For years, civic-minded transit-watchers in New York City have warned of the legacy of deferred maintenance. As the story goes, the systemwide collapse the subway system suffered from the mid-1970s and mid-1980s was a result of defered maintenance brought about by a lack of revenue from fares kept artificially low throughout the early part of the Twentieth Century. It was supposed to be a cautionary tale that ended in 1981 when Richard Ravitch launched the MTA’s capital spending plans. By investing heavily in the system, the MTA could attempt to clear out a backlog of repairs while eying modernization and expansion projects that had lingered in purgatory. It’s a nice story, but the only problem is that, 35 years later, we’re still not out of the woods.
Today, the MTA suffers from a problem vastly different from the one it confronted in the 1970s and 1980s. The subway system is essentially too crowded. Average weekday ridership throughout 2015 reached 5,650,000, the subway system’s highest total since 1948, and a full 48 workdays saw ridership top 6 million. Those figures represent around a 1 percent increase over 2014’s totals, and if we see another jump in ridership this year, it’s not entirely clear where all those people will fit. Because the agency hasn’t caught up to current technological trends, because the MTA can’t really run more trains without a massively expensive and time-consuming investment in upgrading nearly every facet of its operations, subway service is going to continue to sag from overcrowding. The MTA is a victim of its own success and a victim of years of poor management and investment practices.
The latest deep dive into the MTA’s problems comes to us from Robert Kolker. He explored the MTA’s delay crisis through the lens of Friday, October 16, 2015, the day the gap fillers on the downtown local tracks at Union Square decided to take a vacation that threw off service along both the East and West Side IRT routes. The resulting article is a narrative tour de force that sums up the MTA’s nearly intractable problems. The subways are too crowded and too old while the MTA is too broke and too institutionally conservative to solve capacity constraints and technological innovation in a way that keeps up with ridership.
Kolker’s piece is a treasure trove of information on delays. As we learn, the MTA is pushing around 500,000 delayed trains per year, and the agency’s on-time performance numbers are abysmal. Even if wait assessment is a better indicator of reliable service, only 70 percent of trains are arriving at their terminals within five minutes of their scheduled times, and last year, just 43 percent of 4 trains, 39 percent of 5 trains and 46 percent of 6 trains were considered on time under the MTA’s loose definition.
As Kolker reports it, the MTA, in part, blames its crowds. There are too many people trying to shove themselves into trains that don’t run frequently enough to catch up with demand, and delays stem from everything from sick customers (which one MTA official blames on riders who skip breakfast) to extended dwell times. Here’s Kolker on these delays:
MTA executives are naturally defensive about the criticism. They argue that, unlike in the ’70s, the current problems are a result of their own success — the subways are more popular than ever and therefore more crowded. Six million people use the subways on a busy day now; since 2010 the system has added nearly half a million daily users. The 6 line alone is up by 200,000 daily riders compared to a few years ago. “It’s like the sponge is soaked and we’re adding more water,” says Calandrella. Rush-hour crowds can start at six; the evening rush extends past nine.
Fifteen of the subway system’s 21 lines (not including the shuttles) have maxed out the number of trains that can ride safely on the routes, and ten of those 15 lines are at peak riding capacity, which means when something goes wrong, the dispatchers have no wiggle room. The MTA has blamed some 40 percent of delays on the system’s high ridership numbers, and the agency has few good options for tempering the crowds, including converting the train-car stock to “open gangway” cars, which annex the dead space between cars and convert it into usable space for passengers, increasing capacity by perhaps as much as 10 percent. Other cities have taken to rationing access to crowded stations or jamming passengers into cars Tokyo style.
Throughout the article, Kolker traces budget issues, the slow pace of CBTC rollout, and the challenges the MTA has in bringing system expansion on line. The three and a half new stations that Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway promises to deliver sometime later this year or early next hardly seem sufficient considering crowds throughout the rest of the city. Despite all these real-life challenges that we know exist, I am struck by Kolker’s kicker. He writes:
There’s another argument that the real problem behind the increase in delays isn’t the culture of subway ridership or even a budget shortfall but the culture of the MTA. When the agency lowered its on-time goals, was it being realistic or accepting defeat? I’m reminded of the recent comptroller’s report and its condemnation of the MTA’s dysfunction. “Transit officials,” the report concluded, “had no formal corrective action plans or programs to minimize the chronic underlying problems that caused delays.” Instead, the delay problem is being picked apart by more than a dozen task forces, studies, and initiatives. It’s like they say in track-safety school: There’s no such thing as a simple shortcut. Only quicksand.
So where do we go from here? Based on the need to line up funding and conduct environmental studies and figure out why everything in New York City has to cost so damn much, the MTA’s 20-year needs look laughably out of reach, and yet, New York City needs the MTA to realize its 20-year needs tomorrow and its 40-year needs by the time 2020 rolls around. That ain’t happening, and as we’ve seen, even modest service increases that have to be planned six or eight months in advance can’t keep pace with ridership growth.
Is the answer open gangways, an idea the MTA is barely embracing in an order of 790 new subway car that are supposed to last throughout most of the rest of your life and mine? Is the answer a stagnant New York that can’t grow because the subways have room for marginal growth? Is the answer a city-run network that starts with a questionably-motivated streetcar that won’t see service for eight more years? Is the answer sighing in frustration while Paris and London engage in massive transit expansion projects while New York spins its wheels? It’s hard to be optimistic when the answers seems frustratingly insufficient and ineffective, but it’s hard to see where else we are right now other than stuck in a rut too deep to escape.