP of 1860s Technology Service Delivery to get the elevators running for the 7 line extension to open.

Nathanael March 14, 2015 - 12:36 pm

Yeah! This VP can also maintain the original mechanical signal systems and the sidewalk gratings!

I love this idea. Separate each type of technology out by era, and have a VP for each time period.

Jim D March 12, 2015 - 2:11 pm

What a silly title.

Ocobri March 12, 2015 - 6:52 pm

My list of most needed improvements:
1. Finish the rooves over all outdoor platforms. They were extended over 50 years ago. Picture the 7 line.
2. Arrange with Google to incorporate scheduled service changes in G Maps, which is useless on weekends.
3. Adopt Hong Kong’s fare system with zero modifications.
4. When bus stops are moved, make sure all signs and posted schedules are updated, not just the “pole toppers” that no one on street level looks at. By updating half the signs, they’re doing a half-assed job.

Alon Levy March 13, 2015 - 5:53 am

The new Google Maps is useless on all days of the week.

Tower18 March 13, 2015 - 10:33 am

Argh I agree! Some of the new functionality is great, but the user experience is significantly degraded.

Peter L March 15, 2015 - 2:35 pm

Regarding Help Point: is this a wired system? If so, then it is a redundant network in a position where you *want* redundancy.

But no, hardly 21st century – Boston put the first fire alarm system in 160 years ago.


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