One last final last plug

Come join me over at Urbababble!

Hello my dear Signal Problems readers!

I hope everyone is…well, I hope everyone is. Merely being present feels like an accomplishment these days. I’ve been doing my best to enjoy the snow here in the city—I love a good snowy winter—and read as many great books about transportation and urban history as I can. I hope you have found new hobbies during these hard times to keep you going or rekindled passion for an old one. I’m always looking for new things to try so if you have any suggestions let me know.

I’m writing today for two reasons. First, to say hi. Hi!

Second, this is the last email you’re going to receive from Signal Problems. No huge news here as the newsletter’s been shuttered for a while. But I’m launching a new newsletter so people can easily keep up with my work, especially my bigger features I think are important and people should read. It’s called Urbababble and you can read about the details here.

In short, Twitter sucks for sharing my work with the people who want to read it most, so I’ve set this up to do that. Unlike Signal Problems’ weekly 3,000+ word diatribes, Urbababble will be shorter, less of a time investment for all involved, and more to the point. I only plan on sending a few emails per month. But every once in a while I might provide an update on what I’ve been reading and some other transportation-related thoughts. First and foremost, it will be chill, because the last thing we need is another Very Important Newsletter.

If this sounds like something you might like, head on over to urbababble.com or just click here to sign up.

Thanks for your support as always. Hope to see you over at Urbababble.

Take care,

Aaron

Introducing My Next Newsletter: The Mail

It's Signal Problems, but for the post office.

Hello my dear Signal Problems readers!

It has been a long time since I last wrote to you. To be honest, it hasn’t felt that long to me, because every month or so I spend all weekend writing roughly 5,000 words about everything that has happened, is happening, and continues to happen in New York City only to find I have nothing useful to say other than it has been a terrible awful no good year which you already know. So I end up sending nothing.

But, I’m writing today with two pieces of news.

First, if you follow me on Twitter, you may have noticed that, through a convoluted set of circumstances, I now write about the United States Postal Service. This might sound like a strange pivot, but it’s a similar beat to the MTA. Both are struggling quasi-governmental bureaucracies with broken finances. Both serve indisputably vital roles in our society. Both have largely unionized workforces with complex relationships between management and labor. Both are largely ignored by elected officials until there’s a problem, at which point they are subject to non-sensical “reforms” that are more likely to exacerbate issues than solve them. And understanding both organizations, their histories, and how they got to where they are today is critical to understanding our society as a whole.

Because the two agencies are so similar, it became clear to me a couple of months ago that I should cover them in a similar way. Luckily, my bosses agreed.

Subscribe to The Mail

So, it is with great excitement I’m announcing my next newsletter: The Mail, a weekly pop-up newsletter running through the end of November about the United States Postal Service, election security, and the fight over the future of the post office. I would tell you more about what the newsletter will be like, but the short answer is: it will be Signal Problems, but for the post office.

The main newsletter itself is free, but we're going to have a paid tier as well ($8 per month). Since we're writing about, well, the mail, we're going to be making three printed zines (one a month) that we'll mail out to paying subscribers. The zines will be put together by the entire Motherboard staff, and will focus on digital security, hacking, internet ephemera, labor, and will generally be intended to inform and delight. Paid subscribers will also get access to extra digital updates and posts while we're running the newsletter.

I am not automatically signing anyone up for The Mail, because that would be slimy and lame. So you have to head on over to The Mail to subscribe. We’re partnering with Substack for the newsletter, so subscribing will be very easy. If you liked Signal Problems, I’m confident you’ll like The Mail, too.

Subscribe to The Mail

The second bit of exciting news: I redesigned my old, bad personal website to be a new, better website, including a much improved Dog In A Bag Photo Gallery experience. This has been a long time coming, and I think we can agree the world is missing dogs in bags right about now. I know I am.

All the best,

Aaron Gordon

Do You Work For A Transit Agency?

I want to hear from you.

Hi my dear Signal Problems readers. I hope you’re doing as well as possible under the current circumstances. First, a quick note of thanks for everyone who read and shared my article on why the US sucks at building public transit for VICE last week. I put a ton of work into it, and even with the coronavirus shit hitting the fan, the article was the most read on the VICE network for that day by what I am told was a wide margin. It reinforced my belief that this is a subject people care about and it’s worth taking the time to do thoughtful, comprehensive reporting around it, a belief that Signal Problems was instrumental in instilling. So thank you all again for your continued support.

Today’s note is a quick one. I know I have a lot of subscribers who work for public transit agencies around the country. There is so much changing all the time, and as a reporter all I can do is help document it. So, I want to hear from you about how the coronavirus and these unprecedented times are impacting you.

Obviously, plummeting ridership and the accompanying financial loss is the big one, and it’s something I’ve written a little bit about. But I want to hear how your day-to-day work life has been impacted, what challenges you face, and anything else you think I should know. Please email me at aaron.gordon@vice.com.

I know many employees at public agencies cannot speak to the press without authorization and can be punished for doing so. In that case, if you wish to remain anonymous, that’s fine. But please do the following to both protect your identity and aid the reporting process:

  • Do NOT email me from your work address. Send it from a private email account and a non-work device

  • Clearly state you wish to remain anonymous in the email

  • Provide some proof you work for the agency in question for editorial fact-checking purposes only (a photo of your business card or work ID is fine; if you’re not comfortable with those, let me know and we can figure something else out)

Also, if you are in some other line of work but have something you think a reporter should know about how coronavirus is impacting you, that’s fine too! I may not be the right reporter to do the story, but I can help you find one.

As someone in a stalled Q train once told me, we’re all in this together.

Stay well,

Aaron

The Follow Through

Why Andy Byford meant more to New York than just running the trains well.

I decided to hold off on writing about Byford’s departure until I finished a related feature I’ve been working on. That feature, which got published on Monday, is about why the U.S. sucks at building public transit. I suspect it will be of interest to you all.

That question is something I have been thinking about for a very long time, at least since I started writing about public transit almost three years ago. It’s also one I have been researching intensely, mostly outside of work, for a long time. The catalyst was my appearance on Chris Hayes’s podcast, when we discussed the importance of not only agreeing that robust public services are worthwhile endeavors, not merely funding them adequately, but also executing them well. And that comes down to people. As transit historian George Smerk wrote in his indispensable history on American mass transportation, laws are a bit like a golf swing, in that they’re only as good as the follow through. Words on a piece of paper don’t make a difference. People do.

New York’s golf game, to continue the metaphor, has been inconsistent at best. Lots of two-under-pars followed by double bogeys type stuff. The steady decline through the 1970s and trough of the early 1980s was followed by the relative highs of the 2000s and early 2010s. The rapid decline of the mid-2010s was followed by the subsequent rapid improvement of 2018.

But there was hope, cautious hope, that this unpleasant cycle could be disrupted. Because words on paper don’t make a difference. People do. And suddenly, in 2018, there was a person who believed, very publicly, that he could make a difference.

From Andy Byford’s first days, it was perhaps not clear he would make a difference when up against the formidable forces of the MTA bureaucracy and a notoriously meddling governor. But it was very obvious he was different. In his second month, he proclaimed “overcrowding” delays—an excuse the MTA had manufactured to blame subway riders for the deteriorating service and cast the agency itself as, in their favorite phrase, “a victim of our own success”—erroneous, something transit observers had been arguing for years to no avail. It took Byford less than 60 days to cease the years-long gaslighting and do what no one else at the MTA seemingly had the courage to do: tell the truth.

Other New Yorkers who do not watch MTA board meetings experienced Byford’s competence at their own pace. The New Yorker profile helped. Over time, as more people shared stories of running into Byford at bars and restaurants when he invited people to sit down and chat or graciously took the time to talk about train service with anyone who asked, he had something even better than follow through. He had passion for his work, for this city, a passion that matched the passion a lot of us have for it, too.

Passion is one thing, results are another. And Byford delivered them. Subway service undeniably improved during his time. Some of that was due to schedule adjustments that gave trains more running time. The $836 million Subway Action Plan may have helped. I have had many an honest debate with various folks about to what degree each of those factors is responsible for the subway’s improvements. I believe Byford deserves the most credit of any single person for those real accomplishments.

And that doesn’t take into account the equally obvious improvements in other areas like customer service. Back when I first started reporting on the subway, I could identify delays via Twitter half an hour before official service advisories went out. That never happens anymore. Sarah Meyer, the chief customer officer at Transit, led this renaissance. But it’s no accident this happened under Byford, who made customer service his priority from day one.

All of this is to say, Andy Byford was damned competent, and he empowered competent people to do competent things. Architecture critic Alexandra Lange brought to my attention a phrase that perfectly encapsulates Byford’s time in Transit.

Andy Byford was competence porn.

As Michaella A. Thornton explains, “competence porn”—a phrase coined by TV critic John Rogers— “addresses the innate pleasure some of us derive from watching truly exceptional people do things impressively.” There’s a whole rabbit hole to go down here that as far as I can tell involves a lot of romance novels and gender bias, but the upshot is a certain type of person really enjoys being exposed to people who are damn good at their jobs. These tend to be people who are obsessed with efficiency and accomplishment. This is right in the public transit wheelhouse; by this definition, trains themselves are a kind of competence porn.

Further, competence porn is especially potent when coming from the exact opposite (incompetence torture?). The plumber who fixes your broken sink in five minutes seems extra impressive when the previous guy worked for two hours, charged you $500, and only made it worse. And boy, does New York have a lot of bad plumbers.

Along these lines, I cannot disentangle Byford’s reputation from the era in which he operated. When it comes to elected officials or those appointed by them, we’re not exactly surrounded by competence these days.

This is, in large part, why I think Byford was so widely admired. He was, above all else, good at his job and carried himself with dignity at a time where it is exceedingly rare for high profile public servants to do so. I’ve talked to dozens of people who worked closely with him, and the picture they paint is the same. He didn’t lie. He didn’t shout at people. He treated everyone, and especially his subordinates, with respect. He tried to get people to care about their jobs, and about this city’s transit system, as much as he did. And he tried to convey the message that they are public servants and that means something, something important, and it’s not only permissible to believe things can be better but it is dignified to dedicate yourself to achieving that. It’s OK to be bothered by trash in the subway, but only if you pick it up. It’s normal to want to fix what’s broken, but only if you get to work fixing it. It’s good to care about something other than yourself, but not to blame others for mistakes. It’s the stuff you are taught in kindergarten but that’s forgotten sometime around your second political campaign.

I’ll miss the Byford era for many reasons. Partly, it’s because it largely overlapped with my time reporting on the MTA, so I will remember it fondly out of nostalgia for a beat I enjoyed. But more importantly, it was the first time I experienced something in a public servant I’ve never experienced before: trust.

Trust is something sorely lacking from our city’s transportation landscape, in both small and profound ways. For example, NYCT put out a plan to redesign the Queens bus network that seemingly everyone hates (even though it’s not that bad). When I talk to my MTA sources on this, they lament that they held dozens of meetings in the Queens community and with politicians before putting out the redesign and didn’t hear a peep about any concerns then. A refrain I heard a lot was that politicians sent some underling who spent the entire meeting on their phones. Only once constituents started complaining did the MTA lose all support from local officials.

But when I ask my sources in Queens politician offices, they say the MTA never had any intention of listening to them. They showed up with their own plan and that was going to be that. They felt like props to demonstrate “community input” when, to their minds, the MTA never had any intention of listening.

What was sorely missing from this process was trust, a good faith effort on both sides to take the other at face value. From what I’ve heard, both sides went in skeptical of the other’s intentions and the end result became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Unfortunately, Queens bus riders will suffer as a result.

In his two years, Byford did more than anyone else has in decades to restore some semblance of trust in the MTA. As the Queens bus redesign demonstrates, there’s still a tremendous gap, and his departure will likely widen it. But he went to hundreds of community meetings about Fast Forward, the L shutdown and bus redesigns. When he was there, he said “hold me accountable.” He didn’t say “the board runs NYCT, not me.” He didn’t say “we’re a victim of our own success.” He said “hold me accountable.” That goes a long way towards building trust.

In my feature on why the U.S. sucks at building public transit, one of the many causes I identified is that “People don't trust the government to build things so they vote against projects under the assumption they will be executed poorly and waste taxpayer dollars.” New York gives more money to its public transit than any city because we rely on it, but in general New Yorkers do not trust the MTA and feel, justifiably, much of that money is wasted. It’s impossible to say how much money would have been in the latest $54 billion capital plan if Andy Byford wasn’t championing it, but he did an awful lot of the ground work selling it.

We didn’t trust Byford because he told us to. We trusted him because, over time, he earned it. I’d like to think this is the only way to get it, but there’s ample evidence that’s not true. Lots of people become trusted for bad reasons, and do horrible things with that misplaced trust. It happens so often over and over again it’s almost enough to make you wonder if no public servant deserves it. Especially when the ones who actually deserve it have to quit in order to keep their word.

Back when I first started reporting on this stuff, before Byford was in the picture, someone asked me a hypothetical: what if some world expert ran the MTA? Would it get better? Or is this shit unfixable? A corollary, which I was also asked from time to time, was: how much of the MTA’s problems are down to leadership ? Or is it the bureaucracy itself? I wish I could remember how I answered, it was probably dumb because I didn’t know what I was talking about then. But I suppose it doesn’t matter what I said, because we know it now, for better or for worse.

I’m no longer on the beat in the same way I was, but I’m still watching, because I still live in this city. And I still think it’s normal and even good to want to fix what’s broken. I still believe things can be better. Now, it’s up to Byford’s successors to start the cycle and earn our trust over again. It’s on them to fix what’s broken. And that doesn’t happen from behind a podium, no matter what the placard hanging in front of it says. Words on paper don’t make a difference. People do.

Here Are Your Andy Byford Farewell Letters

Hello everyone! What a strange few days it’s been. The follow-up news to Byford’s departure is the signaling expert Byford brought in, Pete Tomlin, has officially followed him out the door. Expected, but worrying nonetheless.

Also, this happened:


Pretty much everyone in MTA World is trying to figure out what this all means. There will be a lot more to say about that in the days and weeks ahead. So, for now, I’m going to cede the floor to you all and your farewell letters.

I received more than 100 messages for Andy. A handful were a quick “best wishes!” or “don’t leave, train daddy!” or something similar. I didn’t include them for brevity’s sake, but just know they were sent.

Even without those shorter ones, there were still an awful lot of notes. I didn’t think an 8,000 word email would be the best way to share them. So I published all of the letters at this landing page.

Below you’ll find an abridged version with a selection that I picked in an attempt to form a representative sample of the types of thoughts that were expressed. As you will read, the notes are ones of gratitude, lament, mourning, and fear of what is to come. Some express hope, others anger towards a certain governor (and, to a lesser extent, mayor). But most of all, they highlighted tremendous respect for what Andy and his team accomplished. Perhaps just as importantly, it was the manner in which he went about his time at NYCT president that stood out.

If you have the time, I recommend checking out all the letters by visiting this link in order to get a fuller sense of the impact Andy had on some people in this city. I am still talking with folks and formulating my own thoughts on what his resignation means for the future of our transit system.

If you work for the MTA and have anything you’d like to share about how Andy’s forthcoming departure impacts you or your work, here’s how to contact me.

Without further ado:


Andy is beloved by riders and Transit employees - and perhaps even more importantly an incredibly effective leader - because he is always genuine. Every interaction, with every person who came in contact with him was real. It didn't matter what setting he was in, he was his authentic self. 

Riders never had to guess whether or not he truly cared about their commutes - he did - and it showed. 

Transit employees - from the budget office to the front lines - never had to guess whether Andy understood the challenges of their jobs - he did. It was evident that he empathized with everyone - and even when he couldn't fix something or make the job easier - it mattered that he cared. 

There's a scene in the 60 Minutes piece where Andy is picking up trash as he walked around. People often wonder if that was staged. Well, if you spent even two minutes with him in or around a NYC Transit property, you know he would repeat that routine dozens of times a day. (Quite frankly, there were times he should've put on some gloves to pick certain things up - but I digress.)

That simple act of personal responsibility when it came to keeping the subways or buses clean is emblematic of the other trait that defined Andy's time at Transit - he took incredible pride in the system and the hard work of his colleagues. 

For all the talk of improved service delivery (and that really happened) and all the incredible advances in customer service (h/t Sarah Meyer), it was Andy's willingness to take pride in a beaten down system and organization that ultimately led to Transit's resurgence. 

He'll be missed.

-A former MTA employee

Even though Andy was not a native New Yorker, he embodies everything that I love about New York. He got the job done. He didn’t take shit. He didn’t bullshit. He made good, honest plans and stuck to them. He didn’t forget the little guy. Also he made a huge, huge difference in my commute. I actually believed in MTA leadership for once and I honestly thought more of Cuomo that he hired someone like Byford.

-Rachel Schulz

Andy, thank you for being such a force for improvement at NYCT. I read feedback from the customers every day about subway/bus service, and the difference in the volume of complaints between when I came to Transit versus now is noticeable. I think you started to accomplish what you wanted: For the subway to be an invisible part of New Yorkers' days. Take care, and best wishes for you in the next chapter of your life.

-Anonymous MTA employee

Andy - you're the reason I joined Transit -and your mission to improve the system for all NYers helped focus all aspects of what my team and I do.

You'll be missed enormously by everyone here at 2 Broadway, and best of luck in the future.

-Anonymous MTA employee

To Andy,

Thank you so much for the work you did here, the effort and care you demonstrated, and the (dare I say) hope you started to kindle. I don't think my family or I would have ever guessed we would spend so much time rooting for an MTA official, let alone mourning their departure, but that is the impact you had. Your work made a lot of sort of impossible- and intractable-seeming things happen. Thanks for that. 

-Stuart Winchester

It’s fitting somehow that Andy Byford’s resignation arrives on the heels of the “who is a real New Yorker” discourse sparked by Eric Adams’s thoughts on Midwestern transplants. Byford is as a real a New Yorker as anyone can be; his belief in the city and its people, and his enthusiasm, competence, and ability to even get some results will be sorely missed. His next destination will be lucky to have him; we were fools to let him go. cc Andrew Cuomo

-Tim “Positive Subway Tweets” Smith

I was at a restaurant one night after work last year and saw Andy at a table nearby. I walked over and quickly said I appreciated all the work that he and his team were doing, intending to then walk away and leave him alone. He invited me to sit with him and talk - it was so clear to me that he was truly passionate about the work and believed in what needed to be done to make things better. The city was lucky to have someone like him and we will miss him.

-Matt B

I would like to remain anonymous, but I've composed a short haiku for Mr Byford:

sullen strap-hangers 

beset by blunder and woe

train daddy: lost hope

-Anonymous

I work in a public-facing department in another major US public transit network, far away from the marvel that is New York City Subway. For anyone working in public transit in North America, NYC Subway is the lodestar for excellence and inspiration — despite what New Yorkers feel is their broken down, inefficient system. As the Subway goes, so goes the rest of the county — at least psychologically.

There is a lot of scar tissue among my coworkers when it comes to responding to the public and working with them. Local media can be unscathing [sic] and prone to reinforcing car-first hegemony. Rich folks in suburbs think we are descending into chaos and crime, activists in urban areas think we are reinforcing racism and police brutality. There can often be a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” mentality in the office which is no way to instill institutional change for the better.

Byford came into the most scrutinized position in North American public transit, and he handled it with such enthusiasm and clarity which was so unlike the norm, I first thought he was a naive goober ready to be devoured by a pack of wolves. But then Save Safe Seconds began producing results, which seems like borderline magic. Ridership in the Subway began increasing. I felt Byford cut the biggest knot in our industry somehow; if Andy can, why can’t we?

But what will stick with me about Byford is his unending enthusiasm for his work and for the Subway. I love trains and public transit, and I got my job through it. The way he was so visible on the trains and platforms despite no cameras being around — because he genuinely liked being on a train — was inspirational. I now carry around a plastic bag in my backpack and pick trash up on trains when I see them because I saw Byford picking them up on 60 Minutes, because it’s my train too and I want to take pride in it like Byford. 

When there is a major delay and my coworkers and I are fielding fire and brimstone from riders, I meditatively think about how Byford would handle the situation. He would have handled it with a sincere apology, an earnest effort to help, and offered some tips to the frustrated rider — and then would have taken the train home when it was done. That keeps me sane on some days. While not all New Yorkers may not agree that is what Byford really is like, that is the perception of Byford for those in the industry outside NYC — a beacon of hope as a true public servant, for those who want to be true public servants. Now that beacon is out, for now.

-Anonymous

Byford made me proud to work at the MTA. Through his example, he reminded us that the work we do matters, and helped reimagine what that work, and our role as public servants, could look like in the future. He showed up for events big and small - not just the events that made headlines, but also department holiday parties, retirement parties and training graduation ceremonies. He is such a rare combination of expert knowledge and inspiring leadership, and I will think of his example as I navigate my transit career and think about the kind of leader I want to be.

-Anonymous MTA employee

I'm 26 years old, and for my entire life, the United States (New York especially) has been incompetent at running and building transit. Andy Byford gave me hope that a better future was possible. Maybe someday New York will become ambitious and curious about the world, like it was in the early 1900s. Byford's departure seems to indicate that we aren't quite there yet. Much more work needs to be done to make New York a less parochial place. 

-Mike

I'd like Andy Byford to know that his tenure in our city made my life better. My commute is long, and the fixes introduced under his watch made it not only more tolerable, but shorter thanks to the new M14 busway.

I'd also like him to know that he made me hopeful this massive, wonderful, deeply flawed system could improve. He managed to stay out of the muck, and seemed like he truly wanted nothing more than an effective transit system. Without him, I'm less hopeful the system will improve.

-Max

As someone who grew up out West, where public transportation equates to too few buses coming at 30-minute intervals, the New York subway system has amazed me since I moved here. One of the most striking things is how much it has changed over the five years I've lived in the city. Even before I worked at the MTA I could tell how vast and complicated the system (and bureaucracy behind it) was, which made it all the more amazing when, hey, stations have Wi-Fi now! There are countdown clocks for all the trains! Conductors are actually telling us why service is delayed! 

Of all the things that have happened with the transit system, your involvement, Andy, has had the most lasting impact for me. This is doubly true after I started working at the MTA. Your competence and especially your commitment to customer service is so obvious. I'm really sad to see you go, but a silver lining has been talking with people at work and hearing how much they want to continue what you started here (myself included). We were lucky to have had you for as long as we did. Our transit system and the MTA will be worse without you. But you did incredible work in two years, showing the public and the civil servants at the MTA that change is still possible. And that's huge. Thank you thank you, and all the best.

-Anonymous MTA employee

Our one beacon of hope is gone. Things will go back to bad. The people in Subways and Buses will miss the leader that you are. You gave us - the hard-working public servants who care about this city’s transportation system - a voice, and a clear way forward, and for that, we will always be grateful. Thanks!

-Anonymous MTA employee

Again, you can find all the farewell notes here.

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