The History of Fraud Behind the Subway's Most-Cited Performance Metric

There used to be a hell of a lot of fraud reporting On-Time Performance. When did it stop?

First of all, a belated but hearty thank you to the hundreds who emailed after the last Signal Problems. I am consistently blown away by your incredible support for this newsletter and my work in general.

I’ll get to the story behind this email’s subject line in a bit. But first, here’s the big stuff I’ve been working on lately:

  • Uber and Lyft take a bigger cut of each ride than they say. Both rideshare companies insist they are merely a technology platform, not a transportation company. They argue this to avoid a whole host of regulations, including classifying their drivers as employees (something I have written about a lot as well). A key tell that this argument is invalid is that drivers cannot determine their own prices for their services, nor is there a pre-negotiated rate Uber and Lyft charge drivers for access to their platform. It’s whatever the hell Uber and Lyft feel like. And that “take rate,” as it is known, varies tremendously by ride. Of course, Uber and Lyft do not publicly disclose their true “take rate.” So my colleague Dhruv Mehrotra and I crowdsourced a database of almost 15,000 fares and found both companies take much more than they say.

  • 'There's No Such Thing As Cold, Hard Reality': Meet The Hyperloop's Truest Believers: Maybe you’ve never heard of a Hyperloop, or maybe you believe it’s our next, great hope for intercity transportation (my guess if you read this newsletter is you do not). Either way, I found nearly all coverage of the Hyperloop ridiculously simplistic to the point of being glorified marketing copy (“Denver to Cheyenne in 20 minutes? With the Hyperloop, You Betcha!”) so I went to a Hyperloop enthusiast conference to find out what its deal really is. I found it both more ridiculous and also more revealing than I expected.


Now, about the subway. The Times ran an article Friday about how the subway continues to get better but is still not, you know, great. One chart from the Times article caught my eye:

Looking at this chart, one could—indeed, should—conclude the subway performed supremely well through the 1990s and into the late 2000s before performance fell off and only now is the subway performing about as well as it did in 2011.

But that’s not the true story. Because On-Time Performance, the stat most often cited when evaluating subway performance, has a dirty secret. For much of its history, it’s been fraudulent.

On October 26, 1994, MTA Inspector General Henry Flinter published a report titled “Does The Transit Authority Accurately Report Subway On-Time Performance?” The answer to that question was a resounding “No.”

(To the best of my knowledge, the report has not been on a publicly available link—until now. You can read the report here.)

For the uninitiated, OTP is an important stat for much of the same reason the subway is important; not because it is great, but because it exists. It is the only metric consistently measured for any prolonged period, meaning it is the only window into how subway performance has changed over time.

For much of OTP’s existence, it was compiled using a very manual process. Dispatchers at terminals recorded the times trains arrived, compared it to the schedule, then phoned the Command Center at the end of their shift to report the number of late trains (a number defined the same as it is today: any train that was more than five minutes late to the terminal or didn’t make every stop along its run).

To answer the question from the report’s title, Flinter’s team conducted two tests. First, they spot-checked the arrival times of 315 randomly selected trains at terminals across the system and compared that to the times dispatchers logged. Second, they looked to see how many trains were made “on time” by dispatchers changing the schedules illegitimately before reporting the number of late trains to the Command Center.

Flinter’s team found “discrepancies” in all respects:

First, dispatchers in the field added running time to schedules so that late trains appeared to be on-time. These adjustments to schedules, in violation of the TA’s [Transit Authority, as NYCT was known then] own rules, made one third of the late trains appear on-time. Second, dispatchers recorded incorrect times for another third of the late trains so they appeared to have arrived earlier than they did. Third, 15 percent of the late trains were not reported at all to the Command Center, even though they were shown as late on the dispatcher’s records. Of all the trains that arrived at their terminals more than 5 minutes behind schedule, the TA correctly reported only 20 percent as late.

In other words, dispatchers falsified records at every step. They:

  1. padded the schedules

  2. forged records with falsified arrival times

  3. simply didn’t report some late trains they did correctly log

This had a massive impact on OTP. For the months examined by Flinter’s team, the TA reported an OTP of 90.8 percent. That’s good!

But the MTA IG calculated the actual OTP was more like 73.2 percent, or “almost 18 percentage points lower than that reported by the TA.” That’s bad.

Surely, this was all just a big mistake? Inefficient, manual record-keeping resulting in errors both ways, right? False positives and false negatives balancing out over time?

Yeah….not quite. From the IG report [emphasis mine]:

However, we found that errors occurred in a definite pattern they invariably served to make timeliness appear better than it was. Not one on-time train was made late by a recording error.

When 100 percent of the errors are in one direction, that doesn’t make them sound like errors at all.

How could this have happened? Basically, the students were grading the test:

The fundamental weakness in this system is that dispatchers, the very employees who are held responsible for regulating train operations and supervising operating personnel, are responsible for reporting OTP data. In addition, TA management places pressure on its line managers, who have authority over dispatchers, to achieve OTP performance goals without enforcing appropriate internal controls to ensure data quality.

In sum, the overwhelming evidence suggests OTP was being logged fraudulently, not by a few bad actors, but as a matter of course.

Still, surely this was the first the TA was hearing about this? And would take drastic, immediate measures to clean this mess up?

Well, see, the thing is, not so much. This 1994 report was, in fact, a follow-up to a 1986 MTA IG report which found pretty much the exact same thing—reported OTP of 80 percent, actual OTP of 62 percent—and the TA did more or less nothing about it [again, emphasis mine]:

In our 1986 report, the OIG recommended that the TA audit dispatchers’ records periodically to check their accuracy and see if they matched official reports. The TA formally accepted this recommendation but never implemented it. To make matters worse, in 1992 the TA reported to us and to the MTA Board that it had implemented the recommendation. In the course of this investigation, we discovered this was not true.

Not only that, but it is fairly common knowledge in MTA circles that TA records from the 1970s were more or less meaningless because of fraudulent record-keeping, so much so that the TA changed the definition of “OTP” so people would stop using the old numbers.

Indeed, there is some evidence to suggest the malfeasance continued after 1994. Let’s go back to that Times chart:

If we are to believe the TA instituted actual reforms that led to honest reporting of OTP after 1994, we ought to expect OTP to fall off a cliff, or at the very least decline. But that didn’t happen.

Instead, OTP got better as the 1990s went on. This leaves us with two options. One is subway service miraculously and drastically improved right as better reporting controls were put into place so much so that it negated the 18 percent the TA was inflating OTP. The other is no such controls ever existed and dispatchers kept lying and NYCT brass kept covering it up. One involves believing a confluence of circumstances that requires lots of independent factors to have suddenly changed all at once. The other involves everything to have stayed exactly the same. I, for one, know which scenario I find more plausible.

This leads to the obvious question: is this still going on?

Let’s cut to what Andy Byford told the Times:

Mr. Byford said that it was unfair to compare the current on-time rate with the early 2000s for several reasons: ridership is higher now, making it harder to run trains on time; a new electronic system to tally delays captures more incidents; and new rules protecting track workers have slowed down trains.

I don’t know if Byford is aware of the extent of previous fraudulent record-keeping, but his answer is not entirely wrong.

Starting about six years ago, NYCT moved over to a new electronic reporting system called ITRAC. It is electronic in the sense that it is using computers, but it is not electronic in the sense that terminal arrival times are automatically logged. Dispatchers still manually collect and input the data. But NYCT does have the ability to audit that arrival time data more easily, and because the process is less labor intensive, dispatchers have less incentive to make shit up towards the end of their shift.

(Now, I’m going to get super-nerdy for a bit. If you don’t care about the specifics of NYCT data collection and train management ops, feel free to skip this paragraph. There are, in many respects, two different subway systems within the subway: the A Division, comprised of the numbered lines, and the B Division with the lettered lines. The cars and tracks are different sizes, the mosaics in the stations have different designs, etc. This is because they were built by different, competing entities. They also have different back-end data systems. Starting around the early 2000s, the A Division got Automatic Train Supervision, which gave NYCT precise knowledge of where all the trains are for better dispatching and provided the data for the countdown clocks. But this system was never linked to the totally separate system used for delays reporting, so that process remained manual even though NYCT had a digital system for tracking every A Division train’s precise location. That only changed under Byford’s tenure—meaning terminal arrival data can now easily be spot-checked and cross-referenced—but dispatchers are still manually inputting that data, even on the A Division. The B Division has no Automatic Train Supervision [yet], but it does have those Bluetooth beacon-based countdown clocks that log when trains enter and leave stations. That data is less reliable than Automatic Train Supervision so its usefulness as a spot-checking tool isn’t as clear. I’m sure there’s much more about the ins and outs of this data-logging process I’m not explaining here; the MTA’s data management process could fill a [supremely boring] book.)

All that said, the warped incentive structure where the students grade the test is still in place.

At this point, you may be wondering what to make of all this, and how it fits into the narrative of subway performance over time. To be clear, I’m not trying to conduct some revisionist history campaign. Of course subway service got way worse over the last decade or so, of course the subway completely melted down around late 2016 and early 2017, and of course subway service has gotten better in the last year or so. But, the magnitude of these shifts are probably not as severe as OTP would suggest, nor was service ever as good as one might think looking at that chart.

In the Times article, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who moved to the city in 2001, called that era of subway service “a bygone, nostalgic era of reliable service.” I think there’s more truth to that statement than he perhaps realizes. It likely wasn’t as good as he remembers it. Nothing ever is. But it may just have been good enough, and sometimes it feels like that’s the absolute maximum we can ask from this city’s transportation system.

What bothers me the most reading the MTA IG report is not the crime, but the cover up, and the reminder that the subway crisis was a decades-developing debacle brought about by institutional rot. Decades of warning signs were swept under the rug or merely brushed aside for a future generation of managers, workers, and riders to deal with.

There is one sentence from the MTA IG report that sticks with me the most for its prescience. As the MTA IG predicted it 25 years ago:

The degree of misreporting that we found may well cause TA management to lose touch with the real level of service it is providing, creating an unwarranted sense of confidence.

If I was to sit down today and write one sentence to summarize the failures of MTA management over the past two decades, I would struggle to write a better one than that.

As ever, the issue at hand is what we learn from all this. Will we learn from the past and heed the warnings in black and white right in front of us about the issues facing us today, not because it is easy but because it is right? Or, will we continue the time-honored tradition of brushing those warnings aside, plow ahead, and add to the bill for future generations to pay?


Oh, you didn’t think I was letting you out of here without a dog in a bag, did you?

Photo credit: Caresse Haaser

Oh hey there!

Hello, my dear Signal Problems readers! How are you? I miss you all and your glorious Dog in a Bag submissions.

Even though Signal Problems is no more, I’m still following the goings-on at our beloved MTA. Not quite as closely as I used to, but I find that merely changing jobs has not changed the fact that I care about our mass transportation system.

So, I thought it might be fun to send you a quick update on some of the work I’ve been doing, share a few MTA-related thoughts, and see if you’ve spotted any Dogs in Bags recently. Maybe I’ll do this semi-regularly if it seems to go over well.

A Quick Update On Where to Find the S/P Dog in a Bag Collection

Reader Michael Pollack suggested I make the Dog in a Bag collection easier to find, which was a great idea. So you can now find the Signal Problems Dog in a Bag collection at my personal website, aaronwgordon.com, where you can also find my bio, clips, things of that nature.

On that site, there is now a dedicated tab for Dogs in Bags. But that is mostly a portal to the public Google Photos album I created. Hopefully, this will help you access those when you’re in need of some dogs in bags. If you have fresh ones, send them along, and I’ll add them to the album.

Tearing Down Urban Highways

As for the work I’ve been up to, a lot in my first few months has been getting up to speed with how the automotive industry works. I’ve found it both fascinating and, often, infuriating. But I’ve learned a lot that has deeply affected my thinking on the future of transportation in this country and where we go from here.

In general, I find urbanists and public transportation experts do not understand (or come to grips with) how the automotive industry works, how it affects policy at the local, state, and federal levels, and how it impacts individual behavior in profound ways. Until we start to reckon with that, it will be very difficult to implement change.

Along a similar vein, I thought some of you might be interested in a feature I just published about the role of urban highways in America. It’s an issue I’ve had my eye on since the BQE debate began anew earlier this year. But this article is not about the BQE, at least not directly. It’s about a 1.4-mile stretch of highway in Syracuse. Like the BQE, that stretch of elevated highway is at the end of its useful life. Something has to be done about. And it’s been at the center of a fight between the city and its suburbs for almost a decade, dredging up old wounds about racial discrimination, white flight, urban renewal, and the decline of American cities.

The second I heard about this story, I knew I had to write about it, because it’s about so much more than a transportation project. It’s about how we have to acknowledge the sins of the past in a more meaningful way in order to make progress on the issues affecting us today. I hope you’ll take the time to read it. I hear it’s all the talk around the presidential debate podiums.

MTA Gets Business Consultant’d

The big story around MTA parts recently—other than the fact that we were all lied to about the real reason why Joe Lhota resigned—has been the reorganization plan recently passed by the board.

Nobody seems to be a fan of it. Even some board members voted for it on the assumption that it can be changed later. Far be it for me to tell board members how to do their jobs, but that doesn’t seem to be what voting for something means. Either way, this is a pretty standard MTA board member cop out maneuver. If I had a nickel for every time I heard “I have problems with this, but I’m voting for it anyways” I wouldn’t have needed to seek full-time employment. Despite the plan’s unpopularity, only one board member, Veronica Vanterpool, voted against it.

So what actually is this plan? You can read the full plan here, which was put together by the consultant firm Alix Partners. Personally, I find the plan itself too vague to analyze with any degree of certainty. It’s only 36 business school jargon-laden pages heavy on charts and light on details, a pittance for a plan that will in theory transform a 70,000 person organization with almost $17 billion in annual expenses.

I don’t want to be too alarmist about this plan. It could turn out mostly harmless, it could also be a disaster, or be anywhere in between; it largely depends on how management implements the bullet points.

I do, however, feel confident in saying it doesn’t address the fundamental problems I have spent many a Signal Problems documenting.

But I do see one aspect of this plan broadly speaking that, to me, attests to why the MTA struggles to be productive as an organization year after year, generation after generation. The problem is that this is is a business plan for an organization that is fundamentally not a business.

The MTA was founded in the 1960s during an era where our leaders tended to believe all problems could be solved through dispassionate pragmatism. This was the Whiz Kid era, when this optimization model was applied by our best and brightest to everything from building cars, foreign wars, nuclear war game-planning, and fighting fires (not to spoil the plot, but it didn’t work out great).

The MTA was created in the midst of this dispassionate pragmatist craze by then-governor Nelson Rockefeller to achieve numerous goals—one of which was to neuter Robert Moses—but a key one was to bring this businesslike approach to public transportation. The idea was the MTA, like all government, should be run like a good business.

This is the lie on which the MTA is built: that public transportation can be a self-sustaining business if run well enough. But, as decades of experience here and around the world have proven, this is simply not true. With the exception of places like Hong Kong that are in essence real estate companies that happen to run trains, public transportation systems require large government subsidies to function well. (Even Hong Kong gets indirect subsidies by exemptions to all kinds of property and tax laws.)

New York has, in practice, done away with this fiction by subsidizing the MTA with billions of dollars every year. But it has never completely shed the lie. For one, the agency is legally obliged to balance its budget every year. This is paradoxically something no actual business has to do yet meshes with the idea of government that should be run “like a business” and not lose money. It is, of course, deeply ironic that many, many venture-capital funded businesses now give the MTA a run for its ability to bleed cash.

The MTA is hardly the only government agency hand-cuffed by similar ideological confusion; the Post Office and Amtrak are two that come to mind.

Nevertheless, the MTA meets this requirement every year in part through the aforementioned subsidies and also a large amount of budgetary rejiggering that occurs on an annual basis.

The point isn’t that the MTA should be able to run a deficit—although I’m here for that suuuuper nerdy conversation—but that the reorganization plan’s biggest flaw, to me, is it buys into this lie big time.

Alix Partners is a business consultant, not a public transportation consultant. In fact, they seem to have little to no expertise in public transportation. The “transportation and infrastructure” section of their website is almost entirely about global shipping. There is scant evidence they have done any serious work in the public transportation sector prior to this $4.1 million contract.

Nor did they spend very much time on this reorganization plan at all; 12 weeks or so. These quick turnarounds are part of the company’s sales pitch, which is all well and good when tearing apart for-profit business after for-profit business. The implication here is Alix Partners did little to adjust their approach or strategy or even acknowledge the MTA might be a fundamentally different beast than, say, Enron.

This is a super important point because the MTA’s structure, governance, function, and even purpose are codified into law and cannot be changed as a business’s can. That is why we are here, trying to fix the MTA. And assuming it can be run like a business is why we keep ending up back here, trying to fix the MTA, every few years.

To take just one of many examples, consider labor, the single biggest cost driver for the agency when including both salary and benefits. Negotiations between labor unions and MTA management do not work like those in the private sector, because the labor unions are also a key constituent (and donor) to MTA management’s boss, the governor. In other words, the unions can, and do, play both sides.

“The governor has been the best governor for the trade union movement ever,” TWU president John Samuelsen told the New York Times after attending a Cuomo fundraiser earlier this year. This was mere months before contract negotiations between TWU, which has more than 40,000 MTA employees, and the MTA began.

This is emphatically not how labor negotiations in the private sector work. I’ve been a part of one collective bargaining negotiation committee and now work at another union shop, which just concluded its own round of negotiations with management. Suffice it to say, negotiations would have gone very differently if we somehow had a back channel to management’s ultimate boss with non-trivial leverage over his professional future. And these negotiations determine not only salaries and benefits but work rules and all kinds of requirements that drive up costs.

But that is just one example; an important one, but just one. Everyday issues like service cuts, fare hikes, and implementing faster buses become instantly politicized in a way no business has to contend with. Bus network redesigns take years not because it takes years to figure out optimal routes but because it takes years to convince politicians and the people why their bus stops will change.

A business consultant might look at these delays as inefficiencies—indeed, it is “inefficient” from a time-spent metric—but it’s not inefficient when considering these changes can only be successful with careful community-based coalition building, something Alix Partners’s other clients hardly have to contend with.

So what is the MTA if not a quasi-business? It is, as I have argued before, a public good. The fundamental problem at the MTA’s core, generation after generation, is it is not allowed to function like one, always shrouded in the faux-principles of businesslike pragmatism. The Alix Partners reorganization plan makes this confusion worse, and, as such, reduces the chances any fundamental issues will be fixed.

Dog in a Bag

MTA Rules of Conduct Section 1050.9 Subsection (h) Paragraph 2: no person may bring any animal on or into any conveyance or facility unless enclosed in a container and carried in a manner which would not annoy other passengers.

Have a dog in a bag photo? Reading this on the subway and see a dog in a bag? Take a picture and send it to signalproblems@substack.com.

Photo credit: Jody Avirgan

If you want me to send out more of these occasional S/P’s that keep you in the know of my recent work and include some MTA thoughts, let me know.

Travel speedily,

Aaron

This Is The Last Stop On This Train

Everyone please leave the train. Thank you for riding with Signal Problems.

Shortly after I became a subway reporter in the summer of 2017, I ordered a four-foot-by-six-foot subway track map. Unlike the traditional subway map, this one is geographically accurate. It also shows the terminals, individual tracks, and all the points where trains can transfer from one track to another. I hung it behind my office chair so I could easily consult it.

It’s hard to believe now, but less than two years ago, right around the time Governor Cuomo declared the MTA in a “State of Emergency,” appointed former MTA Chairman Joe Lhota to re-take the reins, and launched the Subway Action Plan, I knew little about the subway. Like every New Yorker, I knew it didn’t work very well, but I didn’t understand why. I hate not understanding why things are the way they are, especially when that thing makes millions of people miserable on a daily basis.

So, I decided to find out.

Track map. Photo credit: vanshnookenraggen

I felt like I was being dropped into a strange world, one using words and technology unfamiliar to me. But the more I learned, the more I realized that few people, even transit experts, truly grasped why the subway was so much worse than it used to be. And that, to me, was very interesting indeed.

For the first few months on the beat, I had a routine. As soon as a service alert was issued, I’d swivel to my track map and trace the lines to see where the problem was, what the re-routing possibilities consisted of, and which option NYCT chose. I did the same for every weekend service advisory. I had a rule that if I didn’t understand something, no matter how seemingly trivial, I had to find the answer.

Sometimes, I spent days locating a boring answer to an inconsequential question. Other times, that question, which likewise appeared inconsequential at first, proved the key to unlocking a vault of enticing details. Perhaps it contained a key phrase used in an important document—ISIM B was an exhilarating rabbit hole—or someone else had asked that same question years ago who was glad to be hearing from someone asking it, too. You just never knew.

At its core, Signal Problems was about my quest to answer these questions, to find out why things are they way they are. Or, as I put it in the tagline: “What the hell is going on with the NYC subway.”

It was a newsletter about a very specific subway era, one I have occasionally described as The Great Slowdown.

This era is over. Subway performance is improving. Although some of those improvements are due to schedule adjustments, the number I tend to hear most often is that roughly half of the improved on-time performance is a result of running the trains better. It’s far from perfect, but it’s much closer to the performance New Yorkers became accustomed in the late 2000s and early 2010s, probably the single best era for subway riders in the city’s history when balancing operational efficiency and creature comforts. As long as Andy Byford remains in charge, I expect those improvements to continue.

I also wrote many articles about the Project Formerly Known As the L Shutdown. Repairs are still happening, but the (minimal) service issues resulting from the new plan—as well as potential long-term ramifications—are not the same as the ones I covered as a full-time subway reporter.

Yes, The Great Slowdown is over, but a new era of the MTA is beginning. It is one where Andy Byford is no longer the face of MTA reform as he was for much of 2018, thanks to what appears to be a deliberate effort from Albany to supplant his achievements with the efforts launched by Governor Cuomo. Pat Foye has taken over the MTA, giving the authority a full-time leader for the first time since I’ve been reporting on it. The board has experienced significant turnover. It is still very much the MTA, but a slightly different one.

What will this new era bring? So far, it has been replete with promises of reform, including the passage of congestion pricing. If all goes according to plan, this will provide sustainable funding for the MTA so whether the MTA receives checks is no longer subject to Albany's whims.

Some of these so-called reforms, however, are already having a deleterious impact. The MTA is running the risk of missing out on a generation of young, passionate employees. A number of my sources, or coworkers of those sources—people I generally believe to be smart, capable individuals that wanted to help make NYCT a better organization—have left for other jobs, fed up with an authority hamstrung by an asinine hiring freeze that was never formally announced or instituted in any transparent way. Further, they perceive Governor Cuomo’s constant interventions as undermining their efforts rather than aiding them, a dynamic exacerbated by his frequent childish ridiculing of the very authority he controls. Another cohort of young, eager potential employees can’t get hired at all, because of either Kafkaesque HR hoops or the aforementioned hiring freeze.

Not only is a hiring freeze a clumsy tool for addressing bloat—it requires no actual reckoning with where the bloat is and how it became thus—it plugs the talent pipeline, meaning in five, ten, or 15 years’ time, it will be harder to find the next generation of capable transit employees to make the leap to a management position. This problem has the potential to evolve into a crisis as each agency—particularly Metro North, but certainly not exclusive to them—faces a glut of retirements in the coming years. Cuomo may be winning the battle about changing the way the MTA operates, but by scaring away the most talented and dedicated young employees, he’s losing the war.

In addition, none of the reform efforts enacted to date have seriously addressed the biggest drivers of the MTA’s bloated expenses. Until the very recent hullabaloo around LIRR overtime expenses—to call it the MTA’s worst kept secret would demonstrate a profound misunderstanding of the concept of a secret—not a peep had been made from the current administration about reforming labor costs, including health and pensions. Health care and pensions combined account for more than 20 percent of the authority’s annual budget, which like many aspects of American health care can be rationalized without noteworthy cuts to the actual benefits employees or retirees receive.

I have zero expectation these problems will be addressed, as the union and the current administration sing each others praises weeks before their contract expires. This, along with the MTA’s debt load of approximately 16 percent of its annual operating budget, leaves the authority vulnerable in the case of a recession, something three-quarters of economists believe will happen by 2021.

On the construction front, reducing costs to merely “very expensive” and timelines to merely “very slow” would be a triumph. Promises have been made. This is not the first time. Should those promises be kept, that would indeed be a first. Early signs are not encouraging; the Second Avenue Subway Phase II, up to 125th St and Lexington, is slated to eclipse the Second Avenue Subway Phase I as the most expensive subway per mile on Earth.

Which is all to say, the next era of the MTA will likely consist of permutations of familiar problems. Readers of Signal Problems, and all New Yorkers, deserve diligent watchdogs holding all responsible parties accountable.

The single biggest reason I am shutting down Signal Problems is because I can no longer be that. Hopefully, someone else can.

For all the little factoids about the subway I’ve accumulated over the time I’ve written this newsletter, the most important lesson I’ve learned has been just how complacent we all were about the goop of inefficiencies at nearly every level of the MTA before they coagulated into a viscid bureaucratic molasses. It is my sincere hope that the MTA, state and local politicians, journalists, activists, and we, the riding public, do not make the same mistake again. Otherwise, we’ll be back in crisis before we know it. We built the vast majority of this epic wonder that sustains our city in a mere 40 years. What will the next 40 years bring?

I always struggle to articulate the subway’s importance without veering into hyperbole. But after staring at the track map for so long, I realized the map does that better than any words of mine could. Instead of the subway being the city’s hidden arteries and veins, the layers are flipped. The empty white spaces appear barren. The gray airports are insufficiently linked to life, like a comatose patient desperately needing a feeding tube.

Between it all, the lines and connections, the depots and abandoned tracks, is a story of a city, a great city that has become less great in large part because its commitment to this tremendous system has wavered. That commitment cannot be measured merely in dollars. It must also be measured in our determination to wrestle with the forces of selfishness, greed, and thirst for power that have long perceived the subway as a mere bargaining chip. It is a commitment that speaks to the very essence of who we are and what we, as a city, want to be.

To be sure, this would be a break from our past. It is also very much in contrast with the current political moment, where the glorification of unabashed, naked selfishness is the grand unifying trait of modern American society. But if New York is truly as exceptional as many of its most fervent boosters believe it to be, the Greatest City In The World™, then we ought to be up for the challenge. Whether that task yields success, failure, or the vast dark tunnels in between those two terminals, I’ll be following along, hoping for the best.

Finally, I have a parting gift for you, my dear, dear Signal Problems readers.

I received pictures of dogs in bags on the subway at a far higher rate than I could publish them. Sometimes, I would receive these photos during difficult days. But every time I got one, I couldn’t help but smile. The randomness with which I would receive these glorious treats made me realize that, at any given moment, there is probably a dog in a bag on the subway. Therefore, there is always something to smile about.

So, as a small token of my appreciation for all the wonderful support you have provided during such a difficult yet fruitful time in my career, here are 152 dogs in bags, including dozens that I never got around to publishing and all of the ones I did publish. May they be a source of joy and comfort during the longest of delays.

Speedy travels,

Aaron Gordon

Exit Interview Mailbag, Part II: Reporting, Newslettering, and...Running for Office?

Welcome to Part II of the Signal Problems Exit Interview Mailbag. Today we’ll focus on non-transit stuff such as the newsletter itself, journalism in general, questions about me, etc. Part I, which was about transit stuff, can be found here.

The next and final edition of Signal Problems will be a sendoff column. Annual paid subscribers will receive a pro-rated refund as of that date.

Now, to your questions.

I'm interested in the business model of an email subscription service like yours and how you were able (or not) to make it profitable? Your good reporting attracted loyal readers and I'm curious what your open rate was on your newsletter? Why did you decide to fold the newsletter and go the full-time journalist-for-a-publication instead of putting all your eggs in the basket of the newsletter you built from scratch? Was it a business decision? Something else? -Sam Steinberger

I understandably got a lot of questions about my decision to shut down the newsletter and take a full-time job, especially for a site where I won’t be covering the subway very often.

The only specific metric I’ll give about the newsletter is the open rate: about 60 percent. I did not make a full-time wage from the newsletter. It’s possible I could have gotten close to one by the end of the year, but I had my doubts, and this obviously didn’t include health insurance.

I still needed to supplement my income with sponsored content work (which I did for the entirety of my time reporting on the subway to make end’s meet). Even before I tried to balance the newsletter with a full-time job, I was regularly pulling 6.5 day weeks between my newsletter/freelance duties and my sponcon work. It’s nice to be your own boss, but it’s not as nice if you’re always both yourself and your own boss. I missed just being myself. I was having fun but also risking burnout.

That being said, the biggest reason I took the job at Jalopnik is because I wanted it. I’ll have more resources to do bigger, more expansive reporting than I could on my own about topics that interest me (here’s an example). Moreover, I enjoy working in diverse editorial environments. Editors make me a much better journalist and writer, something I didn’t have with the newsletter. And I prefer—demand, even—to work with people with very different backgrounds and perspectives. I know it makes my work better, and I hope I can help make theirs better, too.

I suspect in the months to come readers who keep following my work will see quite clearly why I made this decision if they don’t already.

What do you think it takes to have a strong reporting apparatus covering public transit? Reporters' interest and knowledge? Institutional and/or public support? Something else? -Ian Thistle

At the Village Voice, I had an incredibly supportive editor in Neil deMause who embraced my hunger to get into the weeds. As I explained on the Second Ave Sagas podcast, when I told Neil I might have had a story about signal timers, his first question was “what the heck are those?” but his second question was “how much time do you need?” And when I asked for more money so I could focus on this story alone for a couple months—enough to cover about half my rent during the time I worked on the story—he got it for me.

I have a whole notebook filled with stories I wanted to pursue but needed time and money to do. It became increasingly clear to me the local freelance news landscape provided neither, especially with the Voice gone.

With the newsletter, I was very much intentionally trying to do something different than other local transit reporters were. No paper in town would dedicate as much space to MTA history/minutiae as I did, which admittedly has a limited audience. But passionate and loyal readerships, even limited ones, are tremendously undervalued in today’s media landscape largely obsessed with scale.

One of the great tragedies of local reporting in this city is how little hard-core investigative reporting power is directed at the MTA. After close to a year investigating the authority, the New York Times came away with three transformative articles on the agency that completely shifted the public conversation, including Brian Rosenthal’s tour de force on subway construction costs. Every single editor and reporter in the city knows—I hope—there’s fertile ground left on that front. I suspect some combination of budgetary pressures, the need for investigative powers elsewhere in the Trump era, and concern about the clickability of the fruits of that labor combine to largely make such a proposal a non-starter.

But I believe we’re the worse for it. The MTA is the state’s largest authority, employs more than 70,000 people, and spends more than $16 billion a year in operating costs (not to mention the billions spent annually on capital expenditures). There are 19 states with smaller budgets than that. And yet, most newsrooms don’t even have one dedicated MTA reporter. Transit reporters have to split their time between the MTA, roads, bikes, taxis, for-hire vehicles, and so on.

What would it take for a local news organization to dedicate a reporter full-time to the MTA, or sic an investigative team on the agency for more than a one-time special assignment in the wake of a crisis? I can’t say. I don’t work for those places. But I hope someone does it before the next crisis.

Aside from the institutional support required to pay for such reporting, there is something else that is required, something fundamental that reporters and editors alike must share. The best summation of this I have found is from Adam Hochschild’s recent book on the foreigners who went to fight in and cover the Spanish Civil War.

It is listed in the index under “journalism, herd behavior of reporters”:

The news a correspondent reports under such circumstances is greatly influenced by what others are reporting. Every journalist on assignment has had the experience of receiving anxious messages from the home office saying that a rival newspaper or network has reported this or that, and why haven’t we heard anything about it from you? These days such queries come by email or text message; back then they came by telegram. And wherever journalists keep a close eye on what their colleagues are reporting, an Authorized Version of events tends to develop. It takes an usually independent, contrarian spirit to see things differently.

I instantly recognized this as a trap into which I have fallen many times. Hochschild doesn’t condemn reporters for succumbing to this herd mentality, but merely observes it is the natural course of things (no coincidence two of the most thorough debunkings of the “overcrowding” myth of delays came from an editor at my new employer who was a few years ahead of the curve and an investigative team at the New York Times, neither of whom regularly cover the MTA). Adhering to orthodoxy is the path of least resistance for what is ultimately a risk-averse industry.

It’s not just a war zone phenomenon. A colleague of mine once used the term “false hustle” to describe reporters who constantly dash between press conferences organized by politicians or activist groups about which they will surely issue press releases later. When I had the luxury of choosing what I covered, this became my rule of thumb: am I going to cover something because I expect to learn? Or because it’s false hustle?

To be fair, I rarely had that luxury. Nor do other reporters who have constant content demands to satiate. Again, it’s not anyone’s fault. It’s systemic. It’s the new natural course of things.

For my part, the easiest assignments I ever got, and the easiest money I made on the beat, was to write a slightly different version of the same story everyone else was writing. In fact, I don’t know how I could have paid the bills without those stories. But I don’t for a second believe they produced anything of lasting value. Add up all the time I spent on those stories and the money outlets paid for them and I probably could have crossed one or two items off that ideas list.

I do not pretend to know very much about how to be a good journalist, and almost everything I do know is advice someone else has graciously imparted. But the lesson from my time reporting on the MTA I will hold closest is that I will never differentiate myself, or indeed produce anything of value, by following everyone else’s lead. The best reporting is done by asking questions no one else is asking, talking to the people nobody else is talking to, going where nobody else is heading. And that doesn’t happen by following the pack.

How surprised are you at the great reception to Signal Problems from riders, transportation officials and public officials, and what have you learned about the riders of New York City's transit system in the course of your work? -Shaul Picker

I distinctly remember launching Signal Problems with the very concrete goal of getting 1,000 subscribers and solid open rates. I thought, if I was asked to speak to a group and several hundred people showed up, I’d be thrilled, so a similar goal for the newsletter seemed right to me. I am now at many, many multiples of that, with an open rate that has remained consistently high since the first edition. And that was without spending a single cent on marketing, advertising, or really putting any thought into promotion at all. The growth came entirely from you all sharing it with others. I never dared contemplate it would become this.

I created something that people of many walks of life valued, from the very tippie top of the MTA hierarchy to the rank and file, from transit enthusiasts to regular riders who don’t know what the IRT or BMT are. It’s something about which I am still surprised, but immensely proud of. I will think fondly of Signal Problems for the rest of my life.

About the riders themselves, I hesitate to generalize. Subway riders truly do represent an accurate cross-section of New Yorkers in general, a statistic few other American transportation systems can boast. This chart from a City Comptroller report has always stuck with me, both in terms of what it says about subway ridership relative to the city at large, and also what it says about bus ridership, which does not represent the city as a whole:

Readers of Signal Problems, I suspect, are exceptional in their desire to know more about how the transit system works, but I must admit I don’t think many New Yorkers share that sentiment. A lot of times when I went out to do interviews on subway platforms or bus stops for articles, people bitched and moaned about the state of transportation, but almost took pleasure in their degree of ignorance about who runs it or why it often falls short of expectations.

Getting them to that next place, a place of knowledge about why things are the way they are and how to make them better, can be a challenge. It’s perfectly understandable, but our convoluted governance structure makes it hard to get people invested. As Yonah Freemark pointed out in our Q&A, a lot of people still think the mayor controls the subways.

One of my favorite Simpsons lines is when Homer tells Lisa, “the whole reason we have elected officials is so we don’t have to think all the time.” Indeed, there are a lot of Homer Simpsons out there. Most people don’t want to think about transit, how it works, how it doesn’t, and how to fix it. Or, more precisely, they don’t have the time and energy to invest in all that, considering how little they can do personally to improve it.

The whole reason we have elected officials is so we can vote them out if they’re doing a shitty job and replace them with someone who will probably do an equally shitty job but in a slightly different way. Because the MTA’s governance structure is so convoluted, people don’t even know who to vote out. So people complain but otherwise pretty much go on with their lives, chalking it up to one more thing they can’t do anything about.

Does your knowledge of the transit beat ever give you a redpill effect? I mean I hate that term for obvious reasons, yet when I’m out in the world I’m surprised by how many people who are affected by transit on a daily basis can’t be bothered to understand why. How did covering transit change the way you discussed it with people on your immediate social circle? -Jason Stahl

I definitely view cities differently now than I did prior to working on this beat. I notice different things: buses stuck in traffic, poorly-designed bike lanes, intersections where pedestrians spill into the street because there isn’t enough space on the sidewalk, large splotches of unused concrete that could be repurposed. The city, every city, is a different place for me than it was two years ago.

As far as discussing transit with my immediate social circle, I didn’t conscientiously change anything, but as with most things my work seeped into our conversations. Some began to use me as a personal subway concierge. But most did that polite friend thing where they let me rant while they zoned out. On that note, Mrs. Signal Problems deserves the highest Signal Problems honor, the Dog in a Bag Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Putting Up With My Rants.

I’m wondering if you could recommend any good books on the history of the subways, and transit in general in New York. Thanks! -Will Flemer

Here’s an incomplete list of books (and one website) I found invaluable covering NYC transportation:

Specifically NYC:

  • 722 Miles, by Clifton Hood: Probably the best primer on the history of the subway’s construction up through municipal control in the 1950s.

  • NYCsubway.org is not a book but it’s as thorough a resource on the subway as there is.

  • The Power Broker, by Robert Caro: Read the whole thing. Yes, the whole thing. Several times.

  • Fear City, Kim Phillips-Fein: Not exclusively about transportation but you’ll learn a lot about the boom-and-bust cycle of NYC funding and the city’s history in general, which I think is important. Transportation doesn’t operate in isolation.

  • City of Dreams, Tyler Anbinder: Not really about transportation either, but you can’t understand New York without understanding its immigrants, and no book does a better job of that.

  • Politics Across the Hudson, Philip Blotch: the story of the Tappan Zee Bridge repair/replacement efforts. A lot of familiar names/faces/concepts to readers of this newsletter, and an absurdist study into Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.

Books in which you’ll learn about NYC as well as other places:

  • Downtown, Robert Fogelson: densely packed with insight into the trends that shaped the American downtown in the late 19th/early 20th Century.

  • White Flight, Kevin Kruse: This book is about Atlanta, specifically, but it is about America, generally, and you probably cannot understand public transportation in this country without grappling with this subject.

  • Trains, Buses, People, Christof Spieler: More of a reference material but packed with invaluable facts about the country’s transit systems that I find myself using constantly.

What do you like most about the MTA? What's the MTA best at? (No sarcasm allowed) -Jon Weinstein

The former MTA communications director’s dream comes true: he finally gets to make me write something positive about the MTA.

The MTA is an exemplary organization when it comes to disaster response. Few transit agencies in the world can mobilize and restore critical service as quickly and effectively as the MTA has done, whether it’s for 9/11, Sandy, etc. In the event of an unexpected external crisis, I have maximum faith the MTA will handle it about as well as humanly possible.

Also the MTA Arts & Design program rules.

Do you have any thoughts about running for local office? -Irene Bunnell

This is the only question I got that made me laugh out loud.

Campaigning would drive me insane. I hate asking people for money. I am far too grumpy and pessimistic to be a politician. Constituents or journalists would ask me “What are you going to do about [Incredibly Complex Issue X]?” and I would answer, “Honestly, it doesn’t matter who you vote for, none of us can do anything about that, it’s a gross systemic issue there isn’t nearly enough political will to address…” and on and on I would go and I would receive zero votes.

Will the body of historical SP content still be available online? -Max Zinner

Yes, for the time being it will live at substack.signalproblems.com/archive (same place it has always been). I’ve also removed the paywall from all the paid editions, so everything I’ve ever published is now free to read. I have everything backed up as well, and if it ever changes location I will do my best to get the word out.

What will you miss most about Signal Problems? -DJ Bagley

Random strangers emailing me pictures of dogs in bags.

Speaking of, stay tuned for a special parting gift next week…

Exit Interview Mailbag, Part I: Transit

Welcome to Part I of the Signal Problems Exit Interview Mailbag. Today we’ll focus on transit-related questions. Part II will be about non-transit stuff such as the newsletter itself, journalism in general, questions about me, etc. And then after Part II, there will be a final sendoff.

The Signal Problems Farewell Tour continued last week, with stops at Caveat’s highly educational and entertaining Why Your Train Is F*cked live show, plus a great conversation with Second Ave Sagas on his new podcast.

Now, to your questions.

I renew my request for an update on when the subways will get better. -Pat Foye

For newer subscribers who may not know what Mr. Foye is referring to here, the newsletter used to have a section titled “In Which I Make An Educated Guess About When Things Will Get Better.” But I discontinued the section in February because, as I explained then:

I’m simultaneously becoming more optimistic about the short term and pessimistic about the long term. I can’t figure out how to balance those two outlooks into one prediction. So you know what? I’m going to stop trying to predict the future, because there’s plenty to keep me occupied in the present.

This is how I still feel today, but for the sake of entertainment, I’ll try and predict the future.

But first, let’s talk about the present. The subway has gotten better. Anyone paying even a little bit of attention must have noticed this by now. I have argued the reason for this is largely due to Andy Byford’s Save Safe Seconds efforts, not the $836 million Subway Action Plan, perhaps along the lines of 85 percent Byford’s campaign and 15 percent the SAP.

So if the question is “when will the subway get me to work reliably?” the answer is: we’re pretty much there. We have come a long, long way since the summer of 2017.

But if the question is “when will the subway function like a world-class metro system?” then that answer depends largely on what comes next. What will be in the next capital plan, which should be released this year? Will Andy Byford get to do the re-signaling he and his signals lieutenant, Pete Tomlin, were brought in to do? If they do get the money, can they pull off the very aggressive timeline (or stick around long enough to do so)?

Personally, I’m not holding my breath that NYCT will be transformed into a world-class transit agency any time soon. I believe the Governor does not have the leadership disposition to permit that. He is a superb political strategist, but that is a different skill set.

But this isn’t just on Cuomo. The New York City subway has not been a global leader for well over a half-century, and probably even longer. Certainly never in the MTA era. So this leads me to further weight against the possibility, as it seems to be structurally difficult for the MTA to do anything other than seesaw between crisis and complacency.

I am a pessimist, so weight this prediction accordingly. But I’ve seen little evidence thus far of long-term reform efforts that will truly flip the dynamics at the MTA, resulting in a better, more efficient organization. To borrow a term from Alon Levy, I see lots of prudence theater.

But please, Mr. Foye, prove me wrong. I would love to be proven wrong on this one.

New York City seems to have a whole cottage industry surrounding its transit system (including dedicated media, advocacy groups, whatever else). For those of us based in smaller cities that might not have the same dedicated coverage, what is the best way to keep abreast of local transit issues? Is it simply to go sit in on council meetings? -Ryan Murtha

I’m not the best person to answer this, as I’ve lived in big metro areas my entire adult life.

A good first step is set up a bunch of Google Alerts for basic terms like “[your city] transportation] or “[your city] bus” or whatever. This ought to clue you into who is writing about it and help you follow whatever is out there.

Do check your local papers, though. They ought to be doing some coverage of transit issues. And if they’re not covering it as much as you’d like, it never hurts to write a (nice!) note letting them know that is a subject you’d be more than happy to pay for.

Also, look to see if there are any local transit advocacy groups you can join. There might not be any. If so, maybe you can start one. Perhaps there’s nothing so formal as an advocacy group, but perhaps there’s a Facebook Group or something.

I wouldn’t advise sitting in on local government meetings. It is a very time-consuming task and not realistic for many people who have jobs. Further, in my experience, local government meetings are not a good way to learn anything about your transit system, but it is a good way to learn about the popular misconceptions about your transit system from people who don’t actually use it. If you do have the time and disposition to do this, though, consider writing about it; if not for the local paper, then for your own project.

Finally, look for independent writers with blogs or…ahem…newsletters. Transit is something lots of people are deeply passionate about. I’ve been pleasantly surprised as the vibrant, knowledgeable community that exists on these topics.

I've been working on a multimedia project about how people with disabilities utilize public transit. I was curious if you ever see the MTA getting its act together in regards to providing more ADA service/updating elevators/etc? -Jason Bergman

We’ll see, when the next capital plan comes out this year, how much is dedicated to accessibility issues.

I’m cautiously optimistic the MTA will stick to some form of their 50 more accessible stations promise (whether it will be stations or station complexes, something I discussed in my interview with Jessica Murray, is another matter). Not because I think the MTA suddenly cares—although I do think advocates have done a laudable job getting them to—but there are serious legal risks in avoiding the issue much longer.

Nevertheless, they absolutely must find a way to install elevators more cost-effectively and maintain them better. If history is any guide, accessibility initiatives get the axe whenever there are budgetary pressures. $30-60 million per station (or, in some cases, even more) will put the MTA in an untenable position, budget-wise, to install all the ADA infrastructure it needs. Relying on public-private partnerships won’t cut it, because it’s difficult to uphold elevator reliability standards when the MTA doesn’t own them.

What if anything have you seen being done by the MTA about climate change? It seems like everything is just to maybe keep things running at a minimum level. Are there any thoughts toward these coming problems? Are they maybe doing more planning compared to some other agencies? -Jason Phillips

The MTA is actually doing a fair bit on this front. I haven’t done much reporting on this subject, but my impression is Hurricane Sandy was a big wake-up call, since the MTA had to spend far more money (although much of that money comes from the Feds) repairing damage from Sandy—it’s still not done yet—than what it would cost to prevent damage in the first place.

To that end, here’s an MTA resiliency report from 2016 and my former Village Voice colleague Neil deMause’s feature on the subject from that same year. The MTA also has a (buried) web page on resiliency efforts, but I can’t tell when it was last updated. I think it was launched in conjunction with the resiliency report. Further, there’s a section in the Fast Forward plan about resiliency.

To Jason’s point, it’s definitely true this issue hasn’t been brought up much in recent years as the focus has understandably shifted to more urgent matters. But many of the projects to address these resiliency issues were funded in the last capital plan, so they wouldn’t have been affected by this. That work is still quietly being done. The question is if this will have any impact on how funding is allocated in the next capital plan. It’s something to keep an eye on for sure.

What policy initiative or statutory change could help avoid or mitigate cycles of investment followed by underinvestment on a national basis? -Pat Foye

Unfortunately, we live in one of the few developed countries where a major political party simply doesn’t believe the government should be a involved in public transit but should be funding highway infrastructure and keeping gas prices low. In fact, Republicans often view funding public transit projects as a form of social welfare, which they oppose as a matter of course. These boom and bust cycles seem to me roughly correlated to which party is in power, so the question is more about how to create consistent national priorities that survive from party to party. I don’t have the answer to that.

There are all types of proposals to maintain more consistent funding for public transit—make it a regulated public utility, empower real estate arms of transit agencies to develop more, raise the gas tax and direct a chunk of the revenue to transit, etc. etc.—but every idea runs into the problem of how to convince the party that caters to rural voters—and are therefore fundamentally uninterested in public transit—that it should view urban/suburban transit as anything other than social welfare, or, alternately, a handout to urban elites (political arguments from the same party don’t have to be intellectually consistent). I don’t have a good answer.

What was the most interesting thing you discovered about the subway while writing for Signal Problems? -John Brady

Most of the interesting insights I’ve gleaned in my time reporting on the subway have not been any of the individual puzzle pieces I’ve put into place, but rather the picture all those pieces form. Reporting on the MTA is like reporting on a small city. You learn a little something about how that city works, but it is rarely interesting in isolation. Only in larger context does it gain meaning.

In that way, everything I learned about the signal timers immediately comes to mind. I remember seeing the subway performance reports provided to me for the first time—documents that had been regularly provided to upper-middle management for years and were later made public in the appendices of a City Comptroller report—and being aghast at what a clear a picture they painted, one entirely different from the narrative the public had been told for years. It took no more than five minutes of casually flipping through the charts to see everything we had been told was wrong. And that was the key to unlocking the timers story.

A more subway-trivia choice would be that there is a good reason for the D/F swap that happens some nights/weekends in Manhattan:

There's track work on the D line between 59th and Rockefeller Center. Because of this, the D has to run south via the 8th Ave line. After West 4th, it can switch back to the 6th Ave line. However, the link from the 8th Ave line to the 6th Ave line and vice versa only connects the local tracks of each line. There's no way for a southbound 6th Ave local train to switch to the express track south of the merge with the 8th Ave line. So the D is forced to stay on the 6th Ave local, which leads to the F line. There's no way to get back to the D line. So they're forced to send the D's via the F, so the F's are rerouted via the D to fill in.

It’s a good example of a time when, to a casual observer, the MTA is doing something that makes no sense and seems patently silly. Whenever this service advisory is in effect, I see people constantly dragging the MTA on Twitter for it. But there’s actually a very good reason.

I spent the better part of two years writing about all the ways the MTA was screwing up. I certainly am so stranger to criticizing them. But, they do know what they’re doing sometimes.

Loading more posts…