Over the past decade, the MTA has ping-ponged through an era of uncertain leadership. The agency has burned through Lee Sander and Jay Walder and Joe Lhota, along with a few interim heads, and Tom Prendergast, now on the job for nearly three years, is the longest tenured MTA Chair since Peter Kalikow stepped down toward the end of 2007. With such frequent turnover, it’s been exceedingly hard for the MTA to plan for now or the future, and it’s starting to show.
October is the busiest time of year for subway ridership, and the last few days have been absolutely brutal. I can tell you what it’s like to ride from Brooklyn to Midtown and back every day, and while my tales are simply one person’s experiences, I’ve heard from many riders throughout the city who have experienced the same frustrating commutes. At 8:20 a.m., I’ve had to let B or Q trains pass me by; at 8:10 a.m. at the 6 train’s 4th uptown stop in Manhattan, I’ve been packed tighter than a sardine in a tin can. At times when I used to be able to grab a seat on the way home at night, I’ve had to stand from Grand Central to Nevins St. Wait times are long; trains are crowded; and there’s no relief in sight.
This problem — of uncomfortable rides, disgruntled customers and every-increasing ridership — is one of both the MTA’s doing and a lack of investment. The MTA sets its own load guidelines, and trains are crowded because that’s how the agency can wring every dollar possible out of the system. Service was far more frequent when the subways first ran in the early 1900s than it is today, but with the MTA’s budget operating on razor-thin margins, the MTA has to run what a consultant would call efficient operations. That means riders don’t get more more train than they want, even if it means a six-minute wait for a packed 6 train during the a.m. rush.
The other MTA problem is a lack of foresight and money. The agency hasn’t planned for a spike in ridership, and the crowds in the subway, as Charles Komanoff recently discussed, are approaching something akin to gridlock. There’s no room for more passengers, and the technology that enables the MTA to run trains more frequently is years away from implementation. It is also, as I’ve discussed recently, far too expensive for the MTA to implement these upgrades and far too late to be planning them only now. Planning for today’s crowds tomorrow is a recipe for failure, and we are up a creek without a paddle.
There is some modicum of relief on the horizon as the MTA announced some service increases on Thursday, but for some reason of economics, these changes don’t go into effect for another nine months. So that’s nine more months of overcrowded trains (that also seem to run slower than ever). Transit says they are adding service on 12 lines though the “most significant changes” are on the 42nd St. shuttle — hardly a move that does much for the rest of us. The C train will see three additional trips on Sundays as well.
The MTA summed up these service increases “Other major lines that will be increasing service include the Seventh Avenue 1/2 lines, with a total of five additional round trips during peak and evening hours; the Eighth Avenue A/C/E lines, with three additional round trips during midday and evening hours and three more round trips on Sunday mornings; the J/M/Z lines, with a total of three additional weekday round trips; and the system’s busiest route: the Lexington Avenue 4/5/6 lines, with seven additional weekday evening round trips.”
For the meager cost of just $5.8 million annually — barely a fraction of 1% percent of the agency’s budget — headways will be shortened by around 30 seconds in the evening. This is but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to improving commutes.
Even in announcing these upgrades, Transit officials seemed to nod more toward the constraints of improving service than toward the benefits of these added runs. “Our subway system is more than a century old and even where we are aided by new technology, we are still limited by the overall age and condition of the system and the maintenance that is needed to run trains safely,” James Ferrara, interim president of Transit, said. “Making these service changes wherever we can lets us make the best use of existing resources as we expand to keep up with private sector development.”
There’s no good answer here. Unless there is a mass migration away from New York City, the subways will remain crowded. Ideally, Transit is assessing how to deal not with 6 million daily customers but with 6.3 or 6.5. It’s really only a matter of time unless the system — and the city — simply cannot handle that volume. But that’s a future we’d all rather not contemplate.